September 2005

Several quick things

1) I was just interviewed by Boys Life Magazine. The piece will probably come out next spring.

2) I was recently mentioned in another MLBlog called “Diamonds are for Humor.” Click here to check it out.

3) Despite the fact that I avoided Yankee Stadium whenever possible, the Yankees still set an American League attendance record this year. I need to move to Kansas City.

4) Speaking of records, I only need FOUR more balls to set a new personal record for most balls in one season. Last year, I ended up with 300. This year, I’m already up to 297.

5) It drizzled all morning here in New York City. Now it’s 3:04pm, and the sun is finally out. I guess that means I’m going to Shea…

9/26/05 at Citizens Bank Park

I went to Citizens Bank Park with two friends–Mike and Ben–who both LOVE the Phillies. Here we are in the parking lot:

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We bought our tickets and started walking toward the left field gate when a kid walked up and asked, “Are you Zack?” He recognized me from my web site and this blog. I recognized him because we’d been e-mailing on and off for months. He lives in the area and wanted to meet me, so as soon as I’d finalized my plans a day or two earlier, I told him I’d be there. His name is Josh. He’s half my age and twice my size. It was embarrassing. He brought his copy of my book and asked me to sign it. (“Talk to my agent.”) Here we are:

josh&zack.jpg

Weather.com said it was going to rain…and it WAS cloudy…but it wasn’t raining. Still, the sissy grounds crew had covered the field with the tarp. That made me sad. But because there was no batting practice, I had time to eat a cheesesteak. That made me happy.

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Finally, Tim Hamulack and Juan Padilla started throwing in very shallow left field. Most of the stadium was closed until 5:30pm, so I had to wait all the way out in the home run section. There were a few other people with gloves, but I was the only one with a Mets cap AND and jacket. I knew I was going to get the ball–and I did. Hamulack fired it at me from 150 feet away, but it fell three feet short and thumped against the padded wall, then bounced 50 feet back onto the outfield grass. He walked over and tossed it to me.

An hour passed.

I hung out with Josh, caught up with Mike and Ben, and got five autographs on old tickets:

september26autographs.jpg

Heath Bell

Steve Trachsel

Mike Jacobs

Ryan Madson

Geoff Geary

Earlier in the day, when I saw Bell heading to the bullpen, I shouted, “Hey Heath! I came all the way from New York City to harass you!”

He looked up and realized who I was. “Great!” he shouted back sarcastically, then walked over and said, “You know I don’t hate you, right?”

(He was referring to our conversation on 9/14/05 at Shea Stadium.)

“I know, I know,” I said. “I was just messing around. You’ve always been really nice to me, and I appreciate it.”

“I just don’t want to throw you a ball every day,” he said.

“I understand.”

“Are you coming tomorrow?” he asked.

“No…why? What’s happening tomorrow?”

“Nothing. Just wondering,” he said.

“I wish I could, but I have to be back at work in New York…but I’ll be at Shea on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”

“Me too,” he said. “I might even be there on Sunday.”

Anyway, Rheal Cormier and Cory Lidle started playing catch in the right field corner. I was the first one out there and quickly made my request: “Rheal, is there any chance that when you’re done, you could toss a ball up here, please?” He had three balls–the other two were sitting on the grass 10 feet away–and when he finished 10 minutes later, he tossed me the first one and gave the others to the little kids who had swarmed the section.

Another hour passed.

It drizzled briefly and stopped. The tarp was still on the field. All the players were inside–and that’s how it stayed until 7pm. No rain. No players. Lots of groundskeepers standing around doing nothing. (The Phillie Phanatic was making fun of them.)

Why was the tarp still on the field? The game was supposed to be starting, and I was getting nervous. I needed ONE more ball to give me fifty consecutive games with at least three, and I didn’t know if I’d get another chance.

Finally, a few Mets came out to left field to throw and stretch and run. No ball.

No game, either. It was 7:05pm. Then 7:10. Then 7:15. The tarp was still on the field–and THEN it started raining. The delay lasted two hours and 35 minutes, and it ended up being a great thing. Not only did thousands of “fans” leave the stadium, but the Phillies announced that all tickets could be exchanged for select games at the start of 2006.

During the delay, Ben and Mike and I grabbed a few seats toward the back of the section behind the Mets’ dugout on the 3rd base side. Awesome view. Shielded from the rain. Perfect staircase for running down to the dugout after the third out and trying to get a ball from the Mets as they came off the field.

AndersonhernandezFinally, the tarp was removed, and the Mets came back out to warm up all over again. I ran down to the front row along the left field foul line. It was surprisingly crowded. All Mets fans. Anderson Hernandez was playing catch with Miguel Cairo, and when he was done, I had to SHOUT his name half a dozen times to get his attention. There were people all around me, shouting for it too. Hernandez made eye contact with me from about 60 feet away and fired the ball so quickly and so hard–right to my glove–that the other fans didn’t even have a chance to reach for it. As soon as I caught it, though, there were hands all over my glove and in my face. Good thing the man with two last names has a strong arm.

