First-inning thunder by Alex Rodriguez broke a drought, both for the man who hit the home run and the fan who caught it -- me.
For A-Rod, the first of two homers he would hit that night followed 52 at-bats without one, a stretch that had fans fearing the slugger chasing baseball's all-time home run record was done.
For me, that May 23 homer was even more overdue. I'd been waiting for a baseball to land in my glove since Sunday, June 8, 1969. That's the day 60,096 fans packed Yankee Stadium to say goodbye to Mickey Mantle. One of them, an 11-year-old boy at his first Yankees game, was me. I remember watching from the grandstands, my view partially obstructed by a steel girder, as the Mick took a victory lap around the stadium in a golf cart. And I remember all that game hoping for that special souvenir every fan, young and old, hopes for -- a ball hit into the stands.
It didn't happen, of course. At Bat Day, later that summer, I did get a Louisville Slugger ("Who the heck is Thurman Munson?") that I played with until it cracked. At the doubleheader I went to the next season, Bobby Murcer hit four homers in consecutive at bats, but none landed anywhere near me. My insistence on staying to the end of the second game made us late for dinner at Grandma's Bronx apartment, but my mother didn't give me a hard time. She knew it was hard enough for a boy living in Bayside, Queens, to be a Yankees fan in a town owned by the Miracle Mets.
No foul balls came my way at Wrigley Field or Dodger Stadium when I drove cross-country with a college friend, going to major league games along the way. I started going to Yankee games with greater regularity in 1998, after my wife, Leslie, bought me a partial-season ticket plan for our anniversary -- two tickets to every Saturday home game and a chance to go to the playoffs and World Series. My seats were down the rightfield foul line in the main level of the old ballpark. One day, I went for a hot dog, and the loud-but-lovable guy next to me told me a ball had bounced off my empty seat while I was gone.
I stopped bringing my glove to games.
When the new ballpark opened, the new luxury seats pushed me, and a lot of other loyal Saturday-plan ticket holders, way upstairs. I wound up with "tier" box tickets. "Nosebleed seats," Leslie called them. A foul ball there would be a greater feat than a majestic homer.
What are the odds of catching a foul ball? A home run? Two nights before my catch, a Cincinnati Reds fan caught two homers in consecutive at-bats, and statisticians interviewed afterward were all over the field as they quoted the odds. That makes sense, if you think about it. Who's pitching? Who's in the lineup? Which way is the wind blowing? But the biggest variable is the one that changed for me this season: Where are you sitting?
My odds improved dramatically this season when I moved to seats eight rows behind the leftfield fence, exactly 401 feet from home plate. I'm in home run territory now, so I've begun bringing my glove again, despite the "OK, just how old are you?" looks I get from parking lot attendants, but never from my sons, Josh and Noah. They never enjoyed games much when they were small and mostly rooted for the vendors.
I just hoped my first homer wouldn't be hit by an opponent, followed by the idiotic chants of "Throw it back!" The irony is that if you do throw it back onto the field, a player will retrieve it and give it to a ball boy, who will give it to another fan who didn't catch the ball.
It's a beautiful night at the ballpark for a Wednesday game against the Kansas City Royals. (I'm there because the Yankees added three random weeknight games to my Saturday plan. Even the Steinbrenners don't have the power to add Saturdays to the calendar.) Beside me is my brother, David, who doesn't remember Mickey Mantle Day because he was only 5. Around us in the stands are sailors in town for Fleet Week and the usual assortment of fans.
The downside of my new seats is the presence at every game of a few fans who insist on heckling the opposing team's leftfielder all game long. These are probably the same people who ignore the signs at the zoo and bang on the glass to get the cobra's attention. Smart cobras -- and leftfielders -- ignore them. Guess how I felt when one leftfielder, foolishly thinking the gesture would buy goodwill, tossed them a baseball.
This night, however, all the hecklers can do is point at the lucky guy who just reached high with his first-basemen's mitt and cleanly caught the 635th career homer of Alex Rodriguez, who may someday hit more than Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.
I'd waited 43 years for a moment that was over in, well, a moment. I remember the split-second realization that it was coming to me and I'd never forgive myself if I missed it. I remember checking my glove to make sure the ball was there in the webbing, and turning around to show my brother.
"They just showed you on the giant scoreboard!" he shouted, referring to the instant replay. That, I missed.
The ball is still sitting on my bedroom dresser, confirming it really happened.
"Did he sign it?" asked friends who should have known better. Finding A-Rod after the game and getting him to autograph a ball? Talk about long odds. But someday, after he retires and is signing autographs at an event somewhere on Long Island, I'll show up with a home run ball he was almost as happy to hit as I was to catch.