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Think catching a foul ball is hard? How 2020 taught us it's even tougher than we thought

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Fans make impressive foul-ball catches during MLB playoffs (0:34)

Spectators at the National League Championship Series and World Series make sweet catches during the Dodgers' postseason run. (0:34)

For many of us, one of the first hints that our parents are not gods, not superheroes, not even particularly significant in a world of 7 billion, comes in the stands of a major league baseball game, when they fail to get us a foul ball.

In a typical game, about 20 catchable baseballs sail into the stands. Our parents -- and, later, we -- are almost never in the right section to pursue most of them. When a ball does approach our section, people have the heavy rangelessness of a streetlamp, perhaps stretching one arm hopefully at it but with none of the chair-hurdling athleticism we imagine of a true superhero. And, worst of all, if a ball does target them specifically, it almost certainly slaps off their hands and lands at the feet of a different child's parents. "It had so much spin," my dad explained, after the foul ball hit off his hands and landed many rows beyond.

Baseball fans ask each other if we've ever caught a foul ball, but the sad fact is that we're really just asking if we've ever picked a foul ball up off the ground. Almost nobody catches foul balls. Obviously, on an individual level the challenge is mathematical -- there is a lot of space in a ballpark, and our ticket only lets us cover a small part of it -- but the blame can't be lack of coverage, since we collectively cover the whole park. So it must be one of three factors:

1. A crowd's crowdedness neutralizes mobility. Just as Elaine Thompson-Herah is no faster getting out of a crowded subway car than anybody else, so are the best outfielders among us no better at getting into position in a crowded Section 131.

2. The presence of many arms neutralizes dexterity. As anybody who has ever played Three Flies Up knows, an easy pop-up is something else entirely when two or more gloves are going for it. Even if a foul ball is hit directly at you -- right at your chest, perfectly centered -- it's unlikely to actually get to you without a minor deflection from one of the outstretched arms around you.

3. It's just hard to catch a baseball.

Two of those hypotheses, you'll note, come down to this: The problem isn't the ball. The problem is other people. We are continually thwarting each other, in a baseball version of the tragedy of the commons. In this version, three humans are less likely to catch a baseball than two humans would be, and a fourth human only makes things that much worse.

But the third hypothesis just says it's hard to catch a baseball, just like it's hard to do archery from a galloping horse and it's hard to live to 130. This is actually a more optimistic, humankind-loving possibility: This says that three humans are more likely to catch a baseball, and -- if that's true -- it further says that by our numbers we do manage to collectively accomplish difficult things. We might be imperfect at working together, but with enough of us failing together we can still produce a success.

As it turns out, nature and capitalism recently produced a setting to test these hypotheses. Because the NLCS and World Series were played this year in front of socially distanced crowds, foul balls (and home runs) that went toward fans were typically uncontested. The 11,000-fan crowds in Texas were much smaller than the average turnout, but even more than the numbers was the spacing: 11,000 fans in a typical Rays or Marlins game would still be bunched together in the best sections and seats, leaving some sections empty and others packed. Here, the whole stadium had coverage, but with enough space that fans typically couldn't get in each other's way.

We watched every foul ball that was hit in the air during this year's NLCS and World Series -- close to 400 video clips in all -- with scattered fans. We then watched every foul ball hit during the 2019 NLCS and World Series, with aisle-to-aisle fans. This sounds like a large sample, but, in fact, most foul balls don't get tracked by broadcast cameras into the stands, and many -- perhaps most -- don't even make it to the crowd, thanks to netting behind home plate and along the lines. (And a small number of the clips cut off before we could see.) However, there were a fair number of foul balls shown all the way to their landing. They fall under four different types:

1. Long fly balls down the line, the ones that look like they might have home run distance if they would only stay fair.

2. Line drives into the field-level sections.

3. Pop-ups into the field-level sections, pretty much any time an outfielder is obligated to run toward the ball in case there is a play.

4. Pop-ups directly behind home plate, again heavily dependent on whether the catcher pursues or considers pursuing it.

These leave out the most common foul balls, the fly balls fouled almost straight back into nets, facades or the second deck. But we have a variety: Fouls hit hard, fouls hit soft. Fouls that scream and fouls that float down.

In the two 2019 series, with crowded stadiums, there were 21 foul balls hit into the stands that were followed all the way down by the camera operators. Of those 21 foul balls, there were ...

Zero catches. Not one. Nobody caught a foul ball.

Now, again, this is only a subset of foul balls, the ones we can verify. Probably somebody caught a foul ball that we didn't see. But these 21 included some of the most catchable foul balls you could conjure.

This one was hit maybe 80 feet, and it hung in the air long enough for the guy in the blue shirt to really adjust to the possibility of life as a foul ball owner. He tracks it confidently, uses two hands -- he's as comfortable as can be, until the last second, when his pal in the black hoodie swats him across the head with his own, impositional attempt. In the final second before the ball drops to the ground, Paul Goldschmidt watches with the look of a person who has seen it all and grown used to disappointment:

This one was hit a mere 83 mph, a changeup by batted ball standards, and it would have slowed to around 50 mph by the time it landed. It was descending at a nice, gentle angle, almost exactly how you'd throw a ball to somebody trying to catch it barehanded from that distance. And it was landing right in the bearded fan's breadbasket, which is right where you'd want to catch a baseball if you only had your two bare hands. Perfect opportunity, except -- what's that in front of him? Why, it's two long arms reaching up, straight in front of him and blocking his view -- and, quite possibly, deflecting the ball:

It's way harder to catch a ball the way those two arms were trying to do it, one-handed and outstretched, a bare mitt stretched far from a person's line of sight and center of gravity. All those two arms could do, realistically, was obstruct the person who was in position to actually catch it. But why would anybody in those two seconds be thinking about the stranger sitting behind them? It would be unnatural. So, they reach.

