September 2009

9/28/09 at Yankee Stadium

There was rain in the forecast.
I didn’t really want to go to the game.
But my friend Brandon was visiting from San Diego.
He wanted to check out the new stadium.
So we went.

Thankfully, when we ran inside at 4pm, we saw that the field was set up for batting practice. Unfortunately, as I predicted, the Yankees didn’t start hitting until 4:40, so there was a lot of time to kill. This is how we spent a portion of it:

1_zack_brandon_jumbotron.jpg

That’s right. We were shown on the Jumbotron, and as you can see in the photo above, Brandon was ready with his camera.

Brandon is always ready, it seems.

Here’s another shot he took — probably my favorite photo of the day — during the lull before BP got underway. It shows me walking through an empty row of seats:

2_zack_walking_through_seats.jpg

Brandon had forgotten to bring his baseball glove, so I lent him one before we left my place. Big mistake. He ended up using it to rob me of a home run during the first round of BP, and then he rubbed it in my face for the next 15 minutes.

I had a few close calls early on, but nothing was working out in my favor, and for a while, I was concerned about getting shut out. The sky was already dark gray, and I knew that BP could get wiped out at any moment.

Eventually, after about 25 minutes of BP, some lefty on the Yankees (not sure who) launched a home run 30 feet to my right. I immediately took off running through an empty row and caught it back-handed, reaching high over my head at the far end of the section. Here’s a photo of me walking back toward Brandon with the ball in my right hand:

3_zack_after_snagging_ball4303.jpg

The Yankees stopped hitting at 5:10pm. (Fabulous.) There was more time to kill, so I changed into my Royals gear and headed over to the left field foul line. Five minutes later, the Royals came out and started throwing, and when Willie Bloomquist finished up, I got him to toss me his ball. In the following photo, the red arrow is pointing to the ball streaking toward me:

4_zack_about_to_catch_ball4304.jpg

By the time the Royals started hitting, there were a few raindrops falling.

Three minutes later?

The rain intensified and batting practice was done.

As the players and coaches cleared the field, I raced to the seats behind the 3rd base dugout and arrived just in time to get some random equipment guy to throw me a ball. That made me feel a little better, but I was still disappointed.

The following two-part photo shows everything that happened for the next three hours:

5_tarp.jpg

Fun, huh?

Right before the game started, Yuniesky Betancourt and Alberto Callaspo began playing catch in front of the 3rd base dugout. I worked my way as close to them as possible and got Callaspo to throw me the ball when they finished. In the following photo (which Brandon took from several sections over), the horizontal arrow is pointing at Callaspo, the arrow pointing up shows the ball in mid-air, and the arrow pointing down shows me getting ready to catch it:

6_zack_about_to_catch_ball4306.jpg

That was my fourth ball of the day. Not terrible for a game at Yankee Stadium with only 30 minutes of BP instead of 90.

The rain, I must admit, ended up working in my favor because it chased lots of people away. I’d decided to sit out in right field during the game (regardless of the weather) so now that I had some empty seats to work with, I was excited at the possibilities.

I wasn’t excited enough, however, to smile in the following photo:

8_view_during_game.jpg

I nearly caught Ramiro Pena’s first major league home run in the bottom of the fifth inning. It was hit RIGHT in my direction, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I jumped up and held my ground on the staircase, 100 percent sure that it was going to sail right to me in the fifth row, but then it died a bit (perhaps because the air was cold and damp) so I began to drift down the stairs, but then I got blocked by a cotton candy vendor at the last second, and it was over. The ball bounced off the bare hands of a man in the front row, and I still would’ve had it if it’d deflected back instead of sideways. It was frustrating, to say the least, but I didn’t blame myself. Watch any major league outfielder react to a fly ball hit right at him and he’ll do the same thing: he’ll hold his ground for a moment and THEN start drifting once he determines where it’s going to land, so whatever. The guy who ended up snagging that ball graciously tossed it into the bullpen when the relievers asked for it. In exchange, they tossed back another ball, and get this…it wasn’t signed, and it wasn’t even commemorative. It was just a standard Selig ball, and when the guy got it, he wasn’t too happy. To his credit, he stayed calm and simply asked the guys in the bullpen to autograph it. Once he got the go-ahead, he tossed the ball back, and it was returned to him five minutes later with the autographs of EVERYONE who was out there — at least a dozen guys — including Mariano Rivera. Very cool.

