April 2006

4/26/06 at Yankee Stadium

Game time was 7:05pm.
The stadium opened at 5:05pm.

I was there at 4pm, and this was the view right before the #4 train pulled into 161st Street…

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I don’t get nervous anymore at Shea Stadium. My heart might beat a little quicker as the gates open, but it’s more adrenaline than anxiety because I know that I won’t be going home empty-handed. Even though I’d snagged at least one ball at each of my last 97 Yankee games, there were plenty of times–21 to be exact–when I’d only snagged one. There’s no guarantee at Yankee Stadium. The average attendance is 50,000, and it’s almost impossible to get to the dugouts. On top of that, Yankee fans are savages.

I was the first fan to enter the ballpark, and I raced through the concourse and runway and into the right field seats. With a huge crowd behind me, I knew I’d only have the section to myself for a few seconds, so I quickly looked for loose balls.

Nothing.

A minute later, the narrow aisle behind the outfield wall was nearly full. The batter hit a ball to the warning track. Yankees pitcher Ron Villone started walking over, and everyone jostled for position. Villone flipped up the ball without looking. Everybody else reached. I jumped and plucked it out of the air with my bare hand.

“Next one you steal,” said the man on my right, “you’re goin’ over the edge.”

The next one I stole was from the Yankees. Bernie Williams was taking fungos in right field and missed an in-between hop. The ball rolled to the wall, and I got it with my glove trick. Less than a minute later, I caught a Johnny Damon homer.

This was fun.

labeledballs2773&2774.jpgI had to wait for the opportune moment to sit down and label my last two balls. If I’d labeled the first one right away, I would’ve missed the Damon homer.

“Excuse me,” said another man. “Weren’t you just on TV on the Mets channel?”

“Yeah, that’s me!”

“Hey listen,” he said, “I’m here with my kids. Can you give them some tips on how to get balls?”

“Uh, well, I’m kinda busy right now…but if you go to MLBlogs.com, your kids can check out my blog and read about everything I do at games. It’s called ‘The Baseball Collector’.”

“YOU’RE the baseball collector?!” another fan asked.

“Yeah. That’s me.” And so it went…
I ended up posing for a photograph with the father and his kids. No one asked for my autograph.

I used the glove trick again for ball #4, then ducked into the runway for a moment to coil up my string. The overall fan noise suddenly cranked up a notch, so I looked up, and sure enough, a ball was flying over my head. It landed behind me in the runway and bounced 50 feet away into the concourse, and I was already on the move. I was sure that some lucky stiff who happened to be passing by at THAT moment would end up with the ball…

…but the concourse was empty! The ball ricocheted off a garbage against the back wall, and I was all over it.

A policeman poked his head out around a corner.

“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t mean to disrupt the peace, but I had to get the ball.”

The policeman shrugged.

Back in the seats, I came close to several home runs. On one of them–a rocket by Hideki Matsui–I raced through the aisle and reached up and to my right to make the grab when some monster of a fan stuck up his glove at the last second and caught the ball six inches in front of me. That hurt.

The Devil Rays took the field, and Jonny Gomes promptly started tossing one ball after another into the crowd. The fans dropped one of them onto the warning track, and Gomes left it there. Glove trick! Ball number six! (Every time I used the trick, a swarm of fans asked me how I did it. I answered as quickly as possible and told everyone to read my blog.)

JonnygomesGomes hadn’t seen me use the trick, so I was able to get another ball from him two minutes later. I was at the far end of the section, close to the bleachers in straight-away right field. Gomes underhanded the ball from about 50 feet away, and I could tell right away that it was going to fall short. I jumped up, hung halfway over the slanted concrete ledge, reached way down over the wall (into that alley type area where the ambulances park) and made the catch. That was number seven.

Moments later, I would’ve had an easy chance to use the glove trick again from that corner spot, but a fan had quickly taken that spot when I stepped away, and he wouldn’t let me in.

“You’re NOT gonna let me in?!”

“I don’t like you. You’re annoying. Go away.”

(And YOU, sir, look like you should be the bouncer at a HeII’s Angels social club, except you’re too ugly.)

I went away…and used my glove trick elsewhere.
Then I used it again.
And again.
And again.

I couldn’t believe that NO ONE else had their own trick.
I couldn’t believe that security had no problem with mine.
I couldn’t believe that every time a ball rolled to the wall, the Devil Rays just left it there.
I couldn’t believe that I had just broken my one-day Yankee Stadium record with 11 balls.

I’m ashamed to admit that I had two balls hit my glove in the last few minutes of BP. One was a homer. The other was tossed. I dropped the balls because it was CROWDED, and other people’s gloves smacked into mine. But I was still pissed. Really pissed. I mean, to be THAT close and not come up with those balls–and at a time when every ball would’ve added to my record…

AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

I hadn’t gotten to label my last four balls because I’d gotten them all so quickly. I put the first of the four into my right pants pocket, the second in the left, the third in my right jacket pocket, and the fourth in the left. I don’t think I’ve ever been four balls behind, but because of my pocket pattern, I was able to remember which ball was which and write the appropriate numbers on them after BP.

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The grounds crew did their thing, and eventually, half a dozen D’Rays came out to run and stretch. If I could’ve gotten down to the dugout, I would’ve gotten a ball from Tomas Perez, but instead, I had to go all the way down the 3rd base line, where there wasn’t much action. I did, however, get five autographs: Nick Green, Ty Wigginton, and Jonny Gomes on that day’s ticket stub…Carl Crawford on an Orioles-Devil Rays stub from last year…and Joey Gathright on a Yankees-Devil Rays stub from 2004.

