June 2006

Competition Factor

What’s more impressive…Snagging four balls at a sold out Yankee Stadium or getting seven balls at a half-empty Shea?

Earlier this season, a fellow baseball collector named Nick created a statistic called “fans per ball.” After several of his games at RFK Stadium, he divided the attendance by the number of balls he caught. He was onto something. I’d been keeping track of attendance since 2001, but never knew what to do with it (other than complain).

But now, thanks to Nick, I’ve come up with a new statistic: Competition Factor.

Instead of dividing by the number of fans, this stat will be calculated by multiplying…so the higher the number, the better. If you catch five balls at a game with 10,000 fans, the Competition Factor is 50,000. Two balls at Fenway? The Competition Factor will be about 73,000.

At my last game at Shea, I snagged seven balls, and the attendance was 49,758. Competition Factor: 348,306.

On September 6, 2005, I got 17 balls at Camden Yards, but the attendance was just 20,729. As a result, my Competition Factor was only slightly better at 352,393.

My best performance ever took place on September 18, 1999 at Turner Field. (Yes, I’m such a dweeb that I once spent a whole day looking up old attendances.) With a crowd of 47,576, I caught 12 balls for a Competition Factor of 570,912.

It’s tough to break half a million. The only other times I did it were:

• 509,325 on 5/31/05 at Shea Stadium (15 balls, 33,955 fans)
• 504,543 on 6/13/06 at Citizens Bank Park (13 balls, 38,811 fans)

Other than the few times I got shut out in the early 1990s, my worst Competition Factor was 12,838. That was on May 6, 1996 at Yankee Stadium. One ball. No BP. Bleh.

What do YOU think about this new stat?
Are you now tempted to attend crowded games?
What’s your best/worst Competition Factor ever?
Do you think it’s possible to reach 1 million?

————-
UPDATE!!!
New Competition Factor record:
• 899,955 on 9/19/07 at Chase Field (21 balls, 42,855 fans)

2006 All-Stars

There are four days left to vote for the 2006 All-Star Game, and as far as I’m concerned, the only players who are eligible are the ones who’ve thrown me balls:

2006allstars.jpg

Therefore, I’m going with the following:

AMERICAN LEAGUE————————–NATIONAL LEAGUE
1B Travis Lee————————————-1B Todd Helton
2B Ronnie Belliard——————————2B Ryan Freel
SS Miguel Tejada——————————–SS Jose Reyes
3B Mike Lowell———————————–3B Vinnie Castilla…oh no, wait, David Wright
C Bengie Molina———————————C Brian McCann
LF Magglio Ordonez—————————-LF Adam Dunn
CF Scott Podsednik—————————–CF Andruw Jones
RF Ichiro Suzuki———————————-RF Carlos Beltran
P Roy Halladay———————————–P Tom Glavine

Here’s my ultimate All-Star team:
1B Don Mattingly
2B Craig Biggio
TonygwynnSS Ozzie Smith
3B Scott Rolen
C Mike Piazza
LF Rickey Henderson
CF Ichiro Suzuki
RF Tony Gwynn
DH Mark McGwire*
Starter: Greg Maddux
Middle reliever: Dwight Gooden
Lefty specialist: Billy Wagner
Set-up man: Trevor Hoffman
Closer: Mariano Rivera

For the complete list of guys who’ve thrown me balls, CLICK HERE.

6/21/06 at Shea Stadium

My day started with a trip to Barnes & Noble for a Bucky Dent book signing.
At the expense of looking like a stalker, I’d brought my old Bucky Dent’s Baseball School t-shirt, as well as the old photo of the two of us. This was my first chance to talk to him in 13 years. I needed to trigger his memory, or at least get him to engage me a little longer than he otherwise would’ve–and he did.

He asked me what I was up to these days, and when exactly I’d attended his school. I told him I was there when Ozzie Smith and Mike Piazza visited.

“Oh!” he said. “That’s when we put in the new turf field. Must’ve been ’91 or ’92.”

He was right.

We kept talking, but it was rushed. I hate that. Even though there was no one else waiting, security was getting antsy and trying to usher me away. Bucky didn’t let ‘em. He saw my camera and told me to walk around to his side of the table for a picture. Joy.

Buckyzack

My whole trip to Barnes & Noble lasted just 15 minutes, so I had time to visit a REAL book store–my family’s place–before heading home and back out to Shea.

newsheaconstruction.jpg

It was another gorgeous day. First day of summer. I knew there’d be a big crowd, but I had to be there. When I stepped off the #7 train, I noticed the first signs of construction on the new ballpark. A huge portion of the parking lot had been blocked off with a blue fence, and there was a crane in the middle. Bring it on.

Gate C opened at 4:40pm, and I made my customary beeline toward the right field Loge. I got my corner spot, but it wasn’t doing me much good. All the batters were right-handed, and all the outfield shaggers were tossing balls to fans on the Field Level. Half an hour later, my backpack’s ball pouch was still empty.

Enter Pedro Martinez.

pedromartinezthrowing.jpg

Pedro walked out of the Mets’ bullpen, did a few stretches, made a few funny gestures toward the fans down below, and started playing catch. He was about 50 feet away and to my right. With the exception of the occasional jet taking off from the nearby LaGuardia Airport, Shea was pretty quiet, so Pedro heard my initial request for a ball.

He looked up and spotted me and said, “How many you up to now?! Two thousand what…”

Since when did Pedro Martinez recognize me? This was new.

“How do you know me?!” I shouted down at him. “Did you see me on TV?!”

“Yeeeaaahhh!” he said with a goofy tone. “You famous!”

“Well, I’d be honored if you’d add to my collection.” (Actually, he’d already added to it on August 30, 2005.)

Pedro started jumping around and waving his arms in mock excitement. “Ohhh,” he said, “I got a ball from Pedro Martinez!!!” And then, without hesitation, he turned and tossed the ball to me.

“Thanks, Pedro!” I yelled. He nodded.

Five minutes later, he looked up at me again. “Did you pick up a Cincinnati hat?”

My GOD, he knew I switched hats to kiss up to the visiting teams.

Pedromartinez_1I held up my index finger as if to say, “Hold on…”

He stood below, looking up with his hands on his hips, as I fumbled in my backpack. Then I pulled out my Reds cap and a matching/generic red t-shirt.

