Editor’s Note: This column is by Brian Milne, founder of the BallHyped Sports News Service.
I’m a Yankees fan, but when I saw the video of this kid crying after Josh Beckett gave him a baseball, he earned another notch of respect in my scorebook.
Superstar pitchers, at least on the day they’re pitching, rarely interact with fans and instead focus on the task at hand. But on this day, Beckett wrapped up his pregame bullpen, walked right up to a kid who was taking his photograph, and handed him a baseball. (I’d like to see the photos from the kid’s perspective). The kid lost it as soon as it sunk in that Beckett had given him a ball.
He held the ball up like he had discovered Willy Wonka’s last golden ticket, and then buried his face in his dad’s chest, overcome with tears after receiving the greatest souvenir ever.
The play hit home for a lot of baseball fans, particularly the lucky ones who have caught a batting practice ball before.
I fielded BP balls and pre-game autographs from a number of Major Leaguer pitchers growing up, including David Cone, Dwight Gooden, John Rocker (yeah, shocker) and CC Sebathia. But all of the above only came through because it was an off day for them, and they had nothing better to do during BP.
And while I cherish all of those souvenirs, the ball that meant most to me growing up was one that was handed to me by an reserve infielder you’ve probably never even heard of.
Paul Runge played eight seasons with the Atlanta Braves from 1981-88. During the mid-80s, I was just starting to fall in love with the game, traveling with my father to The Ravine to watch the Dodgers play for the first time that season.
We were fortunate enough to share season tickets with a neighbor who had seats about 20 rows back of homeplate, but before the game we’d always sit down the third-base line in hopes of getting a BP balls and autographs.
One of my first games was between the Dodgers and Braves, and Runge was one of a handful of players shagging fly balls in left during Atlanta’s pregame warm-ups.
Before Braves’ BP was over, Runge went down the line to snag a few dribblers and flipped them to the crowd. He even singled me out at one point, Dodger hat and all, and soft-tossed me a ball from about 20 feet away. The great white pearl was almost in my hands, when a kid probably twice age and three times my size, shoved me aside and snatched the ball out of the air.
The shot not only knocked the wind out of me, but knocked a few tears out in the process. How a teenager could bowl over a kid half his age to snake a BP ball out of his grasp, was beyond anything I could comprehend at that age.
Luckily for both of us, the kid disappeared up stairway before my dad could ring his neck and get us both tossed out of Dodger Stadium.
I spent the next five minutes crying into my dad’s chest, just like that kid above. Only my tears weren’t tears of joy … yet.
Little did I know, Runge had seen the whole thing. And instead of letting this little Dodger fan bawl over a lost ball, Runge tucked away the next ball he gloved into his back pocket. When BP wrapped up, he jogged over to the bleachers and lobbed a couple scuffed-up baseballs to the spectators.
I stayed with my dad, not wanting to be humiliated again, but Runge wouldn’t have it. He literally pointed me out of the crowd and beckoned me to the first row where he personally handed me the ball from his back pocket and said, “I think this ball belongs to you.”
“Uhhh … thanks … Mister.”
I didn’t even know his name at the time. But from that point on, the utility infielder (who never played in more than 52 games in a season) was my favorite player in the majors.
Those are the stories that make baseball such a great game, America’s pastime if you will. Steroids, multi-million dollar contracts, ESPN and the web have changed all of that, but there are still some good stories out there. Stories of the unheralded heroes, and superstars alike, who bring about tears of joy with something as simple as a baseball.
- Brian Milne
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