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It put Toronto ahead by two runs in an eventual 2-0 shutout. And the fan who caught the ball proceeded to fire it back toward the field, adhering to a tradition customary in ballparks across the country. But the ball struck Yankees left-fielder Brett Gardner in the back of the head, leaving a sizable welt.
Gardner laughed it off, acknowledging that the damage could have been worse. A Yankees spokesman, Jason Zillo, said fans were prohibited from throwing any objects onto the field, a directive that is stated clearly before every game.
But heaving back home run balls hit by opposing players is a time-honoured convention, rooted in Chicago, where Cubs fans have done it for decades. Fans can be ejected for the practice, but often it is seen as a sign of support for the team that just surrendered the home run.
“It’s been going on for years,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone hit before. It’s dangerous when fans throw objects on the field because players really aren’t looking for that. I don’t know if that’s ever going to change; I’d just ask our fans to be careful.”
Gardner had his back toward the stands after briefly giving chase to Bautista’s homer, which went deep into Section 134 in left field. Video replays show the ball sailing back toward the field after a few moments and striking Gardner in the back of his head, causing him to wince and hunch forward. The ball ricocheted all the way back to the warning track, where it was retrieved by a ball boy.
Gardner joked that he was lucky that he has “got a hard head,” but first baseman Mark Teixeira had a message for the fans: “We know you’re upset; we lost three in a row; we’re sorry,” he joked. “But just keep it to insults, not assaults.”
Teixeira had his own brief altercation with a fan after he dove into the stands to try to catch a foul ball in the ninth inning. As Teixeira lay with his arms outstretched, a fan dived hard into his left shoulder in an attempt to recover the ball. Teixeira, who is normally mild-mannered, responded with a few heated words.
“He really wanted that ball,” Teixeira said later.
It is not unheard of for a fan to be ejected for throwing back a home run ball. It happened in Colorado in 2012, after a Diamondbacks fan threw back a home run that Jordan Pacheco had hit into the left-field bleachers. Another incident occurred during Game 3 of the World Series in 2011. A fan tossed a ball onto the field that nearly hit Colorado outfielder Matt Holliday and was ejected. It is unclear how that fan obtained the ball.
Some fans like to test their arms. In 2011, a Cubs fan made headlines after heaving a home run ball so far on the fly that it nearly struck Miguel Tejada — the player who hit the ball — as he rounded second base. The ball rolled past home plate, where it was scooped up and tossed to Tejada, who put it in his back pocket.
Gardner said it was not his decision whether the Yankees chose to punish fans who threw back balls, and Zillo said he was unsure if the organization would police such behavior more vigorously, recognizing that it was a common occurrence in most stadiums.
But Girardi, a former Cubs player, had a message for those who throw back: “Aim away from the players if you’re going to do it, please.”