I went back to the seats for the start of the game. In the top of the 1st, the Mets got a couple guys on base but didn’t score. In the bottom of the 1st, Jimmy Rollins led off with a long home run to right field and got a three-minute standing ovation. He’d extended his hitting streak to 31 games, tying Ed Delahanty’s 1899 mark for the longest in team history. Six batters later, David Bell lined out to Carlos Beltran in center field to end the inning. Beltran–and all the Mets–started jogging off the field. I ran down to the front row. Beltran headed to the 3rd base side of the dugout, but I was trapped, one section over, on the 1st base side. I watched helplessly as he tossed it into the crowd.

MikejacobsOne inning later, Bobby Abreu made the third out by grounding out to Jacobs. This one was going to be all mine. I was already halfway down the steps by the time Jacobs stepped on the bag, and I was leaning over the dugout roof by the time he approached. I shouted his name. He looked up. I shouted again. He tossed me the ball. I was all over it. (That was #4 on the day.)

I moved down a few rows. Ben and Mike followed. The ushers saw us but didn’t care. It was that kind of night.

It was a bit chilly, but that didn’t stop me from taking off my Mets jacket. If I was going to run down to the front row again, I couldn’t let Jacobs recognize me. I decided I’d pick a different spot instead of waiting right at the bottom of the stairs.

An inning later, Pat Burrell drew a leadoff walk and Ryan Howard popped up to Cairo at 2nd base. David Bell followed by bouncing into an inning-ending 1-4-3 double play (Jae Seo to Cairo to Jacobs). I darted down the steps and slid 10 feet to my right when I reached the front row. Jacobs took the ball with him and jogged toward the dugout. Same story. I shouted his name louder than everyone else was shouting it, and I ended up with the ball. This time, however, the other fans weren’t too happy about it–and I can understand why, but the fact of the matter is that Jacobs tossed it right to me. If he’d pointed to someone else or rolled it delicately toward a kid on either side of me, I would’ve let it go. No doubt about it.

There was lots of competition at the dugout–don’t get me wrong–but it was still embarrassingly easy to have gotten two balls in two innings from the same player in the same section. It made me think…Should I NOT have gone for that second ball? Should I feel guilty about being luckier (and more strategic/obsessive in my approach) than everyone else? In the end, I didn’t stress over it because I’d done nothing wrong. It was as clean a snag as could be.

I had to change my appearance again, not only for Mr. Jacobs but to avoid being recognized by the grumbling fans. I pulled an extra tee-shirt out of my bag–the one I would’ve changed into if I’d gotten sweaty during batting practice–and threw it on. My first tee-shirt was solid white. This one was black, with some lettering on it. No coincidence.

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It started raining again in the top of the 4th, and half of the remaining “fans” ran for cover in the concourse. When the stampede ended, there was an entire empty row on my left! I told Mike and Ben that because of the rain, I’d probably be able to get another ball…now, if a Mets outfielder caught the third out, I could cut through the seats to the next section.

Mike and Ben’s reaction: “NO!!! YOU ARE NOT GOING BACK DOWN TO THE DUGOUT!!!”

But when Rollins flied out to Beltran to end the bottom of the 4th, I took off. I couldn’t help it. Something possessed my legs and made me run through the seats and down the steps. I got the ball.

On my way back, someone shouted, “How many outfits do you have?!”

It was my last outfit–and my last ball during the game. I had other chances to run down to the dugout, but I stayed in my seat to prevent a riot.

However…
After the Phillies (check that: Ugueth Urbina) blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the 8th, I decided that if the Mets held on for the win, I’d go to the dugout after the game.

Amazingly, Roberto Hernandez tossed two scoreless innings, and the Mets won, 6-5.

Down the steps I went, like a salmon fighting the current. All the people who’d been aimlessly begging for balls all night and blaming me for their misfortune started heading up the steps, unaware that they were walking away from a great opportunity. By the time I made it all the way down, the front row was empty except for two people. There was a kid on my left who asked enthusiastically, “Hey, aren’t you The Baseball Collector?” and wanted to know what my lifetime ball total was…and there was a 50-something-year-old woman on my right who was so busy cursing at me and threatening to unzip my backpack and steal all my baseballs that she forgot to pay attention to the action on the field. Roberto Hernandez kept his precious ball–that third save of the season goes right on the mantle!–and bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello tossed a ball to someone else…but THERE were the umpires, walking off the umpballs.jpgfield in a cluster. One of them–presumably Ron Kulpa, who’d worked the plate–looked at me and tossed a ball. And then another. The two balls rolled right to me along the wet dugout roof, RIGHT behind the back of the woman who was still yelling at me. When she suddenly realized what had happened, she whirled around and tried to grab the second ball out of my bare hand. She actually pinned my arm to the dugout! This came right after she’d told me to act my age.

