The Random Baseball Effect

Baseball can be an intriguing metaphor for life. Most go to a game to enjoy themselves. Some leave with their lives never the same again.

If you’ve been to a good share of baseball games, you know how you have to abide by a few unwritten rules. One is that unless you sit way up in the farthest nose-bleed seats, you have to keep your eye on the ball to make sure it doesn’t crash into you. If a ball comes barreling towards you at 100 miles per hour or so, you have to decide in a split-second whether you are going to try to catch it, deflect it, or just duck.

And if you sit really close, watch for those fielders leaping into the stands.

One of the real cardinal sins of attending a baseball game is to pull a Steve Bartman and interfere with a ball that your home team’s fielder could have caught if you were able to somehow focus on both the ball and the fielder coming at you. Or interfere with a home run your home team’s batter hit because you reached over an invisible plane and interfered with the opposing fielder, who came out of nowhere.

As a result, baseball probably has more blatant cases of fan interference than any other sport. The fans are closer to the field of play than most, and circumstances erupt quickly with dizzying, unpredictable results. Can you recall an NFL, NHL, NBA or MLS playoff game turning due to a fan interfering with the ball or puck?

I can’t, though there is the 1982 college football game between Stanford and Cal in which the winning touchdown was scored with what some say was shielding help from marching band members on the field. It’s not like NBA, MLS, NHL, and NFL fans are in positions to interfere with players controlling balls or pucks. However, I can cite several incidences from MLB playoffs — including on Wednesday. Fan interference is a weird part of baseball, and that’s both the beauty and ugliness of it.

On Wednesday, Houston Astros fans Troy Caldwell, Jared Tomanek, and at least one other reached for a ball hit by Astros infielder Jose Altuve towards them in the right field seats. Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts timed his jump to catch the ball, but at the last second at least one fan hit Betts’ glove and kept him from catching it.

Caldwell and other fans celebrated, thinking it was a home run that tied the game at 2. But umpire Joe West — no stranger to controversy and showmanship — called the play fan interference and ruled that Altuve was out. Houston did not score that inning and ended up losing the key ALCS Game Four, 8–6, which gave the Red Sox a commanding 3–1 lead in the series. Boston finished off the Astros on Thursday to reach its first World Series since 2013.

Caldwell and many other Astros fans thought West made the wrong call, with the beleaguered fan claiming he did not touch Betts’ glove. In one report, Caldwell said that the fan next to him — identified as Tomanek — actually touched Betts’ glove, but he thought their hands were not in the field of play, not over that magical home run line.

The rule states that if the ball goes into the stands and a player tries to catch it in the stands, fan interference cannot be called. But it can if a fan reaches over into the field and interferes with a play. Generally, even home fans try to give opposing fielders room to make plays in the first row or two. But not always, of course. That is easier said than done when you have to focus on two speeding forces converging upon you at the same time.

If you look at photos like this one and this one, you can see how Caldwell, Tomanek, and another fan look more like they reached over the home run line than they didn’t. The third fan even had a hand on the yellow line, lending some photographic perspective, as he appeared to lunge over it. Betts, who maintained he could have caught the ball and his glove was accidentally closed by a fan, appeared to still be slightly away from the wall. However, it’s possible his glove could have been right on the line at the time of impact. Baseball can be a game of inches, making split-second judgment calls extremely difficult and even long replays controversial, and that’s part of the fascination for many.

So why did the ball, Betts, Caldwell, Tomanek, and others converge on that particular random point at that random moment, causing lives to forever change? If the ball had been hit just a tad harder, it would have gone beyond Betts’ leap and hit another fan one or two rows up. If it had been hit a few inches to the right or left, Caldwell and Tomanek would not be targeted by some zealous Astros fans as goats — someone else would take that fall.

Forget the Butterfly Effect. Enter the Random Baseball Effect.

Caldwell and Tomanek escaped from Minute Maid Park fine, as most Astros fans blamed West and replay umps, who likely got the call right. Many on social media sympathized with the fans, though some were not so empathetic.

The main problem as I see it with this situation is that the home run lines at Astros’ Minute Maid Park are too close to the fans. Numerous ballparks have a few feet between the home run lines and where the fans sit so interference is not much of an issue, if at all. But stadium designers want to get fans as close to the action as possible, so you have these types of controversies.

When a ball comes at you fast, your natural reaction is to try to catch it as a souvenir, or at least deflect it so it does not do you harm. There is really not time to check whether you are reaching over a line when that line is so close to you. Therefore, Caldwell, Tomanek, and the other fan reaching over should not be blamed, though Caldwell could be faulted for wearing a 1984 Reagan-Bush cap to a 2018 sporting event.

The blame for the interference lies with stadium designers and officials who approved the close home run lines. But at least the umpires probably got the interference call right, unlike in some other infamous, similar circumstances.

This case different from ones involving Bartman, Maier

Many analysts and fans likened this situation to other infamous baseball fan interference controversies.

The most publicized incident involved Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman in Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS at Wrigley Field. It had been almost a century — 1908! — since the Cubs had won a World Series and 58 years since they had been to one. They were ahead of the Florida Marlins, 3–0, in the eighth inning with just five outs needed to make the World Series.

That’s when Florida’s Luis Castillo hit a high fly ball that soared along the left field line in foul territory near the stands. As left fielder Moises Alou placed his glove in position to catch the ball, Bartman, who was seated in the front row in seat 113 along the left field line, and at least one other unidentified fan reached for a potential souvenir. The ball hit Bartman’s hand and bounced away from Alou into the stands.

Alou angrily threw down his glove and yelled at Bartman, then argued for fan interference. But umpire Mike Everitt ruled that the ball had entered the plane of the stands and claimed there was no interference. Photographs show Bartman’s arms extending over the plane of the stands onto the field of play, bolstering the arguments of Cubs fans that Everitt made the wrong call.

