The crack of the bat tells them when a ball is coming over. When it happens, it's fast. Bodies engaged in horseplay one second switch instantly into retrieval mode.
"There he go!" someone yells. All eyes turn to the sky to follow the prize to its landing. The first ball over hits the Forbidden Zone, landing somewhere among the military trucks parked in the National Armory lot.
Reluctance to trespass stops most, but not all. An older boys shoots through a gap in the gate. One of the younger boys is fast behind him, but not fast enough.
"Nigga you crazy!" one of his his comrades shouts. "You going to jail for a damn ball!"
The older boy makes his way back through the gap. Unscathed and unarrested, he lays his victory on the grass in front of the sidewalk.
"Ya'll just might as well back your stuff and go home," he says. "You ain't getting nothing today."
To these kids, the balls are not souvenirs. They are moneymaking propositions.
Balancing three or more of the red-stitched spheres between splayed brown fingers, the ball sellers call out to the patrons:
"Baseballs! Two dollars!"
A business franchise couldn't be more streamlined. There is no investment, no overhead. Inventory is free, consisting only of balls sent over the stadium walls during a game or batting practice.
Competition, however, is fierce. At times there are nearly 20 kids scrambling for the same sky-rocketed ball.
Sales begin when the first cars pull into the dirt lot next to the Jack Russell Stadium. On bikes or on foot, they carry baseballs in backpacks or stuffed in old tube socks.
The young entrepreneurs hail mainly from the Greenwood housing complex across the street. Though there are occasional adults, most are 9 to 16 years old. Nine is the average age of most of the "rookies," kids brought in by the Greenwood tradition, which is as old as the stadium itself.
Rookies don't get many balls with older kids around, not that they try very hard. Rookies are teased, taunted, poked and punched by the older boys. Sometimes they feign a return punch or mumble an insult. Mostly, they are learning how to hang out.
All are African-American.
There are plenty of kids inside the stadium as well, the same age range as the ball sellers. They come with their parents or in their Little League uniforms with their teams. They wear their baseball gloves in case a foul comes their way, but they haven't got a chance against the ball sellers.
Inside, nearly all of the kids are white. Their parents are the ball sellers' best customers.
Prices range from $1 to $5 depending on the ball's condition. A new ball from a sports store can run anywhere from 99 cents to $9, but it isn't an official baseball, one hit by the bat of a professional baseball player, maybe even a star. It's the law of supply and demand.
Once the game begins, the ball sellers abandon their sales pitches and head to the north side of the stadium. That's where most of the fouls appear. Sitting on the curb or leaning against the National Armory parking lot fence, the ball sellers wait.
Until a ball comes over, they are young boys hanging out. They tell jokes, call each other mean names for fun. They discuss the news of the neighborhood. They borrow each other's bikes for Doritos and root beer runs up to the C & C convenience store. However, there are no business partnerships. Once the ball leaves the stadium, "it's every man for himself," says Chuck, 15.
Inside the fence, a Legendary Ball Seller appears.
"Hey!" Chuck calls to the boy inside the fence. "You too pretty to catch balls with us?"
The boy he calls to is one of the fastest kids ever to catch fouls, Chuck explains. "Ain't nobody get balls when he's out here."
The Legend comes outside to demonstrate his ability. A telling crack, followed by the crowd's cheer, sends the Legend out of his rubber sandals and down the street in his socks, yards ahead of anybody. The ball, however, hits the tin roof the the stadium and rolls back in.
It doesn't matter, explains the Legend. He doesn't need to catch balls anymore. He used to be a bat boy, he claims. He also says he's close friends with the Phillies owner.
"Bitch be lyin" mumbles a rookie.
"Bet he not!" says another.
"Then what he look like?" the first rookie challenges the Legend.
"I don't got to say what he look like, he the owner of the Phillies!"
Bored with the small-timers, the Legend heads back to the stadium. "Lefty at bat!" he shouts to the kids left on the curb.
The Legend's heads-up sends most of the kids to a traffic island northeast of the stadium, where lefties usually foul. The regrouping attracts the attention of three police officers.
"Dang! What we done? A murder?" snaps one boy lounging on the grass.
Unintimidated, Chuck rides his bike over to check out the action. "Think you could catch me if I was runnin'?" Chuck asks the youngest officer.
"Fifteen years older and with 20 pounds of equipment on me, I don't think so," answers the youngest officer. "But this could outrun you," he says, holding up his walkie-talkie.
"Oh," replies Chuck. "Wanna buy a baseball?"
The cop laughs and shakes his head.
There are other more willing customers. A sunburned dad and his toddler son, both in matching red Phillies baseball caps, dodge a car to cross the road.
"Would you like a ball?" the dad asks. The little boy nods his head. A sale is made.