April 2009

4/28/09 at Miller Park

This was the final game of my trip, and I started off by using the glove trick to snag two balls from the gap in left field. The first was easy because it was sitting right below me, but the second ball was way off to the side and it took me TWENTY minutes to reel it in! (It was worth it; there was nothing else going on at the time.)

The following photo (taken by my friend Kelly) will give you an idea of the challenge I faced. I’ve drawn a red “X” to indicate where the ball was initially sitting, and as you can see below, I moved the ball a bit, but it was now trapped against a wall:

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One thing that made this so tough was that the area in the gap was slightly sloped. I had to swing my glove back and forth to try to knock the ball closer, and every time I managed to do that, it kept rolling back to where it had been.

Here’s a photo that shows me swinging the glove:

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As you can see, there were a couple bars/pipes that were perpendicular to the wall. This meant that I couldn’t swing my glove as hard or far as I wanted in either direction.

Eventually I managed to knock the ball away from the wall, and then once it was out in the open, I managed to knock it closer. Finally, when I’d moved it right below me, I was able to lower my glove gently and snag it. Here’s a shot of my glove dangling just above the ball…

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…and here I am, reaching out for it after carefully lifting the glove back up:

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I must not have put the rubber band on tight enough because as you can see, the ball was barely being held in place. Anyway, the trick worked. That’s all that mattered. I don’t need style points. I just need baseballs. (And yes, I really do “need” them. Some people need air. I need baseballs. Don’t question me. Well, I also need air.)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the edges of my glove got VERY scuffed because of my antics. Every time I had swung the glove to my left, I tried to drop it on the ball and tug it back in one motion. (This took far more athleticism and hand-eye coordination than almost any ball I’ve ever caught on the fly.) But I kept missing 9 out of 10 times, and as a result the glove kept hitting/skimming the concrete. My glove now looks like absolute crap, and I’d have to say it was worth it.

5_ball3923_got_game.jpg There was a third ball that landed in the gap, and as I was in the process of trying to knock it closer, a stadium employee retrieved it and (much to my surprise) tossed it up. That was my third ball of the day, and the words “GOT GAME” were already written on the sweet spot.

Over the years, many teams have marked their balls in various ways, but the Brewers (as I discovered firsthand the day before) have recently been scribbling random words and phrases. I’m not sure if this is their attempt to deter employees from stealing the balls, or if the players and coaches are just being silly. Either way, it doesn’t bother me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nice to snag a ball that’s different from all the others, but I’d be pretty disappointed if I’d never gotten a single ball and then ended up catching one that had been defaced.

When the Pirates took the field, I got Jesse Chavez to toss me my fourth ball of the day. Then I ran over to the seats along the left field foul line because there was a ball sitting on the warning track, about a foot out from the wall. By the time I got there, a fellow ballhawk named Shawn was already standing above the ball. I was pretty sure he had a glove trick of his own, yet he wasn’t setting it up, so I asked him if I could go for it. At first it seemed like he wanted the ball for himself, but then I realized he was cool with it. He was there with his mom, and they were both focusing on Pirates bullpen coach Luis Dorante (who was playing catch and had two balls in his back pocket) so we each had our own agenda. Anyway, I set up my trick, waited for the nearby on-field security guy to look the other way, and then plucked it.

Even though the Pirates had taken the field, they hadn’t started hitting. The Brewers were still taking their final cuts, so I raced to their dugout…

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…and got two balls tossed to me within a 30-second span when everyone came off the field. The first was given to me by a ballboy and the second was flipped by bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel. At first, it didn’t seem like he was going to hook me up, so I modified my request and asked for a dirty ball. That convinced him, and this is the ball he gave me:

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Now let’s get something straight, once and for all…

Over the years, I’ve taken some heat from fellow ballhawks–especially the old-school guys–because I “beg” for balls and use my glove trick so often. My only response is: “Why is that a bad thing?” Some ballhawks are only interested in catching home runs, and I’ll be the first to say that they deserve a TON of credit. It’s not easy, and some of their numbers are mind-boggling. There are, however, other ways to snag baseballs, and I think that those ways should be respected. If you look at how my stats break down in Erik Jabs’ ballhawk league, you’ll see that only a small portion of my baseballs were batted. It’s not that I’m bad at judging fly balls, or that I can’t catch them when they start flying at me…it’s that I just don’t spend that much time in the outfield seats. For me, it’s all about maximizing my numbers so I like to roam and get baseballs in all sorts of ways. If it somehow became illegal to ask players for balls, or if fans received the death penalty for using glove tricks, then yeah, I’d focus on catching home runs, and I’m sure my numbers would be pretty good. But for now, I’m content snagging baseballs any way I can get ‘em. Thank you.

I had seven balls in my backpack when I decided to head up to the 2nd deck in left field. Rather than using the concourse to get from the dugout to the left field side, I cut through the seats and ended up getting Craig Monroe to throw me a ball along the left field foul line. I was about ten rows back and he fired it over everyone’s heads in front of me. *Then* I headed upstairs and got three more balls thrown to me during the next half-hour. Nothing fancy. The first came from Ian Snell, the second (which I later gave away to a kid) came from Brandon Moss, and the third came from Mister Jesse Chavez out in left-center. He must’ve thrown a dozen balls into the crowd, and he wasn’t being too selective.

By the end of BP, the 2nd deck was officially crowded, but get this…almost everyone was sitting down:

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People in the Midwest pride themselves on being laid-back, but this was ridiculous. There were very few kids (perhaps because it was a weekday in April), and only a handful of adults had gloves, so there wasn’t really direct competition. Instead, people were just in the way. My friend Nick (aka “The Happy Youngster”) had warned me about that. He was at this game too–I had stayed at his place the night before–and he snagged a bunch of balls as well. Miller Park is heavenly. That’s the official Zack Hample assessment.

I had 11 balls at the point. Five of them had the word “PRACTICE” stamped onto the sweet spot, and another ball had a big “P” drawn on by the Pittsburgh Pirates:

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You can see the little numbers that I wrote. The ball on the upper left, for example, says “3921” because that was the 3,921st ball I ever snagged, and if you’re wondering why the numbers are above the sweet spot on some balls and below it on others, the answer is that I always mark the balls on the same spot. Evidently, the person who stamps “PRACTICE” on them isn’t too concerned with which way the balls are facing. (By the way, I photographed the “GOT GAME” ball before I marked it. That’s why there’s no number on it.)

I snagged my 12th ball of the day at the Pirates’ dugout after BP. Some random equipment guy rolled it to me across the dugout roof. Thrilling, yes.

After that, I rushed to the upper deck and crammed all my wandering and photo-taking into the 40 minutes before game time. (Miller Park is so great for foul balls during games that I didn’t want to miss a single pitch.) This is what I saw as the escalator was approaching the upper deck:

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Here’s a look at the retractable roof…

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…and this is what I saw when I peered over the side edge of the upper deck:

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The word “beautiful” might not come to mind when you first see these pics, but that’s actually how I would describe this stadium. The angles are really interesting, and I love how the roof narrows/hinges into one spot. The glass panels above the last row of seats are tasteful; I like how there are beams AND how the light comes streaming in. Domed stadiums, to some extent, always look like spaceships and are often ugly. I’d say Tropicana Field is the worst and Minute Maid Park is the best, but Miller Park might be a close second. I don’t know…Chase Field is also pretty nice.

The concourse behind the left field foul pole was empty…

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…and didn’t look like like it was ever meant to be seen by fans. I love finding quiet areas inside major league stadiums. It keeps getting harder, with all these new facilities that are built without nooks and crannies, so I was glad to see that anything’s still possible in Milwaukee.

Here’s my panorama from the last row behind the plate:

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I ran into my friends Scott and Chad (you might remember them from 4/25/09 at U.S. Cellular Field) on the way to my seat on Loge level, and I met up with Kelly in the concourse.

I don’t want to discuss or even think about the game because it’s too frustrating. I’ll just say very quickly that was only ONE foul ball that flew back the entire night. It basically came right to me, right to the spot in a gloriously wide and empty aisle where I’d been campingout throughout the game, but at the exact moment that this ball was hit, I got blocked by two guys who were standing around with their beers, and they pretty much knocked the ball out of my glove. What should have been THE easiest catch of all-time turned into a frantic scramble that I lost. I can’t even begin to describe how pissed I was, so let’s just leave it at that.

Here’s a photo (taken by the lovely Kelly) that shows me in the aisle…white shirt, arms folded in disgust, leaning against the back wall:

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(I’m still pissed. I don’t want to think about it. And yet I’m still thinking about it. Leave me alone, brain! Think about something else. AAAHHH!!! Help.)

The Brewers won, 6-5, and Trevor Hoffman recorded his first non-Padre save since 1993. I love the guy, and I’m rooting for him all the way, but I don’t think he’s going to be an effective closer this season. The velocity just isn’t there. His fastball topped out at 86mph and was clocked several times between 82 and 84. Sure, Jamie Moyer is barely cracking 80 these days, but he’s a starter, and he’s also the exception to the rule. When I think of what a closer should be, I think of the words “dominating” and “intimidating.” Maybe that still applies to Hoffman because of his reputation. All I’m saying is…it makes me nervous to watch him pitch. It’s like when amateurs sing the national anthem. Do you ever feel like this? I find myself rooting for them simply NOT to mess up, rather than rooting for them to succeed. It’s the same whenever I watch Olympic figure skating (which is not often). Even though the competitors aren’t amateurs, I still cringe whenever they do a jump because I’m afraid something bad is gonna happen. That’s how it was for me at this game whenever Hoffman threw a pitch. Not a good sign.

Okay…

Just because I’m about to list my stats doesn’t mean you should stop scrolling down the page. There are some very important (and perhaps disturbing) photos coming up at the end…

SNAGGING STATS:

• 12 balls at this game

• 112 balls in 14 games this season = 8 balls per game.

• 41 balls in 3 lifetime games at Miller Park = 13.7 balls per game

• 583 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,932 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 98 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $18.27 pledged per ball

• $219.24 raised at this game

• $2,046.24 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Okay, it’s time for a few more photos, but first I have to ask if you remember the part in my previous entry where I showed Nick’s sports memorabilia. Does that ring a bell? Remember when I mentioned that he’s a police officer and that he has an effective way of protecting his collection? Good. Check it out:

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That’s Nick in the photo above (and no, he’s not really a Pirate fan). When he first told me that he had guns in the house, I nearly threw up a little bit in my mouth, and when he first showed them to me, I thought they were fake. I know NOTHING about guns. Guns make me nervous. I’m a nerdy Jew from the Upper West Side. I play Scrabble and I like bagels. I went to a Quaker college. GUNS?! For real?!?! I’m friends with someone who owns guns?! How did this happen? Where did I go wrong?

The photo below shows the handguns. The one on the left (with the wooden handle) is a Ruger .357 magnum, and the one on the right is a Glock .40 caliber:

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At least that’s what Nick claimed. He might’ve been lying, but I wasn’t about to argue.

Then he showed me the bullets:

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I’m going to assume that the red stuff on the upper right is paint and not blood. That’s a good assumption, right? I actually didn’t notice the red until I got back to NYC and started going through the pics. (Nick…if you’re reading this, what IS the red stuff? Did you drop your bullet in a glass of cherry cola?)

Being close to Nick’s guns was so far beyond my realm of reality that I kinda got into it. It’s like I was in a foreign land with an expert tour guide. On one hand, I felt totally helpless when it occurred to me that if Nick wanted to kill me and steal all my baseballs, he could’ve done so in approximately seven-tenths of a second, but on the other hand, I felt very comforted by the fact that he knew what he was doing and probably didn’t want to cause me any harm. Like I said, he’s a cop. He’s been trained extensively with firearms. In addition, these guns were licensed, and he went though numerous safety checks to make sure they weren’t loaded. Then he assured me that there was nothing illegal about me touching them and taking photos with them and sharing it on my blog.

And so…here I am:

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Wow, did that really happen? What have I done?! Quick!!! Let’s all think happy thoughts…

Rainbows! Kittens! Lollipops! Flowers!

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Ahh, I feel so much better.

4/27/09 at Miller Park

I woke up in Chicago, took a 90-minute train ride to Milwaukee, and found my friend Nick Yohanek waiting for me outside the station:

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Nick is an extremely skilled ballhawk who’s known as “The Happy Youngster.” He has his own website and blog, and although we’d been emailing back and forth for a couple years, the first time we met in person was 20 days earlier in Toronto. (One great thing about being a ballhawk is that friendships often develop fast with other ballhawks. Three weeks ago, I barely knew Nick…and now here he was, picking me up at a train station and letting me crash at his place for a night.)

Nick gave me a scenic tour of Milwaukee (which even HE would admit is an oxymoron) on the way to his place. We drove past Miller Park…

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…and pulled into his driveway less than 10 minutes later:

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As much as Nick loves the Brewers, he loves the Green Bay Packers even more. His basement is basically a memorabilia shrine for the two teams. Check it out below. Here’s one wall of stuff…

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…and here’s another:

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In the photo above, the home plate-shaped display case holds all 48 game home run balls that Nick has snagged. Truly remarkable. On the lower left, you can see his trademark t-shirt: Glove + Ball = Happy. (Nick is a police officer and has a very effective way of protecting his memorabilia collection. I’ll explain in my next entry.)