Based on her reaction, you’re probably thinking that I trampled a few toddlers during the game and didn’t admit it, but I assure you that I did nothing wrong.

And that was it. Eight balls without batting practice.

I was pretty psyched to get those last two. Before that, I’d only gotten one ball from an ump in my life–and later on, it occurred to me how truly special they are: they’re unused game balls. No scuffs. No grass stains. No pine tine tar. No rosin. They’re like eggs that never hatched.

It was almost 1am. Ben and Mike were thoroughly dejected. At the start of the night, their team was one game behind the idle Astros for the wild-card. If the 5-2 lead had held up, it would’ve been half a game. Instead, it was a game and a half. As we walked to the car, Mike questioned whether or not he would pay to watch the Phillies anymore. Ben second-guessed the manager. They both moaned about the bullpen…and the defense…and Pat Burrell’s wimpy check-swing come-backer that ended the game with runners on 1st and 2nd.

We found our way onto the Walt Whitman Bridge and tuned into the sports talk radio stations. Fans were calling in and second-guessing the manager and whining about the bullpen and promising not to pay to watch the Phillies anymore.

The Jersey Turnpike was empty. We stopped and got gas and junk food. We made it back to NYC after 3am. I drove Mike home. Then I drove Ben home. Then I blah blah…

STATS:

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• 8 balls without batting practice ties my 2nd highest total under those circumstances. My record for most balls without BP is 12, set on July 26, 2001 at Shea Stadium.

• 297 balls in 40 games this season = 7.4 balls per game

• 4 balls needed to break my single-season record

• 424 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 50 consecutive games with at least three balls

• 80 consecutive games outside of NYC with at least one ball

• 507 balls outside of NYC…the one from Hamulack was #500.

• 2,728 total balls…moves me into 51st place on the all-time hits list ahead of Lou Gehrig (2,721) and Roberto Alomar (2,724). Next up is Tony Perez (2,732).

If you still have a few minutes to spare after reading all of this, check out Ben’s baseball blog.

4:56am

Went to Philly yesterday.
The game was rain-delayed for two hours and 35 minutes at the start.
There was a two-hour drive back to NYC at the end.
Then I drove my friends to their respective homes.
I just got home a little while ago.
I have to be at work at noon!
There will be no blogging today (other than this).
Please come back tomorrow.
You know you want to find out how I got eight balls even though there was no batting practice.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to hear my MLB Radio interview:
1. Go to MLBlogs.com.
2. Look for the “MULTIMEDIA” panel a few inches down on the left.
3. Click my name (which appears in blue underneath “The Baseball Collector”).

THE FINAL WEEK: chasing a record

Take a look at the following list. It shows how many balls I’ve collected each year:

Four1990 —- 4
1991 —- 14
1992 —- 128
1993 —- 218
1994 —- 201
1995 —- 273
1996 —- 177
1997 —- 59
1998 —- 192
1999 —- 251
2000 —- 163
2001 —- 134
2002 —- 149
2003 —- 168
2004 —- 300
2005 —- 289 (and counting…)

Did you notice that I’m only 12 balls away from setting a new single-season record? I should be able to do it because I’m planning to attend four games this week.

First, I’m going to see the Mets play in Philadelphia today (even though I know it’s going to be CROWDED). I’m taking my parents’ car and driving down with a couple friends.

Then, after spending two full days at work, I’ll be back at Shea for the Rockies on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

Those are my big plans.

The even bigger plan in the back of my mind is ball #3,000. Right now, I’m 280 balls away, and I’m already thinking about it. If I stay on my current pace and have another big year in 2006, I could reach that milestone by the end of the season. The way I’m looking at the final week of the 2005 season is that every ball will help establish a new record AND make it easier to reach 3,000 one year from now.

4:07am
must
go
to
sleep

Dreams

Back in 1993 when I attended games almost every day, I dreamt about collecting baseballs almost every night–and the dreams were almost always bad. I’d get lost in the subway and show up late for batting practice…or it would start raining and there wouldn’t be batting practice. The stadium would be designed differently, and I wouldn’t be able to get down to the front row. The ushers and security guards would all gang up on me. (Where did I get THAT from?) Occasionally, I’d lose my hand-eye coordination and wouldn’t be able to catch balls that came right to me.

If I ever did have a good dream, it was usually that I was in a wide open section or concourse without much competition. I often dreamt that there was a secret meadow behind the Green Monster.

