April 2008

4/29/08 at Shea Stadium

There’s one spot outside Shea Stadium that provides a partial view of the field: the elevated subway station of the #7 train. When I reached this station yesterday, I took a peek at the field to make sure the screens were set up for batting practice. Two hours earlier, it had been raining and I had no idea what to expect. This is what I saw:

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That’s right. No screens.

It was 3:30pm. I hadn’t yet bought a ticket. Shea wasn’t going to open for another 70 minutes, so I stood there and waited. My plan was simple. If I saw the grounds crew set up the screens before 4:40pm, I’d exit the subway, run over to the ticket windows, buy a cheap seat, and head inside. Otherwise I’d go home.

Finally, after nearly 40 minutes, I saw two groundskeepers slowly roll a big screen into place in shallow center field. I ran out and bought a ticket, but feared that BP might start late, and sure enough, it did. When I reached the seats, no one was hitting. Everything was set up, but the only action (if you can call it that) was half the team jogging in shallow right field:

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Fabulous.

Five minutes later, a few guys started throwing…

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…and 10 minutes after that, Angel Pagan (standing in the distance to the right of the screen) threw me my first ball of the day.

Because Shea is so lame, I only managed to catch one other ball during the entire Mets’ portion of BP, and it was a ball I shouldn’t even have gotten. Let me explain…

My girlfriend Jona ended up making a VERY last-minute plan to join me for this game. She arrived at the stadium at around 5:10pm and found me in the right field Loge. After all the Mets pitchers made it clear that they were going to ignore me for the duration of BP, I asked Jona to ask for a ball, and of course the players immediately looked up at her. Before long, Pedro Feliciano (who throws approximately one ball into the seats per season) lobbed one in commemorative1.jpgher direction. As the ball approached, a 300-pound guy wearing tight sweatpants (who had just given me a speech about how “real men don’t wear gloves”) tried to reach in front of us and grab it, so I reached in front of HIM, and thanks to the extra few inches that my glove provided, I was able to make the catch. Then, to make Feliciano happy, I made a whole production of handing the ball to Jona, and as soon as he looked away, she handed it back. It had a commemorative logo, and for an instant Shea felt a little less lame.

Hitting coach Howard Johnson tossed me my third ball of the day at the 1st base dugout after the Mets finished BP, and while the Pirates were taking their cuts, I snagged three more balls with the glove trick. The first was about five feet out from the wall along the left field foul line, so I ran down from the Loge and slipped into the corner spot and began by flinging my glove out to knock the ball closer:

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Thankfully, the on-field security guard was about 80 feet away and had his back turned, but even if he’d seen me going for it, he might not have said anything. I hate to admit it, but Shea’s employees HAVE become nicer in recent years when it comes to the glove trick. Sometimes they’ll stop me from using it when I’m going for a ball that’s on the field, but usually they have no problem when I’m going for a ball that’s trapped in a dead area.

damaso_marte.jpgIn the four-part pic below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise)…

1) I’m carefully lowering my glove from the Loge Level so that it fits between the metal beams behind the advertising board.

2) Pirates reliever Damaso Marte watches the glove drop over the ball.

3) Marte crouches to get a better view.

4) Marte inspects the glove as I pull it up with the ball tucked snugly inside.

Check it out:

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There was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, standing nearby as I reeled i
n the ball, and I was thinking of giving it to him until he said of my glove trick: “That’s so gay!”

bat_imprint.jpgWhen I took a good look at the ball, I realized I wouldn’t have given it to him anyway (I would’ve given him a different ball) because there was something special on it: a bat imprint. I’d only snagged a handful of these imprinted balls in my life, and you can see four of them here on my web site. The imprint on the ball I snagged yesterday (seen here on the right) was the same as the ball on the lower right (at the link I provided above), which I recognized as the TPX logo. TPX is a type of bat made by Louisville Slugger. For some reason I can’t find this logo on a bat, but here it is on a golf club.

As for the third ball I snagged with the glove trick, it was sitting on that sloped grassy area in front of the DreamSeats and I went for it as an usher looked on:

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Once I had the ball in my bare hand, I turned around and shouted loud for the entire section to hear: “This ball is for the first kid I see who has a glove and HASN’T already gotten a ball today!” Incredibly, there wasn’t ONE kid anywhere near me who qualified, so I gave it to an usher instead–not the usher in the pic above, but rather a nice old man in the Loge who’d asked me for a ball once before so he could give one to his grandson.

I stayed in the Loge for the entire game and didn’t come close to a single foul ball, but at least the game itself was entertaining. The Mets won, 5-4, on a bases-loaded, walk-off single by commemorative2.jpgDavid Wright in the bottom of the 11th, after which I got another (very rubbed up but otherwise pristine) commemorative ball from home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.

STATS:

? 7 balls at this game

? 94 balls in 9 games this season = 10.4 balls per game.

? 505 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 323 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

? 3,371 total balls

10,000th comment (and other stuff)

Every now and then, I like to look at my blog stats: number of entries, number of words, number of photos, number of hits, etc.

Well, I just discovered that there have been exactly 10,110 comments since I posted my very first entry way back in April of 2005…so I looked at the most recent comments and counted backwards to 110 and figured out who left No. 10,000. Want to know who it was? Keep reading and I’ll tell you toward the end of this entry. (Ohhh, the suspense!)

In other (media-related) news…

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1) I just received a copy of the April issue of “D’backs Insider,” the official magazine of the Arizona Diamondbacks, which contains a full-page Q&A interview about my book and baseball collection.

2) I did another Q&A interview this month with a guy named Michael Solem who writes a Nationals blog for the Washington Post. The piece just came out earlier today, and here’s the link. Keep in mind that I did this interview by phone (as opposed to the D-backs interview which I sent in via email) so my answers are not especially eloquent.

3) On Monday, May 5th at 3:35pm ET, I’m going to be interviewed live for about 15 minutes on “The Jay Thomas Show” on Sirius Satellite Radio. If you don’t have Sirius…oh well.

And now, for the presentation of the GCA (Golden Commenter Award)…
The 10,000th comment was posted on April 17th, 2008 by a young man who goes by the name of “twinslove.” Here is that fateful comment (which, coincidentally, discusses other five-digit numbers):

Unfortunately, the Nationals are still failing to draw fans despite their brand new park. After failing to sell out the first game in the new park (the listed attendance on the Nationals website is 39,389; capacity over 41,000) they managed to draw 20,487 which is the lowest attendance ever for the second game in a new venue. Since opening night, they are averaging 26,351 which is 64% of capacity. Being a half season ticket holder, I am definitely disappointed in the turnouts.
Washington needs a title badly. The last time a professional team won was the 1991 Redskins.
Go Nats

BTW, the 9,999th comment was posted by “puckcollector,” and the 10,001st came from Alex.

I’ll be at Yankee Stadium tomorrow if the weather improves in time for BP…

4/24/08 at Champion Stadium

I brought a secret weapon for my third and final game at Disney, and to make myself stand out even more, I bought an obnoxious/eye-catching shirt on my way to Champion Stadium. Are you ready for this? Hang on tight. Here goes:

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Yes, I had the biggest baseball glove that anyone had ever seen. Don’t ask me where I got it or how much it cost. I have no idea. All I can tell you is that a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) sent it as a surprise house-warming gift when I moved last month.

There weren’t any other fans around when I pulled out the glove to take this pic, but several stadium employees ended up walking by and asking a bunch of questions: “Where’d you get that thing?” (I don’t know. A friend sent it to me.) “How much did it cost?” (Unlike you, I was polite enough not to ask.) “Is that Shaquille O’Neal’s glove?” (Actually it’s Verne Troyer’s chair.) “You wouldn’t happen to be compensating for something, would you?” (Ask my girlfriend.) “Is that real leather?” (I think so.) “Can you actually catch with that?” (Probably not.)

And so on. It was fun to get all that attention, and I was hoping that the players on the Rays and Blue Jays would notice me as well.

brandon.jpgShortly before the stadium opened, a 20-something-year-old guy walked over and introduced himself. His name was Brandon. He’d been reading this blog for a while and knew I was gonna be at this game. He’d written to me on MySpace a week earlier (here’s HIS profile) to say he’d be there too, but because I’m a slacker when it comes to that site, I hadn’t gotten the message…so he summarized it. Basically, he’s the photographer for a band called The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. They’re on tour. He’s traveling around with them. They were playing a few shows at Disney. He had an off day and was spending it here, and he offered to follow me around and take a ton of photos.

He didn’t miss a thing. He even got me going through the bag check:

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Thankfully, unlike John Adams, the fan in Cleveland who brings a drum into the stadium, I didn’t have to buy an extra ticket for my oversized item.

The left field berm was dead as usual, and I don’t understand why. For the first 20 minutes, there was not ONE home run that landed there, and as I mentioned before, the slope of the hill and the height of the outfield wall made it impossible to see the warning track. At any regular major league stadium, fans would’ve been asking for the balls in the pic below, but here at Disney we were oblivious:

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I didn’t use the big glove at first. I decided to snag like a normal person while the berm was still reasonably empty, and before long, I had a chance to catch one. Someone on the Rays hit a deep fly ball, and one of the pitchers (Edwin Jackson, I think) ran back and made the catch and disappeared from sight. In the four-part pic below, you can see exactly what happened next. Starting from the upper left and then going clockwise, we’re all reaching up with our gloves in anticipation of the ball being tossed over. Then, when the ball flies up in the air, we all jockey for position. On the lower left, I’m jumping and reaching unsuccessfully for the ball, and on the lower right, I’m landing and feeling both frustrated AND good about myself. Check out the pics, and then I’ll explain why…

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Okay, see the little kid wearing blue who’s standing on my right? I knew he was standing there before the ball was tossed, so when it started sailing to my right…well, rather than moving in that direction and potentially bumping into him while getting under the ball, I sacrificed my own chance of catching it in order to prevent him from getting hurt. In other words, I didn’t move laterally. Instead I jumped straight up and reached to my right, and as it turned out, the ball missed my glove by six inches, but NO ONE GOT HURT. I can’t stress enough how important it is to respect the safety of the fans around you, especially when there are little kids involved. One of the reasons why I hate Yankee Stadium so much is that the “grown-ups” there are truly out of control. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been knocked down while reaching for balls just like this.

