April 2005

4/29/05 at Yankee Stadium

A-Rod is useless. For two straight days, he didn’t pull a single ball in batting practice. Right field, up the middle, right field, up the middle…my lord. Sheffield let me down, too. He was hitting when I first reached the left field seats, and since I was the first fan to enter the stadium, I had the whole place to myself. What does he do? He drives the first pitch I see to the wall in left-center.
“PULL IT!!!” I yelled. I knew I wouldn’t be alone much longer.

He yanked a grounder down the 3rd base line.

“ELEVATE!!!” I shouted. The security guards started looking at me funny.

I was still alone out there. All he had to do was hit one ball into the seats, anywhere in the seats, even 100 feet away, and I would’ve had it. But no. He couldn’t do that for me, and left field filled up, and I still didn’t have a ball, and I got nervous. Not freak-out nervous, but enough to make me sweat a little.

Good thing I have a piece of string tied to my glove. Tino Martinez sliced a one-hopper into that obnoxious protective netting down the 3rd base line, and the ball trickled five feet away from the base of the very low wall. I raced over there from left field, worked my way into the front row, let out a couple feet of string, swung the glove out, pulled it back just as it touched the top of the ball, and leaned over to grab it as it rolled toward me. Twenty minutes later, I did the same thing. I don’t remember how the second ball got there—and I don’t know the source of my third ball either. I got it out in straight-away LF courtesy of the glove trick. Of course, just as I started lowering my glove, someone on the Blue Jays hit a home run right where I’d been standing 20 seconds earlier. I’m telling you. I seriously think I’m unlucky. But I don’t need luck when my insurance policy (string) brings me seven extra balls in two days.

ArodsI was annoyed after missing that homer because Toronto wasn’t hitting anything. A few Yankees had put balls out, and I came close. At one point, I found myself on the ground, scrambling for one that fell a row short and got bobbled, but no luck. As for the Jays, they were like a whole team of A-Rods. BP was frustrating. I couldn’t even ask the pitchers for balls because they were wearing warmup jackets over their uniform numbers and, outside of the few veterans, I couldn’t identify any of them. Dave Bush? Vinnie Chulk? Justin Speier? Jason Frasor? Josh Towers? Please. They’re a bunch of cookie-cutter white guys who belong in Triple-A.

Ted Lilly signed my ticket stub, and I headed out to right field for the start of the game, not in fair territory but just foul of the pole, right behind the main aisle. I wanted to sit much closer to home plate, but it was another big crowd (40,839), so I waited for the late-comers to file in before I made my move. Once I made the move, there weren’t any seats, so I went back to my original spot. In the 5th inning, Derek Jeter sliced a long foul in my direction…right in my direction. I jumped out of my seat, rushed to middle of the aisle, had it all lined up, waited, waited, and watched helplessly as it sailed three rows over my head. Nothing else came close, but at least I saw a great game. Roy Halladay and Randy Johnson both went the distance and wrapped it up in just two hours and eight minutes. Final score: Blue Jays 2, Yankees 0.

By the bottom of the 9th, I’d made my way to the 3rd base side. As soon as A-Rod ended the game by grounding out to short (he should’ve been working on pulling the ball to me during BP), most of the fans behind the Jays’ dugout started walking up the steps, and I forced my way down. I said “excuse me” at least ten times and got several annoyed looks along the way, but that’s to be expected. These people had no idea that the row behind the winning team’s dugout is THE place to be as soon as the game ends. Back in the early 90s, I had no idea either, but then one day it occurred to me: all these players are coming off the field after having recorded the final out…someone’s gotta have the ball.

And someone usually does. In this case, all the players and coaches left the field without tossing anything into the crowd (I was afraid that Halladay would keep his precious shutout ball), but I stuck around, knowing that anything could happen, and moments later, out of nowhere, someone inside the dugout tossed four balls—two bunches of two—onto the concrete roof. Two of the balls were too far to the side for me to reach. The other two collided, sending one off the far edge of the roof and back into the dugout. The other rolled my way. There were still a few other fans next to me, so I dove forward and reached out and belly-flopped and grabbed it with my glove before anyone could snatch it. That was my fourth ball of the day, and I stuck around. You never know. Then, just as security was telling Energybar_1me it was time to leave, a ballboy poked his head out of the dugout. I asked for a ball, and he tossed me a Gatorade energy bar instead. (That’s a first.) Peanut Butter Crunch flavor…15 grams of protein…fuel for peak performance. It sent me home happy.

