September 2007

9/25/07 at Shea Stadium

You know how some moms are “cool moms”? They don’t nag and worry as often as other moms, they clif_zack_gate_c.jpglet you stay up late on school nights, they take you to baseball games and let you eat ice cream, etc…

Well, I met a “cool mom” named Gail at Shea, and not surprisingly, her 13-year-old son named Clif (short for Clifton) was awesome. They were my Watch With Zack clients for the day, and the fun started even before the stadium opened.

I’d brought a ball so Clif and I could play catch, and from the moment he reached out and gloved my first throw, I could tell he was athletic. I mean really athletic–the kind of athleticism where it didn’t take him a shred of effort to catch anything I fired his way. I knew he’d have no problem snagging baseballs during batting practice.

When we finished throwing, Gail had a surprise for me. Not only did she give me one of her three season tickets, but she also handed over a ticket for the left field bleachers!

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Unbelievable.

The bleachers are part of the picnic area, which is closed to the rest of the stadium and normally reserved for groups of 100 or more. There HAVE been games when the section opened to the general public, but there was always one issue or another that kept me away. A few years ago, when the section was called the “Pepsi Picnic Area,” the first 800 fans who showed up with an empty Pepsi can or bottle could get in for free–on Wednesdays only. Of course there was a mob every week and the section didn’t open as early as the rest of the stadium. This season, there’d been a few opportunities to buy individual tickets for the picnic area, but the Mets found a way to make it difficult. You had to join some web site and get a password and register for the tickets and then pick them up in person on the day of the game at the same time that the gates would be opening and blah blah. The point is…I’d NEVER been in the picnic area before so this was a dream come true. Just look at this glorious section:

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By the time I ran into the bleachers and took this photo, I’d already snagged my first ball. There’d been a Shea employee standing around behind the bleachers with a ball in his hand, and before I ran up the steps, I asked him if I could have it and he tossed it to me. Did Clif want the ball? No.

To say the least, he’s a big fan of my baseball collection. While he wanted to snag as many balls as possible and try to break his one-day record of three, he didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with my snagging. In fact, he wanted me to have a huge day. He wanted to see me in action, and he wanted to witness a milestone. I started the day with 290 balls for the season. He was hoping I’d snag 10 more to reach 300.

“I’ve only snagged three hundred in a season twice before,” I told him. “I did it–“

“I know,” he interrupted. “You did it in 2004 when you got exactly 300 at your last game of the season, and then you did it again in 2005.”

He said he’d read every one of my blog entries “at least three times” as well as everything on my web site. At one point, when his mom asked me where I grew up, Clif shouted “Manhattan” and quickly apologized (unnecessarily) for answering for me. Later on, when I told him I’d gotten the lineup cards the previous night and made a comment about how tough it is to get them in New York, he reminded me that I’d gotten the lineup cards at Yankee Stadium on the day I snagged my 3,000th ball. And then, just for the hell of it, he told me that I’d also gotten the lineup cards in 2005 in Cincinnati from Felipe Alou on the day that Randy Winn hit for the cycle…and that I got them two days later in Houston from Dusty Baker…and that my zack_clif_see_ball_on_warning_track.jpgrecord-breaking 20th ball of the day at Chase Field was tossed by Tony Clark…and that when I got No. 21 soon after, the home plate umpire rolled it to me without looking up.

I didn’t feel stalked. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t think it was weird or creepy that he’d memorized so much stuff about me. I can only say that I was flattered.

ANYWAY…
I quickly snagged my second ball by getting Mike Pelfrey to toss one up, and moments later, Clif (aka “goislanders” to those who read the comments on this blog) found a ball sitting in the aisle of the center-field end of the bleachers. For the first 10 minutes, we had the picnic area to ourselves, so when a homer ended up flying down the staircase and bouncing all the way across the picnic area to the edge of the Citi Field construction site, I was able to chase it and pick it up without any competition. Was I dreaming? This wasn’t just better than anything I’d experienced at Shea; it was better than anything I’d experienced anywhere.

Gail was still hanging out in the main portion of the stadium, capturing our every move with her digital camera. CLICK HERE to watch a 10-second video in which we’re both going for balls. You’ll hear her reaction as Clif gets his second ball tossed by Willie Collazo, and at the very end, you’ll see me on the right side using my glove trick to knock (what ended up being) my fourth ball closer to the outfield wall.

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After several fans had made their way into the bleachers, Clif spotted a ball in the gap behind the outfield wall, and I stood beside him as he set up his glove trick. The ball was half-buried in the weeds, and it was almost too far out for him to reach, but he managed to knock it a couple inches closer, and when clif_glove_trick2.jpghe did, we were both disappointed to discover that it was a fake ball. Clif only saw a fraction of the logo, but he instantly recognized it from an entry I’d written two years earlier and knew that it said “Donated by The New York Mets Foundation.” I’d found a few of those balls at Shea and decided not to count them, so Clif didn’t even bother going for it. He just reeled in his glove, and we kept running around.

Aaron Sele tossed me my fifth ball, and Clif tied his record by getting #3 from a cameraman. I ran over high_five_reenacted.jpgand gave him a high five. Gail, by that point, had made her way into the bleachers, but she’d just missed getting a picture of the celebratory moment so we reenacted it.

Clif deserved the next ball, but in a bizarre (and split-second) turn of events, I ended up being the one who snagged it. We were standing on opposite sides of a fenced-off railing when Clif happened to spot a ball sitting in the front row on my side.

“Hey, there’s a ball there,” he said, and without thinking, I looked down and picked it up.

“Did you drop one of your balls?” I asked.

He checked his backpack and counted all three of the ones he’d snagged.

“No,” he said. “Did you drop one of YOURS?”

I looked inside my bag. I had all five.

Huh?

Turns out it was just a random ball that had been sitting there all along, and no one had seen it. We then had a long discussion about who deserved it. Each one of us wanted the other person to have it, but Clif insisted, and Gail took his side.

“He wants you to have the ball,” she said.

I numbered it and stuck it in my bag and felt completely guilty, but Clif seemed to be excited that I was now just four balls away from 300. Thankfully, the day was still young, and when the Nationals took the field, he broke his record by getting a ball tossed to him by Winston Abreu. Then, within a matter of minutes, he added to the record when the 6-foot-11 Jon Rauch saw his Nationals cap and threw him ball #5.

That’s when I went on a tear, kicked off with a “ridiculous catch” according to fellow author and MLBlogger Zoë Rice, who posted a pic of us and described a little more of the action in this entry on her blog. Basically, what happened is that a right-handed hitter on the Nationals–no idea who–pulled a long fly ball that was clearly going to fall short of the bleachers. I knew it had a chance to hit the warning track and bounce in, so I raced to my right through the wide aisle, and sure enough, the ball skipped up over the wall. As the ball was about to land in the benches, my path got blocked by a slanted railing, so I stopped short and reached out as far as I possibly could and made the backhand catch. I reached so far (and hadn’t quite stopped my momentum) that I began to topple over the railing headfirst. I braced my fall with my glove and dangled over the railing for a good two seconds before I felt someone grab my feet and help me back up.

Five minutes later, I raced to the far end of the bleachers and asked Nook Logan for a ball as he was about to toss it to another fan. That other fan happened to be Gail, and after Nook gave it to her, he noticed that I was Nook_loganwearing a Nationals cap, so he said, “I got you, Dawg,” and quickly got another ball for me. (The Nationals were using those awful/cheap training balls.) Nook ended up tossing one to Clif as well, and just like that, my snagging accomplice had doubled his one-game record.

After I got my ninth ball of the day–and 299th ball of the season–thrown by Joel Hanrahan, Clif and I saw another ball land in the gap. He knew it was going to be #300 so he wanted me to go for it. Even the security guards wanted me to go for it, if you can believe it, because a few of them had heard about my glove trick but hadn’t yet gotten to see it in action. Down the steps I went. I set up the rubber band and then the Sharpie. I let out some string to make sure it wasn’t tangled and lowered my glove for the easy snag. Then I used the trick again to grab the “Foundation” ball, and I gave it to the security supervisor so she could give it to a kid. Just before I was about to head up the steps, I happened to notice that there was ANOTHER ball, sitting in the aisle right next to me, tucked slightly behind a large plastic garbage can. So I picked it up. And that was my 11th ball of the day. Crazy stuff.

