May 2007

5/29/07 at Shea Stadium

The last time I went to a game and didn’t snag at least one ball was September 2, 1993 at Yankee Stadium. I’ve been to hundreds of games since then, and this was one of the few times I knew my streak was in danger before I even left my apartment. That’s because I was going to be filmed by two shows for SportsNet New York, and the interviews were going to take place during batting practice. Why the danger? Because the interviews had nothing to do with my baseball collection and everything to do with my new book.
I’m not complaining. It’s every author’s dream to be on TV and have his (or her!) book featured. I’m just saying that the snagging situation was looking grim. I’d been told that the filming would last until game time, which meant that in order to keep my streak alive, I’d have to find a way–ANY way–to get a foul ball or a 3rd-out ball or a warm-up ball between innings or a foul dribbler from the 1st base coach or a ball from the winning team at their dugout. I was so paranoid that I’d go the whole night without getting a ball…and convinced that I’d be relying on the home plate umpire to toss me one as he left the field after the game…that I printed the complete Major League Umpire Roster so I’d be able to identify him by number and call him by name instead of simply yelling, “Hey, blue!”

early_BP.jpg

Anyway, I met two members of the film crew at the Press Gate at 3pm and got my media credential. Then we headed inside and took the elevator up to the Mezzanine (the 3rd level) to meet the others. As I stepped out of the ramp and into the seats, I was surprised to see the Giants players taking early BP–while wearing shorts and t-shirts. It was an odd sight, and I wanted to watch, but there was work to be done. First, one of the guys hooked me up with a microphone. Then I was introduced to “Kooz,” the puppet/mascot of the show “Mets Weekly.” And after that, the producer set up the first shot and told me what we’d be doing.

The first part was a straight-up interview with Kooz. What inspired me to write the book? How long did it take? What are some interesting things that people can look for?

kooz_and_zack.jpg

The second part was a lesson on keeping score. I was given a score sheet. I wrote the first few names of the Mets lineup. I invented some action and showed Kooz how to fill it in.

The third part was a game of “20 Questions.” Kooz thought of a player, and I had to figure out who. Is he alive? Yes. Is he currently playing? Yes. Is he in the American League? No. Is it Albert Pujols? No. Is he on the Mets. Yes. Aha! And so on.

SNY_crew_upper_deck.jpg

For the fourth and final part of the segment, Kooz and I took turns reciting lines from my poem called “159 Ways to Hit the Ball” (which you can find on pages 54-55 in the book). Kooz started by chanting, “Squib, squirt, nub, chop,” and I continued with “Drive, line, send, pop.” We did the first verse in the seats, then sang the second on a ramp overlooking the parking lot, the third in front of a concession stand, the fourth while riding up an escalator, and the fifth in the upper deck.

At 4:35pm, the Mets were starting BP, the gates were about to open, and I felt completely helpless as I was escorted down to the Field Level to be filmed for “Kids Clubhouse.” At least if my streak ended, I’d have a good excuse to last me a lifetime: “Oh yeah, May 29, 2007…I remember that…whatever…I was being interviewed by Kenneth Cole’s daughter for some show on the Mets’ cable network and had to miss batting practice…whatever.”

As I stepped onto the warning track behind home plate and headed toward the Mets’ dugout, I heard a few people shout my name from the crowd. It was a small group of autograph collectors that I’d gotten to know over the years, and one of them was a close friend named George Amores. I don’t know how to put it any other way, so let me just say this: George is The Man. When I told him last week that I’d be doing a couple pieces with SNY, he offered to meet me at Shea and take pictures, so when I saw him standing in the front row behind the dugout, I walked over as close as I could and tossed him my camera. (I love having athletic friends.)

zack_on_field.jpg

The crew attached a new microphone to my shirt and prepped me for the interview with Amanda Cole, who started by asking me a few basic questions about the book. Then, since this episode of the show was mainly about pitching, I showed her how to grip and throw different types of pitches: four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, curve, knuckle-curve, knuckleball, change-up, etc.

Meanwhile, the Mets were taking BP, and it was seriously weird not to be running around for balls. Thankfully, I got a brief chance to snag, and the timing couldn’t have been better. Just after 5:30pm, the crew had to do a separate interview with Pedro Feliciano. I was told that when my segment continued, it was going to be filmed in the seats, so I headed up that way with five minutes to spare.

“Hey!” someone shouted at me from the first row behind the photographers’ box. “You’re the ball guy! Are you gonna give us a ball?!”

“I’m just trying to get ONE for myself,” I said.

barry_bonds_sign.jpg

The first few rows behind the dugout were packed, but one of my friends (pictured here with the green sign) cleared a little space for me and let me in. Two minutes later, the Mets finished BP and headed off the field. David Wright tossed three balls over the far end of the dugout, and other players and coaches ignored me, but then at the last second, Mets 3rd base coach Sandy Alomar Sr. walked over with a ball and discussing_the_segment.jpgflipped it to me. WOO!!! No time to celebrate. Two minutes after that, the crew was in the seats, discussing the final portion of the interview with me, which was all about “The Fair Ball Quiz” (on page 116). We picked five questions to ask kids–stuff like “If a bunt rolls onto home amanda_and_zack.jpgplate and stays there, is it fair or foul?”–and I had to explain the answers. And that was it. It was 6:15pm, and I was free, and the Giants were just about to finish batting practice.