We headed to the stadium at around 3pm–plenty of time for me to wander all the way around the outside of it and take some pics. But first, here’s one that Nick took of me:

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Nick then walked me out to a nearby spot in the parking lot and showed me this:

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It says: “This marks the landing location of the final home run of Hank Aaron’s career, #755, hit at County Stadium on July 20, 1976.”

That final home run ball, by the way, caused a LOT of controversy. It was retrieved by a groundskeeper, and when the team asked the guy for the ball, he said he wanted to hand it over himself to Aaron. The team refused, so he was like, “Fine, then I’ll just keep the ball.” What did the team do? They fired him AND they docked him five dollars from his final paycheck for the cost of the ball. True story. (Shame on the Brewers.) I’ll be writing more about this in my next book, along with a bunch of other ball-related controversies. The last thing I’ll say about it for now is that the groundskeeper eventually got the last laugh.

Nick followed me as I kept wandering and taking pics. Miller Park is very nice, but the surrounding area is, in a word, nondescript:

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There’s no real atmosphere outside the ballpark. There are just a bunch of parking lots, but at least everything was clean and well-built and non-sketchy.The temperature was in the 70s, and the retractable roof was barely open:

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The roof ended up staying closed for the game, but it was cool to get there early enough to see a sliver of sky peeking through.Here’s another look at the outside of the stadium. There’s nothing WRONG with it. It’s just not sexy:

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Two edges of the stadium are slightly elevated above the surrounding land, so there’s a railing around the perimeter:

Now…I know that the people in Milwaukee are passionate about their bratwurst, so as I made my way around the stadium with Nick, it saddened me greatly to see the following:

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I can’t explain it. It was just…there.

Here’s one final look at the outside of Miller Park. This is the home plate entrance (and you can see Nick in the yellow shirt):

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As for the inside of Miller Park…

I met a fellow ballhawk named Shawn and his mother Sue (who also snags her fair share of baseballs). Shawn had a copy of my first book, How to Snag Major League Baseballs, and Sue had the new one, Watching Baseball Smarter:

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I signed the books for them and then got my snagging underway.

Ball No. 1 was tossed by Brewers coach Joe Crawford, and it had something strange written on it. Check it out:

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I’ve snagged a lot of marked balls over the years, including this one from the Brewers back in the 1990s, but I’d never seen anything like this. Within the last year or two, I’d been hearing stories about how the Brewers were writing random stuff on their practice balls, so it was great to finally get one.

When the Pirates took the field, there were still a few of the Brewers’ balls laying around on the warning track, and I got Zach Duke to toss one to me. (The line I used was, “How ’bout a ball for a fellow Zack?” First time I ever used that line successfully. I even offered to show him ID, but he took my word for it. Zacks are just cool like that, as are Zachs.) This second ball also had something written on the sweet spot, and when I ran over the right field bullpen and used my glove trick to reel in the following ball…

16_ball3911_bullpen.jpg…there was yet another random thing written on it.

Here are those first three balls I snagged, logos up:

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Now, here they are with the sweet spots up…

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…and let me just stress again that I did NOT write this stuff on the balls. They were like this when I caught them.

I managed to glove-trick another ball from the bullpen before security shut me down. There was just one usher who seemed to have a problem with my device, and when he told me I might get ejected if I used it again, I decided to move my operation to the second deck in left field.

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I didn’t expect to catch much up there, but it turned out to be a great spot. First, Brandon Moss threw me a ball, and then I snagged a home run that flew 10 feet over my head and landed in the mostly empty benches. Several minutes later, John Grabow tossed me my seventh ball of the day, and soon after I snagged another home run off the steps.

That wasn’t it.

While I was labeling the balls and scribbling down some notes about how I’d gotten them, I noticed that Craig Monroe was getting ready to throw a ball to some fans in the front row about 30 feet to my left. As he fired it up, I bolted to my left and cut through my row. The ball sailed over the fans’ heads, landed several rows behind me, hit the back of a bench, and bounced right back to me as I was cutting across. It was beautiful. I ended up giving that ball away, but it was still fun to catch it, and of course it counts in my stats and for the charity.

Nyjer Morgan then threw me another ball. I hadn’t even asked him. He just looked up into the seats and spotted me, so I pointed at him to acknowledge that I was ready. He fielded a ball moments later and immediately turned and fired it up at me. Perfect aim. Embarrassingly easy. And just like that, I had reached double digits.

I made it to the Pirates’ dugout just before the end of BP and a got my 11th ball tossed to me by coach Luis Dorante as everyone was coming off the field. It was a real beauty:

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Nick and Shawn were also down by the dugout, and since security is so laid-back and awesome in Milwaukee (with the exception of that one guy who’s anti-glove trick), we sat down and hung out for about 20 minutes. Turns out we were captured by the Pittsburgh TV cameras. Thanks to Erik Jabs for passing along the following screen shot. You can see Nick on the left, Shawn in the middle, and me on the right:

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My plan for the game was simple: Go to the second deck behind the plate, stay there all night, and catch a foul ball. Miller Park has THE best spot for foul balls in the Major Leagues. By far. The only other time I’d ever been to this stadium was on June 11, 2003. I snagged 17 balls that day including two foul balls during the game in that section.

What’s so good about it?

This was my view of the field (I was hearing Bob Uecker’s voice all night)…

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…and this was my view to the left:

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Is that not THE most glorious cross-aisle you’ve EVER seen?

The height and distance of the section is perfect. The protective screen at the backstop is not too tall. Heaven, I tell you! If I were going to custom-build a stadium, just for myself in order to have the best possible chance of catching a foul ball, this is what I would’ve come up with.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t any action during the first third of the game, but I got my chance in the top of the 4th. Brian Bixler fouled one back and to my left. It was heading toward the “family section” portion of the “KOHL’S” sign in the photo above, so I took off running. I couldn’t reach the ball in time to catch it on the fly, but because the aisle was completely empty, the ball smacked off the blue wall, ricocheted back and hit a seat back, then rolled back toward the wall…and that’s when I swooped in and scooped it up.

Check out the mark on the wall/ball:

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Sadly, that was the only ball that came back there all night, but I was satisfied. I mean, what kind of jerk would complain about “only” snagging one foul ball during a game? (Don’t answer that.)

The Brewers had a 10-5 lead heading into the 9th inning, so who did they bring in? All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. He’d been hurt. This was his Brewers debut. The crowd went nuts, and I ran down to the dugout…

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…just in time to see him record the final out.

Five minutes later I realized that the foul ball I’d snagged was my 100th ball of the season. (I’d started the day with 88 and the modest of goal of snagging 12 balls combined in the two days I’d be at Miller Park.) Here I am with the ball at the Pirates’ dugout:

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You can see a closeup of the ball in the photo down below on the right. I’m pretty sure that the smudge (on the seams to the right of the MLB logo) came from the bat. The blue mark on the sweet spot (shown three photos above) obviously came from the wall. But what’s with the smeared logos in two different places? You can see that “Rawlings” is smeared on the top of the ball, and so is the word “baseball.” Very strange. I’ve never gotten a game-used ball with that many markings.

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SNAGGING STATS:

• 12 balls at this game

• 100 balls in 13 games this season = 7.69 balls per game.

• 12 consecutive seasons with at least 100 balls

• 582 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 126 lifetime game balls (not counting game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)

• 3,920 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 96 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $18.17 pledged per ball

• $218.04 raised at this game

• $1,817.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/25/09 at U.S. Cellular Field

Screwed by the weather!

No batting practice.

Miserable day all around.

Game time temperature: 39 degrees.

Don’t go to Chicago in April.

This is what I saw when I ran into the stadium:

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Thankfully (and for some strange reason) there was a ball waiting for me in the right field bullpen:

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I might not have noticed this ball if not for my new friend Scott and his friend Chad. (In the photo above, Scott is the guy wearing jeans and a black jacket, and Chad is in a maroon shirt just beyond/above the red tarp.) I was staying back under the overhang of the second deck because it was pouring. These two gentlemen, however, were down in the seats and looking for easter eggs when they discovered the ball in the bullpen. Scott doesn’t have a ball-retrieving device and Chad had left his at home, so they waved me down and let me go for it.

In the following photo (which was taken by Scott), you can see me trying to knock the ball closer:

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The bad news is that my string got horribly tangled (I blame the wetness) and I failed to reel in the ball. The good news is that a couple of groundskeepers eventually walked into the bullpen and one of them tossed it to me. Although there’s no official “assist” category for ballhawks, Scott and Chad definitely deserve one. Not only had they pointed out the ball, but they didn’t even ask for it when the groundskeepers made an appearance. So…BIG thanks to them.

The ball was soaked, and it weighed about half a pound. My glove was also soaked. My string was soaked. My backpack was soaked. My feet were clammy. The ink on my rosters had bled all over the place. My whole body was freezing. It was just a day of suck. And to make matters worse, when it stopped raining, the Blue Jays never came out. Normally, when there’s no BP, the teams will still take the field and play catch. But no. Not this time. There was nothing happening on the field. There was no way to snag baseballs…so I wandered and took photos, starting with the open-air concourse in center field:

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I headed to the left field corner of the upper deck…

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…and then made my way toward home plate:

I’m not sure what to make of the support beams. Are they really necessary? I mean, are the really
holding up the top edge of the upper deck? Or are they just there to make The Cell look charming and old? I’m pretty sure–and correct me if I’m wrong–that when construction began on this stadium in 1989, technology had advanced to the point where view-blocking beams would’ve been unnecessary. This upper deck is rather high and far and steep; if I were trapped in the last few rows and THEN had to sit behind one of those beams, I wouldn’t be happy. But then again, security is so laid-back at this stadium that unless it’s sold out, there’s no reason why anyone would ever have to sit there.

Here’s my panorama attempt from behind the plate:

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This is what the upper deck concourse looks like. Pretty nice, pretty standard:

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I noticed some lousy stadium design as I cut through the seats toward the right field side. In the following photo, look how far the steps extend toward the front of the upper deck:

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What’s the big deal?

Let’s say you’re sitting in the front row and you want to get to the concourse. When you reach the steps, you’d either have to climb over them or scoot carefully between the bottom step and the railing. It took somewhat of an effort for ME to reach the tunnel in an empty stadium, so I can only imagine how tough it would be for old/fat people when it’s packed.

Here’s another oddity. Not a mess-up. Just something cute and quirky. Look at the little segment of railing attached to the side of the beam:

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Here’s another panorama:

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I wasn’t kidding when I said security is laid-back. I *did* have to pay $34 for a field level ticket in order to get into the field level seats, but once I was in, I was free to go everywhere, including here:

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Can someone please tell me why it’s okay for autograph collectors to cluster at the dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, but not at Wrigley Field? Or Citi Field? Or the new Yankee Stadium? I hate that certain teams (read: owners) have the right to enforce all kinds of strict rules. There should be a league-wide policy that gives every fan permission to get as close to the field as they want, in any section, at any time of the day until the game begins. Then, if certain anti-fun owners feel the need to instruct their security guards to check tickets, so be it. I wish I were the commissioner of Major League Baseball and/or an owner. (Evidently you can be both at once.) I’m telling you, the world would be a better place.

Here’s another look from the front row next to the dugout:

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Half an hour before game time, two White Sox players started throwing in shallow left field. I figured there’d be a mob of fans trying to get the ball (at least there would’ve been in New York) but the only mob was passing by on the warning track:

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The White Sox had invited 2,200 Girl Scouts (and their parents/siblings/etc.) to take a lap around the field. I was concerned that one of the kids might get hit by an errant throw, but the two players–John Danks and Gavin Floyd–were very careful. (One little girl walked right up to Danks with a ball and pen in her hand and was quickly stopped by security.) Meanwhile, I was the only fan in the seats who had a glove, and when the guys finished throwing, Danks had no choice but to toss me the ball.

Then I got Floyd to sign my ticket:

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The game was delayed 14 minutes at the start, and it rained on and off throughout the night. (I’m surprised it was rain and not snow.)

I decided to stay behind home plate and go for foul balls. This was my view late in the game:

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Why was I there and not in the outfield? Because Jim “Future Hall of Famer” Thome and A.J. “99 Career Homers” Pierzynski weren’t playing. It was so miserable and cold that I decided I deserved the pleasure of sitting close to the action.

Scott and Chad had the same idea. They were sitting one section to my right. There were a few foul balls that came close enough for us to get up and run, but we didn’t snag any of them. I got a third-out ball from Jose Bautista after the second inning, and Chad kept his mini-streak alive by getting a ball from the ump after the game, but that was it. Hardly any action. Super-lame. The White Sox won, 10-2, and then there were fireworks. Whoop-Dee-Doo!