There still weren’t any homers being hit, and the berm was getting uncomfortably crowded, so I finally broke out the big glove:

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I got a few laughs from the Blue Jays pitchers in the left field corner, but I realized this wasn’t the best time or place to harass them; they were just starting to throw (and therefore needed their baseballs), and the Rays were still hitting (so even if a ball had been hit to the Jays, it wouldn’t have been theirs to give away), so I ran around the stadium and found a spot in the right field corner. Dan Wheeler, a former Mets reliever who always used to talk to me at Shea Stadium, was out there and immediately recognized me.

“What’s up!” I yelled, holding the big glove up in the air.

“Can you fit all your balls in there?” he asked.

“Not quite,” I told him as another player (not sure who) walked over and asked me to toss the glove down.

“Let me try out that glove,” said the other player, “and I’ll give you a ball.”

I didn’t have to think twice about it. I tossed the glove over the railing (and briefly got scolded by a security guard until I informed him that one of the players ASKED me to do it), and the player with the glove headed back to straight-away right field and started posing:

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Wheeler ended up being the one to reward me with a baseball, and Brandon took a pic JUST as I was about to catch it:

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The snagging was underway, and life was good. (If you look closely at the pic below, you can see the mark on my nose where I was hit with a ball two days earlier.)

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The Rays player (can anyone tell who it is?) tried fielding a few batted balls and then flung the glove back up to me:

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I reached out and made another clean catch:

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Shortly before the Rays’ wrapped up their portion of batting practice, I told Wheeler that if he got another ball and put it on the warning track below me, I’d show his teammates the glove trick and then give the ball to a kid of his choice.

Less than 10 seconds later, there was ball in place, but unfortunately, as soon as I started setting up my glove, the players had to run off the field and make way for the Blue Jays.

“Make sure you give it to a kid!” shouted Wheeler as he ran off.

“Don’t worry, I will!” I yelled and we both waved goodbye.

For some reason, my string was more tangled than ever before, but the trick still worked, and I reeled in the ball with ease:

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There were a few kids to my right who asked for the ball, but they weren’t wearing gloves so I kept scanning the section. (I never give balls to kids without gloves. When I was a kid, I ALWAYS brought my glove to games and I remember how badly I wanted a ball. Even when I was starving and got my first hot dog of the day, I’d wait until the third out to eat it, and in the meantime, I was often standing on my chair and holding my glove high over my head and shrieking, “Hit it heeeeeeeeere!!!” so whenever I see a kid without a glove, it tells me he [or she] doesn’t care THAT much about getting a ball, and when I see a kid who IS wearing a glove, it reminds me of myself.) The smallest kid around happened to be wearing a glove, and even though he was wearing a Braves cap, I called him over and started walking down the steps. The kid started climbing over the benches, and his father was smiling in the background. It was a pretty cute scene:

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I put on my Blue Jays cap and ran back to the berm. Not only was it still dead out there, but now I had to battle the sun:

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Eventually there was a little action, but it just wasn’t happening for me. Jason Frasor threw me a ball and missed. Then another ball was tossed over my head, and I raced up the hill for it…

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…and lost:

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It didn’t help that I was carrying my backpack and the big glove, so I put them both down just behind the outfield wall, but that didn’t help either as I lost another race:

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It was time once again for some Big Glove Love:

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All the Blue Jays pitchers immediately spotted me and started cracking up. B.J. Ryan tossed me a ball (my third of the day) which I managed to catch IN the glove. This was quite an accomplishment. The glove was so big and heavy that it was impossible to close all the way. It was also a bit stiff, as new gloves tend to be. How am I supposed to break it in? Rubber-band it around a basketball and stick it under my mattress?

Moments later, Jeremy Accardo called me over to the foul pole, and when I got there, he said he wanted to use the big glove for a few minutes, and he offered me a ball in exchange. I couldn’t believe it. He’d already thrown me a ball each of the last two days, and now here he was asking ME for something and handing me another ball. Incredible.

We made the trade…

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…and he took the glove into left field:

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I was wearing my regular glove when he ran over and threw the big one back to me:

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I made two jumping catches in the next ten minutes. The first was a ball that landed in the fenced-off gap next to the berm and was tossed up by a random employee. The second was a ball that rolled onto the warning track along the left field foul line and was thrown by Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos. Then I snagged two more balls from the bullpen with my glove trick, and I want to thank Jim from St. Louis (the guy wearing the Cardinals cap in the pics below) for pointing out the first one. It was about eight feet out from the wall, so before I rigged the glove with the Sharpie, I flung it out and tried to knock the ball back toward me:

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It took longer than it should have…

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…and I was almost certain that stadium security would appear and force me to stop, but they didn’t, and before long, I’d moved the ball close enough to lower the glove straight down over it:

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The second bullpen ball (number eight on the day) was much easier. It was already sitting right next to the wall, and I had it in my glove within seconds:

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Everyone stared as I headed to the dugout toward the end of BP…

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…and as soon as I got there, the on-field photographer swung his camera around and started taking pics of me instead of the players:

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My one complaint about Brandon is that he didn’t tell me that the tag was sticking out of my hat, but I suppose he was just doing his job. As a photographer, he’s probably just supposed to document history, not change it.

I ended up getting my ninth ball tossed at the dugout by some random kid who happened to be standing on the warning track. (Hey, it counts.)

I didn’t have any luck during pre-game throwing along the left field foul line…

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…so I hurried over to the Rays’ dugout:

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Did you notice the Rays smiling at me? Here’s a close-up of the pic above:

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I didn’t think I was going to get a ball there because Carlos Pena, the Rays 1st baseman, was one of the last two guys throwing. First basemen rarely toss their pre-game warm-up balls into the crowd because they use them again when they actually take the field…but Pena couldn’t resist. If you look closely at the pic below, you can see him smiling too as he walked toward the dugout:

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Look closely again at the following two pics and you can see the ball in mid-air. Here it is in front of the police officer’s right elbow…

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…and here it is about to enter my glove. There are four holes in the pocket, and you can see the bottom half of the ball through the upper right hole:

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I should’ve used two hands to squeeze the glove shut, but I didn’t and the ball popped out, so I had to grab it with my bare hand. Jonny Gomes (the player standing on the left, watching intently) was disappointed when I bobbled it and made me give the ball back to him so he could toss it again. He probably thought I was a complete klutz, and I don’t blame him because I *did* look shaky with the big glove, but I doubt he had any idea just how hard it was to use. Anyway, he’s not even a good fielder with a normal glove, so whatever, and for the record, I got the ball to stay in the glove when he tossed it back to me.

I ran into the Rays’ cheerleaders and let them be in a photo with me…

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…and then I walked with Brandon to the open-air concourse along the right field foul line. I’d snagged a foul ball there during each of the previous two games, but it was dead for Game Three. It was so dead that I went outside the stadium for half-an inning, hoping that the hard-throwing Dustin McGowan would induce a few monstrous foul balls, but no. Still, I have two things to say about being out there:

1) Big thanks to Andrew (who also reads this blog) for letting me go out there. He was about to head outside as well but then generously changed his ball-snagging plan and let me go outside by myself.

2) Since I couldn’t see the batters or hear the PA announcer, and since the game wasn’t on the radio, I had no way of following the action, so Brandon stayed on the inside and called my cell phone and gave me the play-by-play. (“Here’s the pitch…NOW.”) Even though nothing came over, it was fun just to have an accomplice and make an attempt. And by the way, this was my view as I stood outside the stadium, looking up at the sky:

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The game itself was fine. Nothing spectacular. (The highlight was hanging out with Brandon.) The Rays won, 5-3, to sweep the series and improve to 6-0 all time at Champion Stadium. McGowan took the loss. Andy Sonnanstine made a quality start to pick up the win. Carl Crawford went 3-for-5 with two stolen bases. Evan Longoria was 2-for-2 with a double and a triple. Troy Percival worked a scoreless ninth to earn his 328th career save, and that was pretty much it.

I’ll leave you with a few more pics that might be of interest. First, here’s a shot that Brandon took mid-game from the first base side…just a nice look at the stadium:

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Here’s a pic I took of a table in the concourse that was loaded with free stuff, including magnetic schedules (on the far left) and vouchers for free tickets at Tropicana Field (on the right). If there’s anyone reading this who wants some vouchers, leave a comment or send me an email. I took a whole bunch of them to give away. (Do they give these out AT the Trop?) It’s nice of the Rays to give them out, but it’s also sad that a major league team literally can’t give away free tickets. FYI, you have to redeem them at the Rays’ box office, and they’re only good for weekend games in May and June.

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Here’s a pic of the nine balls I kept:

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I didn’t get anything after the game except a pack of sunflower seeds at the Blue Jays’
sunflower_seeds.jpgdugout and a free ride back to my hotel from a father/son snagging duo named Paul and Michael. So…another thanks to them. I can’t believe how many people I met on this trip who read this blog…Leigh from San Diego (aka “padreleigh”), Paul and Michael, Andrew, Jim from St. Louis, and Brandon. Am I forgetting anyone? Hope not.