Earlier in the day, I’d been thinking about sitting near the foul pole in the right field upper deck. It’d been empty there the night before, and I was willing to lower my odds of getting a game ball in exchange for having that potential ball be a home run. But now that I had a record in progress, I didn’t care what kind of ball I got. I just wanted ONE more ball to extend my record and undo the pain and sorrow from having missed those two balls at the end of BP. Naturally, I decided to go for foul balls. I just had to pick a side of the stadium. First base for righties? Third base for lefties? At Yankee Stadium, there’s no running back and forth. It’s too crowded, and security is too strict, so I paid close attention as the starting lineups were announced and counted the lefties on both teams…Carl Crawford, Tomas Perez, Travis Lee, Joey Gathright, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Bubba Crosby. That was 10. That meant there were only eight righties. There’d be more foul balls hit to the 3rd base side, so I chose a seat on that side of home plate, just behind the main aisle.

It was a good spot, not only because a foul tip could come right to me, but also because the facade of the press level was directly above me. If a foul ball were to shoot 40 feet over my head, it might hit the facade and drop straight down. This was my view…

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In the first inning, several foul tips came close enough that I had reason to jump out of my seat and race down the aisle–but they weren’t close enough. Still, I knew it was gonna be a good night. Seth McClung, the 6’6″, 250-pound starter for the Devil Rays, was throwing gas. (An hour and a half later, on his 103rd pitch of the game, he hit 98mph.)

In the bottom of the 2nd, Cano fouled off a couple pitches to work the count to 2-2. Normally, I sit on the edge of my seat in anticipation, but before this next pitch, I just felt something. I can’t really describe it. All I can say is that I knew he was going to hit one my way.

And he did.

It was like some weird sixth-sense thing. The ball flew 40 feet over my head, hit the facade, and dropped right into the aisle. I would’ve caught it on the descent, but my path to the aisle was blocked by a couple of vendors. (I couldn’t predict THAT.) The whole event seemed to play out in slow motion–I knew where the ball was going and watched helplessly, blocked by these vendors, as it floated to the ground. To everyone else, it must’ve seemed like the ball shot back and slammed down in the blink of an eye because no one else was even out of their seats. Luckily, when the ball hit the concrete aisle and bounced back up, it clipped the back of the seats in front of me and settled at my feet. I had my 12th ball of the day.

Canomcclung“Nice catch!” said a lady who passed by moments later.

“Well, actually, I didn’t CATCH it.”

“Oh, you weren’t the one that caught that foul ball?”

“No–oh, nevermind. Thank you.”

The fan across the staircase asked to see the ball, so I handed it over.

“You know,” he said, “they rub up these balls with mud.”

“Yeah, Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. All professional teams use it. Secret ingredients. Comes from a tributary of the Delaware River in Southern New Jersey.”

“How do you know that!” he demanded.

The fan behind me asked about the ball, then about me, and I briefly told him about my collection.

“You should be on TV,” he said.

I really thought I was going to get another foul ball. It was only the 2nd inning, and the game was crawling along. McClung was throwing lots of pitches. “More opportunities for me,” I thought, but nothing else came my way.

I really wanted the Yankees to lose. I mean, I pretty much always want them to lose, but it was especially important on this night. After games, it’s always easier to get a ball at the visiting team’s dugout–that is, if the visiting team wins–so I was bummed when Gary Sheffield tied the game at 2-2 with a two-run homer in the bottom of the 5th…and that’s how the score remained through nine innings.

I love Mariano Rivera. He’s one of the few Yankees that I will absolutely never EVER root against, but let’s just say that I didn’t exactly mind when the Devil Rays scored two runs off him in the top of the 10th.

In the bottom of the frame, Posada drew a leadoff walk, Cano and pinch hitter Bernie Williams struck out, and Damon walked. Mr. Clutch–that would be Derek Jeter–then followed with a single to load the bases and bring up Sheffield. It was very exciting. Two outs. Bottom of the 10th. Bases loaded. Tying run in scoring position. Shawn Camp on the mound?! Almost didn’t seem like a fair matchup. I was all set for Sheff to end my night with a three-run double to left-center, but instead, he grounded out to Wiggy at 3rd base. Game over.

I bolted down the steps toward the dugout, fighting my way past the dozens of fans who were making their way out. (Silly people.) The Devil Rays gathered near the mound, slapped hands, bumped fists, patted each other’s arses, and made their way back.

No balls.
Dammit!
But wait!

The unused relief pitchers were slowly making their way in from the bullpen. At some ballparks, they go from the ‘pen to the clubhouse via the underground concourse, but in the Bronx, they just walk across the field. Finally, Yankee Stadium was doing something for me.

The seats behind the dugout were nearly empty by the time Scott Dunn approached. Actually, I didn’t know it was him at the time, and I wasn’t sure if he even had a ball, so I made a generic request. It worked. He did, indeed, have a ball tucked inside his glove, and he tossed it to me. THIRTEEN!

A couple of tourists asked me to take their picture. I asked them to wait one minute because I saw a couple more guys coming in from the bullpen. I had no idea who they were…until I remembered what my ball-snagging friend Dan (a.k.a. “drosenda” for those of you who read the comments) had told me earlier in the day:

Bobbyramos_1“Head to the bullpen, and ask Tampa Bay bullpen coach Bobby Ramos (#7) for a ball in Spanish. He is short, squatty mexican dude if he has his warmup over his number.”