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One final thing…

At some point during the game–I think it was the top of the 5th inning–I felt my phone vibrate in the upper right pocket of my cargo pants.

“Who the HELL is texting me?” I thought as I reached for it. (I don’t text. I have T-Mobile. I didn’t sign up for texting, but I still get charged 20 cents every time I send or receive a text. It’s complete B.S., and as a result, whenever I give my cell phone number to someone, I have to insist that they never text me. But they still do. And my phone bill get inflated several dollars every month. The cheapest texting plan from T-Mobile is $5 per month, so I’m still saving money, but it’s still a ripoff, and I can’t wait to dump them and get an iPhone. Anyway, there IS a point to this story…)

I pulled out the phone and flipped it open, and this is what it said:

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Yes, that would be THE Heath Bell who pitches for the San Diego Padres–he’s the only one who has permission to text me–and he was talking about my charity. I had told him about it when I saw him on 4/15/09 at Citi Field, and he told me to email him the link. (Very quickly, for those who don’t know, I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag during the 2009 season. That money will go to a charity called Pitch In For Baseball, which provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. The largest pledge so far is one dollar per ball. The smallest pledge is a penny, and it’s all adding up in a big way. If you want to see the complete list of donors and learn more about it, click here.) I was surprised that Heath signed up so quickly. Ten days? I would’ve been glad to have him sign up after ten weeks, for even a nickel per ball, but he came through. He is truly The Man. I can’t say it enough.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 3 soggy balls at this game

• 88 balls in 12 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.

• 581 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,908 total balls


CHARITY STATS:

• 95 donors

• $18.16 pledged per ball

• $54.48 raised at this game

• $1,598.08 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/24/09 at U.S. Cellular Field

The last time I visited this stadium, it was called Comiskey Park and my one-game record was just 14 balls. Now, a decade later, my simple goal for the day was to snag half that many and bring my lifetime total to 3,900.

I took the subway (or whatever it’s called here in Chicago) to the stadium. Four stops from my friends’ place. Fifteen minutes. Easy. This was the view from the platform after I got off the train:

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The inside of U.S. Cellular Field (aka “The Cell”) had changed a bit in the last decade, but the outside is the same: UGLY. Still, I had a great time walking all the way around it and taking photos.

Down below, I’ve combined four photos into one image. Starting on the upper left and then going clockwise, you can see 1) the walk from the subway to the ticket windows, 2) the ticket windows, 3) me with the home plate gate in the background, and 4) the 1,450-foot Sears Tower way off in the distance.

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What’s so ugly, you ask? Bland design, mainly. The stadium thinks it’s pretty and classy–like a woman who’s wearing too much makeup and carrying a (fake) designer handbag–but there’s really nothing to it. And to make matters worse, the surrounding area is desolate and boring.

Here’s another four-part pic. It shows 1) the fenced-off area past the right field gate, 2) the walk around the fence, 3) an empty area beyond that, and 4) a dead end:

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Lameness!

I had to walk back in the direction I came from and then make a WIDE berth in order to keep going. Here’s the last four-part pic I’ll make you look at. It shows 1) a beautiful plastic bag stuck in a beautiful tree, 2) a sketchy stretch of road that turned into a sketchy alley, 3) the projects, and 4) another random stretch of required walking:

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Am I the only baseball fan in North America that likes to walk all the way around stadiums and take photos? I mean, is it that strange to want to get a sense of the architecture and surrounding areas? I must be the only one who does this on the south side of Chicago because a police officer, sitting in his parked car, actually waved me over and demanded to know what I was doing.

I finally made it past the projects…

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…and walked along the final edge the stadium. It looked like a boarded up construction zone:

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Okay, enough with the outside of the stadium. I don’t want you to get depressed.

The right field gate opened at 5:40pm–just 90 minutes before game time. (Actually, game time was officially 7:11pm because the White Sox have a partnership with the 7-11 chain. Lovely.) That wasn’t going to give me much time to snag…maybe 45 minutes at the most. At a decent stadium with a not-too-large crowd, I’ll average about one ball for every ten minutes of batting practice. At a lousy stadium, I’ll snag a ball every 15 to 20 minutes, and at a great stadium, I might be able to get a ball every five minutes. Keep those numbers in mind.

As soon as I got inside, I sprinted up four ramps, showed my field level ticket to get past a security guard, bolted across the open-air concourse, and scurried down the steps toward the bullpen. JACKPOT!! There were two balls sitting there, waiting for me and my glove trick. My friend Kelly had told me that security at the Cell is extremely lax, and she was right. I reeled in the first ball with ease, and then I flung my glove out a few times to knock the second ball closer. While I was in the process of doing this, a security guard in the party deck down below saw what I was doing and gave me a strange look that could’ve been interpreted in any number of ways.

“Do you mind?” I asked innocently.

He shrugged and simply said, “Go for it.”

THAT is how a major league baseball stadium should be run. I’m not saying people should be allowed to dangle gloves there (or onto the field) during games, but jeez, what’s the big deal about doing it so early in the day when no one is around? I’m SO pleased to say that White Sox management has the right idea, and as a result, I’ll be rooting for the team (once I leave Chicago) and encouraging people to go to this stadium.

Here’s a look at the bullpen. I took this photo after I’d snagged the two balls, but you can see how awesome it is:

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The bullpen in left field is even better because the seats behind it aren’t as high up. Check it out:

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Did you notice that there are two balls in the photo above? The ball on the left was too far out, but the one on the right (just next to that coiled green hose) was all mine. Too easy.

Now, just to prove that I actually CAN catch batted balls, I made a nice play on a home run that was hit by a Blue Jays righty. The ball was heading about 20 feet to my left, so I cut through an empty row, and then as it was about to land in a small cluster of semi-clueless fans, I jumped and reached out to my left and plucked the ball out of the air, just above their outstretched arms. They weren’t pissed. If anything, they were impressed, and I heard one guy mumble something like, “He must’ve played high school ball.”

“College,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” he replied.

“Well, a little bit.”

“It shows,” he said, and I thanked him.

The White Sox fans were so nice, even though I was decked out in Blue Jays gear:

zack_blue_jays_gear.jpg

Throughout the entire course of the day, I only heard one “Blue Jays suck” directed at me, and the guy who said it was smirking in a friendly way. I explained that I’m not even a Jays fan, and he got a kick out of that. The photo above was taken by a guy whose name is also Zack. I got recognized by a few people during BP, so I can’t remember if he was the one who asked this, but at one point, when people saw me snagging balls left and right, someone was like, “Wait, are you THAT GUY?”

The person who asked this knew the deal, and I knew that he knew, so all I said was, “Yeah, I’m that guy.” He recognized me from the two home runs I caught on back-to-back nights last September at Yankee Stadium. Why? Because those homers were hit off White Sox pitching.

Anyway, I was in glove trick heaven. Look at this glorious gap behind the left field wall:

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Several balls landed there, including this one which I reeled in for No. 5 on the day:

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I used the trick to snag No. 6 from the bullpen, and I immediately noticed that it had a faint bat imprint. Check it out below. I wrote the “3899” because it was the 3,899th ball I’d ever snagged, but right below that, in the very middle of the ball, you can see the first two letters of a reversed TPX logo:

11_ball3899_tpx_imprint.jpg

I love stuff like that.

Batting practice was still in full swing, so I knew I was going to reach 3,900. The only question was…how was I going to get it?

Five minutes later, someone on the Jays hit a home run that barely cleared the outfield fence. The gloveless fans in the front row reached out for it, and this was the result:

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(Can you see why I was in heaven?)

No one else in the stadium had a ball-retrieving device (how is that possible?), but I still rushed over. The rubber band was already on my glove, so I stretched it into place and propped the glove open with my Sharpie and went in for the kill.

Whenever I snag a ball, I take a quick peek at it right away. Is it marked? Smudged? Stained? Mis-stamped? Lopsided? Is it a minor league ball? A commemorative ball? A training ball? Is there a weird pattern on it? Is there a gash? A bat imprint? I might not have a chance to label it for a few minutes, but at the very least, I take a moment to inspect it.

Well…

This is what I had just pulled out of the gap:

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Hell YES!!!

The Twins are using these balls in ’09 to commemorate the final season of the Metrodome. I’ve already booked a two-day trip to Baltimore next month for when the Twins will be there, and I was (emphasis on past tense) also planning on going to Yankee Stadium on May 15th when the Twins will be THERE. If I didn’t snag one of these balls at any of those games, I would’ve seriously had to consider going to Minnesota and buying a ticket in the front row behind the visitors’ dugout and snagging an effin’ third-out ball. Now I don’t have to, and it’s SUCH a relief.

Let me not overlook the fact that it really IS a nice logo. Compare it to the blandness of the Citi Field balls. See what I mean? The Twins ball has the name of the stadium. It has the “TC” logo (which stands for “Twin Cities,” in case you didn’t know.) It shows the whole stadium as opposed to a random little sliver of it. Bravo, Twins. Excellent design.

It didn’t occur to me when I booked this trip…and I just realized now…that the Blue Jays were IN Minnesota for four games last week. That explains it. DAMN I’m happy.

It was getting crowded toward the end of BP…

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…but that didn’t stop me. Double digits, you ask? Read on…

Another ball landed in the gap, and as I was about to go for it, Brandon League jogged over to field a ball that had rolled nearby. I got him to toss me that one and then began what should have been the easy process of using the glove trick.

The ball was kinda underneath the overhang of the gap, so it took me about 30 seconds to knock it into plain view. Once I moved it a bit, I saw that it had the Twins commemorative logo! Ohmygod, I *had* to get it.

I got the ball to stick inside my glove, and as I was gently lifting it up, a hand reached out of nowhere from down in the gap and yanked my string, causing both the ball AND the Sharpie to fall out. What the–?!

I figured someone was just messing with me. Maybe a player had gone in there to get the ball? And maybe he was about to emerge and laugh at me and then toss me the ball and my marker? Nope…nothing. I yanked the glove back up, readjusted the band, pulled out another Sharpie (preparation, baby) and lowered the glove for a second attempt. Then…way off in the distance…far to the right, all the way at the end of the gap, a security guard started walking toward me, and when he saw what I was doing, he started walking faster. Come on, ball!! Go into the glove!! The guard was getting closer. Luckily for me, he was, shall we say, rather hefty and elderly. (He looked like Santa Claus, except he had a white mustache instead of a full beard.) He wasn’t moving fast, but he was gaining ground. I got the ball to go into the glove and started lifting it, and just then the guard made his best attempt to run toward me. He was like 50 feet away, and the glove was only a few feet off the ground. I only had a few seconds, and I was panicking. If I didn’t raise it fast enough, not only would he take the ball but he might cut my string and confiscate my glove. I had no idea. And if I raised the glove too fast, the ball would probably slip out. I kept raising it as fast as I could while keeping the whole operation
under control, and when the guard got very close, I started walking away from him along the front row. I was lifting the glove and keeping my distance at the same time. It was beautiful, but I wasn’t moving fast enough, and he swooped it and made a lunge for my glove, so I had no choice but to yank it up, and the ball stayed inside!!!

HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!

The guard was so pissed. I got far away from the front row, and I heard from the fans that he was still down there for the next 10 minutes, looking for me and asking everyone where I was.

I only managed to snag one more ball during BP. That gave me double digits. I got it with my glove trick in the left field corner, and I gave it to the nearest kid.

As for the game itself, there were two players whose potential home run balls I wanted to catch: Jim Thome because he’s a future Hall of Famer who’s already in the 500 Home Run Club and A.J. Pierzynski because he was sitting on 99 career homers. (Thanks to Happy Youngster for reminding me of that fact earlier in the day.) Unfortunately, neither of those guys went deep, and I wandered throughout the night.

This was my view in the top of the first inning:

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Then I made my way out past center field…

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…and picked a spot in a very crowded right field:

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I tried playing for third-out balls behind the Jays’ dugout…

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…but I kept having to leave and run back out to right field whenever Thome (batting cleanup) and Pierzynski (batting 7th) came up. It didn’t give me much of a chance to just sit and relax and watch the game, but that’s life.

By the middle of the 6th inning, the White Sox were losing, 12-0. I felt sorry for the fans, but it was great for me because the stadium cleared out.

After the 7th inning, when the Sox outfielders were warming up, right fielder Brian Anderson looked up into the crowd as if he were going to throw his ball to someone. I jumped up, moved through my (now) empty row, and waved my arms. He threw the ball right to me. Perfect aim. I was in the third row, and it barely cleared the people sitting in front of me. It was totally unexpected. I was just sitting out there in case someone (even Lyle Overbay or Travis Snider) happened to go yard, and I actually felt bad that I was missing opportunities for third-out balls at the dugouts…so this was great.

Despite the lopsided score, some Sox fans were still into the game:

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The Blue Jays scored two more runs in the final three innings:

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I’m definitely rooting for the Jays this year in the AL East. I obviously don’t want the Yankees to win it, and I’m getting pretty sick of the whole Red Sox Cult Bandwagon Nation. Now that Manny Ramirez isn’t in Boston, the only reason why I root for that team is because I don’t want the Yanks to finish in first place.

