As soon as the ball leaves Bo Jackson's bat, Merrick Munday is a marked man.
He's sitting in the right-center-field bleachers enjoying the game, oblivious to his fate as Jackson's fly ball arcs over Camden Yards toward him. Munday has no idea he's about to become the target of scorn, meat for the bleacher crowd determined to enshrine a ballpark ritual: throwing back enemy home run balls.
Jackson's fifth-inning shot travels about 400 feet, a three-run homer that blows last Thursday's game open for the California Angels. The baseball lands a few rows in front of Munday in Section 96, bounces off someone's hand, pops into the air toward Munday's chest. He grabs it; he's got it. A once-in-a-lifetime shot. A home run by Bo Jackson held in his hands. A keeper.
The bleacher crowd has other ideas.
In seconds the chant begins. Dozens of hands gesture toward the field, a wave of swaying arms.
"THROW IT BACK. THROW IT BACK. THROW IT BACK."
Munday, a Capitol Hill computer systems manager, stashes the ball into his jacket pocket.
"BOOOOOOOO," moans the crowd.
"THROW IT BACK, YOU LOSER," yells one fan.
Munday smiles, trying to shrug off the abuse. He's not buying this attempt to enforce a protocol that for some unknown reason began at Camden Yards when the park opened in 1992.
In Wrigley Field, where it originated with the Left Field Bleacher Bums in 1969, the practice of tossing back opposition homers is strictly observed as an unwritten law of Cubs religion. In Camden Yards and a few other major-league parks, however, the practice is less orthodox.
Munday, for example, will have none of it.
"All my life I never caught a home run," says Munday, a 26-year-old transplant from New Jersey who lives in Crystal City, Va. "There's no way I'm throwing it back."
Among those standing and yelling at Munday in the bleachers is Jody Barry, a Washington police officer who grew up in Westminster.
"You've got to start some sort of tradition," says Barry, viewing Munday's transgression as another symptom of declining Baltimore baseball culture. "If that guy was a true Baltimore fan from Memorial Stadium, he'd have thrown it back."
Fans and ballpark ushers say the home run protocol never was followed at Memorial Stadium, where smaller bleachers stood at the right- and left-field corners. And at Camden Yards this season, the ritual more often than not has been ignored.
Steve Sealing of Columbia, seated in the left-center-field bleachers during the April 19 game, notes this tendency with disgust.
"This is the only year they haven't thrown it back," Sealing says.
Seated behind him in Section 86 for a California game are Rich Cephalis and Beth Fox. Minutes before, a seventh-inning homer by Rex Hudler bounced into Fox's seat as she stood up. Cephalis grabbed the ball and thrust it into a cloth satchel. Then came the "THROW IT BACK" chant, the boos, the insults.
"We've been threatened. It's terrible," says Cephalis, of Edgewood, explaining that he wants to keep the ball for Fox as a souvenir of her first time at Camden Yards.
"You know the Scarlet Letter?" says Fox, of Parkville. "That's how I felt."
They get no sympathy from Tim King of Elkridge, seated a couple of rows in front. He's leaning over his chair, a beer in one hand, tossing back uncharitable remarks.
"Pathetic bunch of weenies who can't throw the ball back," says King. "You got $10? Buy one."
Later, King says he grew up a Cubs fan in Chicago, where the ritual became a symbol of fan loyalty.
During last Thursday's game, a cheer goes up from the crowd in left-center when a homer by Eduardo Perez is thrown back onto the outfield like so much trash.
"I've always been a Cub fan," says Bob Merrill of Jessup, the fan in Section 84 who had no qualms about tossing away a souvenir. He never lived in Chicago, but he likes the Cubs, likes the ritual and isn't worried about getting another souvenir ball someday.
"I'm still young," says Merrill, who is 33. "There are plenty of games."
Mike Murphy, a Chicago radio sports talk show host and former member of the original Bleacher Bums, says he was there when the tradition was born. He describes an afternoon at Wrigley in the spring of 1969 when Ron Grousl caught an opposition home run. Grousl looked at the prize in his hands not with joy at his good fortune, but disdain.
Grousl, who since has moved out of Chicago, muttered a few obscenities and heaved the ball into the visiting bullpen.
"The crowd went crazy," says Murphy in a telephone interview. "It was so incongruous to throw back a baseball."
The practice faded in the mid-1970s, says Murphy, then reappeared at Wrigley in 1984, the year the Cubs won the National League East title. Since then, the code of conduct has been enforced strictly.
Just ask Paul Flatley, a lifelong Cubs fan from Chicago who dared defiance during an NL Championship Series game against the San Francisco Giants in 1989. Because it was hit in a playoff game, Flatley said, he chose not to throw back a homer by Kevin Mitchell that he caught in the left-field bleachers.
The abuse went on and on, culminating in the seventh-inning stretch, when the entire crowd of 35,000-plus chanted, "THROW IT BACK." The harassment got so bad that when the game ended, Flatley, his two brothers and his boss had to be escorted out of the ballpark by two security officers.
It wasn't quite so scary for Munday at Camden Yards, although he did decide to leave the bleachers in the seventh inning and sit on the first base side. He says the ushers felt so bad for him that they allowed him to wait outside the Angels' clubhouse for Bo Jackson after the game. Now the ball that fate stamped with Munday's name also bears Jackson's autograph.