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A dilemma flashed through my mind. "It's not your play," I found myself thinking. "It's hit right at him." (On my Softball team, I'm known for my ball hogging as well as my quick hands.) At the same time I considered the basic law of foul ball pursuit: It's anybody's ball.
Like the cartoon character with the haloed conscience perched on one shoulder and the little devil with the horns and pitchfork on the other, I was pulled in opposite directions. On one hand, I felt guilty for even wanting to make a play on the ball—I, who had two balls in my pack, several more at home and could pretty much count on adding to my collection in the future. The fellow behind me had probably never even held a major league baseball. On the other hand, I wanted that ball.
The baseball flew closer, spinning like a top. It looked like a slider with the characteristic red dot formed by the seams—the kind of wickedly spinning batted ball that, even when wearing a mitt, you want to field with two hands to make sure it doesn't pop right out. At the last instant, my fielder's instincts took over. Still moving sideways, I stuck out my left hand as far as I could reach, and the ball landed squarely in my palm with a loud smack!
Now, I should mention that as a veteran of Brooklyn boyhood games—stickball, punchball, stoop baseball, monkey-in-the-middle—I am well acquainted with bare-handed fielding. The three main principles are 1) catch the ball with two hands, 2) watch the ball into your hand and 3) squeeze the ball at just the right instant.
But nothing in my bare-handed fielding experience prepared me for the pain that shot up my arm with the impact of that baseball. Its effect was twofold. First, my hand was paralyzed so I couldn't close my fingers around the ball. Second, the pain was so intense that my eyes reflexively closed for an instant, and in that instant I realized that I no longer had the ball. Immediately I opened my eyes, and there it was, hanging for a split second right in front of my face. I quickly reached up with two hands, folding them over the ball. It was mine.
As I walked back to my seat, people around me applauded and said things like "Good catch" and "Nice play" and "Way to go." My friend, who had caught a ball himself a few years ago, said, "That was a nice catch."
"What? Nice catch?" I replied. "I bobbled it."
"Yeah, but you kept it in the air."
"I was lucky," I said.
We examined the ball. One of the "eights" was meticulously rubbed with dirt so that the ball had a half dark-half light contrast. I surmised that the pitcher must have done that to give the ball a bizarre optical effect as it approached the plate.