After the final out, I went down to the seats behind the Jays’ dugout and snagged a ball that was rolled to me across the roof. I have no idea who it came from. There was a cluster of players that disappeared from sight, and the ball came from one of them who had obviously seen me standing there with my my Jays gear. That ball–number 12 on the day–was rubbed up and had a big smudge:

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I’ve caught dozens of foul balls like this during games, so I assume this one was game-used. I won’t count it as a gamer, of course, but it’s still cool to think about when/how it was used.

By the way, you do need a field level ticket to get into the field level at the Cell, but once you’re in, you’re totally free to go anywhere. I was able to walk down any staircase at any point in the day. Most staircases weren’t even guarded, and the few guards who were scattered around didn’t ask for my ticket. What a great stadium. Except for that one guard in the left field gap, I wouldn’t change a thing.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 12 balls at this game (11 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 85 balls in 11 games this season = 7.7 balls per game.

• 580 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,905 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 91 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $17.27 pledged per ball

• $207.24 raised at this game

• $1,467.95 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/23/09 at Wrigley Field

Two days ago I met a legendary ballhawk named Moe Mullins. Yesterday I met another named Rich Buhrke. Moe, as I mentioned in my previous entry, has snagged 5,274 balls including 238 game home runs. Rich has snagged 3,404 balls including 178 game homers.  Both of these guys have caught five grand slams, and as you can imagine, they dominated Wrigley Field for many years. Here we are (Moe on the left, Rich on the right) on Sheffield Avenue about an hour before the ballpark opened:

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Way back in the day, Rich was known as “Mr. Outside” because he caught everything that reached the street, and Moe was known as “Mr. Inside” because he cleaned up in the bleachers. Even though these guys are both around 60 years old, and even though Rich has been slowed by a bad back, they still give the younger ballhawks a serious run for their money.

My new friend Scott (who leaves comments on this blog as “ssweene1″) held a spot for me at the right field gate and pointed out the old fashioned crank that is still used to open it. In the following photo, you can see four employees just inside the gate. The guy on the left is holding/turning the crank with both hands:

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The “MasterCard” logo taints the old world charm, but still…pretty nifty.

Although this was a day game following a night game, the field WAS set up for batting practice. Unfortunately, when I ran inside, the only action was an old usher bending over and wiping off the seats:

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(“Action” is probably not the best word in this case.)

Bronson Arroyo finished his bullpen session and then talked to pitching coach Dick Pole. See the ball in the photo below?

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Dick tossed it to me a few minutes later.

I didn’t have a bleacher ticket, so I was trapped in foul territory for BP. Although I didn’t catch any batted balls, I can still say pretty confidently that I discovered the best spot. Here it is:

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The biggest advantage in this spot is that there’s room to run through the cross-aisle. It’s not too far from home plate. Both righties and lefties can hit balls there. And it’s right near where the visiting team’s pitchers play catch. In the photo above, the guy sitting down with the backwards white cap and striped black jacket is Scott. You’ll see what he actually looks like in a bit…

My second ball of the day was tossed up by someone on the Reds that I couldn’t identify.

My third ball was an accidental overthrow that flew into the seats, hit another fan in the nuts, and dropped right down at my feet. I would’ve given it to the guy if several Reds players daniel_ray_herrera.jpghadn’t immediately offered him a signed ball. The guy, it turned out, was fine (though a bit shaken) and in case you’re wondering who was responsible for the overthrow, that would be Nick Masset. And wouldn’t you know it, the player who failed to catch the high throw was none other than the 5-foot-6 Daniel Ray Herrera (who looks like a 14-year-old ballboy but IS in fact on the 25-man roster).

My fourth ball was thrown to me near the dugout by Brandon Phillips. I saw him walking off the field with a ball in his hand so I raced through the aisle and then, since I wasn’t allowed to go down to the seats behind the dugout, I got him to throw it to me while I was still standing in the aisle. As far as thrown balls go, that one felt good.

My fifth ball was tossed by Micah Owings near the right field corner. He was running poles. There were two balls lying on the grass, just beyond the warning track in foul territory. When he finished, he walked over and flung one in my direction.

My sixth and final ball of the day was thrown by Darnell McDonald at the dugout toward the end of BP.

Adam (aka “cubs0110″) and Scott had each snagged one ball during BP. Here we are:

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I managed to sneak down to the Reds’ dugout 20 minutes before the game. This was my awesome view for the first pitch…

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…but I was kicked out two innings later when the people whose seats I was enjoying had the nerve to show up.

I sat about 15 rows behind first base for the next four innings and then wandered upstairs. Here’s the view of Waveland Avenue from the top left field corner of the upper deck:

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This is what the seats and roof look like up there:

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Here’s my panorama attempt from the right field corner of the upper deck:

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Back on the field level concourse, I took the obligatory photo of the foul ball sign…

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…and then walked down the tunnel that leads to the inner cross aisle:

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I only averaged five balls per game at Wrigley on this trip (I snagged 13 balls here in two games in ’98) but still had a great time. Look how awesome this ballpark is…in the photo below, you can see people sitting/standing on some giant dark green concrete step-things, just inside the back fence of the center field bleachers:

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Can you imagine a) something so useless and funky even existing in a new ballpark and b) stadium employees actually allowing fans to chill out there? Only at Wrigley Field. If you’re a serious baseball fan (and hate the fact that everything in the world is becoming newer and more regulated), you simply must visit this ballpark.

Final score: Reds 7, Zack 6, Cubs 1

SNAGGING STATS:

• 6 balls at this game

• 73 balls in 10 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.

• 579 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,893 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 89 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $17.12 pledged per ball

• $102.72 raised at this game

• $1,249.76 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/22/09 at Wrigley Field

I started the day by bowing down to a legend.

Moe Mullins, perhaps the most successful ballhawk of all time, made his way out to Sheffield Avenue nearly two hours before the stadium was going to open. The man has snagged 238 game home runs from major league games, including five grand slams. His lifetime ball total, including everything he’s caught at batting practice and Spring Training, is 5,274. Truly incredible.

Here were are:

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Two other very successful ballhawks made their way out to Sheffield as well. There was Ken Vangeloff (first time I’d met him) and Dave Davison (a friend for the last decade). I truly felt like I was in the presence of greatness.

The Cubs started taking BP…

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…and I got the attention of one of the players…and got him to toss a ball over the bleachers and onto the street…but he airmailed me…and since there was a car speeding past at that exact moment, I wasn’t able to cut across and race after it.

“Chicago ballhawks don’t beg,” said Dave. (It’s true that he and Moe and the other guys rarely ask the players for balls.)

“I’m a roving ambassador,” I replied, “so doesn’t that give me permission?”

Dave said he was just messing with me, then added, “We’re in mid-season form. It’s either rip or BE ripped.”

Remember when I mentioned last month that I’m working on a new book? One thing I’m in the process of doing for the book is interviewing the all-time greatest ballhawks. Moe is obviously one of them, and he told me he doesn’t really like talking on the phone, so I put away my glove and pulled out my digital voice recorder (yes, I came prepared) and interviewed him, right there on the street, for an hour and two minutes. During that time, three more balls got tossed out onto Sheffield, and I’m pretty sure I would’ve snagged at least one or two of them had I been trying. It was pretty frustrating (and I felt guilty about the charity) but I simply HAD to talk to Moe. That’s actually one of the main reasons I made this trip: doing research for the book.

Because the wind was blowing in from left field, the ballhawks didn’t bother running over to Waveland Avenue (which runs behind the left field edge of the ballpark) when righties were at bat. They just stayed on Sheffield, and Moe didn’t even bother wearing his glove:

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Pretty soon it was time for me to go inside so I said goodbye to the ballhawks and headed to the VIP entrance near the right field foul pole. I’d splurged and bought a “bleacher box” ticket for sixty-two dollars. Ouch! (Research for the book. Yes, that’s my excuse.) At Wrigley, you can’t get into the bleachers with a regular ticket, and if you’re in the bleachers, you can’t get into the main part of the stadium. BUT…if you have a bleacher box ticket, you can go everywhere. I figured it was worth doing once. This was the first time I’d ever been in the bleachers at Wrigley, and I wanted to make sure I could explore fully.

I started off by running to left-center because there were a few righties taking turns in the cage. This is what it looked like out there:

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Then I ran a couple sections toward the foul pole and noticed that the ballhawks had moved to Waveland:

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The bleachers were filling up fast. That’s because it’s general admission out there; everyone arrives early to claim a good seat. In addition to that fact, batting practice was dead. I kept moving back and forth for lefties and righties, but no one hit a ball within 100 feet of me.

When the Reds took the field, I moved over to my exclusive section down the right field foul line:

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People with regular bleacher tickets couldn’t get in there, so there was truly NO competition:

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By the way, that’s me in the photo above, leaning on the railing and wearing a Reds cap. See those two ladies sitting to my left? I overheard one of them asking the other, “So wait, where’s home plate?” My friend Kelly was right when she said that most of the people in the bleachers don’t know that much about baseball and are really only there to hang out and get drunk.

My first ball of the day was tossed up by Arthur Rhodes (and let me just say that neither team hit a SINGLE ball into the bleacher box section). It rolled onto the grass in front of me while he was still playing catch. I didn’t bother asking for it until he finished throwing and walked over to pick it up. Too easy.

There were still a few Reds playing catch at that point, so I moved into foul territory and got two more balls within the next five minutes. The first was tossed by some guy that I couldn’t recognize–he recognized the fact that I was decked out in Reds gear–and the second was a glove trick masterpiece.

There was a security guard on the field, about 10 feet out from the wall and maybe 15 feet to my left. His job? To stare up into the seats and make sure that people were behaving. I’d heard that the guards at Wrigley did NOT allow fans to use ball-retrieving devices, so I was glad that this ball was right below me. Now…you know how a successful base stealer will study a pitcher’s pick-off move and look for tendencies? How long will he hold the ball? How quick is his move? Will he throw over three times in a row? Stuff like that. Well, I studied the guard in just the same way, and after a couple minutes I discovered his pattern of crowd surveillance. He would look at the batter for a moment (to make sure no one was hitting a line drive at him) and then he’d quickly look back and scan the crowd. Then he’d look back at the batter for about five to ten seconds…and then look back at the crowd. He did this again and again. The first look away was short. The second look away was long. I prepared the rubber band and magic marker and made sure my string wasn’t tangled. I knew I only had one shot, and even then, there was a good chance that the guy would stop me. Quick look at the batter. Quick look back. Long look at the batter…and then BAM…I went for it. Down went the glove. It dropped over the ball. The guard was still staring at the batter. If my band was on too tight or too loose, I was screwed. No second chances. The glove dropped over the ball, and I heard the crowd get excited. I slowly lifted it up, and the ball was inside. I looked at the guard…and then he looked over at me. CRAP!!! My glove was only about five feet off the ground at that point, and the guard immediately ran over to try to grab it. I kept lifting it…six feet…seven feet…and just as he made it over to me, I’d lifted the glove beyond his reach. HAHA!!! He immediately started yelling at me, and I disappeared into the crowd, took off my hat, and returned to the safety of my bleacher box section. I was so happy. I love sticking it to security when they make stupid rules that prevent true fans from taking home an extra baseball or two, especially when it’s for charity!

Late in BP, I got Jay Bruce to toss me my fourth ball of the day. Look how crowded the left field bleachers were at that point:

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I moved back into the main part of the stadium at the very end of BP and nearly got Reds bench coach Chris Speier to toss me a ball. His aim was off, and it sailed two feet over my glove. (If I’d been allowed to go right down to the dugout, it would’ve been easy. He would’ve tossed it right to me. But no, thanks to Wrigley’s way-too-strict rules, I had to stay back in the cross-aisle, and since there were other fans crowding around me, Speier didn’t have an easy throw.)

I had about 40 minutes ’til the game was going to begin so I decided to head back to the bleachers and take a bunch of photos. I started by going down this staircase in the grandstand:

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(Did you notice my shadow waving at you?)

The next photo was taken from that first staircase. See the ushers (wearing blue) in the distance? They had to re-scan my ticket in order for me to leave or re-enter the bleachers, and then I walked up that staircase near them:

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At the top of the staircase, this was the view behind the bleacher box section:

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Not a bad spot to run for home run balls, eh?

Down on Sheffield Avenue, people were lining up for one of the rooftops:

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Look how much space there is (for home run chasing) behind the bleachers in straight-away right field:

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I walked up the steps to the center field bleachers, then turned around and faced the right field foul pole and took the following photo:

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Here’s the area in the deepest part of center field, directly under the big scoreboard:

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Here’s the view from behind the left field bleachers…

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…and here’s the narrow walkway that runs behind it:

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I don’t think that walkway would be good for catching home runs. It looks like the people sitting in the last row could easily catch (or deflect) all the balls before they’d reach it.