The Marlins went on to score eight runs in that inning, and the Cubs lost, 8–3. The 26-year-old Bartman, who later said he was focused on the ball and never heard Alou approaching, remained seated with headphones on throughout much of the rest of the game. Irate fans dumped beer and threw trash at him as he was escorted out with a security detail.

In the deciding Game 7 at Wrigley, the Cubs led, 5–3, before giving up three runs in the fifth inning in a 9–6 loss. The Marlins then beat the Yankees in the World Series. A curse — which many said started during the 1945 World Series when a Cubs fan and his goat were reportedly ejected from the stadium — or something foul remained.

Seven years before Bartman’s moment of infamy, 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall in right field at Yankee Stadium during the eighth inning of Game 1 in the ALCS and pulled a fly ball hit by Yankees infielder Derek Jeter into the stands. The Baltimore Orioles were winning, 4–3, but umpire Richie Garcia ruled the ball, which fell out of Maier’s glove and ended up in the possession of another fan, a home run despite the obvious interference. Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco claimed he could have caught the ball at the wall had not Maier interfered. At the very least, it would have likely been a double.

New York went on to win that game and the series, as well as the World Series. Maier became a sort of celebrity in New York, with fans carrying him on their shoulders after the game and chanting “MVP!” in the background as reporters interviewed the kid. He later played college baseball, then did some work for ESPN.

Many in Baltimore rightly blamed Garcia for missing the interference call, rather than a seventh-grade kid for reaching over a wall. Though some zealots still directed anger and hate mail at Maier. Talk show host Tony Kornheiser somehow claimed Maier had reached the “pinnacle” of his life and it would be all downhill. A film student produced a somewhat-cathartic short flick entitled “I Hate Jeffrey Maier,” which featured an appearance by the good-natured Maier himself.

Opponents in baseball games would try to use the incident against Maier, whose fateful glove fetched $22,705 in a 2015 auction. Opposing fans threw rocks and snowballs at him. Such incidents were relatively uncommon, and he would not change what happened if he could. “All life events happen for a reason, and you grow from every experience,” Maier wrote. “That day in 1996 helped shape who I am today — so I will never look back on it with any regrets.”

If events like this happen for a reason and are not some random acts of cruel craziness, Bartman, for one, wants to know why that foul ball zeroed in on him. After making it home under disguise and security, he kept a low profile, unlike Maier.

Despite Everitt making the fateful no-interference decision against the Cubs, many fans directed their ire at Bartman. “Death to Steve Bartman” internet message boards cropped up. Police guarded his home. Then city alderman Thomas Allen said he should “move to Alaska.” Then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich offered to put him in a witness protection program, while then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said he could get “safe passage” to Florida. Were they joking? Maybe. But some fans were serious in their hatred. The police security was serious.

All along, Bartman declined offers to profit from the situation through free hotel stays and food in Florida restaurants, movie offers, autograph appearances, and at least one Super Bowl commercial. A lawyer named Jim Staruck had snatched the fateful Bartman ball and sold it at an auction for $114,000. A restaurateur with Harry Caray’s group bought the ball and had it publicly detonated, with the steam of the boiling ball distilled into a pasta sauce. You’d think Cubs fans would be madder at Staruck, who profited from the situation, rather than Bartman. But no “Death to Jim Staruck” message boards popped up.

In 2017, the Cubs gave Bartman a 2016 World Series ring to attempt some closure with that incident. Bartman had not even attended a game or the parade. He accepted the ring, though said he was not worthy and that he was “hopeful this ring will be the start of an important healing and reconciliation process for all involved.”

There, but for the grace of God, go I

There have been other incidents of fan interference in key baseball playoff games. In Game 4 of the 2013 ALDS, Oakland was winning, 4–3, and needed nine more outs to take the series when Detroit’s Victor Martinez hit a ball to right field in the seventh inning. Oakland’s Josh Reddick appeared to be in position to catch the ball at the wall when some Tigers fans reached over the railing, deflecting it into the stands.

While Reddick said he would have caught the ball without fan interference, umpires ruled the ball was above the yellow home run line and thus, fans could reach for it. Detroit won that game and then Game 5 to advance. Some Tigers players lauded the fans. Another instance occurred in the 2010 ALCS, though the team hurt by the apparent interference, the Texas Rangers, won that game and the series over the Yankees.

Such incidents intrigue me. If placed in the same situation as Bartman, Maier, Caldwell, and other fans, I can see myself doing something similar to what they did, reaching for the ball. I might pull back if I sensed a fielder approaching the ball. But I might go for it. You never know what you might do in the moment.

After more than four decades of going to MLB games and trying to catch souvenir balls, I finally caught my first foul ball at an Orioles game in 2012. I reached over some empty seats to snag it on the first bounce, as the father of a young boy next to me tumbled onto the seats trying for the ball. Though I didn’t push anyone out of the way, people yelled at me to give up the souvenir to the boy. I was with a friend, so I could not give it to my own son. I thought I might make SportsCenter or — heavens forbid — YouTube for snatching a foul ball next to a boy as his father hurt himself going for it. I gave the treasure to him. Fans applauded, but my feelings were mixed.

The next Orioles game I attended, I caught a home run hit in batting practice by infielder Manny Machado. In 2013, I caught balls thrown into the stands before Washington Nationals games by pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Dan Haren. Though practice balls are not the same as game ones, my streak of bad luck in not catching balls at MLB games had seemingly been lifted by the initial good deed.

Maybe if you keep doing good deeds, eventually your luck changes. Maybe that works for some and not others. It seemed to work for Maier and eventually Bartman. We will see how the Random Baseball Effect affects the lives of Caldwell and Tomanek.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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