I’m not sure when my next game will be. I might go to Shea on Monday. (Anyone else planning to be there?) I’ll probably (unfortunately) be going to Yankee Stadium Tuesday through Friday as long as the weather’s nice. I might head up to Boston for Manny’s 500th home run. I might go to Shea for Griffey’s 600th. I’m now officially planning to go to Coors Field this season (I have a few friends out there now, and there’s also a Denver-based writer who wants to do a story on me). I’ve also been offered a free trip to Wrigley Field. And has anyone heard about the Mets and Marlins playing in Puerto Rico later this season? Details, please! I might need to go and raise my stadium total to 45. Oh, and another random thing…I haven’t had time to answer comments for the last few days, but I’m planning to catch up very soon, so if you’re waiting for a response, keep an eye on my recent entries.

Last thing, I promise…

STATS:

? 10 balls at this game

? 78 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

? 87 balls in 8 games this season = 10.875 balls per game.

? 504 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 112 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

? 801 lifetime balls outside of New York (The ball from the kid at the dugout was No. 800.)

? 3,364 total balls

4/22/08 at Champion Stadium

Major League Baseball at a Spring Training ballpark…really, does it get any better than that?

In case you haven’t heard (or if you’re reading this ten years from now and don’t remember), the Tampa Bay Rays moved three of their regular season home games from ugly/indoor Tropicana Field to beautiful/outdoor Champion Stadium, located in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. The stadium holds about 9,500 people. It normally functions as the Spring Training home of the Atlanta Braves. I don’t count Spring Training balls in my collection, but I decided that if the games and stats count in the Major Leagues, then the balls should count for me.

This was my first of the three games. The first pitch was scheduled for 7:10pm, so naturally I arrived at the complex shortly after 12pm:

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I wanted to scope out the place and hopefully find a few balls lying around in the bushes outside the stadium. The Rays hadn’t played the day before, so there was a chance they’d been there, perhaps scoping out the place themselves. Who knows if they did? I didn’t find anything, but I got a good look at the outside of the ballpark…

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…and when I walked up the stairs way in the background in the photo above, I noticed that one of the gates was wide open. What to do…hmm. I figured that since I already had a ticket for the game, I couldn’t be arrested for sneaking in. Yes…I’d just play dumb and say I was from New York…no, bad idea…I don’t know. I just had to wander inside and take a peek…just a little peek at the concourse:

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But then I noticed a sign for the lawn seating…

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and decided it wouldn’t cause any harm if I took a little peek at that as well:

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That’s when a group of stadium employees walked over…and smiled at me…and asked if I wanted them to take my picture. Seriously?! I felt pretty safe after that, so I kept wandering and I inspected the grassy area (aka the “berm”) from several angles:

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I couldn’t WAIT for batting practice to start, but I was also afraid that it’d get pretty crowded out there. Anyway, there was still more wandering to do, so I checked out the upper deck…

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…and the view from the inner concourse on the lower level…

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…and the drool-inducing, open-air concourse along the right field foul line:

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I didn’t know where else to go at that point. I considered running onto the field and making naked snow-angels at shortstop (I guess those would’ve been “dirt-angels”) but thought that might be pushing it, so I just grabbed some bench and watched the b
atting cage get towed into place:

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Then the groundskeepers started watering the infield dirt and players started walking in. Can you identify the two guys in the pic below?

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I could’ve easily run down to the front row and asked them to sign, but it didn’t seem right. I wasn’t even supposed to be there, and since I’m more interested in getting baseballs than autographs, I decided it wasn’t worth it. I was just thrilled to BE there:

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I voluntarily walked out of the stadium at around 2pm, and soon after that, I ran into a guy from San Diego named Leigh (aka “padreleigh” for those of you who read the comments) who had told me he was gonna be there. We’d been emailing for months. He was actually the one who first informed me that the tickets for this series were on sale…and this was the first time we’d ever met in person. Very cool guy. It was great to have an instant new friend.

The stadium didn’t open until 5pm (ugh!), by which time there was a disappointingly long line of fans waiting to get in:

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At least I was one of the first fans to run inside and THE first fan to reach the berm. Look what was waiting for me:

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Less than ten seconds later, B.J. Upton smoked a line drive over the left field wall and I picked up that ball too. Not a bad way to start, but then the berm started filling up.

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Before long the berm was packed, and to make matters worse, the Rays and Jays weren’t hitting much over the wall, so I had to use other methods…like the glove trick. I used it to pluck a ball out of the bullpen near the foul pole, and as soon as I held it up to show Leigh (who was at the far end of the berm), a security guard marched down the hill and said, “Give me the ball.”

I had no choice but to hand it over.

“Thank you,” he said condescendingly before flinging it back into the bullpen.

I wasn’t sure whether or not to count this ball in my collection, so I consulted Leigh (who’s snagged about 700 lifetime balls). He felt I should absolutely count it. “You had it in your hand,” he said, then added that when you go fishing and catch a fish and throw it back, it still counts. So I counted it.

Back in my early days of ball-snagging, I only counted balls that I actually brought home, but once I started giving away balls on a regular basis, I decided that the number of “balls snagged” was more important than “balls owned.”

I got my fourth ball of the day when some pitcher lobbed one high into the air toward a bunch of us on the berm. We all jostled and jumped and booted it. The ball plopped onto the grass beside me and I snatched it. Pretty simple. I have no idea who the pitcher was because the left field wall was a foot too high. This was my view when I stood directly behind it:

view_behind_left_field_wall.jpg

Not only was it a challenge to identify the players, but it was just as hard to get their attention when they walked onto the warning track. I got my fifth ball thrown from a distance by Scott Downs–that was easy–but then when Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg walked over to retrieve a loose ball, I had to jump up and put my right arm on the top of the wall and support all my weight with it while keeping my head above the top of the wall and reaching out with my glove hand. The padding sagged and the tips of the chain-link fence dug into my forearm. Not fun. But at least I got the ball, and thankfully security didn’t confiscate it although a different guard walked down the hill and told me not to climb up there. (Well then don’t build a seven-foot wall that fans are obviously gonna want to see over, geniuses.)

I was getting baseballs…that was good…but I still hadn’t caught a home run. It was tough. The berm was steep and the
grass was slick, and there were fans all over the place, including a bunch of guys my age/size with gloves. At one point, when a homer was coming right toward me and I tried to take a step back, someone pushed me forward. And whenever a ball was heading for the berm 20 or 30 or 50 feet away, there were already people right there. It was not a good situation and things took a sudden turn for the worse toward the end of BP. Another home run was coming right toward me, and as I reached up to make what should’ve been an easy catch, some jerk cut in front of me and stuck up his glove at the last second and deflected the ball right into my nose. CRACK!!! I heard the scary sound of the ball meeting my face, and I nearly fell over from the sheer surprise of getting hit. Blood started dripping out of my right nostril, and everyone gathered around. My first thought was, “[Expletive deleted], I hope it’s not broken.” My second thought was, “This is really [expletive deleted] embarrassing. People are going to think that *I* missed the [expletive deleted] ball and let it hit me. My third thought was, “[Expletive deleted] this, I don’t want to miss any BP,” so when the same guard who’d scolded me walked back down the hill and asked me if I wanted to go to the first aid room, I wiped the blood away and said I’d wait until the end of batting practice.

Jeremy Accardo saw what had happened and got my attention and threw me a ball (my 7th of the day), and as soon as I caught it, some guy behind me started claiming that the ball had been intended for a little girl with a glove directly behind me (soooooo not true) but whatever. She hadn’t yet gotten a ball, so I gave it to her.

zack_ouchy_nose.jpgBP ended moments later. Leigh caught up with me as I was escorted to the first-aid room and told me my nose was already looking bad. (Thanks.) I got some gauze and held it against my nose until the bleeding stopped, then got a cold pack and held it there for the next 20 minutes, during which I probably cursed about 813 times. I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and my nose did indeed look bad. (I had been told that in addition to possibly having a broken nose, I might wake up the next day with two black eyes. Thankfully that didn’t happen; the dark circles I now have under my eyes are merely the result of exhaustion.)

I got a buffalo chicken sandwich (with ranch dressing). My nose hurt when I chewed. I stopped eating and realized it still hurt, so I kept eating.

I finished the sandwich just before the singing of the national anthems and went down to the Rays’ dugout on the 1st base side. A few guys were playing catch. Jason Bartlett ended up with the ball just in front of me, and when I asked him for it, he scanned the entire front row for someone younger/cuter to toss it to, then reluctantly flipped it to me after he failed to spot a more deserving recipient. Meanwhile, the competition for a warm-up ball on the other side of the stadium was truly insane:

pregame_throwing_berm.jpg

Okay, so there were only 8,269 fans at this game, but since the stadium only holds 9,500…well, let’s do the math. It means the stadium was 87 percent full. If Shea Stadium were 87 percent full, there’d be about 48,000 fans, and that’s what this felt like. The point is…it wasn’t nearly as easy to snag at Champion Stadium as I’d hoped. In fact, it was harder to snag here than at most major league stadiums which are huge and have nooks and crannies and which provide a variety of opportunities. This place? As far as BP was concerned, it was boring and crowded and challenging.

The game, however, was much better. I went back to the concourse on the right field side:

heavenly_concourse_during_game.jpg

David Eckstein was first batter of the game, and on the fifth pitch from Rays starter James Shields, the little man sliced a foul ball about 30 feet to my left. I raced over, got right behind eckstein_foul_ball.jpgit, watched it skip off the bare hands of a man just in front of me, and bounce into my waiting glove. Mwahaha. I suddenly felt a whole lot better about life, although I was bummed that the ball was not commemorative. Wouldn’t it have been cool if there was a little Mickey Mouse in place of the standard MLB logo? Oh well.

It might’ve happened in the bottom of the first inning, or maybe it was the top of the second, but regardless, some right-handed batter hit a foul ball that cleared the grandstand behind the plate and flew out of the stadium. As soon as I saw this, I headed out there myself (thumbs-up to Disney and the Rays for having a re-entry policy) and tried going for foul balls, but it wasn’t meant to be. First of all, the game wasn’t on the radio so I couldn’t follow the action on the walkman (yes, a walkman, don’t laugh too hard) that I’d borrowed from someone who shall remain nameless, and on top of that, I couldn’t even hear the public address announcer saying the hitters’ names, so I didn’t know if there were righties or lefties up at bat. I got bored really fast and headed back inside to the right field concourse.