Yes! It was Ramos!

“Bobby!! Bobby!!” I shouted as he approached the dugout. He looked up, pulled a ball out of his back pocket and flipped it to me.

Fourteen.

I took a pic of the tourists, then handed them my camera and ran down to the first row and help up my final ball…

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What a day. I take back everything bad that I said about Yankee Stadium. (Okay, almost everything.)

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STATS:

• 14 balls = a new one-day record for Yankee Stadium, breaking my old high of 10 on May 10, 2005.

• 33 balls in 4 games this season = 8.25 balls per game.

• 431 consecutive games with at least one ball

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• 57 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 56 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 90 lifetime game balls

• 8 consecutive seasons with at least one game ball

• 2,785 total balls moves me into 44th place on the all-time hits list ahead of Andre Dawson (2,774). Next up is George Sisler (2,812).

M is for Masochist

I’ve decided that I should go to Yankee Stadium at least once this season…you know, just to remind myself how much I hate it. So I’m going tomorrow. Wish me luck.

SportsNet NY critique

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Just had a few friends over to watch my TV appearance with me, and I like how it turned out. I hadn’t caught THAT many balls for the cameras…and I wasn’t interviewed for more than a few minutes on Day Two…and there were some issues with my microphone, but none of that made too big of a difference. The SportsNet NY team did a fabulous zackontv2.jpgjob of editing the footage and producing two great (in my opinion) segments, which lasted much longer than I expected. My only complaint is that my name was spelled “Zach” in the first show, but hey…not the end of the world.

If you saw either of the shows (“Kids Clubhouse” and “Mets Weekly”), let me know what you thought. And if you missed them, they’ll be running all week in New York and New Jersey.

4/18/06 at Shea Stadium

The day started at 11am when the SNY film crew met me at my parents’ place. I’d gotten four hours of sleep.

I was shocked when I walked into my old bedroom. The shelves weren’t empty, and the walls weren’t bare; my dad had redecorated with my old baseball stuff that I’d recently put in storage: trophies, posters, and dozens of colorful Topps baseball card boxes. Awesome! The barren room had life once again as a baseball shrine. And, in addition, I’d brought all 30 of my major league team caps and arranged them in one long row (alphabetically, of course) on the counter.

I embrace the fact that I’m a dork–but to a certain point. Thus, I made sure to tell the camera that this was my CHILDHOOD bedroom at my PARENTS’ place. I opened the drawers, uncovered the barrels, unzipped the duffel bag, and started showing specific balls to the camera. I showed my batting gloves, lineup cards, baseball cards, caps, and more. Good times. I loved every second of it.

For years, my dad and I have had a friendly “who’s more famous” contest. He’s had over 20 books published (including a bestseller called “Children’s Letters to God“) and been on TV and written plays and movies and drawn two syndicated cartoon strips–but I’ve had a pretty good run of my own in the last few years. Well, when SNY said they wanted to interview my parents, I gave my dad heII about riding my coattails and appearing in MY segment.

“Are you kidding?!” he said. “It makes me look like a **** to be a hanger-on.”

He and my mom were interviewed in the living room…

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…and they did an outstanding job. When my dad was asked what he thought about my collection, it would’ve been easy for him to poke fun, but instead he talked about how it makes me unique and how my passion is wonderful and that with the current steroid controversy, baseball should embrace a story like this. Meanwhile, my mom was her usual charming self, telling fun stories and even showing a photograph of my first step.

The crew was done at 12:30pm, four hours before we’d meet again at Shea Stadium’s Press Gate. I packed up my 30 caps, straightened the balls, ordered Chinese food (beef w/ broccoli and a baked roast pork bun), and went home for a way-too-brief nap.

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The day before, the scoreboard marquee featured Pedro’s attempt at career win No. 200. But on Tuesday, it wasn’t quite as exciting. I mean, c’mon…Xavier Nady with Jesus Jones lyrics?!

I met the SNY guys at the Press Gate. One of them said they had some other business to take care of and told me to wait outside.

I ended up waiting for an hour. No joke. And the whole time, fans were streaming past me and heading inside for batting practice. It was painful, but I’ll spare you the details. I really don’t know why I waited so long, but anyway, I finally walked up to the security checkpoint.

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“Excuse me,” I said. “By any chance, do you have credentials for Zack Hample? That’s H-A-M-P-L-E.” (Turns out I should’ve spelled my first name.)

“Yeah, I got it right here.”

I signed the waiver and logbook and walked through the hallway and tunnel and out toward the warning track behind home plate. The SNY guy was there. He was surprised to see me and admitted that he’d spaced out. He didn’t need me until close to game time…so I stood helplessly on the warning track as the Mets came off the field and tossed balls right to the spot above the dugout where I would’ve been. I zackonfield2.jpggot to wander a bit and take a few pics, but don’t let this smile fool you. I didn’t give a damn about standing on the field. All I wanted was to get up into the seats and try to salvage the day. My god, I had a streak of 429 consecutive games on the line. The last time I’d been to a game and DIDN’T catch at least one ball was September 2, 1993. And now, for no good reason, the streak was in serious jeopardy.