Last night, I dreamt that Tommy Lasorda tossed me a ball behind the 3rd base dugout at Shea Stadium (and when I woke up, I was very disappointed). It was weird. I haven’t had many snagging dreams in recent years, but I might have a few more during the final week of the regular season. I have big plans…

“Why I’m Exhausted” by Zack Hample

Three games in three days is life-consuming, at least the way I do it. When I go to Shea, I have to leave my apartment by 3:30pm, and I’m usually gone for close to eight hours. Then I eat dinner. Then I check my voice-mail and e-mail. Then I shower. Then I update my web site and ball log and refrigerator magnets and various other lists/thing. Then I photograph the evening’s interesting balls. Then I scan my autographed ticket stubs. Then I look through all my photos from the day and decide which ones I want to use. Then I edit them. (When there are little girls sobbing in the background and security guards surrounding me along with hostile fans threatening to kick my ***, I airbrush them out.) By this point, it’s about 2am…and THEN I start writing my entry. That usually takes about two or three hours. Sometimes four or five hours if I have a lot to say. Then I spell-check. Then I edit. Then I think of more stuff to say and type it in way too fast and often misspell it and important words. (Like that.) Then I insert photos. Then, if I get around to it, I brush my teeth. Then I check my e-mail again and read the day’s box scores for about 40 minutes. By this point, the filthy pigeons on my fire escape are cooing in the morning light, while city buses 40 feet below are screeching in the morning commute. Then I go to bed. Then I wake up about five hours later so I can get all my stuff done (including fixing all the typos that my dad and my friend Brooke point out) before running out the door for Shea. If there’s time, I’ll get a sandwich on the way. I usually stop at this scuzzy little deli near the subway. It’s not very good, but it’s quicker than walking the extra block to Subway (the restaurant), and it’s less messy than dealing with pepperoni pizza on the #7 train. Lately, my sandwich of choice has been a fried chicken cutlet with melted cheddar on an onion bagel. But usually, there are no onion bagels, so I alternate between poppy and sesame. By this point, it’s usually 3:46pm, so I have to run to the subway and then run IN the subway and then run FROM the subway to the Shea Stadium ticket office. And then my Day O’ Snagging begins anew. So that’s why I’m exhausted.
(But happy.)

9/22/05 at Shea Stadium

QUICK NON-SHEA UPDATE:I’ll be talking about my blog tonight on MLB Radio at about 10:15 p.m. ET.

AND NOW, THE BALL REPORT:
Yesterday, I went to Shea with my friend Sean. We decided it was best to split up during batting practice–no point in standing near each other and competing for 105 minutes–so when the gates opened at 4:40pm, he ran to left field and I ran to right.

As I headed down the steps toward the front row, I spotted a ball sitting on the ground several sections over. Just as I was about to start climbing over the orange railings to get there, I saw another ball lying at my feet! But as soon as I picked it up, my excitement vanished. It was a bogus ball. Instead of “OFFICIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL,” the logo said “Donated by the New York Mets Foundation.”

Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.

Years ago, I’d gotten one of these balls from a security guard and decided not to count it in my collection.

Now what?

I climbed the railings and picked up the other ball. Same thing.

Then I spotted another ball sitting in a cup holder in the first row. I unlatched the chain, walked down into the blue seats, got a suspicious look from the on-field security guard, and grabbed the ball. Another fake.

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I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to start numbering them as part of my collection? I’d been placing them in different pockets so I’d remember the order in which I’d gotten them, but I couldn’t decide. Then, just before a few other fans made their way down to my section, I found a FOURTH ball in another cup holder. Jesus!

Should they count? Should they NOT count? I was going crazy. I had to decide fast. I inspected one of the balls and noticed that it was made in China. It did say “Rawlings” on it, but official major league balls are made in Costa Rica…and official balls weigh 5.5 ounces and measure 9.5 inches in circumference. This ball said “5 OZ.” and “9 IN.”

I was leaning toward NOT counting them…but wait…I was AT a major league game. Shouldn’t they count? No! They were fake and lame, and there was no proof that the Mets were even using them. In fact, these balls couldn’t have been used by the Mets because there were a dozen employees already sitting in some nearby seats when I ran in. If these balls had landed in the seats–and been placed in cup holders–during the 20 minutes of BP that I’d missed, the employees would’ve snatched them. Yes! That was it! There must’ve been some early-afternoon youth clinic. That’s where these balls must’ve come from.

Five minutes passed, and I was still torn, so I came up with one final solution:
I’d wait until I got a ball directly from the Mets. Then, if the logo said the same thing as the other four, I’d know that they were legit–and I’d count them. Otherwise, forget it.

Nothing happened for 10 more minutes. Right field was filling up a bit, but there weren’t any balls hit or thrown into the seats. Typical.

Finally, someone on the Mets sliced a pop-up down the line. There were a couple guys standing just in front of me. They froze. I knew the ball was going to fall short, so I started climbing over the railings before it landed. WHACK!!! It hit a seat and bounced closer to me. I ducked under a railing and grabbed it off the concrete step…

“OFFICIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.”

ball2715.jpg

Mystery solved. I dumped the four phony balls into my backpack and wrote “2715” on the one I’d just snagged.