Stats time!
2,451 total balls
386 consecutive games with at least one ball
5.0 balls (and 0.25 energy bars) per game this season

I’m working both days this weekend, and I have lots of other stuff going on, and I’m glad. Yankee Stadium is draining. I can use a break. Next game? Probably Monday at Shea.

4/28/05 at Yankee Stadium

The cheapest seat at Yankee Stadium (not counting the bleachers) costs $20. That might not seem like a lot if you’re used to seeing the opera, but for baseball, it’s absurd. At just about any other ballpark, you can get in for a lot less. The Yankees do, however, have ten games each season at which the “Tier Reserved” (euphemism for ‘crappy’) seats cost just five bucks. It’s a great deal, and that’s why I stay away. Too many people.
4c_lhead_3Yesterday just happened to be one of those ten games. Of course I didn’t realize it until after I got off the #4 train at 161st Street, walked halfway around the stadium, and saw a sign on the ticket window that said: “All $5 Tier Reserved seats are SOLD OUT for tonight’s game.”

That was very not good. Not only would the place be packed, but I wouldn’t get a discount for dealing with it.

“So, how much IS the cheapest non-bleacher seat available?” I asked.

“Forty-five dollars,” said the guy.

“What?! Are you joking?! Tell me you’re not serious.”

“I’m not joking, sir. It’s forty-five dollars.”

I walked away in shock. Forty-five bucks?! For what, maybe three or four balls? I found a pay phone (because I don’t have a cell phone, haha) and left a message for Ben: don’t come.

I didn’t know what to do. Forty-five bucks was a lot to spend for game at a place I’d been to over 150 times. But it was also silly, I realized, to schlep all the way out to the Bronx and NOT see a game.

I wandered a bit and tried to find someone with an extra ticket. No luck. It was two and a half hours before gametime. There just weren’t that many people, so I headed back to the ticket window and pleaded with the guy. (“I’m sorry, sir, there’s nothing I can do.”) I played dumb. (“I know, sir, but there’s nothing I can do.”) I asked him how I could’ve found out that it was a five-dollar game. (“Those dates are listed on the back of the schedule.”) I asked him if there was any chance that an individual seat had been released in the system. (“Hold on, let me check.”) He started punching away at his keyboard…and studying his screen…and typing some more…and suddenly told me that he’d just found one five-dollar seat left and did I want it. Did I want it?! I slapped down my Lincoln, ran to the pay phone, called Ben, and told him to disregard the last message. If there was one seat now, there’d probably be another one later, and even if there wasn’t, there’d be so many people outside the ballpark at gametime (Ben was coming from work) that he’d be able to find an extra ticket from someone.

Gate 2 opened at 5:05pm, and I was the first one in. Hideki Matsui was in left field. I called to him. He looked up, then tossed the ball back toward the infield and left soon after to take his cuts. So much for that. I was still in the front row–not a good place to be because most home runs land several rows back–when Gary Sheffield rocketed a line drive in my direction. It was going to land well in front of me. Would it bounce high enough off the grass for me to reach down over the eight-foot wall and grab it? Yes! Ball #1 was in my glove, and my consecutive games streak was safe at 385.

I’d forgotten how much I missed Yankee Stadium. I hadn’t been there since July. My previous 163 balls had all come at Shea.

But there was no time for sentimentality. Sheffield was still up and peppering the empty left field seats with balls–and I was still putting away the first one when a line drive whacked a seat five feet away and ricocheted back onto the field. Dammit. I was too slow. If only I had a personal assistant to follow Sheffieldfuturestarme around and hold the baseballs and write down the details behind each one. It’s hard to catch balls and document them at the same time. Ten seconds later, Sheff launched another home run that landed right at my regular spot, several rows back in the main aisle. But I wasn’t there! Dammit! I had lingered in the front row, and it cost me.

