August 2006

My next book

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog for a while, you’ve probably heard about my first book, but in case you haven’t, it’s called How to Snag Major League Baseballs. It came out in 1999. It’s old news.

The NEW news is that I have another baseball book coming out in just a few months, and it has nothing to do with snagging. (Take THAT, Playboy.) It’s going to be called Watching Baseball Smarter, and it’s basically a guide to watching/understanding/appreciating/loving the sport.

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I know that might sound a bit generic, but it’s not. Trust me. The book is going to be fun…I mean, it’s already fun. And informative. And well-rounded. It covers history and strategy. It explains the basics and the esoteric. There are anecdotes and statistics and quirky footnotes. There’s trivia. There’s a whole section on why guys are always grabbing their crotches. And there’s plenty of serious stuff, too…stuff about pitching, hitting, base running, fielding, umpires, uniform numbers, stadiums, steroids, superstitions, salaries, surgeries, and so much more. There’s also an extensive glossary of baseball slang. (Anyone know what a “courtesy trot” is? And while we’re at it, do you know the origin of the Baltimore Chop? Or the story of the only player to pitch ambidextrously more than once? Can you name the ten switch-hitters in the Hall of Fame? Do you know how exactly the catcher might change his signs when there’s a runner on second base? Or the difference between a splitter and a forkball? How about when the single earflap became a required addition for batting helmets? Did you know that in the 1870s, the batter could request a high or low pitch and that the umpire could ask the spectators for help if he missed a play? This is all very important.)

Anyway, the idea is that this book is written by a fan FOR FANS, not by a former player siphoned through a ghost writer, or by some stuffy announcer who’s trapped in the broadcast booth, or by a stats geek who only sees the game as a reflection in his calculator.

FYI, the Publisher is Vintage, and the book is scheduled to come out in March of 2007. I hope you’ll look for it. And in the meantime, I hope you won’t mind if I provide updates here and there. (I met my editor two days ago for the first time!) I just found out about this a few weeks ago, so I’m still *really* excited.

Mendoza Line of Snagging

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My recent/pathetic one-ball performance at Shea Stadium has inspired some talk of the Mendoza Line (which, for those who don’t know, is a .200 batting average…named after infielder Mario Mendoza who finished below the mark five times in his nine-year career).
To recap the brief discussion (from the comments on my previous entry)…

Richard got things started by asking, “Is there a Mendoza line in snagging?”

“Perhaps averaging under one ball per game?” I suggested.

Greg thought that sounded good. “If,” he said, “you have less baseballs than the number of games you’ve been to (as long as you are trying to snag, of course), you should be under the Mendoza Line of Snagging (or MLS).”

Then I had a change of heart: “I’m thinking that perhaps the MLS should be two balls per game, since the Mendoza Line in real life is a TWO hundred batting average.”

“Oh no,” protested Nick, “don’t make the MLS 2 balls! I’m at 1.8! 1.89 at Camden lifetime, though.”

Nick then asked what my career average is.

I’m actually not sure. Although I know exactly how many balls I’ve snagged, I didn’t count all my early games as closely. Still, I’ve done the math and made all sorts of calculations and guesses and assumptions, and I estimate the number of games I’ve attended to be 628.

2,910 balls in 628 games = 4.63 balls per game. So I’m in good shape as far as the “MLS” goes. I really think the mark should be two balls per game. I know that can be a difficult average to maintain, but who says this should be easy? Is it easy to bat .200 in The Show? For some people, yes. And for others, two words: Minor Leagues.

Any thoughts?

(Here’s a thought…the Mendoza Line should be called the Uecker Line; check out the man’s career batting average.)

8/23/06 at Shea Stadium

Ready for my shortest game entry ever? I got ONE ball all day, thrown by the newly acquired Guillermo Mota after his bullpen session with Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson. I was in the RF Loge. It was early. No other fans in sight. I called down. Guillermo tossed it up. And that was it. I didn’t get anything on the Cardinals’ side, even though I was color-coordinated and doing everything else right.

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No balls at the dugout. No pregame throwing. No foul tips during the game, thanks to two starting pitchers–Mark Mulder and Steve Trachsel–who didn’t reach 90mph once all night. Things were so bad that I even got heckled by a peanut vendor. “You should stop collecting balls and start chasing girls,” he said.

Little does he know.

STATS:

• 2 embarrassing to list

—————————————

GUSTAVO WATCH, PART 4
The Hample Jinx is unstoppable…
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After getting spanked in four straight Minor League rehab starts, Gustavo Chacin returned to the Majors last night and got shellacked. He lasted just 1 1/3 innings and suffered the loss, giving up FIVE runs–including two homers–on six hits and three walks. (That’s a 33.75 ERA for those of you who are keeping score at home.) He threw over 15 pitches per out as his season ERA jumped to 6.32…and all for one lousy baseball. I hope it was worth it, Gus.

