June 2007

2007 All-Stars

I meant to post this before the voting ended, but anyway, here it is…my 2007 All-Star ballot, punched out with ALL the players who’ve thrown me balls:

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By narrowing down these players to the best at each position, my voting went like this:

NATIONAL LEAGUE————————–AMERICAN LEAGUE
1B Albert Pujols————————————-1B Ty Wigginton (yikes)
2B Freddy Sanchez——————————–2B Luis Castillo
SS Jose Reyes————————————–SS Orlando Cabrera
3B David Wright————————————-3B Mike Lowell
C Bengie Molina————————————-C Jason Kendall
LF Adam Dunn—————————————LF Gary Sheffield
CF Carlos Beltran———————————–CF Ichiro Suzuki
RF Willy Taveras————————————RF Magglio Ordonez

My starting pitchers (if I could’ve voted for them) would be Jake Peavy and Josh Beckett. It would’ve been nice to have Big Papi, Jeter, A-Rod, and Pudge in the the AL lineup…but alas, they’ve never thrown me balls. For the complete list of guys who HAVE thrown me balls, click here.

6/27/07 at Citizens Bank Park

I was supposed to be filmed during batting practice by Comcast SportsNet, the Phillies’ cable network, but it didn’t happen. I made the mistake of not bringing the producer’s phone number, and when it was time to meet up, he made the mistake of calling my home phone instead of my cell.

Then things got worse.

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The road leading to the left field gate–the only gate that opens two and a half hours early–was completely blocked off. Why? According to stadium personnel, the equipment for the following night’s fireworks was already being set up and the right field gate would be opening early instead. Fine. I headed there with my friend Ben, who’d joined me for the drive from New York City, and we waited. We were the first ones there, and by the time the gate was almost set to open, there was still a very small crowd. Ha! Everyone else was probably confused about where to enter, and I was looking forward to having the ballpark to myself for the first 15 minutes.

A few fans asked me which gate was opening first.

“This one,” I said. “At least that’s what I was told.”

They were satisfied, and I felt great, right up until 4:30pm or so when it hit me: the turnstiles were still covered, and there weren’t any ticket takers in sight. I got a sick feeling in my gut and called out to the few employees who were walking past on the inside. The one guy who was nice enough to walk over was a vendor who didn’t know anything. Moments later, fans started running through the concourse and heading to the seats. NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

By the time I found my way inside, the stadium clock said 4:45pm, the left field seats were packed, and I was seething. There was no chance for me to use the glove trick, and the players were only throwing balls to little kids and pretty young women (without gloves).

I knew I was going to have to catch a home run, and after five minutes of stewing in my own sweaty rage, I got my chance when a righty on the Phillies crushed a line drive in my direction. The ball was going to fall short so I scampered down the steps and made a backhand lunge as I reached the front first_two_home_run_balls.jpgrow. The ball barely cleared the railing and nicked the tip of my glove, but it dropped straight down and bounced right up to me off the concrete step.

I moved back to my spot just in time to see another ball hit higher and deeper in my direction. I could tell from the moment it left the bat that it was going to sail over my head, so I darted up the steps to the spot where I thought it was going to land. Everyone else on the steps thought it was going to fall short so they ran forward. They were wrong, I was right, and I ended up in perfect position to make the catch. At the last second, a couple guys who happened to be standing in the right row cut across and reach in front of me, but I reached through them and made the one-handed catch, nearly 400 feet from home plate. That one felt good.

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The rest of the ballpark opened at 5:35pm, and I spotted a ball sitting in the Phillies’ bullpen–the type of ball that was MADE for the glove trick. The only problem was that it was partially wedged into the soft grass, so it took a few minutes to knock it loose and get it to stick inside my glove. While I was going for it, another ball landed in the bullpen, and as I was just starting to go for that one, a groundskeeper walked over and tossed it up to me. That was my fourth ball of the day.

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I managed to get one more during the final 40 minutes of BP–a homer that bounced off someone’s bare hands in left-center field–and I got a sixth ball from Chad Moeller at the Reds’ dugout after the national anthem.