He laughed.

“But Pedro,” I said, “I really love YOU!”

I tipped my Mets cap. He answered by tipping his and then walked over to Xavier Nady and Chris Woodward. Moments later, all three of them were looking up at me.

“Pedro! Don’t say anything bad about me!”

Pedro shouted back, but I couldn’t hear it. Another jet was roaring overhead. And that was that.

Carlos Beltran tossed me a ball, and before long, I got another–my third of the day–by catching a homer on a fly that was hit by some lefty on the Reds. No idea who. I’d actually made a decent play on it. I was standing in the main aisle when the ball was hit on a line. I read it perfectly and knew it was going to fall short, so I scurried down the steps (nearly twisting my left ankle) and reached over the railing to make the grab.

After that, the security guard told me that the only people in “his” section who could get balls were kids under 12. “I’m just trying to be fair,” he explained defensively.

“Really,” I said. “If that were the case, you wouldn’t make special rules for me.”

Then the usher marched over and announced to all the kids in the section that since I had three balls, I was going to give them away.

“Okaaaay!” he shouted arrogantly. “Who’s the youngest one here–”

“Excuse me,” I interrupted, “but I’d actually prefer to keep my baseballs.”

Not to be outdone, he told me I had to return to my seat.

During batting practice?!

Instead, I ran to the other side of the stadium and promptly got a ball from David Weathers in the left field Loge. Nice guy.

zackball2849.jpg

Twenty minutes later, as BP was winding down, I headed downstairs and managed to squeeze into the first row behind the Reds’ dugout. Bucky Dent threw three balls to the people on my left. Billy Hatcher tossed one over the photographers’ box. Several other players and coaches were also tossing balls into the crowd when I *heard* one rolling on the dugout roof. I looked down and there it was, about to skim right past me. I stuck out my bare hand and snatched it. I have no idea where it came from or who tossed it.

For the next two minutes, the kid on my right was screaming at the man in charge of dumping all the balls from the bucket into the equipment bags.

“Ball boy!! Ball boy!! Gimme a ball!! Gimme one!! Throw one up here!! Hey Ball boy!!”

The kid was obnoxious–and old enough to know better.

“You know,” I told him, “calling a grown man ‘boy’ is not the most respectful way to ask for a ball.”

“Doctor Ball Boy!!” shouted the kid.

stoweidentifier.jpg

The woman on my left (pictured here) was decked out in Reds gear, and she was just as annoyed. She leaned toward me and whispered that the man’s name was Stowe. “Mister Stowe,” she clarified.

“Are you sure?! How do you know that?”

“I’m from Cincinnati,” she said.

“Mister Stowe!” I shouted. The man looked up. “Is there any chance that you could toss me a ball, please?”

“You bet!” he said. He was so direct and sincere that I thought he was about to give me the finger instead. But sure enough, he grabbed a nice, new ball and flung it right to me.

The kid was speechless.

The usher and security guard were also speechless when I returned to the right field Loge at game time and presented a ticket for the very spot that they thought they’d kicked me out of earlier.

That’s right, fellas. I bought a ticket for your lousy section. Whatchoo got NOW?!

viewfromRFloge.jpg

I had to sit there. Ken Griffey, Jr. was tied with Mike Schmidt for 11th place on the all-time home run list. If, by some miracle, he happened to jerk one down the line into that puny patch of seats, I needed to be there to catch it. But the best he could do in the top of the first was hit a wimpy sac fly to right.

Top of the third? Two-run double to right. Better. I was thinking of what I’d ask for if I caught the ball and Griffey wanted it back. Hmm. I’d need a replacement ball so my collection wouldn’t be one short…and I’d need him to sign it…and personalize it…with a little “thank you for catching and returning my 549th career dinger”…and I’d need him to sign my ticket stub…and I’d need one of his bats…and I’d need to take batting practice with the team. Day game tomorrow? Players need to sleep late and sober up? No BP? No problem. I’ll fly to Cincinnati and do it in that band box that you guys call a Major League stadium. Just tell me when.

Top of the fifth…ground out to second base. Gee whiz, Mister Griffey, thanks for pulling the ball. How ’bout we elevate a little, eh?

Bottom of the fifth…Here’s where it got interesting. Jose Reyes had already homered and doubled. Now, on his third trip to the plate, he blasted a triple–his NINTH of the season–to right-center. Austin Kearns could’ve made the play, but shied away from the wall at the last second and didn’t get full extension. Here we were, just a little over halfway through the game, and Reyes was a single short of the cycle.

reyesprecycle.jpg

Bottom of the sixth…Reyes was already up again. The scoreboard said he was 3-for-3 with a home run, a triple, a double, and two runs. I’d been to over 600 games and seen one cycle. That was last season, on August 15 at Great American Ball Park. Randy Winn accomplished the feat. I had missed a couple of his at-bats because I was running around all night. And because he was on the visiting team, the Reds didn’t make a big deal of it. It was a lame way to witness history. I really, REALLY, wanted to see Reyes do it, but he was overanxious and struck out swinging on a pitch that was practically over his head. Gah! Why didn’t he lay down a bunt? At least he’d get one more at-bat.

Top of the seventh…another Griffey ground out. Wonderful.

In between innings, I started hanging out near the exits and asking people for their ticket stubs. I figured that anyone dumb enough to leave at this point wouldn’t be too concerned about saving an artifact from a potentially historic night…and I was right. I got half a dozen stubs. Reyes HAD to do it.

Bottom of the eighth, two outs…Reyes took the first pitch. Ball. Sweet Jesus. He was ahead in the count. (Did you know that a batter with a 1-0 count typically hits about 75 points higher?) Reyes took a wild hack at the second pitch and came up empty. Third pitch…another ball. Woo! He was ahead, 2-1. Josereyes_1YesYesYes. I couldn’t sit. No one could sit. It was too exciting. Too tense. Too everything. And on the next pitch, Reyes lined a base hit up the middle. Single! He did it!! He had hit for the cycle–only the ninth one in the 45-year history of the Mets!!! The place went nuts. I was shrieking and jumping out of my shoes and high-fiving strangers. Mayhem. Bliss. Griffey Who?

Oh yeah, THAT guy. Top of the ninth…another ground out. Whatever.