8/22/06 at Shea Stadium

Right before I left for Shea, I posted a comment on my previous entry, saying that I wanted two things:

1) A ball from Albert Pujols.

2) Another commemorative Busch Stadium ball. (I got one on 6/14/06 at Citizens Bank Park.)

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It was another huge crowd–49,661 to be exact–so I raced to my corner spot in the right field Loge at the start of batting practice.

Within the first few minutes, I got Chad Bradford to toss me a ball, but it fell short and bounced back down onto the warning track. Billy Wagner played the carom perfectly and tossed it back up almost immediately. The ball sailed five feet over my head and landed in the empty aisle. Easy.

Remember how I used the glove trick at my last Mets game? That’s how I got my second ball yesterday. Just like last time, the ball was 30 feet below, lying against a hose in the gap behind the outfield wall, and once again, it took a few minutes to knock it out into the open. The ball has a faint “practice” stamped next to ball2905practice.jpgthe sweet spot, and as you can see, I labeled it with a “2905” because it’s the 2,905th ball in my collection.

Moments later, I made an unsuccessful attempt to use the trick for another ball in the gap. It wasn’t my fault, though. Really. The ball was partially trapped in a small trash-filled rut, and there wasn’t enough room for the glove to fully lower on top of it. VERY frustrating. And a waste of five minutes.

At the end of BP, Dave Williams finished his bullpen session and tossed me the ball, and THAT one fell short, too. (The Mets pitching staff is in trouble.) Bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello tossed it back up, and I had my third ball of the day.

I’d been shouting at Pedro Martinez for a few minutes, but he hadn’t looked up. He was busy playing catch, and anyway, I hadn’t said anything special to really get his attention. As he headed off the field toward the bullpen, I tried once more: “What’s up Pedro from your favorite baseball collector!” He looked right up and smiled. I told him I’d caught Barry Bonds’ home run last week in San Diego.

“Oh yeah?!” he said excitedly.

“Yeah! Number seven-twenty-four!” I called. I told him a few quick details, and then he headed inside. Cool.

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The stadium was PACKED by the time the Cardinals took the field. I hung out in the left field Loge and managed to get one more ball. (Shea is the only ballpark where batting practice is actually boring.) It was a foul homer hit by either Juan Encarnacion or Scott Rolen. They were quickly switching in and out of the cage, and by the time I caught it and looked back at the field, I wasn’t sure if the guy at the plate was the one who’d hit it. I made a pretty nice play on it, racing 30 or 40 feet to my right and catching the ball RIGHT in front of a young woman (pink shoes, legs crossed) who hadn’t seen it coming.

“Oooh! Baseball Collector! Thank you! You saved my life!”

“Think nothing of it, ma’am. Just give me your phone number, and we’ll call it even.”

Seriously though, the ball would’ve torn her face apart if I hadn’t been there. It was a line drive that was hit so hard that no one else in the section was able to move more than a few feet. Oh, and it was just a regular ball. No commemorative logo.

I should have gotten a fifth ball in the Loge, but Braden Looper recognized me–from LAST year when he was with the Mets. Someone had hit a shot to the left field corner. Looper walked over to pick it up. I shouted from above. He looked up and was about to throw it, then stopped and said, “How many balls do you HAVE?!” Unbelievable. I’ll tell you what I have, Braden: two reasons to boo you.

LarussaAs BP was winding down, I found a spot in the first row behind the Cardinals’ dugout, and two minutes later, Tony La Russa came in and tossed me a (regular) ball. Sweet! I’d never gotten one from him before. I was psyched to get to add his name to my list. Now I just needed one from Pujols…

Getting balls from first basemen is easy. You just need access to the seats behind the dugouts, and at Shea, that’s usually not a problem.

Carlos Beltran ended the bottom of the first with a ground out to second basemen Ronnie Belliard. Perfect. I darted down the steps as Belliard made the throw to Pujols at first. Pujols took the ball with him to the dugout…but tossed it to someone in the section on my left. Blah.

Chris Woodward was called out on strikes to end the second. Catcher Yadier Molina tossed the ball to a little kid in the section on my right. Blah squared.

Beltran ended the third inning with a grounder to shortstop Aaron Miles who stepped on second for a force play and ended up tossing the ball to that stupid section on my left. I was about to give up and just head back upstairs to the Loge for foul tips, but the view was so nice from the fourth row. I decided to give it one more inning.

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Pujols slugged a three-run homer in the top of the fourth, then ended up with the third-out ball in the bottom of the frame after Woodward hit a weak tapper to starting pitcher Jeff Weaver. Pujols took the ball to the dugout and tossed it my way as soon as he crossed the foul line. His throw had a fairly high arc, giving other people time to jockey for position. I crouched down and timed it perfectly, half-leaping and half-diving at the ball2909pujols.jpglast second to get full extension and make the catch just beyond everyone else’s hands as I belly-flopped on the dugout roof. (I wish I had a personal photographer to capture these moments. Of course, that photographer would also have to find a way past stadium security.) I was ecstatic. Mission accomplished. I’ve always liked Pujols. Now I have an official excuse to root for him…and wouldn’t you know it, he hit a grand slam in the next inning to give him a career high seven RBIs.