Despite Xavier Nady being the best selling point that the Mets could come up with, the stadium was still packed, just like the day before. I went behind 3rd base, hoping for a ball from Chipper Jones or Pete Orr. They were taking fungos. Maybe the batter would hit an extra ball their way? Nope. Nothing. I raced to the left field corner, hoping for a ball from any one of the Braves pitchers who were standing around. Remlinger? Reitsma? Smoltz? Hudson? Nothing. Even Roger McDowell dissed me. I was there too late. No glove trick. No foul balls. It was dead. And I was crapping my pants.

FredigonzalezI went to the Braves dugout right before the end of BP. I hadn’t gotten anything there the day before, but I NEEDED to make this work. When the last round was done and the players and coaches started picking up the balls, I started shouting at Fredi Gonzalez, the 3rd base coach. He was the only guy that didn’t immediately toss his few balls into the bag. I yelled again. And again. I wasn’t sure if he could hear me. He was 100 feet away, and everyone else was yelling for autographs. People, Chipper is NOT going to sign for you so just shaddap!!! Fredi looked up, but he still dropped his balls in the bag. No wait! Did he hold onto one of them? He started walking toward me, and I kept yelling. He was still 50 feet away and put his hand up as if to say, “Jee-zus, kid, calm down,” but the desperation in my voice must’ve worked because right as he approached, he took a ball out of his glove and tossed it to me.

Good lord.

I realized that my 55-game streak of three or more balls per game was in danger, but I didn’t care.

I found the crew and met 15-year-old Amanda Cole, the host of “Kids Clubhouse” (and daughter of Kenneth Cole). The producer told me that she was gonna ask me for my five best tips on how to snag baseballs. While the sound guy hooked me up with a microphone, I thought it over and jotted down a quick list. We had a couple minutes to spare, so I ran to the bathroom and wondered if the whole crew was listening to me taking a leak. In case they were, I decided to tell them a story, so I tilted my head and started talking quietly into my collar. The guy at the next urinal must’ve been a bit worried. Once I was out, Amanda and I grabbed a couple seats right behind home plate, and we did the mini-interview in one take. She asked me the question, and I told her:

1. Bring a glove and attend batting practice.
2. Sit on the aisle so you can get up and run for balls.
3. Bring rosters of both teams and call the players by their first names.
4. Learn how to ask foreign players for balls in their native languages.
5. Bring a hat of the visiting team.

The producer told me to meet the crew in the Loge at the start of the game. That was 20 minutes away, so I grabbed an overpriced/forgettable slice of pepperoni pizza and tried to get another ball. Right field corner? No. Coach Tom Nieto gave it to a little girl. Third base dugout? Got there too late. The concourse behind the plate was packed. (New Shea, where are you?!) First base dugout? Thanks for waving at me, Mr. Delgado, but what I wanted was the ball. I should’ve known he’d hold onto it. He needed it to warm up the infielders, but I was still annoyed. I had five minutes. Was there time for Carvel? Yes? No? Maybe? I decided against it and headed upstairs. I would’ve gotten vanilla in a waffle cone with rainbow sprinkles. Mmm.

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We completely missed the top of the 1st. While we were getting set up and figuring out the plan, the Braves scored two runs off Victor Zambrano (a.k.a. “Not Kazmir”). Then I started doing my thing, playing righties and lefties differently by running back and forth from runway to runway on opposite sides of home plate–and the entourage followed. It was me, Amanda (who was scared of getting hit by a ball), Amanda’s security guard, two camera men, and a sound guy.

Once again, the crew decided to follow me for a mere two innings (which lasted just 20 minutes because EVERYONE, it seemed, was swinging at the first pitch), and during that time, the closest foul ball landed 40 feet to our right. And that was it.

I was un-miked. We said our goodbyes. And for a second straight night, I promised that I wouldn’t use my credentials to visit the Press Box or clubhouse, though it was tempting. I didn’t do it for three reasons:

1. I didn’t want to get in trouble.
2. I’ve been there before.
3. I’ll be there again.

Okay, four reasons:

4. Security granted me “diplomatic immunity,” and I just wanted to take advantage of it and be left alone.

Of course, there were no foul tips, at least not in my vicinity, and when Delgado popped out to end the game (served him right), I still had just one ball. Of course, I had a plan for getting one more…

Instead of going to the Braves dugout, I went back to the fancy seats behind the plate to try to get a ball from the home plate umpire as he left the field and walked through the skinny little runway. The fans sitting right above the end of the runway stood up. Were they leaving or getting in position to ask for a ball?

“Excuse me,” I said as I entered their row.

“Not gonna happen, pal,” snapped the guy closest to me.

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I found a spot on the edge of the runway, one row in front of him, and when the ump passed through moments later, he tossed up a ball, and I reached out and grabbed it. That ump, I found out later when I looked at the box score, was Marty Foster.

STATS:

• 19 balls in three games this season = 6.3 balls per game

• 430 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 56 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 2,771 total balls

As I mentioned before, I was filmed for two shows. One is called “Mets Weekly.” The other is “Kids Clubhouse.” I was told that they’re supposed to air back-to-back starting at 11:30am (or noon) on Saturday, April 22nd, and that they’ll run on and off all week. If you live in New York or New Jersey and have Time Warner, this’ll be on Channel 26. For the rest of you, I will attempt to upload the segments–but I’m pretty dumb with techie stuff, so wish me luck…

4/17/06 at Shea Stadium

Yesterday, the first-place Mets faced the hated Atlanta Braves, and Pedro Martinez was going for his 200th career win…

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Chilly weeknight in April? Didn’t matter. Shea was jumping. The whole day was exciting for me as a baseball fan–but as a baseball collector who was about to be filmed for SportsNet NY (SNY), it made me jittery. But at least it was sunny. Normally, the weather gods poop on me whenever I have a big interview.

