August 2005

8/30/05 at Shea Stadium

The rain stayed away. I was in shock. And I ended up having a great day.

When Gate C opened at 4:40pm, I ran inside and paused for a moment in the concourse behind home plate. I couldn’t decide whether to go to right or left field. Then I realized that it was stupid to stop and think about it, so I headed to right. Bad choice. It was dead–no balls hit into the seats, nothing thrown by the players, little kids all around–so I ran back toward home plate and out to the left field foul line. The seats there were still mostly empty when Gerald Williams hooked a line drive in my direction. The ball landed about 50 feet short and took a beautiful bounce right into my section. I ran up a few rows and grabbed it as it started to trickle down the steps.

The seats started filling up. The ushers and security guards came out of hiding. The only two people shagging balls in left field were Heath Bell (who recognizes me and will never ever throw me another ball) and some random BP assistant (who never throws balls to anyone)…so I headed up to the Loge Level. Remember the corner spot from my entry about the weirdest way I ever got a ball? That’s where I went, and I had the whole section to myself.

One minute later, two kids showed up and went straight to the front row. There was a boy, about 14 years old, and a younger girl, presumably his sister, who looked to be about 10. Heath Bell immediately tossed him a ball. Moments later, I got one from Tom Glavine, and five minutes later, I got another from Pedro Martinez.

“Can I have it?!” asked the girl. “You got two!”

Of course. My pleasure. You want it? Here it is. No problem. I just got the first ball of my life from PEDRO FREAKIN’ MARTINEZ, and I’m going to give it away.

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I told her that instead of asking me for a ball, she should try to get one for herself. I told her she was in a good spot and that she should pay attention and keep asking the players. Then Jose Offerman threw me a ball, and she started to whine and beg. I gave her the speech again. Then Chris Woodward threw me a ball, right over her head. More whining, more begging, another speech.

I started thinking about my chances of reaching double digits when all of a sudden, Pedro threw her a ball. I was surprised. She’d been mispronouncing his name for half an hour.

I congratulated her and offered a handshake and said, “Isn’t THAT better than having ME give you a stupid ball?”

She nodded enthusiastically.

“Well, good luck getting some more,” I said. “I gotta head downstairs.”

She looked confused. Why would I leave a section where I’d just gotten four balls? Because it was 5:25pm and the Mets were about to finish BP and bring all their lovely baseballs off the field.

It took me two minutes to reach the seats behind the dugout and another two minutes to work my way into the front row. Soon after, the Mets wrapped it up and headed off the field. Carlos Beltran tossed me a ball. (That was number six on the day, in case you lost count.) Ten seconds later, someone–possibly Beltran again–flipped up a ball from underneath the dugout roof. I grabbed that one too and headed out to the LF corner, feeling good about my shot at double digits.

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There was a ball sitting on the sloped grassy area between the seats and the field. I lowered my glove and swung it out and knocked the ball closer. Then I did it again so that it was directly below me and raised my glove to start setting it up for the trick. That’s when the on-field security guard rushed over and started yelling at me. He didn’t allow me to get it. Why? Because at Shea Stadium, every guard has his own set of rules just for me. He climbed onto the grassy area, picked up the ball, and handed it to someone else. I shook my head. He smirked.

The Phillies were already taking BP, and someone hit a ball into the corner. Rheal Cormier walked over and picked it up. I asked for it. He flipped it to me. Easy. But I still needed two more balls to reach double digits. If not for that guard, I would’ve only needed one. GAH!!!

The Cormier ball was my 1,000th lifetime “official major league baseball.” Before the year 2000 (as opposed to the ball 2000), each league had its own balls. I miss those days. Now every ball has Bud Selig’s name on it. I’m getting sick of seeing it. It’s time for a change.

Toward the end of BP, two Phillies coaches–Marc Bombard and Bill Dancy–started playing catch in front of the 3rd base dugout, so I headed over there. The first few rows were packed. I could’ve gotten down to the front if I really wanted to, but I decided it didn’t matter and stayed half a dozen rows back. Dancy ended up with the ball. I shouted his name. He didn’t hear me. I shouted again. All the fans turned and stared. I shouted AGAIN and he finally looked over. I jumped up and down and waved my arms and glove to get his attention, and he lobbed the ball to me, right over everyone’s head. Perfect! One more to go! As soon as I caught it, an old guy told me I should write down the date and time and details of how I got it so that I’d always remember.

