7/17/06 at Camden Yards
The best thing about bringing my friend Sean to a game is that he’s fun. The worst thing is that he goes for baseballs, too, so when I entered the stadium at 5pm and sprinted through the concourse, he was right behind me. Twenty seconds later, the day’s first ball plunked into the empty right field seats…
Sean 1, Zack 0.
Orioles pitcher Kurt Birkins happened to be shagging in right field. As soon as the batter hit one to him, I asked him for it.
“They’ll hit plenty of ’em your way,” he said as he fired it back toward the infield. “Don’t worry.”
“Yeah, but within a few minutes, this place is gonna be overrun by munchkins.”
“Ya gotta overpower ’em!” he shouted. “You’re big! You can do it!”
“C’mon, Kurt,” I said. “Hook me up before this place gets crazy.”
One minute later, the batter hit a deep drive that one-hopped the wall in front of me. Kurt jogged over, scooped it up, and flipped it to me. And there it was: my 100th ball of the season.
Sure enough, the right field seats were packed 10 minutes later, and I didn’t get anything until the rest of the stadium opened for non-season ticket-holding chumps like me.
Left field was great. Within a few minutes, I caught a home run on a fly. I’m not sure who hit it. Some righty on the Orioles. It felt good because I judged it perfectly, drifting down several rows as soon as it left the bat and then reaching up and making the grab with people all around me. Of course, I misjudged one 20 minutes later…I drifted and the ball landed RIGHT where I’d been standing (AAHH!!)…but I made up for it by grabbing another ball that had landed near me in the half-empty seats.
That would be Zack 3, Sean 1 for those of you who are keeping score at home.
Actually, Sean and I weren’t competing. We made a point of staying out of each other’s way, and he helped me by telling me that a ball had landed in the gap in center field. I hadn’t seen it because I was busy getting rejected at the Orioles’ dugout. (For a photo of this gap, check out the entry from my previous trip to Camden.)
It was going to be a trek to make it back to center field, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. I’d have to run up the steps, through a runway, across the concourse, along a narrow concrete walkway with several 90-degree turns, through the picnic area, into the Eutaw Street concourse, and back down some more steps.
It would take a minute or two each way, plus another minute to use my glove trick. Was it worth it? All that running in the stifling heat for ONE ball? What if it wasn’t there? What if a groundskeeper went behind the outfield wall and took it? What if the Orioles hit 20 home runs into the left field seats while I was gone?
“You better be right,” I told Sean as I headed off.
He was. He’s always right. It’s scary, and it’s wonderful. I need to stop doubting him.
I still had just four balls when BP ended at around 6:25pm, but I managed to get two more quick ones at the A’s dugout. A coach was transferring all the balls from the basket to the equipment bags. Several fans were shouting generic, nameless requests at him, and he didn’t bother looking up. Once I saw that he was wearing #48, I peeked at my A’s roster. It was bullpen coach Brad Fischer.
“Hey, Brad!” I yelled, “Is there any chance you could spare a ball? Even a dirty one? I’ll take the ugliest one you got!”
He still didn’t look up, but I could tell that he was briefly inspecting the balls as he grabbed them six at a time. Moments later, he looked up, spotted my A’s cap, and tossed one to me. If the ball were a face, it would have a black eye, several teeth missing, a crooked nose, stubble, a gigantic zit, and bad breath–but in the snagging world, these are signs of beauty. New balls are lame. Think about it. A new ball is an unused ball, and really, who doesn’t want to use their balls?
A’s hitting coach Gerald Perry headed off the field one minute later–I didn’t need my roster this time–and even though I knew he didn’t have a ball, I still asked for one. I had nothing to lose, so I waited until he approached the dugout and then said, “Hey, Gerald, any chance there’s a loose ball sitting around down there?”
He disappeared from sight, and I figured that was the end of it. But five seconds later, he poked his head out from under the roof, made eye contact with me, and tossed me a real Lame-O.