The whole section was buzzing about me. The security guards were in awe. The fans recognized me from TV. No one was annoyed that I’d snagged so many balls. There had been plenty of others to go around. The few kids out there had all gotten balls on their own, and some of the grown-ups had caught balls as well. Everyone was happy. It was a snagging love-fest.

Toward the end of BP, Gail and I were standing next to each other in the aisle when another Nationals righty connected on a deeeeeeep fly ball. The ball was heading about 50 feet to my right, and I knew it had enough distance. All I had to do was start running and make sure that I didn’t bump into the few gloveless fans standing in my way. I kept running and looked up at the ball. I kept running and looked <300th_ball_of_2007.jpgback down to make sure my path was clear. I kept running and looked back up, and before I knew it, I’d reached the end of the aisle and ball was coming in fast. I reached over my head and felt the ball smack the pocket of my glove, and I when I looked back down again, Clif was standing five feet in front of me.

“Whoa!” he yelled. “I didn’t even see it coming!”

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Throughout the day, Clif hadn’t accepted a single baseball from me and even backed off at times so I could snag a few extra. When I offered him the home run ball, he just said, “You keep it.”

“C’mon,” I said, “You NEED to have an official Zack Hample snagged ball in your collection. Take it.”

Finally, he accepted the ball and it felt great–for both of us, I’m sure–when I handed it over. (Gail ended up snagging a second ball and joked that she let me have the home run. At least I hope she was joking.)

After BP, we wandered out behind the bleachers and took a bunch of pics. Here’s Clif with the six balls he snagged on his own:

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(Damn I’m sweaty.) Here he is with all the balls:

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Here are a few shots of the area behind and underneath the bleachers:

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Here are a few photos of the construction of Citi Field:

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Here’s a sneak peek through a fence behind the batter’s eye:

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And here’s a shot of the visitors’ bullpen that I took by reaching over an eight-foot wall:

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Most of the newer ballparks have been designed to let fans watch the pitchers warning up. For example, there’s a concourse right above the double-decked bullpens in Philadelphia, a screened viewing area just behind the bullpens in Seattle, and bleacher seats surrounding the bullpens in St. Louis. At AT&T Park and several other venues, the bullpens are nothing more than benches on the field down the foul lines. Does it cause any harm to have the players and fans sitting so close together? Did I cause any harm by reaching over that stupid fence with my camera? Umm, no, but because it was Shea Stadium, I got scolded by a security guard.

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Clif and Gail and I got some bottled water, then some ice cream, and finally headed up to their regular seats in the Mezzanine. Nice view. And here’s my Watching Baseball Smarter tip of the day. If you click the pic to make it bigger, you’ll notice that neither base coach is standing in his respective coaching box. In theory, there should be some type of penalty for that, but the rule is never enforced. The first base coach is standing on the outfield side of the box to give himself extra time to get out of the way of a line drive. The third base coach is literally risking his life by standing on the home-plate side of the box so that he’ll be in a better position to give signs if the runner on second ends up rounding third on a potential run-scoring base hit.

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After the first inning, Clif wanted to go for foul balls one level down in the Loge, and Gail had no problem with that. She stayed in her seat while Clif and I ran around and did our thing.

The bad news for Clif is that I ended up being the one who got the foul ball. The good news for Clif is that he got a great view of my snag because he was standing right next to me. I swear I had no intention of catching it. I’d been planning to step aside and let him go for any foul ball that came our way, but here’s what happened. It was the bottom of the second inning, Shawn Green was at bat, and we were camped out in a tunnel on the third-base side of home plate. Green worked the count full, and I told Clif to pay extra close attention because three balls/two strikes is a good foul ball count. Green ended up hitting seven consecutive foul balls, and the third one shot back straight over our heads. The tricky part about playing foul balls in the Loge is that when a ball goes over your head, you have to make a split-second decision. Move forward and look for the ricochet off the facade of the press level shawn_green_foul_ball.jpgup above? Or move back for the catch in case it barely falls short of the facade and continues on its path? I’ve been up in the Loge for hundreds of games, and I still make mistakes, especially on high pop-ups that may or may not clip the facade on their way down. Those are tough. If Shea were going to be around for another 40-something years (God forbid), I still don’t think I’d ever master those. But I’ve gotten pretty good at judging the balls that fly straight back. Clif thought the ball was going to fall short so he moved back, and when he did, I knew he’d just cost himself a chance to catch it so I took a couple quick steps forward to the top of the tunnel, then turned around and looked up as the ball smacked the facade and bounced five feet over Clif’s head and into my glove. Everyone oohed and ahhed and gave me high fives for the “great catch” that I’d made. Clif and I secretly made fun of them because we both knew it was about as easy as it gets. The only tough thing about it, as I mentioned, was judging the ball off the bat. I offered the ball to Clif. He didn’t take it. Instead he texted his parents and told them what had happened.

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After the sixth inning, Clif and I went back up to the Mezzanine and got his mom. Then we all headed downstairs, snuck into the Field Level, and watched the rest of the game from the seats right behind the Nationals’ dugout. (Take THAT, Shea Stadium security.)

The Nationals, already winning, 8-3, after seven innings, scored a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to open a seven-run lead. The Mets sent 10 men to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and scored six runs and got Endy Chavez over to third base–but the rally fell 90 feet short.

Final score: Nationals 10, Mets 9.

Most of the fans had left before the ninth inning, but the few thousand that remained made enough noise to fill the cavernous-yet-cramped stadium. At one point, when the scoreboard indicated that the Braves had beaten the second-place Phillies, everyone started doing the Tomahawk Chop. That was pretty cool, and I briefly took off my Nationals cap to join the celebration. Anyway, the Mets’ comeback wasn’t meant to be, but it turned out for the best. Since I’d gotten the lineup cards the night before and knew exactly when and where and how and who to ask for them, I was able to position Clif at just the right staircase so he’d have the best shot at getting them. Once the final out was made, we rushed down to the front row, and I told him to yell at manager Manny Acta.

“Manny!!” shouted Clif, waiting for a reply. “Manny!!”

Manny didn’t look up, and I wasn’t surprised. Everyone was yelling his name for different reasons. Some people wanted a ball. Some people wanted photos. Some people wanted autographs. Some people probably wanted his phone number. Simply shouting his name wasn’t specific enough to make him look up. I knew he could hear us, and I knew he needed to hear the entire request all at once. My only fear was that he’d remember me from the previous day, but I had to go for it before he disappeared back into the dugout.

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“Manny!” I yelled. “Can we get the lineup cards for this kid right here?!”

Manny looked up and saw that we were both wearing Nationals caps, so he pulled the cards out of his lineup_cards_for_clif.jpgback pocket and slid them across the dugout roof. I grabbed them before any other fans had a chance to reach in, and I handed them to Clif.

Oh, and by the way, Clif also got the ball that had been used to make the final out of the game. Austin Kearns, who had caught Paul Lo Duca’s fly ball in right field, tossed it to him on the way in.

What an outstanding day. I’ve always wished I had a little brother, and for a few hours, it felt as if I did.

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STATS:

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• 303 balls in 37 games this season = 8.19 balls per game.

• 492 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 320 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

• 111 lifetime game balls (107 foul balls, 3 home runs, 1 ground-rule double)

• 17th time snagging a game ball in back-to-back games

• 73 lifetime games with at least 10 balls.

• 3,264 total balls…moves me ahead of Eddie Murray (3,255) and into 12th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Willie Mays (3,283).

9/24/07 at Shea Stadium

Kelly and Jen are from Chicago. They have season tickets at Wrigley Field and travel quite a bit to other zack_kelly_jen_outside_shea.jpgstadiums–but they’d never been to Shea so they flew to New York City to Watch With Zack. Jen (wearing the white shirt) is not a collector. Kelly (wearing the blue “Zambrano is Money” shirt) most certainly is, and my job was to help her snag baseballs and get autographs.
When Shea opened for batting practice at 4:40pm, we headed up to my usual spot in the right field Loge. Within the first few minutes, we shouted at Paul Lo Duca for a ball, and when he turned to throw it, I backed off and let Kelly go for it. “Please don’t miss it,” I thought, and when Lo Duca put some velocity on it, the only thing that went through my mind was, “Please don’t get hurt.”