Leigh wandered over (from his spot on the berm) and hung out with me for an inning, and we re-enacted my injury:

zack_leigh_reenact_injury.jpg

That, unfortunately, was the extent of the action for the rest of the game. I couldn’t believe how few foul balls were hit to the right side, but at least I broke double digits by getting a ball at the Rays’ dugout after the game. (Oh yeah, the Rays won, 6-4.) I think it was tossed by J.P. Howell but I’m not sure.

I’ll be heading back to Champion Stadium in about an hour…

STATS:

• 10 balls at this game

• 77 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 70 balls in 6 games this season = 11.7 balls per game.

• 502 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 784 lifetime balls outside of New York

• 22 lifetime game balls outside of New York (not counting game-used balls that are thrown into the seats)

• 113 lifetime game balls

• 4 lifetime trips to the First Aid room

• 44 major league stadiums with at least one ball

• 17 stadiums with at least one game ball

• 3,347 total balls

Off to Orlando…

It’s 4:21pm. My flight from NYC to Orlando leaves in two and a half hours. First of three games between the Jays and Rays at Champion Stadium is tomorrow. I’ll be blogging about it as soon as I find some free time…

Updated books

updated_cover.jpgMy publisher just sent me a few updated copies of my book, Watching Baseball Smarter. Not sure when they’ll actually hit stores or be available on Amazon, but at least they now exist. (Back in December, in case you missed it, I posted an entry about the update itself and all the work that was involved.) Check out the new cover…

In other news:

1) No games for me this week despite the fact that both the Mets and Yankees were playing at home in perfect weather. The Red Sox series was sold out; I wanted no part of it. And as for the Nationals series across town, I just didn’t feel like going. Shea is lame. That’s pretty much what it came down to.

2) In five days, I’ll be flying to Orlando for three games at Disney World, so get ready for a few more monster blog entries.

3) Several months ago, a writer with the LA Times Magazine got in touch and asked a bunch of questions about snagging baseballs at Dodger and Angel Stadiums. (Remember?) Well, the piece finally came out, and of course nearly all the info I provided got cut, but that’s just how it goes with these things, and actually, that’s a big part of what motivated me to write my first book. Anyway, if you want to see the piece, click here.

4/10/08 at Nationals Park!

I wasn’t planning to attend this game. I wasn’t even planning to visit
Nationals Park for a few months, but when I woke up on April
10th and…

a) realized I was free all day
b) found out that my parents weren’t using their car
c) learned it was supposed to be warm and sunny in Washington, D.C.
d) saw that the previous night’s attendance was only 23,340

…I knew I had to be there. My girlfriend Jona was also free, so we went together–not exactly the most romantic getaway, but hey, we did end up spending a lot of quality time together in the car.

zack_outside_nationals_park.jpgThe 231-mile drive from New York City was relatively painless, and the stadium was easy to find, but the parking situation was a nightmare. Yes, there were parking lots all over the place, including several that were tucked into the stadium itself, but they all required permits. It literally took 45 minutes to find the ONE garage that would take us, by which time it was too late for me to wander and take pics. Very disappointing. It’s one of my rituals whenever I’m at a stadium for the first time, but it wasn’t meant to be at Nationals Park. Jona and I pretty much had to buy our tickets and get right on line at the center field gate, but at least we were able to buy tickets in the first place. That’s the reason I wasn’t planning to go to D.C. until later in the season. I assumed every game through the All-Star Break would be sold out, and I was nationals_tickets1.jpgwaiting for the crowds to shrink. This game, however–only the fourth regular-season contest in the brief history of the stadium–was so sparsely attended that I was able to buy two seats in the third row behind the visiting team’s dugout. This was huge. I didn’t know how strict security would be, and I absolutely needed access to that section; the Nationals were using commemorative balls during games, and I had to snag at least one. That was my goal for the day, and when I walked away from the ticket window, I knew I had a great chance.doug_zack_alex.jpgTwenty minutes before the gates opened, two guys walked over and introduced themselves, and you can see us in the pic on the right. Doug (beard and glasses) was friends with Alex (Nationals jersey), a fellow baseball collector who’d recently been leaving a bunch of comments on my blog. He had told me to let him him know when I was coming down for a game. I emailed him that morning. He wrote back and told me what he’d be wearing, and voila, here we were. At first I was a bit concerned about competing with him. And then Doug pulled out a glove. Great. Would they be going for commemorative balls at the dugout as well? Did either of them have a glove trick? What about a Marlins cap? No, no, and no. I was relieved, of course, but then I felt guilty about invading their otherwise mellow snagging sanctuary. Alex didn’t mind. He wasn’t gung-ho about snagging every possible ball, and anyway, he wanted to see me in action. Doug, meanwhile, was even more laid-back about snagging. He was just hoping to get a ball or two, and if it didn’t happen, it wasn’t a big deal.

zack_corner_spot.jpgThe gates opened five minutes late, and I was okay with that. It was still only 4:45pm–nearly two and a half hours until game time. I ran in ahead of Alex and Doug, and Jona followed me with her camera. I was so excited to be inside my 43rd major league stadium that I completely spaced out and forgot to look everywhere for potential easter eggs. Instead, I ran directly to the corner spot next to the left field bullpen, and sure enough, Alex ended up finding a ball in the flower bed between the wall and the first row of seats. Duh.

Thankfully, the people who designed this stadium never considered the fact that I’d be there someday with my glove trick. (Or maybe they DID consider it and decided to make it easy for me.) The front row behind the left field bullpen actually overhung the space down below. How perfect is that?! There was nothing (i.e., an extra flower bed or double railing) preventing me from lowering my glove, so when a Nationals righty hit a home run that landed there, I went to work. In the four-part pic below (going clockwise from the top left), you can see me lowering my glove, swinging it out to knock the ball a little closer, dropping the glove over the ball, and lifting it up:

zack_glove_trick1.jpg

Props to Jona for her excellent camera work, and check THIS out…Alex was able to dig up some photographs taken by a couple of construction cams mounted high inside the stadium. In the shot below, you can actually see me using the glove trick while Jona (wearing a pink jacket) leans over the railing with her camera:

construction_cam_glove_trick.jpg

Of course, the ball was one of those cheap, made-in-China training balls. The Nationals have been using them for a few years. You don’t even have to look too closely at this one to see that it’s lopsided. If I were going out to Central Park to play ball with a few friends, *I* wouldn’t even use these balls. I truly don’t understand how major leaguers put up with them. These balls don’t even feel the same as regular balls. The surface is slick like plasticky leather. Real balls are a bit grainier and feel softer and more genuine. I really wonder if there’s a correlation between the quality of the BP balls and the success of the team that uses them. Two days earlier, the Tigers were using minor league balls during BP at Fenway Park, and whaddaya know, they started the season 0-7. The Nationals, meanwhile, were stuck in the middle of a losing streak that ended up lasting nine games. Attention general managers (and equipment managers): if you want your players to play like All-Stars, consider circulating a few All-Star balls into the practice bins. If you want your team to play well enough to reach the World Series, let the players see and feel and throw and hit a few World Series balls. Give ‘em a taste of what lies ahead. It would certainly make us baseball collectors happier as well.red_porch_seats.jpgEven though the left field seats were still mostly empty, I could sense that that whole area was temporarily dead so I ran over to the “Red Porch” seats in left-center. Beautiful. All the seats had extra thick cushions, and there was a decent amount of space to run around. But best of all, there was a glorious red_porch_seats_gap.jpggap between the outfield wall and the first row of seats. It’s like it was custom-made for my glove trick. I only stayed out there for a couple minutes, during which time nothing landed in the gap, but I did get two more training balls tossed to me. The first came from Nationals first base coach Jerry Morales, and as for the second, I asked pitcher Ray King for it when he walked over to pick it up off the warning track in straight-away center field.

“Didn’t you just get one?” he demanded.

“Yeah,” I said, “but I was really hoping to get another for my girlfriend.”

It was the only thing I could think of, and as soon as the words left my mouth, I cringed at how lame it must’ve sounded. But it worked. King nodded and flipped me the ball, and I ran over to Jona and pretended to give it to her. She didn’t care, and in fact, she was able to snag a ball on her own several minutes later. The construction cam, which according to Alex takes one photograph every ten minutes, had excellent timing. Check it out below. Jona is standing in the corner spot, holding up her arms to get the player’s attention while I’m watching proudly (and wishing I were a girl) from a few rows back:

construction_cam_jona_gets_ball.jpg

I got my fourth ball of the day (another effin’ training ball) tossed by Luis Ayala near the left field foul pole, then quickly moved to straight-away left field when a righty started taking cuts. Less than a minute later, he launched a deep line drive right at me. I froze, then moved down one row as the ball was approaching, and reached up for the easy one-handed catch. I stuck the ball in one of my many cargo pants pockets and waited for a little break in the action so I could label it and drop it in my backpack. When I pulled it out for another look, I nearly did a double-take. It was a commemorative ball:

commemorative_ball_batting_practice.jpg

I wasn’t satisfied. The logo was worn. I needed another, and the snagging continued.

Another home run landed in the bullpen, and I was all over it. Another training ball. GAH!!! At least Jona was able to take more pics:

zack_glove_trick2.jpg

While I was coiling the string, John Lannan walked onto the warning to retrieve a couple balls. I didn’t expect anything from him because I’d just gotten one, and there was a kid with a glove right next to me (he got a ball soon after, don’t worry), and I wasn’t even wearing mine. But I still called out out to him (I was the ONLY fan who called out) and made a polite request, and he threw me the ball:

zack_about_to_catch_ball.jpg

Did you see the ball? Here’s a close-up of the same pic. Note the string from my glove trick wrapped around my right hand:

zack_about_to_catch_ball_closeup.jpg

Yup, another training ball. Six of my first seven were training balls. I didn’t like them, but they training_balls.jpgcounted. As I mentioned in my Fenway entry after snagging four minor league balls…if they’re good enough for major league players to use, they’re good enough for my collection.