June 11, 1996…the day a reporter came to Shea to watch me catch my 1,000th ball? BP was rained out.

June 29, 1999…the day CNN took me to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia? BP was rained out.

August 24, 2004…the day FoxSports sent a film crew to Shea to catch me in action? Yeah.

Anyway, I was supposed to be at the Press Gate at 4:30pm, and of course I got there way too early. I had some time to kill, so I started–

“Are you Zack?”

I looked up. A man with one of those fancy laminated media badges was walking toward me. I shook his hand.

“Are you Andrew?”

It wasn’t Andrew. It was Tony. Andrew was the SNY producer who’d be doing my segment. He’d sent this guy to look for me.

Tony brought me to the security checkpoint where I signed a waiver (didn’t read it) and some sort of logbook. The young woman seated behind the table then handed me a media pass…

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“credentials!”

Not counting the time when a fan who was holding my legs dropped me, I’d only been on the field a couple times before–once for Banner Day back in 1993 and again the next year for a tryout–so it was pretty exciting to get to walk through the tunnel and out below the seats and onto the warning track directly behind home plate.

The Mets pitchers were taking early BP, and several position players were throwing in front of the dugout. Julio Franco walked right past us.

Tony introduced me to Andrew and the rest of the film crew, and we all hung out there and talked about what I’d be doing and how they’d get it on film. Andrew told me that this wasn’t going to be a straight-up interview, but rather a first-person account of what I was doing and why I was doing it. In other words, I was going to have to keep talking to the camera and explain all my strategies/neuroses as the day progressed.

I was PUMPED.
But I had to wait there…and NOT take pictures…and NOT ask for balls…until 4:40pm. That’s when the gates opened for the regular fans. (Heh. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

The crew had hooked me up with a microphone. They put the transmitter in my pocket and ran the wire up the inside of my shirt and clipped the mic where it wouldn’t be seen. Unfortunately, it ended up slipping out of place a few times, so in addition to the main camera, Andrew used a palmcorder for backup.

I headed out to the right field seats, and the four-person crew followed me. Ushers were stepping aside, and fans were staring. It felt incredible to be the center of attention. I mean, what can I say? It really did. I don’t consider myself famous. I suppose I’m well known…but only in the baseball world, and even within this world, I try to lay low at games and blend in. But yesterday, there was no blending. I had the opportunity to play the role of celebrity, and I went with it.

Within a couple minutes, I got Mets pitcher Jorge Julio to toss me a ball. Phew! I was in shallow right field, along the foul line, and Julio was way out on the warning track in front of the Mets bullpen. The seats were mostly empty. I shouted. He looked up. I waved. We made eye contact. He lobbed the ball from about 100 feet away. It was all pretty standard stuff, but it felt great. I held up the ball for the camera and showed how I numbered it, and I explained that I keep a ball log on my computer and that I’d type up all the details when I got home.

Andrew did ask me a few questions here and there, just to prompt me. I assume those questions will be edited out…but anyway, he wanted me to give an intro to the camera, so I said something like, “Hi, I’m Zack, and I collect baseballs at major league games. We’re here at Shea Stadium on April 17th. Pedro’s going for his 200th win, and I’m going for as many baseballs as possible.” He had me say some other stuff including, “Hi, I’m Zack, the baseball collector, and you’re watching Mets Weekly.” I nailed most of the lines on the first shot, but a few times, I muffed a certain word or went on too long, so he had me try it again. Fun, fun, fun.

Some other fans had found their way out to my section, so I told the camera that it was time to head up to my corner spot in the Loge Level. I did well in that spot at my last game, getting balls from Tom Glavine, Victor Diaz, Chris Woodward, Endy Chavez, and bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello. Yesterday, I was afraid that all those guys would remember me, but luckily, there was a whole different batch of players out in right field. With the cameras rolling, I got balls thrown to me by Brian Bannister, Victor Zambrano, Billy Wagner, and Duaner Sanchez. NICE! I had five balls, and it was only 5:10pm.

Twenty minutes later, I hurried back downstairs and ran through the main aisle to the Mets dugout. Of course, I first had to tell the camera why, then look into it and say, “C’mon! Let’s go!”

MannyactaSomehow–actually I don’t know how because it was seriously crowded–I was able to squirm into the front row behind the dugout. When the Mets came off the field after BP, I got a ball from coach Manny Acta. That guy is my hero. He tossed me two balls in 2003, two more in 2004, four in 2005, and two already this year in only two games. That’s TEN balls, and there might be more. I didn’t start my ball log until ’03.

I switched from my Mets cap to my Braves cap, got heckled for it–on camera–by two fans, and headed to the 3rd base side. That’s when I ran into my friend Sean…the guy who went to Camden Yards with me on September 6, 2005.

Sean knew what was up. I handed him my crappy little digital camera, and he went nuts with it.

The stadium was packed. There was hardly an empty space in the first row all the way around the field. Even the Loge was full, and as a result, I managed just one more ball during the entire Braves batting practice. But it was a good one. Kyle Davies tossed it toward some other people, and it fell short and landed on that fenced off, sloped, grassy area just short of the foul pole…and so, I got to use my glove trick for the cameras. It all happened so fast that I had to take a one-minute timeout from BP and explain it. (I’m wearing the Braves hat…)

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Two little kids, decked out in Mets gear and face paint, started asking me all about the trick. I told them some strategies (“DON’T wear Mets gear…”), and they kept asking questions, and the cameras kept rolling. That happened a few times with other kids over the course of the day.