This one, I'm pretty sure, glanced off a guy stretching way up and leaning way back, to the point that he fell over -- obviously, a suboptimal catching position, and a barrier to anybody else making the play. After it bounced off his hands, it skipped off a series of fans like a pebble on a marble lake. This one landed, untouched, on an aisle. A few fans stood at the top of the aisle, as if they wanted to run down and get in position, but a crowded staircase gets too congested for any one to descend. This can of corn might have been caught by the aspirant using his hat as a net, but he was blocked from getting in position by a bunch of barehanders, whose bare hands failed. So on, so forth, but the point is this: Twenty-one foul balls, and no matter how many people we threw at the problem, humanity failed. Every single one landed in the lava.

And so, what about in 2020? There were, again, 21 foul balls that were tracked by the cameras into the crowd, and for which a conclusive catch/no catch determination could be made. Of those 21 foul balls, there were ...

Two catches! Pretty terrible, but infinitely more than there were in 2019. In fact, one would have been infinitely more, so there were twice as many as infinitely more.

Let's see the two. You might have already seen them, as they were both replayed, GIF'd and tweeted:

One was in the World Series, by the Dodger fan in the slightly profane Joe Kelly meme T-shirt. As you can see, he had no competition and no crowding around him -- although, interestingly enough, he's in a little seating cut-out that wouldn't have a crowd even in normal circumstances. Nevertheless, he made this look like playing catch, as he was able to stand up, take two steps to his right, then take two steps back to his left to get in position. It is, under normal crowding, extremely difficult to take steps at all.

The other foul ball was caught one-handed, barehanded, by a fan in the third deck out by the foul pole. It's one of the steadiest, best fan catches you'll ever see. And, while he didn't have the hostile strangers trying to steal the ball from him, he did have to fend off a better-prepared buddy, who reached across with a glove. This obviously made things even harder -- although note that the friend right next to the catcher didn't stand up, giving him a little extra space for the catch.

So, two catches, but I wouldn't say any point has been proved. Two catches is only two catches, and the second one was neither free of interference nor likely to replicated in 1,000 tries by 1,000 fans under any circumstances.

Otherwise, miss after miss. Right in the gut with absolutely nobody in his way? Simply dropped. Line drive at the guy's face? Nobody else going for it, but still a line drive at the guy's face -- dropped. The guy in the best position for this one looks like he never saw it, perhaps hindered by the lack of mass movement around him to provide clues about what was happening. Only one person had any shot at this one, but he really needed to take two steps back to have a chance. Once it got over his head it was nothing but empty seats to back him up:

That goes to an obstacle that shows up again and again in these 2020 foul balls: Whether you're one of 50,000 fans or the only one in the place, stadium sections are built to corral people and impede mobility. At best a fan has some lateral movement, but even the rows are narrow and the fold-up seats can snag a leg. Certainly, the fold-up seats make hopping over one row into the next a self-destructive act. So this can of corn with lots of hang time: Nobody under it. This gentle flair into a populated section: No better options than reaching helplessly toward it.

Let's put it this way: The crowd probably makes it harder for an individual to catch a foul ball. The lack of individuals makes it harder for the crowd to catch a foul ball. The result: Nearly everything falls either way.

If there's a lesson, here it is: If you want to catch a foul ball, you have to get over your pride and bring your glove. For some reason, it has become conventional wisdom (except, arguably, in a few parks, like Oracle Field in San Francisco) that only a child or a weirdo would ever bring a glove to a ballgame. But check out Dodger fan up there: He brought a glove. He caught a major league foul ball. He's one of two people in the entire world to do that during the 2020 baseball season.

Otherwise, you have practically no chance. Nobody catches foul balls. If we assume 20 catchable foul balls per game -- about how many had enough launch angle to do so in the games we surveyed -- and that (generously) 1 in 20 foul balls are caught under normal circumstances, that means one person catches a foul ball per game. One! If you find yourself in a major league ballpark, you're statistically as likely to be the winning pitcher as you are to catch a foul ball. If these catches are distributed roughly evenly, you'll be in line to actually catch a foul ball every, oh, 40,000 or so baseball games. If you go to every game your favorite team plays, you'll get a ball every 500 years.

Or you can just bring a glove. Grant Brisbee, the great San Francisco Giants blogger, always takes a glove. He has caught two foul balls!

Otherwise, forget it. Foul balls are, by definitely not hit square, and there really is a ton of spin on them -- spin so hot it can practically burn your hands. My dad might not have been a superhero, but he also wasn't a liar.

In case you're wondering: Four of the 17 home runs hit into the seats were caught in 2020. During the same two rounds of the 2019 postseason, four of 16 were caught.