I switched into my Giants cap and raced over to their dugout on the 3rd base side. Pedro Feliz tossed me a ball on his way in, and moments later, someone else flipped one up from underneath the dugout roof. Not bad.

I spent the next half hour wandering all around the Field Level seats and taking notes for New York Magazine. (You can read more about that in my last entry.) Then I headed up to the Loge for the start of the game. Great pitching matchup. Tim Lincecum versus Oliver Perez. Two hard throwers. (Lincecum topped out at 99mph.) There weren’t nearly as many foul balls as I’d expected, but I did catch one in the top of the 9th. No outs, 1-0 fastball from Billy Wagner to Bengie Molina. I was standing at the top of the ramp for no other purpose than to catch a foul ball, so as soon as it left the bat, I was all over it. I didn’t have to move much–just a few feet to my left–and that’s a good thing because the ball flew back nearly as fast as the pitch was thrown…and yet it didn’t even seem that fast. You know how a hot bengie_molina_foul_ball.jpghitter will sometimes talk about the game appearing to slow down, almost as if everything is moving in slow-motion while he’s able to operate at full speed? Well, that’s how it felt as I traced that foul ball. From the instant it left the bat, I knew it was mine. Other people seemed to be frozen in place, paralyzed by fear and/or slow reflexes, as I glided into position for the easy one-handed grab.

“Thanks!” shouted the man standing right behind me. “You saved me from breaking my hand.”

“Glad to help,” I said.

B*rry B*nds pinch-hit in the top of the 10th, and Scott Schoeneweis walked him on five pitches. Just as well. If he’d gone deep, there wouldn’t have been much of a chance for me to catch it. Right field was a zoo. There were four security guards blocking the ramp to the seats, with fans crammed behind them, and everyone in the seats was standing. It was nearly impossible to see, let alone move.

It was an amazing game. David Wright had nearly ended it with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 9th, but the ball hit the very top of the right field fence. Three batters later, with the winning run on second base, Omar Vizquel made a diving play on a grounder up the middle and got an inning-ending force out at second.

The Mets loaded the bases in the bottom of the 10th but couldn’t score. The entire 11th inning was uneventful, but then the Giants took a 4-3 lead in the top of the 12th. In the bottom of the inning, former Mets closer Armando Benitez entered the game and nearly got booed off the mound. The reception might’ve rattled him because he started by walking Jose Reyes and balking him to second. Endy Chavez laid down a sacrifice bunt, and Benitez then balked AGAIN, sending Reyes home with the tying run. Beltan then grounded out, and Delgado followed with his second home run of the night. Game over. Final score: Mets 5, Giants 4. Please drive carefully and arrive home safely.

STATS:

• 87 balls in 11 games this season = 7.9 balls per game.

• 466 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 4 game balls in 11 games this season = 1 game ball every 2.8 games.

• 102 lifetime game balls

• 3,048 total balls

• 3 days until the segments air on SNY (that would be Saturday, June 2)

• 37 days until San Francisco

5/25/07 at Yankee Stadium

It was Friday. The weather was perfect. The Angels were in town, and I didn’t care. I wanted no part of Yankee Stadium. I knew it’d be packed, and I’d been planning to spend the evening with a professional masseuse named Jona.
So much for that.

Let me explain…

Four days earlier, I received the following email:

Hi Zack,

New York magazine is putting together an “Everything Guide to Baseball” at Yankee Stadium and Shea and we would love to get your input. I’m hoping we can talk on the phone for a few minutes about your strategies for getting balls at these two parks — as well any other expert advice you might like to offer. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience, or send along a phone number where you can be reached. Hopefully we can speak early this week.

Thanks…

My earliest convenience wasn’t all that convenient, or at least not all that relaxing. It was the half-hour before boarding my flight to St. Louis, so instead of reading the previous day’s box scores and eating a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, I was answering a rapid succession of questions about the best places to snag baseballs. I told the writer everything he needed to know–except for the actual section and box numbers. I didn’t know them all. When I run into Yankee Stadium, for example, I head for the seats in yankee_stadium_seating_chart.jpgstraight-away right field and constantly adjust my positioning based on several factors. I don’t stop and read the little signs on the railings and look for the one that says “BOX 331.”

The writer asked if I could go online when I got to my hotel and look at the stadiums’ seating charts and give him the section numbers based on those. I tried but it was no use. The charts didn’t provide enough detail for me to be able to give specific advice. I told him I’d be at Shea on May 29 and that I could make a note of all the section numbers if he could wait that long. He said he could wait–but not much longer than that, and he asked if I was planning to be at Yankee Stadium anytime soon.

Long story short: By the time I returned from St. Louis, the Yankees had three home games remaining before going on an 11-day road trip. I had to attend one of those games, and it had to be on Friday night. I was totally booked up for the rest of the weekend, so I called Jona and explained the situation and reluctantly headed to the Bronx for some in-person research.

Of course I put the research on hold until game-time and tried to make the most of batting practice, but unfortunately, in addition to the right field seats being absurdly crowded, there was a 12-year-old kid named Brian that I knew from this blog. I say “unfortunately” because he was going for balls, too, which meant we had to compete with each other. That’s the crappy nature of both NYC stadiums; there aren’t many seats in fair territory so everyone has to cram into a few small sections.

Less than a minute after the gates opened, a lefty on the Yankees hit a home run into the seats, and the ball bounced back onto the field. Ron Villone tossed it to me. And less than a minute after that, Brian got a ball from Matt DeSalvo. Excellent. The threat of being shut out had quickly been eliminated for both of us.