Ben and I had paid $27 each for seats in straight-away left field. The odds of catching a Ken Griffey Jr. home run were remote, but the game itself was awesome. In the bottom of the fifth, Ryan Howard put the Phillies on top, 3-0, with a 466-foot bomb over the batter’s eye. (According to Hit Tracker, it was the fifth longest homer in the majors this season.) Meanwhile, 44-year-old Jamie Moyer was mowing down the Reds with his 82mph fastball, and he took a no-hitter into the sixth. One inning later, the Reds knocked him out of the game and put up a six-spot, but the Phillies answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame to tie the score at 6-6. The Reds took a 7-6 lead in the eighth, and then the rain came:

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By the time play resumed 42 minutes later, 90 percent of the fans had left, and I went to right field for Griffey’s at-bat in the top of the ninth. Man, if ever there was a time for him to hit a ball my empty_seats_for_griffey.jpgway, this would’ve been it. No one around me was even wearing a glove, and I had a LONG row of empty seats to myself. Of course, all Griffey could do was pull a sharp grounder to first base. Two batters later, Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer that landed in the section where Ben and I had been sitting.

Reds closer (closer?!) David Weathers retired the Philles in order in the bottom of the ninth. Final score: Reds 9, Phillies 6.

While the Reds all walked out onto the field to congratulate each other, I slipped into the front row behind the dugout and got my seventh ball from home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg. Thirty seconds later, I got Weathers to toss me the game-ending ball, and a minute after that, Reds reliever Victor Santos walked in from the zack_and_ben.jpgbullpen and threw me another. Wow! In the blink of an eye, I’d gone from six balls to nine. Poor Ben didn’t get any balls and saw his favorite team lose.

On the way out, I ran into a guy named Jon (aka “joneli” for those of you who read the comments) who’s been reading this blog for years. He’s a semi-regular at Shea Stadium, but somehow our paths had never crossed. We hung out for a bit and took a few photos. I signed his copy of my book, and he told me he’d just achieved a first as a baseball collector. I’ll let him be the one to share the story here…

STATS:

• 132 balls in 18 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.

• 473 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 20 consecutive games with at least four balls

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

• 65 lifetime balls in 7 games at Citizens Bank Park = 9.3 balls per game.

• 634 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 3,093 total balls

• 11 days until I’ll be at the Home Run Derby (and 12 ’til the All-Star Game)…

Rosie O’Donnell (part two)

…and here’s my second appearance on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.”

Rosie O’Donnell (part one)

For all of you who missed it eight years ago, here’s my first of two appearances on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.”

I’ll upload the second one soon…

A few quick things…

1) Last night, a Minor Leaguer named Mark Holliman pitched a no-hitter, and I wrote the story about it for minorleaguebaseball.com.

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2) Two months ago, I contributed a few pearls of snagging wisdom to a magazine called “Real Simple.” The piece finally came out. It IS indeed really simple. You can read it here.

3) I might not be back at Shea Stadium until July 24, due to a combination of three factors: a) my contempt for Shea, b) my busy schedule, c) the Mets having only four home games from June 29 through July 23.

4) I came up with an idea for a t-shirt that unathletic women could wear: “I might throw like a girl, but you throw like Johnny Damon.”

5) I’ll be at Citizens Bank Park with a few friends on June 27, and I might be filmed that day for the Phillies’ cable network. When I emailed the producer last week to ask if the shoot was still on, he wrote, “it should be. i’ll check with you again before then. just need to make sure you are on your ‘a’ game that day!” (Why do people still doubt me? If I can go to a Friday night Subway Series game at Yankee Stadium and miss the first 13 minutes of batting practice and STILL walk away with five balls…)

6) The Frank Thomas Watch is in full effect. He’s three home runs short of 500 for his career, and he’ll be at Yankee Stadium in 24 days.

7) Best MySpace message of the year (which came my way last night): “Hey i dont mean to bother u but ur great..i looked on ur site and in the question and answers…and theres nothing there on how u do it….so how do you get so many baseballs? r u like a ball magnet”

That is all.

