The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

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September 30, 2013

GIFT OF GRAB!

Jan Church’s great catch of foul liner another memory in season of them for the playoff-bound Indians

CONNEAUT — Tammy Hagstrom may have put the whole situation in perfect perspective when she texted sister-in-law Jan Church.

Hagstrom told Church she could cross an item off her bucket list.

For Church, the Sept. 19 Cleveland Indians game was just going to be a fun night at Progressive Field with the Ashtabula County Board of Developmental Disability’s Job Club. The trip to see the Tribe host the Houston Astros became much, much more.

The group had gone to the game when 50 tickets were donated. Church and three others were in the area designated for wheelchairs on the third-base side of the stadium. The remainder of the contingent was in the left-field bleachers.

“We were in the level just above the lower bowl,” Church, of Conneaut, said. “It wasn’t all that far from home plate.”

In the fifth inning of what was a 1-1 tie, Church’s fun sojourn to the ballpark transformed her from an average fan into an internet sensation.

As happens a dozen times a game, a fall ball was lined into the crowd. Church, 58, stood and reached up to pluck the screaming liner right out of the air.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I didn’t know it was in my mitt. I knew it hit the glove, but I didn’t know I caught it. I turned the glove to look at it and the ball was stuck right in the webbing. That mitt is more than 30 years old. It’s been restrung twice. It was just done last spring. My granddaughter, Addy (Wade, 9) used it. It’s a good thing (it was restrung). The ball would have gone right through if it wasn’t.

“I looked at the mitt and the ball was in it. All those , I’d gone and was never close (to catching a foul ball). I took the ball and waived it toward the bleachers to let the other people we were with see that I caught it. Everybody all around us was standing and cheering. I guess it was my reaction that caused them to react.”

Though in real time it was over in a flash, to Church, it was an eternity.

“That’s the funny thing,” she said. “It was like, seconds. But when the ball was coming at me, it almost seemed like slow motion. It kind of looks like I jumped way up. I didn’t. The ball goes in the mitt and it pulls my arm up and back. I did raise up a little bit, but the it was like a rocket. It almost twisted me around.

“It was unbelieveable how quick it all happened.”

The fans weren’t the only people to notice Church’s feat. She grabbed the attention of television announcers Matt Underwoood and Rick Manning as well as the players.

“(On the broadcast) you see a foul ball and the next thing you hear is a lot of people cheering,” Church said. “Matt Underwood says, ‘Wow! That’s a lot of salvation for whoever caught that ball. Yan Gomes was catching nad you see him look up to the stands three different times.

“I didn’t see it, but people said Nick Swisher stopped at the top of the dugout and tipped his cap.”

In the blink of an eye, Church was famous.

“The Fox 8 guy gave me his card and said if they got it on film, they were going to release it to different news outlets,” Church said. “Later, a guy came over and said to go home and watch ESPN. I told him to get out. He said to really watch. When I got home, it was already on. I was No. 7 of the top 10 plays of the day.”

Swisher’s tip of the cap wasn’t all he gave Church. Two days later, the ball had a note from the Tribe outfielder.

“It says, ‘Jan, Great catch. Awesome! Best wishes, Nick Swisher.’”

Church was prepared. Having sat in those seats before, she knew exactly what she was doing when she brought her glove to the park that night.

“We had the same seats last year,” she said. “I knew we would be close, but I never thought a ball would come flying like that. Usually, they’re a pop up everybody watches come down. It was like a rocket. Everybody says you’ve got to pay attention when you sit down there, especially with a left-hander up.

“It was a left-handed batter and the pitch was inside. It was bam! And it was right at us. It was kind of scary.”

Knowing that she was in dangerous territory, Church prepared herself every time a lefty took the box.

“Every time a left-handed batter came up, I put the glove on,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like rocket coming right at us.”

It wasn’t the first time Church had caught a ball. She had gained a bit of a reputation as a slowpitch player in Conneaut. Her skills were on display that night.

“I did play softball for years and years,” she said. “My junior year (in high school) was kind of when they had started softball. After high school, I played slowpitch for a lot of years. I always did kind of have a good glove.”

Church’s daughter, Sarah Wade, was in class at the time of the catch. When she left class, she had a number of messages waiting for her. When Church called her son, Tom, who is the head basketball coach at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., he had already seen it.

The best part of the attention for Church has been that the Job Club has been in the spotlight.

“I’ll probably never catch one again,” she said. “It was one time, one moment. It was right in the mitt. The main thing was we were able to take 50 people we work with through the program who make minimum wage, and go to the game. With the Job Club, we do different things. They get the biggest kick out of it.

“The next day, Channel 5 sent a guy out to interview me and the guy who was sitting next to me. We’re trying to make the community aware of us. I always say, it is the most untapped resource for workers. They are motivated, they love to work and they never miss.”

The glove will accompany Church to every game she attends in the future and the ball will be prominently displayed at her house.

“I think I should take my glove every time,” Church said. “Even if  Idon’t catch a ball, I can tell everybody sitting around me that this glove caught a rocket a while back.

“I think I’m just going to keep the ball close here at the house. Nick Swisher signed it. He’s not a superstar and isn’t a Hall of Famer, but he plays the game the way I like.”

Of all the attention Church has received for the catch, it was those closest to her who had the best reactions.

“I had taped it, so when I watched it with my granddaughter, she kept saying, ‘Play it over again! Play it over again!’”

An old friend was at the game and, ironically, saw Church leaving the stadium.

“I was walking around behind the stadium and I ran into a girl I had played softball with in grade school. Becky Olmstead and I started playing ball together when we were like, 10, all through high school and after we were married.

“We started yelling and screaming ane hanging on each other. How cool is it that Becky was there? I bet we played together for 20 years, probably longer. We started playing together at CLYO the first year they had Little League for girls.”

Addy Wade went to school bragging about her grandma.

“My granddaughter is in the fourth grade,” Church said. “She went to her teacher the next morning and said her grandma caught a ball and it was all over the Internet. The teacher said, ‘Let’s look at it.’ (Addy’s) friend was watching over her shoulder and the teacher said they should put it on the board so everyone could see. Then one kid says, ‘Hey, everyone watch Addy’s 90-year-old grandma catch a foul ball.’

“Addy said, ‘She’s not 90. She’s only 58.’ That’s one thing that cracked me up.”

And, of course, Hagstrom summed it up perfectly.

“She said, ‘Scratch one off the bucket list – catch foul ball on national TV.

“I thought that was cute. Leave it up to her to say something like that.”

Now a media darling, Church is hoping, at least a little, that her 15 minutes is almost up.

“Do you think this is it?” Church asked. “I’m retired now. But I did get to talk to some people I haven’t talked to in a long time (because of all the attention).”

Ettinger is a freelance writer from Ashtabula.

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