Anyway, the reason why I’m not throwing a fit right now (while writing this) is because of what happened a couple innings later. It was the bottom of the seventh. The Yankees, already winning 4-2, loaded the bases with nobody out against Royals starter Luke Hochevar. Robinson Cano stepped to the plate, and I told Brandon that I was going to catch a grand slam. I was already sitting one row behind him so that I’d have as much room as possible to run. My row had about 10 empty seats to my right, and the row behind me was almost totally empty. I had my whole route planned in case Cano happened to launch one to my right: I was going to start running and then climb back over a row (while the ball was in mid-air) and then keep running toward the far end of the section, or as far as I needed to go. And that’s exactly what happened. Cano turned on an 0-1 pitch and lifted a high, deep fly ball to my right. As soon as it left the bat, I knew that it was going to be a home run, and I knew that I had a chance to get near it…wherever it happened to land. I didn’t bother looking up at the ball at first. I just kept my head down and focused on not bumping into anyone or anything. As I approached the far end of the section, my hat got knocked off as I looked up for the ball:

9_robinson_cano_grand_slam.jpg

You can see the hat falling in the photo above. See the pole that’s covering the letter “o” in the word “York” on the red advertisement? My hat is right below the bottom of that pole, but anyway, I panicked when the ball sailed directly over my head toward a fan standing near the back of the section. Here I am, turning to watch the ball as it touched down:

10_robinson_cano_grand_slam.jpg

I couldn’t believe what happened next. I found myself standing all alone on the staircase as the other fan dropped the ball…and then the ball started bouncing right back down the steps toward me.

?!?!?!?!?!

I truly couldn’t believe it as it was happening. I bent down to scoop up my first grand slam ball ever…

11_robinson_cano_grand_slam.jpg

…and once I had it in my possession, the celebration was underway:

12_robinson_cano_grand_slam.jpg

Here I am going nuts…

13_robinson_cano_grand_slam.jpg

…and here I am running over to give Brandon (or someone) a high-five:

14_robinson_cano_grand_slam.jpg

I must’ve given more than 20 high-fives (and fist-bumps). It was truly insane.

Then I went back and grabbed my hat.

Happiness:

15_zack_with_grand_slam_ball.jpg

Awe and disbelief:

16_zack_with_grand_slam_ball.jpg

I was soooooo happy. Snagging a grand slam had been one of my lifelong goals, and now, finally, after two decades of going to games, I had finally done it. I called my parents. I called my girlfriend. I called a couple other people. I would’ve called everyone I knew if there were more time.

For the rest of the game, I kept asking Brandon the same two questions:

1) “Did that really happen?”
2) “Was that really a grand slam?”

The Yankees ended up winning the game, 8-2.

For Cano, it was his 25th home run of the season and 87th of his career. But here’s the cool stat: it was his 202nd hit of the season. I know that’s not a round number or a milestone or anything like that. I just like that fact that he has more than 200 hits and that I not only got one of them, but I got one AFTER hit No. 200.

After the game, I posed with the ball on the staircase where I’d snagged it:

17_zack_with_grand_slam_ball.jpg

I posed with the ball about 50 more times after that (outside the stadium, on the subway, etc.) but I won’t torture you with all those pics.

The End.

(I still can’t believe it.)

SNAGGING STATS:

18_cano_grand_slam_ball.jpg• 5 balls at this game (the most important of which is pictured here on the right)

• 487 balls in 55 games this season = 8.85 balls per game.

