“It’s awesome. It’s part of the history of the Cubs,” said Anthony Prerost, who had caught what, until Saturday night, was the most significant home run of Wood’s career, a grand slam against the Chicago White Sox in 2013. “We’re not going to accept opposing teams or opposing players. So why should we accept their home runs? We might as well reject them, too.”
Not everyone, however, is so enthusiastic about this practice.
“It’s stupid,” said Jeff Gorski, who caught Miguel Montero’s game-ending homer last month that put an exclamation point on the Cubs’ National League Central title. “Catching a home run is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Why should you have to throw it back just because it wasn’t somebody on the Cubs who hit it?”
The tradition, which dates back nearly five decades, has spread over the years to other ballparks, including Yankee Stadium. Last year, a fan there threw back a home run ball hit by Toronto’s Jose Bautista and struck Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner in the back of the head, leaving him with a welt.
When Bautista hit another home run last week at Texas in Game 1 of an American League division series, a Rangers fan reached the infield with his defiant throw.
At places like Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium, anyone who does not throw back an opposing home run can expect to hear adamant chants of “Throw. It. Back.”
Sitting in the right-field bleachers before the Cubs-Giants series began on Friday night, Colleen Solomon, a schoolteacher, frowned when her friend Jennifer Dompke said she would gladly chuck a Giants home run back onto the field.
“It’s hard not to fall victim to the mob mentality,” said Solomon, who equated fans’ chants to throw a ball back with the bullying behavior she points out to her students. “There’s a deindividualization when you’re in a crowd. I wouldn’t walk up to a Giants player and boo, but when I’m surrounded by thousands of people, I’m more likely to do it.”
Solomon was spared any angst because the Giants, in losing the first two games of the series, did not manage to hit any balls into the bleachers. But that was not a surprise. They hit only 130 home runs this season, the third fewest in baseball.
But if the Cubs enjoy as prosperous a postseason as their fans are pining for, and they move on to the National League Championship Series and then — dare we say it? — the World Series, sluggers like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Corey Seager or the Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion might end up launching a drive into the Wrigley bleachers.
Which, in turn, will give some Cubs fan the chance to throw the ball back.
The tradition, like so much else in the Cubs history, apparently traces its roots back to 1969, the year the Cubs collapsed in the last part of the season, blowing a 10-game lead over the Mets.
That season at Wrigley, Hank Aaron hit his 521st career home run, tying him with Ted Williams. The ball was caught by Ron Grousl, a 24-year-old bartender who was a denizen of the left-field bleachers.
Grousl said he offered the ball to Aaron after the game as the slugger was making his way to the Braves’ bus, but Aaron refused, apparently angry that fans in right field had dumped beer on him when he ventured near the wall.
The next season, when Aaron hit a home run at Wrigley Field and Grousl caught it, he said he was still so upset with Aaron’s rejection (and maybe everything else that happened in 1969) that he threw the ball back onto the field.
“I just thought: ‘Get this out of here. I don’t want it,’” Grousl, 70, said in a telephone interview. “I just threw it back.”
Asked if, after all these years, he regretted throwing back a home run hit by one of baseball’s greatest players, Grousl said: “No. I went to every game. I caught a lot of home run balls. You were just mad about the whole thing in ’69.”
Slowly, Grousl’s act caught on.
Some Wrigley fans needed prodding to throw the balls back, so an empty beer cup would be passed around to collect a bribe; many people would put in a dollar or two.
“We’d get about $25, and the guy would give up the ball; then we’d throw it back,” Grousl said. On other occasions, the Cubs relievers — who were stationed in the bullpen down the left-field line — would provide an autographed ball to trade for the one headed back to the field.
“It might take an inning,” Grousl said.
But it was not until the 1980s, when the bleachers became a preferred place to watch a game at Wrigley, that throwing back home runs became a staple of the park’s culture. And with Cubs games being broadcast nationally on the superstation WGN, the ritual gained broad exposure.
When Shawon Dunston became the starting shortstop for the Cubs in 1985, he was baffled the first time a home run ball was thrown back on the field and rolled toward him.
“I wanted to fire it back, and then somebody said, ‘No, it’s a tradition,’” said Dunston, who is now a coach with the Giants and was known for having one of the strongest arms in baseball. “I didn’t like the ball going over the fence, so when the fans threw it back, they went crazy. I kind of liked it.”
Over the years, the regulars in the bleachers have forged a personal bond with the players. Gary Matthews, nicknamed Sarge, was the left fielder when the Cubs ended a 39-year playoff drought in 1984. He bought Army caps for the fans in left field.
When the Cubs clinched a playoff berth in 2003, right fielder Sammy Sosa broke off the clubhouse celebration and returned to the warning track to spray champagne on those still rejoicing in the bleachers. And after the Cubs clinched the division this season, the team’s president, Theo Epstein, put on a fake mustache and sunglasses and sat in the bleachers, too.
Bob Dernier, the Cubs’ center fielder in 1984, recalled joining Matthews during pitching changes for conversations with fans in the bleachers. “This is as intimate as a ballpark can be,” he said. “It’s a unique relationship you have with the fans out there.”
Just ask David Rudstein, a 70-year-old law school professor who has been attending games since he was he was 7.
When Alfonso Soriano played left field for the Cubs, he would toss Rudstein several balls a game. After Soriano was traded in 2013, Rudstein struck up a friendship with Soriano’s friend Hector Rondon, a reliever. Rudstein said that when he was waiting in line to enter the ballpark, a Range Rover with tinted windows came to a stop on Waveland Avenue. The window rolled down: It was Rondon, pausing to say hello.
Rudstein has thrown balls back — he said he once caught two within three innings, hit by the Houston Astros’ Craig Biggio and Craig Shipley — but he, like many of the bleacher regulars, is sophisticated. They bring a dummy ball, perhaps one they caught during batting practice, and then slyly throw that one back if they catch a visitor’s home run.
“I don’t like it all,” Rudstein said of the throw-it-back tradition before momentarily interrupting an interview to — what else? — catch a batting-practice homer. “When you catch a game ball, I don’t think throwing it back says anything at all. A home run ball is a home run ball.”
After tucking away two batting-practice home runs in a duffel bag for future use as dummy balls, Walter Scott, 54, an airline pilot, said: “Sometimes you see a real rotten one go back. But as long as one goes back, everybody’s happy. You’re just appeasing the crowd.”
There is a certain etiquette that comes with sitting in the bleachers at Wrigley. Attempting the wave is a grave offense. Offering a baseball to a child might be repaid with a beer by a parent.
“Bleacher currency,” said Gorski, 35, who sells body-piercing jewelry. “It’s good karma.”
And some elements of the social contract in the bleachers are hard-learned.
“Once, a random fan bought me a hot dog,” said Solomon, the schoolteacher, who was touched by the gesture. “Then I put ketchup on it, and he took it away.”
The expectations for visitors’ home runs are more straightforward.
A weak throw, one that does not reach the field from the bleachers — while rare — is a sure way to generate boos at Wrigley. Timing is important, too. Ideally, the throw should be seen by the hitter — that means launching it from right field as he rounds first base and from left field as he rounds second.
And do not wait until the offending player has returned to the field after the inning, as one fan did during the 2008 playoffs. He was ejected for throwing Manny Ramirez’s home run ball back at Ramirez when he returned to left field.
There is one way, however, to cut through discomfort with social mores and longstanding tribal rituals. It is in the hands of the Cubs pitchers, who for many years were not as proficient as they are now at a singular task: keeping baseballs out of the bleachers.