August 2008

8/29/08 at PETCO Park

As I headed to this game with my friend Brandon, I told him that my goal for this entire trip was to snag 20 balls–but perhaps I should’ve been more optimistic. Good things tend to happen to me at PETCO Park. The last time I was there, I caught Barry Bonds’ 724th career home run, and now I was back to be filmed by Steve Smith for San Diego’s Channel 10 News.

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In case you’ve forgotten (or are new to this blog), Brandon is the guy who photographed me the day I brought my Big Glove to the Rays-Jays series at Champion Stadium. Thankfully, he likes using his camera more than his baseball glove, so he followed me around the stadium and documented the action.

Moments after the stadium opened, I convinced Padres manager Bud Black to throw me my third ball of the day, and yes, you read that right: third.

Before the stadium had opened, I’d found a way to get inside and snag a couple balls. Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis tossed me the first, and a female security guard hooked me up with the second. That’s all I can say. The place I went to is kind of a secret spot–more of a well-guarded secret, really, and the person who shared it with me did so only after I promised not to tell anyone else. Sorry.

heath_bell_2008_headshot.jpgSoon after I got the ball from Bud Black, I spotted Heath Bell walking by in right-center field and I shouted, “Heath!!! It’s me, the baseball collector, from New York!!!”

Heath looked up and immediately walked over and made his best attempt to shake my hand through the chain link fence. He had gotten to know me when he was an under-appreciated middle reliever with the Mets–and he has remembered me ever since. (One time, while he was still with the Mets, he played catch with me at Shea Stadium. He was on the field. I was in the stands. He even crouched down like a catcher and called balls and strikes. It was awesome. That was also the day Ryan Speier gave me his glove, and you can read about it here. As far as I’m concerned, Heath Bell is BY FAR the nicest major league baseball player.)
 
“What’re you doing out here?” he asked as Steve walked up with his camera.

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“I’m just going to a few games and hanging out with a friend,” I said, “and doing some TV stuff with the local news.”

We talked on and off for the next 15 minutes. The only reason it was “off” was because I had to race back from the fence to chase a few more balls. At one point, I got one tossed to me by someone I couldn’t identify–until I asked Heath and he told me it was Chad Reineke.

“Did you know I have a new book?” I asked.

Heath said he didn’t, so I asked if he had another minute to spare.

“I’m not doing anything right now,” he said.

“Cool, wait just a moment,” I said. “I have a copy in my bag. I’ll run and get it.”

I ran back to the first row of the bleachers and grabbed the book, and as I was about to run back, a right-handed batter hit a deep drive toward right-center that I knew had a chance to reach the warning track and bounce over the outfield fence…so I bolted to my left as the few other grown-ups in the section did their best impressions of statues, and finally, as the ball cleared the fence and bounced to the back of the sandy area, everyone started chasing it. The ball ended up hitting a concrete wall and ricocheting back toward the field as I cut across at just the right angle to scoop it up and keep running back to Heath:

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Moments later, Heath had the book in his hands:

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At around 4:55pm–five minutes before the rest of the stadium was going to open–I asked Heath if he was going to give me a “welcome to San Diego” ball.

“Just hang out here,” he said. “I’ll get you one.”

“Well, actually, I was planning to head over to left field at 5pm.”

“No problem,” he told me, “I’ll get you one before that.”

Less than a minute later, he got one of his teammates to throw one to him, and then he flipped it to me:

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We kept talking about a million things after that. He told me he’s hoping to get the closer’s job after Trevor Hoffman retires…and that he gets heckled for being fat…and that I inspired him to be more creative with the ways in which he gives balls to fans…and that Pedro Martinez is a cool guy. It was the BEST conversation. Oh my God. It seemed like the conversation wasn’t ever going to end. I was enjoying myself so much that I sacrificed the first few minutes of BP in left field–and definitely lost a few balls as a result, including an easter egg I heard about later from my friend Leigh (aka “padreleigh” in the comments section), but it was totally worth it.

Steve filmed me running to the left field seats and kept the camera rolling after I got there. In the four-part photograph below, starting on the top left and going clockwise, I’m 1) hurrying back into position after trying unsuccessfully to get a ball in the left field corner, 2) scribbling notes about all the balls I’d snagged, 3) giving a glove trick tutorial, and 4) showing how I labeled one of the FIVE balls that I plucked off the warning track.

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It was crazy. I kept pulling up one ball after another, and the ushers weren’t saying a word. Were they giving me a break because I was being filmed? Or because they were distracted by the guy who got hit on the nose by a home run ball and was bleeding all over the place? I had no idea. I just kept doing my thing and Brandon kept taking pics. Here are some highlights:

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Here are the five consecutive balls I snagged with the glove trick:

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I got Brian Fuentes to throw me my 12th ball of the day and then used the glove trick to snag No. 13. It was then that an usher finally walked down the steps and informed me that security had been watching me on various cameras and that I had to stop. So I did.

There was still half an hour left in BP when Steve decided he’d already gotten enough footage and took off. Ugh. I’d been planning to give away a ball or two right after BP, as I often do, and I was looking forward to having Steve film that. I wanted the world (or at least the people of San Diego) to see that I’m not a total ball hog…but…so much for that.

The Rockies were hitting bombs into the second deck in left field, and since I couldn’t use the glove trick anymore, I went up there. It would’ve been great if I didn’t have to share the terrain with a legendary ballhawk named T.C. (aka “tracycollinsbecky”), but that’s his regular spot for right-handed batters so I gave him some room. He caught several balls up there, and I only got one–a ball that he would’ve had if not for a silly/lazy mistake on his part. Someone on the Rockies crushed a deep home run over the aisle, and T.C. beat me up the steps. The ball landed on the steps and bounced all the way to the back of the section to where we couldn’t see it. T.C. assumed it had bounced over the back railing and into the concourse down below so he gave up and headed back down to the aisle.

“You don’t think it’s there?” I asked?

“I don’t know,” he said as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “You can check.”

I did check. And the ball was there, waiting for me in the last row.

Several minutes later, Brandon got a cool action shot as a home run sailed into the seats below. Check it out. I’m on the far left, leaning over the edge of the second deck, watching as a guy in the front row makes a leaping catch in front of Leigh and next to a woman ducking for cover:

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After BP ended, I got Jeff Francis to toss me my 15th ball of the day at the Rockies’ dugout, and Brandon got a couple great photos. Here’s the first one. It shows Francis as he’s about to under-hand the ball to me:

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Here’s the second pic, which shows the ball in mid-air, about a foot from my glove:

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Brandon took some photos of me with my 15 balls (the best pic turned out to be the one he took two seconds before I was ready)…

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…and then I gave one to kid (who had a glove!) who was sitting a few sections over with his dad.

What did Brandon look like on this fine day? See below:

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Earlier in the day, I’d met a kid named Timmy (aka “holdsworthtimmy”) who’s been reading this blog for a while. When I ran into him after BP, I found out that he’d snagged almost as many balls as me! Here we are with Leigh who’d also snagged a bunch.

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Soon after this pic was taken, four Rockies began playing catch along the left field foul line. Timmy ended up getting one of the balls, and I was left to try to talk Troy Tulowitzki out of the other. When he finished throwing, he tucked the ball in his glove and walked
over to sign a few autographs. Instead of asking him to sign anything, I asked for the ball, and when it appeared that he might not give it up, I said, “In all seriousness, Troy, it would be a real honor to get a ball from you.”

“Why is that?” he asked as he finished signing and backed away from the wall.

I thought fast and said, “I just love how you play the game. I played shortstop too.”

He then nodded and flipped me the ball.

Several Padres had just started playing catch across the field, so I raced around to the RF foul line and got there just in time. Will Venable, who’d been called up from the minor leagues earlier that day, ended up with one of the balls, and I got him to toss it to me…but the ball fell a bit short and tipped off the end of my glove as I reached over the wall for it. Then it rolled about six feet to my left and a security guard started walking toward it. I quickly let out some string and flung my glove to the left, got it to land just beyond the ball, and then tugged the string to jerk the glove back and bring the ball with it. It worked on the first shot! The ball rolled back along the warning track, right to the spot in front of me, and I was able to lunge over the wall and grab it with my bare hand.

Brandon got a pic of this too. In fact, he got about two dozen pics, but I won’t share them all–just the best one:

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I had 17 balls at that point. I needed to get three more, and my plan was simple: snag a third-out ball during the game from each dugout, then get a ball from the home plate umpire after the game.