• 624 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 486 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 136 consecutive Yankee games with at least one ball

• 10 lifetime game home runs (not counting toss-ups from outfielders)

• 5 different stadiums with at least one game home run (Old Yankee, Shea, PETCO, Camden, and New Yankee)

• 4,307 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $126.30 raised at this game

• $12,301.62 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

19_exit_sign.jpg

9/23/09 at Citi Field

On September 6th, I had a Watch With Zack game with a 13-year-old Mets fan named Ross. Remember? He broke his one-game record that day by snagging five balls, and he promptly booked another game with me for September 23rd. You might also recall that on September 18th, I posted a blog entry called “Watch With Zack — stats & records.” What I didn’t mention in that entry was that Ross was the one who inadvertently inspired it. He had simply told me, in the guinness_world_records.jpgdays preceding our second game together, that he wanted to break two more records…

1) most balls snagged by a Watch With Zack client in one game

2) most balls combined (my balls plus the client’s balls) in a Watch With Zack game

…so I decided to create a page on my site with all the Watch With Zack numbers. I told Ross that it would be tough, but that we’d definitely try. Both records belonged to a 14-year-old named Joe Faraguna, who brought me to a game on 5/8/09 at Citi Field. Joe had snagged 10 balls that day, and I’d added 12 more of my own. I also told Ross that in order to pile up the numbers, we’d have to split up during batting practice, at least a little bit, so that we could cover more ground and double our opportunities. He was okay with that, and in fact he insisted on it. I started the day with a lifetime total of 4,292 balls; Ross really wanted me to snag at least eight so that he could be there for No. 4,300.

Finally, September 23rd arrived. I left my place in Manhattan at 3:10pm, took the No. 7 train to Citi Field, and met Ross and his parents less than an hour later outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Ross and I reviewed some last-minute strategies and put on our game faces:

1_ross_zack_09_23_09.jpg

Once the gates opened at 4:40pm, it was showtime.

By the time I got to the top of the escalator, Ross was only halfway up. (That’s no diss on him; I just happen to be pretty quick.) If he were younger or if he’d never been to Citi Field before, I would’ve slowed down and led him out toward the left field seats, but since I knew he could find his way out there and since I knew that he wanted me to snag as many balls as possible, I ran ahead and reached the seats 30 seconds before him. I had the whole stadium to myself, and this is what I saw:

2_brian_schneider_retrieving_balls.jpg

Someone on the Mets was about to pick up the first of FIVE baseballs lying in the outfield. I ran through the front row toward left-center and identified the player as Brian Schneider.

“Brian,” I called out politely as I tried to catch my breath, “is there any chance that you could toss a ball up to me, please?”

Schneider immediately obliged and then threw the remaining four balls back toward the 2a_ball4294_on_field.jpgbucket. That’s when Ross arrived. There were still a few more balls sitting on the field near the foul pole, one of which was within reach thanks to my glove trick. Ross was prepared with a glove trick of his own, but he’d never actually used it at a game, and since this ball was several feet out from the wall and needed to be knocked closer, he let me go for it.

It was too easy. The day was barely two minutes old, and I already had two baseballs.

A few minutes later, several lefties started hitting, so I told Ross that we should head over to the right field side. He followed me out to the deep section in right-center, and when we got there, I noticed that two balls had rolled onto the warning track in the right field corner.

“Those balls are definitely gonna get tossed up,” I told him. “You wanna head over there on your own and see if you can get one?”

“Sure,” he said.

Ross had his cell phone, and I had mine. If we got separated, we’d just call each other, but it was pretty clear where we were each going to be.

Less than a minute later, Ross was down in the seats near the foul pole, lowering his glove on a string:

3_ross_glove_trick.jpg

Seconds later, I saw Ross pull up his glove before it got anywhere near the ball. I found out later that he had suffered a rubber band mishap, but it didn’t end up making a difference. Josh Thole walked over and retrieved the ball and tossed it up to him. Here’s a photo of the ball in mid-air:

4_ross_getting_ball_from_josh_thole.jpg

I wasn’t paying attention to the batter at that point. I had my eyes (and camera) on Ross, and since I was standing approximately 420 feet from home plate, I didn’t expect anyone to hit a ball that would reach the seats.

I expected wrong.

