April 2009

Gustavo Watch, Part 18

Ahh yes, Gustavo Chacin, the guy who stole a baseball from me on 8/1/06 at Yankee Stadium and promptly fell victim to the Hample Jinx

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The latest piece of Gustavo news broke last week when I was snagging baseballs in Toronto. I didn’t get a chance to blog about it then, but hey, it’s never too late to discuss the misfortunes that befall him.

Do you remember, back in December, when I was chillin’ in Ireland and making fun of Gustavo for getting signed by the lowly Washington Nationals? Well, it didn’t take long for the Nationals to release him. (Tee-hee!) Here’s the story on MLB.com.

Now…don’t be fooled by the fact that he ended up signing with the Phillies; it was a minor league contract and we all know that the entire Phillies organization is going to fizzle in ’09.

But enough about the Phillies. Yuck. It’s all about the Mets right now. Last night, in honor of the official opening of Citi Field, the Empire State Building was illuminated with orange and blue. Here’s the view of it from my apartment. It’s way off in the distance (more than two miles away), right in the center of the photograph:

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There’s a 50 percent chance of rain tomorrow, but I don’t care. I’ll be at Citi Field even if there’s a monsoon. Bring it on. I’m so ready…

Chicago/Milwaukee

On April 15th I’ll be at Citi Field, on April 18th I’ll be at Yankee Stadium, and a few days later I’ll be heading out of town…

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I’ll be at Wrigley Field from April 21-23, U.S. Cellular Field from April 24-25, and Miller Park on April 27th. I won’t be flying back to NYC until the 29th, so I’ll either be going to a second game in Milwaukee on the 28th or I’ll be back at the Cell. (One of the best things about this trip is that I’ll be staying with friends and won’t have to spend a single night in a hotel.)

In other news, I’m in the current issue of American Way, which is the official magazine of American Airlines. Click here to read the online version.

4/9/09 at Rogers Centre

Last day in Toronto.
Day game after a night game.
Was there going to be batting practice?

Yes!!!

I had seen the batting cage and screens from my hotel room, but unfortunately this is what was taking place when I ran inside the Rogers Centre at 11am:

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At least it was the Blue Jays and NOT the Tigers who were on the field; at each of the previous three games, Detroit had been using cheap International League balls during BP.

Not long after the Jays started throwing, one of the balls got loose and rolled halfway onto the warning track in foul territory. I’m not sure which player had let the ball get away from him, but instead of walking over and picking it up and using it to finish throwing, he left it there and pulled a new ball out of his back pocket. The abandoned ball was sitting 30 feet to my right. There was an on-field security guard standing 50 feet to my left. In New York City, he would’ve walked over and grabbed the ball (and probably kept it for himself), but here in Canada, where
zack_loves_canada.jpgfew people go out of their way to snag baseballs, the guard just stood there and watched while I ran over and successfully used the “half-glove trick.” That’s what I call it when I don’t actually rig my glove to pick up a ball but simply fling the glove out in order to knock a ball closer. Then I moved one section to my left to get near the pitchers–and I found myself standing right in front of the guard.

“Thanks for letting me get that ball,” I said.

“No problem,” he replied. “You’re the guy who gets all the balls, right?”

“Yeah! How’d you know?”

“I’ve been reading your blog,” he said. “I think what you do is pretty cool. I don’t want you writing about any Gestapo sh*t here, and I don’t want you to put the Gustavo curse on me.”

WOW.

Again, just to point out the difference between Toronto and my hometown…

In September 2008, a bunch of security guards at Shea Stadium actually got angry at me (and confronted me) after they read a Newsday article in which I was paraphrased–not even quoted, mind you, but paraphrased–as saying that security at Shea was more lax than at Yankee Stadium. I meant it as a compliment, but they took it as an insult that would get them in trouble with their superiors. Unbelievable.

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Anyway, I bolted out to the seats in left-center field as soon as the Jays started hitting, and I used my glove trick to pluck my second ball of the day off the warning track. Several players watched me do it and were nice enough not to interfere, but when I ran around to right-center and tried to use the trick again, they weren’t as kind. As I began raising my glove with my potential third ball of the day wedged precariously inside, Jesse Litsch and Jesse Carlson both started throwing balls at my glove to knock it loose. I got the sense that they weren’t REALLY trying to mess me up. If they seriously wanted to foil my attempt, they could’ve just jogged over and grabbed the ball out of my glove…but instead they stayed about 40 feet away and took turns
firing balls at it.

“This guy gets like 800 balls a year!” said Litsch to his teammate.

“I don’t get THAT many!” I yelled, “but wait, how do you even know who I am?”

“Man, I see you EVERYwhere,” he said as he continued to fire balls at my glove. “You’re in New York. You’re in Baltimore. You’re all over the place.”

The balls he and Carlson were throwing were thumping off the padded outfield wall as I continued to lift my glove. One of their throws nicked my glove and caused it to spin around, but incredibly the ball remained inside.

As I kept raising my glove, their throws kept getting higher and higher and eventually reached the top of the outfield wall. Litsch had another ball in his hand and paused to look up at me.

“Yeah, what’choo got NOW!!!” I yelled.

He cocked his arm as if he were threatening to throw it.

“Go ahead!” I yelled as my glove dangled just a couple feet below the railing. “Throw it! I dare you! I’ll just catch it!”

I grabbed the string with my left hand in order to free up my dominant right hand, and just then, Litsch fired his ball at my glove and I reached down and bare-handed it just before it was able to hit it.

“HAHA!!!” I yelled. “Yeah!!! That’s what I’m TALKIN’ about!!! You like that?! Pretty good hands, huh?!”

