Before the start of a half-inning, Yankees first baseman Greg Bird routinely ends up with the infielders’ warm-up ball and a decision that has become a lot more complicated lately: Which fan will get a souvenir, and how? A soft toss to a child near the dugout is no longer an option.
That moment of connection between fan and player, one of baseball’s cherished rituals, has been disrupted by the expanded protective netting now in all 30 major league parks.
“The nets, they really just throw a wrinkle in it,” Bird said. “The people closest to you are harder to get the ball to. I get super nervous trying to throw it over those nets, especially if the kid’s in the first couple of rows. The net kind of angles, so you can get it over to them, but it just looks weird.”
He had no complaints, though. Nor did the more than a dozen other players interviewed for this article, who all praised the changes in the safety netting, which as of this season stretches to at least the far end of every dugout. (Some teams, including the Mets and the Yankees, have extended their netting down the outfield lines.)
The players had seen too many fans, including young children, hit by screaming foul balls and flying broken bats over the last few years. So they welcomed the change and gladly adapted their methods of distributing souvenir balls. Some even relished the challenge.
“There’s a lot of strategy,” Bird said with a smile, using air quotes on the word “strategy.”
There are at least 17 inning-ending, final-out balls to be handed out at every game, not to mention the ones used in warm-ups. When protective screens covered only the area behind home plate, players flipped a large share of the balls right above the dugout, a premium seating area.
Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said he used to roll the ball across the dugout roof to a first-row resident at home games, but now he walks to the far right edge of the team’s third-base dugout, where the netting ends.
Some players seek gaps in the netting, learning the variations in each stadium. Young fans learn, too, often running over to the openings between innings.
Players also loop the ball over the netting, giving fans farther back a shot. The result, players say, is a democratization in the distribution of souvenirs.
“It’s just spreading the love now,” Andrew Romine, a utility player for the Seattle Mariners, said. “Now the people a little bit farther back can get a ball between innings.”
The over-the-netting method also takes some pressure off players to choose a recipient.
“Actually it’s pretty cool — you just launch it up,” Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce said earlier this season, when he was still with the Blue Jays. “Now you’re not singling out a single person. Now it’s like: ‘You guys want a ball? Here you go.’ ”
“You don’t look like the bad guy,” he added. “ ‘Pearce, why didn’t you throw it to me?’ ‘I tried. That guy jumped in front of you. I can’t help it.’”
Mets first baseman Dominic Smith echoed that sentiment, even if he usually abdicates the responsibility.
“To be honest, I hate having the ball at the end of the inning,” Smith said. “When I’m playing first, I toss it to another infielder. I just don’t like the pressure of letting some fan down. But if I do toss it to the stands, I look for the smallest person, the youngest kid, in the stands. Or whoever’s screaming the most. But mainly I look for the kids.”
Mariners first baseman Ryon Healy said he still tried to aim for certain fans, usually the ones who lobby politely.
“I like to find kids that aren’t begging so much or yelling as much,” he said, comparing the situation to the “Finding Nemo” scene “where the sea gulls are yelling: ‘Mine! Mine!’ It’s literally that.”
When Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, released a statement on Dec. 9, 2015, encouraging all clubs to install additional netting after a series of fan injuries that season, he acknowledged a “desire to preserve the interactive pregame and in-game fan experience that often centers around the dugouts, where fans can catch foul balls, see their favorite players up close and, if they are lucky, catch a tossed ball or other souvenir.”
While first basemen generally give away the warm-up balls, teams have varying rituals for the final-out balls. On third outs in the Yankees’ infield, Bird and his fellow first baseman Tyler Austin give shortstop Didi Gregorius the honor, throwing the ball to him as he returns to the dugout. Gregorius said he did not target specific fans, instead randomly throwing the ball into the stands.
Most of the players said they looked for children first. (They all bemoaned the instances when adults intercepted throws headed to children.) As a second option, they look for a fan supporting their team. And, third, they look for gloves.
Even though the netting minimizes the chance of grabbing a foul, fans have more incentive than ever to come equipped to catch a souvenir because players worry about the hazards of throwing baseballs high over nets to barehanded fans.
“Sometimes the kid’s got his glove up, and I’ll hit it,” Bird said. “That’s what I’m shooting for always, like ‘Sandlot’: Just put your glove in the air, and I’ll take care of the rest,” he added, paraphrasing a line from the 1993 movie.
The Giants’ Buster Posey, who as a catcher and first baseman gains possession of many third-out balls, said he tried to make eye contact with a fan before throwing the ball over. He doesn’t want it coming down “on somebody who isn’t paying attention,” he said, adding that fans in the first few rows behind the net “can’t be asking for a ball as vehemently as they were in previous years” because of the awkward angle of the requisite throw.
A couple of players acknowledged a few pranks — intended in good fun — in which they threw the ball into the netting directly in front of fans, who react as if they are about to catch a ball that instead is swallowed by the twine.
One thing hasn’t changed with the expansion of screens: the understanding that every ball can be someone else’s treasure.
“It’s cool when there’s a kid there or a dad with his son,” Goldschmidt said. “You give them the ball, and they give you a ‘thank you’ and you know the appreciation of the smile or the high-five. We all remember when we were those kids and got to go to games. If we had gotten a foul ball, it would have made our year. It’s pretty cool that something I get to do all the time can make someone’s day. That’s something I don’t want to forget.”