All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that a Mets player was running back toward my section. I looked over and saw that it was Sean Green. He was looking up as if he were tracking a deep fly ball, and then…DOINK!!! The ball fell out of the sky, landed on the warning track, and bounced over a gloveless woman in the front row. I darted through the third row and scooped it up before she even moved.

Then I looked back over at Ross and saw that he was getting another ball tossed to him by Thole. What the hell?! Once he caught it, Ross looked over at me and waved his arms frantically. I figured he was either excited or having a seizure — hopefully the former — and he then ran over to tell me what had happened.

You ready for it?

THIS is what happened:

5_ross_with_ball_he_traded_for.jpg

Ross had snagged a commemorative ball from the 2008 All-Star Game! (Here’s a closer look at this type of ball.) What had happened was…Thole originally tossed him a commemorative Citi Field ball, but Ross already had a few of those at home. Soon after, another ball rolled out near the foul pole, and Ross noticed that it was an All-Star ball, so he asked Thole if he could trade the Citi Field ball and have that one instead. Very clever.

As soon as Ross finished telling the story, he leaned over the bullpen railing and asked Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen for a ball. Warthen denied the request, but Sandy Alomar Jr. walked over and tossed up two balls — one for Ross and another for a younger kid who’d been standing nearby. Here’s Ross with his second ball of the day…

6_ross_2nd_ball_of_day.jpg

…which had the Citi Field commemorative logo.

Green jogged over to retrieve a ball off the warning track. Ross hurried down to the front row and asked him for it. I moved into the second row behind Ross with my glove on my left hand and my camera in my right. My only intention was to get a photo of Ross catching the ball if Green tossed it up. Well, Green DID toss it, but it sailed a bit too high. Ross still probably would’ve caught it if not for the grown man who scooted over and tried to reach up in front of him. As it turned out, the ball sailed over both of them and came right to me, so I stuck out my glove and made the catch. It was another All-Star ball. I offered it to Ross, but he didn’t want it. He didn’t want any of my baseballs. The only balls he wanted were the ones he snagged on his own.

Back in left field, I got Ken Takahashi to toss me my fifth ball of the day and then scrambled for a Nick Evans homer that landed in the mostly empty seats. Ross, meanwhile, was doing pretty well for himself. He got Nelson Figueroa to throw him a ball and then got his fourth of the day from (we think) Takahashi. Here’s a double-photo of Ross with each of those balls. As you can see, he was rather excited after the first one…

7a_ross_3rd_and_4th_balls_of_day.jpg

…because it had the old Yankee Stadium commemorative logo. Ross had never snagged one of those, and he didn’t think he ever would, so yeah, he was pumped.

By the time the Braves took the field for BP, we felt like we were in pretty good shape to challenge Joe’s Watch With Zack records, but then things slowed way down, and to make matters worse, there was a scary accident in the process. Someone on the Braves got hit by a ball near second base, prompting the trainer to rush over toward the growing huddle of players:

8_braves_player_hurt_in_BP.jpg

I hadn’t seen it (there’s a lot to look at during BP), so I had no idea who it was or where the player had gotten hit. I learned later that it was Martin Prado who got nailed, and thankfully (painful as it obviously was) the ball had hit him just below the left knee. It was serious enough that Prado had to miss the game and for an article to be written about it on MLB.com.

Batting practice resumed five minutes later, and since the Braves pitchers were about to wrap up their throwing, I moved over to the left field foul line. Ross was still in fair territory, and he had changed into his Braves gear:

9_ross_braves_throwing.jpg

I shouted his name and got his attention and tried to wave him over, but he wanted to stay where he was. Two minutes later, I convinced Manny Acosta to throw me a ball (by asking for it in Spanish), and saw several other fans near me get balls thrown to them as well.