Book reviews

I have a few more book reviews to share. Some are new. Some are old. I found half of them by poking around online, and the rest were sent by my publisher.

1. King Features Syndicate
2. Salt Lake Tribune
3. Ventura County Star
4. Oneonta Daily Star
5. BookPleasures.com
6. News of Delaware County

Now…ready for the worst review of all time? I didn’t add it to my web site, but I took a screen shot so I could share it here. All you need to see is the first line (which appears below the book’s cover)…

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At least my name is spelled correctly on Wikipedia. I noticed that the book was used as a reference for different types of pitches. Check out the fastball and curveball pages and scroll to the bottom.

Finally, I’d like to share my thoughts on Sammy Sosa* and his accomplishment of becoming the fifth player in Major League history to hit 600 home runs: whatever. As for the ball itself…I’m glad it landed in the Rangers’ bullpen. If I couldn’t be there to make an attempt at catching it, I’m glad no one else could either. (Does anyone else feel that way or am I the only poor sport?)

6/19/07 at Shea Stadium

I asked Jerry Manuel for a ball and he laughed. I asked Ricky Ledee for a ball and he accidentally threw it to another fan. I asked John Maine for a ball, he said, “You just got one.” It was THAT kind of day, and when the Mets finished batting practice 50 minutes after I’d entered the stadium, I still didn’t have anything.

I got the corner spot in the left field Loge, figuring I’d cash in on the Twins pitchers, but when I called out for balls, they all looked at me as if they recognized me from the day before–and of course there wasn’t a single ball hit anywhere near me.

Batting practice was so slow that I took out my journal and started writing. I might’ve looked relaxed, but I wasn’t. I felt helpless. I’d been inside Shea for an hour and 20 minutes and STILL didn’t have a ball.

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The highlight of BP was hearing a young Mets fan heckle the Twins. His funniest insult was directed at Dennys Reyes (245 lbs.) and Ramon Ortiz (175 lbs.) as they walked by: “You guys should learn to eat from each other!”

Chris Heintz must have missed the heckling–or maybe he agreed with it–because he threw me a ball soon after. Other than the fact that he saved the day, there was nothing special about it. The ball was sitting on the warning track, and when he started walking toward it, I shouted his name and said “please” about 1,000 times.

After I caught the ball, the kid on my right (who looked like a wannabe 9th grade bully) turned and said, “You better watch out if another one comes up here. I’m gonna have to play dirty.”

Luckily for him, there wasn’t another one. Unluckily for me, the ball from Heintz was the only one I got in 100 minutes of batting practice.

By the time BP ended, I was standing in the front row behind the Twins’ dugout. When all the players and coaches walked off the field, Ron Gardenhire flipped a ball over my head. Everyone reached and jumped for it, but I jumped the highest and grabbed it with my bare hand–and that was my athletic moment of the day.

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Twenty minutes before game time, Mike Redmond and Joe Mauer began playing catch in left field, and when they finished, Redmond tossed me my third ball of the day.

With Johan Santana making the start for the Twins, I expected the Mets to hit lots of foul balls, but no, the game was just as dead as BP had been. It was weird. Santana was “pitching to contact” and struck out just one batter all night. He was still dominant and incredibly efficient. He threw 27 total pitches through the first three innings, 36 through four, and 50 through five.

The Mets were already losing, 9-0, by that point and had more errors (4) than hits (3).

I like the Mets. They’re my favorite team, but I don’t call myself a “Mets fan” because of games like this. I’d been rooting for Santana for years, and I wasn’t about to stop just because he happened to be pitching in Queens. I’d never seen him pitch in person (or if I had, I don’t remember), and I wanted to see him at his best.

Ron_gardenhireBy the end of the sixth inning, he’d thrown just 59 pitches, and when the seventh inning wrapped up, his pitch count was 67. I really wanted him to go the distance, but because of the lopsided score, I wasn’t sure if Gardenhire would leave him out there.

He did, and Santana ended up pitching the fourth shutout of his career. Four hits. No walks. 92 pitches. 40,000 disgruntled Mets fans.