Sadly, though, Billy Wagner fell apart after recording two quick outs. He walked Kearns. He walked pinch-hitter David Ross. He gave up a swinging-bunt single to Rich Aurilia. And then Brandon Phillips fought off an 0-2 pitch for a two-run single that put the Reds on top, 6-5.

7balls6.21.06.jpg

Bottom of the ninth…Todd Coffey came in to pitch. Beltran walked. Carlos Delgado flied out to left, by which point I was already back on the Field Level and making my way down the steps toward the Reds’ dugout. David Wright then bounced into a 6-4-3 double play to end the game. I ran down to the front row. Aurilia (who’d been playing first) handed the ball to Coffey. Coffey tossed it to me on his way in.

Phew.

After the game, I asked everyone in sight for their ticket stubs. I was amazed at how many people were willing to give them up.

STATS:

robinsonburkett.jpg

• 49,758 people in attendance

• 7 balls, all of which are regular MLB balls.

• 99 balls in 12 games this season = 8.25 balls per game.

• 439 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 65 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 2,851 total balls…moves me ahead of Brooks Robinson (2,848) and Jesse Burkett (2,850) and into 40th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Harold Baines (2,866).

• 32 ticket stubs

cyclestubs.jpg

In other news, I got an email four days ago from an A’s fan who’d caught two foul balls–DURING A GAME–on consecutive pitches. He wanted to know if anyone had ever done that before, and if MLB would be interested in the story. Here’s the answer.

Oh, and get this…
It turns out that Winn was the last guy to hit for the cycle…so I’ve been to the last two cycle games in Major League Baseball. I wonder if THAT’S ever happened before.

6/19/06 at Shea Stadium

“Zack Hample?” asked a voice outside Gate C. I looked up at a tall kid with a Mets cap and a glove. “The Baseball Collector?” he continued.

chuckster.jpg

“That’s me. Are you Chuckster?”

Just before I left for this game, ‘chuckster’ (pictured here) left a comment on my previous entry to say that he was going. It was nice to finally meet him–and to have someone to talk to while waiting 40 minutes for the stadium to open.

He told me he started going for balls after he read my book, and now has 82 in his collection. “If my parents met you,” he said, “they’d say you owe them a lot of time.”

“Nice blog,” said another guy who told me he stumbled upon it recently and has been reading it regularly ever since.

A father and his young son recognized me from TV. They said they’d never gotten a ball and asked where they should go. I told them to head down the foul lines and mentioned that right field, while more crowded, would be better because that’s where most of the Mets would be hanging out. I told the kid to ask the players for balls–by their first names–and to say “please.”

There was a huge line by the time the gate opened at 4:40pm, so I bolted inside and raced up to my corner spot in the right field Loge. I figured I wouldn’t catch the most exciting balls there, but it was a safe place to go to make sure I’d get a few…and I did.

Billy Wagner tossed the first one from the grass just in front of the warning track. It fell short, smacked a railing, and bounced back down onto the field. Wagner got another ball and fired it 10 feet over my head. Luckily, I was still the only one there, so I had no problem chasing it down.

smudge.jpg

Several minutes later, Alay Soler tossed me a ball from the bullpen after his session with pitching coach Rick Peterson, and soon after that, Ramon Castro strolled into the ‘pen and tossed me another. That one had a nice big smudge on it.

The father and son had made their way out to the first row in foul territory in the right field corner. They looked up at me and waved.

“You’re in a great spot!” I shouted. The father looked relieved and gave me a thumbs up, and moments later, someone threw them a ball. I think it might’ve been Wagner, but that didn’t matter. They were thrilled. I saw ‘chuckster’ get one, too.

I managed to get one more ball in the Loge. It was thrown (of course) by Mets catching instructor Tom Nieto. How bad is Shea? For the first 50 minutes, there was exactly ONE ball that was hit into seats on the entire right side of the stadium–and THAT is why I focus on getting balls tossed to me.

The stadium was filling up. Along both foul lines, the first row was packed. It wasn’t even worth trying to get down to the Mets dugout. I felt lucky to have the corner spot, and I would’ve stayed there if not for one thing: Bucky Dent.

BuckyDent&Zack.jpg

In the early 90s, I attended Bucky’s baseball school in Delray Beach, Florida. He had been a shortstop. I was a shortstop. We worked together on infield drills, and for a while, when he came to Shea as the third base coach of the Cardinals, he recognized me…but I never got a ball from him. Then he became an infield coach with the Rangers…but I hardly got to see him because I didn’t attend as many American League games. Then he started managing in Triple-A, and it was hopeless. I lost track of him for years. But NOW, he was back in The Show and briefly in my home town, serving as the Reds’ bench coach. The Reds were about Buckydentlogo_1to take the field for BP. I had to move closer to the action. I was wearing an old “Bucky Dent’s Baseball School” T-shirt for the occasion.

I headed downstairs, and only then did I realize that Bucky (real name: Russell Earl O’Dey) was pitching BP. That was bad. It meant I needed to run out onto the field to talk to him…but instead I waited like a fool. When he finished pitching and started hitting fungos, I headed back to the outfield to try to get some more balls. Total waste of time. Then Bucky abruptly finished hitting and disappeared into the dugout. I was pretty bummed, unsure if I’d get another chance to see him.

dugoutcrowded.jpg

BP was almost done, and I was still stuck on four balls. I desperately wanted to get down to the first row behind the Reds’ dugout, but it was impossible. The crowd was three rows deep, and when BP ended, I saw Bucky walk out onto the field and pick up a few balls. Since I couldn’t get in front of the crowd, I had to elevate above it. I stepped on an orange seat, then got an extra foot higher by climbing onto the rusted arm rests.

I was really sticking out.
“Hey! It’s the foul ball guy!” someone shouted.
I was praying that security wouldn’t come over and make me get down.

As Bucky made his way in, I screamed my head off and got his attention and pointed to my shirt. He waved. I held up my glove and flapped it open and closed. He pulled a ball out of his back pocket and underhanded it to me over everyone’s head…but it was falling short. I was stuck on the arm rests and couldn’t move. I reached forward as far as I could, nearly losing my balance, and was about to catch it in the tip of my glove when someone reached up and swatted the ball away. I didn’t have time to cry. Bucky saw what happened and tossed me his other ball, putting a little more muscle into it. It was heading a bit to my left, but it had the distance, and I reached out and made the catch. I pumped my fist at him and yelled “Thanks!” He waved again and disappeared into the dugout for good.

brandonphillipsautograph.jpg

I caught up with ‘chuckster’ who managed to get a second ball. We both got Brandon Phillips autographs before the game. He got him on a card. I got him on my ticket stub.