I was still torn. There was no right answer. It could’ve been argued either way, but I think I did the right thing. I obeyed my gut. Was there a better option?

Soon after, my gut told me to ditch the Field Level and head up to the Loge.

Sean was also in the Loge, all the way across the stadium in the corner spot. I hadn’t seen him get any balls, but I hadn’t really been watching. I was just hoping that he wouldn’t get shut out. On 9/6/05 at Camden Yards, he managed to get one ball without putting in much of an effort. This time, he was going all out, and I was glad. It hurts to see my friends leave empty-handed, even when they claim not to care.

Anyway, Victor Diaz tossed me a ball from the warning track 30 feet below, and five minutes later, I got another one from Kris Benson after his bullpen session with pitching coach Rick Peterson. Then, toward the end of the Mets’ batting practice, Gerald Williams threw me a ball–my fourth of the day–near the foul pole.

HojoI raced downstairs and headed to the dugout. As all the Mets players and coaches were coming off the field, I got a ball from HoJo! He was actually approaching the dugout empty-handed when a random ball rolled out of nowhere and stopped just in front of him on the warning track. It was beautiful.

If I hadn’t been at Shea the previous two days, I would’ve gone to left field for the Marlins’ batting practice–and I would’ve done well. But because of Ron Villone’s antics on Tuesday, and because I was still the only fan wearing a bright aqua Marlins hat on Wednesday, I knew that all the players in left field would recognize me. That’s why I gave Sean that side of the stadium and stayed out in right field.

Because Shea is a poorly designed hellhole, there wasn’t a single ball hit into the right field seats for the final 45 minutes of batting practice.
Because I don’t have breasts, my very loud–and very polite–requests for baseballs were ignored by the following Marlins players and coaches: Mike Lowell, A.J. Burnett, Josh Johnson, Matt Treanor, Paul Lo Duca, Jeremy Hermida, Luis Castillo, Chris Aguila, Lenny Harris, Jeff Cox, Mark Wiley, and Luis Dorante. None of them recognized me. They were just being rude…or giving balls to other fans who were born lucky.

I was still stuck at five when BP ended. Thankfully, Juan Encarnacion made my day a little less bad by tossing me ball #6 at the Marlins’ dugout.

I turned around to look for Sean and saw him heading down the steps.

“How many?!” I mouthed.

He held up four fingers (awesome!) and pointed at me inquisitively.

I held up three fingers–and then three more.

He was happy.
I was happy.

zack6balls.jpgsean4balls.jpg

We headed up to the Loge for the first pitch and had great seats for foul balls, right behind home plate and slightly shaded to the 3rd base side. The only problem was that we’d only be able to get balls from left-handed hitters…and with the left-handed Dontrelle Willis pitching for the Fish, there was only ONE lefty in the Mets lineup: Cliff Floyd. The Marlins, meanwhile, started three lefties against Pedro Martinez. (Nice pitching matchup, eh?) There was Juan Pierre, Carlos Delgado (who hardly got to swing the bat thanks to THREE intentional walks), and Dontrelle (who batted 7th ahead of Joe Dillon and Robert Andino). Sean and I really wanted to be on the 1st base side, but we decided to wait a couple innings for the crowd to settle in. In the bottom of the 2nd, David Wright hit a foul tip RIGHT to the very two seats where we wanted to sit. The following inning, we moved over there and didn’t come close to another foul ball for the rest of the night.

But at least we saw a good game–and a bit of history. Dontrelle, who picked up his major league-leading 22nd win with a fine eight-inning effort, became the first pitcher to bat 7th since Expos right-hander Steve Renko did it against the Padres on August 26, 1973.

(We also saw Rod Stewart sitting one section over and getting mobbed.)

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STATS:

CPB = 5.00 (Another $30 ticket. Bleh.)

• 289 balls in 39 games this season = 7.4 balls per game

• 423 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 49 consecutive games with at least three balls

• 2,720 total balls…moves me into 53rd place on the all-time hits list ahead of Bill Buckner (2,715) and Rusty Staub (2,716). Next up is Lou Gehrig (2,721).

9/21/05 at Shea Stadium

I got my first ball as soon as I ran inside for batting practice. Kaz Ishii and Shingo Takatsu–the two Japanese pitchers on the Mets–were playing catch in shallow right field. Ishii airmailed one of his throws. I’d just sprinted down the steps to the third row. (The first two rows of blue seats are off limits.) I didn’t even see the ball coming. I just heard it smack a seat and then picked it up off the ground.
Nice.

Before long, a father and his VERY young son made their way down to the blue seats. They actually had tickets. They both had gloves. I was screwed.

The kid immediately started shrieking at Pedro Martinez, who tossed a ball to his father to make the twerp shut up. (It didn’t work.) One minute later, the father reached out and caught a line drive that was heading right toward me. And then, a minute after that, Steve Trachsel walked over and handed the kid another ball.