He didn’t say anything. He just turned around and walked back to his spot in shallow right-center field. It felt amazing. I’d lunged and caught a 50mph throw in my right hand while another ball was tucked inside my glove that was dangling by a string from my left hand. It was truly a glorious moment.

The stadium had been open for about 15 minutes, and look how empty the seats were:

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That’s why I don’t feel sorry for people who tell me, “I’ve been going to games for 40 years, and I’ve never gotten a ball, not even in batting practice.”

I mean…DUH.

The left field seats got fairly crowded (by Toronto’s standards) toward the end of BP, and if you look closely at the photo below, you can see Nick Yohanek (aka “Happy Youngster“) in the second deck, wearing a blue jersey and long white sleeves:

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My fifth ball of the day was a random toss-up that got bobbled by some fans and rolled right to me through an empty row. Total luck, yes.

After the netting above the Jays’ bullpen was pulled back (as it always is late in BP), I used the glove trick to snag another ball there. Then, two minutes later, I used the trick yet again to pull up a ball from the wide gap on the center field side of the ‘pen. My string got tangled on that one, and I nearly ran out of time.

After BP, I got Jesse Litsch to sign my ticket…jesse_litsch_autograph.jpg

…and asked if he was the guy who’d thrown a ball up to my hotel room two days earlier.

“That was YOU?!” he asked.

(Heh.)

Here’s a photo of him signing…

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…and here’s a shot of his glove, which was sitting on top of the low wall right in front of me:

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Five minutes before the game started, I headed out to the front row along the left field foul line to say hey to the nice security guard. We talked for a bit, and then I noticed that there was a ball sitting underneath the ballboy’s stool:

ball3850_stolen_from_ballboy.jpg“I’m guessing I’d probably get yelled at if I went over there and grabbed that ball,” I said to the guard.

“Do what you need to do,” he said. “It’s his fourth day on the job. He doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Poor ballboy. Totally oblivious. He was looking out at the field and talking to the fans sitting behind him. I felt guilty, like I was taking advantage of him, like I was about to steal his lunch money. And what about the Blue Jays outfielders? How would they warm up if I took that ball? Screw it, I thought. They’ll find another ball somehow. It’s not my problem.

“I gotta do it,” I told the guard. “In the name of charity. Yes! It’s for a good cause!”

He seemed to be getting a kick out of the whole thing, so I shared my plan: I was going to head up the steps, cut through an empty row, head back down the steps, and stand right behind the ballboy until I felt he was sufficiently distracted. Then I was going to reach over the low wall, grab the ball, and run like hell.I thanked the guard, told him this was my last game in Toronto, said goodbye, took a deep breath, and made my move. Up the steps, through the row, down the steps. I looked back at the guard, and he was watching while making it look like he wasn’t watching. I looked all around. The fans were clueless. The ballboy was yapping away. The guard at the top of the steps had his back turned to me. I waited for the ballboy to lean forward a bit, and as soon as he did, I reached carefully over the wall and under his stool. If he’d leaned back at that moment, his back would’ve pinned my arm against the wall, and I would’ve been busted. I actually had to feel for the ball because there wasn’t room for me to bend all the way over and look for it, so that took a couple seconds, and I was very nervous, but I got it! I grabbed the ball with my fingertips and lifted it up over the wall and BOLTED up the steps. I turned back quickly, spotted the guard, and pumped my fist. He gave a subtle nod, and I disappeared into the concourse.

Because the 200 Level wasn’t quite as empty as I’d hoped it would be, I spent the game going for foul balls on the first base side of home plate. Nothing came my way, but I did manage to maneuver down behind the dugout after the first inning and get Tigers first baseman Miguel
ball_3851_miguel_cabrera.jpgCabrera to toss me a ball on his way in. I quickly realized that it was not the ball he’d actually caught to end the frame; it was too scuffed/marked (as you can see on the right), which means he’d switched the gamer with the infield warm-up ball and given me THAT one instead. Rrr.

I really wanted one more ball. That would’ve given me double digits, my personal benchmark of stadium domination, but it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t get any (other) third-out balls, and like I said, there weren’t any fouls that came anywhere near me. I felt like I would’ve had a great shot at getting an umpire ball after the game, but when Nick made his way down into my area in the late innings, I told him he could go for it. It was only fair. He’d backed off the day before and given me the dugout, and I’d snagged two balls as a result. Now it was my turn to be generous, and sure enough he ended up getting a ball at the dugout, not from home plate ump Chris Guccione but from one of the Tigers pitchers walking in from the bullpen. Overall, during the three days that Nick and I were both at the Rogers Centre, we managed to stay out of each other’s way and NOT lose any opportunities, but this was one of the few times that it couldn’t be avoided. It happens. Sometimes there IS only one place to be, but we handled it well. We communicated and shared our strategies and made it work.

The game itself was historic. It was the first time in major league history that two first-round draft picks made their debuts against each other. Ricky Romero, drafted 6th overall by the Blue Jays in 2005, earned the win after giving up two runs on seven hits in six innings. Rick Porcello, the 27th overall pick by the Tigers in 2007, suffered the loss after allowing four runs on nine hits in five innings. (I should’ve saved my ticket and tried to get it signed by them instead of Litsch). Final score: Toronto 6, Detroit 2.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 9 balls at this game

• 31 balls in 4 games this season = 7.75 balls per game.

• 573 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,851 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $14.88 pledged per ball

• $133.92 raised at this game

• $461.28 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/8/09 at Rogers Centre

My day started with a trip to the CN Tower:

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For 30 years, the tower was the tallest “free-standing structure” in the world. Now it’s merely the tallest in the Americas.

