Sports Tradition

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Throwing back home runs. So many of our sports traditions seem beyond criticism. There’s nothing “overrated” about harmlessly dopey rituals like Super Bowl week or the homecoming bonfire. Even a relative newcomer that really does deserve scorn, the Wave, does not owe its popularity to good press.

Another modern development, however, while not running riot in our stadiums as the Wave once did, poses a similar threat to baseball and receives a surprising amount of respect from fans and sportswriters alike. It was popularized at beautiful Wrigley Field by the famously patient followers of the Chicago Cubs. Cub fans, who each summer see dozens and dozens of baseballs knocked into their midst by visiting batters, began tossing enemy home-run balls back onto the grass as if they were live grenades instead of once-in-a-lifetime souvenirs. If ticket holders lucky enough to catch four-ply wallops in the stands showed hesitation or ignorance of the custom, the sore loser’s chant would start up, “Throw it back! Throw it back!” until they surrendered the prize.

But who is punished by this supposedly defiant act? The hitter touring the bases? The home pitcher whose curve flattened out? The manager who put the unlucky pitcher on the mound? The owners who bought his contract? If it’s the latter, then throw the ball at the owners’ boxes, in this case those of the notoriously light-spending Chicago Tribune . Even when hit by the wrong side, the home run into the crowd is one of the few gifts to the overcharged sports fan.

“Throw it back!” can now be heard at ballparks far beyond Wrigley Field, robbing intimidated fans of their rightful souvenirs. In the end, though, when you catch a ball at a game, that is what you’ll remember from that day. I recall little else about the night in 1978 when a very long foul ball (struck by Texas’s Bobby Bonds) veered absurdly high in Yankee Stadium and descended on three generations of my family. While my father protectively covered my face with his fingers, my grandfather softhanded the floating ball as if it were a moth, then held it up to the crowd, confessing, “I waited 70 years for that,” as they roared. That was clearly his ball. Likewise, if a moon shot or even a short drive off the foul pole by Piazza or Nomar or a nobody drops into my hands, don’t tell me to throw it back. You can have my home-run ball when you pry my cold, dead fingers from the horsehide.

Underrated

The women’s five-set final. Although it has been a long time since anyone at the pro level jumped a net in triumph, tennis retains at least one other fusty tradition from its pioneer days: Even now, when the rivalries of the female pros seem to be driving the sport’s overall popularity, women still play only a three-set final at major tournaments, not five sets like their male counterparts. This rule hearkens back to a slower, daintier long-skirted era—1901, to be exact—whose upright ladylike tennis was closer to badminton than the crouching, split-second power game of today’s hard-hitting young women. It certainly doesn’t reflect the size, strength, and J conditioning of the sport’s current female players, Lindsey Davenport and Venus Williams, for instance, are taller than such legendary battlers as Jimmy Connors and Bj’f6rn Borg and could surely go five at the U.S. Open without wilting.