Five days after my 28th birthday, I fulfilled a lifelong dream.

It happened during a visit home to California, during one of my family's annual rites of summer. It turned out to be the high point of my vacation.

Every year since my childhood, my family has gone to see the San Francisco Giants play in Candlestick Park. Every year, we buy beer and hot dogs and a Giants' program. Every year, my dad buys peanuts. Every year, I consider buying a Giants' cap but, now that my brother and I are adults, I always decide against it. Every year, on the day we go to the ball game, the Giants win.

But never before, in all the years we have been going to Candlestick, had anything happened like what happened at 1:45 p.m. on Aug. 28.

We were sitting in an upper-deck box on the third base line. My father, on my left, was berating the first baseman for his sloppy play and praising the deftness of the man at third. My mother, on my right, was concentrating on the batter. I had just reviewed the program, trying to find one Giant whose name I recognized. As fate would have it, my older brother (who taught me how to "throw like a boy" when I was a kid) and his wife had to cancel at the last minute and weren't there.

It was the bottom of the second inning, and my parents and I were just sitting there in our upper- deck box seats finishing a lunch of Candlestick Park Polish dogs and watching the Giants take a quick 2-0 lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Unfortunately, the precise details of the next moment, ones I normally might remember (the count, how many men were out, who was on base, etc.) have been obscured by the excitement of what followed.

All I know for a fact is that Reggie Smith, the left-handed first baseman for the Giants came to the plate, that Pirate pitcher Don Robinson threw a pitch, that Smith swung and that, then -- CRACK -- Smith hit a foul ball, high, very high, up toward the upper-deck stands along the third base line.

I saw it coming. It was coming right to me, my mother, and my father. I was amazed because, believe me, it wasn't one of these foul balls that looks like it's coming straight at you and then, at the last second, ends up landing 200 feet away. No indeed. This foul ball was coming right to us, and there was no doubt about it.

In fact, this baseball, spinning furiously and traveling at an incredibly rapid rate off Reggie Smith's bat, was coming right toward my mother's head.

"Duck, mom." I yelled, as we watched the ball, spinning to the right, grow larger and larger. I stood up, reaching out as far as I could with my right arm. Within a split-second . . . SMACK. A major league baseball was dead center in my palm. My hand, trained by hours of playing "pitch-and-catch" and "running bases" with my brother, wrapped around the ball. Had I caught it? I bobbled it momentarily, but . . .

I couldn't believe it. After 28 years, I caught a foul ball at Candlestick Park.

I examined it carefully. It was the real thing. A leather hardball, made by Rawlings in Haiti (Haiti?), with a "cushioned cork center," were the letters Ro-N. I had no idea what that meant.

As I scrutinized every detail of the ball Reggie Smith hit to me, I realized that nearby fans were applauding my one-handed stab in Box 18 of the upper deck. Then a man came over and pointed to a large crowd of people behind us.

"They'd like you to stand up and take a bow," he said. "C'mon. Stand up and take a bow for them." At first I thought it was a joke. I harked back to my days as "the girl who could throw, bat and field better than any of the boys" and thought to myself, cynically: they're just impressed because a girl caught the ball. But I wanted to be polite, so I compromised. I stood and held the ball up toward the group requesting a bow. They applauded again.

For the next seven innings, I guarded my ball jealously (particularly when, moments after my catch, a group of prepubescent boys took over the row of seats directly behind us). I thought about all those games my family had gone to when my brother and I were kids.

I remembered how my brother and I would bring our gloves to every game, praying that we would catch a foul ball. I remembered how we would stand up in anticipation, gloves outstretched, every time a pitch was fouled off, even if it was hit down the opposite baseline. And I remembered how back then, my brother, father, mother and I knew all the players and their numbers--the greats like Willie Mays (24), Willie McCovey (44), Juan Marichal (27), Orlando "the Baby Bull" Cepeda (41), Felipe Alou (23), Jimmy Davenport (12) and Jim Ray Hart (14). (Besides learning to "throw like a boy," I also spent many hours of my childhood memorizing Giants' batting averages.) And I remembered the thrill of waiting outside the Giants' locker room asking for players' autographs. (I got Willie Mays' on opening day in 1964, and later I got Jesus Alou's, Hal Lanier's and McCovey's).

And I reflected how, since growing up, we had given up so many of those traditions of our childhood: for years, my brother and I have gone to the games barehanded, and no one in my family knows the lineup any more, let alone the players' batting averages.

But I realized later that none of that takes away from the thrill of catching a foul ball. After the game was over (the Giants, in keeping with our family tradition, won 4-2 and broke a six-game losing streak), my parents and I met by brother and his wife for dinner in San Francisco.

"Guess what?" my father announced as he greeted them. "Your sister has fulfilled a lifelong dream."

Apprised of my feat, my brother, stunned, asked to inspect the ball. He stared at it for a moment, cradling it in his hand.

"I wonder where I would have been sitting," he said, looking toward me, smiling.