Fans were already filing in. I hurried back to the aisle, and Sheff crushed a deep fly ball to my right. I sprinted toward the foul pole. The ball sailed 30 feet over my head and plunked down in an empty section. Some other guy was racing toward it from the side. I bolted up the steps and cut across the section three rows below the spot where I’d seen it land–the seatbacks on the field level are several inches above the concrete, and balls roll fast. This one was rolling really fast and scooted past me as I reached it. Another guy was coming up the steps. He was almost there, so I dove headfirst over the row of seats below me and grabbed the ball, inches from his outstretched hand.

I love Yankee Stadium.

Over the next half hour, I got three balls with my glove trick, much to the delight of the fans who were packed along the front row. The first was a random grounder that trickled into the LF corner and waited patiently for my arrival. The second was thrown to some fans by my guy Jarrod Washburn, but they clobbered each other and dropped it. (Do I count that as a thrown ball? Do I give Washburn credit on my list? It’s a tough call…and I decided against it.) The third was lobbed to me by Kevin Gregg, and all the jostling from my fellow fans made me drop it. I don’t mind the contact, as long as people keep their elbows to themselves and don’t shove. I happen to be VERY careful not to bump into anyone. People often ask me if I’ve knocked over little kids. “Crush babies,” I joke, but the answer is no.

My normal BP spot is about 370 feet from home plate in straight-away left field–great for righties but terrible for lefties–so I reposition myself accordingly if there’s time. If there are several lefties in a row, I barely have enough time to run through the narrow rows of seats and dodge all the fans who stand around aimlessly and make it to the shallow LF foul line in time for a few swings. Then, of course, I have to hurry back for the righties. (This is why I don’t need to join a gym.) I should’ve been more aggressive with this strategy yesterday. Once it got crowded, I didn’t feel like running back and forth and missing any of Vladimir Guerrero’s powerful right-handed swings, and it cost me. Chone Figgins hit several balls right where I would’ve been. I might have uttered a few bad words at the time (I don’t remember) and vowed to run around and get as sweaty as I had to for the next group of hitters, which included a couple of lefties: Dallas McPherson and Darin Erstad. As soon as they came up, I did the back-and-forth shuffle, and it paid off. One of those guys–I’m pretty sure it was Erstad–lofted a foul ball right to me. There were some gloveless fans reaching up in front of me, and I wasn’t about to field their deflection with my nose, so I hung back and prepared for a basket catch. They didn’t touch the ball, and I caught it easily.

Toward the end of BP, I had another chance to use my glove trick. The fans standing over the ball stepped aside to let me take a shot at it and watched closely as I set up the rubber band and magic marker and lowered the glove until it gently enveloped the ball. THWAP!!! Another ball came flying out of nowhere and slammed the padded wall below. I looked up and saw Paul Byrd heading my way. He’d thrown it to knock the ball out of my glove. Sorry, Mister Control Pitcher, not this time. I quickly raised my contraption, ball nestled safely inside, before he could reach me.

ZackalertsignI got Jeff DaVanon’s autograph on my ticket stub, met Ben near the foul pole (he had to pay some guy $20 to get in), and headed to right field. The place was packed. Even the worst section in the upper deck was filling up. It was one of those nights. We couldn’t find perfect home run seats, but we came close–and I came really close to catching one. In the bottom of the 1st, Matsui hit a deep fly ball right toward me, and I was in perfect position to catch it, but it fell five feet short of the wall. And that was the only time my heart raced all night. So much for Brown and Lackey being lousy. No home runs. Final score: Angels 3, Yankees 1.

I ended the day with seven. That makes it 2,447 overall and raises my season average to 5.3 balls per game. Not bad, not great, but I’m happy. Even though I wasted several chances and cost myself a legitimate shot at double digits, I hadn’t snagged this many balls at Yankee Stadium since April 14, 1996.

