The sight of a baseball fan nearly falling out of the stands trying to catch a ball at the All-Star Game’s homerun derby got a lot of attention on television this week. The visual is irresistible, but the problem is that guy is too old. The dream of catching a ball at a game is really the stuff of kids.
When I was kid, my mitt was good at catching balls, but never did it snag a dream. That’s why I marvel at the story of 12-year-old Mark Morrison who recently traveled from Toronto to a Chicago Cubs game. The score sheet doesn’t mention him, but his star was shining that afternoon.
Before I tell you about Mark, let me tell you about going to Jarry Park in the early 70’s. That’s where the Montreal Expos would play, and where I’d go to games in the bleachers with my brothers, and any assortment of friends with names like Yates, Wood, Charton, Whitworth, and Hasse. We’d all bring our gloves, hoping against hope to catch a homer, or a foul ball (if we snuck into the seats closer to home plate). But never did any one of us catch the elusive drive, a kind of incomplete mission that wasn’t that different from the travails of our team, the expansion Expos in their multi-colored uniforms. Bringing a mitt to the stadium is a time-honored tradition in the great summer game, but it’s not unlike playing the lottery – the prize is almost always out of reach.
So I marveled when I heard the story of how Mark and his dad (Hockey Hall of Fame writer Scott Morrison) decided to make a 4-day trip to the Windy city when school ended at the end of June. As they packed their bags, they no doubt thought twice, even if momentarily, about bringing Mark’s mitt. Lets be realistic, they had to think, is it worth the trouble? Not to mention that Mark is 12, which means he’s reaching the outer limits of feeling that it’s still cool to bring your glove to a game. Well, sometimes you just gotta believe. But wait, this story is about more than just the chance of catching a ball.
Mark and Scott got to the park early to watch the Cubs take batting practice. When they stopped to get some food, a team marketing employee randomly asked Mark if he’d like to be one of the kids who goes on the field in the pre-game ceremony to pick a player who he thinks will hit a homerun. Better odds than the lottery, but still a long shot. But hey, what a thrill -getting on the grass at historic Wrigley Field alongside Major Leaguers! Not to mention seeing your name up on the scoreboard and the PA introducing you to the crowd, before announcing the starting line-ups for the Cubs game against the San Francisco Giants.
And then Mark is off to his seat behind home plate, clutching his glove, and sending positive vibes to his pick, Aramis Ramirez, the Cubs slugging third baseman who’s having a bounce-back year after struggling in 2010. No homerun early in the game, but the magic continues in the second inning when a rising cutter is fouled in back of the catcher. It takes him a moment to register, but Mark sees the ball has cleared the protective screen, and is dropping to the seats …and not just any seats. It’s coming right at him. Out goes the glove, and IN goes the ball. We’ll forgive him if he skipped a breath or two, as he lived the sacred moment most baseball fans only dream of. I am on my knees as I write this, bowing to his greatness.
This is also where I pause to reflect that sometimes people who deserve to catch a break actually do catch a break. I can’t say that I know Mark, but I do know of him because I work with his dad. The one time I did meet him was a couple of years ago, at a funeral home. It was the visitation for his mother Kathy, who had died after more than one bout with cancer. He wasn’t ten years old yet, and you can well imagine the challenges that came with his mother’s illness and her death.
So when that ball fell from the sky, I wonder if Scott didn’t look up and think, “what took you so long?” And perhaps he got an answer because on this afternoon, it seemed that two gifts from above wasn’t the limit.
Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Cubs are trailing with two outs. Mark’s pre-game pick –Ramirez- is at the plate and he’s the last hope for the home team who are losing 2-1. San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson is throwing heat. Strike one. Strike two …..and then, wouldn’t you know it, Ramirez gets a hold of one and it’s out of the park for a homerun to tie the game.
The Cubs went on to win in 13 innings, and Mark received an autographed Cubs jersey for picking a homerun hitter.
But that’s not all, because when it rains, it pours. Mark and Scott are at Harry Caray’s famous restaurant for a post-game meal, when the waiter brings over an autographed baseball in a case. It’s a gift from the next table over, where Cubs pitcher James Russell, who had pitched a scoreless ninth for the home team, is sitting. Russell was eating with his dad, a former major leaguer.
As a child, I brought my mitt to Jarry Park too many times to count, and I’ve since embraced the notion that chasing dreams is the most important thing in life. I draw comfort, from the idea that other kids just like Mark were closing their gloves on the balls that fell out of my reach.