Brian had a glove trick of his own, so we competed for balls on the warning track as well. Luckily for me, he didn’t notice that one had rolled right up to the wall near the foul pole. I darted through the main aisle, got into position, lowered my glove, and snagged it with ease.

right_field_gap_a.jpg

A home run landed in the gap between the box seats and the bleachers and rolled to the bottom. Brian and I raced for the one spot up against the side wall where we’d have the best chance of getting it. I barely beat him there, and as it turned out, he wasn’t quite tall enough to see over the wall anyway, so he let me have it.

robinson_cano_bp_homers.jpg

Within the next five minutes, I caught two homers–on a fly–off the bat of Robinson Cano. I’d positioned myself perfectly and didn’t have to move much, but there were people all around, reaching up in front of my face for both of them. Brian was close to the first one and right underneath the second. If I hadn’t been there, he probably would’ve caught it.

I felt guilty.
But he got his revenge.

During the Angels’ portion of batting practice, several balls rolled onto the warning track and were promptly gobbled up by other fans with cup tricks. To my delight, three of these fans ended up competing for one ball and getting their strings tangled, so I tried to swoop in and snag it with my glove trick. I messed up. The rubber band was too tight, and the ball wouldn’t go inside the glove.

“The glove won’t work!” shouted someone on my left.

“Get it out of the way!” yelled one of the guys with a dangling cup.

brian_and_zack.jpg

“The glove DOES work!” said a voice from behind. It was Brian, and before I knew it, he was squeezing through the crowd and lowering his glove. I made a final attempt to lower mine over the ball, but it just wasn’t happening, so I lifted it back up and gave him a shot at it.

He nailed it.

Naturally, I was frustrated that my trick had failed, but I was happy for Brian, and I considered it a victory for both of us. The glove guys had defeated the cup guys.

I managed to get one more ball–my sixth of the day–by asking for it in a way that made me stand out. Steve Soliz, the Angels bullpen catcher, was shagging in right field and ignoring all the fans. It’s not just that he wasn’t giving balls away, but that he wasn’t even acknowledging anyone. I didn’t know if he was shy or being snotty or simply doing his job, so I waited until he came closer to field a ball.

“Steve,” I said, “What would it POSSIBLY take to get a ball from you? Is there ANY possible way to make that happen?”

He looked up at me and said he’d give me one at the end of batting practice. Yeah right, I thought, but then he took the next ball he fielded and stuck it in his back pocket. Sure enough, when BP wrapped up ten minutes later, he walked over to me and flipped up the ball (which I gave to a 13-year-old kid from Alaska with Crohn’s Disease).

Casey_kotchmanRight before the game, I tried unsuccessfully to get a ball from the Angels on the 3rd base side, but I did get a smile from Casey Kotchman who saw my Boise Hawks t-shirt. Casey’s father, Tom, managed the Hawks when I interned there in 1995. Casey, who was 12 at the time, would view_from_upper_deck.jpgsometimes take BP on the field after games. While everyone was raving about his sweet swing, I was like, “Umm, that’s great. When I was 12, I had no problem hitting the ball out of the infield.” And that’s why I’m not a scout.

I wandered all over the place during the game, getting cursed at by Yankee fans for wearing my Angels hat and getting funny looks from security for taking notes. I felt like I was on some secret spy mission, and I kept hoping the guards would demand to see what I was writing so I could be confrontational: “Yeah, it says ‘righty fouls behind plate (off facade) = in front of 223, behind 19.’ You fools gotta problem with that?!”

FYI, the last row of the upper deck behind the left field foul pole is not a good spot for balls. But it IS a good spot to get a look at the construction of the new Yankee Stadium:

new_yankee_stadium2.jpg

I spent the first three innings taking notes. I spent the next three innings looking for a decent place to sit, but the stadium was so crowded (50,363 fans) that it was a lost cause. I spent the final three innings riding home on the subway. Jona came over late. We heard that the Yankees lost.

STATS:

• 83 balls in 10 games this season = 8.3 balls per game.

• 465 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 3,044 total balls

• 39 days until San Francisco

5/23/07 at Busch Stadium

scenes_at_the_arch.jpg

I had to make a tough decision when I woke up. I had to choose between staying in my stuffy hotel room and blogging about the previous night’s game–or wandering across the street and into the park and visiting The Arch.

Hmm.

It was 10am on a weekday, and most kids were still in school. Suckers.) I figured there wouldn’t be much of a line so I headed out.

The Arch is 630 feet high, and since the stairs are closed to the public, I had to ride up in a cramped pod (aka “tram”) with four women who freaked out every time the thing clanked. But the view from the observation deck made it all worthwhile…

busch_stadium_from_arch.jpg

I hung out at the top for 20 minutes, then rode back down, grabbed some lunch, went to the hotel, blogged until 4:15pm, gathered my stuff for the game, and walked two blocks to Busch Stadium’s right waiting_to_enter.jpgfield gate. I’d gone to left field the day before, and it was packed. Right field had been relatively empty for the first couple rounds of batting practice, so I thought I’d try a different approach for my second and final game.

Big mistake.

The bleachers filled up within a few minutes, and the Cardinals didn’t hit or throw a single ball into the seats. It was incredible. I’ve never experienced such a dead half-hour of BP. Even Scott Spiezio dissed busch_BP_view_from_RF.jpgme from right field. When I asked him for a ball that he had just fielded, he looked at it and then turned to me and said, “It’s too new.”

