Some 30-year-olds we know still take their baseball mitts to the ball game. Hope springs eternal. The odds of catching a foul ball are, of course, infinitesimal, even for a six- footer with a long arm. Which makes it even more inspiring to see kids enter the stadium gloved and eager, certain that today will be the day they nab a souvenir to be cherished for a lifetime.

Even more remote than a fan's chances of snaring a stray ball is the possibility that he will be injured by one. But this, too, happens, and with increasing frequency it has led to lawsuits. According to the National Law Journal, the recent jury award of $180,000 to a woman hit by a stray ball at the Houston Astrodome was the first of its kind. But similar cases are pending in courts in California and the state of Washington. Until recently, such lawsuits would have been hard to win because courts traditionally held that fans assumed certain risks when attending a ball game, and the possibility of being beaned once in a blue moon was one of them. Now, major league clubs are taking care to warn fans that foul line drives can be dangerous. The Baltimore Orioles, who already use a ticket disclaimer and a scoreboard warning, will soon begin to post signs all around the stadium.

The best protection for ball clubs seeking to avoid negligence suits would be to provide screening completely around the field. That would also prevent the occasional missile from being hurled from the stands. But the cost to the fans would be great. No one wants to sit inside a cage watching a game.

And then there's the hardy band that always hopes for something more. Orioles official Jack Dunn speaks for them: "One of the biggest reasons people want seats in the front row near first and third base is that they fancy themselves first or third basemen. They bring their gloves. The interference would take away their pleasure." And their dreams of glory. And their chance to tell their grandchildren about the day they caught Eddie Murray's line drive.

It's a specator sport, but the stands are full of would-be participants. There are risks in reaching for the trophy, but most fans would rather take them than sit protected but remote from that thrill and that prize.