I wasn’t sure how strict security was going to be, and I didn’t have a ticket for the seats behind either dugout, so I carefully inched a few sections closer to home plate and sat down. Leigh had generously given me one of his season tickets in left field and Brandon, meanwhile, had splurged and bought a $50 seat behind the Rockies’ dugout because–get this–he was actually looking forward to sitting in one spot and watching the game. What to do…what to do. I was hoping for a third-out ball after the top of the first inning–that would’ve made things a whole lot easier–but that didn’t happen because I was behind the outfield end of the dugout and Garrett Atkins struck out to end the frame. In other words, the catcher ended up with the ball and tossed it into the seats behind the home plate end of the dugout. If Atkins had made contact and hit an inning-ended grounder, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would’ve ended up with the ball, and I would’ve been in the perfect position to get it.

Just then, by some miracle, the man sitting to my right made a comment about my glove and said he wanted me to protect him from foul balls.

“I’d love to,” I replied, “but I actually don’t belong in this section.” I then told him I had to run over and visit a friend behind the other dugout and asked if I could possibly borrow his ticket stub for “five to ten minutes.” Naturally he didn’t want to hand it over so I offered my book as collateral.

That did the trick.

“Wait,” he said as I headed off. “You WROTE this?”

I nodded and told him to enjoy it and that I’d be back half an inning later.

I raced around to the third base side and called Brandon. He understood the situation, and because he’s so awesome, he was willing to trade ticket stubs and sit out in left field with Leigh. (No offense, Leigh, but your view can’t compare to dugout seating.)

I didn’t get anything after the first inning because Gonzalez struck out, and I was in the wrong spot.

adrian_gonzalez.jpgIn the top of the second inning, I used the borrowed ticket stub to get back down into the seats behind the Padres’ dugout. How many more innings could I keep this up? The back-and-forth business was stressing me out. I absolutely NEEDED to get a ball this time, but I was at the mercy of the action on the field…and when Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook came up with two outs, I didn’t like my chances. I was convinced he was going to strike out, and when he fell behind in the count 0-2, I seriously thought I was doomed. But then another miracle occurred: he made contact! He stuck his bat out and punched a weak grounder to shortstop Luis Rodriguez. YES!!! Gonzalez took the throw at first base and jogged off the field with the ball. When he approached the dugout, he looked up and rolled it across the roof a foot to my left. I reached out and scooped it easily with my glove…and then realized I was surrounded by little kids who had apparently charged down the steps behind me after the out had been recorded. I felt kinda silly, towering above all those kids, so I handed the ball to the smallest one I could find and got a big round of applause from the entire section. That was my 18th ball of the day; remember that I still count balls even when I give them away.

garrett_atkins.jpgAtkins, the Rockies’ first baseman, kept ending up with the inning-ending balls, but he was tossing them all over the place to fans who were several rows deep. He was hard to predict, but I didn’t outsmart myself. I just ran down to the front row every inning and hoped that eventually he’d toss one right to me…and he did at the conclusion of the fifth inning after Cook induced Rodriguez to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play. SWEET!!! I only needed one more ball, and for the rest of the game I tried like crazy to catch a foul ball behind the plate–but nothing came close.

Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth. The Rockies were clinging to a 9-4 lead. This meant I was going to have (at least) two more chances to snag ball No. 20–one from umpire Dana DeMuth who’d be exiting the field at the home plate end of the Rockies’ dugout, and of course another chance from the Rockies themselves.

Brian Fuentes fanned the first two batters in the ninth and then got Josh Bard to pop up to second baseman Clint Barmes to end the game.

I bolted down to the corner spot at the far right end of the dugout and got my 20th ball from DeMuth. WOO!!!

Less than a minute later, all the Rockies players and coaches walked in, and I spotted Fuentes with the ball in his glove before he even crossed the foul line. I knew he wasn’t going to keep it because a) it wasn’t a special ball (he hadn’t used it to record a save), and b) he throws lots of balls into the crowd. Well, sure enough, I got him to toss it to me, and just like that, I’d tied my second highest single-game total ever. (The other time I got 21 balls was on 9/19/07 at Chase Field.)

Here are the last two balls I snagged:

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Here are the 19 balls I kept:

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Here are the notes I’d frantically scribbled throughout the day (so that I’d be able to remember the details later and write this entry):

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Here’s one final pic that Brandon took. He’d taken a bunch of shots from across the field as I was snagging those last two balls. This one shows me jumping for what would’ve been ball No. 22. Glenallen Hill tossed it five feet over my head on his way in, and if you look closely you can see the ball in mid-air as it’s about to sail over my outstretched bare hand:

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Oh well. I won’t complain about that one getting away.

STATS:

? 21 balls at this game (tied my second highest one-game total)

? 385 balls in 52 games this season = 7.4 balls per game.

? 548 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 134 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball

? 87 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

? 32 lifetime games outside NYC with at least 10 balls

? 3 lifetime games with at least 20 balls, all of which occurred outside NYC (of course)

? 3,662 total balls

8/27/08 at Camden Yards

I bought two tickets to this game the day Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to the White Sox, and it just so happened that he entered this game with 609 career home runs–tied with Sammy Sosa for fifth all time. Jim Thome, meanwhile, with 535 career jacks of his own, also happened to be on the verge of home run history; his next blast would tie him with Mickey Mantle.

When I first bought the tickets, I didn’t know who, if anyone, I would take to this game. I’d paid less than their $13 face value on StubHub, so if one of them ended up being unused, it wasn’t going to break my heart.

The first person I invited was my dad. We hadn’t been to a game together since he saw me snag my 3,000th ball on 5/7/07 at Yankee Stadium, but he couldn’t go. He and my mom were planning to be upstate with their car…so I invited my girlfriend Jona, and we rented a Mini Cooper:

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If there weren’t so many people from New Jersey who read this blog, I might be tempted to make a wise-crack about the license plate, but instead I’ll just say that the car was great and added an extra dimension of goodness to the trip.

Jona and I were the fifth and sixth people, respectively, on line outside the Eutaw Street gate. The seventh was a fellow baseball-snagger named Gary (aka “gjk2212″ if you read the comments) who’d told me he was going to be there.

Gary and his family didn’t have season tickets for this game, so he was trapped in right field for the first half-hour of batting practice. Jona and I *did* have season tickets, and since I was the only fan who ran out to the left field seats, I pretty much had the place to myself for the first three minutes.

I should mention that I didn’t take a single photograph during BP. Jona had her camera and did all the documenting for me, starting with the following shot that shows me (in a black T-shirt and tan shorts) standing all by myself, way off in the distance, in the seats in straight-away left field:

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Of course there weren’t any home runs until half a dozen other grown men had made their way out there, but that didn’t stop me from getting off to a good start.

As soon as Jona settled into a seat several rows behind me, she saw me make a leaping catch on a Melvin Mora home run, then grab another Mora homer off the ground soon after.

Several minutes later, I raced down to the wall and leaned way over…

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…for a ball that didn’t bounce up high enough. Chris Waters, the player in the photo above who’s running toward me, retrieved the ball, walked over to the wall, and held it out for me. I thought he was messing around. Hadn’t he seen me snag those first two balls? Was he planning to pull his hand back as soon as I reached for this one?

“Are you serious?” I asked, and when he kept standing there without saying a word, I reached out slowly, as if the ball were going to bite me, and lifted it out of his hand.

“Thanks!” I shouted, and he jogged back into shallow left field, again without saying a word.

The good thing about letting my girlfriend take all the photos is that I ended up with some cool shots of myself. The bad thing is that she occasionally pointed her camera elsewhere:

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My fourth ball was another home run that I caught on a fly after drifting through my row and jumping. My fifth was a home run that nearly killed Jona and landed on her purse in the seat next to her. (Thankfully, she had the presence of mind not to grab the ball, thus enabling ME to scurry over and grab it and count it in my collection.) My sixth ball was yet another home run (I have no idea who hit these balls). Jona took the following photo just before I caught it:

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See the guy wearing the backpack? More on him in a bit…

Just as the White Sox were taking the field at 5:30pm, I changed into my White Sox cap and shirt, and dozens of fans (including Gary) flowed into the left field seats. That’s when things slowed way down for me. There were just as many balls being hit and thrown into the stands, but I wasn’t on my game, and I wasn’t getting any lucky bounces. I kept being one or two steps too late, if not out of position altogether. It was really frustrating because I easily could’ve ended up with 15 or 20 balls if luck had gone the other way. I still did okay, though. My goal, aside from catching home runs during the game from both Griffey and Thome, was to reach double digits, and it appeared I was on my way.