After the game, Gardenhire tossed me another ball at the dugout, mwahaha.

STATS:

• 123 balls in 17 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

• 472 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 19 consecutive games with at least four balls

• 3,084 total balls

• 19 days until the Home Run Derby…

6/18/07 at Shea Stadium

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It was another day of begging for balls at Shea. The only difference was that my girlfriend Jona was with me to experience the first baseball game of her life.

We started off in the right field Loge, and when it became clear that none of the Mets pitchers were going to throw me a ball, I gave Jona the corner spot and begged her to beg for balls for me. She didn’t know what to say, and it didn’t matter. That’s the beauty of being female. Baseball players are dogs, and their ears perk up whenever they hear a melodious voice in the stands. Want some proof? During Joe_smiththe first 10 minutes of batting practice, I asked Joe Smith several times for a ball in the most polite of ways. Not once did he even look up at me. But when Jona yelled his name, he immediately looked in our direction, and when she made an ordinary request for the ball, he threw it to her. Naturally, I reached out and made the catch and then pretended to hand it over.

I should’ve gotten my second ball of the day tossed up from the bullpen by Tom Glavine. I was in the right spot along the side railing, I was the only fan who even noticed that there was a ball lying off to the side, and I made a polite request. But Glavine’s first throw fell short, and his second throw was lazy and sailed to another fan. Jona got to experience me cursing at a baseball game for the first time in her life.

Things got better when a right-handed hitter on the Mets (not sure who) sliced a ball that bounced onto the grassy slope next to the Dreamseats. Jona was nice enough to hold my corner spot and take photos of me after I ran down to the field level to snag it with my glove trick

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Unfortunately, the ball was half-buried in long grass against a wooden board, and I couldn’t get the edges of my glove to drop around it. Oliver Perez saw me struggling and walked over.

“Can you give me a little help?” I asked.

He moved the ball six inches closer.

“Can you toss it up?” I asked.

“You said a LITTLE help,” he replied and walked away.

“Okay, okay,” I yelled, “That’s fine. I appreciate it.”

It wasn’t fine. The grass was still too long, and I was sure that stadium security was going to kick me out of the section, but no one said a word. One minute later, I got the ball to stick inside my glove.

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I went back up to the Loge and got another ball tossed by Ruben Gotay. It was my third ball of the day, and all three had interesting smudges on them.

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Earlier in the afternoon, I’d warned Jona that I was going to be running all over the place during BP. She wasn’t fazed, but just to be safe, I drew her a diagram of Shea Stadium and mapped out my plans. She never used it. Instead, she wore comfortable shoes and ran around with me.

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Our next stop was the first base dugout. I squeezed into the front row just before the Mets came off the field and got my fourth ball of the day tossed by bench coach Jerry Manuel.

After that, Jona followed me up to the left field Loge and kept taking photos. She captured the moment when I reached out to catch a ball thrown by Twins pitcher Ramon Ortiz, and soon later, she got zack_catching_ortiz_ball.jpganother action shot as I used the glove trick for a ball lying on the grassy slope 20 feet below. When I reeled it in, I was disappointed to discover that it wasn’t an Official Major zack_using_glove_trick2.jpgLeague Baseball. Instead, it was a cheap ball made in China with a logo that said, “Donated by the New York Mets Foundation,” and I decided not to count it in my collection. On 9/22/05 at Shea Stadium, I found four Foundation balls in the seats didn’t count those either. I think they’re charity balls, literally donated by the Mets to underprivileged kids (who are privileged enough to play new_york_mets_foundation.jpgat Shea). I’ve still never seen one of these balls actually being used by a major league player, and that’s why I don’t count them. Training balls are different because they ARE used during BP.

Pat Neshek was jogging back and forth on the warning track, and when he paused for a moment, I told him that I love his blog. He waved and smiled, and a few minutes later, he threw a ball to me–except his aim was off. The damn thing went TEN feet over my head, and some old dude in a Hawaiian shirt got it. Jona understood the suckiness of the situation. “He’s a pitcher?” she asked?

