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It was damn near perfect: a hot March day in Florida and I was at a ballgame. JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, known as "Fenway South," is the winter home of the Boston Red Sox.
I took my seat along the first base line, three rows above the visitors' dugout. In my left hand I held a Fenway Frank, in my right a cold Budweiser. It couldn't get any better … and then it did.
The game was close for a few innings, then the visiting Baltimore Orioles started lighting up the Red Sox pitching. Balls were caroming off the replica "Green Monster" wall. The guy with the ladder was busy running out and putting up new numbers on the manual scoreboard.
Nobody seemed to care too much that the home side was getting pummelled. They were too busy happily doing nothing. Spring Training games aren't really about winning or losing (except against the Yankees). They're more about catching a few rays, the love of baseball, beer – or all three,
After the Red Sox were retired in the seventh inning, a lot of fans started to leave. Maybe they were hoping to beat the traffic. But I wasn't going anywhere, except a few rows down to an aisle seat above the dugout. I wanted more room on the off-chance that a foul ball was hit anywhere near me. I'd never caught one.
In the top of the eighth inning, an Oriole hit a high foul ball a dozen rows behind me. I stood and turned, tracking the ball. Fouls can bounce off anything or anybody and go anywhere. I was ready. The ball hit in the walkway, took a hard bounce off the back wall and was coming in my direction, now a towering pop fly.
I ranged a few steps to the right, called off a couple of seniors, put both hands in the air and made a barehanded catch. The crowd went wild! I held the ball high to acknowledge the ovation of my new fans.
As I sat, clutching my baseball, the roar of the crowd was still ringing in my ears. A real baseball, a hardball, is a wondrous thing to hold. The printing read "Official American League" and the leather was perfectly smooth except for the roughed-up spot where bat met ball. It couldn't get better than this … and then it got worse.
From the next section, a few rows up, I heard a man's voice: "My daughter would really like a baseball. It's her first game."
Then a woman's voice: "And her grandparents are here."
What? Who? Daughter, grandparents?
I turned and yelled up at them: "This ball's for a lifelong Red Sox fan." I was thinking of my friend Garth from the Maritimes, who grew up watching Boston ballgames on TV.
Not giving up, the woman said: "He's not here. Doesn't count."
What just happened? A few pitches ago I was a hero. Had my fans turned? Would I be tomorrow's headline news? "Kid at first ballgame denied baseball, " or "Selfish, beer-drinking slob disappoints three generations of nice New England family."
As the inning went on, I kept looking at my baseball. I silently snorted. "If Dad wants a ball for his entitled little brat, do what I did – catch one."
Should I fight for Garth? Maybe yell back, "The next one's for her!"
Maybe I should just give her the damn ball, I thought. I've got three grown daughters of my own. And I guessed this poor girl had spent most of her young life being embarrassed by her parents. So what was it going to be? A baseball for Garth – or the kid?
By the time the inning ended I'd made my decision. I walked up the aisle and stopped at the man's row. "Where's your daughter?" I asked.
"That's her," he said, pointing to the row below, "Jennifer, sitting with her sister." (I hoped she didn't want a baseball too. It's not that easy.)
I walked toward Jennifer. She was older than I expected, not a child at all – more like mid-teens! (Ah, what the hell, Garth's fiftysomething.)
I handed her the ball and said: "Jennifer, I'd like you to have this baseball."
Then she threw it back on the field.
No, she didn't. She took it and thanked me. She looked genuinely pleased. And then she handed it to her sister to hold. I don't know if anyone else noticed that, but it made me feel good. As I walked back to my seat, I heard the mother say: "Oh, what a nice man." If the father said anything I didn't hear it, but he did come up to me later and thank me.
And once again my fans were applauding me. And once again I acknowledged them.
My dad took me to my first ball game and I've been a fan ever since. We used to go to the old Maple Leaf Stadium on Lake Shore Boulevard in Toronto. That was a long time ago. Dad's gone now. So is the stadium. So is the Maple Leafs team.
One of the many things my father taught me was how to score games. It's been a while, but here's how I'd score this one:
Jennifer, 1 (baseball). Me, 0. But 2 ovations I never expected, and the memory of catching a foul ball. It was damn near a perfect game.
Except of course for poor old Garth. But he doesn't need to know any of this. And there was never much chance I was giving him the ball, anyway.
Tom Cornell lives in Thornhill, Ont.