The game started, and I decided to head back up to the right field Loge, just in case Ken Griffey Jr. happened to jerk one down the line. His next homer–No. 548–was going to tie him with Mike Schmidt for 11th place on the all-time list.

I entered the Loge and walked through the runway toward a small patch of empty seats near the foul pole. A security guard asked me where I was going. I told him that I actually had a Field Level ticket, and I asked politely if I might be able to sit in this section instead.

“I don’t want you around here,” he said.

“Me personally?”

“Yes.”

“Why is that?”

“I have my reasons.”

Small twinkie, perhaps?

Six innings later, Griffey hit a long home run to straight-away right field, which is exactly where I would’ve been sitting IF THERE WERE SEATS OUT THERE. But in the monstrosity that some people like to call Shea Stadium, there’s nothing but tar and weeds in front of that gigantic, ugly scoreboard.

Small patch of empty seats aside, the stadium was ridiculously crowded. I think it was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen there on a weeknight. Yay! The Mets are in first place! Lucky me.

sheapacked.jpg

It was SO crowded that I actually went to my own seat. Someone was sitting in it. It wasn’t even worth asking her to move.

I roamed. Bronson Arroyo was pitching a gem. It drizzled for five minutes around the seventh inning, sending thousands of “fans” scurrying for the exits. That was nice. The Reds won, 4-2, and I got a ball at their dugout after the game from first base coach Billy Hatcher. The end.

charliegehringer.jpg

STATS:

• 6 balls

• 92 balls in 11 games this season = 8.363636363636 balls per game.

• 438 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 64 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 2,844 total balls…moves me ahead of Charlie Gehringer (2,839) and into 42nd place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Brooks Robinson (2,848). If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here.

6/14/06 at Citizens Bank Park

I could easily write 5,000 words. It was one of those games, and I mean that in a mostly good way. That said, I’ll try to keep it under 2,500…

My day started with a lousy cheese steak from Subway, which I ate on the way to the garage. I knew it was going to be lousy. I planned on getting a REAL cheese steak later on. This one was just a prop to help me savor the difference. I reached the garage at 12:30pm and picked up my friend Sean half an hour later. We were at the stadium at 3pm and had 90 minutes to kill before the Ashburn’s Alley gate opened.

sean&zackparkinglot.jpg

This was my fourth trip to Citizens Bank Park, and it was Sean’s first. We wandered. We bought our tickets: crappy seats in foul territory, 18 rows behind the left field foul pole. Sean got an extra ticket for his friend, Bryan, who’d be showing up around game time. Since I paid for the parking, Sean bought us a cheap/plastic Phillies ball so we could play catch.

zackpeeksatbp.jpgseanrobshomer.jpgThe sky had a hangover. It was supposed to rain…but when? And how hard? And for how long? I still didn’t know if there’d be batting practice. I had to get a look inside to see if the tarp was out, but I couldn’t quite see over the seats, so I pulled myself up on the outside of one of the gates…and…THERE WAS BP! Meanwhile, Sean entertained himself with his own acrobatics, leaping with the ball already in the tip of his glove for this very staged “rob-the-homer” photo.

As we headed to the gate, a group of Mets fans recognized me from SportsNet NY. So much for blending in. Normally, that’s one of my favorite things about going to games in other cities.

For at least half an hour, Sean and I were the only people at the gate. We played catch. Sean’s knuckleball was surprisingly good. An employee on the other side of the gate called me over as he bent down to grab something that was tucked beneath a turnstile.

tball.jpg

“Did you guys lose this?”

He was holding up a ball.
Are you serious?!

“Here you go,” he said as he tossed it to me over the gate–and just like that, I had my first ball of the day. Check it out. I’ve never snagged anything like it. It’s an official T-Ball. (Or would that be a “T-Ball ball”? It’s so scarce that I don’t even know what to call it.) Three-sixteenths of a second later, the excitement wore off, and I made the decision NOT to include it in my collection.

By the time the stadium opened, there was a LONG line of fans. I was the first one in and raced through the concourse and down the steps into the left field seats before I realized that BP hadn’t started. That was bad. Sometimes, when I run in, I’ll find a ball already sitting in the seats, or I might get one hit or thrown to me without having to worry about competition, but on this day, for whatever reason, the Phillies had gotten a late start. They were still running and stretching and playing catch.

flowers.jpg

At least I got a good look at the new left field wall. It really wasn’t much different from the old one. Thankfully, there wasn’t a second row of flowers, but the row that’d been there was wider. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to lean all the way across it and use my glove trick–but I got a chance to find out as soon as BP started 10 minutes later. Someone hit a ball that ended up a foot from the wall near the left field corner. I set up the rubber band and magic marker and began my balancing act. I braced my feet under a seat in the first row and leaned straight out over the first railing. Then, carefully using my hands to walk my body forward across the flowers, I was able to brace myself and support my weight by placing both elbows on the far railing. Meanwhile, the first railing was digging into my thighs. As I lowered my glove, I heard some fans behind me say, “Hey, it’s the guy from TV!”

It took me a minute, and I was drained, but it was worth it. I had my first REAL ball of the day.

“How many balls are you going for today?” someone asked.

Umm, all of them?
“I don’t know. I’d be happy with half a dozen.”

I didn’t feel confident. It just didn’t seem like it was going to be a good day, and sure enough, the left Colehamelsfield seats were soon packed. There were a few empty rows here and there, but it was pretty tough, and for the next 40 minutes, I managed to get just one more ball. Cole Hamels, the 22-year-old phenom and unwitting cult leader, was chasing everything that rolled down the left field line. There was no chance for me to use my trick again, but Hamels tossed several balls into the crowd. I grabbed one

ashburn_alley2.jpgof them and walked over to Sean to label it with a “2827.” That’s when I noticed that it wasn’t a regular ball. Instead of the standard MLB logo, it had a dark blue stripe with white lettering that said “ASHBURN ALLEY.” Above that, in much smaller font, it read “.308 CF 2,574” which I figured represented the late Richie Ashburn‘s batting average, position, and number of career hits. Cool! I didn’t even know that such a ball existed. Some kid standing nearby saw it and told me that I could redeem it for some free stuff at the gift shop.

