Two years ago, my wife and I were in Monte Carlo admiring a flotilla of $50 million yachts and watching Bugattis and Ferraris zoom by while sipping $20 Hendricks and tonics. I thought life couldn't get much cooler.
Two days later, I was driving through Pennsylvania to pick up my middle son from sleep-away camp. On the way, I stopped with my other son to see the Reading Fightin' Phils (the Philadelphia Phillies AA club). Pre-game, I sat in the courtyard of the stadium, watched a local band play 1970s rock-n-roll dressed up like C-list cartoon characters, and sipped a $3 Pabst Blue Ribbon. I realized then that I was wrong about Monte Carlo; this minor league baseball experience was way cooler.
Some of the most memorable moments of my childhood were at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets and Jets. As Shea was pretty much a house of pain in the late '70s and early '80s with both teams being less than competitive, we had to find ways to entertain ourselves other than the action on the field. At Mets games, this meant trying to catch foul balls.
Despite my eternal quest, I got only one foul ball as a kid. Ron Hodges — or some other Mets player memorable only to early '80s Mets fans — hit a foul ball behind home plate that I was able to catch. My heart pounded out of my chest for what was one of the most exciting moments of my young life. I was so proud of this ball that I showed it to my friends and played with it the next day. Bad idea as, just like that, my prized possession was gone forever into the dark woods of Harrison, N.Y.
While I was the "one piece of swag lost in 24 hours" kid, my son is the swag master. We attended the Quicken Loans golf championship in Potomac, Md., earlier this month to watch Rickie Fowler. While we got no swag from Mr. Fowler (other than the pleasure of watching him shoot nine birdies and almost win), my son walked away with five golf gloves from a group of golfers and a sweat band (yes, used — yuck!) from another "Rickie": Ricky Barnes.
His swag-gathering prowess is even more impressive at the ballpark. At one game last year at Camden Yards, he got six balls and a batting glove. Yesterday at a Frederick Keys game, he got four balls and a line-up card (for the record, my son isn't a foul ball savant; that would be MLB fan Zack Hample, who has reportedly collected over 9,800 balls at major league ballparks). Despite his relative success, getting balls at the game is no easy feat. The scrum for foul balls among 8 to 13 year olds in the grass next to left field the other night was somewhere between the seagulls in "Finding Nemo" — "mine, mine, mine" — and "Lord of the Flies."
How did my son start off on his path to be the swag king? About three years ago at Camden Yards, I told him to go get some autographs from the players. He was shy and begged me to come with him. I told him I would do it only once and would sit three rows behind him. While looking back at me nervously and waiting for what seemed like a day, Orioles reserve outfielder Steve Pearce showed up and signed his hat. It was a moment of kid joy, and he hasn't looked back.
Now when we go to the ballpark, we get there as soon as the gates open, and he spends his time running from bullpen to bullpen, talking to the players, hustling for balls, batting gloves or a high five — all on his own. He is free.
Am I afraid that something bad is going to happen to him? Yep. Am I the parent who freaks out at the beach every time my kids go in the water? Yep. Did I have to make two rescues (one of my own son) at a pool in my community because the lifeguards weren't paying attention? Yep. Was the decision to give my kid more freedom the best one I made as a parent? Probably not, but it did open the door for a hell of a lot of kid joy — the same kind I remember.