Boof Bonser had better aim in throwing me my sixth ball of the day, and I got another from hitting coach Joe Vavra at the Twins dugout after BP.

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The highlight of the game was getting selected as the “Barbados contestant” for the Mets’ home-run inning. I didn’t win, but it was still cool to see my name on the Diamond Vision screen and then root like hell for a longball. If anyone on the Mets had gone deep in the bottom of the 5th, I would’ve won two plane tickets to Barbados and hotel accommodations. Jose Reyes led off the frame with a deep line drive to right-center, but it was hauled in on the warning track. Paul Lo Duca followed with a single. Carlos Beltran bounced into a fielder’s choice. David Wright singled. Carlos Delgado flied out to left field, and that was it. Bleh.

The rest of the game was great for the hometown crowd. John Maine allowed one run in 7 1/3 innings to earn his seventh win and lower his ERA to 2.90. Wright finished 3-for-5 with two doubles to raise his batting average to .287. Reyes stole his major league-leading 38th base. Delgado and Ricky Ledee hit home runs (in the 2nd and 8th innings, which average out to the 5th). The Mets had 15 hits and beat the Twins, 8-1.

Aside from the bottom of the 5th, Jona never really got into the game, and that was fine. I didn’t expect her to. Baseball is a tough sport to watch, especially for someone who didn’t grow up watching it. It was just fun to be together and give her a glimpse of my madness.

STATS:

• 119 balls in 16 games this season = 7.4 balls per game.

• 471 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 18 consecutive games with at least four balls

• 3,080 total balls

• 20 days until I’ll be at the Home Run Derby…

6/15/07 at Yankee Stadium

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Yankee Stadium is one of the toughest places to snag baseballs in the Major Leagues. I don’t like going there. Ever. It makes me nervous. I get butterflies every time I stand outside and wait for the gates to open. I bite my nails. I pace back and forth. I feel like a caged animal. It’s awful.

This game against the Mets was even worse. Not only was there extra tight security, and not only were there 55,169 fans in attendance, but I started the day knowing that I might miss part of batting practice.

Looking back, it was pretty stupid for me to go to this game, but I’d never been to the Subway Series, and my friend Mike (aka “tswechtenberg” to those of you who read the comments) was able to get free clemens_sign.jpgtickets, and Roger Clemens was pitching, so I decided to give it a shot.

My worst fear came true: the tickets were being held at the stadium’s will-call window, which wasn’t going to open until 5pm–the same time that the gates would open. Since I couldn’t be in two places at once, it was official: I was going to miss the beginning of batting practice.

I got on line at the gate and held my spot at the front of the line while Mike waited halfway around the stadium. The plan was that he was going to run the tickets over as soon as he got them. It was nice of him to agree to do that, but it didn’t make me feel much better. I’d been to dozens of games at Yankee Stadium at which the only ball I snagged happened to come my way within the first few minutes. What if this was one of those games? What if I wasn’t even inside to take advantage of my one opportunity?

By 4:59pm, there was a huge line behind me. I was totally stressed, looking off into the distance and praying that Mike would suddenly sprint around the corner with tickets in hand–that somehow the will-call window had opened three minutes early…

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“Let ‘em in!” shouted the supervisor, and fans from all sides started moving toward the gate. I had no choice but to step aside. It was easily the most frustrating thing I ever had to endure at a baseball game, and as the minutes ticked by, hundreds of fans shuffled past with no sense of urgency.

I thought I was going to have a heart-attack. Or have to kill someone. Or just cry.

“Relax,” said a woman who was waiting nearby for her husband. “The game isn’t starting for another two hours.”

Oh really? Thanks. Thanks so much. How about if I relax IN YOUR FACE?!

It was 5:05pm. Then I blinked and it was 5:10. Time was warping. I felt light-headed. Was it too late to tell Mike that I wouldn’t be joining him for the game? I couldn’t do that. I was dead. My streak of 469 games with at least one ball was about to end. It was a done deal. It was out of my hands. Beyond my control. Nothing I could do. Things almost stopped mattering.

I happened to look up and see a man with a white shirt racing through the crowd. It was Mike! I waved him down. He ran over and handed me a ticket and followed me into the right field seats.