Here’s the view of downtown Toronto from the main observation deck:

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The main deck has two levels. The photo above was taken from the upper level. The following photo, which shows Lake Ontario, was taken from the lower level:

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The best part about the lower level (assuming you’re not scared of heights) is that there’s a glass floor in one area. Here I am, standing on it, looking straight down:

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Did you notice the Rogers Centre in the photo above? My right foot is pointing at it. See the red lettering on the side of that white building? That’s it.

Okay, now I have to share a random photo that I grabbed from Google, just to show where I went next:

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That teeny area up towards the top is called the “Sky Pod” and it’s the second highest public observation deck in the world. Here I am up there:

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Here’s the view facing west…

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…and here’s what the Rogers Centre looks like from 1,465 feet above:

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I made it back to my hotel room just in time to see the Blue Jays start taking batting practice, but I couldn’t convince any of the players to toss me a ball. So I shaved. While watching BP from my window. Totally surreal.

At 5:25pm (only five minutes before the stadium was going to open), I headed outside to Gate 11, where my new friend and fellow ballhawk Nick Yohanek (aka “Happy Youngster“) was holding a spot for me at the front of the long line of passionate Jays fans. You can see him holding up his arms under the red sign:

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In the photo below you can see two important things:

1) Nick standing behind the bullpen netting…and…
2) An annoying railing that needlessly divides the left field seats into two main sections:

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Several righties started taking cuts, so I moved back to left-center. I didn’t get a chance to catch any batted balls, but I got two more thrown to me. Granderson provided the first–he flung it randomly into the crowd without looking–and Misty May-Treanor‘s husband tossed me the second. That gave me a total of six balls; all five from the Tigers were cheap International League balls. (Just to clarify something for people who might be new to this blog: The only way that I’ll count a minor league ball in my collection is if I snag it at a major league game.)

A short while later it occurred to me that I’d done something rare: I’d gotten Granderson to throw me two balls in one game, and the day before I’d gotten Carlos Guillen to throw me two as well. I don’t know how one would one phrase that in a record book, or if it’s even a record, or if anyone even cares, but I’m assuming that this little oddball feat isn’t accomplished often (not that I specifically tried to make it happen). Has anyone else ever done this? Has anyone ever gotten THREE balls from the same player in one game?

I had some time to kill between BP and the game so I took a photo of the empty seats down the right field foul line…

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…and watched Zach Minor warming up:

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Just before the national anthems, several Tigers began playing three-way catch. There was only one other fan with a glove, and it happened to be a little kid who couldn’t have been more than seven years old. He was standing quietly in the front row, watching the players, and wearing a Blue Jays cap. I decided to stay out of his way and give him a chance to get the ball…and I also decided that if he didn’t get it, I was going to give him one of mine. Well, as fate would have it, Ramon Santiago ended up with the ball…

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…and looked right at me and lobbed it my way, directly over the kid’s head. I immediately walked down the steps and asked the kid, “Have you gotten a ball yet today?” He said no, so I handed him the Jays home run ball that I’d snagged at the start of BP. (I didn’t give him the ball from Santiago because at that moment, it was the last ball I’d ever snagged. What if, for some reason, I never snagged another ball? It would be a shame not to own the final one, just like Barry Bonds secretly wishes he owned No. 762.) Then I knelt down next to the kid and got eye-to-eye with him and said, “Hey, let me give you a little piece of advice.” He stared back blankly and I kept talking. “You know how you’re wearing a Blue Jays cap? Well, the Jays might be your favorite team, but if you’re trying to get a ball from the other team, you should hide your hat. If the Tigers see that you’re rooting for someone else, they’re not gonna want to give you a ball. Right?” The kid didn’t say a word, but I think he got the point. “Just remember that,” I told him, “and enjoy the game.”

Then I got some food and headed to my actual seat in the second deck:

food_and_view_04_08_09.jpg

(Yes, that’s a lot of onions. They were free at the condiment stand. I ate them with the fries. Good combination of te
mperature and flavor.)

With the exception of a few gloveless fans scattered throughout the front row, the 200 Level was empty. I’d decided to give up foul balls for one night and make an attempt at catching home runs.

Of course nothing came my way, but Nick managed to get HIS glove on a home run ball. First, check out where he was sitting. This was the view to the left from my seat. He’s on the lower level, just behind the red “Rogers” sign, wearing the yellow version of his signature shirt:

happy_youngster_during_game.jpg

In the top of the 5th inning, Miguel Cabrera’s second homer of the game hit the windows directly above Nick. The ball bounced back on the field and rolled to Vernon Wells, who scooped it up and tossed it to him. Very cool.

In the 8th inning, I abandoned my home run quest and moved to the seats behind the Tigers’ dugout. This was my view:

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Nick turned up just before the game ended and sat down right behind me. We discussed our post-game strategy. Both of us were hoping to get a ball from home plate umpire Tony Randazzo, but since I’d gotten there first, Nick let me go for it.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “That’s just proper ballhawk etiquette.”

Fernando Rodney got Lyle Overbay to fly out to end the game. (Final score: Tigers 5, Blue Jays 1.) Curtis Granderson made a leaping catch at the wall. I scooted down to the front row. Randazzo approached, I shouted like hell, and got him to toss me my eighth ball of the day. Then, moments later, I saw Granderson jog in and hand the game-ending ball to Rodney. When Rodney walked toward the dugout, I shouted at him in Spanish and got him to toss it to me. Not bad. I’d gone from seven balls (average) to nine balls (good) in less than 60 seconds.

SNAGGING STATS:

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

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

• 572 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,842 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $14.52 pledged per ball

• $130.68 raised at this game

• $319.44 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Back in my hotel room, this was the scene as I started working on this entry:

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Stay tuned for one more tale from Toronto…

4/7/09 at Rogers Centre

The day got off to a great start.