“How about if you get a dirty one?” I asked.

“You got it,” he said.

Two minutes later, he started jogging toward the infield.

“Hey! How about that dirty ball?!” I shouted.

He shrugged and kept jogging.

I still didn’t have a ball by the time the Cardinals finished BP. I was a bit nervous, but I figured the drought was about to end because of my secret weapon: color coordination. In addition to my Pirates cap, I was wearing a tight black t-shirt with a bold yellow stripe–a shirt so ugly that I was embarrassed to be seen in it except when the Pirates took the field, so I wore it under my white t-shirt the rest of the time.

Bayliss_capps_gorzelannyI abandoned right field and headed to the left field foul line. Within the next 15 minutes, I got three balls thrown to me by Pirates pitchers. The first came from Jonah Bayliss, the second from Matt Capps, and the third from Tom Gorzelanny.

I only managed to get one more ball during BP, but it was a personal victory. The day before, I’d been stopped by security during my lone attempt to use the glove trick. I really wanted to use the trick at glove_trick_location.jpgleast once at Busch, and I got my chance when some fans dropped a ball onto the grassy ledge in front of the left field wall. I was in foul territory at the time, and the seats were crowded, so it took a minute for me to get there. Luckily, the ball was still in place, and I snagged it with ease. The Pirates had marked a thick marked_ball_3035.jpg“X” on the sweet spot. (Some teams mark their balls so their employees won’t steal them and get them signed.) I marked it just below with a “3035″ because it was the 3,035th ball of my collection.

After BP, I got Damaso Marte’s autograph and ran into a superstar baseball collector from Chicago damaso_marte_autograph.jpgnamed Dave Davison. We’d been emailing on and off over the years, but hadn’t seen each other since 1999. We took a few photos together, did as much catching up as possible, parted ways shortly before the game, and didn’t see each other again.

I had no agenda for the game. I’d taken all the photos I needed the day before, so I slipped into an empty seat in the first row behind the Pirates’ dugout. I figured I’d get kicked out after an inning (if not sooner) but it was worth it to get such a great view and also have a chance to get another ball.

zack_front_row.jpg

Pirates starter Ian Snell induced Scott Rolen to pop out to shortstop Jack Wilson to end the bottom of the first. Wilson took the ball with him toward the dugout. I stood up and yelled for it, and he tossed it to me. No competition.

I was convinced that an usher was about to appear out of nowhere and check my ticket…or that the people sitting behind me were going to complain that I stole their ball…or that the fan whose seat I was sitting in was on his way down the steps.

None of these things happened.

Cardinals starter Kip Wells struck out to end the bottom of the second, and Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit rolled the ball back to the mound. As he approached the dugout, I said, “Ryan, next time ya gotta bring the ball back this way.”

He looked me right in the eye and said “No” before disappearing from sight.

Jeff_coxThird base coach Jeff Cox was much friendlier. When I asked him for a ball after the top of the fourth inning, he started giving me signs as if I were the batter getting instructions to bunt. You know, he touched the bill of his cap, then his nose, left ear, nose again, chin, and finished by swiping his right arm. I responded by touching each of my ear lobes, then my nose, chin, nose, and followed with a swipe across my chest, two claps, and a swing of my imaginary bat. He ducked into the dugout and reappeared five seconds later. Then he pointed to his cap as if to say, “This is because of YOUR cap,” and he tossed me a ball–my sixth of the day and second since the game had begun.

Half an inning later, Gary Bennett made the third out by grounding to Pirates 3rd baseman Jose Bautista. First baseman Adam LaRoche caught the throw across the diamond and threw me the ball on his way in.

No one else in the section had been trying to get a ball, or even seemed to realize that they were sitting in THE ideal spot for getting one–and yet they started to grumble after LaRoche hooked me up. So I left. No big deal. I’d gotten to watch nearly half the game from the best seat in the stadium and snagged three balls in the process. And anyway, I was hungry and didn’t have the guts to order something from the waitress. The last time I ordered food from a fancy seat that didn’t belong to me, I got kicked out of the section before my food arrived and had to beg security to let me wait for it at the top of the stairs. Not a good situation.

bye_bye_busch.jpg

So I wandered. Ate a double-cheeseburger. Wandered some more. Vanilla ice cream cone. Wandered some more. Chocolate ice cream cone. Wandered some more. Took a few more photos. Wandered some more. Ended up behind the Cardinals’ dugout for the last few outs, but didn’t get another ball.

Final score: Cardinals 5, Pirates 3.

I took my time heading out. I knew it would be years, possibly even decades, before I’d be back.

STATS:

• 77 balls in 9 games this season = 8.6 balls per game.

• 464 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 93 consecutive games outside of NYC with at least one ball

• 620 lifetime balls outside of NYC

• 3,038 total balls

5/22/07 at Busch Stadium

The day began when I woke up in NYC at 7:45am with five and a half hours of sleep. On the way to the airport, my taxi driver blasted easy-listening music from a radio station in Connecticut with horrible reception. At the airport, security confiscated my toothpaste and deodorant. On the plane, I sat within three rows of a shrieking baby, a restless little boy, two whiny little girls, and the most annoying parents of all time. Then, after only an hour, my laptop battery died.