The attendance was 51,951. That’s way too many people for me to have to deal with, and I might be doing it again tonight. I’m about to run out the door to see Roy Halladay take on Randy Johnson. Seems like it oughta be a pitchers’ duel, so forget chasing home runs. The Jays’ lineup might not have a single lefty, so I’ll probably sit on the 1st base side of home plate…if there’s an empty seat.

Yankee Stadium, here I come…

One way to increase your chances of catching a foul ball is to pick a section and stick with it all day, all week, all month, all season, all decade. As long as you’re not trapped in some ridiculously bad spot like the last row of the bleachers or a seat underneath the protective netting, someone will eventually hit a ball there.
Of course, I don’t want a spot that simply isn’t bad. I want to sit in THE best seat to catch one, but the problem with Yankee Stadium is that there isn’t a prime spot (not counting the luxury suites behind home plate where old men in suits scoop foul tips off the screen with gigantic fishnets). So I end up wandering around, ignoring logic and probability and my own advice.

I’m leaving for Yankee Stadium in half an hour, and I have no idea where I’m going to sit. Since tonight’s starting pitchers–John Lackey and Kevin Brown–are both right-handed and have a combined ERA of 14.89, my first choice is the first row behind the right field wall. With all the powerful lefties and switch-hitters batting lefty in both lineups (Darin Erstad, Garret Anderson, Steve Finley, Dallas McPherson, Bernie Williams, Hideki Matsui, Juicin’ Giambi, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez), there’s a good chance that there will be a few homers in that direction. In addition, the porch is so shallow (314 feet down the line) that righties can easily poke the ball there, too.

If I can’t find a spot in RF, I’ll probably sit in the first row behind the main aisle between home plate and 3rd base. I’ll have to deal with fans and vendors and security guards walking in front of me and blocking my view all night, but it’s worth it to have a chance at a few pop fouls.

Boisehawksjarrodwashburn2And if I can’t sit there, I’ll head out to left field and look for some room. That’s where I’ll be for BP, and I’m really looking forward to it because Yankee Stadium is now opening TWO hours early on week nights for the first time. This means I’ll get 80 minutes of BP instead of 50, and I’ll see the Yankees on the field for a substantial chunk of time. I hope Matsui will be out there. I’d love to get a ball from him. And when the Angels take the field, I’m going to try hard to get one from Jarrod Washburn. In 1995, he played for the Boise Hawks when I was there as a groundskeeper/ticket-seller between high school and college, and I got to know him a little bit. I’ve wanted a ball from him ever since. Other than that, I don’t care where tonight’s balls come from, but I’d like to get at least four. That’s one more than I’ve averaged over the years in the Bronx…but with the extra half hour, maybe I can go crazy and get six.

Normally, I refuse to go to games with people because they get bored during batting practice and aren’t willing to move around during the game–and even if they are willing to move, it’s harder to find two empty seats than one. But I’m meeting a friend there tonight. His name is Ben. I met him two years ago when I placed an ad on craigslist to find a baseball friend. He doesn’t collect balls. He probably thinks I’m a nutjob. But he gets it. (And he hits good fungoes, too.)

Attendance

After reading last night’s Mets-Braves box score and discovering that the attendance was only 31,511, I’ve decided to disown the Mets ticket window people as my friends. They’d told me the day before that the big Smoltz-Pedro rematch would be sold out–and I stupidly believed them and stayed away and cost myself at least four or five balls. Damn them. And damn me. What was I thinking? Shea Stadium Cyyoung_1Wjohnson_1on a chilly week night in April? That place wouldn’t sell out for Cy Young and Walter Johnson. But I shouldn’t complain. I’m lucky that the Mets are lousy and play in a barn. Even though I was raised as a Mets fan, it didn’t bother me when they lost, at least not after 1992 when I started attending games regularly, because I realized that fewer wins meant fewer fans, and fewer fans meant more balls. (I’m an only child. I never had to share. How’d I become so selfish?) Before long, I was actually rooting against them, and I quickly stopped calling myself a Mets fan. Now I don’t have a favorite team. I root for individual players, and I’m a fan of the game. It’s better this way. I can root for anyone anytime and not feel guilty. Take Greg Maddux. I’ve loved the guy since 1988. Even then, it didn’t feel right to root against him just because he was facing the Mets–and yet it hurt to root for him because I hated (and still hate) the Braves…although they’ve always been generous with their baseballs, so maybe I should get over it.
The Yankees, meanwhile, were also home last night and drew 36,328 for a not-particularly-special matchup against that team from California with a ridiculous name. That makes me nervous. Even back in the early 90s when the Yanks were drawing 14,000 fans a night, left field would fill up with people waiting to see Monument Park ten minutes after the gates opened. Now, with the Yankees drawing almost four million fans per season, left field is packed within five. No joke. The window of time for getting baseballs is minuscule. Someday though, hopefully within my lifetime, every person in the world will have seen Monument Park.

