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.
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.
The 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.
“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.
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 field 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
of 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.
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.
The 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 dugout, 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
• 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
• 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.