It got better from there.

zack_outside_busch.jpg

The flight landed a few minutes early. The weather in St. Louis was great. I had a radio-free taxi ride to my hotel (which is within walking distance of Busch Stadium and The Arch). I got an Internet connection in my room. I gathered my stuff for the 7:10pm game and headed to the ballpark nearly five hours early.

outside_busch.jpg

While photographing the place from every angle, I found a restaurant that serves “toasted ravioli.” I’d been told to look for it. It’s a delicacy in this town, and after one bite I knew why. Of course I photographed that as well. (The ravioli was just my appetizer. I also had a grilled chicken sandwich with BBQ sauce, melted cheddar and fried onions. I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to overeat.)

toasted_ravioli.jpg

For most of the afternoon, I couldn’t decide whether to go to right or left field for batting practice. From what I’d seen of Busch on TV, it appeared to be extremely segmented. There were too many railings. There wasn’t enough access from one section to the next. It seemed that it’d be easier to move around in right field bleachers, but thanks to my roster, I knew there’d be far more righties during BP. Of the 13 position players on the Cardinals, there were only three lefties (Adam Kennedy, Chris Duncan, and Jim Edmonds) and two switch-hitters (Aaron Miles and Scott Spiezio). Because Zach Duke–a lefty–would be making the start for the Pirates, I figured the switch-hitters would take most of their cuts from the right side. In addition, there was a huge crowd outside the right field gate, so I chose left field.

pujols_homer_location.jpg

Another problem with left field (both fields, actually) is that the bullpen is positioned just beyond the outfield wall in the power alley. Most home runs would land there, so I had to choose between the crowded section down the line or the emptier section behind the bullpen, 425 feet from home plate. I chose the latter, mainly because Pujols was about to hit, and I figured he could reach me.

I figured right.

It took a few minutes, during which I second-guessed myself as fans in all other sections were catching balls, but Pujols finally cranked one in my direction. I mean RIGHT in my direction. It seemed to have
the proper height and trajectory, so I froze and worried that I was misjudging the distance. The ball kept coming. The guy in the green hat stood up at the last second and made a feeble attempt to barehand it. I reached out and caught it one-handed just over his hands.

1st_ball_at_busch.jpg

“Ohh, we got a professional over there!” shouted a guy from the next section.

“This is my first game here!” I insisted while glowing over the fact that I’d now snagged at least one ball at every current major league stadium.

“Yeah right!” he said.

“I swear.”

“It was a nice catch,” he admitted, “but it won’t happen again.”

One minute later, Juan Encarnacion blasted a deep fly ball in the same spot, and I caught that one too.

“Excuse me,” said a voice from behind. “Are you Zack Hample?”

It was a man who recognized me from this blog. His name is Wes Wagner. He’s caught about 400 balls in his life, including three homers during games. We chatted for a few minutes and kept running into each other for the rest of the night.

busch_LF_wall.jpg

I had an easy chance to use the glove trick for a ball that was sitting in the bullpen, but a security guard stopped me. Meanwhile, it was nearly impossible to use the trick in the left field corner because of the thick metal ledge and the strip of half-dead grass on the other side of the railing. I couldn’t even lean out far enough to look directly down at the warning track.

“Have you been shut out yet?” asked another guy as I was running all over the place.

“Huh? Not since 1993.”

Turns out he recognized me from last year’s segment on CBS, during which I mentioned my streak of snagging at least one ball at every game.

Armas_grabow_marteWhen the Pirates started throwing in left field, I turned my attention toward them and got a ball–my third of the day–thrown to me by Tony Armas, Jr. Luckily, John Grabow hadn’t seen me catch it, so I got him to toss me another five minutes later. After that, I hit a long dry spell but held my ground along the LF foul line and eventually got Damaso Marte to flip me a ball.

I didn’t get a ball after BP at the Pirates’ dugout, but I did get recognized again. It was another “Are you Zack Hample,” this time from a kid named Darron who reads the blog. Earlier in the day, he had snagged his 8th lifetime ball which he didn’t think was very good compared to my total.

“How old are you?” I asked.

“Twelve.”

“Guess what,” I said. “I didn’t catch my first ball until I was twelve, and I only got four balls that entire season, so you’re already ahead of my pace.”

darron_and_zack.jpg

He asked for my autograph (NOT on the ball), and we had our picture taken with both of our cameras.

freddy_sanchez_pregame_throwing.jpg

I headed to the concourse, got a bottle of water, wandered aimlessly, took some photos, made my way back to the Pirates’ dugout after the national anthem, and got my 6th ball of the day from last year’s National League batting champion. He and Jack Wilson were playing catch. There wasn’t another fan in sight with a glove or Pirates gear. No matter which player ended up with the ball, I knew it was going to be mine.

I missed the first three innings, and I didn’t care. This day was all about the ballpark, not the ballgame. I wandered through every concourse…

busch_concourses.jpg

…and eventually reached the upper deck…

busch_views_from_above.jpg

…and caught a glimpse of the scoreboard. The Cardinals were winning, 3-1.

