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Foul Balls at the Yard

By Sean O’Brien Finch

“Give that fan . . . a contract.” The crowd cheers. If you’re from Baltimore and remember the old days of Orioles baseball, you know what that phrase means.

It means that a fan caught a foul ball during an Orioles game. Usually barehanded. Pretty impressive, considering how hard it is to catch them.

The phrase itself was coined by Rex Barney, the Orioles long-time public address announcer who served the team for over 20 years from 1974 to 1997. He was famous for booming that line out over the PA system during Orioles games every time a fan caught a foul ball. Which was often, since a nine-inning baseball game has a lot of foul balls.

That’s one of the things that makes baseball so exciting compared to other spectator sports. There is a good chance – nay, a certainty – that the game itself will leave the field of play and fall right into the stands with the spectators. How fun! No wonder that many fans bring their gloves to the game in the hopes of walking off with a souvenir. Case in point: my father-in-law, now over 60 years old, still faithfully brings his glove to every baseball game he attends, in the hopes of snagging a foul ball. He’s yet to get one, while I have – but who’s keeping score?

Anyway, the excitement of the ball leaving play and entering the stands is one of baseball’s charms. Especially when the ball causes a wild scramble, as grown men fight for possession of a $15.00 piece of history. Sure, you could say that balls or pucks enter the stands occasionally in soccer, hockey, football or basketball. But in none of those other sports does it occur as frequently as it does in baseball. Or as dangerously.

In fact, these days there are more foul balls entering the stands than ever. The number of foul balls in the major leagues has increased by 11.98 percent from twenty years ago, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of Baseball-Reference.com data. Almost 28% of all strikes were foul balls in 2017 and 2018, the highest rates in 30 years.

Not only that, the speed of the balls is also ticking up. Thanks to modern exit-velocity data, we can track the speed of the ball as it leaves the hitter’s bat. In extreme cases, the ball can fly off of the hitter’s bat at 120 mph. Though the more typical case is somewhere between 80 and 100 mph.

Yet despite all that, when I go to a baseball game, I see more and more fans paying attention to their cell phones instead of the game. First of all, why anyone would buy a ticket to a baseball game and not watch the game is beyond me. Baseball is a great game and is very fun to watch. But I digress. More to the point, it is dangerous to not pay attention during a baseball game! Fans are seriously injured from foul balls every year in Major League Baseball. There is a very real risk being hit by a foul ball. Or a flying bat. Or even a flying hot dog. That’s why you have to pay attention.

And it turns out that if the fans pay attention, they won’t get seriously hurt. A study of human reaction times and foul balls by FoulBallz found that even in extreme cases – a 120 mph ball off the bat flying towards a fan 60 feet away (the minimum distance from the playing area per MLB rules) – the fan has sufficient time to react if the fan is paying attention. The more typical 95-100 mph foul ball gives the fan more than enough reaction time, again, if the fan is paying attention. This tells us that, at the very least, if you pay attention to the game you should be able to avoid an injury from foul ball – even a scorching liner.

Of course not paying attention leads to injuries in many walks of life. Whether it is a driver on a cell phone, a pharmacist only going through the motions while filling a prescription, a store owner only salting part of the sidewalk after an ice storm, or countless other situations. When folks don’t pay attention, injuries are the predictable result. If we all paid better attention to what we were doing, the world would be a safer place.

And that’s true at the ballpark as well. So the next time you are at a baseball game, whether at The Yard or at some lesser stadium, make sure you are paying attention to game. And if you see someone in your group swiping away on their smart phone, you might want to remind them – as the public address announcer certainly will – to pay attention as balls and bats can leave the field of play and end up in the stands. You might save yourself or someone else from getting hurt. And if you’re lucky, you might walk away with your own souvenir – or better yet – a contract offer from the Baltimore Orioles.