The Mets still won. Carlos Delgado hit a granny of his own in the bottom of the fifth–his second long ball of the night and 400th of his career. Then, with the Mets trailing, 7-6, in the bottom of the ninth, Beltran jerked a two-run walk-off shot off Jason Isringhausen–another Mets reject–to send everyone home happy. Even Bill Clinton. Can you find him in this picture?

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STATS:

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Competition Factor = 297,966.

• 157 balls in 21 games this season = 7.48 balls per game.

• 448 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 74 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 783 different players and coaches who have thrown balls to me

• 2,909 total balls…moves me past active hits leader Craig Biggio (2,907), and into 34th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Al Simmons (2,927).

(If you’re wondering why I’m comparing balls to hits, click here.)

8/16/06 at PETCO Park!

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I usually don’t arrive at 2pm for night games, but my friend Hannah had somewhere to be, so she dropped me off early. Just as well. This was my last game at PETCO, and it gave me one final chance to wander and be obnoxious with my camera.

After checking out the bleachers and giant sandbox, I headed back out to the street and around the corner to the players’ entrance. Maybe, just MAYBE, I’d catch Randy Winn coming in and finally get him to sign a ticket stub from his cycle.

The PETCO regulars were there, and they already recognized me. “How many balls did you end up with yesterday?” someone asked.

“Four.”

“Four?! How’d you get ‘em?! We only saw you get that one early on from Ben Johnson.”

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I told them about my glove trick, mentioned the Ray Durham slicer, described the cricket ball, and explained how I’d gotten one from Armando Benitez after the game. “Four is a bad day,” I added. They laughed. I was serious. After coming to San Diego with an average of 7.8 balls per game, I’d been limited to four balls on each of the first two days. That left me with a grand total of 2,892. Somehow, I was going to have to get EIGHT balls at this game in order to reach my milestone.

The Giants’ hotel was just a few blocks away, so the players kept trickling in. I got a few autographs–Matt Morris, Matt Cain, and Jason Schmidt–on those old cycle stubs, then decided I was wasting them and stuck to taking photos instead.

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ABOVE: (clockwise from top left) Morris, Steve Kline, Vinnie Chulk, Eliezer Alfonzo
BELOW: Cain, Durham, Schmidt, Shea Hillenbrand

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What’s the deal with the cell phones? I realize these guys are Major League baseball players, which automatically makes them busy and cool and important, but c’mon, is it THAT much of a burden to relate to the fans for an extra few minutes? Chulk was “on” the phone the whole time and never said a word. Hmm.

Winn was one of the last players in. He blew right past me and disappeared…and what a coincidence…he ended up going 0-for-5.

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I did okay in the sandbox for the first hour of batting practice, and I owe it all to the Hoffman family. Two of Trevor’s sons were shagging balls in center, and one of them (whose name I later learned is Wyatt) tossed me a ball after Tye Waller, the Padres’ first base coach, gave him permission. Ten minutes later, I got another from Trevor himself. When I sat down to label it, a kid who’d heard me talking outside the players’ entrance walked over and said, “Hey, if you get two more balls, it’ll be a bad day.”

It actually was a bad day for the next hour. Not only did I misplay several balls in the sandbox, but when I ran into the left field seats at 5:30, I found a ball lying on the ground, grabbed it, sat down briefly, and watched in horror as some other guy ran in moments later and found TWO more balls lying on the ground within 15 feet of me. I wanted to cry and barf and shriek. If I’d really been on my game, I could’ve easily had six or seven balls instead of three.

It was time to make a choice:

1) Go to the corner spot down the third base line where there’d be fewer balls and fewer people or…

2) Stay in left field where there’d be more balls and much more competition.

I was desperate. I didn’t want one or two more balls. I still needed FIVE, so I stayed in left and went for it.

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I snagged two quick balls with the glove trick and then got my man Vinnie to toss me another. The fans in my section started grumbling. Totally uncalled for. I was the only one who’d thought of making a contraption for picking up balls, and I was the only one who’d recognized Chulk. Not only had I seen him outside the ballpark three hours earlier, but I’d also taken the time to print the Giants’ roster along with some photos of the harder-to-recognize players and coaches. Hell, I even had pics of the trainers, equipment manager, and visiting clubhouse attendant. Was it my fault for being anaI and obsessive and prepared?

Was it my fault, five minutes later, when I darted through a row of seats and reached over some guy’s hands to catch an opposite-field bomb by Mark Sweeney? It was a clean play–TRUST ME–but the other guy was so mad that he tried to rip the ball out of my glove after I’d had it for a full second, and when he failed to pry it loose, he reached around my neck with his right arm and smacked me so hard in the face that I nearly lost my balance.