Redeem?!

There was no way I was giving up the ball for some meaningless Phillies trinkets, but still: cool. I decided to ask about it later.

When the rest of the stadium opened at 5:35pm, dozens of fans swarmed the right field seats. I entered the seats as well and then cut through the rows toward the totally empty foul line. There was a ball sitting on the far edge of the warning track, just beyond the corner spot where the low wall juts out toward fair territory. I thought about flinging my glove out and yanking it back with the string in order to knock the ball closer, but I held off when an on-field security guy approached. I asked him politely for the ball. He picked it up, and I was ready for him to fire it back toward the infield. But instead, he tossed to me. If a fan is dumb enough to give me a ball, I won’t count it in my collection, but stadium employees–especially ones who aren’t even in the seats and have the power to prevent me from doing my thing–are fair game.

Arthurrhodes_1The Phillies finished BP five minutes later, and I was still one of the only fans between home plate and the right field foul pole. There were a few kids behind the Miltthompson_1dugout, but they were strictly there for autographs. I was the only fan with a glove, so Arthur Rhodes had no choice but to toss me the ball he was holding. Fifteen seconds later, hitting coach Milt Thompson walked in and flipped me another.

I headed back to right field and used the glove trick to pluck a ball–my sixth of the day–off the warning track. It was an official ball from the 2005 All-Star Game. For whatever reason, the Mets have been using them all season during batting practice.

I ran to left field to try to use the glove trick again. The ball was only two or three feet from the wall, but that was too far because of the stupid flowers. Heath Bell walked over, picked up the ball and started walking away. Everyone was screaming for it, and he surprised us all by flipping it back over his shoulder without looking. It came right at me on a line. I was holding my glove and unraveled string in my left hand, so I tried to catch it with my right. The ball tipped off my fingers and squirted two feet straight up. Luckily, I recovered and made the grab. Another All-Star ball.

Sean was being his usual self: wishing that a homer would come right to him, but not stressing about it. He was in a great spot, except for the fact that 20 other people were standing there, too. Sean came within inches of several homers, but had nothing to show for it. I’d also came close to a bunch of long balls, but the luck wasn’t with me. At one point, I jumped as high as I could (vertical leap in high school: 28.5 inches) for a homer that was sailing just over my head. At the peak of my jump, another guy slammed into me, causing me to miss the ball and land hard–on my back–on a seat. He apologized. Gee, thanks. Screw you and your crowded section.

I went to center field, just left of the brick batters eye. David Wright launched a deep fly that hit the base of the outfield wall and caromed to Billy Wagner. I got him to toss it to me. Regular ball.

bullpens.jpg

Carlos Beltran/Delgado hit three quick homers into the Phillies’ bullpen in right-center, so I hurried through the crowded concourse and into the seats that overlooked it. I was thinking about using the glove trick when a security guard walked into the bullpen and started picking up the balls. I wasn’t sure what he’d do with them, but just in case he was going to be selectively generous, I turned my Mets cap around so the logo wasn’t facing him. He tossed the first ball to a little kid 10 feet to my left. When he heard my request and looked at me, he said, “Let me see your hat!”

“Hold on!” I shouted, as he tossed the second ball to the guy standing right next to me. I flung my Mets cap off and yanked my Phillies cap out of my backpack and put it on.

“That’s a bit disingenuous, don’t you think?” said another fan on my right.

The security guard appreciated my switcheroo and rewarded me with yet another All-Star ball–my ninth overall on the day.

“Yeah, but it works.”

I needed one more ball. Not only did I want to reach double digits, but I’d tied my one-game record for that ballpark. It was too crowded to run for the few home runs that landed nearby, and there was no chance to use the glove trick because two Mets coaches were patrolling right field. Batting practice was going to end soon anyway, so I left a few minutes early to ensure that I’d get a good spot behind the Mets’ dugout.

Ramon Castro was one of the first players to come off the field, and he tossed a ball to some fans on my left. They all reached for it at once and bobbled it. The ball skipped toward the woman directly on my left, who fumbled it right to me. I had my 10th ball of the day.

“Hey,” she whined, “that ball hit my breast so I think I should get it.”

Well in THAT case…

“Sorry,” I said as I stuck it in my left pants pocket, “but I have a large collection of balls, and I keep every one I get.”

new_busch_stadium2.jpg

She was annoyed. Bigtime. And then, moments later, I got Mets 3rd base coach Manny Acta to toss another ball right to me…and it was a commemorative ball from the New Busch Stadium!!! I couldn’t believe it. I’d been hearing about these balls all season. I’d been considering flying to St. Louis just to try to snag one. I’d planned my August trip to PETCO Park around the Cardinals’ visit to Shea Stadium. I’d been going nuts, just thinking about these balls, and I finally got one. Just like that.

The woman pretty much demanded that I give her the ball, and when I refused, she reached into my pocket and grabbed the first one.

You could’ve bought me a drink first.
“WHOA!!! WHOA!!! WHOA!!!” I shouted. “Are you *KIDDING* me?!?!”

She wasn’t kidding. First she gave me a lecture. Then she complained that I was in her seat. And finally, she told me to leave.

“Gladly,” I said and headed up the steps.

By game time, the line for cheese steaks was too long, so I settled for two slices of pizza and found Sean and Bryan at the seats. (Gosh, I’m so glad I went to Subway.) The seats were bad. Not only was it a waste of energy to wear my glove, but the foul pole blocked my view of first base. Every time there was a close play, I had to lean across Sean’s lap to see it.

alleystore.jpg

The Mets jumped out to a 3-0 lead after two innings. That was nice, but my mind was elsewhere: Ashburn’s Alley. I wandered through the concourse in deep left-center field, found the Alley Store, and went inside.

“What’s the deal with this ball?” I asked the ladies behind the counter.

ashburnalleyfreestuff.jpg

The deal was as follows: I received an “Ashburn Alley” t-shirt, a green “Ashburn Alley” street sign, a plastic ball cube…AND…a $25 gift certificate at the store, which I used to get a $22 Nationals cap and a $1 key lime pie-flavored lollipop. I even got $2 cash back. As for the ball…I got to keep it (I wouldn’t have given it away for a $250 gift certificate), but had to let one of the ladies mark it with a tiny ‘X’. Even that was nearly a deal-breaker.