As tough as Yankee Stadium is, I can’t wait to get back. Tonight, I’m seeing my half-brother play in one of his many bands in the East Village, but tomorrow night I’ll be there.

4/25/05 at Shea Stadium

A few years ago, the Mets added two rows of fancy blue seats just off the foul lines, and unless your name is God, you can’t sit there–not even two and a half hours before gametime when there are eleven other fans in the entire stadium.

Most ushers will, however, briefly let you down there for a ball or an autograph. But then you have to leave. And replace the chain on your way out.

Yesterday, I had to deal with an usher who not only refused to let anyone down there (not even little kids when Tim Hudson was signing), but remembered me from my last game and decided it would be fun to go out of his way to prevent me from getting balls.

Whatever. It’s nothing new for Shea. I can take it. And I still got four balls. One was thrown by Victor Zambrano. Another was a Chris Woodward grounder that I managed to snag when the usher was busy scolding someone else. The third was tossed by Brian Jordan after batting practice at the Braves dugout. The last was the most fun of all.

But first, a little story.

When I was eight, I saw a fan on TV using a fishing pole to lower an empty soup can over a ball that was sitting out of his reach on the field below. The can descended…slowly…slowly…until it dropped over the ball, and when the guy lifted it, the ball was gone. Poof! Just like that. I couldn’t believe it, and the memory stuck. Six years later, I started attending games regularly and began to drool over all the BP balls that rolled to the left field corner at Yankee Stadium. I tried to make my own can, but it was clunky and rarely worked when I practiced with it at home. (My parents must have really been worrying about me.) I brought it to one game in ’92, but BP was wiped out by a last-minute thunderstorm and I gave up on the idea. The following season, inspiration struck. Instead of a can with sharp edges and three-pound dumbbells tied to the top, all I needed was my glove, a rubber band, a pen, and some string. I practiced in my room, and the thing worked. It was easy to set up and didn’t require materials that might be confiscated. I started getting more baseballs than ever. Fans always asked how I did it. Players often came over for a look. And this is what they all wanted to know:

glovetrickmaterials.jpg1) The materials: glove, pen, rubber band, string. Tie the string to the handle of your glove and keep it tucked away in the palm when you’re not using it. It’s a bit uncomfortable at first, but you’ll get used to it.

glovetrickflap.jpg

2) Hook the band under the flap on the outside of your glove’s pocket. (If there’s no flap, you have two choices: improvise or get a new glove.)

glovetrickassembled.jpg3) Stretch the band over the tip of your glove and prop the glove open with the pen. (Without the pen, the glove won’t stay open. When you have it all set up, the space between the band and the tip of the glove needs to be slightly smaller than the ball.)

glovetricklowered.jpg

4) Lower your glove over the ball. (The glove’s weight forces the band to stretch around the ball. But first make sure that the band is not too tight or the ball won’t go in…or too loose or the ball won’t stay in. This takes practice.)

glovetrickfrombelow.jpg

5) It’s a very delicate operation. Lift the glove slowly so the ball doesn’t fall out. (This is the view from below, complete with the ceiling light in the hallway outside my apartment. Notice how the band has stretched back to hold the ball in place.)