The cameras followed me to the Braves dugout at the end of BP. Nothing. I was still stuck on seven, which I realize is not terrible, but it was frustrating. I’d gotten five balls in 30 minutes, then two balls in 60 minutes. If ever there was going to be a record-breaking day, why couldn’t THIS be it?

There wasn’t much taking place on the field at this point, so Andrew conducted a mini-interview with me and Sean, then asked Sean a couple questions on his own. When Sean told the camera that I’m crazy, I butted in and told that camera, “In my world, “crazy is a compliment.”

Sean left for his seat in the Mezzanine. The crew took a little break. I scarfed my ham-and-cheese wrap and tried unsuccessfully to get a ball right before the game at the Braves dugout. Then I met up with the crew in the concourse behind home plate, and we all headed up to the Loge.

The Loge is the BEST spot for foul balls, but there weren’t any empty seats, and security had been cracking down on me for standing in the runways.

However…
Having a film crew following me changed everything. The two supervisors who had previously given me a very hard time were as nice as could be. They let me run back and forth from the first base side of home plate to the third, and the crew stayed close behind. I had a couple of close calls on foul balls. First, David Wright tipped one that shot back into a press box. I quickly moved down a few steps, hoping for a better angle when the ball would get tossed down–except it wasn’t. I guess the box was empty, and somehow, the ball trickled back out and plopped right down where I’d been standing two seconds earlier. Still, the fans dropped it, and it bounced down to the step right below me, so I dove headfirst over a railing and tried to grab it while practically doing a handstand. I scraped my right forearm and got bashed in the eye by someone’s elbow, which nearly knocked my glasses off, and I didn’t even get the ball. But hey, THAT’S compelling television. When I got up, I looked into the camera as if it were a mirror and straightened my glasses and said something like, “How do I look? Are my glasses all crooked now? Oh well, whatever. It’s not about beauty. It’s about balls.”

There was some other foul tip on the 3rd base side an inning later. Not as exciting. Pete Orr hit it. The ball shot back straight at me, fell a few rows short, got bobbled, bounced straight up in the air in my direction, and some tall guy in the row right in front of me reached up and snatched it. What the [expletive deleted].

Even though I came close twice in two innings, Andrew decided to stop filming. That was a real bummer. He was a bit nervous to leave me with that press pass–I could’ve used it to get into the press box or even the clubhouse–but I assured him I’d behave. And I did. The supervisors, meanwhile, granted me “diplomatic immunity” for the rest of the night. “Go do your thing,” they said. They even told the ushers to let me stand in the runways. Way cool. But no more balls, and that was almost okay. The cameras were gone, so I felt like it didn’t matter, and anyway, Pedro was going for No. 200. He left after 6 2/3 innings with eight strikeouts and a 4-3 lead. Duaner retired the next four batters, and Billy Wagner tossed a scoreless ninth. The end. Pedro Martinez had reached his milestone, and I was there.

Oh, and by the way, four of my seven balls were of the 2005 All-Star variety, mwahaha.

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STATS:
• 17 balls in two games this season = 8.5 balls per game

• 429 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 55 consecutive games with at least three balls

• 2,769 total balls

—————–
As for today…
Well, it’s now 5:17am. In approximately five and a half hours, the camera crew will be meeting me at my parents’ place. They’re gonna get some footage of ALL the balls and interview my folks. (“So, how does it feel to have a nutjob for a son?”)

Then, I’ll be meeting Andrew at Shea and doing the whole thing over again. Yesterday, I was filmed for “Mets Weekly.” Today, I’ll be interviewed for “Kids Clubhouse.” Two different shows. I’m not sure when they’ll air, but I’ll find out.

Oh, and to MLBlogs:
Happy, HAPPY birthday. Here’s to many more…

Today

2:43pm…

Just talked to the producer from SportsNet NY. He and his crew are gonna film me today and tomorrow at Shea. There’s so much I want to say about this, but I’m meeting them at the Press Gate at 4:30.

Gotta run.
More later…

321 down, 0 to go.

During the off-season, I started taking last year’s balls over to my parents’ place, little by little.

On December 10th, I took 50…

On February 5th, I hauled off another 50…

I wanted to get rid of the remaining 221 balls, but I held off because I was told by a filmmaker (who happens to be a former NFL player) that in early April, he was going to interview me again–this time at home–for his documentary about classic video games. The interview, he said, was going to touch on various aspects of my life, including my baseball collection. I was thinking it’d be nice to actually have a few balls here.

Well, the interview recently fell through (at least for now), so I went ahead and schlepped ALL the remaining balls to my parents’ place.

The duffel bag containing them was so heavy and bulky that I had to take a cab just to go seven blocks, and on top of that, I got some much-needed help from my friend Lia.

Before I dumped the balls into Barrel No. 5, I weighed myself twice–once with the duffel bag and once without–and did the math…

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71 pounds of balls.
(Maybe more like 70 without the bag itself.)

How much does my entire collection weigh?

Hmm…

70 pounds ÷ 221 balls = .316742081448 pounds per ball.

Therefore…

2,762 balls x .316742081448 = 874.84162895938 pounds.

Let’s round up, eh?
We’ll call it 875.
I own 875 pounds of baseballs.

