Part of my contribution to an anthology called Growing Up With Baseball, edited by Gary Land, published in 2004 by the University of Nebraska Press:
I never fail to find a ball or two lying right out in the open, unmolested, whenever I jog past a diamond used by youth leagues these days, I happened to remember how difficult balls were to come by and how highly they were valued when I was the players’ age.
We had two rules about the care and maintenance of baseballs, universally in effect everywhere I ever played until I played semi-pro:
1) Hits it gets it. If you hit a ball out of the playing field, fair or foul, you chased it, and you didn’t come back until you found it. Your team might have to take the field short a fielder, but you found the ball or else, because there might be only one or two spares–or none, in which case everyone on both sides would help look.
2) There is no such thing as a lost ball–just one you haven’t found yet.
This had an application in my most memorable outfield assist. In 1975, six years after going away to college, I was temporarily back in Berkeley and was invited to play center field for my old team in a game at Codornices Park, a very small field for regulation hardball, with the embankment to a covered reservoir forming the outfield fence. The weed-covered embankment was in play, in theory, but in practice any ball hit into the weeds was usually an easy inside-the-park home run, and it took five or 10 minutes to find.
That particular day an opposition slugger named Mike Jaffe, who was more-or-less the Northside edition of Mike Epstein, smashed a ball into the weeds at the very top of the embankment. I raced up the embankment after it, found it astonishingly easily, and looked back down at the field to see the one player I’d ever played with much before, third baseman Tim Moellering, awaiting a throw. Everyone else was treating it like a home run. I threw Jaffe out by 20 feet, and he and the majority of the other players were sure Tim, a master of the hidden ball trick, had switched balls somehow.
Fortunately catcher Ben Maisel and left fielder Barry Fike had seen me find the ball, and had alerted the ump, just in time for him to see the throw.
I asked Tim how it was that he knew to be ready.
“There is no such thing as a lost ball,” he quoted, “and I figured you might find it faster than Jaffe was going to circle the bases.”
There was also no such thing as a wasted ball. Every ball, when the cover wore out, was recovered with electrical tape and used for batting and fielding practice until it split and unwound.
We routinely did things like climb iron volleyball poles to reach the roofs of school buildings to retrieve lost balls; hopped fences into yards to get them, hoping the irate owners’ apparent shotguns were only airguns filled with rock salt; and set up distractions by ringing doorbells and running, so that someone else could sneak into a yard the back way to get a ball.
When I was in high school, several of us set up a relay system to pilfer balls fouled out of Clint Evans Field at U.C. Berkeley. The gist of it was that two guys would chase the balls and throw them to me, in the street behind the backstop, because I had the best arm. I’d then gun the balls over Strawberry Creek and the live oaks to a fourth guy who would be stationed on his bicycle over by the Life Sciences Building.
I’d usually have just enough time to get the throw off before I’d be hit from behind by some of the JV football players the Cal baseball team used as foul ball chasers. Usually two of them hit me at once. It was a little like quarterbacking on asphalt with the opposing linemen coming from one’s own 20-yard-line. I’d shake them off with a little judo and run like hell. They’d go back into the park, and I’d limp back with my skinned elbows and knees to await the next relay mission.
It was stealing, yes, but in fact we returned most of the balls soon afterward, because as soon as the Cal game was over, we’d enter the stadium, clear the bleachers of trash (we always did this chore as a voluntary tribute), and play our own game, usually using the ball or balls we’d obtained, and the game would often end when they’d all been fouled into locked parking lots with unclimbable high fences, or other nearby areas to which we had no access.
One evening a couple of us climbed to the roof of one of those areas, the Navy ROTC building, trying to get a hard-won ball back. That night someone set off a pipe bomb in the building, and it was page one in the local papers that the cops were looking for a couple of suspects who had been seen on the roof wearing baseball caps. I turned myself in, and the campus police just called over to the Harmon Gym, spoke briefly to one of the Cal coaches (possibly Jackie Jensen), and let me go: I was a well-known local character, as were the guys I played ball with, and despite the transiently violent conflicts over possession of foul balls, we were always welcome on the field, in the batting cage, etc.
In fact, Cal team reserves and even some of the goons often played with us. In hindsight, I think the tackling and such was mostly a game in itself.
These adventures reached their zenith one afternoon when we got two foul balls in a row. When the second one came over the fence, my relay team still hadn’t returned from absconding with the first one, and I’d just noticed that they had goofed and left all our bats and gloves and the tools of ignorance unattended in plain sight. I let the ball go and grabbed the equipment before the goons seized it and held it for ransom. It was immediately clear, though, that I couldn’t outrun three or four of them with all that stuff in my arms, so I plunged into Strawberry Creek, under a footbridge, and hastily pushed everything through a broken screen into a pipe conduit that ran under the bridge.
As luck would have it, the ball I’d not chased happened to roll down the slope, into the creek, right at my feet, so I tossed it into the conduit too. The goons had the bridge surrounded, but when they looked underneath, I pretended to be taking a leak and–since I obviously did not have the ball in my hands–they let me go, searching elsewhere for a few minutes, until the Cal game ended and they left.
The rest of our team trickled back and began looking for me and the equipment. That’s when I discovered that the bottom of the conduit was out of reach of the small opening created by the broken screen. The only way to retrieve the stuff was to lift a very heavy manhole cover half a block away in the middle of the street behind Clint Evans field, right where I’d often been tackled, and descend into the depths.
That was a mission guaranteed to attract attention and possibly a police record in earnest. But I’d lost the equipment, and it was my duty to retrieve it. With the other guys standing guard, I worked the manhole cover loose and did my duty. I pushed the equipment back out the screen to a teammate, then returned to the surface to find the rest of my team, a gaggle of opposing players, a whole lot of passers-by, and a couple of campus cops all peering down the hole wondering what was going on.
“It was just a kitten,” I said, emerging and brushing sweat and dirt off my face. “I passed her out the screen under the bridge to the girls who heard it.”
That brought a round of applause from the bystanders, including the cops, and I felt much guiltier at NOT having rescued a kitten than I ever did about temporarily misappropriating a U.C. Berkeley baseball.
Ironically, I have subsequently rescued hundreds of kittens, cats, and all sorts of other creatures from all sorts of predicaments, including skunks who needed to be extricated from tight places and kittens who were being used as live coyote and fox bait by trappers in the bitter depths of Quebec winters–and I’ve faced down poachers at least three times who pointed their guns at me, yet that one time I lied about helping an animal is still the only time I ever got on-the-spot applause for supposedly having done it.