I forgot to ask the ladies about the Ashburn Alley giveaway. Does anyone know? When did it start? What’s the point? How many “Ashburn Alley” balls are out there?

I was in a goood mood and got three scoops of ice cream (in a miniature red Phillies helmet) to celebrate my heist. I’d spent such a long time in the Alley Store that I missed the top of the third inning. At least nothing good happened…just a leadoff homer by David Wright, two triples, a single, a throwing error, and a pitching change.

Actually, I didn’t care. I had 11 balls, a shopping bag full of free stuff, and ice cream…and I was with one of my best friends…and it was about to rain, which was great because it meant a lot of people were about to leave. Unfortunately, Bryan was one of those people.

The rain delay lasted 65 minutes. Toward the end, as the grounds crew was getting the field ready, Jose Reyes/Valentin started throwing in front of the Mets’ dugout. I walked down the steps and into a pack of Mets fans in the first row. Some of them recognized me and had nice things to say. But after Valentin tossed me the ball, someone shouted, “Ball hog! Ball hog! Nice bit on SNY, ya idiot!” I tipped my cap and kept walking.

goodseats.jpg

Play resumed, and it was all Mets. Sean and I stayed behind the dugout and enjoyed the unobstructed view for the rest of the game. There were plenty of empty seats. I wondered why there were still so many fans sitting in the far reaches of the upper deck. (Can someone please explain this to me?)

The game itself lasted two hours and 49 minutes, but because of the delay, it didn’t end until 11pm.
Final score: Mets 9, Phillies 3.

I usually head to the winning team’s dugout for the last out, and in this case, I was already there. The Mets tossed several balls into the crowd. I got the last one–my 13th of the day–from bullpen coach Guy Conti.

sean&zackpostgame1.jpg

STATS:

• 86 balls in 10 games this season = 8.6 balls per game.

• 437 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 63 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 58 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 527 lifetime balls outside of New York

Mannyacta_1• 82 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 49 lifetime balls in Philadelphia (14 at the Vet, 35 at Citizens Bank Park) sets a new record for most balls in a city other than New York. My old record was 46 in Baltimore (all at Camden Yards). The record-breaking 47th ball was the one with the Busch logo from Manny Acta.

• 12 balls from Manny Acta since 2003

• 23 All-Star Game balls

• 2,838 total balls

• 2,815 words in this entry. Oops.

Next game…

Sean and I are going to Philadelphia tomorrow to see the Mets, even though there’s going to be a big crowd and iffy weather. I actually don’t expect to get THAT many balls, and that’s fine. As long as I get three or four, I’ll be happy. Normally, I wouldn’t travel 100 miles for a crowded game without BP, but I’m looking forward to this one because:

1) It’s been two weeks since my last game.
2) The Mets are kicking heinie, and that’s fun (even though it’s costing me balls).
3) Sean’s the man. (Check out his blog for some proof.)

I’m also eager to get a look at the new left field wall. During the off-season, the Phillies moved it back and made it taller, and based on the brief glimpses I’ve gotten on TV, it appears that they’ve added a second row of flowers in front of the seats. This will probably make it impossible for me to lean out and use my glove trick.

gamestuff.jpg

This photo shows some of the stuff I’m taking to the game, including extra string (in case something happens to the string already tied to my glove), old ticket stubs (for autograph purposes), directions (“NYC to Citizens Bank Park”), two protein bars (Chocolate Deluxe and S’mores), iPod (60 gigs, baby), adapter (so I can play it aloud in the car), two black pens (to label any baseballs that I might happen to snag), two Sharpies (one for the glove trick, one for autographs), two rubber bands (in case one breaks or shoots off my glove), Phillies roster (don’t need one for the Mets because I recognize everyone), etc.

Seeing all this stuff reminds me of yet ANOTHER reason why Yankee Stadium is so difficult: As far as I know, it’s the only ballpark in the majors where you’re not allowed to take a backpack inside.

Baseball Cards

note.jpg

I own about 100,000 baseball cards, and until yesterday, I hadn’t added to my collection for more than a decade. My good friend Ben Greenwood (who runs a popular Scrabble web site) mailed me a four-pound box of cards that he didn’t want anymore. Simple as that. The cards he sent are mostly from 1986-1992, so there wasn’t anything THAT valuable, but there were still some good ones. Anyway, who cares? Cards are cards, and it was great to comb through them and scare myself by rediscovering all the useless trivia I’d somehow remembered. Seriously, why, after all these years, did I still know that Mickey Tettleton had 211 at-bats in three consecutive seasons? Or that Mike Gallego was born on Halloween? Or that Gary Thurman had 70 stolen bases one season in the Minor Leagues?

Here are nine of the best cards I found:

goodcards.jpg

And just for kicks, here are nine players that no one’s ever heard of:

badcards.jpg


I miss 45-cent wax packs with brittle sticks of bubble gum. But I don’t miss being made fun of for being a virgin. Fair trade, I suppose.

stuff

1) I’m in the middle of another dry spell. Looks like it’ll be at least another week before my next game (which might be in Philly). But that’s fine. I’ve been having a goood time doing non-baseball things.

buried.jpg

2) Streak-schmeak. I came THIS close to going to last night’s Yankees-Red Sox game. With 55,246 fans in attendance, it would’ve been a snagging nightmare, but I was willing to suffer because I would’ve been there with one of my best friends.

3) I still have no idea how to convert/upload/share my SNY appearances. I see that other MLBloggers have videos in their blogs, but I’m just too dumb to figure it out. Sorry.

4) For the record, Jeffrey Maier didn’t “catch” that ball. It deflected off his wrist because not only was he a little putz, he was uncoordinated. Now that he’s back in the news (for being a decent Division III baseball player on the verge of NOT being drafted), I felt compelled to clarify.

5) There are several reasons why I don’t sell or give away my baseballs. Getting to use them for pictures like this is one of them.