I used my glove trick to pluck ball No. 7 off the rubberized warning track in left-center and then got another from Octavio Dotel after
he finished playing catch near the foul pole. Gary was ten feet to my left and probably would’ve gotten it if not for me, but I out-wardrobed him. All he had was a cheap, light gray White Sox cap, whereas I had a black cap along with an eye-catching shirt (that you’ll see in the next full-screen photo).

nick_swisher.jpgAt one point, Nick Swisher walked over toward the wall to retrieve a ball, and when I asked him for it, he shouted, “You’re a grown MAN!!! You can get balls on your OWN!!!”

Then he tossed it to a little kid. Good for the kid. Bad for me. I knew I had to be creative, so when he chased down another ball five minutes later, I ran down to the wall and yelled, “Nick, I know I’m big and mean and old, but it would mean a lot to get a ball from YOU specifically.”

I actually meant it. I’d read all about him in Moneyball and admired him ever since. (Also, it’s hard not to like a guy who, as the story goes, was once particularly taken with a hot girl he saw while flipping through the pages of Maxim–or was it FHM?–and told his agent to track her down and then ended up dating her.) Swisher must’ve appreciated my attempt at being funny and/or sensed my sincerity (or maybe he just felt sorry for me), but whatever it was, what I said to him worked because he flipped me the ball.

“Thanks!” I shouted, “I really appreciate it!”

He turned back, pointed his glove at me, and gave a friendly wink before jogging off.

I must admit that I did experience SOME good luck. Right before the end of BP, I began jogging from my spot in left field toward the 3rd base dugout. I wanted to get there before the White Sox came off the field because I was pretty sure I’d be able to get one more ball there and break double digits. Well, as I was cutting through the seats about 10 rows back along the left field foul line, a right-handed batter swung too soon and hooked a line drive right–and I mean RIGHT–to me. I had to bend down a little and make a thigh-high back-handed catch over the row below me, but still. Wow. And that was it…my 10th ball of the day. Then, as it turned out, I didn’t get anything at the dugout.

Remember the guy with the backpack from one of the photos up above? His name is Tobey Rowland, and not only is he a fellow member of the National Scrabble Association–it was my Scrabble shirt that initially caught his eye–but he’s a fellow baseball snagger (from the Bay Area) who had tracked me down in 2006 after catching two foul balls on two consecutive pitches. At the time, he wanted to know if that had ever been done and who he could contact to get his story out. I put him in touch with my friend Mark Newman at MLB.com, and this was the result. Anyway, the funny thing is that when Tobey first approached me during BP and started talking about Scrabble, neither of us knew who the other person was.

After BP, Tobey caught up with me behind the 3rd base dugout, and we talked while I labeled my last few baseballs and scribbled down some notes. Here we are (with Gary wearing the yellow shirt in the background):

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Four of my 10 balls had distinctive markings and smudges. Check it out:

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During the game, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of competition for Griffey:

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Only 15,736 tickets had been sold. Among those who bought them and then actually bothered to show up, there was only one person who appeared in the right field standing-room-only section for all of Griffey’s (and Thome’s) plate appearances. It wasn’t Gary, and it wasn’t Tobey. It wasn’t Jona, nor was it Mrs. Griffey. It was me:

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The conditions were perfect for catching a home run, and there WERE five homers in the game, but unfortunately four of them were hit to left field field by righties, and the other was hit to right-center by Aubrey Huff. Griffey ended up going 0-for-1 with three walks, while Thome finished 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. His one hit, however, did get my heart racing. It was a deep line drive EXACTLY in my direction that hit the outfield wall; Thome foolishly tried to stretch it into a double, and future Hall of Famer Nick Markakis (who already had 14 outfield assists before the play) gunned him down at second base.

The Orioles scored in every inning except the third (and the ninth, which they didn’t need) and cruised to an 11-3 victory. Two minutes after the final out, when the relief pitchers were walking across the field from the bullpen, I got Dennis Sarfate to toss me a ball at the dugout. It looked like the ball had been rubbed up for a game, so I kept that one and gave a different/cleaner ball to a kid just before Jona and I made our exit.
STATS:

? 11 balls at this game

? 364 balls in 51 games this season = 7.14 balls per game.

? 547 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 133 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball


? 86 lifetime games with 10 or more balls

? 31 lifetime games outside NYC with 10 or more balls

? 3,641 total balls

Remember when I started comparing my baseball total to players’ career hit totals? Well, I’ve now moved past Stan Musial (3,630) and into fourth place all time. Next up is Hank Aaron [3,771].

And by the way, I wrote the first half of this entry on an airplane and the second half at a friend’s place in San Diego. I’ll be at PETCO Park later today…

8/26/08 at Yankee Stadium

This was my second straight Watch With Zack game with Mark, Evan, and Hailey–a family from Los Angeles who’d been to Shea Stadium with me the day before.

Evan (age 16) and Hailey (four years younger) had each snagged a commemorative ball at Shea. Now they were hoping to accomplish the same thing at a sold-out Yankees-Red Sox game.

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As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, the bleachers at Yankee Stadium are a) awesome for snagging baseballs during batting practice and b) completely separated from the rest of the ballpark. You can’t enter the bleachers without a bleacher ticket, and once you’re there, you can’t leave.

That said, Evan and I had two tickets apiece–one for the bleachers and another for the main part of the stadium, where we were planning to meet Mark and Hailey after BP. Well before the gates had opened, I gave Mark detailed instructions on how to reach the corner spot in the right field grandstand as quickly as possible. That whole area was going to be insanely crowded; it was essential that he and Hailey get there first and hold their ground.

Evan and I were first in line at the bleacher entrance. When we finally got to run inside, not only did we have the whole place to ourselves for 30 seconds, but we had a great view of Mark and Hailey running in and claiming the corner spot.

jose_veras.jpgEvan claimed a spot against the railing in right-center field, so I gave him some space and positioned myself one section closer to the foul pole. That’s when I got the first ball of the day–I’m not saying “my” first ball because it was literally THE first ball that entered the stands. It was thrown by Jose Veras. I had asked him in Spanish. He put some serious velocity on it. I had to jump two inches to make the catch, and when I opened my glove and noticed that the ball was commemorative I felt a bit guilty. That feeling, however, half-disappeared a few minutes later when Veras tossed another commemorative ball to Hailey.
 
I used my glove trick to snag my second ball from the gap between the outfield wall and the bleachers. It was a home run by Derek Jeter that landed there, and as soon as I reeled it in, all my guilt returned. Evan (for some reason) hadn’t brought the materials for HIS glove trick, and I realized I could have let him snag that ball with mine. I wasn’t too concerned, though, because it was still early, but I grew increasingly anxious as the remaining minutes of the Yankees’ portion of BP ticked away. Would the Red Sox be using commemorative balls that belonged to the Evil Empire? Doubtful.

Did Hailey feel guilty when she snagged a second commemorative ball?  Equally doubtful. It had fallen short after being thrown to her by a Yankee, landed in the gap between the bleachers and the grandstand, and gotten tossed up by a police officer who retrieved it.

With 20 minutes remaining before the Sox were going to take the field, I got extremely lucky and snagged my third ball of the day. Brian Bruney had tossed it to a woman in the front row who somehow managed to drop it and let it trickle behind her into the aisle where I was standing. No one else even saw the ball. Even the woman herself hadn’t seen it roll behind her, so no one else was reaching for it. It was the easiest and most undeserved ball ever, and of course it was commemorative. The woman, whom I’d met several weeks earlier (and who was very friendly), immediately turned around and asked for it. She said it had been thrown to her, and everyone else agreed. What did I do next? I asked Evan if he wanted it, and when he said “no” (because he hadn’t snagged it himself), I handed it to the woman. I hardly ever give away commemorative balls (because it gives me a sinking feeling in my gut), but in this case it was clearly the right thing to do.