I’ve been to over 600 games, including a few hundred in the South Bronx, and I have never been hit that hard before. Not intentionally, anyway. This was no accident. The other guy is lucky that I went to a Quaker college.

The only time it’s wrong to reach in front of someone is when a player points at a specific fan before tossing the ball. But if a ball is hit, or randomly tossed from a distance, you can’t claim ownership until it’s nestled snugly in your hands. Earlier in the day, two different guys had cut in front of me in the sandbox and snatched balls that were inches from my glove. (Newsflash for the b*tch-slapper: Real men refer to this as “competition.”) Was I mad? Yeah. I was mad at myself for not being quicker and more alert.

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Anyway, I only needed one more ball as batting practice was winding down, so I ran to the Giants’ dugout. The first few rows were full, so I hung back and spotted hitting coach Joe Lefebvre walking toward the bucket of balls.

“Joe!” I yelled. He looked up, and I waved my arms to make sure he’d see me. “Any chance for a ball?!”

He pulled one out of the bucket and lobbed it in my direction. Guess what happened. Some kid came flying out of nowhere, cut through the row in front of me, and grabbed the ball as I was reaching for it. Fortunately, Lefebvre picked up another ball and said, “I’m gonna give you one more chance.”

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I pointed up with both hands as if to say, “Keep this one higher so I don’t get robbed again,” and he did. The ball thief (I say ball2900labeled.jpgthat lovingly) had backed off, and no one else was close enough to interfere. Easy catch. Number 2,900 was mine. It wasn’t the most exciting snag, but whatever. I can’t control that. I’d gotten my eight balls. I was psyched…and relieved not to have to run around during the game; Hannah, a baseball novice, was planning to return to the ballpark just in time for the first pitch, and I actually wanted to sit and WATCH the game with her.

Right before the national anthem, I got an autograph from Omar Vizquel and another cold shoulder omarvizquelautograph.jpgfrom Winn. Then I met Hannah in the main aisle in straight-away right field. According to everything I’d read on HitTracker, that was the best place to be for Barry Bonds–and that’s where I’d been hanging out all series, thanks to the kind ushers who didn’t chase me away. I didn’t expect Bonds to go deep, and if he did, I knew there’d be a 1-in-1,000 chance that the ball would actually come my way, but I had to try. People are always asking if I’ve caught any historic balls, and I’ve never had a good answer. (The final ball from Mariano Rivera’s 313th career save?) Even the 95 balls I’d snagged during games are forgettable by everyone else’s standards; I usually stay behind home plate for foul tips, so a mere two of the 95 were home runs…one from Mike Stanley, the other off the bat of Mike Bordick. Ooh.

Hannah had just seen the starting lineups on the JumboTron.

“You know what I just learned?” she asked.

“What.”

“Barry Bonds is black.”

She wasn’t kidding. This was her third game ever, and the other two were accidents. Bonds was the only active player she could name, so when he came to bat in the top of the second inning, I decided to take her picture with his scoreboard photo in the background.

First, I had to get my camera out of my backpack, which I did after Chan Ho Park delivered ball one. Then I noticed I was standing next to a really tall guy with a glove, so I moved 30 feet to the right. Ball two. I was now further from home plate–a bit too far, I feared–but the aisle was emptier. If Bonds happened to get a hold of one, I’d have a clear path. Meanwhile, the aging slugger swung through the next pitch to bring the count to 2-1. Excellent. If it’d gone to 3-0, Park probably would’ve walked him.

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I had my camera in my right hand and my glove on my left. I was ready to take the pic, but Park was set to deliver, so we waited. Foul ball. Two balls, two strikes. Hannah scooted into the middle of the aisle, and I took the photo, just before Bonds took a pitch to work the count full.

“Three balls, two strikes,” I said as I handed the camera to Hannah. “Barry’s gonna do something here.”

It was a half-hearted prediction. I still wasn’t taking him seriously. I mean, c’mon, Barry Bonds is gonna hit ME a home run? I think not.

Park went into his windup, fired the ball, and Bonds jerked it in my direction. I figured it’d be another deep flyout, but that didn’t stop me from bolting to my right to get in line with it. I often run for balls that don’t come close. That’s just how it goes. I’m willing to look silly in order to get a head start on the competition–but there was nothing silly about this one.

The ball kept coming and coming, and I made it to the railing in front of the aisle with a moment to spare, wondering if this were really happening, if the ball would have the distance to clear the four rows of fans down below, if someone else in the aisle was going to reach in front of me at the last second and steal my lifelong dream.

The ball was falling short and tailing a bit to my right. The fans below reached up. I reached out, way out, right above their hands, and felt the ball hit the pocket of my glove.

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I had it, but at the same time I couldn’t believe it. I threw up my arms to celebrate as a million thoughts raced through my mind. Was this a dream? Why me? How could it’ve been so easy? Was it really that easy after all? What if I’d dropped it? What if the ball had traveled one foot less?