That gave me seven balls on the day. My next ball was going to be No. 4,300, and it took about ten minutes before I had another chance. Yunel Escobar was in the cage and ripped a deep line drive to my left. I bolted through an empty row and then determined that the ball was going to fall a bit short so I climbed over the row in front of me. The ball was approaching. I was now in the third row. Two fans in the front row reached up for it. I flinched (not wanting to take a deflection to the face) while keeping my glove in the spot where I thought the ball was going to end up, and I heard the ball tip off their hands, and then a split second later, I felt the ball smack into the pocket of my glove. HA! It was just like catching a foul tip, and just like that, I had reached the milestone. Here’s a photo of ball No. 4,300:

10_ball4300.jpg

You know what Ross said after I caught it? Nothing. He was in right field, getting his fifth ball of the day from David Ross. (D’oh!) But when he returned to the left field seats, he was glad to learn that I’d caught it.

Then we both experienced some bad luck. Omar Infante threw me a ball which fell short, and he didn’t bother to retrieve it and give me another chance. Moments later, Buddy Carlyle did the same thing to Ross, who at least got another shot when the ball was thrown back up, but he got robbed by another fan who reached out and caught it right in front of him. Ross should’ve had seven balls at that point. In addition to the five he’d snagged, there was the Carlyle fiasco as well as the overthrow in right-center field by Sean Green — and then things got worse. Ross and I raced to the Braves’ dugout at the end of BP. A few other fans got balls tossed to them, but as for us? Nothing. It looked like we were done snagging for the time being, so we stood around and contemplated our next move. Ross was in the front row, staring off aimlessly into space, and I was right behind him in the second row. We had a few feet of space on either side of us, but there were other fans nearby…and then, without warning, a ball came flying up toward us from down below. WHAT?! I glanced at Ross while the ball was still high above us and noticed that he didn’t see it, so I shouted his name, but instead of looking up, he turned around and looked at me. NO!!! I wanted him to catch it, but he still didn’t see it, and I knew that if I let the ball drop into the seats, the other fans would’ve been all over it, so at the very last second, I stuck out my glove and made a waist-high catch. Ross was totally bummed out when he realized what had happened. He wasn’t mad at me. He knew I’d done the right thing by catching it. He was upset at himself for not paying attention, and while he was beating himself up mentally, another ball came flying up out of nowhere. The two balls were thrown five seconds apart, and the same thing happened with the second one. He never even saw it, so I made a very reluctant and last-second catch before it had a chance to hit the plastic seats and ricochet to another fan. There was nothing either of us could do. I had to catch the balls, and since they had entered my possession first, he couldn’t count them and didn’t want them. He was still stuck at five balls, while I had stumbled into double digits. It was just one of those things. Sometimes you get all the breaks, and other times it seems like the snagging gods hate you. This was Ross’s reaction:

11_ross_distraught_after_BP.jpg

The photo above was not staged. Ross was truly distraught. He could have — and really should have — snagged nine balls by that point and been on the verge of breaking Joe’s record, but instead, he still had a long way to go. Another thing about the photo above: the man with the beard is Ross’s father Steve, and the woman in the green sweater is his mother Cindy. They tried to console him, but it was no use. He felt bad, and that was that.

One thing that cheered up Ross a little was that my friend Leon Feingold (a former minor league pitcher) showed up at game time and sat with us behind the Braves’ dugout and gave a brief pitching lesson. Here’s a photo of Leon, making the ball look tiny in his hand:

12_leon_feingold_pitching_lesson.jpg

Even as the innings ticked by, Ross was determined to find SOME way to snag five more balls, but the opportunities were dwindling, and he had some competition. Here’s a photo of Ross from behind. See the fan sitting across the staircase in the red shirt?

13_ross_clif_behind_dugout.jpg

That was Clif (aka “goislanders4″ in the comments), a former Watch With Zack client who had become quite an experienced baseball-snagger. (You might remember Clif from 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium and 7/28/08 at Yankee Stadium and 8/19/08 at Citizens Bank Park.)

Both Ross and Clif were in the perfect spot to get a 3rd-out ball tossed up by the Braves, and after every inning, both of them rushed down the steps to the front row:

14_ross_clif_at_dugout.jpg

(Check out that guy in the gray shirt on the right. Dear Lord. He has a lot to learn about snagging.)