“Thanks,” I said. “I actually have my own system for keeping track of that stuff.”

“Do it,” he insisted. “I’m telling you. You’ll be glad someday.” He looked at his watch. “Six-fifteen,” he said, jabbing his finger at the ball. “Six-fifteen. Write it down.”

“No really,” I said, “I’ve got it all under control, but I appreciate it.”

He didn’t let it go, so I told him how many balls I’d collected in my life. Then he let it go–and started telling me about a ball he caught in 1939.

“It wasn’t Rawlings back then,” I said. “It was Spalding, right?”

“That’s right!” he said.

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He would’ve kept talking, but Bobby Abreu started signing autographs out in front of the dugout, so I moved down the steps. Abreu was pretty much only signing balls because people could toss them to him from a distance. I could’ve easily gotten him to sign one, but I didn’t. The only balls I’ve ever intentionally gotten signed were #1,000 (by Pedro Borbon, Jr. who threw it to me) and #2,000 (by Joe Roa). There’s also a random ball that Charlie Sheen signed a couple years ago. I was working for CBS and lent it for a segment and it came back autographed without my asking. I was NOT happy. Long story. Very very very long story. But anyway…

Fifteen minutes before gametime, Ramon Castro was playing catch with coach (and former major league catcher) Tom Nieto in right field. I waltzed down to the front row and asked Nieto if I could have the ball when he was done. Amazingly, there wasn’t ANYONE else with a glove, so he had no choice but to toss it to me when he was done. Double digits had been achieved.

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I headed up to the Loge for the first pitch. The switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins was going to lead off and bat lefty against the right-handed Jae Seo, so I headed to the 3rd base side of home plate and stood in the runway between sections 4 and 6. Rollins fouled off half a dozen pitches and worked the count to 2-2. Then he fouled off another one, a nice high pop-up in my direction. I drifted up the slanted runway and camped under it in the aisle. It was coming down right toward me when a fan reached out of the Mezzanine Level 15 feet above. The fan didn’t have a glove. The fan dropped the ball. The ball fell straight down. My waiting glove swallowed it. First batter of the game. That felt good. (Check out that big smudge of wood/pine tar residue.)

For the next inning, I positioned myself differently for righties and lefties, moving back and forth from the 3rd to the 1st base side of the plate. Then, in the middle of the second inning, I had to leave for work. Here’s what Shea looked like from the subway platform:

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Believe it or not, it wasn’t frustrating to leave. Shea Stadium is pure stress. I was delighted to take my 11 balls and disappear into the night.

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STATS:

CPB = 1.27

• 212 balls in 31 games this season = 6.8 balls per game

• 115 balls in 16 Mets games this season = 7.2 balls per game

• 69 balls this month.

• 415 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 41 consecutive games with at least three balls

• 87 lifetime game balls

• 2,643 total balls (ties me with Jim O’Rourke for 67th place on the all-time hits list)

2643ballsisalotofballs

Fool in the Rain

Rain_3It’s 3pm.
Shea Stadium opens in 100 minutes.
It looks like it’s about to start pouring.

I’m still planning to go to the game, but I have to be at work at 9pm…which means I’ll have to leave in the 2nd inning…which means that if it starts raining before the ballpark opens, I’m going home. No point in showing up for only half the day if there’s no BP.

The fridge

I don’t know when it started or who was responsible. All I remember is that I walked into the kitchen one day about a decade ago and saw that someone–probably my dad–had arranged the refrigerator magnets to say:

“___ BALLS IS A LOT OF BALLS.”

I don’t remember the exact number, but whatever it was, I changed it after my next game to display the new total. The magnets stayed for days…and then weeks…and the number kept changing.

Months passed. No one dared to move the magnets, not even to spell a “welcome” message for little kids who came to visit in the middle of winter, for the fridge had become the official Snag-O-Meter of the Hample household.

The magnets remained a fixture throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. When I moved into my own apartment a few years ago, they came with me.

Here’s what my fridge looks like today:

Fridge

First 200 balls of 2005: when, where & how

In case you missed it, I caught my 200th ball of the season on 8/22/05 at Yankee Stadium.