Thanks to the location of my hotel room and the impressive right arm of a Blue Jays pitcher, I was able to snag a ball 15 minutes before Rogers Centre opened. This is where it all went down:

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I’m not sure who threw it–it’s kinda hard to recognize faces from three kilometers up–but I think it was Jesse Litsch. I’d gotten his attention as soon as the Jays started taking BP, and when I asked for a ball, he grabbed his shoulder and rotated his arm as if to indicate that it was sore.

“I can’t throw that far!” he shouted.

“Gimme a break!” I yelled. “I played D-3 ball, and *I* can throw that far!”

That convinced him to give it a shot, but his first throw fell short and the ball bounced out of the 500 Level. Then, before he tried again, he told me that this was going to be his last try. The ball barely sailed wide and again bounced out of the seats.

“C’mon!” I yelled.

He ignored me.

I thought that was it, but then he surprised me by making one final attempt about 20 minutes later, and it was right on the money. That is one impressive throw, and of course it felt incredible to head outside and get on line and already have a “1” in the ball tally. FYI, there’s no way to enter the stadium from the hotel. I had to go outside and wait at the gate like everyone else, and when I got outside, I discovered that it was snowing. Then, according to the plan,
I headed to Gate 13 and met a fellow ballhawk named Nick Yohanek (aka “Happy Youngster“) for the very first time. Here we are…Nick on the left and his father Jack on the right:

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Nick and I had known each other through email and blog comments for a few years. Like me, he had planned to go to Toronto to make an attempt at catching Gary Sheffield’s 500th career home run. Even though Sheff got released by the Tigers during the final week of Spring Training, we were still here. Nick and his father had made the 650-mile drive from Milwaukee.

My only concern about meeting fellow ballhawks is that we’ll end up getting in each other’s way and competing for the same balls, but that didn’t happen here. Rogers Centre is big enough (and the crowd was so small) that everyone was able to spread out. As soon as the gates opened, Nick made a beeline for the 200 Level and found an easter egg. I raced to the 100 Level and got one of the Tigers (no idea who) to toss me a ball in right-center field. The first thing I thought of was the charity; snagging baseballs, as fun as it has always been for me, now feels even better because of this new added meaning.

A few minutes later, a ball rolled onto the warning track in right-center:

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I used my glove trick to reel it in and heard some fans cheering for me in left-center. The day before, I’d stayed in the 200 Level and didn’t get recognized by anybody. On this fine day, however, I stayed downstairs and had a bunch of people coming up to me and recognizing me from this blog and from YouTube.

Eddie Bonine walked over and asked how I got the ball to stick inside my glove.

“Put another ball down,” I said, “and I’ll show you how it’s done.”

He was so intrigued by my contraption that I think he was considering it, but then another ball rolled onto the warning track.

“There you go,” he said, pointing at it.

The ball was halfway out on the track and my attempt began with a struggle to knock it closer, only because I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself by flinging the glove way out. I was trying to be subtle and gentle with all my movements, and it just wasn’t happening.

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Bonine moved the ball closer to the wall, then stepped back and watched with Nate Robertson as I reeled it in. Once I had the ball in my hand, he told me to give it to him.

“I’ll give it back,” he said. “I want to see you do it again.”

I tossed him the ball and worried that a) security was going to raise hell and that b) I was missing other snagging opportunities, but I had to go with it. When a major leaguer is talking to you, you can’t just walk away.

Sure enough, as I was reeling in the ball for the second time, a young female security guard (wearing a menacing bright yellow jacket) approached me from behind and told me I had to stop. Bonine jumped to my defense, saying I wasn’t causing any trouble and that he wanted to see what I was doing.

“In that case keep right on going,” the guard told me. “I have to say I’m impressed.”

I got the ball to stick inside my glove and then as soon as I began lifting it up, Bonine kicked the glove and made both the ball and Sharpie fall out. I wasn’t mad. I knew he was just being playful, and I thought it was funny. Then he grabbed the Sharpie and wedged it in my glove and tossed the ball up to me. Mission accomplished.

I ran to left-center because a bunch of righties were taking turns in the cage. Of course there wasn’t a single ball that landed anywhere near me, but I did get Carlos Guillen to toss one my way–ball No. 5 on the day.

Three of the last four balls I’d snagged were from the International League. (Booooo!!!) They felt cheap and plasticky, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re made in China:

international_league_balls.jpg

Real balls, of course, are made in…let’s say it all together: COSTA RICA!!! And let me just point out that the Tigers are now 0-3 in games I’ve seen them play since last year, so I’ll say it again: If you practice with minor league balls, you’re gonna play like a bunch of minor leaguers. I’m telling you, the Tigers are done. They’re not going anywhere this year. It’s just like the Nationals and their God-awful training balls.

Right after BP, I got Curtis Granderson (he’s nice) to sign my ticket…

curtis_granderson_autograph.jpg

…and then I met two of Toronto’s best ballhawks. They knew I was going to be at this game, and they’d said a quick hello during BP in left-center. Once all the players were off the field, we had a good chunk of time to catch up. Here were are in the photo below. The guy on the left is named Ryan, and he’s snagged a grand total of 696 balls. His friend on the right is Tyler, and he’s gotten around 630:

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“We’re like the you of this stadium,” said Ryan.