I wandered back down to the field level, stopping along the way to eat (a hamburger and soft-serve ice cream) and take more pictures…

busch_wandering.jpg

…and when I finally decided to watch the game, it was the top of the 7th inning, and the Cardinals were ahead, 9-2. WHAT?! At least the score was so lopsided that a lot of fans had already left. I grabbed a seat in the 3rd row behind the Cardinals’ dugout, where I figured I’d have a good chance of getting a ball after the game.

busch_view_from_3rd_row.jpg

With one out in the bottom of the 8th, Chris Duncan swung a little too soon at a pitch low and inside and sent it bouncing toward the dugout. I thought it might bounce into the dugout, so I stood up and took a step forward in case one of the players tossed it up, but instead, the ball skipped through the space in chris_duncan_foul_ball.jpgthe railing and shot over the dugout roof. The guy in the white visor was wearing a glove, but he was caught off guard as the ball whizzed right past him and into my glove. I don’t know exactly how I managed to catch it because it was out of view until the last second. I think I must have been anticipating where it might bounce. I don’t know. It all happened so fast–and yet it seemed so easy. The man sitting a few seats over kept congratulating me and raving about how fast I’d moved my glove. He said he’d never seen anyone with such quick reflexes.

zack_gets_t_shirt.jpg

I also snagged a t-shirt during the t-shirt launch, which was so small (and covered with Cardinals players, ewww) that I couldn’t imagine ever wearing it again, so I gave it to a woman who’d been harassing me about stealing that foul ball from all the people in the section who actually had tickets there. Um, lady, if I hadn’t been sitting there, someone else would’ve been heading to the emergency room.

Kelvin Jimenez caught Ryan Doumit looking at strike three to end the game, and he tossed me the ball–my eighth of the day–on his way in. I gave it to a kid and took some more photos on my way out.

busch_empty_seats_postgame.jpg

STATS:

• 202 photos taken

lou_brock.jpg

• 70 balls in 8 games this season = 8.75 balls per game.

• 42 different major league stadiums with at least one ball

• 463 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 92 consecutive games outside of NYC with at least one ball

• 613 lifetime balls outside of NYC

• 17 lifetime game balls outside of NYC

• 101 total game balls

• 15 different stadiums with at least one game ball

• 3,031 total balls…moves me ahead of Lou Brock (3,023) and into 22nd place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Rod Carew (3,053).

Pre-trip ramblings

I’ve been thinking about my goal for St. Louis in terms of how many balls I want to snag, and I can’t come up with a number. It almost doesn’t matter. My goal is to get at least one ball per day. How about that? This trip is more than a ball-gathering mission. I just want to have fun. I want to overeat. I want to play video games on my laptop for the duration of my flight tomorrow. I want to enjoy my semi-fancy hotel. (Usually, when I travel to games in other cities, I stay in the crappiest places possible in order to save money. Not this time.) I want to explore every corner of Busch Stadium and take lots of Next_gamephotos. I want to go straight back to my room after both games and ignore my emails and order room service and watch “Baseball Tonight,” speaking of which…

Did anyone see the #5 Web Gem yesterday? It was a fan! Some guy in Cleveland standing on the stairs just inside the wall along the right field foul line reached/lunged high over his head and snared a line drive in his glove. I was glad to see a snagger get some props from ESPN, but of course I was jealous because MY impressive snags never get caught on film.

Speaking of ESPN, did anyone see those annoying fans sitting behind the 3rd base dugout at last night’s Yankees-Mets game at Shea? You know the ones I’m talking about. You know the type. They’re the ones who know they’re in a section where they’ll be on TV so they get on their cell phones and call a friend who’s watching the game who tells them when the camera’s pointing at them so they know when to wave. YOU PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS!!! If I were in charge of a stadium…well, there’d be dozens of things I’d change, and one of them would be preventing fans from doing that. I’d also crack down on fans who interfere with balls in play, but that’s a whole nother story.

Two entries ago, I mentioned that Sammy Sosa has hit a home run in 45 different major league ballparks, and that I’ve snagged a ball in 41 (soon to be 42). It turns out I have even more work to do; I learned yesterday that Tim Keefe won games in 47 different ballparks. Granted, this guy pitched his entire career when the mound was a mere 50 feet from home plate and, more importantly, when teams barnstormed and played all over the place. I mean, when a pitcher wins 41 games, throws 619 innings, and completes all 68 of his starts in one season, it’s kinda hard to take him seriously–or rather to compare his accomplishments to those of the modern era, but still.

Okay, it’s 9:33am. I’ll be leaving for the airport in less than 24 hours. It’s time to start cleaning, gathering, packing, dreaming…

Preparing for St. Louis

It’s three days until I leave for St. Louis, and I’m sorry, but I have to talk about sleep…

My flight is at 11:15am, which means I’ll have to leave for the airport (Newark: ugh) at 8:45am, which means I’ll have to wake up by 7:45am, which is basically the middle of the night for me, so I’ve been forcing myself to wake up one hour earlier every day. On Monday, I slept until 2pm. (That was smart.) On Tuesday, I got up around 12:45pm. On Wednesday, with great difficulty, I got up during the 11 o’clock hour. On Thursday, the alarm mocked me 10:45am. Yesterday, I somehow managed to put my feet on the floor at 9:58am. Right now, it’s 12:26am on Saturday. I need to go to bed soon, and I need to wake up while “8″ is still the first digit on my clock. This is totally draining, but it’s better than being exhausted on Game Day.

Meanwhile, I’ve printed the rosters for the Cardinals and Pirates, and I have one question: Who ARE these guys?

pirates.jpgHonestly, how many of them would you be able to identify if their names and numbers weren’t showing?

Chasing Bonds (and Sosa)

Three days ago at Shea, I did something I hardly ever do: I bought semi-fancy tickets to future games.
Ooooh_fancy

Normally, I buy the cheapest possible tickets right before the gates open, but normally, Barry Bonds doesn’t come to town on the verge of breaking one of the most cherished records in all of sports.