Now get THIS…when I ran over to check in with Jona at the corner spot for a moment, I happened to notice that there was a teeny gap between the flower bed and the outfield wall…and that there was a ball that had dropped into the wider space below. I ran back to the front row and leaned way out over the railing in the approximate spot where I thought the ball would be. I was five feet off and moved to my left. The gap was so thin that my glove wasn’t able to fit. This forced me to disassemble my zack_glove_trick3.jpgcontraption, lean out even farther, reach down past the flowers and into the gap itself, and THEN place the Sharpie inside the pocket. It wasn’t easy, and the metal railing was digging into my thighs, and I was afraid that stadium security would finally shut down my operation–but no one said a word. Alex was right next to me, cheering me on, and a few other fans were curious to see what I was up to. Getting the ball to stick inside the glove wasn’t any harder than usual. The challenge was getting it out. I had to reach even farther than before because the ball was in the tip of my glove, and I had to pull it out before removing the marker. It hurt. But I did it. And by the time the Marlins took the field for BP, I already had eight balls. I wasn’t sure how many I’d end up with, but I knew it was going to be a pretty good day. The idea of breaking double digits at my first game at a new stadium was pretty cool, and within a couple minutes, I was there.

marlins_pitchers_throwing.jpgMarlins pitcher Taylor Tankersley tossed me his ball (a genuine major league ball) when he finished throwing, and Burke Badenhop flipped me another that had rolled onto the warning track two sections to the left. Soon after that, I caught a home run on a fly (major league balls travel much farther than training balls), and before I had a chance to blink, I was racing to my left through an empty row and lunging for another home run ball. I was a split-second too late. The ball hit the end of my glove and bounced into the row below me. In New York, that would’ve been the last time I ever saw the ball. Other fans would’ve mugged me for it, but in our nation’s capital, the few other people nearby had no idea what was happening, and within a few seconds, I was clutching my 12th ball of the day.

Ball No. 13 was thrown by Marlins bullpen coordinator Pierre Arsenault (it helped that I was wearing a bright aqua-colored Marlins cap and had a cheat-sheet with faces and uniform cheat_sheet.jpgnumbers of the guys who were harder to recognize), and ball No. 14 was another homer that I caught on a fly. Nice running catch. I ranged one and a half sections to my left and made a thigh-high, one-handed grab with other fans reaching up in front of my face. In New York, that ball would’ve been deflected before it reached my glove, and in the Bay Area, it would’ve been caught by someone in the row below. There were a few other fans with gloves, but they didn’t know where to stand or how to judge fly balls. It was ball-snagging heaven, and I was seriously considering what it would take to break my one-day record of 21 balls. I’m not talking about simple arithmetic. I know how to add. I was considering all the remaining opportunities and limitations and the likelihood of actually making it happen. At the very least, I figured I had a chance to break a more random personal record: most balls at my first game at a new stadium. I had snagged 17 balls at my first and only game at Miller Park back in 2003, and I thought it’d be cool to surpass that total.

I got a major boost in my quest for THE record when two consecutive home runs landed in the bullpen and rolled to the perfect spot for my glove trick. Here I am about to reel in the first one:

zack_glove_trick4.jpg

That gave me sixteen balls for the day, and five minutes later, I tied my Miller Park total by getting Renyel Pinto to toss me a ball. (It helped that I asked him in Spanish.)

At this point, I knew I’d get at least one more ball. But five more? One after BP at the Marlins’ dugout? One during pre-game throwing? A third-out ball from each dugout during the game? And a ball from the umpire after the final out? It seemed possible. But where did the umps even exit the field? I had a lot of work to do.

BP was almost done, so I cut through the seats and headed to the third base dugout. Security didn’t stop me, and even if they had, I had every right to be there and that felt good. And there was no competition. A father and his teenage son were standing in the front row, just to my left, but they were holding Sharpies, not wearing gloves, so I knew they were only zack_loves_coach_porter.jpginterested in autographs. It was too good to be true, and then it got better. The Marlins players and coaches gathered up all the balls, but all the guys didn’t walk back to the dugout at the same time. Paul Hoover, the back-up catcher, was one of the first to walk back, and he flipped me my 18th ball. First base coach Andy Fox hadn’t seen this, so when he returned to the dugout 30 seconds later, I got him to toss me No. 19. Less than a minute after that, third base coach Bo Porter headed my way with a ball in his back pocket, and Jona took a pic as he was just about to under-hand it to me. OH…MY…GOD. In the pic on the left, you can see several balls bulging through my pockets. I’d snagged so many in such a short amount of time that I didn’t have a chance to label them until the last Marlin was off the field.

Alex (six balls) and Doug (none) caught up with me behind the dugout and told me that during batting practice, they’d seen a ball drop into the gap in front of the Red Porch seats. I assumed the grounds crew would’ve taken it, but Alex was pretty sure it’d still be there, and since there weren’t any other potential balls to snag, we all headed out that way.ball_in_gap.jpgHe was right. I couldn’t believe it. The ball was just sitting there, waiting for me to come rescue it. I was able to convince a skeptical security guard that I actually had a way of getting the ball (without climbing down there) and that he should let me go for it. He was nice enough to walk up the steps and look the other way, and within a minute, I was able to lower my glove and swing it out a few times and knock the ball closer. And closer. And closer, until it was right below me. There was never an easier ball to be snagged. All I had to do was raise my glove, wedge the Sharpie inside, and lower it again for the kill. I was about to tie my record when the guard walked back down the steps and told me that he’d gotten a call on his radio and that I had to stop.

“Please,” I begged, “just five more seconds. I’ll be out of your way, and you’ll never see me again.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t let you do it. They’re watching you right now, and we’ll both get in trouble.”

I was beyond frustrated. Why did this have to happen now?! After having been allowed to lower my glove into the bullpen while the Marlins’ players and coaches were standing 20 feet away, why was I being stopped from snagging a ball in such a harmless location? It didn’t make any sense, but hey, that’s stadium security for you. I suspected the rules at Nationals Park were being invented on the spot, but I couldn’t argue.

Several Marlins began throwing in shallow left field, so I ran over. Hoover was one of them. He ended up with the ball. I didn’t bother asking for it. I knew he would’ve remembered me from the dugout.

I ran around to the other side of the stadium and worked my way down to the front row behind the Nationals’ dugout. Nick Johnson was on the top step, standing next to a bag of balls. I asked him if he could toss one to me. He turned around, spotted my glove and Nationals cap, nick_johnson_playing_catch.jpgand held up an index finger as if to say, “Hold on.” Then, as he jogged onto the field to play catch, an usher walked down the steps and told everyone in the front row that we had to return to our seats. I stepped aside and let the other fans out, then walked over to the usher and said, “Listen, I know I have to leave this section, but I think Nick Johnson just promised me a ball. Is there any ch–”

“I saw that too,” he said. “You just wait right here until he’s done and get your ball. Good luck.”

Was I dreaming?! I’ve been in that situation a hundred times, and the ushers never budge. If anything, they’ll act snotty and claim that the players don’t give away balls and threaten to call their supervisors. Major kudos to the Nationals front office for hiring friendly employees and encouraging them not to be so strict. (Shame on the Mets and Yankees for doing just the opposite.)

Anyway, I waited in the front row, and as Johnson was finishing his throwing, he made sure he ended up with the ball, and he threw it to me on the way in. That was my 21st ball of the day. Just one more to break my record. It all seemed so easy. I wondered why I didn’t snag 20 balls at every game. (Oh yeah, Shea and Yankee Stadiums are the worst.)

Several Marlins began throwing in front of the third base dugout, and I raced over. I had the hat. I knew their names. I asked politely. There wasn’t any competition. It couldn’t have been any easier, and Jeremy Hermida tossed me my record-breaking 22nd ball of the day. Jona was in her actual seat two rows behind me (how convenient) and took another pic.

The game was underway, and I said goodbye to Jona…only temporarily. The Nationals were on the field first so it wasn’t gonna do me much good to wait behind the Marlins’ dugout. Back I ran to the first base side. At this point, the ushers were checking tickets at the top of the stairs so I waited for a large group to head down to their seats and slipped in behind them. I picked an empty seat on the end of a row behind the outfield end of the dugout. No point in going to the home plate side with Odalis Perez–not exactly a strikeout pitcher–on the mound. The odds of catcher Paul Lo Duca ending up with the inning-ending ball were slim. The odds that one of the Marlins would put it in play were much better, and I was hoping for a ground ball. First base was directly in front of me, as was a gap in the protective netting/railing in front of the dugout where Johnson would surely run off the field. Would he recognize me after having just tossed me a ball 10 minutes earlier? I didn’t think so, and I was right. With two outs, Josh Willingham hit a weak grounder to shortstop Christian Guzman who fired it over to first base. Johnson took the ball back to the dugout and flipped it right to me. HA!! I had my 23rd ball, and it was commemorative…still not as nice as I’d hoped…Johnson must’ve switched balls and tossed up the infield warm-up ball instead…but whatever. I’d just have to snag another and add to my record.

I ran back to the Marlins’ dugout and found Jona in the 3rd row. I showed her the ball. She just laughed.