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The fans started chanting “Throw it back!!!” I ran toward the front of the aisle, took a crow hop, and cocked my arm as if I were going to launch it back toward the infield, then stopped abruptly and pointed at everyone with a big smile, drawing laughter and applause from the entire section. People congratulated me. People shook my hand. People gave me high fives. People wanted to see the ball. People wanted to touch the ball. People wanted to hold the ball. That made me nervous. But I let them.

I kept waiting for a Padres or Giants official to walk up and say, “Come with me,” but it never happened. Apparently, the ball isn’t THAT important, so it wasn’t marked by Major League Baseball. But still, as another friend later pointed out, I’m one of two people in America who have a 724th career home run…and mine is the one that tied Bonds with his godfather, Willie Mays, for ninth on the all-time RBI list.

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It was only 10:30pm on the east coast, so I called my parents.

“You will NOT believe what just happened!!!” I told my mom.

“Are you okay?! Is it something bad?!”

My dad joined the frantic conversation, and the three of us talked for 19 minutes. Then I called my ex-girlfriend (who remains one of my best friends) and told her what I told my parents: “Watch SportsCenter. Watch Baseball Tonight. Watch ESPNEWS. Copy it. Record it. Get footage…CRAP!! You DON’T have cable! Call people. Do what you can do. Ohmygod, I neeeeed footage of this!”

Remember Kevin, the guy in the orange shirt from 8/14/06 at PETCO Park? He was also in right field, and he’d overheard bits of my conversation as I paced back and forth with Hannah’s cell phone. (Poor Hannah hardly got to sit down all night.) Before I knew it, he was handing me HIS phone and telling me to talk to his friend, Brad, a fellow baseball collector who lives in San Francisco and tapes every game. Brad offered to make several clips of various lengths and stick ‘em on a DVD and mail it to zack724talking.jpgme. I gave him my address, thanked him at least a dozen times, and handed the phone back to Kevin, who’d actually left briefly to run to the sandbox to get in position for a certain hitter. It might’ve even been Bonds’ second at-bat. Or his third. I have no idea. The rest of the game was a blur. If Hannah hadn’t grabbed my camera and snapped a bunch of shots, I wouldn’t have remembered much. (In this one, I’m reenacting the Sweeney snag for some fans who asked how I’d gotten eight balls earlier in the day. Kevin is the burly dude in the gray t-shirt.)

After Todd Linden replaced Bonds in the bottom of the sixth, Hannah and I went to the second deck so I could get a good look at the section from above.

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Like I said, the whole thing was a blur. I couldn’t remember where I’d been standing or how far I’d moved to make the catch. Turns out that I didn’t have to move far at all…and that makes sense. That’s why I got to the railing with several seconds to spare.

I’m still in shock. Brad spent $14.40 to send the DVD overnight (wow), and I’ve already watched the footage dozens of times. (CLICK HERE to watch it for yourself.) I’m truly amazed that someone else didn’t knock me over or hit my glove or PETCOgreatseats.jpgreach in front of me. The catch seemed pretty easy at the time, but on the replays, it looks almost impossible. I didn’t realize how close the people down below had come to reaching the ball.

I didn’t want the night to end, and I nearly got my wish as the game lasted 13 innings. Toward the end, a friendly usher (whom I’d unintentionally charmed over the previous two days) let me and Hannah sit in her section, five rows behind the plate…one row behind Trevor Hoffman’s family. During the bottom of the 10th, one of his boys kept waving to him. Trevor acknowledged him with subtle nods and winks bonds724wrapped.jpgfrom the top step of the dugout. In addition to wondering what it’d be like to have Trevor Hoffman as my father, I kept thinking about how I was now in a lousy spot to catch a foul ball–and I kept not caring. I had a slightly more important ball, now wrapped carefully in a paper towel, resting safely in the zipped whosyourpadre.jpgleft pocket of my cargo pants. I decided not to mark it with a ‘2901.’ I can always do that later, but for now, I want to keep it in its original condition. Marked or not, will I be able to prove that it’s THE ball? Doesn’t matter. It’s not for sale.

The nicest guy on the Giants–that would be Eliezer Alfonzo–knocked in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the top of the 13th, and two batters later, Pedro Feliz drew a bases-loaded walk to force in another. I left Hannah in the fancy seats with one out in the bottom of the 13th, went to the Giants’ dugout, and got two balls after the game. One was given to me by home plate ump Dana DeMuth. The other was tossed by first base coach Luis Pujols.

Eleven balls. WHO’S your Padre!

STATS:

Competition Factor = 373,318.

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• 151 balls in 20 games this season = 7.55 balls per game.

• 447 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 73 consecutive games with at least two balls

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

• 554 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 7 game balls this season

• 96 lifetime game balls

• 15 lifetime game balls outside of New York

• 14 different stadiums with at least one game ball

• 2,903 total balls

8/15/06 at PETCO Park

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Another day at PETCO, another precious hour of life wasted in the giant sandbox. There wasn’t a single ball hit there during batting practice, and if it weren’t for Ben Johnson, I would’ve been freaking out when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:30pm.