A few years ago, Rick Reilly named this trick the “ZackTrap” in a story for Sports Illustrated, and Rosie O’Donnell had me perform it live on her show. Good times, yes, but I’ve also gotten a few lectures along the way from stadium security. Some ballparks don’t allow these kinds of contraptions, some have no problem with them, and a few fall somewhere in the middle. (In Oakland, for example, you can fish for balls behind the outfield walls, but you can’t pluck them off the field.) It’s hard to keep track of the rules, especially when they vary from one usher to the next, so be careful and respectful and ask for permission first. Anyway, this is how I got my final ball of the day…with permission from Mets coach Jerry Manuel.

At some point in the middle of BP, a young couple with two children wandered down to my already crowded section. The father had a glove and immediately asked me to identify all the players. I asked if this was his first Mets game of the year. “This is my first Mets game ever,” he said. “I’m dying to get a ball for my kids.” I told him he wasn’t standing in the right spot, that he should move to a section where there was less competition, where he’d be more visible, where the players would see his kids, where there’d be a better chance of a ball being thrown rather than being hit. I suggested the far end of the field level, all the way out by the left field foul pole where there were a few empty rows. He thanked me, gathered his family, and headed that way. Three minutes later, I saw a player toss him a ball. His kids started jumping all over the place. He looked back at me and pumped his fist–and he got another ball before BP ended.

I found a good seat in the Loge, but like I said, I had to be at work at 9pm, so I left in the middle of the second inning. Just as well. It was going to be a lousy night for foul tips. Horacio Ramirez’s fastball–if you can call it that–topped out at 86mph in the bottom of the 1st, and that’s not exactly going to make too many major leaguers swing late.

Lifetime ball total: 2,440
Consecutive games with at least one ball: 384
This season’s balls-per-game average: 4.5
And I DID get Hudson’s autograph, by the way.

After all my buildup over Smoltz and Pedro, I decided to skip today’s game because my friends in the ticket office told me yesterday that they’d already sold 40,000 seats and expected the walk-up sales to make it a sellout. I don’t do big crowds. It’s no coincidence that the average attendance at my two games this season is about 17,000. Of course, that’ll change soon because I’m planning to go to Yankee Stadium on Thursday and Friday.

The one-inning game

You might get sick of hearing me talk about the weather, but I can’t help it. That’s what’s on my mind at 3:24am because the city is still a bit damp, and I’m planning to head to Shea in 12 hours.

Rain can actually be a good thing, even though it cancels batting practice. The crowds are smaller, stadium security loosens up a bit, and the players become more fan-friendly. They’re more likely to come over and talk to you or sign an autograph or reward you with a baseball—especially a wet baseball—for standing out in the rain like a putz.

If it rains in the next 12 hours, I’m not going. It turns out that I have to be at work at 9pm, so if I go to the game, I’ll have to leave after the 1st inning. That might sound crazy, but it doesn’t really bother me, as long as the weather’s nice and I get my hour and a half of BP. That’s when I catch most of my balls anyway.

I’d never leave a game early if I didn’t have to, but when I’m stuck with other evening plans, I’d rather show up for BP and get a few balls and leave early than not show up at all. TonywomackI only do this at Shea. Yankee Stadium? Forget it. It’s too expensive, too crowded, and opens too late (two hours before gametime) to make a BP-only outing worthwhile. Plus, the Yankees are more fun to watch. Seems like everyone in the starting lineup is a future Hall of Famer (except Womack, but he and I both went to Guilford College, so I love the guy). It would be too frustrating to walk out of that place.

But later today at Shea? Horacio Ramirez and Aaron Heilman? Whatever. I’m hoping I can make it back tomorrow and stick around for the whole game. Smoltz vs. Pedro, baby. Those guys can bring it. It’s gonna be foul tip heaven.