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It was 5:13pm, and the place was already packed. I barely had an empty row to myself. There were kids everywhere begging for balls. There were grown men with gloves blocking the stairs. The aisle behind the outfield wall was so full that I could barely move.

Hideki Matsui must’ve already taken a round of swings because he stepped into the cage and immediately started pulling the ball. Fly ball to right center. Pull it more! Line drive between first and second. Elevate! Deep fly ball in my direction. Could it be?! Noooo! The ball was carrying too deep, and to my left, and I was trapped on the steps. It landed in a half-empty row. I squeezed to the side and hurdled two rows of seats. Where was it?! Crap! I was two rows short, and a guy was cutting through the seats for it, but it trickled down one step, and I lunged over a seat and grabbed it half a second before he got there.

“THANK GOD!!!” I yelled. I looked at the clock. It was 5:15.

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I hated every second of batting practice. I’d never seen the stadium so crowded. It was impossible to get balls thrown. It was impossible to catch balls that were hit. I actually found myself wanting batting practice to end. That’s how bad it was.

Twenty minutes later, I was able to get a ball in straight-away right field with my glove trick, and five minutes after that, I snagged another by beating out a couple guys with cup tricks–and Yankees caps–near the foul pole. They weren’t happy about it, and when I had a third chance to use my trick at the end of BP, they sabotaged me. I had no problem getting the ball to stick inside my glove, and when I started pulling it up, the guy on my right intentionally swung his cup in such a way that his string got tangled with mine. Then he yanked the string and jolted my glove, forcing the ball to pop out and fall back onto the field. (It shouldn’t come as any surprise that dozens of Yankees fans cheered this dirty move. After all, they cheer for a known cheater named Jason Giambi and still wish their third baseman was Scott Brosius.)

I was incensed. This wasn’t just about a ball. This was an all-out turf war. Subway Series. Queens versus Bronx. Mets versus Yankees. Forget the game. The battle of Good versus Evil was already taking place in the stands.

With cups swinging recklessly from both sides, I somehow managed to knock the ball a little closer without getting my string tangled. Then I waited for just the right moment and dropped my glove over the ball and quickly dragged it against the base of the right field wall. The sore losers tried to mess me up again by swinging their cups at my glove, but they were helpless. Because my glove was directly below me with the string tight against the wall, they couldn’t get their cups to swing behind it. They kept trying, and I kept waiting…waiting for the perfect moment when both cups were going to be swinging in the wrong direction…and then I made my move. I jerked my glove back up as quickly as possible while taking care to protect the ball inside. I nearly got it all the way up when the guy on my right flung his cup around my string in a desperation move. He tugged his string just as I reached down and cradled the glove, cupping the bottom of the ball with my right hand. The guy kept tugging, but I pulled harder, and my string was stronger, and it sliced right through his. His stupid contraption was crippled, and I walked away with the ball.

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Did I mention that security was extra tight? Ten minutes before the game started, I was stopped from going down to the front row–in the left field corner! Every single staircase was blocked by a security guard in an ugly yellow shirt, so when Paul Lo Duca was finished playing catch 150 feet away in left field, I had to yell at him from the aisle and hope that he’d make a perfect throw over eight rows of crowded seats. He did. It was beautiful. I had my fifth ball of the day, and Clemens was about to take the hill.

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My stress, for the most part, was over. It was time to enjoy the game, and thanks to Mike’s brother’s friend who owns five percent of the Yankees and was therefore able to hook us up with amazing seats, we were able to do just that.

Clemens was sharp, striking out eight batters in 6 1/3 innings, but he wasn’t unhittable. The Mets got on the board in the top of the third when 21-year-old Carlos Gomez led off with a bunt single, stole second base, and came home on a single up the middle by Jose Reyes.

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Reyes, who finished 3-for-3 with three stolen bases, hit a solo homer two innings later to put the Mets on top, 2-0. And that was your final score.

Oliver Perez pitched brilliantly for 7 1/3 innings. Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith (who’d given me a thumbs-up after one of my successful glove trick attempts) retired one batter apiece, and Billy Wagner mowed down the Yankees in the bottom of the ninth.