I had spotted Johnson from 100 feet away, noticed that he was walking toward a ball, and happened to be the only fan who recognized him. I shouted his name. He looked up. I waved my arms and and yelled for the ball. He tossed it my way. It was a perfect throw, heading right for my chest, but I didn’t wait for jakepeavy.jpgit. Instead, I ran forward so I could jump and catch it as high as possible, thus preventing anyone else from cutting me off and snatching it. (Useless fact of the day: Ben is the seventh ‘Johnson’ to have thrown me a ball, the others being Brian, Howard, Jason, Jonathan, Mark P., and Russ.)

In addition to the ball, I got Jake Peavy to sign a Mets-Padres ticket stub from one week earlier, but still, I couldn’t wait for the rest of the ballpark to open, and in a way, I couldn’t wait to get out of San Diego and just go home. There was no chance I was going to reach 2,900 balls on this trip. PETCO wasn’t just challenging; it was flat-out kicking my ***.

That said, I wasn’t about to hide in a bathroom stall, so at 5:30, I went to left field and managed to get petcoLFwall.jpga ball with my glove trick. It wasn’t easy. There’s a double wall in front of the seats with a fence-covered gap in the middle. I had to lie across it and stretch way out just to see the ball down below.

Batting practice was almost over–yeah, THAT fast–and the seats were packed. I hadn’t yet tried my luck in the corner spot down the third base line, so I ran over there and snagged my third ball of the day. Ray Durham sliced it into the seats, sparking a mad scramble. Luckily, the ball trickled into my row, and I grabbed it off the concrete steps.

It was 6:15pm before I knew it. Batting practice was done, and the stingy Giants failed to give me a ball at their dugout. Five minutes later, a whole bunch of guys, all dressed in white, cricket.jpgstarted playing an exhibition cricket match in shallow center field. (I’m sure the grounds crew loved that.) I’d done all my wandering and photo-taking the day before, so I had nothing better to do than head to the left field seats for a closer look. One of the players actually hit the ball into the seats. I totally wasn’t expecting it. At that point–the lull between BP and the game–my glove was tucked away in my backpack, but that didn’t stop me from jumping up and bolting after it. I almost got it, but the damn thing took an unlucky bounce to some other unsuspecting fan. The match stopped. Everyone in the stadium was staring at our section. Turns out it was the ONLY cricket ball these guys had, so one of the players had to run over and ask the fan to return it.

“Wait wait wait!!!” I shouted. “Let me get a look at it!!!”

I’d never seen a cricket ball, not even in a photograph, but it was too late. The fan tossed the red ball back onto the field, and play resumed until the P.A. announcer interrupted several minutes later: “Let’s give another round of applause to the San Diego Cricket Club.”

The club made one more play, and ball was hit to the left field wall. The fielder who ran after it didn’t bother firing it back in. Instead, he scooped it up and underhanded it to some fans in the first row, but it fell short and hit the top of the wall. Ha! I knew the guy was going to run over and give it another toss, cricketball.jpgso I climbed over a few rows of seats and squeezed in amongst the crowd. Sure enough, he jogged over and grabbed the ball and flung it right to me. And just like that, my newest collection was underway.

The ball was HARD. Baseballs have a bit of give–you can dig your fingernail into the surface and make ridges–but this thing didn’t. It felt like polished wood. Weird weird weird. And cool.

Randy Winn dissed me once again. Does anyone know this guy? What’s his problem? Is he trying to get jinxed?

Just before the game started, Brian Giles tossed his warmup ball into the right field seats. (I was already out there for Barry Bonds purposes.) Everyone reached for it. No one caught it. The ball bounced back over the wall and landed on a small fenced platform just out of reach. I was about to set up my glove trick when an usher scurried down the steps with a special device used for retrieving such balls.

“Is there any chance I could have it?” I asked politely.

“Well,” he replied, “I usually try to give it to a guy in a wheelchair. Besides, you already have 2,000 of ‘em.”

“What?! Wait! How do you know?!”

“How do I know?” he said with a grin. “You’re famous. You got almost 2,900.”

I was speechless.
He disappeared with the ball.

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Barry was worthless. He grounded into the shift in top of the second, drew an intentional walk in the third, struck out in the fifth, and flied out to center in the eighth. 0-for-everything. Thanks. I appreciate it.

I’d already worked my way down behind the dugout by the time Armando Benitez fanned Dave Roberts to end the game. (Final score: Giants 3, Padres 2.) Felipe Alou ignored my request for the lineup cards, but Benitez tossed me the ball on his way in. He had briefly scanned the seats for a younger/cuter recipient, but when I repeated my request in Spanish, his eyes returned to me. I wasted no time in writing “2892” on the ball so I’d always remember that it was the one he used to earn his 15th save of the season and 278th of his career. Nifty.