He and Tyler each had me sign a ball. Then we took some photos, and they had me leave a voice-mail for their friend who’s away in college right now–another ballhawk whose claim to fame is that when Carlos Delgado was on the Jays and hit four homers in a game, he snagged the third one. So there ARE some experienced ballhawks here. I hadn’t met any when I was in Toronto in 2000, but of course I didn’t have this blog then, so I wasn’t coming into contact with nearly as many people. Oh, and one more thing about Ryan and Tyler…they each have a full season ticket plan. All 81 home games. When I tell you how much they pay, you’re going to cry and/or move to Toronto. Ready? They pay just $81. Not per ticket, but for the entire season! One dollar per game. That’s one of the deals up here. Of course their seats are in the 500 Level, but it doesn’t matter because they never go up there. Can you believe that? It makes me loathe New York City. But let’s move away from hateful thoughts. Here’s something funny and sooooooo Canadian…

Twenty minutes before game time, as I was walking through the seats, I saw a kid with a hockey goalie glove, and yes, he said he’d brought it to try to catch a foul ball:

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I was tempted to give him one of my baseballs, but since he was sitting with three other kids, I didn’t want to do anything that would make the rest of them jealous, so I kept walking around and looking for a worthy recipient. After a few minutes I saw a little boy, probably about five years old, sitting between his parents, wearing a glove and Tigers gear. I walked up and asked him if he’d gotten a ball yet, and when he said no, I handed him the ball that Eddie Bonine had flipped up to me. It was the only ball I had in my possession with an MLB logo. All the others were International League balls. (The ball I’d caught in my hotel room was a real ball, but I didn’t take it with me.)

Right before the game, I got my sixth ball of the day tossed at the Tigers’ dugout by guess who? Mister Carlos Guillen. God forbid he ever has to pick out the perp in a police lineup.

On Opening Day, the attendance was 48,027. At the second game of the season, the crowd shrunk to 16,790, and that was the “paid” attendance. There’s no way there were that many people in the ballpark. Maybe the fact that there was no alcohol had something to do with it? Whatever the reason, it was great for me. I had endless room to run for foul balls, as you can see in the photo below (along with an arrow pointing to my hotel room):

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The seats got a little more crowded during the middle innings, so I wandered up to the 500 Level. Can you spell D-E-S-O-L-A-T-E? Here’s the concourse behind the right field foul pole…

500_level_concourse.jpg

…and here are the empty seats. Note all the railings. Awful:

500_level_empty_seats.jpg

Here’s the view from the last row behind the plate:

rogers_centre_panorama.jpg

I wish I’d taken photos of what happened next. There wasn’t an actual event, but rather just some good ol’ fashioned exploring. Let me try to describe it. As I was walking down one of the ramps from the 500 Level, I noticed a little alcove at one end, with some steps leading up to an
unmarked metal door. I looked around. No fans. No guards. No security camera. No sign saying “keep out” or “authorized personnel only.” Nothing like that. So, I walked up the steps (slice of pizza in hand) and peeked under the door. All I could see was that the area behind it was well lit. I had no idea what was there. Security? Media? Garbage? Storage? I didn’t even know if the door was locked, so I slowly pulled down on the latch handle, and it moved. I opened the door very slowly…then a little more…and a little more…and found myself in a short hallway, maybe 20 feet long, with another unmarked door at the other end. Weird!! I walked up to that door, and it was also unlocked. Surely there HAD to be a guard on the other side. But no. I opened it all the way and walked right through, and there wasn’t another human being in sight. Turned out I was in the exclusive 300 Level:

300_level_concourse.jpg

I walked through the narrow hallway, passed a few security cameras, and expected to be approached by stadium personnel within 60 seconds. But no. I passed a few employees (including a chef with a huge white hat) and no one said a word. Very strange. Easily one of my strangest stadium experiences ever. I wandered some more, took a few pics, and then found an elevator that deposited me in the 100 Level. Even if I had been caught, it’s not like I would’ve gotten in trouble, right? I wasn’t breaking any rules. I was just wandering. (That’s what I would’ve told the judge.) If they don’t want people to wander, then they should lock the doors and put up signs. Simple as that.

Anyway, I picked out a seat in the ultimate foul ball location…

foul_ball3833_seat.jpg

…and it paid off in the bottom of the 8th inning. Marco Scutaro fouled off a 2-1 pitch from Brandon Lyon. The ball sailed 20 feet over my head, landed in the 200 Level, and bounced down into an empty row. Easy. And lucky. I won’t deny that. I pulled it right out of a folded seat.

After the game, which the Jays won, 5-4, on a walk-off sac fly by Rod Barajas, I caught up with Happy Youngster and invited him (and his dad) to check out my hotel room:

nick_zack_hotel_room.jpg

Did you notice the shirt he’s wearing? Last week it became a rather famous design. If you have 1 minute and 50 seconds to spare, check out this YouTube video, and note how many views it’s gotten.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 7 balls at this game

marco_scutaro_foul_ball.jpg

• 13 balls in 2 games this season = 6.5 balls per game.

• 571 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 1,100 lifetime balls outside of New York (No. 1,100, pictured here on the right, was the Scutaro foul ball; much better than No. 1,000 which was the product of a cracked rib on 8/30/08 at Angel Stadium)

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

• 26 lifetime game balls outside NYC

• 3,833 total balls


CHARITY STATS:

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

• $14.04 pledged per ball (and counting)

• $98.28 raised at this game

• $182.52 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Finally, in case you’re interested, I taped a radio interview yesterday which is going to air this afternoon (April 8th) at around 4:15pm ET (but you might want to tune in at 4pm to be safe). The network is called Mile High Sports Online. Just visit the site and click the “listen now” button on the upper right, and you should be good to go. In case you miss it today (apologies for the short notice), my segment is supposed to re-air on Saturday, April 11th, at 10am ET.

