A friend of mine brought his glove and lofty expectations to Yankee Stadium on his eighth birthday. He left so crushed at not having caught a foul ball that he began to cry. Fortunately he also brought his mother, who was reduced to slipping a grounds-keeper type two bucks for a ball—touted as a Clete Boyer foul-tip—at the players' entrance after the game. It's heartening that my friend recovered from the episode to lead a normal life because, more than 20 years later, scores of kids still harbor the same hopes.
"The first time you take a kid to a game and he sees a foul ball go into the stands, he always asks, 'Ya mean ya get to keep it?' " says Cliff Frohlich of Oakland, formerly of Galveston, Texas, a 34-year-old baseball-loving father of five who has surely been asked the question at least five times. By his second game, of course, the child is a pint-sized Pangloss with glove in tow. "It seemed remarkable to me that every kid in America wants a foul ball, but no adult has bothered to figure out how to get them scientifically," Frohlich says.
So four seasons ago, Frohlich and a friend, Gary Scott, also of Galveston, decided to chart almost 1,000 foul balls during 57 games in Houston's Astrodome to find out where a fan might best sit to spear one. Frohlich and Scott are physicists most comfortable writing for publications like the Journal of Geophysical Research. But as fodder for scientific inquiry, they decided, baseball is as good as anything. After all, what's fair's fair—and so, also, what's foul.
Their findings—revealed in the latest number of the Baseball Research Journal, a sort of Antioch Review for the diamond set that offers trenchant articles like "Changing Patterns of Major League Schedules Since 1876" and "The History of the Sacrifice Fly"—kick up plenty of lime. To Scott, who studies the earth's magnetic forces, and Frohlich, who specializes in seismology, baselines are as active as fault lines. Foul balls leave the field of play off a righthanded hitter's bat most often toward the right; off lefties' bats, toward the left. The handedness of pitcher and batter has no effect on the number of fouls that will result from their facing each other. Strikeout pitchers like Joe Sambito and Nolan Ryan serve up more than twice as many fouls as control pitchers like Vern Ruhle.
"We never could determine what kind of hitter hits more fouls," Frohlich says. "Whether they're 'contact' or big-swing hitters. But poor hitters don't hit much of anything, fair or foul." Of course, balls reach the grandstand most often in parks with little foul territory. But the most important variable is the size of the screen behind home plate. For example, in Toronto's Exhibition Stadium, with its 25-foot-high backstop, you'll get up to 30 and 40 grandstand fouls a game; in the Astrodome, on the other hand, just 17 fouls a game avoid the 50-foot-high screen and reach the stands. Players produced 31 souvenirs but just one run in Houston's 17-inning defeat of the Cubs on Aug. 23, 1980; by contrast, on Opening Day in 1979, Phil Niekro's knuckle-balls helped limit the number of grandstand fouls to five. A typical game in the Dome drew roughly 25,000 spectators and produced 17 foul balls that reached the seats, meaning a fan had a poor chance of having a baseball come his way.
Neither Frohlich nor Scott caught a foul ball during the research—or ever has, for that matter. "But we never really attempted to," Frohlich says. "We tended to sit in the upper deck, off to the side, where we could see. If I went to 50 games, sat in the right place each time and was aggressive, I could get one."
He has several foul, uh, tips: Adopt a determined mien and sit along the first-base line, two rows in, within 40 feet of first. It's helpful if there's an Exhibition Stadium-size screen and an Oakland Coliseum-size crowd, circa 1979. ("Say they get 300 people and there are 30 fouls a game," says Frohlich, his voice registering excitement on a Richter-scale scale. "Every 10th person would take one home; an aggressive kid, two.") Then wait for a righthanded .330 hitter to face a pitcher with a withering fastball, and the count to work itself to 3 and 2. The pitch is likely to be near the plate and the batter likely to swing. Nirvana.
A caveat for the kids: Rule that glove of yours out of play. "A good lacrosse defenseman's stick," Frohlich says. "That would be the way to go."