Willingham ended up catching the final out of the inning–a fly ball to left field by Ryan Zimmerman–and he tossed it to the fans behind the outfield end of the dugout. Blah. I ran back to the Nationals’ side and snuck down the steps behind the middle of the dugout. The usher on the outfield side had scolded me when I caught the ball after the top of the first…gave me some B.S. about how I wasn’t allowed to be in the first row…and I didn’t want her seeing me again. Also, if Johnson ended up with another inning-ending ball, I knew he wouldn’t throw it to the same spot. Mike Jacobs led off the 2nd inning with a groundout to Johnson and Jorge Cantu followed by striking out. Good. The whiff was out of the way. Cody Ross then took a called first strike and jumped on the second pitch, sending a fairly deep fly ball to Lastings Milledge in center field. By the time Milledge caught the ball, I was standing in the front row, and by the time he crossed the foul line, I was waving my arms and shouting his name. No one else was standing or waving or shouting. He commemorative_ball_3.jpghad no choice but to throw it to me. The ball sailed high. I jumped and made a backhand catch. Wooo! Ball number twenty-four! I didn’t even look at it until I reached the concourse. It was commemorative, of course, but still not perfect. The logo wasn’t worn, but the ball was particularly dirty.

I ran back and found Jona and waited for the next three outs. Johnson led off the bottom of the second with a single, and Austin Kearns bounced into a double play. Lo Duca then flied out to Ross in center…and the ball was once again thrown into the crowd at the far end of the dugout. I knew I’d get one there eventually, but it was frustrating to wait. I also knew I wasn’t exactly going to be welcomed back to the seats behind the Nats’ dugout, so I tried something else. Remember the ball in the gap that I tried to get with my glove trick after batting practice? Yeah. I back ran out there. Just in case it was somehow still there, in case there was a different security guard, in case…I don’t even know. I just had to take a look. By the third inning, however, the ushers in that section were checking tickets, so I asked one of them if he’d let me walk down between innings and take a picture.

“Between innings,” he said firmly and told me to wait in the concourse. (It’s a good thing he didn’t ask to see my camera; I’d left it in my backpack with Jona at our seats.) The top of the third seemed to last forever. There was an error, a stolen base, 22 pitches thrown…and I was really getting antsy. Finally, the third out was recorded. Showtime. I walked back to the usher, and he gave me a nod. I headed all the way down to the front row and asked a couple fans if I could squeeze past them.

“Still trying to get it?” asked one of them.

Trying is not the word,” I said.

The rubber band was already on my glove. I wedged the Sharpie into place. I knew I only had one shot. There WAS a different security guard manning the section about a dozen rows back, but I knew he’d be all over me in no time. Phew. Deep breath. I lowered the glove quickly but carefully, dropped it right over the ball, jiggled it a couple times to make sure the rubber band had stretched around my prize, and began lifting it back up. The ball was in the glove…then in my right hand…then in my right pants pocket…and then I was being scolded bigtime by the usher who seemed offended that I had lied to him, and he gave me this whole rant about how I couldn’t be trusted, and if he ever saw me again, he zack_jona_during_game.jpgwasn’t going to let me back down into his precious section (which was located eight miles from home plate). I waited for him to finish and then flew back to Jona with a loving death-grip (if there IS such a thing) on my 25th ball of the day. It was great to share the excitement with her, and to have such a nice seat waiting for me where I could catch my breath.

Like I said before, it all seemed so easy, yet I knew I was in the process of doing something VERY special. On the one hand, I half-expected to snag another 20-something balls at my next game, but at the same time, I was constantly reminding myself that I might never have another game like this in my life. Basically, I forced myself not to take it for granted so I’d stop and think about each moment and let it all sink in.

Ronnie Belliard led off the bottom of the third with a homer to left field, and I didn’t even see it because I was busy racing back to the dugout through the concourse. Felipe Lopez then reached on an infield single to second, and I think I missed that too. I don’t know. I can’t remember, and I don’t care. Perez followed by bunting into a fielder’s choice, Guzman popped out to Uggla, and Milledge commemorative_ball_4.jpgstruck out swinging to end the inning. Marlins catcher Matt Treanor took the ball back toward the dugout. I shouted my brains out and got him to toss it to me. Unreal. Another commemorative ball…essentially flawless…my 26th ball of the day. And that’s when things slowed way down for me. I went back to the Nationals’ dugout the next inning, and I got kicked out by the ushers. No surprise there, and no harm done, really, but it meant I couldn’t go back for the rest of the game. I felt like I still might’ve been able to get an inning-ending strikeout ball from Lo Duca (if he ever stopped rolling them back to the mound), but I couldn’t take a chance by showing my face there again.

I stayed with Jona and watched the next five innings with her, rooting for the Marlins all the way. If the Nationals won the game, I wouldn’t have been able to go to their dugout, and although I never did find out where the umps were going to exit the field, I suspected they’d be doing so at the home plate end of the third base dugout. Except for the placement of the bullpens, Nationals Park was a near clone of Citizens Bank Park, and in Philly, that’s where the umps exited. Nationals Park had a little tunnel there, blocked by a small gate that was clearly designed to swing open. It had to be. And if the Marlins won the game, I knew I’d have a chance to snag two more balls: one from the home plate ump as he walked off the field and another from the Marlins themselves as they walked back to the dugout.

LF_bullpen.jpgFinally, in the top of the sixth, the Marlins scored two runs to take a 2-1 lead. They added an insurance run in the eighth, and by the time they made the third out, I was sneaking down the steps toward their bullpen. Taylor Tankersley stepped out of the ‘pen and played catch with Willingham in left, and when he returned with the ball, I asked him for it. “Y’already got one!” he shouted, and that was that.

The Nationals scored once in the bottom of the eighth to make it 3-2, and the Marlins regained their two-run cushion in the ninth. Once again, I tried to get a ball between innings at the bullpen, and I was denied, this time by Matt Lindstrom who recognized me and tossed the ball to someone else.

The bottom of the ninth had arrived. Marlins closer Kevin Gregg came in (with his lifetime 4.12 ERA) to hold the lead, and I made my way back to the third base dugout and somehow managed not to bite my nails. Milledge led off with a double, Zimmerman flied out, and Johnson hit a double of his own to trim the Marlins’ lead to 4-3. Kearns was then hit by a pitch and I nearly had a heart attack. Runners on first and second…TYING RUN on second…one out…not good. And then Lo Duca, bless his soul, grounded into a game-ending double play. I bolted down the steps and worked my way to the far right side of the dugout and shouted at “Mister Welke” (Tim, not Bill) as he walked in my direction. He reached into his pouch, grabbed a ball, and tossed it to me from about five feet away before disappearing under the seats. Moments later, the entire Marlins team was out on the field, exchanging high-fives (and undoubtedly patting each other on the buttocks):

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Who had the game-ending ball? It had to be in someone’s glove. Did Wes Helms have it? He’d taken over for Mike Jacobs at first base. No, probably not. The guy who catches the 28th_and_final_ball_of_the_day.jpgfinal out almost always hands it to the pitcher. I had to look for Gregg, and I had to spot him fast. Pretty soon, there’d be 15 cookie-cutter white guys all walking toward me at once. Thankfully, I knew that Gregg is 6-foot-6 so I paid close attention to the taller guys and spotted him just in time. I shouted his name. He looked up and tossed me the ball…my 28th of the day!

You could say I was in shock. Alex, however, was not. He and zack_28th_ball_of_day.jpgDoug had seen me running around throughout the night, and when they caught up with me after the game, they were just…happy for me. Alex had actually left a recent comment (or was it an email?) in which he said he thought I had a chance to break my record at this stadium. Of course I didn’t take him seriously. Yeah okay, so the place opened early, and the pre-game crowds weren’t too big, and the fans weren’t that aggressive, and there was lots of room to run around in left field. Big deal. You could say that about half the stadiums in major league baseball, and had I ever come close to getting this many balls at any of them? Even at Chase Field and Miller Park, I had beaten the system by getting in extra early. Both stadiums have a Friday’s restaurant that opens before the gates and has seating that overlooks the field. At Miller Park, I had gotten five balls before the stadium officially opened, and in Phoenix, I was able to snag seven on my previous record-breaking day. But at Nationals Park? I wiped the asterisk out of the record book.28.jpg

STATS:

nationals_park_commemorative_balls.jpg• 28 balls at this game

• 60 balls in 5 games this season = 12 balls per game.

• 501 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 3,015 balls since the streak began (the ball from Arsenault was No. 3,000)

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

• 774 lifetime balls outside of New York

collins_molitor.jpg• 76 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 2 lifetime games with at least 20 balls

• 43 major league stadiums with at least one ball

• 3,337 total balls…moves me ahead of Eddie Collins (3,315) and Paul Molitor (3,319) and into 9th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Honus Wagner (3,415). (If you’re wondering why I’m comparing balls to hits, click here.)

• 5,795 words in this blog entry

• 8 days until I’ll be at Champion Stadium

• 1 more pic of my 28 balls…

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Bonds, money, tragedy

bonds_762_auction.jpgThe two-week auction for Barry Bonds’ 762nd home run ball has ended, and an anonymous bidder bought it for $376,612. That’s not a complete disaster, but given the ball’s potential, it must be kinda disappointing for Jameson Sutton, the young man who snagged it on September 5, 2007 at Coors Field. I have no doubt that if Bonds were officially retired (or banned from ever playing again in the Major Leagues) and bidders KNEW that this would indeed be his final home run ball, it would’ve sold for much more.

Unfortunately, I have some terrible/related news that you might not hear IN the news: Jameson’s father Dave, who had recently been battling cancer, passed away three days ago.

I’m pretty sure Jameson would appreciate knowing that he has some fellow baseball collectors scattered across the country who are thinking about him, so if there’s anything on your mind that you want to share with him, go ahead and leave it in a comment, and I’ll tell him to check it out…

4/9/08 at Shea Stadium

welcome_to_opening_night.jpgLast week, when I walked up to the ticket window at Yankee Stadium on the day of the game, the cheapest ticket available was over $60. Two days ago at Shea, I was able to pay my way in for just $10. My ticket said “Upper Deck Row N,” but that didn’t matter. I never went up there, and by the time the game started, I was holding a ticket for the 5th row behind the Phillies’ dugout.