4/6/09 at Rogers Centre

The story begins on April 5th…

I flew from NYC to Toronto, got picked up at the airport by my friend Joy, and checked into the Renaissance Hotel:

1_approaching_hotel.jpg

This hotel is connected to the stadium, and as I mentioned in my previous entry,
I got one of the rooms that overlooks the field. Joy and I had been planning to go out to dinner, but when we saw what was happening on the field, even SHE wanted to stay (and that’s saying a lot, considering she doesn’t follow baseball and hasn’t even heard of Barry Bonds). Check it out:

2_hotel_room_first_look.jpg

Yup. Batting Practice. Here’s another look:

3_hotel_room_open_window.jpg

My mind started racing when I discovered that the window could open, so you can imagine what started going through my head when I looked down at the seats and saw this:

4_easter_egg.jpg

Was it possible to get the players to throw balls up to me? Yes, but their aim was off. One guy (I think it was Fernando Rodney) tossed up two balls and missed both times. The first one sailed five feet to my left, and the second was right on line but fell about five feet short. One of the balls ended up bouncing out of the seats, but look where the other one ended up:

6_easter_eggs.jpg

After another 15 minutes or so, I got Gerald Laird’s attention (simply by waving, not by shouting) and got him to toss one my way. The ball sailed five feet to my right, smacked off a sturdy window and disappeared into the seats right below me. Hmm. Laird tried once more to throw me a ball. His aim was better, but still off. I had to reach as high as possible and far to my left, and I missed it by mere inches. He flailed his arms in disgust, but there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done, except maybe been born 6-foot-5. Anyway, the ball once again disappeared into the seats below my window. What was going to happen to those balls? Would they go unnoticed by the rest of the world for another 24 hours? (That’s why I didn’t blog about this in my last entry.) Would I be able to enter the stadium the next day and race up to the 500 Level and grab all four of them? I’m not joking when I say this kept me up that night.

Joy and I ordered Indian food (chana masala for her, chicken tikka masala for me, and garlic naan for us both) and I took a ton of photos of the stadium. Here’s one that really shows the open window:

5_hotel_room_view.jpg

Eventually the lights inside the stadium were dimmed…

8_getting_darker.jpg

…and then it got really dark so the Blue Jays’ staff could practice using spotlights to highlight the baselines for the following day’s player introductions:

9_spotlight.jpg

I was thinking about the four balls that were sitting in the seats below me. I could still only see two of them, so I reached out of my window as far as possible, aimed my camera straight down, and took a photo. Maybe I’d see a ball hiding in the folded up portion of a seat?

7_looking_for_other_eggs.jpg

Nope. I figured the other two balls had to be somewhere within the first four rows, so I started making a plan for how I’d comb through the seats as quickly as possible, once I was there. I’d race out the tunnel, take six steps down, and then turn right. They had to be there. But again, would they STAY there overnight and throughout the following
afternoon?

Here’s a photo of the stadium at its darkest. It was only like this for a few minutes:

10_restaurant_in_darkness.jpg

The lights came back on and stayed on all night. (No big deal. My room DOES have curtains, after all.) I kept looking out at the stadium and then at the seats below from different angles, hoping to spot the other two balls. I moved all the way to the left, then to the right, and I spotted a third ball! Can you see it in the photo below?

11_third_egg_spotted.jpg

That made me feel better, and the balls were still there in the morning. That brings us to April 6th…Opening Day. Good thing the Jays have a dome because it was COLD. I checked weather.com, and it was 17 degrees (Fahrenheit) with the wind chill. And damp. But I still went outside and walked all around the stadium. The four-part photo below
(starting on the top left and going clockwise) shows what it looked like when I first stepped out of the hotel and then started exploring:

12_outside.jpg

Here I am, trying not to freeze…

13_zack_outside.jpg

…and here are a few more photos outside the stadium:

14_outside.jpg

Just to give you a quick tour of the hotel, here’s the view to the left as soon as you get out of the elevator:

15_hotel_lobby_left.jpg

Here’s the view to the right. Note the restaurant, past the orange beams, called Arriba:

16_hotel_lobby_right.jpg

Here’s the view from the restaurant–not as good a setup as I have in my room because it’s enclosed and therefore impossible to snag baseballs. Ha:

<a href=”http://mlblogssnaggingbaseballs.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/17_restaurant_view.jpg&#8221; target=”_blank”17_restaurant_view.jpg

Okay, so it’s a well known fact that I’m a huge nerd and love numbers, right? Well, just to show how big this hotel is, I timed myself jogging (at a pretty good pace) from the elevator through the halls and to my room. You know how long it takes? Forty-five seconds! Crazy.

Speaking of my room, here’s what it looks like from just inside the door:

18_hotel_room.jpg

I got to the window just in time to see the outer edge of the infield (the pseudo “lip”) being painted:

19_lines_painted.jpg

Then I sat in front of the window and ate lunch:

20_lunch_in_room copy.jpg

That would be pulled pork for those keeping score at home, and yes, the baseballs were still in place:

21_eggs_still_there.jpg

Only three hours until I’d be able to run inside and claim them. I finished lunch, moved away from the window, fired up the laptop, and did some work on my book.
Half an hour later, I heard some rustling coming from the seats below, and I nearly had a heart attack when I realized what it was. Some teen-aged kid was combing through the seats with a broom and a trash bag. He was coming from the right, so he hadn’t yet seen the balls, so I waited until he got a little closer and then got his attention by shouting a firm “Excuse me!” As soon as he looked up, I told him that there were a few balls in the seats. I explained how they got there and asked if I could have them.

“You can have ONE,” he said.

One?!