The area under the bleachers was, in typical Wrigley fashion, a maze of concourses and ramps and beams and chain-link fences.

If you’re standing below the right field bleachers, this is the view to the right…

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…and this is the view to the left:

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Funky stuff, I tell ya:

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Back up in the seats, I noticed that the rooftops were packed:

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The entire bleacher area felt like one giant frat party. I’ve never seen so many 20-somethings drinking beer at a baseball game. People were standing everywhere, blocking aisles and ramps…wherever it was possible to see the field, people were there. It was actually kinda nice that security wasn’t policing it and just letting people hang out.

This was my view during the game:

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Was it a high-scoring affair with a bunch of homers to my empty section?!

Umm, no, the Cubs got shut out, 3-0, and the only longball was an opposite field shot by the left-handed hitting Jay Bruce in the top of the ninth, by which time I was already sitting here:

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What a waste of a great ballhawking opportunity.

At least Ryan Hanigan tossed me a ball down by the dugout after the game.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 5 balls at this game

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• 67 balls in 9 games this season = 7.4 balls per game.

• 578 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,887 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 88 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $17.07 pledged per ball

• $85.35 raised at this game

• $1,143.69 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/21/09 at Wrigley Field

Freezing, rainy, night game in April without batting practice? Not exactly ideal, but hey, this was my first trip to Wrigley Field in 11 years, and I was thrilled to be here:

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My goal for the day was pretty simple: I wanted to snag at least four baseballs. You know how I’m doing the whole charity thing and getting people to pledge money for every ball? Well, at the start of the day, the total amount that I’d raised so far this season was $949.46. I had 84 pledges (ranging from one penny to one dollar) that added up $16.37 per ball. Basically, I calculated that I needed four more balls to pass the $1,000 mark; three balls would’ve left me a little more than a dollar short.

I had about two hours to kill before the ballpark was going to open–it really IS a “ballpark” as opposed to a “stadium”–so I walked all the way around it and took a ton of photos. This is what it looked like as my journey began:

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It was great to be here after having checked out the new Yankee Stadium three days earlier. Talk about a contrast! The new stadium is the pinnacle of luxury, corporate greed, and architectural wizardry. Wrigley Field, on the other hand, is old and dumpy and simple–and therefore even more beautiful.

Here’s the players’ parking lot:

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Here’s a look down Waveland Avenue…

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…and this is the view from baseball’s most famous intersection:

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When I reached the bleacher entrance in center field, I backed up just enough to be able to get a shot with both foul poles (which you can see through the trees):

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This is what it looks like on Sheffield Avenue, which runs behind the right field bleachers:

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See the gate below the foul pole?

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It provides a peek into the stadium:

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So nice! (The grounds crew was readjusting the tarp. I got excited for a second when I first looked in and saw infield dirt.) AT&T Park has a similar feature. (This might surprise you, but the new Yankee Stadium does NOT provide a free glimpse onto the field.)

Here’s the outside of Wrigley near the right field corner:

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It was painfully cold. I saw my breath all day. The temperature was in the low 40s and felt like the 20s. My face got so cold at one point that I was slurring my words. (Has this ever happened to anyone?) So…I stopped talking.

This was the view as I headed toward the home plate entrance:

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Just a little further…

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…until I’d made it full circle:

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I still had an hour to kill. The rain picked up. Thankfully there was an overhang at the gate. People were talking about how the game might get canceled.

All of a sudden, I heard a familiar voice from behind. It was Nick Yohanek, aka The Happy Youngster:

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I had NO idea he was gonna be there, and in fact he didn’t have any idea either until the last second when his (very understanding) wife told him she didn’t mind if he made the trip from Milwaukee. That’s where he’s from. It’s only about an hour and a half from Chicago.

I’d met Nick for the very first time two weeks earlier in Toronto. Super cool guy. It was good to see him again, but of course it meant we’d have to make an effort to stay out of each other’s way.

Look how big the crowd was as the gates were going up:

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I think the large crowd might’ve had something to do with the limited giveaway: a Carlos Zambrano “no-hitter statue.” (THAT’S really why I went to this game.)

This was my view as I ran inside:

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As you can see in the distance in the photo above, there were a couple Cubs playing catch in shallow left field. I didn’t end up getting the ball from them, but I’m glad to say that someone who reads this blog did. The ball went to a guy named Adam (aka “cubs0110″) who had emailed me some Wrigley tips in the days leading up to this trip, so it was well-deserved.

Nick made his way to the right field side as a few Reds took the field. I decided to hold my ground for another minute or two, and as a result I ended up getting a ball in an incredibly random and unexpected way. Someone on the Reds, for some unknown reason, skimmed a ball across the field/tarp right in my direction. Luckily I saw it coming once it got halfway to me, so I lunged over the wall in the front row and scooped it up. The ball was absolutely soaked. The arrow in the following photo shows the direction that it had been rolled:

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Is that weird or what?

I figured I wasn’t going to get any luckier than that on the left field side, so I headed back toward the seats behind the plate and walked out to the right field foul line. I stopped along the way to take a photo of the beautiful cross aisle (and the random row of seats right in the middle):

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I got two balls tossed to me within the next 15 minutes. The first came from Nick Masset, and the second was from from Bronson Arroyo. Nothing fancy about it. There weren’t too many other Reds fans so it was easy. This left me one ball short of my goal.

Time out for a second…

Do you remember the Watch With Zack game I did on 9/24/07 at Shea Stadium? My clients that day were a couple of ladies from Chicago named Kelly and Jen. Kelly (the bigger baseball fan of the two) and I have kept in touch ever since, and we’ve become friendly enough that I’m now sitting in her living room as I type this. She gave me a ticket to this game at Wrigley in exchange for my Zambrano statue. You can see her and Nick in the following photo.

Time in…

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Here I am with Kelly:

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It was only 6pm. There was an hour ’til game time, and there wasn’t any action on the field, so I explored the street level concourse. THIS, my friends, is what a real ballpark looks like:

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Gotta love the cute little concession stand with a support beam in the middle:

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There were two ways to get to the field level seats:

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Very interesting stadium design. Fenway Park (which is just a few years older than Wrigley) is similar. We’ll never ever see anything like this built again.

There was a band playing in the concourse as people passed by:

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Despite the loathsome weather, the atmosphere was festive and jolly. I loved the imperfections in the design and condition of Wrigley Field. Check out the dents and pipes and ducts and chipped paint in the photo below:

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The path to the upper deck was interesting as well. This was the first ramp, and I actually had to show my upper deck ticket to go up it:

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I turned right at the top of the ramp and found myself in a web of metal beams above the seats:

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RFK Stadium (I only went there once on 7/5/05) was similar, and again, you’ll never see anything like this.

Two more ramps…

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…and then a final push to the top:

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Chain-link fences are not pretty, but they make you feel like you’re in a ballpark as opposed to a mall.

The upper deck has a great cross aisle…

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…but unfortunately there weren’t any foul balls that landed there. The balls either went to the first few rows of the upper deck or flew onto the roof.

I sat with Kelly and Adam for a bit, then sat on my own, then snuck down to the field level (where I came five feet from a foul ball), and finally made my way down to the Cubs’ dugout in the top of the ninth:

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It wasn’t hard to get down there. There are ushers at every staircase, and they try to be strict and keep people out, but they’re old and slow and unprepared for brazen New Yorkers. I have nothing against old people. I plan to live until I’m at least 105, and I’ll be snagging baseballs and demanding respect right up until the end. I’m just sayin’…there are lots of employees trying to enforce lots of rules, but it’s all pretty haphazard.

I won’t tell you how many balls Nick ended up with, or where he ended up sitting during the game. You’ll have to read his blog to find out, but I will say that he totally beat the system.

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As for me? I got home plate umpire Randy Marsh to toss me a ball on his way in–my fourth ball of the day–and it was rubbed up beautifully.

Final score: Cubs 7, Reds 2.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 4 balls at this game

• 62 balls in 8 games this season = 7.75 balls per game.

• 577 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,882 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 85 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $16.62 pledged per ball

• $66.48 raised at this game

• $1,030.44 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

At tonight’s Cubs game, I’ll be sitting in a “bleacher box” seat in fair territory near the right field foul pole. I might wander to left field when righties come to bat, but definitely look for me if/when a lefty yanks one down the line.

4/18/09 at Yankee Stadium

This was my first game at the new Yankee Stadium. I arrived more than five hours before game time, and I could tell right away why it cost $1.5 billion. In a word, the place is glorious. This was the view shortly after I exited the subway:

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I had lots of time to spare (as planned) so I walked around and took a zillion photos. This is what the side of the stadium looks like just past Gate 6:

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Everything was crisp and clean and well designed and classy. Even the ticket windows…I mean, just look:

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In the photo above, did you notice the flat-screen TVs mounted high on the wall? If you look at the one on the upper right, you can see that the field was not set up for batting practice. Thankfully, within the next few minutes, the L-screen was rolled into place:

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I already had a ticket that a friend had bought for me, so just for the hell of it (and because I wanted to have something to complain about later on my blog) I asked how much the cheapest available ticket was. Anyone want to guess? If you said ninety-five dollars, you are correct. (Insert complaining here.)

I kept walking, crossed a little road, and took a photo of Gate 4–the home plate gate:

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Then I continued my journey…

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…and passed Gate 2 (the left field gate)…

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…and rounded the corner of a “Preferred Parking” garage that’s connected to the stadium:

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At the old stadium, fans weren’t able to walk all the way around. There was a fenced off parking lot for the players, next to which was a road that turned into a ramp that merged onto a highway. Not good. I like being able to walk all the way around the outside a stadium. I feel a greater connection to it if I can inspect it from all angles, so I’m glad to say it IS possible to walk all the way around the new stadium.

At the old stadium, there were four gates: 2, 4, 6, and the bleacher entrance.

At the new stadium, the latter has been replaced with Gate 8:

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Here’s a look at the right field side of the stadium from underneath the elevated train tracks:

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I’d made it full-circle, so I decided to take a peek at the old stadium:

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It was dead. And sad:

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All the memorabilia stores were closed…

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…but back at the new stadium, things were jumping. There were hundreds (if not thousands) of people waiting to get in:

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In the photo above, do you see the kid with a glove, a dark green shirt, and tan shorts? His name is Connor and he’s 13 years old. He had recently left a few comments on this blog, and this was the first time we met in person. We ended up crossing paths throughout the day, so remember his name.

The game was scheduled to begin at 3:40pm, and the gates opened at 12:30. You might think it’s the most awesome thing ever to get inside that early, but guess what? It sucks. As a general rule, batting practice doesn’t start that early, so the stadium ends up getting crowded before any balls reach the seats. You know that feeling during the first minute of BP when you’re one of just a handful of fans in the entire stadium? And you can hear the crack of the bat echoing?
And you feel like the players are hitting home run balls just for you? Well, you can kiss that feeling goodbye in the Bronx, but it’s still pretty cool to be able to be inside, crowded or not, for the start of batting practice.

Given the fact that there was no point in rushing inside, I stopped for a moment and took a photo of the…I don’t know what to call it. The outer concourse? All I can say is that it’s spectacular. Check it out:

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Okay, so it looks like an airport terminal, and it’s kind of a rip-off of the outer concourse in Arlington, but it’s still pretty damn cool. With all due respect to Jackie Robinson, I think this is even more dazzling than the Rotunda at Citi Field. Let’s face it, the Mets’ new home is not THAT special. Sure, it’s nice, and the outfield wall has some interesting angles, and the second deck overhangs the warning track in right field, and there’s a brand new Home Run Apple, but overall it looks like every other ballpark that’s been built in the last decade. The new Yankee Stadium, however, is one of a kind and breathtakingly beautiful. Like I said earlier, it was clear from the start.

Here’s the inner/field level concourse:

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The new Yankee Stadium was designed by an architect named God, but it’s run by Satan. Forget the fact that backpacks are not allowed. Don’t even get me started with that. You know what else is not allowed? Going down into the field level seats for batting practice…unless of course you have a ticket for those seats. Let me clarify. You CAN get into the field level concourse no matter where your ticketed seat is located, but unless you actually have a SEAT on the field level, you will not be able to get down into the actual seats to snag baseballs. It’s that simple. There was a security guard at every staircase:

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Batting practice hadn’t even started. (You can see the grounds crew watering the infield in the photo above.) It was more than three effin’ hours before the first pitch, and yet the guards were not letting people down into the seats. As you can imagine, there were some pretty angry fans. I talked to one guy who’s paying $20,000 this year for season tickets in the upper deck. He was there with his 11-year-old son, and he was furious that the two of them weren’t allowed down into the seats to try to catch a ball or get an autograph.

I can understand that the owners want to encourage people to buy the fancy seats (and then reward the people who do), but this is just horrible. It’s funny how the team makes such a huge production of playing “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch because this policy of keeping fans–especially fathers and sons–out of the good seats for BP is downright un-American.