Kelly didn’t get hurt. She didn’t miss it either. Instead, she reached out and caught it effortlessly with one hand. I was impressed, and no, I’m not being sexist; I never assume ANYone can catch.

Soon after, we saw the not-too-friendly Aaron Heilman down below, and Kelly told me that she went to college with his wife.

“Do you know her name?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “Think he’d throw me a ball?”

“Maybe. You should say something like, ‘Hey, Aaron, I know [wife's name] from [college's name], and she said you’d give me a ball.'”

The wife hadn’t promised a ball, but so what. I knew Heilman wouldn’t know the difference, and sure enough, when Kelly shouted at him and dropped the appropriate names, he turned around and smiled. It didn’t hurt that Kelly also mentioned the name of his wife’s dorm.

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Heilman then went out of his way to get a ball, and just before he was about to toss it up, Kelly shouted, “Hey! Can you autograph it for me first!?”

I thought she might’ve just ruined her chances at getting the ball by making such a brazen request, but Heilman wasn’t phased. He walked into the bullpen and got a pen from a security guard and signed the ball. And then he tossed it. And Kelly caught it, making a nice over-the-railing snag.

Lo Duca started signing autographs in foul territory. Kelly ran downstairs and got there just in time to have him sign the ball that he’d thrown to her. I got Mets catching instructor Tom Nieto to throw me a ball, and since it was brand new and Kelly wanted more autographs, I gave it to her.

When the Nationals took the field, we headed to the left side, and I immediately saw a ball drop into the “triangle.” That’s the small area of dead space just beyond the end of the fancy blue seats down the line. I ran down the steps, slipped into the front row, swung my backpack out to knock the ball closer, and began my careful balancing act over the railing to try to reach the ball. I didn’t have time to set up my glove trick because a fellow baseball collector named Greg (aka trevor_zack_gary.jpg“gregorybarasch” to those who read the comments) was hurrying over with his cup trick. Before I had a chance to reach the ball, the on-field security guard climbed over the outer wall and grabbed it. I was sure he was going to hand it to the kid on my right, but he ended up flipping it to me. Then I learned two things: 1) the ball was originally tossed to the kid, and 2) the kid was the younger brother of a guy named Gary (aka “gjk2212″) who’s been regularly reading this blog and leaving lots of comments–and whom I’d just met in person for the first time. It was a no-brainer. I gave the ball to the kid. His name is Trevor, and he’s nine years old. (FYI, I didn’t used to count balls in my collection when I gave them away, but now I do, so this was my second ball of the day.)

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I headed up to the left field Loge after positioning Kelly and Jen in the corner spot on the Field Level. I didn’t get a single ball for the rest of BP, but Kelly got one from Winston Abreu, and then of course she convinced him to sign it. Three balls for her…all autographed by the players who tossed them…not bad.

Kelly and I went to the Nationals’ dugout at the end of BP, and I got three training balls tossed to me within a one-minute span. The first one came from first base coach Jerry Morales, the second from manager Manny Acta, and the third from pitcher Saul Rivera. (Rivera is not Jewish; his first name is pronounced “sah-OOL,” which is to say that it rhymes with “Raul,” as in Raul Mondesi.)

Kelly had never snagged a training ball, so I gave her the one from Morales, and she asked me to sign it, along with a copy of my book.

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Before the game, we headed to the right field foul line to try to get an autograph from Jose Reyes and/or David Wright. No luck. Kelly had to settle for Carlos Gomez’s sloppy autograph–in Sharpie–on the brand new ball. She tried to hand him a ball-point pen, but he didn’t take it and instead used the marker that another fan had given him. What a putz.

We had great seats for the game, just behind the main aisle on the first base side of the Field Level. It kelly_jen_during_game.jpgwas the perfect spot to run for foul balls hit by righties, and in the bottom of the second inning, I got my chance. Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey was at bat and swung late on a 1-0 fastball from Matt Chico and sliced it in my direction. I jumped out of my seat, darted 10 feet to my right through the aisle, turned left and raced down a few steps, and when I looked back up, the ball was coming toward me. Not right to me, but several feet over my head and a few rows in front. At the last second, I lunged down the staircase and made the backhand pelfrey_foul_ball.jpgcatch high over my head while simultaneously banging the crap out of my right calf on the corner of an empty seat. (I now have a nice big bruise, and it was worth it. The pain will go away. The ball will last a lifetime.)

Kelly and Jen had been sitting in the row directly behind me and had a great view of my “web-gem”-worthy catch. They didn’t ask for the ball. They were just happy to have seen me in action, and they rewarded me with a slice of pizza and an ice-cold bottle of water as we made our way up to the Loge.

We watched the next few innings from a good foul ball section on the third-base side of home plate, but there wasn’t much action. After the seventh inning, with the Mets trailing, 8-3, we headed back down to the Field Level and watched the rest of the game from a spot just behind the Nationals’ dugout.

Jose Reyes grounded out to end the eighth, and I got first baseman Robert Fick to toss me the ball–my seventh of the day–as he jogged toward the dugout. That was nice, but the Mets’ performance wasn’t. Pelfrey took the loss, giving up seven runs–six earned–in 5 2/3 innings. Guillermo Mota allowed three runs in the eighth, and Dave Williams surrendered three more in the ninth as his ERA ballooned to 22.85. Final score: Nationals 13, Mets 4.

After the game, I got my eighth and final ball tossed to me by Justin Maxwell, but the best news of all is that I got the lineup cards from Manny Acta–my first lineup cards EVER at Shea Stadium!

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See the circles with the numbers inside? Those are scribbled throughout the game to keep track of who made the third out of each inning. Moises Alou (who extended his hitting streak kelly_zack_jen_after_game.jpgto 28 games with a leadoff double in the sixth) has a “1” and “3” written just above his name because he made the final out of both the first and third innings. The ball I got from Fick was the ball that caused the “8” to be written next to “REYES.” Cool, huh?

Once again, Kelly and Jen generously let me keep my prized possession. I offered Kelly the ball I got from Maxwell. She refused. I insisted. It was the least I could do.

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After the game, Kelly and Jen and I hung around outside the stadium and went for Nationals autographs. I got Dmitri Young and Wily Mo Pena to sign my “SEPT 24″ ticket stub, and I got several other guys to sign some older Nationals-Phillies stubs that I’d brought from home: Brian Schneider and Tim Redding, Christian Guzman, Winston Abreu, and Ronnie Belliard who signed it upside down. Kelly got all those guys to sign her brand new ball, and Jen collected a second set of autographs for her on her ticket.

As I parted ways with the ladies, they asked if I’d be interested in coming out to Chicago for the NLDS. Hmm, yeah, I guess I could do that, I mean, if I really had to. Fingers crossed that the Cubs win the NL Central. They’re two games ahead of the Brewers with five games remaining…

STATS:

• 290 balls in 36 games this season = 8.06 balls per game.

• 491 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 319 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

• 110 lifetime game balls (not counting game-used balls that were tossed to me, like the one from Fick)

• 16 balls from Manny Acta since 2003

• 3,251 total balls

9/18/07 at Chase Field

The day began with a late-morning drive to Scottsdale Stadium–the Spring Training home of the Giants. My friends Brad and Kevin wanted to show me how fun and easy it is to collect baseballs there, so we started by peeking through the fence at one of the adjacent practice fields.

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Then we walked around the outside of the stadium…

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…and discovered that one of the main gates was wide open, so we headed inside.

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We entered on the first base side of home plate, then walked through the seats toward the right field foul pole and climbed the steps to the huge party deck above the bullpen. Brad showed me a specific spot on the deck which was about 400 feet from home plate–on two different fields! There was a practice field on the left, and Brad said he’d once experienced a double batting practice there during which home run balls were flying at him from two directions. Can you imagine that?! I took pics of both fields and stuck them together in Photoshop to make a panorama, and here’s what it looked like:

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After drooling over the possibilities, we walked around the outfield to the third base side and cut back toward home plate.

TIME OUT…

Experienced baseball collectors are always among the first fans to enter a stadium because of the chance to find “Easter eggs.” That’s what you call baseballs that are hidden in the seats. When balls land in the seats before the gates open, ushers are supposed to retrieve them and toss them back onto the field. But sometimes the ushers are lazy and leave the balls there. Sometimes the ushers can’t even find them. And sometimes there are balls that land in the seats right before the gates open, and the ushers don’t have time to get them.