What could I say to that? I wanted them all, or at least two of them, but I knew that he didn’t have to give me anything. He could’ve easily taken them all and there wouldn’t have been anything I could do to stop him. I was at his mercy, and I was mainly just thankful that he was going to give me anything at all.

“I don’t want to break a window,” he said, looking up at me, ball in hand.

“Don’t worry,” I said, smacking the outside of my window with my knuckles. “These
things are solid. One of the balls yesterday hit the window pretty hard, and it didn’t do a thing.”

That convinced him, so he came closer and lobbed the ball up to me. Perfect aim. Right to my glove. I caught it, and my season of snagging was underway. The first thing that crossed my mind was that I had just raised some money for charity, and it felt great. I blogged about this during the off-season, so in case you missed it, I’m getting people to pledge a little bit of money for every ball I snag this season. The money will go to a charity called Pitch In For Baseball, which provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. Click here to read more about this.

As for the young employee in the seats below, he kept two of the balls for himself and then started heading off…

22_seat_cleaner.jpg

“Wait!” I shouted. “There’s still another ball in the seats.”

“There is?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think it’s in the folded up part of a seat, like maybe in the first or second row. Can you take a look? Any chance I could get it?”

He went back and poked around, and sure enough he found the final ball. Then he tossed it to me. Cha-ching! More money for Pitch In For Baseball, and as for me? I had two baseballs and the season hadn’t even officially begun. Well, at least not in Canada.

Two hours later, at about 4:30pm, the Blue Jays came out and started throwing:

23_blue_jays_throwing.jpg

The stadium was going to open at 5pm. Even though I was tempted to stay up in my room and try to snag more balls, I knew I had to head outside and get on line.

Well, I thought I did. Ten minutes before the stadium was set to open, this was scene outside one of the left field gates:

24_crowd_outside_stadium.jpg

That’s right. There were THREE people waiting to get in, and none of
them had gloves. At that point, my only concern was whether my stupid
print-at-home ticket would actually work:

25_print_at_home_ticket.jpg

I never trust those things, but anyway, it DID work and I raced inside.

Now, one thing to know about Rogers Centre is that there are five levels of seating. The field level seats are called the “100 Level” and the upper deck (where the dude picked up those balls and tossed them to me) is called the “500 Level.” The 300 and 400 Levels are all suites, so they’re basically off limits, and of course there aren’t too many balls that reach the top deck, so really, I was only dealing with the two lowest levels. Of course, as soon as I ran into the 200 Level, a ball was hit into the 100 Level, which was still empty, so I ran down there but couldn’t find the ball, and then once I was down there, a ball was hit over my head, into the 200 Level, not too far from where I’d been two minutes earlier. It was THAT kind of day. And then, once I went back upstairs and pretty much had the place to myself, not a single ball came anywhere near me. It truly sucked. This is what it looked like from the 200 Level after about 10 minutes:

26_BP_from_200_level1.jpg

The problem with this stadium, from a home-run catching perspective, is that half the balls get swallowed up by the bullpens (which are covered with netting so the glove trick is useless). Of the remaining 50 percent of home runs, probably three quarters of those land in the 100 Level, but it gets pretty crowded down there, especially considering that you have to be positioned within the first few rows to catch a ball because of the overhang of the 200 Level. That leaves a few home runs for the second deck, which of course is empty for a reason. There’s just not that much action up there, or at least there wasn’t yesterday.

Thankfully I got Jason Frasor to toss me a ball in the 100 Level before I headed back upstairs. Then, as soon I reached the 200 Level (now for the second time) an old usher stopped me from going down the steps and insisted on knowing what I was doing there.

“Trying to get home run balls?” he asked, as if that was the only acceptable answer.

“You know it,” I said, pretending to be friendly.

“Well if you get more than one,” he said, “you have to give ‘em to me.”

I wasn’t sure if he was joking. I suspected he wasn’t but treated him like he was and faked a chuckle.

“I give ‘em kids,” he said.

“Yeah, I give away some of my baseballs too,” I said, “but I do it on my own terms.”

“Well,” he replied, “you only get one up here.”

Five minutes later, Scott Downs threw a ball to some gloveless fans in the front row, but his throw said high and landed in the fourth row, and I ran over and grabbed the ball. The old usher saw THAT but he wasn’t watching 30 seconds later when Downs successfully threw another ball to the same group of fans.

The usher walked over and told me that the ball I got wasn’t intended for me, and he demanded that I give it to the other people. Thankfully they turned around and told him that they’d already gotten one.

“Just…relax,” I told the usher, making a ‘calm-down’ gesture with my hands. “It’s gonna be all right. Things have a way of working themselves out.” I wanted to throw him off the ledge. That’s probably why there’s a net.

Twenty minutes later, after the Tigers had taken the field, I got one of the players to toss me my fifth ball of the day. I’m not sure who it was. I think it might’ve been Eddie Bonine, but I’ll never know. Doesn’t really matter. What DOES matter is that the usher was several sections away and either didn’t see me catch it or wisely decided not to walk over. I seriously would’ve lost it, which is never a good thing to do during the first game of a series. I’ve learned that it’s best to make a scene on the final day, especially when you’re in another country and not planning to return anytime soon.

The area to the center-field side of the bullpen would’ve been great for the glove trick, but it was constantly being patrolled by security guards:

27_BP_from_200_level2.jpg

The place was a snagging nightmare. I pretty much had the entire 200 Level to myself, and NOTHING came up there. On two separate occasions, a home run ball was hit exactly in my direction but fell about five feet short of the front row. So yeah, I still had five balls when BP ended.