The father, who later told me that he pays $18,000 a year for those seats, offered one of his balls.

“We’ve got plenty,” he said. “Take one.”

“I appreciate it,” I replied, “but I’d prefer to try to get one on my own.” (What a concept!)

trachsel.jpg

Trachsel was signing autographs for a few fans nearby, so I walked over and got him on one of the many extra ticket stubs I’d collected last week. There was one moment when I took my eye off the batter. That was when Trachsel was handing back my ticket and Sharpie. During that moment, a ball landed RIGHT next to me and was promptly snatched by a vendor who hadn’t yet started working.

I hate autographs.

Eventually, some Mets righty sliced a little pop-up into the seats. The father misplayed it, and the ball bounced right to me.

“Give it to the kid!!” shouted an usher 15 rows behind me in the main aisle. “You got enough balls!!”

I looked at the father and said, “This guy has been hassling me since 1992. Can you make him shut up?”

“No problem,” he said. Then he turned toward the usher and shouted, “We already got some!! It’s fine!! Thanks!!” And that was the end of it.

There’d been a ball sitting on the outfield grass for about 10 minutes. Danny Graves finally walked over and picked it up.

“Hey, Danny!” I yelled. “Can we play catch? I’ll throw it back. I swear.”

gravesmatsui.jpg

He chuckled and tossed me the ball. I was about to return it when he told me to keep it. “I can’t catch very good,” he joked and came over to sign. (WAS he joking?)

I got Kaz Matsui’s autograph a few minutes later and then, amazingly, the right field seats got emptier. The vendor left for work. The father and son took off for the dugout. Other than the few 39minutesintoBP.jpgautograph collectors behind me, there was no one else around. I couldn’t believe it. It was 5:19pm. Shea Stadium had been open for 39 minutes, and I had the place to myself. Of course, no one else hit or threw a ball anywhere near me for the rest of the Mets’ batting practice.

Once the Marlins started warming up, I headed to the left field corner. On the way, I stopped briefly at their dugout on the 3rd base side and got my fourth ball of the day from Chris Aguila.

I didn’t get anything in left field. I was sure that all pitchers would recognize me (thanks to Ron Villone), so I didn’t even bother asking any of them for balls. I ran back to the 1st base side. Carlos Delgado was done taking fungos and had a ball in his glove–but he ignored my request. I ran up to the Loge, out near the RF foul pole. Dead. I ran all the way around the stadium to the LF Loge, hoping that the players wouldn’t recognize me if I were in a different section. (Yesterday, as you may recall, the Villone fiasco took place on the Field Level.)

joshbeckettleftfield.jpg

The Marlins hit lots of balls into the left field corner, but I couldn’t get anyone to toss one up. Antonio Alfonseca completely ignored me. Ismael Valdez was also pretending to be deaf. Josh Johnson? Same thing. Josh Willingham then joined the list of Marlins who did NOT throw me a ball. Jeff Conine was too far away. So was Josh Beckett…but he’s always been so receptive to fans that I decided to give him a shout. It worked. He turned right around and spotted my bright aqua Marlins cap and threw me the ball. The picture on the left (click to enlarge) shows how far away he was when he chucked it.

RonvilloneMoments later, I called down to Villone for a ball.

He looked up, then pointed toward the Field Level and shouted, “That was you over there yesterday, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah!” I confessed.

“That was a good thing you did!” he yelled, and then he tossed me the ball.

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Whatever.

I went back to the Marlins’ dugout at the end of BP and got a pearl from 3rd base coach Jeff Cox. That was my seventh and final ball of the day. I’d splurged and bought a $30 seat in a great foul tip section behind the plate, but it didn’t pay off.

STATS:

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CPB = 4.29

• 283 balls in 38 games this season = 7.4 balls per game

• 422 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 48 consecutive games with at least three balls

• 44 autographs this season

• 2,714 total balls…moves me into 55th place on the all-time hits list ahead of Billy Williams (2,711) and Dave Parker (2,712). Next up is Bill Buckner (2,715).

I already have two tickets for today’s game. I’m going with my friend Sean. He’s the guy who helped me get three of my 17 balls on 9/6/05 at Camden Yards.

I’m tired.

9/20/05 at Shea Stadium

Shea was nice and empty once again, and I decided to start off in left field. Even though I was the ONLY fan on that entire side of the stadium, it still took me 20 minutes to get my first ball. Tim Hamulack tossed it to me from about 100 feet away. He must’ve been concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to catch it because he didn’t come close to reaching me. The ball hit the wall and bounced back on the field. A security guard walked over and picked it up.

“He was trying to throw it to me,” I said.

The guard gave me a suspicious look but got a nod from some trainer-type dude near the foul line, so he tossed it to me. Then I wondered…should I give Hamulack credit for throwing me the ball? Does his name deserve to be on the almighty list? I’m still not sure, but for now the answer is no.