There’s no chance that Bonds will hit 10 more homers in the next 12 days, but I still need to be there. This will be his lone trip to Shea in 2007.

If you go to Hit Tracker and click Bonds’ name, you’ll find a “Scatter Plot” of the home runs he’s hit this season:

scatter_plot.jpg

As you can see, most of them went to right-center, but he HAS hit four of them just inside the right field foul pole. Thus, I bought tickets that will provide a view similar to this:

Bonds_view

“What about Sammy Sosa?” you ask. Entering last night’s action, Sosa had homered in a major league record 44 different ballparks. Of course, his Rangers happen to be playing the Devil Rays, and the Devil Rays happen to be playing the three-game series at Disney’s Wide World of Sports DisneyComplex, and Sosa happened to hit a home run. So now he’s homered in 45 different ballparks. Why does this matter? Because I’ve snagged at least one ball at 41 different major league ballparks. Assuming I get at least one ball next week at Busch Stadium, that’ll make it 42. Next year, I’ll push my number to 43 when the Nationals open their new stadium. Then, in 2009, the Mets and Yankees will both open new ballparks. That’ll give me 45, a number which should’ve pushed me past Sosa, but instead I’ll only tie him. That means I’ll have to wait for the Twins to open their new ballpark in 2010! And God forbid Sosa should find a way to add to his record between now and then. The good news, at least, if Sosa plays a few more years is that he’ll break Reggie Jackson’s all-time strikeout record. Haha.

5/14/07 at Shea Stadium

The day got off to a better start than my last trip to Shea. This time, as soon as the gates opened for batting practice, I raced inside and managed to get my spot in the right field Loge.

arizona_fall_league_ball.jpg

Aaron Sele tossed me my first ball of the day from the Mets’ bullpen, but his throw was too weak and the ball fell short. He didn’t bother to get it until after he finished throwing. His second throw also fell short, and on the way down, the ball clipped a random protruding piece of metal and bounced far away, so he grabbed another ball and finally threw it far enough. That ball happened to be from the Arizona Fall League. At first, I was upset that it was a “fake” minor league ball that’d been made in China, and I wasn’t sure whether or not I should count it in my collection, but I thought about it for a minute and had a change of heart. I realized it was kinda cool. It was the first time I’d ever gotten a minor league ball at a major league stadium, and I decided to count it. After all, the ball WAS used by a major league player, and I’d counted a bunch of cheap Training Balls last year under the same circumstances.

mets_shaved_heads.jpg

Sele, by the way, is the only player on the Mets who hasn’t shaved his head. All the other guys shaved theirs last week to show some solidarity after a few rough games. It was surprisingly difficult to tell them apart from 25 feet above.

ramon_castro.jpg

Mets bullpen coach Guy Conti (who’s easily recognizable because he’s 143 years old) tossed me my second ball, also from the bullpen, and Ramon Castro threw me my third from about 150 feet out in right-center field. The seats were still pretty empty, so he had no trouble hearing me. I’d moved back a bit before yelling in case he threw it short. That way, it would’ve still had a chance to reach the seats, but it didn’t matter because he was right on target. (Note to Mr. Sele: THAT’S how it’s done.)

Mets first base coach Howard Johnson had been roaming the outfield with a fungo bat, so naturally, when he ended up grabbing a batted ball, I shouted, “Hojo! Hit me a fungo!” First he waved. (Yeah, hi.) Then he hit it. Right over my head and into the mostly empty seats. I sprinted through the aisle and watched it take a few crazy bounces that made no difference. I knew it was mine, and I was all over it before anyone else had a chance to blink.

2005_all_star_ball.jpg

Toward the end of Mets batting practice, I went back down to the Field Level and managed to find one open spot in the front row behind the 1st base dugout. At 5:40pm, when all the Mets started heading toward me, I spotted a ball behind the 1st base screen and pointed it out to Ruben Gotay and asked him for it in Spanish. He veered off his path, picked up the ball, and tossed it to me on his way in. It was an All-Star Game ball from 2005. The Mets had been using those during BP last year. This one must’ve somehow stuck around all season–and it showed.

The Cubs had already begun BP, so I switched from my Mets cap into my Cubs cap and jogged out to the left field seats. Almost immediately (and from 10 rows back), I got Scott Eyre to throw me a ball from 100 feet out in left field. That was my sixth of the day.

Soon after, I was up in the left field Loge, trying to figure out a way to get Will Ohman to throw me a ball. The genius fans down below were yelling at him–typical stuff like “The Cubs suck!!!” and “You belong in the minors!!!”–and he was yelling right back and pointing at his hecklers and laughing and making quite a scene. Even though he was having fun, I knew that an extra polite approach would work best, so I waited for a quiet moment and shouted his name.

Will_ohmanHe turned around and looked up and yelled “What!”

“By any chance,” I shouted back, “could you pleeeeez toss a ball up this way?”

“Maybe,” he yelled, “just because you said ‘please’.”

Moments later, he fielded a batted ball, turned back around, took a few steps toward me, and tossed it up.

I had seven balls when batting practice ended, and I’d worked my way down to the front row behind the Cubs’ dugout on the 3rd base side. When all the players and coaches left the field, I got a ball from Tim Buss, the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator. He seemed a bit surprised that I knew his name, and I’m not sure why; he’s listed with the other staff members, right below the coaches on the Cubs’ web site.