The Yankees were beginning their final round of BP, and Evan still didn’t have a commemorative ball. He’d come extremely close to snagging an A-Rod homer (and later came close to two other balls), but got a dreadfully unlucky bounce and had to watch it ricochet all the way back onto the field. I felt responsible and awful. The bleachers were more crowded than ever because of the Red Sox, and for some reason there just weren’t any other balls dropping into the gap…but then, by some miracle, with five minutes remaining in the Yankees’ portion of BP, a ball fell short of the wall in right-center and landed there. Ohmygod. This was our chance, and yet we didn’t know if the ball was even commemorative because it was lying logo-side-down. Meanwhile, Evan told me he’d practiced using his glove trick at home but had never tried using it at a game…so I stretched my rubber band over my glove, then propped it open with a blue Sharpie, and handed it to him. I held the end of the string in case he lost his grip, but he had it under control and I talked him through it. He didn’t realize he had to aim for the ball with the tip of the glove, and it was hard for him to even see the ball because of a hanging net that’s two feet out from the wall. He finally managed to get the ball to stick inside the glove, but because I hadn’t put the rubber band on tight enough, the ball slipped out after he’d raised the glove one foot. The good news is that no one else had a ball-retrieving device. The better news is that security didn’t notice us. And the best news was that the ball had rolled onto its side, and we could see the edge of a commemorative logo.

I yanked the glove back up, tightened the rubber band, and handed it back to Evan. Then I reached down as far as I could and grabbed the netting and pulled it back so he could get a better view of the ball. (I realize this might be hard to visualize.) The entire operation took a minute after that. I was shouting instructions and encouragement (for example “jiggle the glove a little bit so the ball goes inside!”) and eventually he got it. I was afraid someone else would reach over the railing and snatch the ball away from him as he was raising the glove, but no one did, and he HAD it. The ball was nearly brand new. The logo was perfect.

He hurried over to the foul-pole end of the bleachers and called out to his father and sister to show them the ball. I followed close behind and took the following photograph as he was holding it up:

mark_hailey_corner_spot.jpg

Did you notice Mark and Hailey’s reaction? If you look closely (and please forgive the lousy image quality), you can see that he’s yelling/cheering and she’s giving a thumbs-up:

mark_hailey_closeup.jpg

After the Red Sox took the field, Evan didn’t snag any other balls, and I only managed to get one more. It was a home run to right-center by David Ortiz. I was standing at the railing. The ball landed half a dozen rows back and got bobbled into the tunnel, prompting a wave of fans to race after it. I happened to break through to the front of the pack, and I reached down and scooped the ball into my glove while on the run.

After BP, I took a photo of Evan leaning over the gap with his ball, and then I caught up with Hailey in the concourse and took a photo of her with the three–yes, THREE–balls she’d snagged.

evan_hailey_yankee_stadium_balls.jpg

Her final ball was tossed by Justin Masterson, and she told me that all the fans around her were complaining that she’d gotten so many. (Too bad, people. Learn to show up earlier.)

During the game, as you might imagine, security was extremely tight and the crowd was enormous. There weren’t any empty seats to be had until the sixth inning, when the hometown crowd realized that the Yankees weren’t going to overcome a 7-3 deficit.

Mark stayed in his seat for most of the game while I ran around with Evan and Hailey. In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and going clockwise), we were a) waiting for home run balls in the tunnel in right field, b) camping out in left field when A-Rod came up with a chance to hit a game-tying grand slam, c) checking out shirts in the team store, and d) enjoying a better view late in the game.

four_locations_during_game.jpg

Evan and I were able to get some ticket stubs from people as they were leaving the game–tickets for the seats behind the dugouts. He got one on the Yankees’ side, which he gave to me. I got two on Boston’s side, which I gave to him and Hailey.

Two minutes after Jonathan Papelbon recorded the final out for his 34th save, I got Damaso Marte to throw me a commemorative ball on his way in from the bullpen. Evan and Hailey, I learned five minutes later, unfortunately didn’t get anything.

Final score: Red Sox 7, Zack 5, Hailey 3, Yankees 3, Evan 1.

Just before we were all about to get kicked out of the stadium by security (you’re not allowed to linger after the game at Yankee Stadium like you can everywhere else), Evan and Hailey and I all started pulling out our baseballs for a group photo.

What happened next was distressing: Evan couldn’t find his ball.

We all emptied our bags and pockets, and his ball was literally NOWHERE to be found. We started looking under the seats, and within two minutes, the nearest security guard was demanding that we head for the exit. (He suggested that we check the lost-and-found. Thanks, genius.) We couldn’t figure out what had happened…but it was official. Evan had lost the ball. I’m amazed that he took it as well as he did. If it were me, I would’ve screamed and cried and cursed and carried on like a baby. Evan, as disappointed as he was, realized that there wasn’t anything he could do about it and stayed calm. I offered him one of my commemorative balls, and he wouldn’t take it until I insisted about four times. I still had three commemorative balls at that point and gave him a choice of two: the ball from Veras or the ball from Marte, which he ultimately selected after inspecting both logos for quite some time. We were in the concourse, and since security wasn’t yet hassling us about vacating THAT spot, we decided to turn the “hand-over” into an official ceremony. Here’s the silly photographic documentation:

zack_gives_ball_to_evan.jpg

(You know you like my farmer’s tan.) I think I might have successfully convinced him that owning an actual “Zack Hample baseball” was nearly as cool as owning one that he’d snagged on his own…and then we all headed for the subway.

In case you were wondering, the reason why I didn’t give him a choice of all three commemorative balls was that one of them had a special marking that I wanted to take home and photograph (and keep). It was the Derek Jeter home run ball, which had a faint imprint of the MLB logo from another ball. Check it out:

ball_mlb_logo_imprint1.jpg

My theory is that another ball was pressing hard against this one in the BP bucket or basket…or even in a ball bag…and that the logo was slightly imprinted onto this one.

Here’s a photo of the imprinted ball next to another ball, which will hopefully illustrate my point:

tim_wakefield_warming_up.jpg

STATS:

? 5 balls at this game

? 353 balls in 50 games this season = 7.06 balls per game.

? 546 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 122 consecutive games at Yankee Stadium with at least one ball

? 12 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

? 3,630 total balls

8/25/08 at Shea Stadium

This was a Watch With Zack game, and my “clients” were going to be with me for two days. They’d flown in from Los Angeles to see both New York City ballparks for the first time, and their trip kicked off with this Mets-Astros game at Shea Stadium. Here we are before the gates opened:

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In case you’re new to this blog, I’m the guy on the left. The person (I can’t bring myself to call him a “kid” since he’s taller than me) on MY left is a 16-year-old named Evan who’s been reading this blog for a few years and leaving comments as “evan.bizzz.” The other two people are Evan’s 12-year-old sister Hailey and their father Mark.

Evan was no stranger to batting practice. He had snagged 41 lifetime balls, but he didn’t simply want to pad his numbers on this trip; he was determined, if not flat-out dying, to add a commemorative ball from each stadium to his collection–not an easy task. Hailey, meanwhile, with just a handful of lifetime snags, was still hoping for a commemorative ball but willing to accept any ball that came her way.

Now…
Before I continue, I want to give a shout-out to a kid named Joe–aka
“josephfaraguna”–who not only recognized me outside Gate C and took the above photo but was kind enough to let me have the corner spot in the Loge once the
stadium opened. There were actually two corner spots on the right field side that I wanted–one for Evan on the Field Level–and another for Hailey and her father upstairs. Each spot was probably going to be good for at least one ball. We just had to GET THERE before anyone else, and thanks to Joe’s generosity (plus the fact that we were first on line), we did.

When Shea opened at 4:40pm, I quickly took Evan to the place he needed to be, then hurried upstairs with Hailey and Mark and got them situated. Here they all are:

corner_spots.jpg

Hailey told me she didn’t know any of the players’ names, and I told her it didn’t matter–that because she was young AND was basically the only girl in the stadium with a glove, all she had to do was be loud and polite and begin each request by saying “Excuse me.”

When the Mets finally finished stretching and began throwing, I ran back downstairs to help Evan. We looked closely at every ball that was in use, trying to spot the commemorative logos, so we’d know who to ask. I helped Evan identify all the players and coaches, and when Guy Conti strolled by (with a jacket covering his uniform number), I called him by name and asked for a ball. Evan and I both knew he had a couple balls in his back pocket, but we weren’t sure if they were commemorative. Conti pulled one out and tossed it to someone else, then took out the second ball and tossed it to Evan. It was commemorative!!! Perfect logo. No smudges. No scuffs. It was even rubbed up with mud (like this). We were both SO relieved, and we waved to Hailey and Mark and exchanged a thumbs-up.