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It really WAS a fun night. As stressful as things were early on, I’m glad I went. Mike and I had a great time, proving that Mets and Yankees fans can get along after all.

STATS:

• 112 balls in 15 games this season = 7.5 balls per game.

• 470 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 3,073 total balls

• 21 days until the Home Run Derby…

6/13/07 at Camden Yards

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The best part about the day was that I had a two-man camera crew from UGO.com following me around. The other best part was that the producer–a supernice guy named Chris–paid for everything. Oren, the camera man, was also really cool, and we all had lots of laughs as we drove to Baltimore together.

The worst part about the day was the weather. The forecast was iffy, and we were paranoid that batting practice would be canceled. We celebrated the brief patches of sunlight and cursed the sporadic raindrops. The sky was dark gray. Then bright gray. Then partly sunny. Then a mixture of grays. It was maddening, but at least the sun had reemerged by the time we headed inside Camden Yards at 4:30pm with our media credentials…

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Woo-hoo!!! There was batting practice!!! We weren’t allowed to go to the outfield seats until the stadium opened to the public at 5pm, so we headed down to the front row for a closer look. Oren hooked up my microphone. Chris made some phone calls. We discussed my plans for BP. I was going to spend the first half-hour in the right field standing-room-only section and then head to the left field seats.

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Suddenly, at around 4:45pm, the grounds crew pulled back the batting cage and frantically started covering the field. It was still sunny. We were heartbroken. And confused. What was the rush?

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And why was Melvin Mora helping to pull the corner of the tarp into place?

Fine, it was about to start raining, and there wasn’t going to be batting practice. No big deal. It was only my nightmare, and life went on. I needed to snag some baseballs, and Oren needed to get some footage of me snagging them. Unfortunately, he hadn’t yet turned on his camera when I got an unexpected ball tossed to me behind the plate by Nationals coach Jose Martinez. Five minutes later, he followed me out to the left field foul line, jason_simontacchi.jpgand Jason Simontacchi threw me my second ball of the day. Because I was the only fan in the seats, Simontacchi spotted me before I even asked for the ball and chucked it in my direction.

Within the next 10 minutes, three things happened:

1) It started drizzling.
2) The rest of the Nationals pitchers came out to left field and began to play catch.
3) Two dozen fans packed into the front row in foul territory.

The seats in straight-away left field were completely empty, so I jogged out there and asked John Patterson if he could toss me the ball when he was done. By the time he finished and looked my way, the drizzle had turned into a steady rain.

“Go long!” he yelled.

Sweet. He wanted to make me earn it by racing through the seats like a wide receiver.

John_pattersonPoor Oren. Not only was his camera getting wet, but I nearly ruined the shot for him. When he heard Patterson’s command, he figured I was going to run up the steps to get farther away from the field–so HE headed up the steps–but instead I darted to my left and cut through a row of seats. Just before Patterson threw the ball, I took a quick peek down to make sure I was running in a straight line, and I saw another ball wedged in a seat. Hell yeah, it must’ve landed there during early BP, but I didn’t want to do anything that would prevent Patterson from giving me his ball, so I kept running and looked up as his throw sailed 10 feet over my head. The ball disappeared into the seats, and I panicked when I couldn’t find it right away. How much time did I have before the other fans would join the search? The ball had landed several rows above me, and I waited for it to trickle down the steps, but that didn’t happen, so I started climbing over rows of seats and looking at the ground in all directions. Finally, I saw it training_ball.jpgon the wet concrete and grabbed it. Where was the other ball?! How many rows had I climbed over? How many sections had I run through? I looked all around but couldn’t find it. Oren hurried over, and I told the camera what I was doing. I had no clue where to look so I started combing through each row, hoping that I’d rediscover my partially-hidden treasure, and finally, BAM! There it was. I was overjoyed when I grabbed it because it was a different kind of ball–a new variation that I’d never seen before. Last year I snagged eight green training balls. This was my first blue one.