Getting ready for the Braves

I wasn’t kidding when I said my average bedtime is 6am. Last night, I went to bed so late that I would’ve gotten just 75 minutes of sleep had I gone to Shea today. I still wish I could’ve been there, but I’ve been preparing for future ball-snagging. Instead of watching the The Unit mow down the Rangers on YES, I chose the less exciting Phillies-Braves game on TBS because the Braves are coming to Shea tomorrow, and I plan to be there.
BirthbeggingdogI don’t know the exact percentage, but I’d say that nearly half my baseballs have been thrown to me by players and coaches. (Some people tell me those balls shouldn’t count. I say, “Okay, then don’t count them in your collection.”) Getting those balls starts with being able to identify the players. If you’re really young or exceptionally cute, you can get balls without knowing anyone’s name. Just beg or flirt or wave or scream and good things will happen. Unfortunately, I’m not young or cute (at least not in the way that interests most players), so I don’t get charity balls. Whenever I want to get a player’s attention, I need to shout his name. “Hey you!” or “Number forty-threeeeee” or “But it’s my birthday” just won’t cut it.

Before every game I attend, I visit both teams’ web sites (www.braves.mlb.com, for example), print their rosters, check out the photos of players I know I won’t be able to recognize, and make notes: this guy’s a lefty, that guy has a skinny face, so-and-so looks like the kid who bullied me in 7th grade, etc. It helps me figure out who’s who, especially on colder days when players wear nameless/numberless warmup jackets over their jerseys.

I try to avoid IDing guys solely by their facial hair. What if they shaved since spring training? Now that I finally have cable, I don’t have to worry. I can flip on TBS and confirm that Dan Kolb does, indeed, still have the goatee.

I’m jinxed

Weather.com was right, and I had a very productive afternoon. I slept late, stayed home, read yesterday’s box scores, ate a banana, neglected my e-mails, did some pushups and crunches, flipped back and forth between the Mets and Yankees games, and cursed the TV when Kevin Mench homered to left because the ball landed RIGHT where I always sit. Of course, when I’m actually sitting there, nothing comes my way. Sometimes I really think I’m jinxed.

Weekend issues

It’s great to live in a city with two major league teams. Shea and Yankee Stadium are both less than ten miles away from my teeny apartment on the Upper West Side. With a $2 swipe of my MetroCard, I can reach either in under an hour.

Conveniently, the Mets are usually home when the Yankees are on the road, and vice versa. In other words, there’s a ballgame in this town almost every night. If I had fewer friends and fewer hobbies and didn’t have to work (as was the case a decade ago), I’d see 160 games a year.

Both teams are playing at home this weekend at the same times: under the lights tonight followed by afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday. If there were two of me, and if both me’s didn’t have other issues, I/we would go to all six games.

What issues?

1) I have to work tonight.

2) Weather.com says there’s a 90% chance it’ll rain tomorrow. 11Wet weather means no batting practice. No batting practice means more begging and fewer balls—until gametime, I’d only be able to get balls thrown to me.

3) Tomorrow happens to be Kids’ T-Shirt day at Shea. I love kids—don’t get me wrong—but when 20,000 of them show up and start shrieking for balls, I don’t have much of a chance.

4) Even if the weather would be perfect, and even if there wouldn’t be any kids, I wouldn’t go because most teams skip batting practice when they’re playing a day game after a night time. It didn’t used to be like that. Today’s players need more sleep.

5) Speaking of sleep, Sunday’s Mets game starts at 1:10pm. That means the gates will open at 10:40am. That means I’d have to leave my place by 9:15am. That means I’d have to wake up by 8:30am. My average bedtime these days is 6am. Do the math.

6) Whether it’s kids or grownups, big crowds make my life miserable. Even on week nights, Yankee Stadium is packed. On weekends, it’s a zoo. (September 2, 1993…the last time I didn’t catch at least one ball…weekend game in the Bronx.) Thus, I avoid weekend games at Yankee Stadium.

Looks like my next game will be on Monday.

4/14/05 at Shea Stadium (1st entry)

The last time I went to a major league game and did NOT catch at least one ball was on September 2, 1993. That was 383 games ago, and I still get nervous that I’m going to get shut out.

I probably shouldn’t worry. Over the past decade, I’ve averaged almost six balls per game (including batting practice), so the real issue isn’t whether I’m going to get one, but rather how many I’m going to get. I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but I was annoyed after Doc Gooden’s no-hitter in 1996 because I only snagged one ball that night.

