Chad Pergram recalls hitting 3 baseballs at Riverfront Stadium in 1978.

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I’m not Ted Williams.

But I could see the red seams spinning on a worn baseball used for batting practice, spinning towards me in slow motion. Each strand twisted, heading towards the first row of “blue” seats on the lower level of the cabin. Old Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

Of course, the ball didn’t hit the nine-year-old me at the same moment as the 96 mph fastball that Williams may have faced Bob Feller from Cleveland Indians. It didn’t go down like a slider from the palm of Whitey Ford of the New York Yankees. The “Magnificent Splinter” was known for having such sharp eyesight that he could pick up the rotation of the ball as it approached the plate.

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Outfielder Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox poses for a battle portrait during spring training in March 1950 in Sarasota, Florida.

Outfielder Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox poses for a battle portrait during spring training in March 1950 in Sarasota, Florida.
(Diamond Images/Getty Images)

There’s a reason Williams is the last hitter to hit .400 in a season: .406 in 1941.

But that ball wasn’t a fastball thrown off the pitcher’s mound.

It was a sneaky, stealthy, behind-the-scenes dash from AstroTurf field level to the first row of seats, exactly where the stands cut off at a sharp angle and ran parallel to the right field line.

And the covert throw didn’t even come from a Major League hurler.

It came from Joseph “Strache” Suba, a longtime (and legendary) bullpen catcher for the Houston Astros.

It was September 12, 1978. That night, the Reds beat the Astros 4–3. The game was best known for having Champ Summers (a great name) of the Reds touch up Astros pitcher Mark Lemonangelo (more name) for the home team’s first home run to right field at the Red Seats, the giant upper deck of Riverfront Stadium.

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Bullpen catcher Joseph Stretch Suba of the Houston Astros throws the ball during practice before a game on September 11, 2011 against the Washington Nationals at National Park in Washington, DC.

Bullpen catcher Joseph Stretch Suba of the Houston Astros throws the ball during practice before a game on September 11, 2011 against the Washington Nationals at National Park in Washington, DC.
(Diamond Images)

But for the nine-year-old baseball fan, the Reds’ victory and Summers’ colossal jack were secondary.

Never before had a foul ball, home run, or Major League ball come close to me at Riverfront Stadium. Yet here I was with my best friend Jamie, leaning over the railing, begging Suba for the ball.

We didn’t even know how to say his name. But SUBA was emblazoned on the back of the Astros’ radical orange, red, and blue Tequila Sunrise uniform, numbered on the right leg.

Suba was not in the program. I never heard of him. But that was September. I wondered if he had been drafted at the end of the season from the AAA Astros affiliate in Charleston.

Major league players used to be penalized for throwing balls into the stands. Such transgressions probably didn’t affect the pay of stars like the Reds’ Pete Rose or the Astros’ Bob Watson much. But it was probably a different calculation for a bullpen catcher to cough up a ball for a couple of clingy kids.

And suddenly, at the right moment, apparently when the “practice ball police” were not watching, Suba tossed the ball up to the sound of our voices.

Suba never glanced in our direction. He never recognized us. He stared down at the plate, a catcher’s glove folded around his waist as Enos Cabell, Bruce Bochey and Terry Poole took hits in the cage.

The ball looked like it was all Jamie. Jamie was taller than me and could catch the ball better. I remember Jamie clenching the bases of his hands, spreading his fingers, waiting for an opportunity to squeeze them.

But of course I wasn’t going to let Jamie get that ball through me.

A detailed view of Riverfront Stadium during a Cincinnati Reds major league baseball game, circa 1991 in Cincinnati, Ohio.

A detailed view of Riverfront Stadium during a Cincinnati Reds major league baseball game, circa 1991 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
(Focus on sports/Getty Images)

I snapped my right hand in front of Jamie’s outstretched hands and caught the ball right over the dark railings of Riverfront Stadium. I hugged him to my chest like a football goalie.

I had Major League Ball.

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My dad, who took us to the game, was a man of good manners. He made sure I thanked Mr. Suba – and called him “Mr. Suba”. Suba gestured with a nod of his head as he continued to practice.

But we are not finished.

Hockey can have a hat-trick.

But that night we had a holy trinity. Trifecta of baseballs from batting practice and games. A trinity worthy of the nearby River Downs.

During the game, Jose Cruz of the Astros left hand hit the plate. Cruz hit .315 that season. Cruz lifted his left foot as the pitch approached the plate, unwinding his bat with the ferocity of a cobra attacking a mongoose. Cruz got burned off the right field line. He hit the ball with such speed that the hiss cut through the humid September air, swerving into unfair territory.

My dad was a good baseball player in his day. He was still playing in the over 40 league at the time. He brought the MacGregor brand, Li Mei’s first baseman’s glove, to the game. The words “Big Dipper” were embroidered into the pocket of the glove. But this heavenly nickname did not justify this glove. This thing was like a “black hole”. Everything that got into this glove did not escape anywhere.

A man walked down the aisle behind us, carrying a tray littered with choked sausages, a jug of popcorn, and two Hudepohls. Cruz’s frozen rope was heading straight for this man walking down the aisle.

But dad flashed the Big Dipper, beating Cruz’s furious linear drive.

He probably saved a man’s life.

And Hudepoli.

Later in the game, a lazy pop fly came in our direction. It raced around the seats like a pinball before rolling down the aisle towards us. We dug this too.

Three fans. Three balls.

God, Jamie and I would have something to say to Mrs. Turner’s fourth grade class the next morning. We’ve only been fans for a few short years. But we never knew anyone who got the ball in a game, let alone three.

Stretch Sub was not Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, or one of the cogs in the Big Red Machine. But it turned out that he was a legendary figure in Astros lore. Suba worked as a security guard in Houston for 36 years.

Shortly before the end of training, I yelled at Subu again. I asked if he would sign the ball. I don’t think anyone was watching at the time. I gave Suba a black pen and he signed it. Since he wasn’t on the program, I thought he scrawled his name as “Steve” Suba. For years after that, my dad and I occasionally spotted Suba on Reds TV broadcasts from Houston as he opened up the Astros pitchers in the bullpen.

“Is” Steve “Suba, we’d say”, never realizing that he signed his name as “Stretch”. We just couldn’t make out his handwriting.

It took us years to figure out Suba’s real name.

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Which just added to the lore of our “three-ball night”.