5/31/06 at Shea Stadium

The bottom of the second inning ended with a flyout to Diamondbacks center fielder Eric Byrnes. While the ball was in midair, I raced past the ushers and down the steps to the 3rd base dugout. I squeezed into the first row. I was the only fan with either a Diamondbacks hat or a glove. Byrnes approached on my left, ball in hand. I shouted his name. He instantly ticket5.31.06.jpgspotted me and underhanded the ball to me. As I reached out for it, the man on my left stood up and snatched it right in front of my glove. It was THAT kind of night. At least I only paid $5 to get in.

Thirteen minutes after Shea had opened for batting practice, Carlos Beltran lined a home run into the right field Loge level. That’s my spot. Normally, it’s empty for the first 45 minutes. Normally, I can waltz over and pick up such a ball. But on this day–because the Mets are in 1st place and because Pedro Martinez was facing the undefeated Brandon Webb–there were already a dozen other fans in the section. No ball for me.

Later, on the left field side, I had the Loge to myself while Orlando Hernandez was standing down below. Of course, no one hit a single ball his way. Ten minutes later, two kids showed up out of nowhere, and the batter hit the next ball into the corner. I shouted at El Duque. The kids shouted, too. They didn’t even have gloves. Guess who got the ball.

Right before the game, I went down to the Diamondbacks’ dugout to try to get a ball from the players who were doing some last-minute throwing. Just before they finished, a security guard recognized me and made me leave. (Dear Mets management: this is getting old.)

PedromartinezBrandonwebbIn the first inning, I wanted to grab one of the few empty seats behind the main aisle on the 3rd base side, but I held off because people were still arriving. Two minutes later, Chad Tracy fouled a high, lazy pop-up that landed RIGHT in the aisle where I would’ve been sitting. No one else even stood up to catch it, so I watched from the concourse behind home plate as the ball smacked the concrete and bounced deep into the seats.

In the 10th inning, I was back up in the Loge, hiding at the wrong end of my favorite section from an usher who’d kicked me out last time I was there. I wanted to slip into one of the empty seats at the end of the row, but the usher was standing nearby in the runway. I stayed out of sight and was plotting my move when Endy Chavez hit a foul tip to the EXACT seat where I wanted to be.

There were so many frustrating moments that on several occasions, I was tempted to leave and go home. The reason why I stayed is that I wanted to witness the much hyped pitchers’ duel. (Contrary to popular belief, I actually do enjoy watching baseball.) And what a duel it was.

Final score in 13 innings:
Mets 1, Diamondbacks 0

ball2822strangemarking.jpg

Did I get shut out? Hell no, but it was a slow day. Back when I was in the RF Loge, Billy Wagner threw me a ball from the warning track, and Steve Trachsel tossed one from the bullpen. Then, when the Mets finished BP, I got three balls at their dugout within a 30-second span. Jerry Manuel tossed me the first one (pictured here with the strange markings), and I got the other two so fast that I instantly forgot who gave me the second one. The third came from some BP assistant-type guy who’s not listed on the roster. I managed to snag one more ball–my sixth of the day–during the entire Diamondbacks’ batting practice. I was up in the Loge in left field and got it thrown by Luis Vizcaino. Ooh.

Fabulous game.
Forgettable balls.

My best snagging took place during the seventh-inning T-Shirt launch. YEAH BABY!!!

zacktshirtlaunch.jpg

STATS:

• 73 balls in 9 games this season = 8.1 balls per game.

• 436 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 62 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 2,825 total balls

5/30/06 at Camden Yards

It was an expensive day.
Let’s start at the beginning…

parkingviolation.jpg

I woke up at 9:40am, having gotten five hours of sleep for the third straight day. I borrowed my parents’ car and drove to the northeast corner of 29th and 8th to meet my friend Sean–and his friend Joe. They were supposed to be there at 11am. I was there at 10:55 and pulled off the right side of 29th Street to wait for them. At 11:01, a traffic cop walked over, told me I was in a no-standing zone, and asked to see my license and registration. No warning. Just a $95 ticket…but hey, at least it came with a handy, pre-addressed envelope. Sean and Joe showed up two minutes later. (You might remember Sean from my last trip to Camden.

The drive was quick and easy…just under 200 miles in three hours. Top speed: 91mph. We talked baseball. We listened to music. Sean proved his superiority by holding his breath through the Fort McHenry Tunnel. We parked half a mile from Camden, then got decent crab cakes at Phillips.

camdenseatingchart.jpg

Sean and Joe lingered for another round of beers. I made the 10-minute walk to the ballpark by myself and spent $55 for THE perfect seat for foul balls. I felt stupid spending that much money when I could’ve gotten a cheap seat for $8, but I had a streak to maintain. Sean and Joe showed up 20 minutes later and bought two seats in left field. Fine by me. They’d sit together and heckle Carl Crawford; I’d sit alone and do my thing.

There was still an hour to kill before the stadium opened. It was disgustingly hot (95 degrees at game time.) We could’ve wandered off in search of shade, but that would’ve meant NOT being first in line, so we just stood there and pretended to be cool. (Left to Right: Zack, Joe, Sean)

Zackjoeseanpregame

The one annoying thing about Camden is that I always start at a disadvantage. For the first half-hour after the gates open, season ticket holders are allowed to go to the left field seats. All other fans, meanwhile, are confined to right field. Not only was it crowded out there, but the Orioles were all batting right-handed. It was like a sick joke. Hitter after hitter after hitter continued to pepper the left field seats with balls while I was trapped in a mostly worthless gapcamden5.30.06.jpgsection. (It almost made me miss Rafael Palmeiro.) And to make matters worse, the Orioles pitchers who were shagging balls in right-center were hardly throwing anything into the crowd. Thankfully, ONE ball happened to land in the skinny gap behind the outfield wall, and I was able to snag it with my glove trick.

Left field was much better. Within a few minutes of my sweat-soaked arrival, I got a ball thrown to me by Orioles 3rd base coach Tom Trebelhorn. Then, after I’d backed up a few rows, a right-handed hitter smashed a deep drive in my direction. The instant it left the bat, I knew it was going over my head, so I took my eye off the ball and focused on dodging the other fans as I sprinted up the steps. I looked back up toward the ball, just in time to see it land two rows ahead of me. Luckily, it stayed right there and I snatched it, inches ahead of other hungry hands, as it trickled down the steps. That one felt good. But later on, I completely misjudged one, so whatever.