You’re probably wondering where my assigned seat was, and if I made it into the field level seats, and if I managed to keep my streak alive, etc., so let me just say this: when Zack Hample goes to a new stadium, Zack Hample GETS INTO the field level seats. (Hey! Talking about oneself in the third person is fun. I can see why Rickey Henderson does it. I can’t wait for his induction speech.) It wasn’t always easy. I got kicked out of the right field seats during BP and later had a guard threaten to call his supervisor, but I survived. That’s because I had a few people looking out for me. For starters, one young man who reads this blog told me the name/section of a certain guard who would let me down into the seats if I mentioned his name. (Don’t ask. It’s a secret. Absolutely no exceptions.) Then there was my friend Linda, the one who bought me the ticket for this game. She and her friend Cindy had field level tickets on the right field foul line. My ticket was in the upper deck. They arrived at game time. You figure out the rest. Finally there was another young man named Alex who had a ticket on the left field foul line and kindly lent it to me at one point. So yeah, it took a team effort to help me beat the system.

I got an early peek at the seats in right field…

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…and I could not be-LIEVE what I was seeing. Every single seat, even 400 feet from home plate, was soft and cushy:

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(These seats will probably look like crap in a few years after nature has its way with them.) Normally these fancy seats are limited to the fanciest sections. The entire new Yankee Stadium, it turns out, is one big fancy section, and if you’re not convinced yet, look at this:

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Yes, right there in the concourse, there was a friggin’ butcher carving steak behind a glass window, and just around the corner there was a gosh-darn fruit stand:

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(How many different ways can I curse without actually cursing?) The prices were reasonable, at least for New York City. Two pears for three dollars? That’s what I’m used to paying on the Upper West Side.

Another nice thing about the new stadium is that the field level concourse runs all the way around the outfield. The following photo shows the concourse directly behind the batter’s eye. I think the space is way too narrow, especially considering that this is where the line starts for Monument Park:

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I made it back to the right field side of the stadium, and the Yankees began playing catch soon after. One of the balls got loose and rolled up to the wall along the foul line. Not only was there a security guard at the top of every staircase, but there was also a guard at the bottom. Being in a stadium for batting practice should feel like being in a playground, but instead it felt like I was at a border crossing. There were more security guards than fans, so I figured I was going to get yelled at, possibly even threatened or ejected for using my glove trick, but I had to give it a shot. I waited until the nearest guard turned his back and then I went for it. The following photo, taken from the RF bleachers by a college kid named Luke who reads this blog, shows me in action:

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As I was getting the ball to stick inside my glove, the guard turned around and stared at me. I had a sinking feeling in my gut. Was he going to confiscate the ball and call his supervisor?

“I saw you on The Tonight Show,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”

Umm…wow?

I ended up talking to him for a few minutes and thanking him profusely for being so nice and letting me get the ball.

Was it a commemorative ball?!?!

No…

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…but it’s a valuable ball to me.

There were still a few guys playing catch in shallow right field, so I cut through the seats along the foul line. (Once I was down in the seats, no one stopped me from moving side to side.) Damaso Marte was about to finish throwing, and this was as close as I could get:

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When he was done, I waved my arms and jumped up and down and called his name–anything to get his attention, and it worked. He looked up and spotted me in the sea of empty seats and lobbed the ball over the netting and over the partition, right to me. Perfect aim. Easiest catch ever. I had my second ball of the day. Not commemorative.

I moved to the seats in straight-away right field and snagged a third ball (not commemorative) in an unexpected way. I had started running toward the end of the section in right-center for a home run that ended up landing in the bullpen. Just at that moment, another ball landed ten feet away from me, right in my row. A nearby fan told me that Brian Bruney had thrown it. I have no idea who he was even aiming for, or if it’s even true that he’s the guy who threw it, but hey, I’ll take it.

It was shortly after this snag that I got kicked out of right field–a real shame because there were a bunch of lefties hitting bombs at that point. I managed to make it down into the left field seats, and since the lefties were pulling everything, I passed the time by taking some more photos. In the shot below, you can see how the bleachers (the section above the red “State Farm” ads) are separated from the fancy seats:

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If you have a bleacher ticket, you will be forced to stay in the bleachers. See how there’s a gap between the two State Farm ads? That’s a little tunnel that leads underneath the bleachers to that narrow concourse. Don’t despair if you have a bleacher ticket. There were a lot of home run balls that reached the first few rows, and the players also tossed some balls there. And…although you might get stopped by security, there will be plenty glove trick opportunities from the seats above the bullpens:

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The following photo shows what I *think* is the line for Monument Park, snaking up and around the ramps/stairs:

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The Indians took the field and started playing catch, and whaddaya know, a ball got loose and rolled up against the wall in foul territory. Glove trick. Bam! Ball number four was mine. Security didn’t say a word.

Now…you might recall that at my previous two games at Citi Field, the visiting team had been using the Mets’ commemorative balls. I was hoping that the Indians might be using the Yankees’ balls, but no. No such luck. Every ball I got from the Tribe was standard. How many more balls did I get? Well, thanks to Alex who snagged a bunch of his own and let me have his spot in the very crowded front row, I was able to get Rafael Perez (in the photo below) to toss me his ball after he finished throwing.

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Then, after moving to the seats in straight-away left field, I spotted a ball sitting on the warning track near the foul pole:

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Remember that kid named Connor? He was already there with a glove trick of his own, but unfortunately for him, he experienced quite a mishap. Let’s just say he needs to practice tying better knots, but don’t feel bad for him. He had snagged his first two balls EVER during the Yankees’ portion of BP. As for me, I flung my glove out and knocked the ball closer, and as I was reeling it in, two bad things happened:

1) A security guard marched down the steps and told me I had to stop.
2) The ball slipped out of my glove and plopped back down onto the warning track.

For some reason, the guard turned his back for a moment and started blabbing on his walkie-talkie, so I quickly pulled up my glove, tightened the rubber band, and lowered it for one final attempt. The guard turned back around and faced me and said I had to bring my glove back up right away, and that if I did that again, I would “be gone.” Naturally I did as he instructed. I raised the glove…and the ball was inside of it. HAHA!!! Take THAT, Yankee Stadium security!!! There’s a new sheriff in town and…never mind.

My seventh ball of the day was a line drive homer that I caught on the fly. (Given the fact that I somehow hadn’t caught a batted ball on the fly in my previous six games, this felt like quite an accomplishment.) When the ball left the bat, I thought it might reach the seats, but I definitely didn’t expect it to reach me in the eighth row. Still, I scooted through the row to get in line with it, and when it ended up flying right at me, I was caught a bit off guard and nearly got handcuffed by it. Balls are really carrying at this new stadium, so be prepared.

Two minutes later, I got someone on the Indians (might’ve been the bullpen catcher) to throw me a ball over everyone’s head in front of me. I was still about eight rows back. It was beautiful.

As for the new rule about keeping people out of the seats for BP, I have to say…I’m slightly torn about it. It worked out well for me because I was able to get down there. I mean, the seats were FAR less crowded than they would’ve been. Can you imagine what kind of zoo I would’ve had to deal with if everyone had been trying to snag baseballs in my section? Even with the new rule, look how crowded it got by the end of BP:

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Still, I think the new rule sucks bigtime. People should be able to go wherever they want, at least when the players are warming up. If there’s more competition as a result, so be it. It’s only fair. In the meantime, though, I will only go to this stadium if I am guaranteed to get into the field level seats, and even then, I won’t be happy about going. The new stadium is gorgeous beyond words, but the experience of being there is the opposite of relaxing. Going there is not just an event…it’s an ordeal. I can’t imagine doing it every day or even every week. Going to a ballgame should be relaxing. You show up early, you run around for balls, you kick your feet up during the game (because the seats around you are empty) and buy a hot dog. You keep score. You chase foul balls. You wander around and watch the action from different angles. Late in the game, after people leave, you move down closer to the field. THAT is how it should be. But here? I felt like I was under surveillance throughout the day. The stadium is so nice that it’s too nice. It’s like being a guest in a house that’s so pristine and museum-like that you’re afraid to sneeze because you might break something. Luxury has replaced functionality. I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see what it’s like in 10 years when there’s no Jeter, no A-Rod, no Posada, no Mariano, etc. Eventually the Yankees will suck. They have to. Eventually they’ll lose 90 games and fail to reach the playoffs five years in a row. It has to happen. Right? They can’t be a powerhouse forever, can they? Every organization goes through slumps, and when it happens to the Yankees and the stadium is half-full every game, it might actually be fun.

After BP, I headed to the upper deck. This was the view from the escalator:

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Dammit!!! Why does this place have to be so nice?! I love it! But I hate it! GAH!!!

At the top of the escalator, there was a landing for the suite entrance. Marble floors…yes:

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Then there was another escalator. This was the view looking back down:

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It’s too nice. It’s just absurd. It’s not a stadium. It’s a luxury hotel. It’s a palace. It’s a mall. It’s flawless. Baseball stadiums should have flaws. Sometimes a zit or a crooked tooth can be sexy, you know? Are we in New York City or Dubai? Jesus Aitch.

Here’s the upper deck concourse:

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And yes, fine, here’s my overall assessment:

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I was really pressed for time, so the following photo isn’t great. I just wanted a shot of the upper deck itself, but as I was pulling out my camera, everyone started standing and removing their hats for the national anthem. Still, in a basic way, it captures the essence:

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Here’s my panorama attempt from the last row of the upper deck:

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A lot of people have been asking how I do this. It’s really quite simple. You see, there’s this invention called Photoshop…

I’m glad to be able to report that the new stadium does have a few nooks and crannies. There was a staircase leading down from the upper deck that was simply marked “exit.” I asked a nearby guard (there was ALWAYS a nearby guard) if I could use it get to the field level or if it was strictly an exit to the street. He said I could get to the field level. Excellent.

After zig-zagging down a few sets of stairs, I came to an unmarked landing where trash and food was being stored:

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Was I on the suite level? Was this the back of some concession area? I had no idea, and it made me happy. There were no guards, no cameras, no fans, no signs. Peace on earth.

I walked down the next staircase (which you can see in the following photo, coming from the right-hand side) and saw a security guard at street level:

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Great. Dead end. There was no way to get to the field level…or was there? I asked the guard, and he pointed behind me and slightly to the right. HUH?! When I looked in the direction he was pointing, this is what I saw:

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What the hell was he talking about? I asked him again, and he told me to walk around the corner and said I’d get to the concourse.

?!?!

I did what he said, walked around the railing and metal support beam, and found myself standing here:

41_heading_down_to_field_level.jpg

I walked through the corridor, and sure enough, it spat me out right into the bustling field level concourse. How awesome is that!

Now, like I said earlier, I had people pulling strings for me, so I ended up sitting in a pretty good spot during the game. This was my view:

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In the top of the second inning, the Indians scored 14 runs. That’s not a typo. I’ll spell it out just to prove it. Ready?

F-O-U-R-T-E-E-N.

Look at the scoreboard, and even more importantly, look at center fielder Brett Gardner’s body language:

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It was the most runs that the Yankees have ever allowed in one inning. Even Freddy Sez was ready to give up:

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Connor came down to my section halfway through the game. Here we are:

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He was nice enough to turn his attention away from the game and take a bunch of photos of me for my website, including this one which I think is funny when compared to this one of me at Citi Field. All these pics are on my photos page. Check it out sometime if you haven’t done so already.

Remember the game I went to on 9/2/08 at Dodger Stadium? I was running back and forth during the game for third-out balls and managed to get a few thrown to me over the obnoxious partition that blocks the first few rows behind the dugout. Well, even though there’s a similar partition at the new Yankee Stadium, I was in a good spot to get third-out balls, but the Indians completely dissed me. They kept tossing them to little kids in Yankees gear right behind the dugout. I’m all in favor of kids getting baseballs–I later gave one of my eight balls away to a kid–but man, I just wanted ONE game-used ball with a commemorative logo. It was really frustrating. Who knows if/when I’ll be back in that section? I figure the Yankees will eventually be using commemorative balls during BP, so they should be fairly easy to snag late in the season, but I didn’t want to have to wait. At the very earliest, the next Yankee game I can possibly attend is on May 15th.

Here’s a look at the partition…

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…and if you’re wondering why the stadium is so empty, it’s because the Yankees were in the process of losing, 22-4. (Aww.)

By the way, if you think you can simply ask people for their ticket stubs and sneak right down to the dugout, think again. Every fan in that exclusive section is given a wristband (just like at Citizens Bank Park), and the band changes color from day to day. Next time you watch a Yankee game on TV, pay close attention to the people sitting behind the plate, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. In order to get back into the section below the partition, you have to show your ticket AND the wristband.

After the game, I met up with Linda and Cindy:

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Linda is the one wearing dark green, and as for my outfit, all you need to know is that the “24” isn’t for Grady Sizemore.

This was the view from the elevated subway platform:

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There’s a lot of great stuff to see at the new ballpark, so bring a camera and make sure the battery is charged. While you’re at it, take out a loan and be prepared to battle security all day long.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 8 balls at this game (7 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 58 balls in 7 games this season = 8.3 balls per game.