As for Hailey…
She got Dave Racaniello, the Mets’ bullpen catcher, to toss her a ball, and as it sailed through the air, I was praying that she wouldn’t drop it. What did she do? She reached out and made a backhand catch like it was nothing. (She told me later that she plays baseball and softball.) Unfortunately, her ball wasn’t commemorative, but it almost didn’t matter. Everyone had pretty much accomplished their goals within the first 20 minutes–everyone but me, that is. I still hadn’t snagged anything.

I headed out to the left field foul line for a bit, but it was deader than dead so I headed back to the right field side and checked in with Hailey and Mark in the Loge. While I was up there, she got Aaron Heilman (who normally ignores EVERYone) to toss her a ball, and once again she made the catch look easy. I took her picture, then ran downstairs to check on Evan, and while I was there, I saw him catch a ball tossed by Jose Reyes! He and Hailey each had two baseballs. Not bad…

evan_hailey_two_balls_each.jpg

…and oh-by-the-way, I nearly forgot to mention that the ball Hailey got from Heilman was commemorative.

The left field bleachers (which you can see directly over Hailey’s glove in the photo above) opened 15 minutes early, so we all had to hurry out there. This was one of those rare days when bleacher tickets were being sold individually, and apparently everyone else wanted to be there too. Remember how empty the bleachers were two days earlier? Check out how crowded it was this time:

LF_bleachers_08_25_08.jpg

Shea Stadium had been open for nearly an hour, and I still hadn’t snagged a single ball. I was starting to get nervous, but thankfully, right at the end of the Mets’ portion of BP, a ball rolled all the way out to the wall in left-center and I was able to reel it in with my glove trick. Before I could lower my glove over the ball, I had to swing it out and knock it closer. Evan took a few photos with his camera, and since he hadn’t packed the cable that connects the camera to his laptop, I took a photo of his photo. Naturally the quality is bad, but whatever. You can still tell what’s going on. Here it is:

zack_glove_trick_08_25_08.jpg

By the time I snagged the ball, the Astros had taken the field and Reggie Abercrombie was standing nearby and watching me. He didn’t say much after I got the ball, but I suspect he was impressed. Evan managed to snag TWO more balls during the remaining 45 minutes of BP. The first was a ground-rule double that he had to reach over the railing to catch, and the second actually hit my left shoe. An Astros player had tossed it into the bleachers. It landed several rows back, got bobbled by some fans (shocker!), and quickly trickled down the steps to where we were standing in the aisle, which was so crowded that I literally wasn’t able to bend down to grab it. The ball hit my shoe and deflected right toward Evan who snatched it with one clean lunge.

Hailey and Mark were positioned in the front row in left-center, and if the Astros weren’t so stingy, it would’ve been a great spot to get another ball or two. But nothing was tossed their way. I was able to use the glove trick once more to snag another ball off the warning track, and that was it for BP. Evan had four balls, while Hailey and I each had two. Mark hadn’t snagged any, but I don’t think he cared. He just wanted to see us all in action, and of course he was happy that his kids had done well.

zack_hample_autograph.jpgOne of the highlights of my day occurred between BP and the game, while Evan and Hailey were with me. I’d been getting recognized by fans throughout the day, and one of them (a kid named Jordan) asked me to sign his copy of the Mets Magazine.

“Where do you want me to sign it?” I asked.

“Wherever,” he said and suggested that I sign David Wright’s photo on the cover.

It was an honor to get to write my name there, so after I did it, I took a photo…and here it is on the right. If you look closely, you can see that I wrote my up-to-the-minute ball total. That’s how I do all my snagging-related signatures. Whenever I sign copies of Watching Baseball Smarter, I write the date after my name. I always thought it was cool when major leaguers (or any celebrities) had variations in their signatures–no doubt because my mom runs the autograph department of the family book store–so I decided long ago that whenever someone asked for my autograph, I’d change it up every now and then.

From a Mets fan’s perspective, the game was great–the Mets won, 9-1, Mike Pelfrey pitched his second straight complete game, Carlos Delgado hit two three-run homers, and Jose Reyes had three hits including his major league-leading 15th triple–but from a ball-snagging perspective, it was lousy. For each of the first three innings, I snuck Hailey down to the seats behind the Mets’ dugout, then brought her back to Mark at our assigned seats on the left field side…then did the same with Evan at the Astros’ dugout. The goal was to snag a third-out ball as the players came off the field each half-inning, but there were a million little kids in the first few rows behind the Mets’ dugout, and as for the Astros…Lance Berkman kept ending up with the balls and tossing them deep (and unpredictably) into the crowd. We came up empty but still had fun sneaking around and playing our own little game-within-the-game.

After the third inning, I helped Hailey and Mark sneak back into the seats behind the Mets’ dugout, and I took Evan up to the Loge to go for foul balls. Again, we had fun running around, but came up empty. There was nothing I could do about that. I can guarantee BP balls, but the game itself is a whole nother story.

During the last half-inning, all four of us went down to the seats behind home plate, hoping for at least one ball from umpire Chad Fairchild as he walked off the field. But no. As soon as the final out was recorded, he marched through the tunnel and never looked up at us.

Oh well. The day was still a success.

mark_zack_hailey_postgame.jpg

Hailey didn’t actually keep my baseballs. She was content with the two she’d snagged on her own, so she just borrowed mine for this photo.

STATS:

? 2 balls at this game

? 348 balls in 49 games this season = 7.1 balls per game.

? 545 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

? 11 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

? 3,625 total balls

? 1 more photo for you (taken just before we headed out of the stadium)…

sprinklers.jpg

8/23/08 at Shea Stadium

It was a good day. I didn’t set any records, but I definitely milked Shea Stadium for all it was worth.

The happiness started at 4pm when I got off the No. 7 train, started wandering around the ballpark, and happened to run into a small group of fans who had an extra ticket for the picnic area…which they gave to me for free.

Shea opened at 4:40pm, and when batting practice finally got underway 15 minutes later, I positioned myself along the left field foul line. This was the view:

view_from_LF_foul_line.jpg

Because Brandon Backe, a right-hander, was going to be pitching for the Astros that night, I figured that the Mets’ switch-hitters (Jose Reyes, Argenis Reyes, and Carlos Beltran) would be batting left-handed during BP. I was hoping that one of them (or any of the other lefties on the team) would slap a ball down the line–and that’s exactly what happened. I’m pretty sure it was Jose who hit it. The ball plunked onto the grass, 30 feet short of my spot, and then curved sharply (and predictably) into foul territory because of the side-spin. By this point, I had already moved down into the blue seats where I leaned over the low wall for the easy scoop.

That was the only ball I snagged during the Mets’ portion of BP.

After the Astros pitchers came out and played catch in left field, I ended up getting a ball from Wandy Rodriguez. And then I got him to sign my ticket:

wandy_rodriguez_autograph.jpg

After the picnic area opened, I raced into the bleachers and got Reggie Abercrombie to toss me my third ball of the day. Five minutes later, I used my glove trick to pluck ball No. 4 off the warning track in left-center.

The bleachers were unbelievably empty throughout BP. I can’t explain it. They’d been packed the night before, but on this day, I had the wide aisle all to myself. Check it out:

empty_aisle_during_BP.jpg

The other fans were apparently there to WATCH batting practice. A few of them even looked at me funny because I was the only guy running around with a glove. It was a dream come true, but of course there were hardly any other batted balls that reached the seats.

At one point, a ball cleared the outfield wall in left-center but fell short of the bleachers. I thought it was going to be the perfect glove trick opportunity, but when I ran over and looked down into the gap, I saw that the ball had rolled back under the bleachers. I wasn’t going to be able to lower my glove straight down. Long story short (and because I don’t want to get myself in trouble), let’s just say that I found a way to get down there. The following photo shows the obstacle course under the bleachers that I had to work my way through…

under_the_bleachers1.jpg

…and it was totally worth it. When I reached the far end, this is what I saw:

under_the_bleachers2.jpg

It took about 10 seconds to climb over/under the last few metal beams and work my way to the ball so that I was close enough to grab it. During that time I was more concerned that another fan would appear out of nowhere and beat me to it than with the idea that I might get arrested or electrocuted.

I snagged one more ball–my sixth of the day–during the last round of BP when some righty on the Astros hit a home run right to me. A few other fans half-heartedly reached up at the last second. I reached farther and made the embarrassingly easy catch, prompting one man to suggest that I play left field during the game.