TIME IN…

As we approached the dugout, our eyes lit up and we jumped out of our shoes and started drooling again and nearly fainted because of this:

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Yes, you counted correctly, there were TEN balls sitting on the dugout roof. Just sitting there. Were we hallucinating in the desert heat? Was this a joke? A trick, perhaps? One of those hidden-camera TV shows? Fifteen minutes earlier, we’d seen a lone groundskeeper drive a golf cart along the warning track and off the field through an opening below the batter’s eye–and that was it. Once he disappeared from sight, there was NO ONE else around, and we didn’t know what to think. My first instinct was to grab the balls (if you’ll pardon the expression) and run like hell. But I didn’t. They were minor league balls. I only collect major league balls, and besides, I had two more days of snagging at Chase Field, and my luggage was already going to be getting a lot heavier–or so I hoped. As for my friends? Kevin decided that the right thing to do was to leave the balls there. “Good karma,” he said, explaining that the balls couldn’t even be considered “Easter eggs” because they HAD been found. Ten balls obviously hadn’t landed on the dugout roof and rolled into a tight cluster; someone had clearly retrieved them and placed them there (for what reason we didn’t know), and since we probably weren’t supposed to be inside the stadium in the first place, we all agreed the balls should stay.

Then, as if the Easter Bunny itself was tormenting us, we spotted three more balls on the way out.

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We left those balls behind, too.

As for the Main Event at Chase Field, we got to the Friday’s terrace again at 3:30pm, and I snagged three more balls from Diamondbacks pitchers before the gates opened. The first was fridays_terrace.jpgthrown from the bullpen by Edgar Gonzalez. The second came from Brandon Medders, and the third was tossed by Dana Eveland. I gave that one to a kid and discovered later that it was my 250th ball of the season.

At about 4pm, Diamondbacks third base coach Chip Hale walked along the foul line with three balls in his glove, and just before he entered the bullpen, he tossed the balls into the empty seats. I had no idea why. At first I thought it was a random act of frustration, but then I wondered if the balls were old and if he just wanted to be nice and dump them where the fans could find them. But it was so early! The gates weren’t going to open for another half hour, and I didn’t think there was any chance that the balls would still be there when I ran inside. I’m not sure where Brad was at that point. I think he had Chip_halealready headed out to hold a spot at the right field gate. Kevin, meanwhile, had moved to the other end of the terrace and apparently hadn’t seen the balls get tossed into the seats, so I waited a minute and walked over and casually told him that I was considering entering the left field gate.

“You might want to get down there early,” he said. “That’s one of the main gates, and the line is usually longer.”

I didn’t want to leave Friday’s too early. Batting practice was still taking place, and I had to keep my eye on the section in foul territory. Every few minutes, an usher strolled into the bleachers directly below to collect the home run balls that had clanged off the metal benches. Whatever. I didn’t care. All that mattered was my special spot down the line. At around 4:10pm, I had a scare when two members of the cleaning crew wandered down to the front row in foul territory and started sweeping, one section away from my hidden treasure. I was paranoid that they’d stumble upon it. But they didn’t. And for the time being there were no ushers in sight.

It was 4:15pm…fifteen minutes until the gates were going to open. I was sure that someone would find those balls before I got inside, but I had to go for it. I told Kevin I’d see him later, and then I ran up the steps, hurried through Friday’s, took the elevator down to the Street Level, sprinted around part of the stadium to the ticket window, overpaid for a seat on the first base side of home plate, and ran back to the left field gate. There were only five people waiting there, and when the stadium (officially) opened, they all hurried to the bleachers while I made a mad dash for the foul line, and this is what I saw:

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Good karma indeed! To hell with the balls at Scottsdale Stadium. These three Easter eggs at Chase Field counted. I just had to make sure that I remembered which ball I picked up first, second, and third so I could number them properly. I looked over my shoulder, and there were a couple of fans slowly making their way down the steps. Crap! I snatched the first ball and stuck it in my front right pocket. Then I went for the second one, and as I stuck it in my left front pocket, I spotted a fourth ball down a few steps in the front row!! I grabbed the third ball (back right pocket) and then the fourth (back left chase_field_easter_eggs2.jpgpocket) and it occurred to me that there might be more. I scrambled back up the steps and scanned the empty seats on both sides and spotted a fifth ball!!! OH MY GOD!!!!! I grabbed that one and stuck it in a little pouch on the side of my backpack, and 20 seconds later, Livan Hernandez walked out of the bullpen and tossed me another!!! Are you kidding me?! I’d just gotten six balls in half a minute, and I had to take a break and sit down and label them all, and just a few minutes after I finished, the Diamondbacks wrapped up their portion of BP, so I ran to their dugout on the third base side and got yet another ball from Doug Slaten. It was 4:40pm. The gates had been open for 10 minutes, and I’d snagged 10 balls.

Naturally, when the Giants took the field, I was already thinking of breaking my one-day record of 19 balls. I was more than halfway there with almost a whole day of snagging still remaining, but I didn’t feel confident. If I’d been in Philly or Baltimore, I would’ve broken the record. Easily. Guaranteed. Those two ballparks are phenomenal. But Chase Field? Not great. Remember what happened the day before? Yeah, I snagged 12 balls, but it was somewhat of a struggle from start to finish. I hadn’t caught a single ball that was hit during BP, and then during the game, it had taken me six innings to sneak down to the Giants’ dugout for third-out balls, of which I didn’t end up getting any.

But back to the task at hand…
I started out in left field for the Giants’ BP and didn’t catch a thing. Then, when a bunch of lefties began hitting, I ran to right field and managed to snag a Ryan Klesko homer that landed in a section of mostly empty benches deep down the line. Then I ran back to left field and caught a Scott McClain homer on a fly after judging it perfectly and climbing up on a bench at the last second. And then I got Randy Messenger to throw me a ball a minute later. With five minutes remaining in BP, I abandoned left field and ran halfway around the stadium to the Giants’ dugout on the first base side. What happened next? I stood there and watched helplessly as half a dozen homers landed right in the section where I’d just been. Batting practice was done, and I was stuck on 13 balls…not that I’m complaining, but there was barry_zito_autograph.jpgno way that I was going to snag an additional seven balls from that point on to break my record. The good news is that I got Barry Zito’s sloppy autograph at the dugout. (Is that a backwards ‘K’?) The bad news is that he signed it upside down (on an extra ticket I’d collected the night before).

I hardly saw Brad and Kevin during the game. They stayed in the outfield and went for home runs. I stayed behind the plate and went for foul balls. Check out my view:

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Sadly, my snagging highlight during the game was NOT getting a foul ball, but rather when chase_field_tee_shirt1.jpgthe Diamondbacks’ mascot (a peppy bobcat named Baxter) threw me a tee-shirt between innings.

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The game itself was a thing of beauty. Rookie Micah Owings pitched a two-hit shutout, facing just one batter over the minimum, as the first-place Diamondbacks won, 5-0. After the game, I got my 14th ball of the day from home plate umpire Derryl Cousins (who names their kid Derryl?), then collected a few dozen tickets stubs and went back out to the players’ parking lot with Brad and Kevin.

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In the four-part photo above, you can see the parking lot on the upper left, Stephen Drew in his obnoxiously large truck on the upper right, Pedro Feliz looking dapper on the lower left, and Bob Wickman on the lower right.

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Instead of getting Wickman’s autograph, I asked him, “Is there any chance you might be able to throw me a ball tomorrow if I call out to you from the Friday’s terrace at about 4pm?”

“I don’t know if I can throw it that far,” he joked. Then, as he walked off, he gave me a friendly smack on the left shoulder and added, “I’ll see what I can do.”

STATS:

• 261 balls in 34 games this season = 7.68 balls per game.

• 489 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 2,900 balls during the 489-game streak streak = 5.93 balls per game.