In any case, it was my 2,699th ball so I started paying extra attention to who was stepping in and out of the cage. I wanted to make sure I knew the source of ball #2,700.

MikedifeliceI didn’t get anything for the next 10 minutes. Left field was as lifeless as it was empty, so I ran all the way around the ballpark and up two ramps to the RF Loge.

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Yesterday, I predicted that #2,700 would come from Tom Glavine. That didn’t happen. Mike DiFelice tossed it to me instead. It was pretty simple. He fielded a grounder in deep right field. I yelled and got his attention. He turned and fired it up toward me.

Ball #2,701–my third of the day–was much more interesting. It was a home run that landed in that dead area between the wall in right-center and the huge scoreboard. Usually, a guard will make his way out there and pocket the balls, but this one just sat there. ball2701location.jpgFive minutes later, a grey van (pictured on the right) pulled up to the edge of the players’ parking lot, which is just behind the scoreboard. Three guys got out and started heading through the narrow passageway that leads to the area in front of the board. (That area connects to a wooden walkway along the edge of the Mets’ bullpen. The walkway leads to the concourse that runs past the clubhouses and umpires’ room and batting cages and everything else we dream of visiting.) These guys might’ve been players but I didn’t recognize them. Just before they turned left to enter the bullpen, I called out and asked if they could get me the ball. They looked around, then looked up at me and shrugged. They didn’t see it, so I made a gesture to indicate it was behind them and pointed at the base of the scoreboard between the “Banco Popular” and “HIP” ads. Now they saw the ball. One of the guys walked toward it, about 20 feet to his right, and picked it up. Then he headed back in my direction and entered the bullpen via the walkway (which you can barely see at the the bottom left of the photograph). I stood at the railing and held up my glove. By this point, I knew he was going to throw it to me, but he took me by surprise by tossing it from 50 feet away. It was an ill-advised throw which fell 10 feet short, hit the wall below me, and bounced back onto the walkway. One of the other guys caught it on a bounce and tossed it back up, right to me.

What a weird way to get a ball. I love stuff like that. That’s one of the few fun things about Shea. There are endless nooks and crannies and gaps and holes which, at times, provide for some interesting pursuits. Shea is the fifth oldest ballpark in the majors. It’s cramped. It’s poorly designed. It’s falling apart. There’s chipped paint all over the place. There are puddles in the seating areas because the uneven pavement doesn’t allow the water to drain. My friend George is going to get mad at me for saying this, but Shea is flat out crappy. It’s not just ugly, it’s fugly. See all those green dumpsters? I mean, seriously, what other ballpark would store those in open view between the bullpen and the team bus?

And yet I love Shea.

I love to complain about it, but deep down it makes me happy. I’ve been to over 340 games there. It’s my second home. I’ll be sad when the Mets move in 2009. Shea might be a dump, but it’s MY dump. It’s a dump with character. So many new ballparks are boring. Safeco? Coors? Comerica? Citizens Bank? They’re all pretty much the same. They’re the cookie-cutter ballparks of the 21st century.

But I digress.

AlomaractaI went to the Mets’ dugout as they were wrapping up BP. Within a few minutes, I got a ball from bench coach Sandy Alomar, Sr. and another from 3rd base coach Manny Acta. (Acta’s thrown me four balls this year and eight since 2003.)

The Marlins were already playing catch in left field, so I headed out there. I got my sixth ball of the day from Paul Quantrill after he finished throwing with Josh Beckett. (Quantrill is now the third ‘Q’ player to have given me a ball, joining Ruben Quevedo and Robb Quinlan. Oh baby.)

Now get this…
Moments later, Ron Villone tossed me a ball. Let me repeat that with emphasis on a particular word: Ron Villone tossed ME a ball. There were some other fans in the seats by this point, but none of them were within 10 feet of me. As soon as I caught the ball, some guy in the front row shouted, “Hey! You got TWO! Give one to the kid!”

“Yeah!!” shouted the rest of the fans. “He’s got TWO!!”

“You got TWO?!” yelled Villone from left field. “Give it to the kid!”

Then the whole section started chanting, “GIVE IT TO THE KID!!! GIVE IT TO THE KID!!! GIVE IT TO THE KID!!! GIVE IT TO THE KID!!!”

I didn’t want to give it to the kid. First of all, you have to keep in mind that ever since I started collecting in 1990, I’ve kept EVERY single ball I’ve EVER caught (while helping countless kids along the way get balls for themselves). Secondly, “the kid” was a little girl who not only wasn’t wearing a glove–an indication, as far as I’m concerned, that she might not have wanted a ball THAT badly–but hadn’t even been paying attention.