711mikemikedan.jpgOn the way out, I found a dozen ticket stubs and took a few pics of the empty, trash-strewn seats. Then I headed to the nearby 7-11 for a much needed bottle of water. After I paid, a college-aged kid (wearing the ‘R’ hat) approached and said, “Excuse me, are you Zack?”

Wow.

He’d read my book. That’s how he recognized me. He was with his father and brother. They’re from New Jersey, and they were on a ballpark tour–and for a moment, we all shared that special baseball bond, knowing that we were on the best kind of vacation in the world.

STATS:

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Competition Factor = 126,404.

• 140 balls this season in 19 games = 7.37 balls per game.

• 446 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 72 consecutive games with at least two balls

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

• 543 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 2,892 total balls. Ugh. Eight balls away and only one game to go…

8/14/06 at PETCO Park

The best part about arriving at PETCO at 2:15pm was that there wasn’t anyone else around to see me acting like this:

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This was one of 54 pics I took outside the ballpark, and no, they weren’t all of myself. I photographed the ticket windows, the turnstiles, the street signs, the surrounding construction, the team store, the VIP armandobenitez.jpgentrance, the Park at the Park (a three-acre grassy picnic area with a mini baseball field behind the batters eye), the vendors, the autograph collectors, and a frighteningly large Armando Benitez.

The stadium opened at 4:30pm, but for the first hour of batting practice, the only open section was the giant sandbox (and worthless bleachers), in right-center field…so there I was, trapped with dozens of little kids, 402 feet from home plate. Not good.

I hadn’t even been there for a minute when I heard someone say my name…or at least I thought I did. The voice was so soft that I was almost tempted to ignore it. Yeah, it was a bit of an honor, I suppose, to be recognized 3,000 miles from home, but I kinda just wanted to go about my business and blend in. But I couldn’t ignore it. That’s not my nature. I had to turn around, and when I did, I saw two guys waving me over from the first row of the bleachers. They said they recognized me from this blog and knew I’d be there. One of the them–Kevin, pictured below in the orange shirt–told me that he was the fan who’d helped me identify Brad Hennessey last year in Cincinnati right before I got my 2,600th ball. That was one of 142 major league games he attended in 2005. The other guy–T.C., wearing the sun glasses and blue wristbands–told me he’s caught 172 home runs during games.

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Five or ten minutes later, I got Scott Williamson to toss me a ball. I was surrounded by kids, but I was the only one who had called his name, and he lobbed it right to me, over the outfield wall and into the sandbox. No problem, right?

Not exactly.

The whole section (Kevin and T.C. excluded) erupted in protest.

“What’re you DOING?!?!”
“Give it to the kids!!!”
“Why are you wearing a glove?!?!”
“That’s unfair!!!”
“He was throwing that ball to my son!!!”

Oh.
My.
God.

In the next 45 minutes, several balls were tossed into the section, and I was too rattled to go for them. I mean, I went for them, but not aggressively. On one ball, for example, I decided that I wouldn’t jump…that if I happened to get it by simply reaching up for it, then it wouldn’t be my fault. Of course, some other big guy jumped at the last second and snatched it away from everyone. And that’s how it went. It was weird. I felt guilty and undeserving, I guess because it all seemed too easy. I could’ve dominated out there and easily gotten three or four balls, but instead my niceness/wimpiness left me with just that one ball by the time the rest of the stadium opened at 5:30pm.

I didn’t know where to go. I tried right field and didn’t get anything. The stadium was packed. I ran back around the batters eye and into the left field seats. Awful. The long rows were filled with fans and blocked by railings at each staircase, and anyway, the second deck was so low that most of the home runs didn’t even land in the lower level. I ran back to right field. Still nothing. It was a nightmare. I ran back to left and found a teeny patch of empty seats down the line. Barry Bonds sliced a ball into the corner, and I convinced the recently promoted Jack Taschner to toss it to me. I had to beg. It was ball2887beingused.jpghumiliating…and it was also the last ball I got during BP. Two lousy balls in nearly two hours? Unbelievable. The Giants are the new Astros: stingy beyond belief. I’m amazed they haven’t started marking their balls in order to keep track of every last one.

I wandered and took a few more pics, then headed to shallow left field when Eliezer Alfonzo and some other guy started throwing. I couldn’t believe how little competition I had. In fact, there was NO competition. There wasn’t another Giants “fan” in sight. No kids. No gloves. Nothing. Just a few oblivious ball2887weirdness.jpgseason ticket holders. When Alfonzo finished playing catch, I didn’t even have to call his name. I just held up my glove, and he threw me the ball which, as you can see, is pretty weird looking. Aside from the thin strip of the word ‘Rawlings,’ the rest of the logo is barely visible. It looks like it was somehow wiped off, or cleanly smudged away. Any theories?

After the national anthem, Randy Winn completely ignored my request to sign the ticket from his cycle. I was shouting at him (politely) from about 50 feet away, so I know he heard me, but he did his best Curtis Pride impression and then trotted back to the dugout.