All five of the balls I’d snagged from the Astros were marked with a big “H” on the sweet spot:

H_balls_08_23_08.jpg

After BP had ended, I caught up with the fans who’d given me the ticket and noticed that they were all wearing pink wristbands. I knew what this meant–they had access to the all-you-can-eat tent–so I asked them if they had an extra wristband. They said they didn’t and suggested that I walk over to the main entrance to the picnic area and tell security that I was with Verizon…which I did…and it worked.

foul_ball_location_08_23_08.jpg

With one out in the top of the fourth inning, Backe was at-bat and worked a full count off John Maine. Next pitch? 94-mph fastball. Backe swung late, hit the bottom ball3623_brandon_backe_foul.jpg
edge of the ball, and sent it SHOOTING back in my direction, possibly as fast as the pitch itself had traveled. I was already standing in the tunnel (and extra ready to pounce because pitchers often swing late…and because 3-2 counts are great for foul balls), so all I had to do was take one step forward, shift ever-so-slightly to my right, and reach a foot over my head for the backhand catch. Couldn’t have been much easier, and yet the hundreds of people sitting around me went bonkers. I’ve never heard cheers and applause so loud for ANY foul ball before. I could actually feel the vibration from the roar of the crowd. I don’t understand it. Maybe with the Mets already well on their way to an 8-3 loss, the fans needed something else to get excited about? Anyway, it felt good, but unfortunately this was the last ball that came anywhere near me.

Throughout the game, I kept running into Clif (aka “goislanders4″ in the comments section) and his friend Marco. They’d had a rough day in the snagging department, but I think they still had fun overall. After the game, Clif’s mom Gail (who you might remember from 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium) was kind enough to give me a ride home.

shea_postgame_from_parking_lot.jpg

STATS:

? 7 balls at this game

? 346 balls in 48 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 10 game balls this season (not counting game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)

? 121 lifetime game balls (115 foul balls, 5 home runs, 1 ground-rule double)

? 5 lifetime seasons with 10 or more game balls

? 2nd time snagging 10 or more game balls in back-to-back seasons

? 544 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

? 3,623 total balls

8/22/08 at Shea Stadium

crowd_outside_gate_c.jpgBy the time Gate C opened at 4:40pm, the line of fans waiting to get in was longer than I’d ever seen it. (This photo, by the way, only shows the first part of half the line. There were just as many people behind me, snaking off into the distance in the opposite direction.)

During the entire Mets’ portion of batting practice, I managed to snag ONE ball. I was in the Loge Level in right field and got Luis Ayala (who didn’t recognize me because he was recently traded to the Mets) to toss it up after he finished playing catch. The ball was commemorative, which made me feel good for about 1.6 seconds, and then I went back to being annoyed that my day was off to such a slow start.

At least I got to have a funny conversation with Mets bullpen coach Guy Conti. A bit earlier, when I was standing along the right field foul line on the Field Level, I got his attention by asking if he wanted to play catch.

“I need to warm up my arm,” I said.

“So do a lot of these guys,” he replied while giving a little nod toward the pitchers. Then he asked, “When does school start back up?”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” I said, “because I graduated from college almost eight years ago.”

old_and_older.jpg
Conti couldn’t believe it. “You look so young!” he shouted.

“Good,” I said.

“It IS good,” he continued. “Feliciano is always trying to get young girls, but he looks so old. I keep telling him he’s got no chance.”

“No chance at all,” I said, and we both laughed.

Despite the fact that there was an enormous crowd waiting for autographs behind the Mets’ dugout, I was able to work my way into the front row just before the whole team came off the field, and I got a ball tossed to me by Mets bench coach Sandy Alomar Sr.

Jona (my girlfriend, in case you’re new to this blog) was with me again, and for the second day in a row we were able to get tickets for the picnic area. Once that section opened, I ran out there and immediately grabbed a home run ball, hit by some righty on the Astros, that clanged off the metal flooring.

Fifteen minutes later, I used my glove trick to snag a ball that had dropped into the gap between the bleachers and the outfield wall, and two minutes after that I got Michael Bourn to toss me another.

Ready for the funny photo of the day? It’s actually not THAT funny without an explanation, so let me first tell you what happened…

During the final round of BP, another unidentifiable Astros righty launched a deep fly ball 50 feet to my right, at which point I ran through the aisle and jumped as high as I could and made a backhand catch with people all around me. It WAS a nice catch, but considering the fact that most of the other fans were flinching, and that I played college ball, and that I’m still relatively young and fit…I’m sorry but it wasn’t THAT incredible. None of the grown-ups were wearing gloves. None of the kids even saw the ball coming. And there was lots of luck involved. If the ball had traveled six inches farther, my white-boy-vertical-leap wouldn’t have been enough, so after everyone was done oohing and ahhing and I was walking back to my spot in the middle of the section, Jona happened to capture me with a funny/telling facial expression:

zack_after_catching_home_run.jpg

It’s like I was thinking, “People. Please. That was easy. You’re all fools for thinking otherwise. I had it all the way. Now step aside.”

One minute before BP ended, I used my glove trick to snag another ball which I promptly handed to a little girl on my right who (of course) was wearing a glove and hadn’t yet snagged one on her own.

Jona and I stayed in the bleachers for the game. At least I think there was a game. I heard later that it was pretty good–that the Mets won, 3-0, behind another strong outing by Johan Santana. I didn’t know it at the time because this was my view during most of it:

view_during_game_08_22_08.jpg

Seriously, the kids were out of control–or rather the “parents” were out of control for allowing their kids to eat sugar all night and get hyper and run around the aisle nonstop and stand right in front of people who were there, ostensibly, to watch baseball.

H_balls_08_22_08.jpg
STATS:

? 7 balls at this game (five of which were marked with an “H” by the Houston Astros, one of which I gave away)

? 339 balls in 47 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 543 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

? 3,616 total balls

8/21/08 at Shea Stadium

Jona (the G.F.) joined me for this game, and when we got off the No. 7 train at Shea Stadium, this is what we saw:

citi_field_sign1.jpg

Talk about timing! The (ugly) sign for Citi Field was in the process of being put up, and if you look closely at the photo above, you can see the “E” dangling backward as it was being hoisted.

Ten minutes later the “E” was in place:

citi_field_sign2.jpg

Thirteen minutes after Shea opened, the Mets still hadn’t started taking batting practice, so I was reduced to begging (unsuccessfully) for balls along the right field foul line. (I’m wearing a white T-shirt and blue cap in the photo below.)

zack_before_BP_started.jpg

Once the Mets finally started hitting, I headed up to the corner spot in the Loge and got two (non-commemorative) balls thrown to me during the next half-hour. The first came from Ramon Castro. The second came from Brian Stokes, and Jona snapped three quick photos as the ball was in mid-air. Here’s the first:

brian_stokes_thrown_ball1.jpg

Here’s the second…

brian_stokes_thrown_ball2.jpg

…and here’s the third (with the nearly-completed Citi Field sign visible):

brian_stokes_thrown_ball3.jpg

Jona and I had been able to find a couple bleacher tickets, and apparently Greg (aka “gregorybarasch” if you read the comments) had gotten one as well because we all ended up there when that section opened:

zack_bleachers_08_21_08.jpg

My third ball of the day was tossed up unexpectedly by a Braves player that I couldn’t see from my spot several rows back. Luckily, Greg had been standing in the front row and told me that Jo-Jo Reyes was the guy who tossed it.

Five minutes later, I scooted to my left along the top of a bench and caught a ground-rule double that Chipper Jones had hit while batting left-handed.

Greg ended up getting a couple balls that I easily would’ve had if he weren’t there, and I’m sure I snagged a few that he would’ve had if not for me. That’s just how it goes. There’s not much room to maneuver at Shea (or Yankee) so whenever we end up at the same game, we inevitably end up getting in each other’s way. (And yet we’re still friends. Awwww.)

Toward the end of BP, I got Julian Tavarez to throw me a ball in left-center field and then got another flipped to me by Vladimir Nunez in straight-away left.

That was it. Slow day.

I gave the Nunez ball to the youngest kid (with a glove!) that I could find. The kid was with some friends, one of whom recognized me from SNY, and Jona (who photographs everything, much to my delight) took a pic while I was talking to them:

zack_after_giving_ball_to_kid.jpg

Just to give you an idea of how I unfairly get a bad reputation…
During BP, there was a man (with no glove or kids) who complained every time I snagged another ball, and when I told him that I was planning to give one of the balls away to a kid, he said, “Yeah right,” and continued bad-mouthing me to everyone in sight. When I finally gave the ball away, not only was the man nowhere to be seen, but a security guard walked over and said, “I see what you did. You gave away the most beat
up ball you had.”