• 576 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 130 consecutive Yankee games with at least one ball

• 46 major league stadiums with at least one ball caught

• 3,878 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 84 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $16.37 pledged per ball

• $130.96 raised at this game

• $949.46 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/16/09 at Citi Field

I was stressed from the start.

Not only did I get a late start leaving my apartment but I didn’t have a ticket for the game. The subway was good to me, though, and got me there about 20 minutes early. Check out the view (including the last traces of Shea Stadium rubble) as the train was about to pull into the station:

citi_field_from_train.jpg

I ran to the ticket window, asked for the cheapest seat, and was told that it was $42. This didn’t bother me until later when a) I saw a HUGE section of empty seats during the game way out in the left field upper deck and b) I read the box score and learned that this game was roughly 5,000 fans below capacity. Quite simply, the Mets are crooks and liars. They’ll SAY there aren’t any cheap seats available. They’ll TELL you that some cheap seats “might get released later,” but it’s a total scam. Clearly there were thousands of cheap seats available, yet they wouldn’t sell one to me. I hate them. I’m so angry about it that I’ve decided not to root for the Mets anymore. I’m officially done with them. They can’t treat fans like that and expect them to remain loyal. No way. (And for the record, the Yankees have been scamming fans for years. It’s disgusting.)

At least the left field seats stayed nice and empty for the first 10 minutes or so:

empty_seats_4_16_09.jpg

During that time, there was exactly ONE ball that reached the seats. It was a line drive homer by Gary Sheffield that hit a nearby seat and ricocheted back onto the field. Did Mike Pelfrey toss it back my way? Of course not. Fabulous start to the day.

The second group of hitters was better. They put a few balls in the seats, and I snagged two of them. I don’t know who hit them. I didn’t catch them on the fly. They weren’t commemorative. Just regular. But at least I was on the board.

The next BP group had a whole bunch of lefties (including Carlos Delgado), so I moved to “Death Valley” in right-center field. At one point, Mets reliever Sean Green jogged over to scoop up a ball, and just as I started to ask for it, a kid (who looked to be about 14) slid into a spot in the front row, just to my right. Green was off to the left, so I had the better angle. Green tossed the ball toward us. It was heading for the kid, and even though Green didn’t point at him to indicate that it was meant for him, I stepped back and let him catch it. Two minutes later, I got
sean_green.jpgLivan Hernandez to throw me a ball, and as it was sailing toward me, the kid tried to reach in front of me and snag it. I don’t blame him because I used to do the same thing at that age. I still managed to snag the ball and then said, “Hey, c’mon, I let you catch the last ball, so don’t try to steal one from me.” Turns out the kid reads this blog and just created his own blog. His name is Alex. His mom was there, and she told me that he’s a big fan of what I do, so it’s a good thing I didn’t rob him on the Green ball (and that the whole thing remained civil and peaceful).

Now, as for Mister Green, he ended up walking back over near the wall to pick up another ball, just as I was lowering my glove trick to pluck it off the warning track. I thought he was going to grab the ball and fire it toward the bucket, but instead he stepped back and looked up at me incredulously.

“How does that thing work?” he asked.

The ball was about six feet away from the wall so I said, “Move it a little closer for me and I’ll show you.”

Green walked over to the ball and gave it a little nudge with his foot. I kept lowering the glove, and as it was about to drop over the ball, Green moved so he could get a good view. Once I began to lift the glove with the ball inside of it, Green congratulated me and I thanked him. Turns out it was a 2008 All-Star Game ball:

2008_all_star_ball_4_16_09.jpg

I’d snagged six of these balls in 2008 when the Mets were using them during BP, but it was still great to get another. (If you want to see what a non-worn version of this ball looks like, click here.)

Okay, so it’s easy to use the glove trick to snag balls off the warning track at Citi Field, but getting balls from the bullpens is impossible. Check out the ‘pens in the following photo:

bullpens_glove_trick_proof.jpg

The first challenge is that there are two large white canopies blocking both ends, and the other challenge is that the seats directly above the bullpens are heavily guarded. There are some picnic tables up there. I don’t know what the deal is with that section. All I can tell you is that it’s totally off limits.

I had four baseballs at that point, and then I went on a glove trick rampage and snagged four more. When the Padres first came out and started throwing, no one was shagging in left field, so every ball that was hit deep rolled to the wall and sat there. One of the four was a regular ball (which I gave to a little girl who was standing nearby with her father) and the other three were Citi Field commemorative balls. The Padres, for whatever reason, were using them in BP, just as they’d done the day before.

While I was using the glove trick, the wind was blowing hard (from the foul pole toward center) and since it was such a long way down to the field, my dangling glove was being blown all over the place. It made things really tough, and on one occasion, my glove was twirling around so fast as I was lifting it up that the ball slipped out, but I did end up getting it on a subsequent attempt.

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One more thing about using the glove trick at Citi Field…

So far, security has not said anything to me about it, but I’m pretty sure this will change. It’s just like Nationals Park. Remember when I set my one-game record in D.C. by snagging twenty-eight balls on April 10, 2008? At that point, there’d only been a handful of games there, so security was still pretty clueless and didn’t yet have a policy about ball-retrieving devices. As a result, I was able to reel in a bunch of balls from the left field bullpen, but I’ve heard that security doesn’t allow devices there anymore. I expect a similar change to take place at Citi, so if you’re going to use a device there, be smart about it. Don’t use it if there’s a guard standing nearby, and don’t fling your glove 20 feet out onto the field to knock a ball closer. Wait until the ball is right below you and then make your move with precision.

Late in BP, I met a really cool guy named Ben who’s been reading this blog regularly and leaving comments as “idemento28.” He is to jerseys what I am to baseballs. He doesn’t actually get them from players at games; he buys them but I was still astonished when he started throwing numbers at me. I’ll let Ben tell you about it himself in a comment.

I made it to the Padres’ dugout just before BP ended…

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…but didn’t get anything there. I really wanted to hit double digits, but since I was still two baseballs short, it was going to be tough.

Cliff Floyd was talking to some people he knew down the left field foul line so I wandered over…

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…and got him to sign my ticket:

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Shortly before game time, several Padres came out and played catch in shallow left field, but because Citi Field was designed to keep real baseball fans out of the good seats, this was the closest I could get:

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Not surprisingly, I failed to get David Eckstein’s attention, and he tossed the ball into the next section.

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Once the game started, I decided to stay behind the Padres’ dugout until I got a third-out ball. It didn’t take long. When Ramon Castro popped out to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to end the bottom of the first inning, I scooted down the steps and got Gonzalez to throw me a ball (pictured on the right) on his way in. Unfortunately, because of how the ball was scuffed and grass-stained, I could tell that it wasn’t the actual game used ball. You know how the first baseman always catches a ball as he jogs in toward the dugout each inning? The ball he catches is the infield warm-up ball. It gets tossed from the dugout by the team’s first base coach. Gonzalez, as he tends to do, switched balls and kept the gamer for himself–kind of a letdown but I’m glad to say that the ball he tossed me did have a commemorative logo.

Okay, so…I had nine balls at that point and decided to head upstairs and go for foul balls. A few came close, but not close enough. Very frustrating. I took out my frustration on a nearby concession stand by paying $8.75 for a cheeseburger…

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…which was painfully well-done and didn’t come with chips or fries or pickles or anything. Where’s all the great food that people keep talking about?

In the sixth inning I headed back down to the seats behind the Padres’ dugout. Even though there were lots of fans now running up to the front row every inning, I figured my best chance of reaching double digits was in that section.

With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Beltran grounded the ball toward Eckstein at second. I could’ve easily bolted down to the front row as soon as the ball left the bat, but there were a lot of kids with gloves, sitting on the edges of their seats, so I decided to hang back and let them all race up to the front. If Gonzalez wanted to roll the ball to them across the dugout roof, fine, they could have it. But if he decided to toss it a few rows deep, then I was gonna go for it.

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Well, sure enough, Gonzalez under-handed the ball HIGH in the air as he approached the warning track. I was standing on the staircase about five rows back at the time. I could tell that the ball was going to fall a bit short, so while dozens of fans all around me were jockeying for position, I moved down a couple steps and got as close as possible to where it was going to land. I wasn’t able to get directly under it, so I had to jump and reach to my glove side. The ball hit my glove, and I would’ve caught it, but someone bumped my arm and caused me to bobble it. The ball popped up about a foot, and before anyone else had a chance to react, I snatched it in mid-air with my bare hand, and let me tell you it felt great. Double digits! Citi Field pwnage! The ball (pictured here on the right) was clearly not THE ball that Beltran had hit, but once again, it had the commemorative logo, so no complaints.

In the bottom of the eighth, as I was casually sitting in foul territory on the third base side, I heard an announcement that Gary Sheffield was pinch hitting. What happened next? I had one of those ohmygod moments, jumped out of my seat, raced up the steps, sprinted through the concourse, and barely reached the left field seats in time. This was my view as Sheff was stepping into the batter’s box:

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Did anyone else in the section have a baseball glove? No. Did Sheffield hit his 500th career home run to my staircase? That would also be no. He worked the count full and then walked.

The night ended well because I got to see Heath Bell in action. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Padres were clinging to a 6-5 lead. When Bell’s name was announced, the entire stadium booed him mightily and several fans near me screamed insults and obscenities that I can’t repeat here. I was wearing the cap that he’d given me on 8/31/08 at PETCO Park, and I cheered like hell. (Sorry, Mets fans. He’s my guy. I gotta root for him.)

Daniel Murphy led off by grounding out to shortstop Everth Cabrera on an 0-1 pitch.

That brought up David Wright.

Heath leaned in toward the plate, dangled his right arm, and looked for the sign:

heath_bell_9th_inning.jpg

***TIME OUT***
Did you notice all the empty seats behind home plate? It’s really sad. The best seats in the stadium were practically empty because a) most people can’t afford them and b) the people who CAN afford them don’t care enough about baseball to stick around and see the suspenseful end of a three-hour game. (Do you understand why I don’t like Citi Field? Is it making sense now?)
***TIME IN***

Wright worked the count to 3-1 and then launched a deep fly ball to an even deeper center field. Jody Gerut tracked it down and made the catch. Two outs.

Carlos Delgado came up as the Mets’ final hope. He took the first two pitches for strikes, then took the next two to even the count. Heath kept pumping in fastballs after that, and Delgado kept fouling them off. He fouled off four in a row, then took a ball to work the count full, then fouled off ANOTHER pitch, and finally took a called third strike on the 11th pitch of the at-bat. Classic duel. Heath got him. Game over.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 10 balls at this game (9 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 50 balls in 6 games this season = 8.3 balls per game.

• 575 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 340 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 100 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 21 different stadiums with at least one game with 10 or more balls• 3,870 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 81 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $16.10 pledged per ball

• $161.00 raised at this game

• $805.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/15/09 at Citi Field

Two weeks ago I attended a college game at Citi Field, but let’s pretend that never happened. As far as I’m concerned, THIS was my first real game at the Mets’ new ballpark and I was there with my friend Leon Feingold:

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Leon is rather tall–6-foot-6 to be exact–and if he looks like a baseball player, that’s because he is. He pitched in the Indians’ minor league system in the mid-90s, and his fastball at the time was clocked in the mid-90s. For the last two years he’s pitched professionally in the Israeli Baseball League, and just last week he had a tryout with the Newark Bears. (Leon has made several appearances on this blog since last year. He and I played catch in a cramped gym, attended two games at Camden Yards, and checked out the NYC Scrabble Club.)

The funny moment of the day took place as Leon and I were walking toward the left field gate. I noticed that several Padres players happened to be walking right alongside us, so I ran ahead and pulled out my camera, and this is what they did:

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That’s right. They hid their faces. The guy with the leather jacket (I wish I knew who it was) came charging right at me as if he were going to knock me down. The guy on the right (whose jacket is pulled over his face) had a shaved head. I think it might’ve been Kevin Kouzmanoff.

Now…one thing you have to know about Leon is that he’s a total troublemaker, and yet he never seems to get IN trouble. That said, he brazenly walked past the security guard outside the 3rd base VIP gate, then told the guard on the inside that he was one of the players and that he was looking for the press box. Incredibly, the guard waved Leon through and I got to tag along as his “guest.” (Leon does have an active APBPA card, which is supposed to get him access anyway, but he wasn’t asked to show it.)

We walked past the guard and found ourselves in the concourse underneath the seats. It was bustling with employees (including security guards) but no one paid any attention to us. They probably figured we belonged there. I was scared to death that we were going to get busted (half the people who work for the Mets recognize me and would’ve been suspicious if they’d seen me down there), but Leon insisted we weren’t doing anything wrong.

“What’re you gonna say if someone stops us?!” I shouted in a whisper.

“Don’t worry,” he said calmly. “I’ll think of something.”