It was time to head to straight-away right field for Barry Bonds’ first at-bat. (“Booo!!!” Okay, now hit me a homer.) The Giants, of course, went down in order in the top of the first, so I had to wait out there for an extra half-inning, only to see Bonds lead off the top of the second by grounding out to the pitcher. BALCO should give him a refund.

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I needed to take more pics and thought I could make it to the upper deck and back in time for Bonds’ next at-bat, but no. Not at PETCO. It’s a pretty place–don’t get me wrong–but it was designed in the most inconvenient way imaginable. Aisles end unpredictably. Staircases lead to fences. Concourses are strangely disjointed. The whole stadium is basically a gigantic obstacle course. Getting from Point A to Point B is a real pain. So I wandered…as quickly as I could…and still ended up watching Bonds from the top of the upper deck. If he’d homered to my spot in right field, I might’ve jumped off said deck, but thankfully, the best he could do was ground out to first base to end the top of the fourth.

The Giants scored an unearned run in the top of the fifth and that was it. I mean IT for the game. Final score: Giants 1, Padres 0. The teams combined for nine hits and four errors. Proof that good things come to those who give me baseballs: Taschner worked two-thirds of a scoreless inning to earn his first hold of the season, and Alfonzo collected the lone RBI. (Bonds had finished his night by flying out in the sixth and eighth innings.) I went to the Giants’ dugout as Benitez nailed down his 14th save. First base coach Luis Pujols tossed me a grass-stained ball, and 30 seconds later, manager Felipe Alou gave me the lineup cards. (I actually danced a jig, though not at the time.)

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STATS:

zackwheat.jpg

Competition Factor = 127,096.

• 136 balls in 18 games this season = 7.6 balls per game.

• 445 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 71 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 41 different Major League stadiums with at least one ball

• 539 total balls outside of New York

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

• 2,888 total balls…moves me out of a tie with Zack Wheat (2,884) and into sole possession of 35th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Craig Biggio (2,905).

Gustavo Watch, Part 3

Jinxed_2The Hample Jinx continued its wake of destruction yesterday as notorious ball thief Gustavo Chacin got pounded…

in Single-A!

In yet another rehab start–this time with the Dunedin Blue Jays of the Florida State League–our friend managed to pitch 4 2/3 innings, during which he surrendered five runs on six hits and five walks. After posting a 10.13 ERA at Triple-A, he’s showing signs of improvement with a mark of 9.64 in A-Ball. Keep up the good work, Gustie.

(I’m off to PETCO in half an hour. Still haven’t had time to blog about yesterday’s game…)

The countdown continues…

Ever since Hannah picked me up at the airport on Saturday, there’s been lots of eating, Scrabble-playing, and hanging out on the beach.

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It’s 11:24pm here (still Sunday the 13th), which puts the official PETCO Park countdown at 17 hours and 11 minutes.

Ohboy.

Off to San Diego…

It’s 5:23am.
My car to Newark Airport arrives in four hours and 52 minutes.
I haven’t finished packing.
I haven’t started sleeping.

PetcoThe official PETCO Park countdown is at 59 hours…and by the way, the official name of the stadium is, in fact, “PETCO” (as opposed to “Petco”), so when you see me write it, don’t mistake it for shouting.

Last season, when I went to Cincinnati and Houston, I stayed in cheap hotels and had plenty of alone time reserved for blogging. In San Diego, however, I probably won’t be able to blog THAT much because I’ll be staying with my friend Hannah who has all kinds of fun stuff planned for us when I’m not at the ballpark. I’ll check in when I can. I might only have time to respond to comments on this entry. I might be able to post short entries with quick updates. Or maybe I’ll find a chunk of free time after all, but there’s no way I’ll be posting three full-length entries about PETCO in three days. I might have to catch up on everything when I’m back in New York, so bear with me.

Hannah_1But back to PETCO…
I’ll be seeing three games (Mon-Wed) against the Giants, and I have several goals:

1)Take advantage of the fact that for at least one day, the ushers and security guards and players and fans won’t recognize me.

2) Snag at least 16 balls and reach No. 2,900. It’s always nice to achieve a milestone at a new stadium. I got No. 2,600 from Brad Hennessey last year at Great American Ball Park. There’s a chance that he could hook me up again. I’ve never gotten two milestone balls from the same player.

3) Get Randy Winn to sign a ticket stub from his cycle.

4) Catch a Barry Bonds home run during a game so I can throw it back onto the field. I never get to show off my arm.

And in other news…
Last night, one of my co-workers asked me if I’m ever going to stop collecting balls. (Yes, when I die.) Another guy overheard the question and said, “He’s gonna get to 20,000 balls, throw them all in the ocean, and have 20,000 balls under the sea.” Aha. Right. So yeah, anyway, a few people have been posting comments and asking about my newest book. It’s about baseball, but NOT about collecting balls. After several years of work and nail-biting, I finished it this spring. I haven’t talked about it much, but that’s gonna change pretty soon.

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