CalculatorBecause I love (and I mean LOVE) stats and lists so much, I decided to break down these 200 balls into various categories. Why? Because I’m a dork. Because I thought it would be fun. Because I’ve never done this before. How many of my balls are hit versus thrown? What percentage of balls do I get after the game starts? What stadium is the best? What month is the best? I realize that 200 is less than one thirteenth of my collection, but it’s still a big enough sample to play with. I also realize that this is probably more interesting to me than it is to you. Oh well, here goes…

BALLS BY MONTH
April — 20
May — 38
June — 49
July — 36
August — 57

NOTES: I avoid games during the first week or two of the season because the crowds are much bigger. Also, I started a new job in April and made it to just four games as a result. My four-day/four-game trip to Cincinnati and Houston made August the best month.

BALLS BY STADIUM
Shea — 104
Yankee — 40
Minute Maid — 19
Citizens Bank — 9
Great American — 8
Fenway — 7
Camden — 7
RFK — 6

NOTES: Last year, I caught 277 balls at Shea and only 18 at Yankee. This year, Mr. Steinbrenner finally decided to open the ballpark two hours before gametime, so I’ve been a little more willing to go back–and when I’ve been there, the extra half-hour of BP has made a huge difference. Last year, I averaged 3.6 balls per game at Yankee Stadium. This year, that number has jumped to 5.9…I caught more balls in one game in Philadelphia than in two games in Cincinnati. No surprise there. Great American Ball Park is not snagger-friendly, and one of my two BPs there was rained out.

BALLS BY SOURCE
Thrown — 118
Hit — 39
Glove trick — 37
Found — 6

NOTES: I’m surprised that nearly 59% of my balls are thrown. That’s a lot. But that’s the nature of being a collector in NYC. Shea Stadium is terrible for BP. There aren’t any field level seats in fair territory, so I’m pretty much forced to beg. If you don’t know what the glove trick is, read my entry about April 25th. “Found” means the balls were just lying in the seats when I ran into the stadium.

BALLS BY PORTION OF THE DAY
Batting practice — 167
Pregame (not during BP) — 15
During games — 13
After games — 5

NOTES: Once again, I’m surprised by these numbers. Before I did the math, I assumed I’d caught more balls between BP and the game, and I figured I’d gotten more balls after games. But still, 18 balls (or 9%) after the games have started is not bad.

I guess that’s about it.
Time to start getting ready for work…

“Can’t anybody here play this game?”

I spent the afternoon playing softball on an AstroTurf field in Chelsea, and no, I didn’t chase the foul balls and keep them.

The day’s defensive highlight came after one of the many wild throws from our catcher to the pitcher. The shortstop retrieved the ball and flipped it to the 2nd baseman who wasn’t paying attention, so we yelled at him until he looked up and ran after it. Then he threw it over the pitcher’s head, so the 3rd baseman had to track it down. Yeah, it was one of those games.

I went 6-for-6 with a double and a homer. All clean hits. Thank you.

Ticket stubs & index cards

Last month, I talked about documenting a collection.

Now, after having made a recent trip to my parents’ place and retrieving various ball-snagging goodies from my past, I have something else to say/share…

When I first started catching balls, the only thing I did to keep track of my collection was to clip my ticket stubs to index cards and jot down the details. Here’s my first one.

Indexcard1

June 20, 1990…a historic day in the life of Zack. As you can see, I didn’t know how to spell “caught,” but I must’ve figured it out fast because I got it right after my first Phillies game on October 6, 1991.

Indexcard2

I remember that game well. I was there with my parents and a guy named Steve Mandl who coached baseball at George Washington High School. He had some superstar kid on the team that he wouldn’t stop raving about. We all laughed at him when he told us that the kid was gonna be a future All-Star and a Hall of Famer. What a quack. I wonder what ever happened to that kid. His name was Manny something. But anyway, yeah, Cone struck out 19 batters. There was only one inning when he didn’t fan anyone and, coincidentally, it came right after he slid hard while running the bases. I got my ball after the game. I was standing in the front row along the 3rd base line (didn’t know anything about going to the dugouts) when the Mets relievers started walking in from the bullpen. Whitehurst tossed the ball to me on one bounce off the rubberized warning track. Lucky lucky lucky.