There was a HUGE line of fans waiting to get in at Gate C, but after my experience the day before at Fenway, it didn’t phase me, and anyway, my goal for the evening wasn’t too lofty. I pretty much just wanted ONE ball; I began the day with a grand total of 3,299 and a streak of 499 consecutive games at which I’d snagged at least one ball. One lousy little batting practice ball was going to give me two milestones. That’s all I wanted…sort of. Although there wasn’t any urgency, I was also hoping to get to add Johan Santana’s name to my list…and yes, I was also hoping to snag a commemorative ball. I’d heard that all game-used balls this year at Shea would have a special logo because it was the last season that the Mets were playing there. Same deal across town…last year for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium…special balls…and I’d already citi_field_during_bp_04_09_08.jpgsnagged one. Throughout the winter, friends had been sending me links and photos of these logos, and I never looked at them. I didn’t want to see them until I snagged the balls myself. Of course, I’d only been in the right field Loge (check out the view in the pic on the left) for five minutes when a kid I met last year ran up and shouted, “Look what I got!!” and stuck a commemorative ball right in my face. Wonderful. The kid’s name is Trevor. His older brothers Gary (aka “njmetfan” for those of you who read the comments) and Kyle were also at the game, and they all invaded my section during BP. Luckily, there were enough balls to go around.

I got my first ball of the day from Mets bullpen coach Guy Conti…sort of. I called down to him from the corner spot and asked him for the ball, at which point he walked into the bullpen and tossed it to the strength/conditioning coach and had HIM throw it to me. It would’ve been nice to know the man’s name, but at least I got the most important ball out of the way.

Santana and a couple other pitchers began to practice bunting with Conti (who fed dozens of balls into a pitching machine) in the bullpen. Trevor must’ve shouted at Santana for 10 solid minutes (Gary kept telling him to shut up) and didn’t get anything as a result. Gary waited and politely shouted at Santana when the bunting session ended, at which point we all ran over to the side railing to see the Mets’ ace looking up. Santana then johan_santana.jpgthrew the ball to Gary…except his aim was off and the ball drifted right to me. As soon as I caught it, Santana shouted up at me and told me to hand the ball over. I offered it to Gary who didn’t consider taking it. “Your ball total is more important than mine,” he said. It was ball-snagging sportsmanship at its best–and worst possible luck for Gary. We all wanted the ball. We all tried to get Johan’s attention. We all had an equal shot at it. And it happened to end up in my glove. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve asked a player for a ball and then watched helplessly as his throw sailed to someone else. It happened to me at this game as well. I’d been shouting at Carlos Muniz (in Spanish) and making eye contact with him throughout BP. He even held up an index finger at one point as if to say, “Hold on.” Eventually, when I was standing several rows back in the aisle, he turned abruptly and lobbed the ball in my direction from about 100 feet away. The throw fell five feet short. Gary, who was standing two rows below me, reached up and caught it in front of my glove.

I got one more ball tossed to me before the Mets finished their portion of BP. Nothing special. It came from another trainer-type guy. He was standing on the edge of the warning track when a ball rolled to his feet. Everyone shouted, and he ended up throwing it to me.

left_field_foul_line_04_09_08.jpgThe Phillies took the field, and I moved down a level and ran around to the left foul line. Within a few minutes, a right-handed batter (no idea who) ripped a line drive in my direction. The ball hooked foul, fell 30 feet short, took one hop off the warning track and skipped up into my glove. Beautiful. I hadn’t even seen it coming until the fans around me started shouting at the last second. I’d been busy pestering J.C. Romero for a ball, and I was still eying him moments later when another righty batter hooked a deeper line drive, again right at me. For some reason I wasn’t able to catch it cleanly. I think it was just a lack of concentration because I always catch balls that come to me. Luckily, the ball dropped into the empty second row of orange seats behind me, and I was able to grab it off the concrete before anyone else had a chance to react. Duh. I still felt like an idiot.

Phillies bullpen coach Ramon Henderson flipped me my sixth ball of the day, and as soon as I caught it, Romero informed him that I’d already gotten two. (Make that SIX, pal.) I quickly turned my back before Henderson looked over so he wouldn’t see my face.

Okay, in the photo above, see how there’s a double wall with a stool in between and dead space all around it? Whenever a ball drops into that area, it’s almost impossible to lean over the railing and grab it. Although it might not look l
ike it, it’s just too far down, and that’s when the glove trick comes in handy–but not this time. A ball shot in there and rolled halfway underneath the gap at the base of the stands, and there was no chance for me to get my glove (in the propped open position) to drop around it. My friend and fellow baseball collector Greg (aka “gregorybarasch”) ran down from the Loge with his cup trick, which might’ve actually worked in this situation, but he’d already snagged half a dozen balls as well, and I wasn’t about to let him swoop in and snag this one. He was good-natured about it, though. We usually make an extra effort to stay out of each other’s way, but every now and then we’ll both end up in the same spot. Anyway, the ball was tucked behind a narrow metal opening, pretty far down and to the left. I should’ve taken a photograph, but oh well, I got caught up in the excitement and forgot. Greg stood a few feet to my right, then moved behind me and held my legs briefly as I leaned over, but it still wasn’t happening. He then suggested that I use my glove to reach a very thin piece of wood (You know those flimsy little sticks that souvenir pennants/flags are attached to? One of those.) and then use the wood to move the ball. And that’s exactly what I did. The wood was so flimsy, however, and the ball was trapped in such a deep rut–that it took about 30 seconds to pry it out, during which time the on-field security guard walked over and told me I had to stop. I didn’t stop. I was almost there, but the ball was still too far below for me to grab it in the tip of the glove, so I tilted the glove sideways to turn it into a makeshift scoop and tried to roll the ball into it by jabbing at it with the tip of the stick. Blood was rushing to my head, and I could feel my veins bulging as I balanced precariously upside-down. Security, meanwhile, was threatening me and Greg was rooting for me. Craziness all around. Last chance…yes…I was able to work the ball into the tip of my glove, then jerk the glove up a few inches while pressing the stick against the ball. The ball started to roll out of the glove’s open pocket, and I saved it by dropping the stick and using my free right hand to grab the ball. Wow. Snagging that ball took much more skill than any home run ball I’ve ever caught. No doubt about it.

I didn’t get any more balls at the Phillies’ dugout after batting practice or before the game, but I did get recognized by a bunch of people, and I ran into a few others I knew including a guy named Adam who gave me his ticket stub so I’d be able to get back down there. This was HUGE. I still needed a commemorative ball, and I knew my best chance would be to go for a third-out ball at the dugout.

I spent the first four outs of the game trying unsuccessfully to catch a foul ball in the Loge. This was my view (minus the railings blocking the plate) for right-handed batters:

citi_field_during_game_04_09_08.jpg

And this was my view from the 5th row behind the dugout:

view_behind_dugout_04_09_08.jpg

Good thing I made it back down there. Damion Easley grounded out to end the first inning. Shortstop Eric Bruntlett threw the ball across the diamond to Ryan Howard at first base. Howard brought the ball back to the dugout, and since I was the only fan standing up and shouting for it, he tossed it to me. Just LOOK at this beautiful ball:

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And just like that, I’d accomplished a year’s worth of Shea Stadium goals in one night.

I stayed in the Loge for the rest of the game and ran back and forth for foul balls, playing right-handed hitters on the first base side of home plate and lefties on the third base side. Top of the third inning. One out. Mike Pelfrey on the hill. Chase Utley sent a foul ball shooting back right at me. I was standing near the top of the slanted tunnel between sections 2 and 4, took one step forward, reached through a bunch of clueless people, and caught the ball in the pocket of my glove. No wait, I didn’t just catch it. I snatched it. It’s like I reached forward with my glove as if I was giving someone an emphatic high five. BAM! Gimme that ball! And as soon as I caught it, I turned and walked back down the aisle. No celebrating. No holding it up commemorative_ball2_04_09_08.jpgin the air. Nothing. Everyone around me knew I was the one who caught it, and I had people congratulating me for the rest of the night. A few fans said they had my first book. A couple others told me they loved my web site. It felt great. And it occurred to me how lucky I was to have gotten the ball from Howard two innings earlier; the commemorative logo on the ball I’d just caught was smudged where Utley’s bat had hit it.

Pelfrey looked pretty good and picked up his first win after limiting the Phillies to two runs on five hits in five innings. The Mets scored eight runs (for an 8-2 win) despite collecting just five hits. Phillies fans throughout the stadium were generally obnoxious, cheering loudly for their team, waving their jerseys, and making choking gestures at Mets fans who responded by flinging several Phillies hats off the edge of the upper deck and belting out a sing-songy chant of “F*ck the Phillies.” It was a busy night commemorative_balls_04_09_08.jpg
for stadium security. For once I was the least of their concerns.

With one out in the ninth inning, I used Adam’s ticket to get back into the field level, then waltzed down into the seats behind home plate and got yet another commemorative ball from umpire Lance Barksdale as he walked off the field after the final out.

STATS:

• 10 balls at this game

• 32 balls in 4 games this season = 8 balls per game.

• 500 consecutive games with at least one ball

zack_commemorative_balls_04_09_08.jpg• 322 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

• 10 consecutive seasons with at least one game ball (not counting game-used balls that are thrown to me, like the one from Howard.)

• 112 lifetime game balls

• 75 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 1,600 lifetime Bud Selig balls

• 3,309 total balls

• 11 days until I’ll be at Disney World

4/8/08 at Fenway Park

Since September of 1993, I’ve managed to snag at least one ball at EVERY game I’ve attended. One reason I’ve been able to keep the streak going so long (other than the fact that I have mad skills) is that I choose my games wisely. I generally avoid day games, especially those that follow night games, because the players often sleep late and skip batting practice. I also avoid games with big crowds, especially when lots of fans are likely to show up early.

