In years past, when an MLB hitter sent a foul ball or home run into the seats, a specific area of fans tracked the ball in anticipation of snagging it once it returned back down to earth. In the 2020 MLB season, however, where nothing is normal, there are no fans. No fan has the chance to go home and tell all their friends about their trip to the ballpark and the souvenir they collected in the process. With baseball stadiums absent of fans, what happens to a baseball when it lands in the stands?
Foul balls can be exciting and deadly
Foul balls in a stadium full of fans can have one of two outcomes. Most often, it’s a happy outcome, and the lucky fan who ends up with the prized possession has a souvenir to remember that game for perpetuity.
Unfortunately, hard-hit foul balls can end in tragedy when it hits an unsuspecting fan. MLB doesn’t like to talk about it, but there have been multiple foul balls that ended in serious injury and even death.
In 2017, a two-year-old girl suffered critical injuries at Yankee Stadium when a foul ball struck her directly in the face. The next year, all 30 teams extended netting farther down the baselines.
Despite the additional netting, it didn’t protect 79-year-old Linda Goldbloom in a 2018 matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. In the top of the ninth, a Padres hitter fouled off a pitch and sent it careening into the stands, just over the top of the protective net. Goldbloom never saw it coming. The ball hit her in the head. She died four days later.
Home runs end with mixed responses
While foul balls are more common and generally remain in possession of the party who caught it, the same is not true of home runs. The home run, which is also much rarer, can have a different reception depending on where it lands.
In San Francisco, the ball can land in McCovey Cove, and it’s a battle of boats, generally the closest vessel collecting the prized souvenir. At Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, a home run ball elicits a different reaction based on the team that hits it.
If it’s a home run by the hometown Cubs, it becomes a prized possession. If the opposing team hits it, the ball is typically rejected by the fan who retrieved it and hurled back on to Wrigley’s green grass much to the delight of the fans. That tradition has been adopted in several other ballparks around MLB.
What happens to foul balls and home run balls in 2020?
In 2020, with no fans in the stands, foul balls and home runs are not greeted with a mad rush of fans. What happens today with balls deposited in the stands depends on the team.
The Minnesota Twins are active in their approach in collecting balls. They allow socially-distanced staff members to roam the stands and shag the balls. If it’s a home run marking a special milestone, such as a player’s first, the ball is saved and returned to the player.
Most other home run balls are authenticated and sold as game-used merchandise, which is a common practice among many MLB teams. In many cases, some of the proceeds are given to the team’s charitable foundations. An unlucky few are treated no better than foul balls and are picked up, disinfected, and incorporated into the batting practice mix.
Some teams, however, have gotten creative and managed to have fan involvement without the fans. The Cubs have a “Season Ticket Holder Foul Ball Program,” where the team collects the foul ball left in the stands, indentifies the nearest seat held by a season ticket holder, and mails the ball to him or her.
Another similar program has been adopted by other teams (Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners) that have installed cardboard cutouts purchased by fans and are strategically placed around the stadium. If a ball hits the cutout, the team sends the ball to that fan.
Years from now, most fans will remember the 2020 MLB season for a lot of reasons, including the delayed start, the shortened season, and of course, individual teams shutting down with COVID-19 outbreaks. A few lucky fans, however, will have a unique memento and an actual ball from a game, with no story to tell about how they fought off six other fans to grab it.