It started pouring, so we took advantage of our media credentials by checking out the press box…

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…and even though UGO.com was paying for all of us, we took advantage of the free hot dogs. There press_box_hot_dogs.jpgwas other stuff for the taking–including snacks and copies of Orioles Magazine–but the coolest thing I got was the game notes. I learned all sorts of useful information, for example:

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1) The Orioles had won Game No. 65 in each of the previous four seasons.

2) Of the 259 batters that Orioles pitchers had walked this season, 78 ended up scoring.

3) The Orioles had scored first in 11 of their previous 12 games, but went 4-8 during that span.

4) The Orioles’ stolen base percentage of 84.2 was the third best in the American League.

5) The Orioles were 3-7 in games when the score had been tied after six innings.

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Chris and Oren and I still had half an hour to kill before the first pitch, so we headed up to the next level and got free ice cream in the media dining room. Jim Palmer was sitting so close that we could hear him talking. (Can you spot him in this photo?)

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One of the best things about seeing a ballpark behind the scenes is discovering secrets about how things are run. Take the pre-game announcements and on-field activities, for example. I’d heard/seen them hundreds of times in my life, but never realized that they’re planned right down to the minute–until I saw the “Pre-Game Schedule of Events” taped to the door of a TV booth.

We headed down to the field level seats at 6:58pm and picked a great spot (for foul balls) on the first base side of home plate. Chris stayed there and kept an eye on my stuff while Oren followed me and kept the camera rolling. I went to the third base side for left-handed hitters and went back to the first base side for righties. I also tried to work both dugouts for third-out balls after each half-inning.

Poor Oren. He had to do a lot of running (and explaining to ushers and fans), and I wasn’t producing. He decided my failure was okay. UGO.com would edit down all the footage and make a montage of my unsuccessful attempts to beg for balls…of Kevin Millar flipping the ball to a little kid after the top of the first…of Tony Batista throwing the ball to the far end of the dugout after the bottom of the first…of oren_films.jpgMillar giving the ball to a different kid after the top of the second…of Brian Schneider not even taking the ball back to the dugout after the bottom of the second.

Things were going so badly that Oren suggested taking a break for a few innings so he could get footage later on when it was dark–you know, to emphasize the fact that time was passing. I convinced him to keep following me a bit longer, and it paid off. With two outs in the top of the third, Steve Trachsel induced Felipe Lopez to ground out to Miguel Tejada. Millar caught the throw at first base and FINALLY hooked me up with my fifth (and final) ball of the day. I felt bad about snagging it because I figured it was going to screw up the montage, but Oren insisted that he wanted me to snag as many balls as possible.

Both starting pitchers–Trachsel for the Orioles and Matt Chico for the Nationals–were unable to throw harder than 87mph. It was lame and infuriating. Their “fast”balls weren’t coming in fast enough for the batters to swing late. There was so little action in the seats that Oren and Chris decided it wasn’t worth it to keep filming.

Late in the game, when hard-throwing relievers had taken over, I came close to a few foul balls, but missed them for reasons which are too frustrating to mention. I was glad the camera wasn’t rolling, and we were all glad when the game ended. It lasted 11 innings, and we had a three-and-a-half-hour drive ahead of us.

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After getting shut out at the Nationals’ dugout, I met my friend Brad for the first time in person. (Brad is the guy who’s sending me to the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.) We’d spoken on the phone and emailed dozens of times since August, and this was his first trip to the East Coast since then. Eleven hours earlier, he’d flown from San Francisco to New York City and then taken a train to Baltimore in time to race into Camden Yards and see the tarp covering the infield. He’d spent the whole game going for homers in right and left field, so we didn’t catch up until the end of the night. I won’t gush about him too much–I don’t want to be accused of having a Man Crush–so I’ll just say that he’s incredibly kind and generous…and lots of fun to talk to about snagging.

STATS:

• 107 balls in 14 games this season = 7.6 balls per game.

• 469 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 625 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 89 lifetime balls at Camden Yards

• 3,068 total balls

• 22 days until the Home Run Derby

• 2 months (at least) until the video segment will air on UGO.com

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