It all started when Kevin Foster tossed a baseball to my oldest sister.
I don’t remember the exact year, although it was probably 1995 or 1996. I was somewhere around the age of 10, my family making our patented trip from West Michigan to Iowa to visit extended family. As a baseball family, and a Cubs clan specifically, my parents often found a way to afford tickets for the seven of us to attend a game at Wrigley as we trekked to my parent’s childhood state.
I had attended a handful of games in my youth — my favorite probably Ryne Sandberg day in 1997. In all reality I don’t remember the opponent or score on the fateful day my sister got a ball from Kevin Foster, nor can I recall how well he performed. The reality is that none of that matters. It was my sister’s joy in that moment that will always be remembered.
My parents were able to secure tickets along the third base line that day, just a few rows back of the Cubs ‘pen. Because it was the mid-1990’s the Cubs were a predictably terrible team, so even with premier seats I remember the section being relatively spacious.
My dad being my dad, he took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with then-Cubs bullpen coach, Dave Bialas. It clearly struck a chord with Bialis because when Foster finished warming up Bialis pointed out my family. Foster made eye contact with my oldest sister, smiled, and tossed the ball into her open hands.
Of course, I responded the way any little brother would: I was overwhelmed with jealousy. To a 10’ish year old that lived and breathed baseball, such emotions weren’t warranted; they were the only appropriate reaction. Jealousy raged so much that, after the fact, my brother (the oldest of the children) decided it a good idea to ‘borrow’ the baseball, and we used it to play catch.
When my parents caught wind of what we were doing the shenanigans ended, but at least our jealousy felt satiated. Despite our best efforts we couldn’t ruin my sister’s joy, and in fact she still has that ball nearly 25 years later:
Oddly enough, my sister procured Mark Grace’s autograph that day — though no one seems to remember how. As for the signature on top? I haven’t the faintest idea who that is. If someone wants to play detective and figure it out (I spent a few hours researching, to no avail) I’d be grateful.
An Unlikely Favorite
It’d be understandable if that was the end of the Kevin Foster love, but really it was just the beginning for my family.
Foster had a rather mundane career, pitching five of his seven career seasons on the Northside. As an Evanston native this seems fitting, and even with unspectacular career numbers (32-30, 4.86 ERA, 2.1 fWAR) he had a relatively lengthy career in Chicago.
Despite his pedestrian numbers, lacking even what could be considered a significant career year (his best year was the strike-shortened 1994 season, compiling a 2.89 ERA (3.74 FIP) and 1.5 WAR in 81 innings) Foster became a bit of an unspoken legend in my family. We made sure to make ourselves available to catch his starts on WGN. We rooted hard for him, and even on those ugly Cubs teams, wished endlessly for his success.
That success never came, but I remember the desire for Foster to succeed fondly. He was a family favorite, if only for a simple gesture of kindness. Giving a child a ball takes but a handful of seconds, yet the impact of those seconds can last an eternity.
An Untimely End
Foster died way too young, succumbing to cancer in 2008. He was just 39 years old. Despite a relatively short career, and lacking the credentials of being a star, he nonetheless had an impact on his teammates and those around him:
“As a low [draft] pick, he was a tough competitor and an overachiever to make it into the majors, and he pitched well for us at times. As a person, he was also a very personable, popular, articulate individual who stuck up for his teammates.”– Ed Lynch, former Cubs General Manager
When lifelong Cub fans reminisce about the mostly-forgettable teams of the 1990’s, Foster is not a name that immediately sticks out. Sure, he spent half of the decade on what was his hometown team, but mostly did so anonymously. Fans remember the end of Sandberg’s career, the hitting acumen of Mark Grace, the strong-armed Shawon Dunston, the superstar that was Sammy Sosa, and the rise of Kerry Wood. Foster remains an ancillary member of the decade to the general fan base, but to me he’s an irreplaceable member of the 1990’s Cub teams.
Players are easily lost with time. This is particularly true for those whose careers were perpetually on the fringes. Kevin Foster is memorable because he provided my sister — and, in turn, my family — with a special moment. It stands to reason he brought joy to many, many others, simply for being a gracious ballplayer.
Two-and-a-half decades later, my sister’s moment of joy still radiates within my family.