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

• 712 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 71 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 15th time snagging 10 or more balls in back-to-back games

• 3,222 total balls

9/17/07 at Chase Field

That’s right. I went to Arizona. And now I’m back. There’s lots of catching up to be done, so let’s get started…

I woke up on September 17th with four and a half hours of sleep, left for Newark Airport at 9am, took off for Phoenix at 11:50am, met two friends at the airport at 2pm (after gaining three hours by changing time zones), got a ride to the Super 8 Motel, dropped off my stuff, and made the 15-minute walk to Chase Field.

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The two friends were baseball collectors from San Francisco named Brad and Kevin. Brad, you may recall, is the guy who helped

outside_chase_field_fridays.jpgbring me to the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. Kevin, who’s attended over 130 major league games this season, is the guy wearing the orange shirt in my 8/14/06 at PETCO Park entry. Both he and Brad were familiar with Chase Field, and they shared the greatest ball-snagging secret of all: There’s a restaurant built into the ballpark called Friday’s Front Row Sports Grill. You enter on the outside, and you can walk right through it and exit out the back onto a terrace inside the stadium in the second deck in deep left field. I’d like to think that if I were there by myself, I would’ve discovered this trick on my own, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

Check out the view as I walked out the back of Friday’s and headed into the seats:

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Game time was 6:40pm. The gates were going to open at 4:30pm. Brad and Kevin and I went into Friday’s at 3:30pm, just as the Diamondbacks were starting to take batting practice. I was stunned. I

zack_fridays.jpgmean, I literally couldn’t believe it. There weren’t any other fans there. We had the whole stadium to ourselves, and really, I had the whole stadium to MYself. That’s because Brad decided not to go for balls until the gates opened, and Kevin was only interested in catching home runs. This meant I was the ONLY fan asking for balls.

A pitcher on the Diamondbacks threw me my first ball. I have no idea who it was, and it doesn’t matter. I was just psyched to get one so early in the day. There’ve been a few other times when I snagged a ball before the stadium opened (Friday’s in Miller Park, Waveland Avenue outside Wrigley Field, the portwalk outside AT&T Park) and it’s a great feeling…getting on line at the gate and already having a ball. Or three.

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Livan Hernandez tossed me a second ball, and Dustin Nippert fired up another. I felt lucky that all three throws were right on the money. The Friday’s terrace is about 40 feet high–not to mention 450 feet from home plate–so it took some skill for the guys to make accurate throws that didn’t fall short. (According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the ball from Nippert was the 1,500th Allan H. Selig ball of my collection.)

While I was busy snagging, Brad went outside and bought me a ticket for the special gap section directly behind the right field wall. Then, after he returned to Friday’s to deliver the ticket, he went back outside and held a spot in line at the right field gate. It was really nice of him to do that, but as it turned

gate_ten_minutes_before_opening.jpgout, it didn’t make much of a difference. Unlike Shea and Yankee Stadium, where there are hundreds of people waiting to get inside for BP, there were only SIX fans waiting on line as late as 4:20pm.

I’d started the day with 3,196 lifetime balls, so my next ball was going to be No. 3,200. As I ran inside, I tried to pay extra close attention to all the action taking place so I’d be able to identify the source of my milestone. I headed into the right field bleachers and scanned the section for balls as I made my

RF_gap_section1.jpgway down to the front. I didn’t plan on staying in the gap section (which is officially known as Section 105-W), but I wanted to check it out briefly. Brad introduced me to the friendly usher, and when she saw coach Kirk Gibson ignore my polite request for a ball, she reached into a cup holder and pulled one out that had landed in the gap a few minutes earlier, and she handed it to me. And there it was: Ball No. 3,200. Not too exciting, but it counts. I never counted the few balls that were given to me by other fans, but I decided long ago that balls from stadium employees would count. Why? Because security guards at Shea and Yankee Stadium used to (and still occasionally) go out of their way to prevent me from getting balls. At Shea, the on-field guard down the left field line used to run over and kick ground balls away during BP as I was leaning over the wall to scoop them up, and at Yankee Stadium…don’t even get me started. The worst offense took place in the early 90s when I got Royals pitcher Hipolito Pichardo to throw me a ball along the left field foul line. usher_who_gave_me_ball_3200.jpgThe on-field guard darted to his left and reached out with his bare hand and slapped the ball out of the air and deflected it to another fan as I was reaching out to catch it. And let’s not forget all the times I’ve been stopped from using the glove trick. Security guards have probably cost me 300 balls over the years, so at this point, if I’m on the road and a stadium employee doesn’t know me and feels like handing me a ball…yeah, you bet it counts. The usher’s name, by the way, is Annie Schock. I had to get her name, not just for ball-snagging documentation purposes, but because I wanted to let management know how great she was.

I sprinted from right field to left field (which only took a minute thanks to the concourse that runs behind the batter’s eye) and was surprised when the Diamondbacks’ portion of BP ended at around 4:40pm. The home team always takes BP first, and usually they wrap up about 90 minutes before game time. Luckily, the D’backs occupy the 3rd base side so I was able to race through the seats and make it to their dugout just as the last few guys were coming off the field. That’s when I got my fifth ball of the day from a guy who looked like he was the team’s strength and conditioning coach, and if that’s who it was, then his name was Nate Shaw.

The Giants took the field, so I switched into my orange and black “SF” cap and got my sixth ball of the day from pitcher Noah Lowry along the left field foul line.

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I’d heard that security at Chase Field is strict and that they don’t like people using ball-retrieving devices. That’s how it was when I was there for two games in 1998, but this was a new decade, and when I saw a ball sitting in the left field bullpen, I had to go for it. The ball was about eight feet out from a 15-foot wall, so I had to let out quite a bit of string and then fling the glove out and tug the string at just the right moment in order to knock the ball closer. I nailed it on the first try, then quickly pulled up the glove and set up the magic marker and re-lowered it for the easy snag. Moments later, a security supervisor walked down the steps and stood behind the bullpen and visually stalked me as I disappeared into the left field bleachers.

At that point, I realized that there were more lefties than righties taking turns in the cage, so I ran back to right field. The outfield sections at Chase Field are good because they’re expansive and extend back

scrape.jpga few dozen rows, but they’re bad because of the cup holders that jut out and make the narrow rows even tighter, and because the benches have sharp corners. I discovered this the hard way when I lunged for a ball that Jack Taschner tossed my way and got a nasty little scrape in the process. (At least I got the ball.) When I showed my battle wound to a Chase Field regular named Tony Dobson, he said, “Now you’re one of us.” He was wearing shorts and pointed out several fresh recent cuts and older scars. Thus, my advice for anyone behind_the_pool.jpggoing to Chase Field: Wear long pants. I don’t care if it’s 109 degrees. If you plan on running around for balls, your legs will need protection.

I avoided bodily harm while snagging my next two balls–numbers nine and ten–directly behind the swimming pool which, by the way, costs $6,000 per game for a group of 35. Scott Munter threw me the first and Daniel Ortmeier threw the second. I was pumped to have reached double digits, but disappointed that I hadn’t caught a single batted ball.

As BP was ending, I went to the Giants’ dugout on the 1st base side and got my 11th ball from hitting

lincecum_mcclain_autograph.jpgcoach Joe Lefebvre. Then I got Tim Lincecum and Scott McClain to sign my ticket stub. Then I got a hot dog and a small pepperoni pizza and once the game began, my evening of wandering was underway. I walked through the concourses and up to the upper deck. I couldn’t believe how much space there was. That’s the beauty of new ballparks, especially those that’re built on cheap land in the desert.

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The upper deck had huge patches of empty seats…

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…and there weren’t any security guards up there. It was ideal. No one harassed me or gave me weird looks as I explored the outer reaches of the stadium and went nuts with my camera.

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After a few innings, I went back down to the gap section in right field and checked in with Brad. The corner of the section closest to the foul pole provided a great view into the Giants’ bullpen. In the photo below, it might look like reliever Patrick Misch is trying to pull out the batting cage, but he was just stretching.

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Around the 7th inning stretch, I managed to sneak down to the fourth row behind the Giants’ dugout, and let me tell you, it was not easy. At Chase Field, you have the dugouts, then about 10 rows of seats, then an aisle that cuts through the seats, then another 20 or 30 rows that go right up to the concourse. Now get this…there’s an usher checking tickets at every staircase in the concourse AND there’s an

fourth_row_seat.jpgusher checking tickets at the bottom of every staircase in the aisle. So, to get down to either dugout, you have to sneak past two ushers, and unlike most ballparks where the ushers stop checking tickets after a few innings, the folks in Phoenix continue checking tickets late in the game. What the hell?! How dare they try to keep me out of sections where I don’t belong?! Anyway, I didn’t get any third-out balls at the end of innings, but I did get the infield warmup ball from coach Willie Upshaw before the bottom of the 9th. And that was it. Twelve balls. Not terrible.