Then it was time for the pregame ceremonies:

28_opening_night_festivities.jpg

Right before the game started, I managed to get down to the seats behind the Tigers’ dugout (on the first base side) and get Adam Everett to toss me his warm-up ball. Let me tell you, it was NOT easy getting down there. There were one or two security guards at every staircase, and they were checking everyone’s tickets. Even in the outfield sections, it was impossible to get down into the seats as soon as BP ended. I tried playing for third-out balls for a couple innings, but it was too crowded. This WAS Opening Day, after all, and the place was pretty much packed, so I decided to wander and explore the stadium a bit.

I realize that the concourses are not necessarily the most interesting feature in a ballpark, but that’s one thing I look for. It’s sort of like my personal benchmark. If you want to judge a company’s ice cream, you start with the vanilla. Pizza? You begin with a plain slice. You know? Same logic. (And just to warn you, the pizza crust at Rogers Center is like cardboard, except not as flavorful.) So anyway, here’s the concourse in the 100 Level:

29_concourse_100_level.jpg

Nice. Spacious. Cheerful. But right above it, in the 200 Level, it just got weird:

30_concourse_200_level.jpg

And by the way, I actually had to show my ticket to LEAVE the 100 Level. There was a security guard, fiercely protecting the entrance to the ramps, who actually wouldn’t let me go up until I showed him. If I’d had a 100 Level ticket and wanted to go to the 500 Level to simply have a look and take pics, he wouldn’t have let me. This place is so badly run. It’s a complete joke. I hope it won’t be like this every day.

Speaking of jokes, check out the faux curtains hanging in the club level tunnels:

31_tunnel_200_level.jpg

They looked okay from afar, but upon closer inspection, I realized that they were made of some cheapo synthetic rubberized substance. (Just like the surface of the playing field. Hey!)

For some strange reason, no one said a word as I walked right down into the fanciest seats in the stadium, just behind home plate in the perfect foul ball location. (Of course nothing landed there until I had left.) This was my view:

32_view_from_200_level.jpg

Look how the people were dressed there:

33_mister_fancypants.jpg

I was sure I was gonna get kicked out. I was wearing cargo pants and sneakers and a hoodie, and of course I was the only fan with a glove. Talk about not fitting in. But no one said a word.

I headed back to the 100 Level (don’t ask me how I got back in) after the 7th inning stretch and worked my way down to the seats behind the 3rd base dugout. The Jays were winning, 9-5, at that point, and some of the “fans” had left so I figured I’d watch the rest of the game up close.

Now…if you look at the box score from this game and scroll to the bottom, you’ll notice that there was a brief delay–rather unusual for a game played indoors. In case you haven’t seen the highlights or read the story of what happened, the Tigers were pulled off the field after two baseballs were thrown at left fielder Josh Anderson from the 500 Level. This happened after a dozen paper airplanes had been thrown onto the field from all points of the stadium AND after a full/uncapped bottle of water crashed down and splattered on the warning track near the right field foul pole. Don’t you love how every team has an announcement thanking their fans and praising them for being “the best fans in baseball” and yet it’s so NOT true in some cases? This was one of those cases. It was Opening Day, and not only wasn’t the game sold out, but it was interrupted with an announcement about a possible forfeit if anything else was thrown onto the field. Most fans around me didn’t even know what was going on. They were booing the Tigers (now losing 12-5) for leaving the field, and they were yelling stuff like “Mercy rule!” and “Where ya going?!” and “Get back out there, you little girls!” Outside of Yankee Stadium, which is the black hole of obnoxiousness, this was the worst fan behavior I can remember seeing in over 750 games.

Here’s a photo of home plate umpire Ed Montague discussing the situation with managers Cito Gaston and Jim Leyland while the other three umps look on:

35_tigers_pulled_off_the_field2.jpg

I did not snag another ball after the game. I did, however, linger in the concourse for 15 minutes to try to find a kid with a glove so I could give away one of mine. There were a few kids without gloves (forget them), and there were a few kids with gloves who already had baseballs (they didn’t need my help), but it was amazing. There was no one worthy of receiving a ball. I had one in my hand, ready to give away, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Remember when I went to the Red Sox home opener last year? The Tigers were at Fenway that day, I snagged a few of their baseballs during BP, and they were all from the Pacific Coast League. Well, the ball I got yesterday from the Tigers pitcher was from the International League. Check it out:

36_international_league_ball.jpg

No wonder those BP home runs had fallen short of the 200 Level; the Tigers were using inferior balls. Look at the size of the seams on that thing. Yeesh.

One last photo…

At around 1am, the lengthy process of cleaning the seats was in full swing. Here are the seats in the 100 Level along the left field foul line. Look at the bags of garbage stacked up on the steps, as well as all the un-bagged trash at the bottom of the steps:

37_seat_cleaners.jpg

That’s it. Now I just have to survive three more Sheffield-less games here…

SNAGGING STATS:

• 6 balls at this game

• 570 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 3,504 balls during the streak (the second ball from the seat cleaner was No. 3,500)

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

• 3,826 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $13.22 pledged per ball (at this point)

• $79.32 raised for Pitch In For Baseball (so far)

Awesome email

2 days ’til I fly to Toronto…
3 days ’til I set foot inside Rogers Centre…
4 days ’til I post an entry about it…

I’m not planning to post anything else between now and then, so let me leave you with one of the greatest emails I’ve ever received. It was sent two days ago by a young baseball fan who had recently picked up a copy of Watching Baseball Smarter. Here goes:

Dear Zack,

I just started reading your book yesterday and through 20 pages I have decided that my mom has to read this book so that I never have to answer another question during a game ever. I am a huge phillies fan, and it is not helpful when your mom is bombarding you with questions during the first half of the 5th game of the WORLD SERIES.

-Jeremy, age 13
Glen Mills, PA

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