ACTOR CHARLIE Sheen seems to have outdone even himself. During the trial of Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss, you may recall, it came out that Sheen was one of Fleiss's frequent customers, spending thousands of dollars on the madam's call girls. Now he has found more wholesome outlets for his money.

For a Detroit Tigers-California Angels game last month in Anaheim Stadium, the actor bought up 2,615 tickets -- basically the first 20 rows of seats behind the left field fence. Thus, explained the star of the baseball comedy "Major League," he and three friends could get any home run balls hit their way without interference from other fans.

"I didn't want to crawl over the paying public," Sheen told Sports Illustrated. "I wanted to avoid the violence."

This quest to catch a genuine major league baseball cost Sheen the sum of $6,500, the magazine reported, and it went for naught: Despite ridiculously stacking the odds, the actor and his pals struck out. No home run was hit in their direction.

Which was the way it should have been. What Sheen doesn't seem to understand is that one does not finagle his way into capturing a ball batted into the stands. You can't fake it. You can't buy it. Privilege and money mean nothing. You earn it, and indeed, catching a major league baseball remains one of the few pure acts in America.

I should know. For the last 40 years I have attended major and minor league games -- the total must surely approach 500 -- and, quite regrettably, I have yet to catch a ball. I've been to games from Louisville to Los Angeles, and have watched the sun set over the Canadian Rockies while attending a Pacific Coast League playoff game in Calgary. This summer, I will shuttle between minor league games in Bowie and major league ones in Baltimore, not bringing a glove as I did as a kid, but still yearning to grab one of those flying pieces of horsehide.

Now my anticipation is joined by that of my two sons, ages 9 and 6. Every game we attend, they bring their gloves. Invariably, the question comes up: Will Dad's dismal streak finally end?

The closest I came was five years ago, while attending an Orioles game at Memorial Stadium with some friends. We were seated behind the dugout at first base when a player hit a high pop foul in our direction. As the ball neared, tantalizingly close to me on its descent, I thought of shoving the guy next to me out of the way. I didn't, and couldn't: Richard was a friend, and perhaps more critically, it was his company's box seats in which we were sitting. So I held back and he grabbed the foul ball, beaming magnanimously while nearby fans applauded. He might have even bowed from the waist.

The next year, I was attending a minor league game in Frederick,, where the seats are closer to the field. A hard line drive was fouled directly toward my family's seats behind third base. I had a chance, a good one, but it meant tossing my younger son, then 2 1/2, off my lap and to the ground. That might have gotten me on the nightly news, but it surely would not have ingratiated me with my wife or young Nick. My older son did not see it this way: It took lots of time to explain why I had chosen family over flying baseballs. Then there was the time at a Washington Senators game in the mid-'60s when I was bringing a tray of food and drinks back to my seat. Suddenly a foul ball came screaming toward me. For a second I thought of ditching the food. The issue was made moot when a couple of dozen fans knocked me over in their pursuit of the same prize.

I learned two lessons that day. One was that people can get mean when they want a foul ball. They grab, they push, they punch -- I've seen more scuffles than I can name. The other lesson is that these balls are moving fast, and they can hurt. I've seen fans knocked out by line drives to the head, or fingers broken when a hand goes up for a ball rocketing past. Occasionally someone will realize this potential for injury at the last second and suddenly shrink away, as if: "My God! What was I thinking?"

So yeah, Mr. Big Shot Charlie Sheen, we all want to get a foul ball or a home run ball. It's one of the coolest things you can do, even if you're not lucky enough to make a great catch at the Orioles' Camden Yards and hear the announcer intone, "Give that fan a contract." It's enough to know that the guys at work might have seen you on TV as you stretched magnificently for that foul ball around the right field railing.

It's a modest achievement, but noteworthy nonetheless, and no one blames a fan if he gets a little excited. Just don't get carried away. Proper etiquette requires holding the ball up for all to see, then sitting down. Some fans will whoop and holler and make a complete spectacle of themselves. Remember that you've caught a foul ball, not deciphered the Rosetta Stone.

A few weeks ago, my older son and I attended an Orioles game. Incredibly, as we were at the concession stand, a fellow came up, explained he had to leave the game early, and offered us his two box seats. First base line, second row. Since we were sitting in the bleachers, we accepted eagerly.

When we got to our new seats, every bit as good as advertised, more serendipitous fortune awaited. The guy next to us gave my son, Matthew, a ball he had caught -- a foul hit by the Orioles' Brady Anderson. This was, needless to say, Matthew's first foul ball, and he was thrilled beyond description. But, he asked, should he tell people we had caught it ourselves?

I paused for only a second. "You can't do that," I answered. "I've waited 40 years. I can wait a little more."

Matthew nodded in understanding and turned back to the game. Some basic truths just don't need explanation. Hollywood may never comprehend it, but out here in the stands, we believe in traditional values. Tim Warren is a writer in Washington.