There’s no way I would’ve attended this game had it not been an official Watch With Zack outing. As gorgeous as Fenway Park is, it’s also expensive and crowded and cramped and lousy for snagging baseballs. This game in particular was the Red Sox home opener, and everyone on the team was going to be receiving their 2007 World Series championship rings during a huge ceremony starting at 1pm. Batting practice was scheduled to end early. Fans were advised to show up extra early, and not only that, my three clients (who had no interest in snagging baseballs) had originally planned to meet me outside the stadium half an hour after the gates opened. As far as my 498-game streak was concerned, it was a nightmare waiting to happen, and yet I was okay with it all. After all, I was there on business, and this day was all about them.

When we had still been in the planning stage, I mentioned my streak and asked them to meet me half an hour earlier at 11:30am. More balls for me, I explained, would mean more balls for them. Even though they weren’t planning to bring their gloves and run around with me, they were hoping I’d snag a few for them.

looking_up_behind_monster_04_08_08.jpgI reached Fenway at around 10:30am and sweet-talked my way up onto the garage roof behind the Green Monster. BP started at around 11am, giving me half an hour to get one ball. Because I’d been out there for Game 1 and Game 2 of last year’s World Series, I knew exactly where to stand and what to do…and before long I got my chance. Without warning, a home run ball came flying over the Monster and landed with a loud thud on the roof of the gray van parked at the front edge of the lot. By the time the ball dropped out of sight on the right side of the van, I was already sprinting forward and weaving between the vehicles. I knew there were other fans standing nearby and hoped that they hadn’t seen it coming. Turns out they hadn’t, but the ball was bouncing and rolling slowly toward a ledge where they would’ve been ball_behind_monster_04_08_08.jpgable to reach it. That’s when I swooped in and gloved the ball, shin-high, right off the concrete, and I kept running. Wooooooo!!! Of course, one of the garage attendants then swooped in and told me I had to leave, but that was fine. I had my ball for the day, and life was good.

Two of my three clients, a couple named Ann and Ben, showed up right on time, and they were easy to spot amongst the hundreds of fans on Lansdowne Street. Several days earlier, Ann had told me on the phone that she would have her gray hair up in a bun and that Ben had a white beard like Santa Claus. We said quick hellos. (She’s a pediatrician and knew a lot about baseball. He’s an orthopedic
surgeon and had only been to a few games in his entire life.) They handed me a ticket. I handed them the ball. We fought our way through the crowd and headed around the corner toward Yawkey Way.

Last year, on 9/29/07 at Camden Yards, I experienced the largest pre-game crowd of my life. Guess what. That was NOTHING compared to the sea of people waiting to get into Fenway. Ready to see what I’m talking out? You might want to get a glass of cold water and find a comfy chair because the following photograph is likely to make you sick and/or light-headed. Okay, THIS was going to be my competition during batting practice:

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Good thing I got that ball on the garage roof, huh? At least that’s what I was thinking, but then batting practice turned out to be pretty easy. Ann went straight to her seat and had a beer. Ben followed me down to the front row along the third base line, and amazingly I was able to squeeze into the corner spot…you know, where the wall is really low and juts out close to the  foul line. It was a great spot to catch grounders, except none came my way, so I focused on getting balls thrown to me by the players.

view_from_corner_spot_04_08_08.jpgMy first victim was Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson (standing with his back facing me in the pic on the right). He walked past me while the Sox were still hitting. I didn’t think he had a ball, so I said, “Curtis, is there any chance you could toss me a ball if they hit one your way?” He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t need to. He had a ball tucked in his glove, and he flipped it to me. It was a minor league ball from the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, and at first I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or excited. Last year, Mets pitcher Aaron Sele tossed me an Arizona Fall League ball during batting practice at Shea Stadium. It was the first minor league ball I’d ever snagged at a major league game, and I decided to count it. The way I saw it, if the ball was good enough for major leaguers to use, even during BP, then it was good enough for me to count it in my collection. Same deal with those cheap, made-in-China, green and blue training balls that the Nationals have been using for the last two seasons. I hate them, but they count.

Ben eventually went to find Ann at the seats and told me to stay and enjoy batting practice and get as many balls as I could. Meanwhile, I was wondering if the Pacific Coast League ball was a random/fluky ball that somehow got mixed in with the others, and within a few minutes, I had my answer. Justin Verlander was manning the bucket in shallow center field, pacific_coast_league_ball_04_08_08.jpgand I shouted really loud and got his attention and waved my arms and got him to roll me a ball from more than 150 feet away. I leaned way out, hooked my feet inside the wall, used my arms to walk my upper body out on the warning track, and scooped up the ball in front of several other outstretched arms. Same ball as before: Pacific Coast League. Bleh. A little girl got a ball soon after. I asked to take a look. Pacific Coast League. Jason Grilli rolled me a ball 10 minutes after that. I reached out and caught it despite the effort of the gloveless man on my left who tried to tug my arm out of the way. Pacific Coast League. Jeremy Bonderman rolled me my fifth ball of the day. Pacific Coast League. AARRGHH!!! I’d snagged more than enough PCL balls when I got a behind-the-scenes tour of Cheney Stadium (home of the Tacoma Rainiers) in 2002. I didn’t need more of them in Boston. Why were the Tigers using them? And why were the players rolling them instead of throwing them like real men? No wonder they haven’t won a game yet this season.

My lifetime ball total was now 3,299. I really wanted one more ball so I could reach the mini-milestone at Fenway, but it wasn’t meant to be. I did have one more chance to snag a ball with the glove trick, but it meant giving up my corner spot. I ended up keeping the spot, NOT snagging another ball there, and losing my chance at No. 3,300. Great.

grilli_autograph_04_08_08.jpgBatting practice ended so early that I was taken by surprise and didn’t have a chance to make it to the Tigers’ dugout before the players and coaches left the field. I was, however, able to get Grilli’s autograph on my ticket stub, which was cool because I had interviewed him several years ago for a story on MiLB.com, and he had called me back several days later, on his own, to discuss a business venture that had nothing to do with baseball. We ended up talking a few times on the phone throughout the off-season, and this was the first time I’d seen him since then. I’m not sure if he remembered me, or if he was just being polite, but either way, we got to talk for a minute, and I gave him a contact card with my web site on it, so who knows, he might end up reading this someday.

It took about half an hour to get from the Tigers’ dugout on the 3rd base side to the concourse behind the plate (bathroom) and back up into the grandstand seats on the 1st base side where I found
Ann and Ben and met her practice partner named John. He was closer to my age and had four young kids at home. One of them was too young to appreciate owning a baseball, so I gave him three of my Pacific Coast League balls and kept one of them (the Verlander ball, pictured above) for myself. I was fine with that. He was fine with that. Everyone was happy. It was freezing. We didn’t care. And before long, the ring ceremony was underway.

It was QUITE an extravaganza. The entire Boston Pops Orchestra was playing in center field as huge, Monster-sized banners were revealed and flags were hoisted. There were video highlights. Touching tributes. Deafening cheers. Appearances from members of the Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots. It was an all-out spectacle, and I was thrilled to be there.

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This was our view during the game. Yeah, there was a support beam partially blocking the field (and yeah, my tiny seat had a few wooden slats missing), but hey, it’s all part of Fenway’s charm, or something like that.

Both teams were introduced. The orchestra played the national anthem. Three fighter jets did a fly-over. Bill Buckner threw the ceremonial first pitch (a perfect strike to Dwight Evans). Johnny Pesky stepped to a microphone and said, “Let’s play ball!”

The game was finally set to start, and I found myself sitting between John, who knew a lot about baseball, and Ben who asked me to explain everything. It was a bit of a challenge because he said he’d read Ann’s copy of my book (which I signed for her later in the day), so I wasn’t sure what he already understood and what he might’ve forgotten. So I just started giving a running commentary, pointing out everything I noticed, like…for example…Mike Lowell was playing even with 3rd base in anticipation of a bunt, but moved back with two strikes because of the foul-bunt rule. Kevin Youkilis was standing on 1st base to keep the runner close, and as soon as he knew that the pitcher (Daisuke Matsuzaka) wasn’t going to throw over, he scooted a few steps off the base to get into position to field a potential grounder. The batter was digging in at the back of the box instead of the front to give himself an extra fraction of a second to react to the pitch. The umpire was resting a hand on the ben_ann_zack_john_04_08_08.jpgcatcher’s back. The catcher handed him the ball whenever a pitch hit the dirt. The ball boy kept running out with new balls. The batter would always run down to first base in a curved path if he hit a single into the outfield. And so on. I showed him the grips for different pitches. I explained more rules and strategies. It was lots of fun to help teach him about the game, and it forced me to pay closer attention, so I got more out of it too.

As for the game, Dice-K was dealing. He ended up working 6 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing four hits and four walks while striking out seven and improving to 2-0. Kenny Rogers (booooo!!!) took the loss for Detroit, and the Red Sox won, 5-0. Youk was the offensive player of the day, going 3-for-3 with a walk, a double, two RBIs and a run scored. The game lasted three and a half hours. We could see our breath the whole time. Lots of “fans” left early. But not us. We stayed and watched baseball like it was meant to be watched.

Ann and Ben were nice enough to let me make a final attempt to get a ball at the dugout. I waited until there were two outs in the ninth, then snuck down to the third row with John and got into a perfect position as soon as Jacque Jones struck out swinging to end it…but Hideki Okajima took his ball with him into the dugout, and that was that.

STATS:

• 5 balls at this game

• 22 balls in 3 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.

• 499 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 6 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least one ball

• 746 lifetime balls outside of New York

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

• 27 balls in 6 lifetimes games at Fenway Park = 4.5 balls per game.

• 3,299 total balls

• 13 days until I’ll be snagging baseballs at Disney World

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