395 more balls, and I’ll have half a ton.

(Why do I spend my time figuring these things out? I swear, it’s all MLBlogs’ fault. If I didn’t have this blog, I wouldn’t bother. Or maybe that’s just a copout. Or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s 4:32am, and I’m not tired enough to go to sleep, but too tired to actually do anything productive.)

In other being-in-front-of-the-camera news…
A TV guy in Houston just emailed me to say that he stumbled across this blog and read my Minute Maid Park entries (here and here in case you missed ‘em) and wants to do a story on me if I’m “planning on making another trip to MMP.” But I’m not. I mean, I hadn’t considered it. I’m making a point of visiting all the ballparks I haven’t yet been to before I start going back to my favorites. It’s just an issue of time and money–nothing major. By the way, I’ve decided to make my trip to PETCO at some point during the final two months of the season.

AND…
I’ve been in touch with a producer from SportsNet NY–the new Mets TV network. I usually avoid talking about these things before they happen because they usually end up NOT happening, but anyway, there’s a chance that I’ll be filmed next week at Shea.

Bat/ball imprint

When I first got the bat from Cliff Floyd, I noticed the following mark but didn’t think much of it…

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Earlier today, after having spent much quality time with the bat (but NOT sleeping with it), it occurred to me how that mark got there. Check it out…

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4/6/06 at Shea Stadium

First game of the season. Chilly but gorgeous. Shea looked good from the #7 train. New coat of paint?

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I was there at 3:40pm, a full hour before Gate C opened. I really didn’t need to be there THAT early, but it paid off. Within the next 30 minutes, Jose Guillen and ESPN announcer Chris Berman showed up, and I got their autographs on last season’s ticket stubs.

Berman personalized it and shook my hand after I started rattling off my favorite nicknames…

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Lance “You Sunk My” Blankenship
Bert “Be Home” Blyleven
Chuck “New Kids On” Knoblauch
Carlos “One If By Land, Two If By Sea, Three If” Baerga
Todd “Snap, Crackle” Van Poppel
C.C. “Splish Splash I Was Taking A” Sabathia
Todd “Which Hand Does He” Frohwirth

And so on.

He was delighted. (No really, he was.)

Gate C opened, and I raced to the right field foul line. I had the whole stadium to myself, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I needed that first ball of the season. My heart was racing. If I got one, I knew everything would be okay…and then, almost immediately, some right-hander on the Mets (possibly Ramon Castro) laced a line drive in my direction. The ball skipped off the warning track and dropped into a little gap between the wall and the stands. There it was, sitting five feet below me on a forgotten patch of dirt. I noticed that it had multi-colored stitches and thought, “Oh great, another one of those stupid no-logo balls…”

A few other fans had made their way inside, but they went straight behind the Mets dugout for autographs. Out in right field, the only other person was a mean old usher who’d been giving me a hard time for years.

“Can I get it?” I asked.
“You know what happens if you go down there,” he growled.
“No no, I don’t need to go down there. I can get it from right here.”

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He gave me a suspicious look and then remembered the glove trick. Awwww, that’s right, baby. Didn’t take long for me to need it–and it didn’t take long to get the ball. I reeled it in and took a look and could not believe what I was holding. It wasn’t a no-logo ball. It was an official 2005 All-Star Game ball! The orange and blue stitches were for the Tigers who hosted the game at Comerica.

2006 was off to a gooooood start…

…that is, until other fans showed up and the usher told me that I had to give away any other balls I caught. He wasn’t kidding.

I headed up to the Loge and settled into my favorite corner spot. I wanted more All-Star balls. The logo on the one I got was partially scuffed. But were there more? Did the Mets get a whole shipment of leftovers and just mix them in with the rest? There was only one way to find out.

Thirty feet below, and to my right, there was a ball sitting in a catcher’s mask on a bench in the Mets bullpen. I kept my eye on it, and when Tom Glavine finished his session with pitching coach Rick Peterson, I called down to the future Hall of Famer. He didn’t see the ball until I explained where it was. Then he walked over, grabbed it, and threw it right to me. All-Star ball?! No. Just a regular one. Poo.

Dave Racaniello, the Mets bullpen catcher, strolled out to right field, and one of the batters promptly hit a ball his way. I called down. He looked up.

“How many balls do you need?” he asked. Unbelievable. My first game in six months, and guys are recognizing me.

“How ’bout a ‘Welcome to 2006′ ball?” I suggested. “And then I’ll shut the **** up.”

He laughed and threw it in my direction, but it fell short and hit the protective screen in front of the DUNKIN DONUTS ad and plopped back down to the field.

“C’mon!” I shouted. “One more try! I can catch!”

He tossed it again, this time right to me, and I had my third ball of the day. All-Star?! Yes, and it was a beauty. No scuff marks at all. Yum.

There was one other fan in the section, a schlumpy middle-aged man with a glove. He was standing several rows back and way over near the foul pole–not the greatest spot.

“Wow! You’re having quite a day!” he shouted.
“So far, so good,” I said.

I didn’t think I’d get any more balls there. I assumed that all the players in right field had heard me yelling at Racaniello. So when a ball rolled to the wall and Victor Diaz jogged over to retrieve it, I called his first name softly, almost apologetically. He looked up. I held my glove open. He tossed me the ball. All-Star?! No. I was disappointed. And then I was almost embarrassed. I felt bad for the other guy in my section, but he didn’t seem angry or jealous or anything.