Half an hour later, I was hanging out along the third base line, hoping/praying that Frank Thomas would come over and sign. I’d loved Him since His first month in the majors, way back in August of 1990, but I’d never gotten His autograph. One time, several years later at Yankee Stadium, He started signing during BP, right behind third base. My friend headed over and shouted at me to come along, but I stubbornly held my ground in left field, not wanting to pass up potential home run balls. Three minutes later, my friend came back with Frank’s autograph, and I hadn’t gotten any balls. I’ve regretted that moment ever since.
In case you’re not convinced how much I actually loved The Big Hurt, I used to call the White Sox in the early 90s for regular updates on the number of walks He had. Those were the pre-internet days, and The New York Times didn’t always list His complete stats…and I simply needed to know. I was obsessed with His walks, and I hated Tony Phillips, that pesky little ******* on the Tigers, who battled Frank for the league lead every year. And now, in the twilight of His career, Frank Thomas was warming up for the game, just 40 feet away from me.
Everyone was shrieking. I really didn’t think He’d come over, but I had my ticket stub ready. I’d brought an extra stub from a 2005 Orioles-White Sox game; even though Frank didn’t play much, He WAS on the team.
And then He started walking right toward me. Of course, He signed for everyone around me–but not me. He let a little kid feel his muscles. He posed for photographs. But He wouldn’t sign my stub.
Desperation was setting in. The national anthem was going to start any minute, and He’d be gone. Forever.
“Frank,” I begged, “If I don’t get your autograph, I might cry.”
“Please don’t,” He said, and He kept signing for the people around me. But then, finally, He took my stub, flipped it around and started signing.
“No no no!!!–wait w–ohhh, okay…never mind.”
I had handed Him the stub so that it was already facing Him. He turned it around without looking. He probably thought He was doing me a favor, but it just meant that He was signing it upside down.
I moved 10 feet to my right and took a dozen pics of Him. When He started making His way toward me, I took off my glasses and ditched my cap so He wouldn’t recognize me. I got my old White Sox stub ready, and when He reached me for the second time, I got His autograph again…this time right side up. I shook His hand, too, just before He jogged off to the dugout. Hallelujah.
At that point, I remember thinking that the rest of the night didn’t even matter. I mean…anything that could’ve possibly happened wouldn’t approach the greatness of that two-minute span.
Sean and I had bought fabulous seats (at $55 apiece…ouch) in the perfect foul ball spot, but we came up empty. Three balls zipped right over our heads, and a couple others fell short, but it was still a good game. Not only was there a triple celebrity sighting right in our section (Dennis Miller, Ron Howard, and Tom Hanks), but Jason Windsor made his Major League debut. Who?! Jason Windsor, the 24-year-old right-hander from San Bernardino. He was a third-round draft pick in 2004 and combined for a 12-1 record this season at Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento. He’s going to be a stud. He lasted five innings and settled for a no-decision after limiting the Orioles to three runs–one earned–on five hits. Adam Loewen made the start–the sixth of his career–for the O’s and gave up just one hit in five innings. Unfortunately, he walked six, hit Nick Swisher twice, and balked in a run. The Orioles broke a 3-3 tie with two runs in the bottom of the seventh, and that’s how it ended. Guess who got the win in relief. Oh yes, that’s right: Mister Birkins.
I was already in the first row behind the Orioles’ dugout when Bobby Kielty ended the game with a wimpy groundout to second. Closer Chris Ray kept the ball (Whoa-ho! 23rd career save…gotta hold onto THAT one!), but coach Rick Dempsey tossed one into the crowd, about eight feet to my left. Somehow, the fans managed to drop it, and somehow, it bounced out of their hands and rolled right to me along the dugout roof…and that wasn’t it. Less than a minute later, I noticed that Bruce Chen was walking in from the bullpen with a ball in his glove. I wanted to make sure I was the first fan to ask for it, so I started waving and shouting before he crossed the foul line. When he got a little bit closer, he took the ball with his left hand and underhanded it to me with a high arc. It nearly hit the clueless security lady who was pacing back and forth on the dugout roof…but it didn’t, and I got it, and that was it.
• Competition Factor = 157,216.
• 107 balls in 13 games this season = 8.23 balls per game.
• 440 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 66 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 9 consecutive seasons with at least 100 balls
• 535 total balls outside of New York
• 83 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 54 lifetime balls in six games at Camden Yards = 9 balls per game.
• 2,859 total balls