I tried to explain that all my other balls had been labeled…that I wanted to give one away that I hadn’t yet written on…that I simply gave away the LAST ball I had…that I would’ve given it away even if it were brand new…that I prefer to keep beat up balls because it’s fun to look at the markings and figure out how they got there.

He didn’t buy it.

The point is, if you read negative things about me on other blogs and message boards, don’t assume they’re true. I’m not saying I’ve NEVER done anything wrong–just that some people only see what they want to see.

As for the game itself…
yunel_escobar.jpgI stayed in the bleachers and nearly snagged two home run balls. The first was hit by Yunel Escobar on the first pitch of the game. I was lined up perfectly, but the ball fell about 10 to 15 feet short and landed on the netting that (in some places) covers the gap between the bleachers and the outfield wall. Just as I was starting to set up my glove trick, a fan who was standing down below was able to pull the netting aside JUST enough to reach up and squeeze the ball through.

david_wright.jpgIn the bottom of the fifth inning, David Wright hit a line drive homer about 30 feet to my right. I couldn’t have caught it on a fly because it fell several rows in front of the aisle, but because the fans dropped it and bobbled it, I was able to get close enough to it to ALMOST grab it off the ground. My right hand was about a foot away from the ball when I got pinned against the sharp metal corner of a bench (ouch), had my hat knocked off (whatever), and got a cup of beer splashed against my left shin (gross). If I’d gotten there half a second sooner, I would’ve had the ball, and I WOULD HAVE gotten there in time if not for three little kids who were standing right in the middle of aisle, completely blocking my path as I initially jumped up and started running. Some people might’ve knocked the kids over. I, on the other hand, was totally aware of my surroundings and valued the kids’ safety more than getting a David Wright home run ball so I slowed down and carefully slipped past them, and it cost me.

At Yankee Stadium, the people in the bleachers are crude and hostile, but I will say this in their defense: They are INTO the game. At Shea Stadium, the bleacher crowd is out-of-it and just plain annoying. I can’t count the number of times I had to get up and walk across the aisle and ask people to move or sit down because they were blocking my view. Sitting in the bleachers at Shea Stadium is basically like doing three hours of people-watching while something called baseball is being played way off in the background.

The Mets won, 5-4. That much I knew. But I had no idea that Carlos Delgado went 5-for-5 until I got home and read the box score.

I’ll leave you with a pic I took of some of the 51,952 “fans” heading for the subway after the game (followed by my stats):

crowd_leaving_after_game.jpg

STATS:

? 6 balls at this game

? 332 balls in 46 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 542 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

? 3,609 total balls

? 1 last thing (in case you missed it in the comments on a recent entry): there are a couple regular ballhawks at PNC Park who recently started a blog about their snagging exploits, and you can check it out here. Unfortunately I didn’t meet them while I was there earlier this month. Thankfully they found me online and got in touch.

8/19/08 at Citizens Bank Park

This was my third Watch With Zack game with Clif, a 14-year-old Mets fan who’s been reading this blog since last year and leaving comments as “goislanders4.” Our first game together was on 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium. The second was on 7/28/08 at Yankee Stadium. His mother Gail couldn’t make it to this game, so I picked Clif up at home, then got a tour of his baseball collection…

clif_at_home.jpg

…and drove him to Philadelphia. (I don’t know why Clif decided to wear a Padres hat for the photo above, but I can explain the shirt: the Phillies were going to be playing the Nationals. Clif’s favorite player is Nationals center fielder Lastings Milledge and the shirt said “MILLEDGE 44″ on the back.) This was the 10th Watch With Zack game I’d done since starting the business last year, but it was the first time that I went with a kid and no one else. I was extra responsible for Clif’s well-being, and yet I felt more free than ever to run around for balls and help him do the same. He’d already proven (to both me and his mom) that he knew his way around a major league stadium. He didn’t need a babysitter. He just needed someone to GET him to Citizens Bank Park so he could do his thing. Of course, it didn’t hurt that that someone was me.

We arrived at the stadium at 3:15pm…

clif_zack_outside_stadium.jpg

…and got cheesesteaks at McFadden’s:

clif_cheesesteaks.jpg

We were the first ones to run inside the stadium when the Ashburn Alley gate opened at 4:35pm. Clif peeled off and headed to the corner spot in center field. I walked over to the foul pole and took a photo of the left field seats:

LF_before_BP.jpg

See the flower bed that separates the seats from the outfield wall? Once BP got underway, I leaned all the way across it (with my knees on the back railing and my elbows on the front) and used my glove trick to snag two balls off the warning track.

ball3598_lopsided.jpgJust when I was starting to feel guilty that I had two and Clif had none, he got a ball tossed to him by Shane Victorino.

As the left field seats were getting more crowded, I caught a line drive homer on a fly and snagged another home run ball off the ground–a ball that had initially hit the heel of my glove when an aggressive Phillies fan bumped me from behind. The ball was lopsided. Check it out in the photo on the right. You don’t see that too often with “official major league baseballs.”

Toward the end of the Phillies’ portion of batting practice, Clif and I convened in left-center field, and I caught another home run on a fly. I was about six rows back, and the ball was hit high in the air. I judged it perfectly and drifted down the steps as it descended, and I reached up above half a dozen hands at the last second to make the catch. This was my record-breaking 322nd ball of the season (my previous record was set in 2005) and Clif was excited because he’d gotten a great view.

Clif and I ran out to the seats in right-center when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:35pm. Less than two minutes later, he got his second ball of the day from Nationals pitcher Garrett Mock, and I took a photo as the ball was flying his way. Check it out:

clif_catching_2nd_ball.jpg

Clif is wearing the dark glove. The ball was thrown right to him. The kid on his left (with the light blond hair) nearly interfered. Good thing Clif was reaching out for the ball instead of standing back and waiting for it.

A little while later, Clif headed over to left-center and got ball No. 3 from Tim Redding. (I’ll let Clif share all the details about this and his other balls in a comment.)

The next ball I caught was my sixth of the the day and the 3,600th of my life. I wish I knew who hit it. It was another home run. It was hit by a right-handed batter on the Nationals. I bolted to my right through the empty second row, then realized the ball was tailing back so I darted back to my left and made a two-handed catch right where I’d been standing in the first place. Duh. And it was one of those crappy training balls:

The ball was so slick…it felt like it was made of wax. I really don’t understand why teams use these balls. I mean, okay, they’re trying to save money, but these balls feel nothing like game balls. If you were a concert pianist, would you practice on a Fisher Price keyboard? If you were a NASCAR driver, would you train by driving a ’98 Pontiac? Umm, no, probably not. Therefore, I demand to know: WHY ARE MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS USING CHEAP PLASTICKY BASEBALLS?!?! The only theory I can come up with is that if the players are forced to hit inferior balls, they might not try to hit home runs because they’ll know the balls won’t travel that far. This might make them focus on swinging level and hitting line drives, which ideally would improve their hitting. But it’s not. The Nationals are the worst team in baseball, and as of three days ago, they were mired in a losing streak that ended up lasting 12 games.

Collin Balester tossed me my seventh ball of the day–another stupid training ball–in straight away right field, and that was it for BP.

Ten minutes before the game started, two Nationals players began throwing in front of the third base dugout. I asked Clif which end of the dugout he wanted, and he chose the outfield end. It was a good choice because Ronnie Belliard, the older of the two players, was on that end. (The more experienced player usually ends up with the ball.) Sure enough, several minutes later, Belliard flipped the ball to Clif on his way in. I got another action photo:

clif_catching_4th_ball.jpg

Did you see the ball? Here’s a closer look:

clif_catching_4th_ball_closeup.jpg

Moments later, two more Nationals came out and started throwing. Clif stayed on his end. I stayed on mine. Ryan Zimmerman, the more experienced player, was closer to me and ended up tossing me the ball.

Poor Clif.

The ball he’d gotten from Belliard was a training ball.
The ball I got from Zimmerman was…

ball3602_ryan_zimmerman.jpg

…a thing of beauty. But don’t feel too bad for Clif. He’d already gotten one of these balls earlier this season at Nationals Park, and when I offered to give him this one, he wouldn’t accept it.