The Giants won the game, 8-5. Randy Winn went 2-for-3 with a homer and four RBIs. Brandon Webb got a no-decision after giving up three runs in six innings, and of course the Diamondbacks fans were grumbling about how he wasn’t effective anymore. Scott Munter picked up the win in relief. And as for

hooray_for_autographs.jpgBarry Bonds, who was one-third of the reason why I flew to Phoenix…well, he didn’t play because of a strained toe, and I didn’t care. I’ve already caught one of his home runs, so whatever.

After the game, I collected a few dozen ticket stubs in the empty seats, and then my personal tour guides (a.k.a. Brad & Kevin) took me to the players’ parking lot where I got 11 autographs: Eric Byrnes, Alberto Callaspo, Tyler Walker, Bob Wickman, Eugenio Velez, Dan Giese, Rich Aurilia, Patrick Misch, Eliezer Alfonzo, Kevin Frandsen, and Jeff Salazar. Within one hour, I got more autographs than I’d collected all season.

STATS:

• 247 balls in 33 games this season = 7.48 balls per game.

• 23 autographs in 33 games this season = 0.7 autographs per game.

• 488 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 698 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 70 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 3,208 total balls

(FYI, this was not the only game I attended in Phoenix…)

The home stretch

All you baseball collectors out there…

Have you already achieved your snagging goals for the season? Are you almost there? We got about a dozen games to go, so this is your chance to make a late-season run.

Six months ago, my goal was to snag at least 200, and once I got there, I took aim at 3,200 total balls. Now that I’m just four balls away, I’m already hoping to reach 3,500 by the end of 2008. (I’m also planning–not merely hoping–to catch an A-Rod homer before the Yankees move into their new home. He better not opt out.)

9/12/07 at Citizens Bank Park

Jona and I left New York City at 1:30pm, arrived at Citizens Bank Park two hours later, and bought two tickets in right field so I could make an attempt at catching Todd Helton’s 300th career home run.

On the way to the Ashburn Alley gate, the ONE other fan we passed recognized me and said, “I was hoping I wasn’t gonna see you here today.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “There’ll be plenty of balls to go around.”

Jona and I were first in line…

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…and it paid off yet again. As soon as the gates opened, I sprinted inside and cut through the concourse into the left field seats.

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An usher was poking around, clearly looking for a ball. I checked the front row, but couldn’t find it until I overheard J.D. Durbin tell the usher, “It’s about five rows back.”

I bolted up a few steps, scanned all the seats, and spotted the ball sitting on the ground two sections over. The usher started walking up the steps toward it as I raced across, barely reaching the ball before he was about to see it.

I ran all over the place when the righties were up at bat…

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…but didn’t get a thing. I misplayed the only home run that I could’ve caught on a fly and got unlucky bounces on all the others that landed near me. Since the rest of the ballpark wasn’t going to open until 5:35pm, I had nothing to do but sit and wait while the lefties took their cuts.

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Jona stayed in one spot and guarded my backpack.

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When the Rockies started taking BP at 5:25pm, a couple of balls rolled onto the warning track, and since the pitchers were busy playing catch, no one walked over to retrieve them. It was a perfect opportunity for the glove trick. The first thing I did was climb out onto the flower bed, carefully balancing on the railings so I could actually see where the balls were.

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The ball in the distance was wedged in a small space under the padding of the outfield wall. The ball right in front of me was too far out for me to simply lower the glove on top of it, so I let out about 15 feet of string, then flung the glove at the ball and tried to knock it closer.

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After several failed attempts, I finally moved the ball to within three feet of the wall. That’s when Ryan Speier walked over and picked it up. Was he going to chuck it back toward the infield? Was he going to toss it to me? Ever since he’d given me his glove on 9/29/05 at Shea Stadium, I’d been hoping to get a ball from him so I could add him to my thrown balls list, and this was as good a chance as I was gonna get.

I asked him politely for the ball, and he under-handed it gently to me. Then he said, “Hey, you’re the glove guy!”

I couldn’t believe that he remembered me nearly two years after the fact.

“Yeah!” I said. “That’s me! How did you know?”

“I’ve been on your web site,” he said.

“How did you happen to find it?” I asked.

“One of my friends was doing a Google search and sent me the link.”

I wanted to ask him what his friend actually searched for, but I knew he needed to keep throwing, so I thanked him for the ball and the glove and headed to the right field seats.

I had a great opportunity to use the glove trick and was about to let it fly…

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…when Josh Newman hurried over and snatched the ball and fired it back to the infield.

Soon after, I spotted a ball sitting in the Phillies’ bullpen, right near the steps where the Rockies players had to walk down to get from their bullpen to the field. I was thinking of using the glove trick for that one as well when one of the Rockies catchers–I think it was Edwin Bellorin–started walking toward it. In the picture below, you can see me reaching over the wall and pointing at the ball.

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Five seconds (and a polite request in Spanish) later, it was mine.

Helton hit a few homers during BP, and I made a nice backhand/running catch for one of them. It was my fourth ball of the day, and Jona took a pic right after I snagged it…like, literally less than a second after. If you look closely, you can see a little bit of white showing through the pocket of my glove.

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Jeff Francis threw me my fifth ball of the day, and I got my sixth from 3rd base coach Mike Gallego at the Rockies’ dugout after BP.

Five of the six balls had “practice” stamped on the sweet spot.

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Balls with defects, however small, are designated for batting practice and sold to the teams at a discount. (Ten years ago, defective balls were stamped with “BLEM.”) In this case, two of the five defects were easy to spot: mis-stamped logos.

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The logo on the left was stamped so low that the word “commissioner” overlaps the stitches. The logo on the right (which, by the way, graces the Helton homer) was skewed and printed off-center.

Cory Sullivan threw me my seventh ball along the left field foul line before the national anthem, and then I got Garrett Atkins’ horrendously ugly autograph on my ticket stub.

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I spent the whole game running halfway across the stadium and back, playing Helton in straight-away right field and then going for third-out balls behind the Rockies’ dugout during the innings that he wasn’t likely to bat.

1ST INNING: Matt Holliday lined into a triple play, and I barely saw it because I was jockeying for position for Helton who was on deck.

2ND INNING: Helton led off with a double to left.

3RD INNING: Helton got thrown out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double. In the bottom of the frame, Ryan Howard lined out to Holliday for the third out. Holliday jogged in with the ball, and I got him to toss it to me at the dugout.

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4TH INNING: Helton hit a three-run double to put the Rockies on top, 9-0.

5TH INNING: Six up, six down.

6TH INNING: Ryan Howard, on the verge of breaking Adam Dunn’s single-season strikeout record, whiffed for the 179th time (in only 127 games).

7TH INNING: Helton flied out to center, and with the Rockies leading 10-0, he was replaced in the field by Joe Koshansky.

8TH INNING: Ninety percent of the fans had left. The remaining ten percent booed Jose Mesa.

9TH INNING: Instead of catching Helton’s 300th homer, I got to watch Koshansky strike out.

Final score: Rockies 12, Phillies 0.

After the game, I got my ninth and final ball of the day from home plate umpire Bill Welke as he walked off the field. Before he tossed it to me, he smiled and asked, “Did you yell at me tonight?”

“Not at all!” I said. “I thought you called a beautiful game.”

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Thanks to Jona for taking so many pics and running around with me all night and being such a good sport. Apologies for rushing through this entry. If it weren’t my 30th birthday, and if I didn’t have big plans that were about to start, I would’ve written a lot more.

STATS:

• 235 balls in 32 games this season = 7.34375 balls per game.

• 487 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 686 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 3,196 total balls

9/10/07 at Shea Stadium

I’m convinced that Jona is my good luck charm. The last time she went with me to a game, I snagged 14 balls including three foul balls during the game. Last night at Shea wasn’t much different (except there were three times as many fans). It seemed that everywhere I went, there were balls to be snagged. It was insane. Almost everything worked out in my favor, and here’s the story…

Normally, when Shea opens at 4:40pm, I make a beeline for the right field Loge, but yesterday I decided to check out the Field Level seats on my way up there, just in case there happened to be a ball sitting around. There was.