Tim played catch with Matt Murton before the game along the left field foul line. I’d snuck down to the first row of those fancy blue seats, and as the guys were finishing, an usher who didn’t recognize me said I had to leave the section. I pretended to be confused about the rules…for…the…sole…purpose…of…stalling…for…10…seconds…and it worked because the matt_murton_autograph.jpgthrowing quickly ended and Murton tossed me the ball. Then he came over and signed autographs, and I got him on my ticket.

I just needed one more ball to reach double digits, but it never happened. I went back up to the Loge and went for foul balls behind the plate, but there was hardly any action. Shawn Green hit a soft foul pop-up to my right that was heading straight into my glove when some bare-handed fool cut me off at the last second and lunged for the ball and knocked it into the seats below.

zack_has_balls.jpg

The Mets played like a bunch of Little Leaguers and fell behind, 4-0, after two innings. I wandered down to the Field Level and spent an inning and a half with a friend, then went back upstairs as the Mets launched their comeback. In the bottom of the 4th, David Wright flicked a ball over the fence down the right field line to trim the deficit to 4-2, and two innings later, the Mets tied it up on an RBI double by Paul Lo Duca and a sac fly by Damion Easley.

The game stayed tied until the bottom of the 9th. After two quick outs, Jose Reyes singled to center and stole his second base of the night. Endy Chavez and Carlos Beltran drew back-to-back walks to load the bases, and the count went full on Carlos Delgado. With the whole stadium holding its collective breath, what did Delgado do? Foul ball. Next pitch?! Another foul ball. NEXT PITCH?! Fastball upstairs. Ball four. The ever-dramatic walk-off walk.

rafael_palmeiro.jpg

Final score: Zack 9, Mets 5, Cubs 4.

STATS:

• 62 balls in 7 games this season = 8.9 balls per game.

• 462 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 2,701 balls since the streak began, the 2,700th coming from Tim Buss

• 3,023 total balls…moves me ahead of Rafael Palmeiro* (3,020) and into a tie for 22nd place on the all-time hits list with Lou Brock (3,023).

• 7 days until St. Louis

May 16

Wednesday, May 16 is going to be a busy day.

At 1:00am ET, I’m doing a live, in-studio interview with “The Joey Reynolds Show,” and yes, you read that right: one o’clock in the morning. It’s a nationally syndicated show, so if you’re on the west coast, I think you’ll be able to hear it at 10pm on Tuesday the 15th, but I’m not sure about that. It might be aired on a delay, so your best bet is to sportiva_cover2.jpg“listen live” online. I do know for certain that in New York City, the show is on WOR 710 AM.

Later in the day, at 7pm, I’ll be giving a speech and doing a book signing at the Ocean County Library in Tom’s River, New Jersey.

In other media news…
There’s a short review of my book in the current issue of Yankees Magazine, and there’s a slightly longer article about my baseball collection in a Japanese magazine called Sportiva. I have no idea what it says–I’m waiting for my half-brother (who knows nine languages) to translate it–but based on the vertical “3000″ in big lettering over my photo, I’m thinking it must have something to do with my 3,000th ball. Any guesses?

UPDATE (as of 2:30pm on May 15):
It turns out that I won’t be doing the NJ signing tomorrow. Several things have come up, including a taped interview which my publicist feels would be much better for the book. If the signing is rescheduled, I’ll keep you posted.

5/9/07 at Yankee Stadium

How NOT to get a ball:

1) Have your dad tell me that collecting balls is a “waste of time.”
2) Have him ask me to let you get some balls during batting practice.
3) Catch several balls early on and have your dad share all the details.
4) Drop a ball that’s tossed right to you as I watch from behind.
5) Accuse me of knocking the ball out of your glove after I pick up the ball.
6) Beg for the ball and look at your dad for support.
7) Claim that you haven’t gotten any balls.
8) Watch me hand the ball to another kid.

cj_wilson.jpg

That was the fifth ball I got yesterday. The first one landed in the empty right field seats as soon as I ran inside. The second was tossed by 20-year-old Phil Hughes. The third was a homer that got bobbled by some fans. The fourth came via the glove trick.

As for that fifth ball…
The father and son were actually good guys. It was just a frustrating moment, but we chatted after the fact and quickly made peace. He congratulated me for all my snags, and I congratulated his kid for getting A-Rod’s autograph.

My sixth ball was another bobbled homer. My seventh was placed on the warning track by Brandon McCarthy so that I could demonstrate the glove trick. My eighth was tossed by fellow MLBlogger C.J. Wilson over a packed aisle of fans. That was fun. And that was it.

I stayed in right field for the first nine outs, moved to the first base side until the 7th inning stretch, and sat in the 2nd row behind the Yankees’ dugout for the rest of the game. I had an excellent view of a fan running on the field…

fan_runs_on_field.jpg

…and of the battle between good (Mariano Rivera) and evil (Sammy Sosa)…

mariano_to_sosa.jpg

Final score: Yankees 6, Rangers 2.

STATS:

kaline_boggs.jpg

• 53 balls in 6 games this season = 8.8 balls per game.

• 461 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 3,014 total balls…moves me ahead of Al Kaline (3,007) and Wade Boggs (3,010) and into 24th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Rafael “I have never used steroids, period” Palmeiro (3,020).

• 12 days until St. Louis

• 1 day until Brady Holzhauer interviews me on his internet radio show. Not only can you listen live tomorrow (Friday, May 11) from 7-8pm ET, but you can call 718-508-9815 and ask a question on the air.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 286 other followers