I hadn’t even been holding the ball for 15 seconds when two security guards approached me. That made the entire section start booing and cursing and threatening. It was a nightmare turned real. I thought of similar moments in the past and considered how they’d all ended. I’d always kept the ball and, as a result, always suffered the wrath of stadium security. It wasn’t fair, but I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth it this time around…so I handed the ball to the girl.

The entire section erupted in cheers.
The security guards smiled and nodded.
Villone gave me a thumbs-up.

I didn’t want praise. I wanted peace. But even more, I wanted my ball. The way I see it, Villone could have easily gotten another one for the girl…or the guards could’ve taken one out of their own pockets for her…or her thankless father could’ve bought one at the souvenir stand…or I could’ve walked her over to the front row and called out to the players on her behalf. But instead, the entire left side of Shea Stadium robbed her of the pleasure of getting a ball on her own. As for me, I can’t count that ball in my grand total. What am I supposed to say? I caught seven but I have six? No. That’s messy. My number of balls reflects what I own.

ArsenaultrobinsonI left the section and killed some time at the Marlins’ dugout until the end of batting practice. Then I got two balls within two minutes from two coaches: Pierre Arsenault and Bill Robinson. That made me feel a little better.

Marlins starter A.J. Burnett, topping out at 97mph and mixing in some 88mph change-ups and 81mph curves, had a no-hitter through six innings. Initially, I was glued to my so-so foul ball seat along the 3rd base line, but then I got antsy. Once Victor Diaz broke up the gem with an opposite field flare in the bottom of the 7th, I headed up to the Loge and found an empty seat in foul-tip heaven.

Nothing in the 8th.
Nothing in the top of the 9th.
The game was tied, 2-2.

Normally, I go to the winning team’s dugout for the final out and normally, when the Mets take a tie into the bottom of the 9th, I head to their dugout just in case. But last night, I had such a good seat that I decided to stay put. Todd Jones came in to pitch. Diaz took a called strike three. Carlos Beltran struck out swinging and once again got showered with boos. (I know how that feels.) Cliff Floyd worked out a walk. David Wright stepped to the plate and quickly fell into an 0-2 hole. Then came the foul tip I’d been waiting for, a low laser that was heading 15 feet to my right. I’d already jumped up and started bolting through the skinny aisle, but I was too late. Lucky me: the ball bounced off the hands of two gloveless men and popped into the aisle. Unlucky me: the ball bounced into the sloped runway between sections 3 and 5. Lucky me: no one was standing there, so I rounded the corner and darted after it. Unlucky me: the ball was already rolling away from me toward the concourse. I chased after it, HOPING that no one was down there. It was late. Lots of fans had already left. The crowd hadn’t even been that big in the first place. ball2707davidwrightfoultip.jpgPlease! Please, concourse, be empty! I heard footsteps right behind me. Even if the concourse was empty, I’d have to pounce on the ball immediately and snatch it cleanly on the first try. The ball rolled all the way across the concourse as I was still making my way through the runway. Lucky me: the concourse was empty. I sprinted after the ball and caught up to it just as it hit a little concrete lip and skipped up into my glove. The fan who’d been running behind me begged for the ball and said he was hoping to get it for his little girl, who hadn’t been wearing a glove because she was born without hands. Just kidding. He gave me a high-five, and that was the end of it.

Extra innings. No runs in the 10th. No runs in the 11th. I’d made up my mind to stay in Loge and was hoping that the game would last 20 innings. The Mets, who ended up going a combined 4-for-40, saved two of their hits for the bottom of the 12th. Wright belted a two-out double–his 41st of the season–to right-center. Then, after Brian Moehler intentionally walked Mike Piazza, rookie Mike Jacobs yanked a grounder just inside 1st base and down the right field line. Game over. No dugout for me. My day ended with nine balls. (Should’ve been 10.)

STATS:

DoccramerCPB = 1.33

• 276 balls in 37 games this season = 7.5 balls per game

• 421 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 47 consecutive games with at least three balls

• 88 lifetime game balls (not counting the hundreds of game-used balls that’ve been tossed to me over the years)

• 1,062 lifetime “Major League Balls”…passes my total of 1,060 “National League Balls.” The record-breaking 1,061st major league ball was the one from Robinson.

• 2,707 total balls…moves me ahead of Doc Cramer (2,705) and into 57th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Billy Williams (2,711).

Ball #2,700

I take my milestones seriously, so I’m excited to be heading off to Shea with a lifetime ball total of 2,698.

The last time I caught fewer than two balls at Shea was on August 24, 2004 when I got just one. That was 31 Mets games ago for me, so the odds are that I’ll reach 2,700 tonight. It probably won’t be a very exciting ball in the grand scheme of things. I predict someone on the Mets will toss it my way. Hmm. Who might it be? I’ll go with Tom Glavine. Why not.

Weather permitting, I’m planning to go to Shea for the next three nights. The Marlins have always been a generous team, so I should do pretty well…

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