Anyway, April 14th was my first game this season and my goal for the day was to get at least ten balls. I’m usually not that ambitious, but I’d finished 2004 with eight consecutive games in double digits and desperately wanted to keep the improbable streak alive.

I knew it was going to be tough because the stingiest team in the majors–stingy in terms of giving away balls–was in town. Their name: The Houston Astros. How stingy are they? They write a big “H” on all of their practice balls so they can keep track of them. Other teams have tried this for a season or two, but Houston’s done it for as long as I can remember.

The #7 train got me to Shea with nearly half an hour to spare. 7c_lheadI saw the familiar faces behind the ticket windows. I bought the cheapest seat possible. I wandered over to Gate C. I shared off-season anecdotes with fans I hadn’t seen since the fall. And when the gates opened at 4:40pm, we all pushed inside. Shea was still ugly, and it was great to be back.

Most of the early-arriving fans head to the dugouts for autographs. The rest usually cluster in the right field corner where the Mets warm up. I headed toward left and didn’t stop running until I reached the first row by the foul line, and before I caught my breath, Roberto Hernandez threw me my first ball of the season.

(insert sigh of relief here)

The first ball of the day is always the best, but the first ball of the season carries some serious weight. I’m always afraid that somehow I will have lost all my ball-snagging prowess over the winter, that every team will turn into the Astros, that stadium security will be stricter, that there will be a new plexiglass partition between the stands and the field, that batting practice will no longer exist. I guess, in a way, I keep expecting my luck to run out. But when Roberto’s toss kissed the pocket of my glove, I knew I was good for at least one more season.

A few fans found their way to left field, but I beat them out for a slicer that landed a couple sections away. Mighta been Jose Reyes, but I have no idea who hit it. Unless the batter’s stance or swing is unique, it’s hard to identify him from 275 feet away when his warmup jacket hides his uniform number.

Ball #3 came from Hernandez again. He was either trying to throw it to the man next to me or the people several rows back, but he missed everyone–proof that the Mets bullpen is in trouble–and the ball plunked down in the empty seats. I hurdled a few railings for that one.

It was only 4:49pm. I was off to a great start. And then my pace died. I swear it wasn’t my fault. The righties just weren’t pulling anything, and I waited half an hour before a hooking liner hit the warning track and skipped right to me.

The Astros pitchers strolled out to left field and started throwing. I was hoping for a ball from Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens. I have a list of the players and coaches who’ve thrown me balls, and those guys would’ve been good additions.

No luck. I had to settle for an “H” from Russ Springer, my fifth ball of the day. HballDan Wheeler saw me catch it and said something to me.

“What?!” I yelled. LaGuardia Airport is like two miles from Shea, and there was a jet flying directly over my section.

He spoke louder. I picked up the inflection in his voice. He was asking me something.

“I still can’t hear you!” I shouted, pointing up.

He looked up, nodded, and walked over. “Aren’t you the guy with the photograph?” he asked.

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said.

Last year, before the Mets traded him, Wheeler began to recognize me because I asked him every day if he wanted to play catch…and because I was always catching balls and running around like a madman during BP. One day he asked me what I do with all the balls. “You must have a hundred of ‘em by now,” he laughed. I took out my wallet and opened up that little flap where the picture of my girlfriend is supposed to be and showed him the bathtub pic. He called Braden Looper over to have a look and later pointed me out to John Franco.

Now he was summoning Springer for a glimpse. It was embarrassing. The guy had just added to my collection. I felt like some third-rate hustler. But it was worth it. I got to talk to a real-life major league baseball player.

I still had five balls when BP ended. I’d come close to a few others, but there were too many fans and too few opportunities. The Astros didn’t take infield/outfield practice or play catch in front of the dugout before the game. I knew my streak was done. And I was freezing.

The attendance was just 17,214, so there were plenty of empty seats. I found one near my favorite foul ball spot behind home plate in the Loge level. I caught two shirts during the Pepsi Party Patrol tee-shirt launch–but no foul balls.

And that was it: five balls and an Andy Pettitte autograph on my ticket stub. 2,436 and counting…

Oh, by the way, the Mets won 4-3.

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