Indexcard3

I started getting a little fancier as I started catching more balls. Believe it or not, Yankee Stadium was actually better than Shea through 1993 when both places were still opening just 90 minutes before gametime. (This $15.20 ticket would now cost $90. How I miss the good ol’ days.) Over the next few years, as I began to document my collection in other ways, the ticket stubs and index cards no longer had a purpose, with the exception of “fun.”

Indexcard4

I must’ve been challenging myself to see how much writing I could cram onto one index card.

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I kept the tickets/cards going for a few more years, but eventually, it became a burden. There were just too many stats and streaks and averages and totals and records to keep track of. Consecutive games with one ball. With two balls. With three balls. With two balls at Shea. With two balls at Yankee. With one ball not at Shea or Yankee. National League balls. American League balls. Major League balls. Most balls in a game. Most balls in a game without batting practice. Most balls in a game without batting practice outside of New York City. Most balls at a post-season game. In two consecutive post-season games. In two consecutive regular season games. Most game balls. Most game balls in back-to-back games. In a week. In a month. Most practice balls in a week. In a month. In a season. Most game balls in a season. Most National League game balls in a season. Most National League game balls in two consecutive seasons. In three consecutive seasons. Most American League game balls in three consecutive seasons. 100th ball of the season. 100th National League ball of the season. 200th ball of the season. Consecutive seasons with 200 balls. With 100 balls. Most balls in one homestand. Most times wanting to rip my hair out. Most times wanting to rip my hair out without batting practice. Most times wanting to rip my hair out without batting practice at Yankee Stadium. AAAAAHHHHH!!!!! I decided to ignore this stuff on a game-by-game basis and just deal with it all at once after each season. Anyway, I was moving out of my parents’ place and didn’t have room for boxes full of ticket stubs and index cards in my teeny new apartment.

Of course, now I’m buried in them all over again.

The weirdest way I ever got a ball

June 26, 2003 — Shea Stadium

The Mets were taking batting practice, and I was standing in the corner spot of the Loge Level above the entrance to the left field bullpen.

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Tsuyoshi Shinjo yanked a deep line drive in my direction. The ball had the perfect distance but didn’t hook enough and shinjo.jpgsailed a few feet to my left. I reached way over the railing for it…and the damn thing barely clipped the end of my glove and dropped into no man’s land below.

I looked for it in the bullpen but didn’t see it. That seemed odd. I couldn’t figure out where else it might have landed, but I couldn’t dwell on it. BP was still going on, so I turned my attention back toward the field…but I was so frustrated that I couldn’t put it out of my mind.

A couple minutes later, I realized that the ball couldn’t have landed in the bullpen because there’s a gap between it and the base of the stands, so I took another look behind the bullpen and spotted it! The ball was sitting on the pavement, up against a wall, just beyond the employees’ entrance to the picnic area.

behindLFbullpen.jpg

It was right there, out in the open, in a semi-bustling spot, and no one noticed it! People were pushing carts and carrying boxes right past it.

This spot was (and still is) totally off limits to fans. The picnic area and bleachers have their own tickets and entrance. Even if you have a $150 box seat, security won’t let you in there–but that didn’t stop me from trying.

I exited the Loge and ran down several ramps to ground level and headed through the concourse. There was a security guard sitting on a stool at the entrance. I began the march of death and saw the ball sitting on the ground 15 feet beyond him. He was staring off into space, but I knew he’d snap to attention as soon as I approached, and I was desperately trying to come up with something to say, something like, “Excuse me, sir, I know I’m not allowed in there, but I was just hoping I could grab that baseball–”

No no no. He’d look up and spot it and tell me to get lost and keep it for himself. What else could I say? I want to take a picture? I need to use the bathroom? I want to go on a picnic?

I had no idea what I’d tell him when he looked up…but I kept walking slowly…and approached him…and he DIDN’T look up!!! I walked right past him and grabbed the ball before making a U-turn and escaping the area, completely unnoticed.

Ball #2,067.
I’ll never forget it.

The $20,000 ground-rule double

First of all, happy birthday, Cal.