Another reason not to feel bad for Clif is that he got Lastings Milledge to sign his T-shirt. Here’s Milledge tossing the shirt back to Clif:

clif_getting_milledge_autograph.jpg

Here’s Clif wearing the shirt backwards to show off the signature…

clif_milledge_autograph.jpg

…and here’s a closeup of the signature:

milledge_autograph.jpg

As for the game…
Gail had hooked us up by going on StubHub and getting two Diamond Club tickets. The club itself is pretty lame. It’s just a big, over-fancy restaurant tucked underneath the concourse behind home plate, but the seats themselves were IDEAL for chasing foul balls. Seriously, just look at this view from the first-base side of home plate:

foul_ball_heaven.jpg

It’s truly impossible to sneak down to this section without a ticket. When you first arrive, there’s a pair of ushers (at the bottom of each of the two staircases) who make SURE you belong. The first guy checks your ticket and punches a hole in it, and the second guy gives you a wristband that you have to wear for the rest of the night. There’s no way to take off the wristband and give it to so
meone else. The only way to take it off is to rip it off, and get this…the color of the band changes from game to game, and the date of the game is printed right on it:

diamond_club_wristband.jpg

I’m telling you, the ushers guard this section as if their lives depend on it. On 4/25/07 at Citizens Bank Park, I got to explore the Diamond Club before the game because I had media credentials for a TV segment I was being filmed for, but once the game started, I got kicked out. I was stunned. This was my 15th game ever at Citizens Bank Park, and it was the first time I’d ever been in this section during the game, but of course, since I’m jinxed, there wasn’t a single foul ball hit anywhere near me all night. Amazing. But it was still fun to roam and hope.

Clif spent the first few innings going for third-out balls behind the Nationals’ dugout, and it paid off in a BIG way. Phillies catcher Chris Coste flied out to center field to lastings_milledge.jpg
end the bottom of the second. Who was playing center field for the Nationals? That’s right: Lastings Milledge. From my spot behind home plate, I could see Clif work his way down to the front row as soon as the catch was made, and eventually I saw Milledge flip the ball in Clif’s direction. But there were a bunch of other kids, and I couldn’t tell who had gotten it. I immediately called Clif on his cell phone. His voice-mail picked up. He was trying to call me. I answered and asked if he’d gotten the ball. He had! WOOO!!! Go Clif!!! How awesome is that?! Getting a game-used ball tossed to you by your favorite player?! Damn. I wish I could take credit and say that Clif couldn’t have done it without me–and perhaps he wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gone to this game with him–but he deserves all the credit. He knew what to do, and he made it happen. I was proud of him and very excited.

ball3603_brad_lidge_save.jpg
Clif and I were rooting for the Nationals all the way, but they blew a 4-1 lead and ended up losing, 5-4. I figured the best shot of getting a post-game ball was from the home plate umpire on the Nationals’ side, so I let Clif go for that. I went to the Phillies’ dugout and didn’t expect to get anything because it was so crowded and noisy, but as it turned out, Clif wasn’t able to make it all the way down to the front row to even ask the umpire for a ball, and I happened to get Brad Lidge to toss me the game-ending ball. Sweet! It was THE ball he had used to record his 31st save of the season and the 154th of his career (not to mention his 631st career strikeout). It felt good.

Once again, I offered to give that ball (and others) to Clif, but he wouldn’t take it. He had his collection. He knew I had mine. And that was that.

zack_clif_balls.jpg

STATS:

? 9 balls at this game

? 326 balls in 45 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 541 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

? 10 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

? 3,603 total balls

But wait! That’s not the end of this blog entry. Because this was Clif’s third Watch With Zack game, he got a bonus the following day. I invited him over to my place where he saw (among other things) my 210-pound rubber band ball…

clif_rubber_band_ball.jpg

…and played some Arkanoid:

clif_arkanoid.jpg

Then we went over to my parents’ place where I keep most of my baseballs. You could say Clif was in awe:

clif_baseballs1.jpg

You could also say Clif had fun:

clif_baseballs2.jpg

There are exactly 1,200 balls (three barrels’ worth) in the photo above. Clif stayed buried for about 20 minutes until Gail showed up. You could say she had fun too.

Quick update

I went to Citizens Bank Park two days ago. It was fun. I still haven’t had a chance to start blogging about it. I’m leaving for Shea Stadium in three hours. I’m going to try to get into the picnic area again. I plan to be there every day through Saturday if the weather stays nice, so look for me on any home runs to left or left-center. Did I mention that I booked a trip to California? I’m leaving one week from today. I’ll be at PETCO Park on August 29th (where I’ll be filmed for Channel 10 News), Angel Stadium on August 30th, PETCO again on August 31st (for a day game…yuck), and Dodger Stadium on September 1st and 2nd. I’ve been reading all the comments on this blog, but I haven’t yet had a chance to respond. I’m way behind on my emails as well. Sorry if I’m keeping you waiting for a response. Things are just really crazy. Last piece of news for now: I have a radio interview tomorrow morning at 11:30am ET on Springfield, Missouri’s KWTO-FM Jock 98.7. The show is called “Sports Reporters.” The hosts are Ned Reynolds and Scott Puryear. You can listen online by clicking here, so check it out if you can. More soon…

Online ticket brokers

I’m in the process of getting cheated by an online ticket broker. I’m trying to fight back, and I want to share my story so it doesn’t happen to you…

It all started before my trip to Pittsburgh last week. I’d heard that PNC Park opened half an hour earlier for season ticket holders, so I basically needed to get a hold of season tickets for the two games I was going to be there–NOT those awful print-at-home tickets or box office tickets.

I thought about using StubHub–I’d ordered from them a dozen times and never had a problem–but I needed to make SURE that the tickets I got were season tickets. I needed to find a ticket broker who could actually see the tickets I was going to buy and confirm on the phone that they were indeed season tickets.

I went online. Did a Google search. Found a few ticket brokers. Called a company called Coast to Coast Tickets and told the sales rep what I needed: one season ticket for the game on August 12th and two season tickets for the game on August 13th. After some initial confusion on his part about what a “season ticket” actually was, he told me that he WOULD be able to fulfill my request. It was going to cost a lot of money–$62.48 for the first game and $104.96 for the second–but I decided it was worth it.

I told the sales rep that I absolutely NEEDED to get the tickets by August 11th because I was going to be leaving first thing in the morning on the 12th.

“No problem,” he said.

Then I asked if all three tickets could be shipped together. That way, I explained, I wouldn’t have to pay two FedEx shipping fees. At first the sales rep said no. Then he called back five minutes later and said yes.

Excellent!

But wait. I got a call from another sales rep half an hour later and was told that there was no guarantee that the tickets would be season tickets.

“In that case,” I said, “I need to cancel the order.”

I had to explain (once again) why I needed season tickets, and then the order was canceled…or so I was told.

I immediately went on craigslist, posted an ad, and later heard from a Pirates season ticket holder who said he’d meet me outside the stadium on August 12th and hook me up with season tickets (which he did…sort of).

Fast-forward to August 14th. I got home from Pittsburgh, and what did I see? Two FedEx envelopes containing printed-at-home Pittsburgh Pirates tickets.

Wow.

I called Coast to Coast Tickets and explained the error and asked for a refund. They said they had nothing to do with it and told me to contact a company called Northside Tickets. Northside, I was told, was the company that actually processed my “order” and charged my credit card and mailed the tickets. I took another look at the FedEx label, and sure enough, it said “Northside Tickets.”

I called Northside. They said I had to take it up with Coast to Coast. I called Coast to Coast again. They said I had to take it up with Northside. I asked to speak to a manager. I was told that the manager had to review the paper work and that she’d call me back within a few minutes.

She never called.

I called back two hours later. (This is Coast to Coast Tickets we’re talking about.) I asked for the manager. The manager was unavailable…so I got lectured (again) by the sales rep about the company’s terms and policies and how all sales are final.

“You don’t understand!” I said. “There never should’ve BEEN a sale!”

“Well, sir, you’ll have to take that up with Northside Tickets.”

I threatened to report them to the Better Business Bureau. Then I threatened to write a big blog entry for my “thousands of readers” about how they sucked. (During the baseball season, I do actually get several thousand hits per day…sometimes.)

Where do we stand?

I’ve already filed an official complaint with the BBB, and this is the blog entry. (Duh.)

Coast to Coast Tickets sucks. Don’t EVER use them. Don’t use Northside Tickets either. I’m not sure how responsible they are, but I can tell you that the confusion definitely started with Coast to Coast because that’s who I called first.

Earlier today, I called my credit card company to dispute the charges. The “investigation” could take 30 to 90 days, so this will be an ongoing fight.

The End.

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