I noticed that there were security cameras all over the place, and I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself by stopping to take a photograph, so I waited until the concourse cleared out and took the following shot on the move. That’s why it’s blurry:

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We kept walking and the concourse kept getting emptier, and eventually there was no one else in sight. I had no idea where we were, but I figured we must’ve walked halfway around the stadium. The concourse just kept going and going, and the way I saw it, we were getting unsettlingly deep into enemy land.

Eventually the concourse spat us out though a couple metal doors…and oh my God…we were behind the bullpens:

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I could see the field to my left…

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…so naturally I walked up for a closer look:

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Here I am, just slightly happy:

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I reached down and ran my fingers through the dirt on the warning track. (Heaven!) Then I poked my head out and looked to my left:

Leon and I hung out there for about five minutes, and no one said a word. I was feeling too giddy at that point to worry about getting caught, so I kept my camera out and took dozens of photos. Here’s a shot of the visitors’ bullpen…

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…and here’s a look at the space between the bullpens. Aside from getting to hang out with major leaguers, I would hate to watch a game from there:

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We headed back into the concourse and made our way toward the exit. Of course this story wouldn’t be complete without a photo of me standing right outside the Mets clubhouse:

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Wow.

We made it. We were back outside. No one had said a word.

Leon and I headed to the left field gate and played catch for about 20 minutes. (I’m so sore right now.) We long-tossed for a bit, and when we got so far apart that I could no longer reach him, I started rolling the ball back to him. We were SO far apart at one point that when people walked past me I got some strange looks, presumably because they couldn’t figure out why I was standing all alone with a glove, staring into space. A few passersby looked in the direction that I was looking, and when they saw that there was another guy way off in the distance, they had to stop and see if he could actually throw the ball that far. The answer is yes, he could, and this was after he’d pitched the day before. (Freak of nature.)

My friend and bellow ballhawk Gary (aka “gjk2212″ from the comments) was the first one in line at the gate. As the crowd continued to grow, we didn’t see any security guards getting up, and we began to worry that the gate wasn’t going to open. Long story short: At the last second, we had to run over to the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and wiggle our way into line and enter there. Look how crowded it was:

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The gates opened 10 minutes late, and as soon as security finished looking inside my bag, I made a beeline for the left field seats. (Leon was already there. He’d wandered off and talked his way into the stadium half an hour earlier. Don’t ask.) Less than a minute later, a right-handed batter on the Mets launched a ball toward the empty seats in left-center field. Thanks to the fact that I had to deal with those cheap, non-juiced International League balls last week in Toronto, I misjudged this one and watched helplessly as it sailed five feet over my head. Luckily it did
13_citi_first_ball.jpgNOT take a crazy bounce, and I was able to grab it off the steps a moment later.

I was on the board! First ball ever at Citi Field! I was hoping it would have the Citi Field commemorative logo, but no, it was just a regular ball (pictured here on the right). I hadn’t yet seen the logo, not even in a photograph. I’d made a point of not looking at it throughout the winter. I knew I was going to snag some of the commemorative balls eventually, and I wanted to be totally surprised when I got the first one.

A couple minutes later, Fernando Tatis sent another ball flying in my direction. The seats were still fairly empty at that point, so even though I wasn’t close enough to catch it on the fly, I was still able to grab it off the ground. Another regular ball. Bleh.

It felt great just to have room to run for home run balls. Shea Stadium had plenty of quirks and provided a few advantages, but overall it was a dreadful place for batting practice. There were hardly any seats in fair territory, so all I could do was beg the players for balls. Yeesh. I don’t even want to think about that. Quick…I have to erase the memory. Here’s what BP looked like yesterday out in the left field seats:

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The biggest problem with BP at Citi Field is that there’s not a great place to go for left-handed batters. The second deck in right field swallows up some of the balls, but it’s a pain to get up there (Gary was kicked out of that section during BP), and the seats on the lower level don’t get much action because of the overhang. The only other option is the section way out in right-center, which unfortunately sits next to a “415” marker on the outfield wall. When you’re out there, it might look like a good spot, but in reality it’s a loooooong way from home plate, and there won’t be too many balls that reach the seats. Here’s the view:

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Carlos Delgado did manage to hit one ball out there, and I snagged it. I was in the third or fourth row at the time, and it landed several rows behind me, so it was quite a shot. Did it have a commemorative logo?! No, but at least I had my third ball of the day.

Toward the end of the Mets’ portion of BP, I was able to use my glove trick to pluck a ball off the warning track in straight-away left field, and let me tell you, it’s a long way down. I think that wall is 16 feet high. Commemorative ball? Nope.

The Padres took the field and started hitting. Another ball rolled onto the warning track in left field. I rigged my glove, lowered it to the field, pulled up the ball, and took a look at it. WHAT?!?! I did a double-take when I saw it. There was a different type of the logo on the ball. Was that…it?! THAT?! The logo was tall and narrow and generic. All it said was “2009 inaugural season.” No mention of the Mets or Citi Field or New York. Nothing. Just a little piece of artwork that I gathered was supposed to represent the outside of the stadium. Have a look for yourself:

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It was so disappointing. Of all the commemorative balls I’ve snagged over the years, this is the worst. By far. Only the Mets could possibly manage to screw up a ball. Am I being too harsh? What do you think about this new ball? Does anyone actually like it?

Heath Bell came out and started throwing with the rest of the pitchers…

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…and I got his attention.

A little context: I got to know Heath five years ago when he was a Quadruple-A reliever for the Mets. I played catch with him from the seats at Shea in 2005, and he’s always been really cool to me whenever I’ve seen him. Last year, when I saw him at PETCO Park, he hooked me up with a very special ball and also gave me a cap. I can’t explain it, but the man is truly looking out for me. Most players who recognize me won’t give me baseballs, and in fact some have even gone out of their way to prevent me from getting balls, but Heath is just the opposite. I guess he likes the fact that I’m such a big fan, and he gets a kick out of adding to my collection. I’d heard from a few friends (who know that I know him) that Heath was looking for me two days earlier, but I wasn’t able to go to that game. (Too expensive.) One of my friends (I think it was Gary…or maybe it was Gail…too many emails…ahh!) told me that Heath wanted me to give him a call. But I didn’t have his number. I’d mailed him a letter during Spring Training and given him MY number, but I never heard from him. I once talked to him on someone else’s cell phone. So close…and yet so far. I still didn’t know how to get a hold of him, other than showing up at a stadium and waving him down. Anyway, on this fine day, he told me that he wanted to talk to me, but he said he had to throw and run first, and that when he was done he’d meet me out in that deep section in right-center field.

Sweet!

I could’ve kept trying to snag balls, but I didn’t want to miss him, so I immediately headed out there, and of course I missed a few snagging opportunities as a result. But I knew it was worth it.

Sure enough, about 10 or maybe 15 minutes later, Heath started jogging out toward my section in right-center, and I had to convince some fans in the front row to let me in. When Heath got close, I leaned over the wall as far as I could, and he jumped up and gave me a little handshake in mid-air. Then he just stood there on the warning track and talked to me for…I don’t know, at least another 10 minutes:

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I can’t remember everything we talked about, but basically I congratulated him on becoming the closer. He asked me how I’ve been. I asked him if he happened to save any balls from the World Baseball Classic. He said he got a whole bunch and would give one to me…but he said the balls are in San Diego. He asked if I was planning to head out that way this season. I said no, but that I might have to come out just to get one of those balls. He said it wasn’t worth it, and I explained that it IS worth it. I told him that I only count balls from major league players at major league games, so the only way that I could ever possibly have a WBC ball in my collection would be if he gave one to me at a regular season game. He asked me if I’m going to be seeing the Padres on the road, like in Philly or D.C., and I said I wasn’t sure. So…he was like, “Well keep me posted and let me know where you’re gonna be, and we’ll try to figure it out.” I told him that I still didn’t have his phone number and that I had no way of getting a hold of him. He said he had my number. He was like, “That number you sent me is your cell?” I said yes, and he said he’d text me after batting practice. I wasn’t sure if he really had the number, so I grabbed one of my contact cards and wrote my number on it and gave it to him. Then we started talking about other stuff.

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“So you’ve heard about my charity?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “someone was talking about it. What’s the deal with that?”

I told him all about it, how the charity is called Pitch In For Baseball, and how it provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world, and how I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag this season, and how every ball I snag is already worth close to $16 for the charity, and that it’d be AWESOME if he were to pledge something, even a teeny amount, just so I could say I had a major league player on board.

“Send me the info,” he said, “I’ll check it out.”

“I won’t charge you for the balls you give me,” I told him.

He asked me if I’d gotten one of the commemorative balls yet. I couldn’t lie. I told him that I *had* just gotten one about half an hour earlier, but that didn’t stop him from giving me another. When a ball rolled onto the warning track about 50 feet away, he went over and picked it up and inspected it to see if had the “special” logo, and when he saw that it did, he walked past all the screaming fans in the front row and tossed it right up to me.

Heath Bell is THE MAN, and the Mets were stupid to let him go.

I can’t even remember what else we talked about. Like I said, it was a long conversation, but we wrapped it up with my saying “thanks sooooo much” and “congrats again.” He said he’d text me after BP and we said we’d talk soon.

I only managed to get one more ball during BP. I snagged it with my glove trick near the LF foul pole, it was commemorative. Very strange that the Padres were using those balls and the Mets weren’t. (Does anyone know Mets equipment manager Charlie Samuels? I’d really like to talk to him and ask him a few questions.)

After BP, I met up with Leon behind the Padres’ dugout. Dave Winfield was down there, and Leon shouted at him and told him he played with him in Spring Training one year. Here’s Winfield’s reaction:

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Here I am with the seven balls I’d snagged (I gave one of them away to a kid after the game):

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As promised, Heath texted me after BP, and he included his email address. Obviously I can’t share that address here, but I will say that it contains the word “heater.”

It was Jackie Robinson Day. Here are all the No. 42’s being worn in his honor:

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After the ceremony, when Heath walked back in toward the dugout, he spotted me in the seats and asked if I’d gotten his text. Coolness.

Game time!

This was my view in the first inning:

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When David Wright struck out to end the bottom of the first, I bolted down the steps and got Padres catcher Nick Hundley to toss me the ball on his way in. So easy. No competition. And finally, I had a commemorative ball that was actually rubbed up and game-used.

Gary Sheffield, stuck on 499 career homers, was getting his first start of the year and batting sixth. When he came up in the bottom of the second, this is where I was sitting:

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It wasn’t ideal, but that’s Citi Field for ya. There’s no cross aisle, so if a game is crowded (as it will be all year and probably for all of eternity), there’s no way to run left or right for a home run ball. If Sheffield had gotten a hold of one, he would’ve had to hit it exactly in my direction, and my range would’ve been limited to that one staircase. Not good. But at least I had a chance. Sheffield, though, didn’t do his part and struck out swinging.

After that I moved up to the club (aka “Excelsior”) level. Good foul ball spot. This was the view:

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If the guards had actually let me stand in the aisle, this is what it would’ve looked like on my left…

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…and this is what it would’ve looked like on my right. Notice the baseball writers in the press box and the blue SNY booth in the distance:

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Here’s a closer look at the booth. Keith Hernandez is on the left, Ron Darling is in the middle, and Gary Cohen (whom I adore) is on the right:

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Here’s at look at the ESPN booth. Rick Sutcliffe is on the left, Joe Morgan is sitting next to him, then Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s widow), and Dave O’Brian on the right. Not a shabby group. Security didn’t appreciate the fact that I took this photo (and yet they had no problem with the fact that I was practically standing on the field five hours earlier…go figure):

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I kept moving around between the left field seats for Sheffield (who went 0-for-2 with a walk and got pulled for a pinch hitter late in the game), the club level for foul balls (there were none), and the Padres’ dugout for third-out balls. Leon, who told me he’d run out onto the batter’s eye to grab a ball during BP, spent the entire game sitting in the second row behind the dugout. (Oh, and I forgot to mention that he ended up snagging three balls, including a Sheffield BP homer that was heading right into my glove; I need shorter, less athletic friends.)

The following photo shows my view in the seventh inning:

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Once again, it was David Wright who ended the frame, this time with a fly out to right fielder Brian Giles. By this late point in the game, all the fans in the section knew there was a chance to get a ball every inning, but they were too dumb to figure out why. They all charged down the steps and yelled at first baseman Adrian Gonzalez as he jogged off the field, and as soon as he was gone, they all dispersed and headed back to their seats. Fifteen seconds later, Giles jogged in, and since I was the ONLY fan standing in the front row at that point, I had no trouble getting him to toss me the ball. That was my ninth and (unfortunately) final ball of the day.

After the game, I got a photo with Gary (pictured below on the right) and a fellow ballhawk named Donnie (aka “donnieanks”) that I had finally met for the first time earlier in the day. Here were are:

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And that’s about it.

I hope the Padres win the NL West and Heath Bell saves 74 games.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 9 balls at this game (8 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 40 balls in 5 games this season = 8 balls per game.

• 574 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 339 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 45 major league stadiums with at least one ball caught

• 3,860 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 78 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $15.87 pledged per ball

• $142.83 raised at this game

• $634.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

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