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Two minutes later, I got another ball from Chris Woodward. More disappointment. Funny how that works. And two minutes after that, I got ANOTHER ball–my sixth of the day–from Endy Chavez. It wasn’t an All-Star ball, and it wasn’t a regular ball. It was something I’d never seen: an “official training ball.” What the–

But hey, cool, I’ll take it. It’s one more interesting ball to add to the collection.

The other fan wandered over and asked, “What’s the most balls y’ever got in one game?”
“Nineteen,” I admitted.
“God bless,” he said.

It was 5:30pm. I headed back to the field level, ran to the Mets dugout, and worked my way down to the front row. When the Mets’ BP ended a few minutes later, I got a dirty All-Star ball from 3rd base coach Manny Acta and a bat from Cliff Floyd.

Yeah. A bat.

Only my second one in over 600 games. Just like that. I hadn’t even asked for it. As Floyd had been heading off the field, we made eye contact, and he tossed it to me, right over the dugout roof. There were guys on both sides of me, and they grabbed it just after I got my hands on it.

“Mine!! Mine!! Mine!! Mine!! Mine!!” I yelled. “I got it!!!” And thankfully, they let go.

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It’s easy to claim a ball. It’s palm-sized. When it’s in your hand, it’s in YOUR hand. But a bat? There’s lots of room for other hands.

Surprisingly, the bat wasn’t broken. But it wasn’t one of his gamers. Those are black and red. This one was white. It smelled like pine tar, and it was still a bit sticky.

Clifffloyd_2Suddenly, I was the man. Everyone was coming up to me and asking how I got it (luck) and if I knew him (no) and if could they hold it (sure!) and if I was gonna get him to autograph it (dunno). The attention continued for the rest of the night. At first it was cool. Eventually, it became a burden. The bat didn’t fit in my backpack, so I had to carry it with one of my two precious ball-snagging hands. And I stuck out. There were times during the game when I wanted to move from section to section, but I knew that security would’ve spotted me. I got some interesting looks in the bathroom.

I was so happy that it truly didn’t matter what happened for the rest of the night–yet it occurred to me that I was just three balls away from double digits.

Ryan Zimmerman was taking fungos at 3rd base. He ignored me and was rather snotty about it, but Royce Clayton came to the rescue and flipped me a ball. Another green one.

I grabbed my bat and hurried to the left field corner. People wanted to talk. I was on a mission. It was crowded out there, and most of the balls were being thrown to little kids and guys who could speak Spanish way better than me. Fair enough.

Someone on the Nationals smoked a drive down the 3rd base line. The ball hit a three-wheeler that was parked on the warning track in foul territory and caromed into shallow left field. One of the players came over and grabbed it. I had no idea who it was, but it didn’t matter because everyone was shouting and jostling for position. He flipped it up and to my right. I lunged through the pack, jumped a few inches, and snatched it above everyone’s head with my bare hand. (Another training ball.) The guy had a distinctive face, and when I got home, I revisited the Nationals’ roster and realized it was Damian Jackson.

Ten minutes later, right before the end of BP, I got my 10th ball from Felix Rodriguez. (Yet another training ball. I don’t know how I feel about this.)

So I had 10 balls, and nine of them were thrown–and the one that was hit hadn’t even come right to me. That’s Shea Stadium for you. Terrible design. Can’t wait ’til 2009 when the New Shea will supposedly open. Look at all those Field Level seats in fair territory! Home runs galore! Actually, I’m not thrilled with the design of the new ballpark, and in a few days, I might write a whole entry about it.

Anyway, I went to the dugout as the Nationals finished BP. Nothing.
I went to LF when the catchers were warming up before the National Anthem. Nothing.
I went to the dugout right before the game. Nothing.
During the game, I sat right behind the main aisle on the 3rd base side. Nothing.
After the game, I went to the Mets dugout. Nothing.

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But that was fine. I had 10 balls, two autographs, and a bat.
Plus, the game itself was great. Pedro Martinez made his first start. Carlos Beltran picked up his first hit of the season–a two-run homer that extended the Mets lead to 8-5. Jose Reyes tripled. David Wright had three hits and, despite it being just the third game of the season, got an “M-V-P!” chant from the crowd. And there was nearly a brawl.

When Guillen got beaned for the second time, he walked halfway out toward the mound and pointed his bat at Pedro before being restrained. The dugouts emptied. Guys ran in from the bullpens. Good stuff. Then, just a few innings later, Felix Rodriguez was ejected (along with manager Frank Robinson) when he plunked Paul Lo Duca. There was even an appearance by the tallest player in Major League history. This game had it all.

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STATS:

• 10 balls = the 2nd highest total in my first game of a new season. On April 15, 1999, I opened with an 11-ball performance.

• 428 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 54 games with at least three balls

• 55 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 2,762 total balls

• You may recall that in the middle of 2005, I started competing with the all-time hits leaders…you know, comparing my ball total to players’ career hits…just for fun. So my new lifetime total moves me into 45th place ahead of Vada Pinson (2,757). Next up is Andre Dawson (2,774).

I’m not sure when I’ll make it back to Shea, so for now, I’ll leave you with a few pics I took when I got home…

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“Look at all those fans dressed as empty seats.”

On Opening Day, there were 54,371 fans at Shea.
Last night, the attendance dropped to 19,557.

Wow.

AccuWeather.com says it’s gonna be clear today–and if that’s the case, then I’m going.

FYI, I’m working on an active streak of 427 games at which I’ve caught at least one ball…

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