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Jona was already taking a ton of photographs, which was great…

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…but I realized she could help me out even more by heading up to the Loge and holding my corner spot for me.

She took pics from there as well.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that there was a ball sitting on the field next to the low wall, and neither did she. I did, however, notice that Carlos Gomez had a ball in his pocket, and I got him to throw it to me. He was about 100 feet away and put some velocity on it. Nothing major. He probably threw it about 50mph, and the ball made a nice crack as it met the pocket of my glove.

Since the first two rows to my left were blocked by other fans, I moved back to the fourth row. That way, if the batter sliced a foul ball into the seats, I’d be able to bolt straight across for it, rather than being forced to run up a few steps and THEN taking off. My plan nearly backfired when the batter pulled a grounder just foul of first base. I raced down the steps, hurdled the chain that separates the orange and blue seats, flew down the remaining steps, and lunged over the wall at the very last second, barely catching the ball in the tip of my glove.

Moments later, the batter (might’ve been Endy Chavez) crushed a deep fly ball toward Jona’s empty section. I wasn’t sure if she saw it coming, so I yelled her name. She looked up as the ball hit the facade of the Mezzanine behind her and bounced down to her row. Amazing. I spend an hour up there every day and never get any balls hit to me. She goes up there for 15 minutes and gets the first ball of her life.

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A minute after I ran up to the Loge to take the pic of her, I had to run back down. Sandy Alomar, Jr. had tossed a ball to some fans, but it had fallen short and landed on the sloped grassy area next to the DreamSeats. In the four-pic sequence below, you’ll see the ball sitting on the grass on the upper left. On the upper right, I’m just starting to lower my glove. On the lower left, everyone (including a security guard) is watching the glove trick in progress, and on the lower right, I’m raising the glove with the ball wedged snugly inside.

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Back up in the Loge, I slipped into the corner spot and got my fifth ball of the day from Alomar. His first throw fell short, but since the ball bounced back onto the field, he retrieved it and made a perfect throw on his second attempt. Five minutes later, I moved back to the main aisle so Alomar wouldn’t be able to see me from down below as I called out to Lastings Milledge who had just fielded a ball in right-center. Without hesitating, Milledge turned around and flung the ball 10 feet over my head. It hit the facade of the Mezzanine and dropped straight down to me. The ball was completely beat up.

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I was completely happy.

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Every time I snagged a ball, I scribbled down some quick notes about how I got it.

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I managed to get one more ball during the Mets’ portion of BP. Billy Wagner tossed it short onto the same grassy area below, so I ran down and used the glove trick, and when I reeled it in, I let the kid next to me reach into the glove and keep the ball. I gave him a high-five, and everyone (including the security guard) thanked me.

I ran back upstairs. The rest of the Mets’ BP was dead. But at least I had a nice view.

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Jona followed me to the Mets’ dugout, and when all the players and coaches came off the field, I got Sandy Alomar, Sr. to toss me my eighth ball of the day. (First time that I’d gotten balls from a father and son on the same day.) Here I am reaching out for it.

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Four of the eight balls were marked in various ways on the sweet spot.

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As soon as the last Met had gone inside, I put on my Braves cap and ran to left field. One of the nice things about older ballparks is that there are nooks and crannies and random places for balls to hide. Down each foul line at Shea, there’s a small triangular area tucked between a strange double wall. It’s not in play. It’s too small for seats or cameras. It’s the product of poor design, but I can’t call it useless because every now and then, a ball lands in there and stays there for whatever reason. Sometimes the fans don’t see it. Other times they can’t reach it. I don’t know. But when I ran out there yesterday and took a peek into the triangle, my eyes lit up. Here’s how it played out.

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Upper left: I’m heading to the triangle.
Upper right: Ohmygod, there’s a ball down there.
Lower left: If anything happens to me, tell my parents I love them.
Lower right: You can see the ball wedged under the outer wall.

The good thing about getting that ball was that none of the Braves had seen me get it. So I continued asking for balls…

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…and got Chuck James to toss me number 10.

After that, I made one of my greatest athletic plays EVER as a baseball collector. It may be hard for you to appreciate the greatness, especially if you’re not familiar with Shea, but here’s what happened. A righty on the Braves pulled a grounder down the line, and I could tell it was going to hook toward me. Just for the hell of it, I climbed onto the inner of the two walls and leaned over the second wall. In the span of three seconds, I kept scooting out and reaching down and balancing myself perfectly. Both of my feet were up in the air, well over my head, and no part of my body was even in the seats as I hung precariously over the edge. The ball zipped along the wall, and I reached all the way down to the field and scooped up it up, then used my strength to push off the field with my glove hand and muscle my way back over the two walls and into the seats. It was like a vertical, one-armed push-up, and I apologize for bragging, but seriously, if the cameras had been rolling, this play would’ve made SportsCenter. In my 18 years of collecting balls at Shea, I’d never seen anyone attempt to catch a grounder from that spot, nor had I even considered that it was physically possible. Let me further explain just how tough this was. Take another look at the pic up above where I’m leaning over the railing for the ball that was wedged under the wall in the triangular area. That’s how far down it is to the field, so what I had to do to catch this grounder was reach that far down AND reach over two walls. I have another sequence of pics that will help illustrate it. Here are four different shots of me labeling the balls at various points during BP.

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The pic right above these words (in which I’m wearing the Braves cap with the red brim) shows part of the double wall. It probably doesn’t look like a big deal, but take my word for it, and if you find yourself at Shea at any point this season or next, head out to that spot and consider what it would take to reach the field without tumbling over. (Of course, I can make a great play like that on a worthless BP grounder, but I can’t judge an A-Rod homer properly during a game. Go figure.)

I got my 12th ball from Manny Acosta and headed up the left field Loge. To my surprise, the corner spot was open, so Jona sat there while I hung back in the aisle. Moments later, a righty on the Braves hit a homer that flew over the aisle, landed in the seats, bounced away from two fans and dropped into the empty tunnel next to me.

That ball and the previous two were training balls. Made in China. Watch out.

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I went down to the corner spot and got Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell to toss me ball #14 (not a training ball), and I took a minute to catch up on my notes. (Yeah, I forgot to shave. So?!)

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The bad thing about Jona’s ever-present camera was that it captured a failed glove trick attempt. A ball landed in the gap behind the left field wall, and I tried to get it from 25 feet up. Normally, this wouldn’t’ve been a problem, but it was stuck against a metal bar, and there were various obstacles directly above it, so I couldn’t lower the glove straight down. I had to swing it from side to side and try to knock it out into an open area, and before I had a chance, the security guard from the bullpen walked into the gap and took the ball.

Here I am about to lower the glove.

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And here I am, mid-attempt, with several other fans looking on.

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So frustrating! But I’m not about to start complaining.

The pitching matchup was great. Tim Hudson versus Oliver Perez. Two guys topping out above 90mph. I knew there’d be some foul balls, so even though there were a bunch of empty seats early on, I stayed on my feet and waited in the tunnels behind home plate in the Loge.

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After a few near misses and several innings of running back and forth, Jona and I grabbed a pair of seats on the first base side. Martin Prado led off the top of the fifth and sent a foul ball flying back at me. I made a wild jump for it. The ball sailed five feet over my head. I bumped a pretzel vendor who happened to be walking past in the narrow aisle at that precise moment. The fans two rows behind me were not wearing gloves and not only bobbled the ball but somehow managed to tip it toward me. I reached out and caught it, then showed it to Mr. Pretzel whose grumpy demeanor turned to one of delight. I apologized. He said, “It’s all good. Just part of the game.” We shook hands and he continued on his way.

Three innings later, the left-handed Kelly Johnson pinch hit for Hudson, and I was already waiting in a tunnel on the third base side when he stepped up to the plate. Mets reliever Aaron Heilman was throwing well above 90mph, and Johnson swung late and blooped a foul ball in my direction. I knew right away that it was heading 10 feet over my head so I moved forward into the aisle and turned my back to the field in anticipation of a ricochet. Sure enough, the ball landed in the press box, rattled around for a second, and dropped down exactly to my spot. (I can’t judge an A-Rod homer, but damn I’m good at reading foul balls.) Everyone around me applauded and gave me high-fives and asked to see the ball and yelled “Nice catch!”