Devil Rays pitchers Chad Harville and Brian Meadows started throwing just in front of left field warning track. I asked Harville if there was any chance that he might be able to toss me the ball when he was done.

“Y’already got one!” he yelled.

BrianmeadowsI had no comeback. I couldn’t argue. I was busted. And puzzled. Which ball could he have possibly seen me get? Didn’t matter. When they were done throwing, Meadows ended up with the ball, and he tossed it to me, right in front of Harville. Ha! Take THAT, shorty!

I had another chance to use the glove trick, but messed up. There’s a little space at the bottom of the left field wall, and the ball was partially tucked into it. I lowered the glove slowly and lined it up perfectly with the outer edge of the ball…and then I plopped the glove down to try to get the ball to kick out from the wall, but instead, I wedged it under ever farther. Duh.

More frustration: on two separate occasions, I raced through a long row of seats as home runs were approaching. I reached out to catch them, only to have other fans (who were already standing there) reach six inches farther and catch them RIGHT in front of my glove.

Even more frustration: A deep fly ball was clearly falling short of the wall, so I didn’t bother moving to my left to get in line with it. The player on the warning track made a lame attempt to catch the ball behind his back, and he missed it, allowing it to bounce into my row.

devilraysorioles.jpg

Some embarrassment: I had both rosters plus a custom-made cheat sheet with 20 mug shots of the harder-to-recognize players and coaches. Someone on the Devil Rays jogged over to pick up a ball that’d rolled to the wall. Who was it?! I looked at my sheet and figured it was Chad Orvella.

“Chad!! Chad!! Can you toss the ball over here, please?! Chad!! Right here!!”

The player handed the ball to a kid, then looked at me and said, “My name’s not Chad.”

Whoopsie, heh heh.

I got lucky on another homer. A bunch of fans reached for it. The ball hit off their hands and squirted 10 feet straight up. They managed to miss it again as it dropped back down, and by the time I ran over, the ball had just gotten wedged into a folded up seat. That was my fifth ball of the day, and BP was almost over.

Sean and Joe were nearby with their gloves, but they weren’t trying very hard. At one point, Joe was standing in the middle of a long row in the most crowded section, and later, he was eating nachos and drinking a beer. Sean was more into it, but he made the mistake of staying in one spot. I’d been positioning myself differently for almost every hitter, and then making further adjustments based on which rows and staircases were least crowded.

2500thofstreak.jpg

I told Sean that I was gonna head to the Devil Rays dugout, then started making my way toward the foul pole. Moments later, as I was walking briskly through the rows of seats, someone on the Devil Rays hit a homer right to me. I mean RIGHT to me…so yeah, in addition to the frustration, I had some luck. (Eight hours later, when I was home in NYC, I discovered that this ball was the 2,500th since my main streak–at least one ball per game, including BP–began on September 10, 1993.)

markakisbirkinshernandezautographs.jpgmelvinmoraautograph2.jpg

No balls at the dugout, but I did get four autographs back on the Orioles’ side: Nick Markakis, Kurt Birkins, Ramon Hernandez…and Melvin Mora on a Fenway stub from June 1, 2005.

Right before the game, I was standing behind the Orioles’ dugout. I don’t know why. I suppose I was just killing time and getting a close-up look…when Rodrigo Lopez walked in from the bullpen and flipped me his warmup ball. Boom. Just like that. Totally unexpected. I didn’t even have to open my mouth.

After the tone-deaf middle schoolers sang the national anthem, I found my seat. Want to know what it looks like when you get to heaven?

foulballseatcamdenyards.jpg

Unfortunately, the Devil Rays pitcher–Doug Freakin’ Waechter–was topping out at 88mph, and Lopez wasn’t doing much better. Low velocity means fewer foul balls. Why couldn’t Scott Kazmir and Daniel Cabrera have been pitching? Man oh man.

So yeah, it was pretty slow. A few balls went 50 feet over my head. One foul tip landed 20 feet to my left. Oh, and get this…another one was coming right at me. Keep in mind that the word “right” does not convey the rightness of which I speak, but take my word for it…there was never an easier catch in the history of foul ball chasing…except the catch never happened. Why? Because the **** ball hit that **** cable that holds the **** protective screen in place, and the **** ball deflected off the **** cable and landed four **** feet to my **** left, where some other clueless **** ended up getting it.

(Anger management…)

The game was flying by. Not good. Inning after inning: gone. I was excited when Waechter left the game after just five innings, hoping the Rays would bring in someone who could bring IT. Eh, no. Travis Harper came in and wasted two more precious innings with his high-80s cream puffs.

I’d spend the first inning running to the 3rd base side for lefties, and I would’ve kept doing it all night if not for the usher over there telling me to get lost. Two innings later, a foul ball landed EXACTLY where I’d been standing.

After the seventh inning stretch, I went back to the 3rd base side to plead with the man. I told him about my foul ball streak. I showed him my $55 ticket. I even showed him my book to prove that I wasn’t some random bozo who was trying to sneak around.

“Please,” I begged, “is there ANY chance that I could hang out here for the occasional left-handed hitter?”

His response: “I’m the kinda person that don’t like repeating himself.”

Back on the first-base side, there was some decency. My usher let me stand in the middle of the aisle for all the righties.

“Are you sure?” I asked incredulously. “I don’t want to get you or me in trouble.”

“Oh yeah, it’s fine,” he said. “My supervisor knows who you are and he’s got no problem with it.”

“What?! How would he know me? I only come here like once a year.”

“I don’t know, he said he saw you on ESPN or something.”

So I stood in the aisle and crouched down in a ready position for every pitch, just like all the infielders. I was SO ready to pounce…but…nothing…came…my…way. My last chance was the possibility of the game going into extra innings, but Corey “No Balls For You!” Patterson killed me. Not only did he hit his second solo homer of the night to give the Orioles a valuable insurance run and a 7-5 lead with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, but then, in the top of the ninth, with two outs and a runner on first, he robbed Greg Norton of a homer that would’ve tied the game. POOF! The game was over. My foul ball streak was dead.

zackwails.jpg

STATS

georgesisler.jpg

• 67 balls in 8 games this season = 8.4 balls per game.

• 435 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 61 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 514 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 81 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 2,819 total balls…moves me ahead of George Sisler (2,812) and into 43rd place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Charlie Gehringer (2,839).

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 283 other followers