Secondly, did you hear about this? On Saturday, Jorge Posada ripped a ground-rule double for his 1,000th career hit. Posada wanted the ball, so a Yankees official approached the fan who caught it and Jorgeposada2offered an autographed bat and ball in exchange. The fan said no and demanded $20,000. Posada said no and that was the end of it.

If I had caught that ball, my requests would have been simple:

1) I want to meet Posada after the game and return the ball to him myself.

2) I’ll need a replacement so my collection won’t be one ball short, and I’d like Posada to write the following message on it: “Dear Zack, thanks for catching and returning my 1,000th career hit. With respect from one catcher to another, Jorge Posada.”

3) I would like to take batting practice on the field at Yankee Stadium. It doesn’t have to be with the team. You guys can be in Canada for all I care. All you have to do is provide the balls and someone (Kevin Brown, perhaps?) to pitch them. Thank you.

8/22/05 at Yankee Stadium

Last night’s Yankee game was as basic and frustrating as it gets. There were over 50,000 people, and it felt like all of them showed up in right field for batting practice. Within two minutes, the aisle behind the right field wall was packed.

HidekimatsuiHideki Matsui stepped into the cage several minutes later, and I moved back about eight rows because the seats were still somewhat empty. Sure enough, he launched a line drive right over everyone’s head and into my glove. I had to move a couple steps to my left, and I caught it with two hands just to be safe. The whole section erupted with cheers. Then the seats around me filled up. Funny how that works.

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A couple minutes later, Matsui lifted a deep fly ball in my direction. I worked my way down three or four steps and wiggled into the swarm of fans waiting for the ball to land. I timed it perfectly and jumped at the last second and caught it several inches above all the outstretched hands.

People didn’t cheer that catch, but they should’ve because it was my 200th ball of the season.

I thought I was heading for another good day, but no. After having an A-Rod ground-rule double knocked out of my glove by a fat hairy guy wearing gold chains and a tank top, I managed just one bpcrowd1.jpgmore ball with my glove trick toward the end of BP. That was it. The aisle and seats were so crowded (this photo of the crowd was taken during BP) that I couldn’t move back and forth for righties and lefties. I was trapped, and I hated it.

Before the game, I went to the left field side and got Russ Adams to toss me a ball, only to have it snatched by a leaping fan in front of me.

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Gregg Zaun signed my ticket.

I headed to my actual seat. (Imagine that.)

I met my friend.

We sat in the last row before the main aisle, just past 1st base. This is normally a decent spot, but of chain.jpgcourse there wasn’t a single foul ball that came within 50 feet of me. Even if one had, I wouldn’t have been able to run for it because I was chained in by security. What a nightmare.

The game itself was entertaining, the footlong hotdogs were sublime, and my friend (who’s shy and would probably kill me if I mentioned her name) was delightful…but from a collecting standpoint, this was the most frustrated I’ve been all year.

STATS:
CPB = 0.00. (Free ticket, baby!)
• 201 balls in 30 games this season = 6.7 balls per game.
• 414 consecutive games with at least one ball.
• 40 consecutive games with at least three balls.
• 2,632 total balls.

200th ball of 2005

I didn’t think I’d be going back to Yankee Stadium for a while, but a friend just offered me a fantastic ticket for tonight’s game against Toronto–one of those corporate-owned box seats with waiter service and a cushion built in–so I’m going. It might be another sellout, and that makes me nervous. It’s impossible to get game balls at that place, so whatever I do, I HAVE to do it within 75 minutes of batting practice–and after five of those minutes, the outfield seats will be packed.

My heart always races right before I run into Yankee Stadium. I don’t think about reaching double digits or maintaining my average of 6.8 balls per game or even saving my streak of three or more balls per game. All I think about is getting ONE ball, and until that happens, I’m in a constant state of panic. Still, I have to assume that I’ll get at least two balls tonight, and when I do, that’ll be 200 for the season.

In case you end up watching the game and want to look for me, I’ll be sitting about a dozen rows behind 1st base, just in front of the main aisle that runs through the field level seats. Should be a decent spot for pop-ups from righties.

It’s 2:01pm. I have to prepare my Blue Jays roster and find something to eat and gather my stuff and head out. I’ll leave you with a photograph of the balls that I collected last week in two games at Great American, two more at Minute Maid, and one at Shea:

35ballsinoneweek

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