Nice catch? Really? The ball dropped 10 feet down right to me. What exactly was nice about it? If I were to toss a ball 10 feet up in the air and then catch it, would THAT be nice? I don’t get it, but anyway, here are the two foul balls which brought my total number of balls for the day to 16.

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The game itself was terrific. Jose Reyes reached on an infield single and scored in the first inning. David Wright hit a two-run homer in the sixth to put the Mets on top, 3-0. (He now has 28 homers to go with 31 stolen bases.) Brian McCann connected for a two-run shot in the seventh to make it a 3-2 game, and that’s how it ended thanks to a 1-2-3 ninth inning by Wagner.

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But wait. This isn’t all about me and my two foul balls. The girl can snag, too.

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In my last two games with Jona, I’ve snagged 30 balls including *FIVE* gamers. See what I mean? Good luck charm.

On the way to the subway, we heard the following exchange between two rowdy Mets fans…

FAN #1: “A-Rod can have his MVP! He’ll never win a championship!”

FAN #2: “F*ck A-Rod!!”

FAN #1: “Ken Caminiti won an MVP, and now he’s dead!!!”

Gotta love New York.

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STATS:

• 226 balls in 31 games this season = 7.29 balls per game.

• 486 consecutive games with at least one ball

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• 318 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

• 69 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 6 lifetime games with at least 16 balls

• 13 lifetime games with at least two game balls

• 11 game balls this season in 31 games = 1 game ball every 2.8 games.

• 4 different seasons with at least 10 game balls

• 109 lifetime game balls

• 71 lifetime game balls at Shea Stadium

• 3,187 total balls…moves me ahead of Cal Ripken, Jr. (3,184) and into 14th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Nap Lajoie (3,242).

(Remember the stat I created last year called Competition Factor? Well, I gave up on it, but I’d still like to point out that with 16 balls and a paid attendance of 48,557, I set a new record with 776,912. Thank you.)

9/7/07 at Shea Stadium

Every good Shea Stadium entry should start with the latest pics of Citi Field, so here’s one from the back of that ramp that extends out from the elevated subway station:

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And here’s another from closer up:

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On the left, you can see the support beams of what will eventually be the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. On the right, you can see the finished outer edge of the ballpark. And at the top center, there’s a plane taking off from LaGuardia Airport.

As for Shea, it was another tiresome day of begging thanks to a solid 90 minutes of BP during which there wasn’t a single ball hit into the Loge level. I got Orlando Hernandez to throw me his ball after warming up with Guillermo Mota, and 10 minutes later, I got “coach” Randy Niemann to toss one up after playing catch with Tom Glavine.

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After I caught the second ball, Jorge Sosa glared at me from right field and asked how many balls I was up to. To hell with him, I thought. If he’d been friendly about my collection (as many players are), I would’ve started a conversation and shared my exact number, but instead I cupped my ear and pretended that I hadn’t heard him. Thankfully, Carlos Beltran didn’t recognize me and soon threw me a ball from over 100 feet away.

As the Mets’ portion of BP was ending, I ran down to the Field Level and found an open spot in the front row behind their dugout. Shawn Green and Rickey Henderson tossed balls to the section on my right, and at the last second, Sandy Alomar Sr. flipped me a ball–my fourth of the day–with a funny marking sign_at_the_x.jpgthat I’d never seen before. You know how various forms and receipts have a little “X” at the bottom where you’re supposed to sign your name? Well, someone on the Mets had apparently made a joke about autograph collectors by drawing an “X” and a blank line on the sweet spot.

The Astros took BP for 50 minutes, and I got exactly ZERO baseballs during that time. Thanks, Shea Stadium. Thanks a lot for forcing me to stand in a worthless section near the foul pole while a dozen homers landed in the bleachers and nearly killed the little kids and their moronic parents who weren’t paying attention.

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After BP, I got a ball from Astros hitting coach Sean Berry at the 3rd base dugout, and it had the famous Houston “H” on it. The Astros are stingy. They mark their balls. That’s pretty much all there is to it. (For the complete collection of marked balls, click here.)

Even though the attendance at this game was over 51,000, there wasn’t anyone else at the dugout trying to get the ball that Mark Loretta and Ty Wigginton were using to warm up before the first pitch. Loretta ended up with it and without my saying a word, he looked up and made eye contact with me and lobbed it into my glove. And that, my friends, was my sixth and final ball of the day.

I was up in the Loge during the game, going for foul balls behind the plate as usual. In the top of the first inning, one flew 10 feet over my head, and in the bottom of the frame, another came right at me but dropped five feet short. That’s how it went all night. Many close calls. No luck. I jogged out to the teeny patch of left field seats when Craig Biggio came up with the bases loaded in the sixth inning. I figured that if a future Hall of Famer was going to hit a grand slam, it was my duty as a baseball collector to catch it. What did he do? He hit a foul ball right to the spot where I’d been waiting all game and then lined softly to right field where Lastings Milledge made a diving catch to preserve a 5-2 Mets lead.

Milledge hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth to extend the lead to 11-2. The Astros tacked on a run in the seventh, and that’s how it ended: Mets 11, Astros 3.

STATS:

• 210 balls in 30 games this season = 7 balls per game.

• 485 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 317 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

• 3,171 total balls…moves me ahead of Mike Tresh (3,169) and into a tie with Brian Roberts (3,171) for 1,416th place on the all-time at-bats list. Just kidding. I’ll stick to chasing Pete Rose for now…

Line drives hook.

Line drives hook. That’s all there is to it, and the A-Rod homer that I misplayed two nights ago was indeed a line drive. According to Hit Tracker, the ball left A-Rod’s bat at a speed of 113.3 miles per hour, took off toward my section at a 23.4-degree angle, traveled 396 feet, and never went higher than 59 feet. That’s not just a line drive. That’s a frozen rope, clothes line, pea, seed, missile, rocket, and aspirin tablet all rolled into one. I’m not making excuses for why I shouldn’t have caught it; I’m trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t feel as bad about not catching it. Another reason: it was only his 512th career homer, and really, in the grand scheme of things, who cares about anyone’s 512th career homer? It’s not like it was his 812th. THAT would’ve been something to cry about. A-Rod still has a long way to go, and if he doesn’t opt out of his contract at the end of this season, I’ll have many more chances in 2008 to chase his home runs.

Yesterday I felt like a living pile of dog poop, and I lashed out at the few people who were dumb enough to try to cheer me up. For future reference, don’t try to cheer me up. I have a right to indulge in self-pity. I’m also a perfectionist, and oh by the way, newsflash, I take my snagging kinda seriously. Get over it.

Today I’m feeling better. Time does that.

It also helps to be an optimist.

And finally, for the record, I’d like to say that aside from all this A-Rod drama, my mom and I had a great time together at the game.

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9/5/07 at Yankee Stadium

The day started out great. I snagged six balls during batting practice, and my mom was there to witness it. Chien-Ming Wang tossed me the first. Edwar Ramirez tossed me the second (my 200th ball of the season). The third was a Hideki Matsui homer on the fly. The fourth was tossed by Willie Bloomquist. The fifth was flipped up by Ryan Feierabend, and the sixth was a homer by Ichiro which hit the Loge facade and dropped down. Ready for the bad news? I blew my chance to catch a GAME HOME RUN by A-Rod—his second homer of an eight-run seventh inning which made Joba Chamberlain a winner for the first time in the Major Leagues. But anyway, I was in the perfect spot in the wide aisle in straight-away left field when A-Rod crushed a 2-1 pitch from Brandon Morrow. Deep line drive. I knew right away it had the perfect distance. The ball was heading about 15 feet to my left, or so it seemed, so I sprinted to the spot where I thought it was going to land, and when I looked up, the ball was hooking back to my right, almost exactly to my original spot. It was too late. The ball flew into the seats, just over the main aisle at the perfect height for me to have made an easy reaching catch. The fans dropped it, of course, and I watched helplessly as a major scrum ensued. This is easily the biggest blunder in my 18 years as a baseball collector. Words can not describe how bad I feel. The End.

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