Somewhere around the sixth inning, Maria came into our consciousness. The Zephyrs were already ahead 8-0 over the Oklahoma City Redhawks, but that didn’t matter much to Maria, who had other things on her mind in addition to her ancestral preference for Hispanic ballplayers. Her parents and siblings had gone on a popcorn run. Maria stayed near her seat because she was preoccupied with her mission.
From seemingly out of nowhere, Maria, who was probably 8 years old, tapped our shoulders and asked a question that has confounded philosophers for centuries. “Why,” she asked with disgust, “is it always the boys that get the baseballs?” Several times that night a foul ball had bounced nearby, or a player on the way back to the dugout had flipped a ball toward the seats, but each time boys honed in – leaving Maria out.
We tried to explain that maybe boys were more aggressive at such things. “Would you fight for one?” I asked, “Yes!” she answered emphatically. Maria, who only minutes earlier had been a stranger to us, persisted: “I really, really want a ball,” she kept on saying. “If you get one, please give it to me.”
“Why do you want a ball?” I asked. “For my collection,” she answered. I assured her I would do my best, but the truth was my chances were probably worse than hers. All my life I’ve wanted to catch a ball at a ballpark, too, and have never come close. Not only that, but I was also striking out with the night’s other giveaways. We were sitting near the first base dugout so it would’ve been easy to see us early in the game when Zephyrs staffers stood on top of the dugout to toss T-shirts. I didn’t even earn eye contact. Later in the game Boudreaux, the mascot nutria, stood on the same platform and avoided us when he tossed out pizzas. Once, between innings, Boudreaux walked on the dugout waving to the crowd. I couldn’t even get a high-five from him.
It must have been the seventh inning when Maria’s parents returned. Shortly after I heard the girl shrieking. She was ecstatic. “I have a ball!” she shouted, I have a ball!” “Where did you get it?” I asked. “My mom.” Excitedly Maria tried to put together a supposition on how her mom got the ball. “It bounced and she reached over and caught it,” Maria explained. Since I hadn’t seen a ball land in our area recently I asked her dad who paused and then said, rather timidly, that the mother had found it beneath the seats. That, to me, seemed rather miraculous, knowing how eagerly those dastardly boys hone in on the balls; nevertheless I chose to accept that answer, which sounded more magical than Mom perhaps buying the spotless ball in the gift shop during her popcorn quest. Whatever the method of acquisition, Maria was thrilled and even let me hold the sphere for a few well-guarded seconds. (Instinctively I sniffed the ball, which had that unmistakable leather-and-varnish smell that took me back to Maria’s age when a hardball was the center of a boy’s summer pastime, before it became a metaphor for life.)
For the Zephyrs it had been a big night. They won 11-1, not giving up that last run until the ninth inning. For me, the night was less successful. I never did get anything thrown my way; however, I did collect handouts given out as we left the ball park, including a sample of Pert shampoo (the official brand of the Zephyrs) and a bag of Lay’s new spicy ketchup potato chips.
Undoubtedly the big winner of the night was Maria. Not only did she go home with a ball, but also, in her mind, it had been snared by Mom. No boy could top that.