In the bottom of the fourth inning, with one out and the bases loaded, Luis Castillo grounded into a 4-6-3 double play. Ross was standing at the edge of the dugout before first baseman Adam LaRoche even caught the throw. Clif, for some reason (perhaps it was professional courtesy or maybe he was just trying a different strategy) stayed a few rows back, and as a result, Ross received an uncontested toss from LaRoche. Cha-ching! It was his sixth ball of the day, and he was still determined to snag four more. We considered all the possibilities and came up with the following:

1) another 3rd-out ball from a different player
2) an infield warm-up ball
3) a foul ball
4) a toss-up from the 3rd base coach
5) a game-ending ball (if the Braves hung on for the win)
6) an umpire ball
7) a bullpen ball

There were still some hypothetical opportunities, but it wasn’t meant to be. Glenn Hubbard was stingy with the warm-up balls. The remaining 3rd-out balls got tossed all over the place. No foul balls came anywhere near us. The ump gave all his balls away to little kids. The relievers tossed their balls into the crowd near the bullpen. The endgame was a complete disaster, and neither of us snagged another ball.

Still, Ross had managed to break his one-game record by snagging six balls, and he DID actually break a Watch With Zack record: most different types of balls snagged by a client in one day — four, to be exact. He’d snagged two Citi Field balls, two old Yankee Stadium balls, a 2008 All-Star Game ball, and a standard Selig ball. Here I am with Ross after the game (which the Braves won, 5-2):

15_zack_ross_with_his_balls.jpg

Here’s a close-up shot of Ross that shows the various baseballs that he’d snagged:

16_ross_with_his_balls.jpg

Ross was still bummed about not reaching double digits, and I knew there was no point in trying to cheer him up. I’d been in his shoes many times, so I just told him that it was a good sign that he could have a “bad” day and still end up with half a dozen balls — that it showed he was ready to break out and hit double digits very soon.

One last thing…

While Ross managed to snag four different types of balls, I got lucky and managed to one-up him by snagging five. My first three were Citi Field balls. My fourth ball (the Sean Green overthrow) was an All-Star ball. My fifth (from Ken Takahashi) for some reason was a training ball. My sixth (the Nick Evens homer) was an old Yankee Stadium ball, and my final four were standard Selig balls. I gave away one of those four to a little girl sitting behind the dugout late in the game. Brian McCann had tossed a 3rd-out ball half a dozen rows deep, and some absolute JERK — a grown man no less — ran through an empty row and dove/stumbled for the ball and caught it right in front of this girl’s mother and then crashed down in the seats and nearly landed on top of the girl. The whole section booed him, and I thought there was going to be some kind of riot because he absolutely refused to give up the ball. I was in the middle of the section at that point, having inched toward the area where I figured McCann was going to throw it, so as soon as I saw what happened, I raced back to my seat (where Leon was guarding my backpack) and pulled out a ball and ran back over to the little girl and handed it to her.

SNAGGING STATS:

17_the_nine_i_kept_09_23_09.jpg• 10 balls at this game (nine pictured here because of the give-away)

• 482 balls in 54 games this season = 8.93 balls per game.

• 623 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 485 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 350 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 118 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 21 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

• 4,302 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $252.60 raised at this game

• $12,175.32 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Skydiving

Look what I did last week:

1_jona_zack_skydiving_signs.jpg

That’s right. I went skydiving. With my girlfriend Jona. On her birthday. (I would’ve blogged about this sooner, but life’s been a little busy.)

I’d always wanted to go skydiving — I’d even dreamed about it as a little kid — but my parents were adamantly opposed. Whenever I brought it up with them, my mom got pale and my father told me to wait until he “croaked.” (Then he’d email me an hour later with links to various articles about skydiving fatalities.) I tried to hold out, but the man is now 83 and still going strong.

Several weeks before Jona’s birthday, she and I started looking into the whole skydiving thing. She researched a bunch of places online, and I invited a bunch of our friends. In the end, we picked a place called Skydive Jersey Shore and learned that most of our friends are lame; only one of them had both the courage and the cash to join us.

Do you remember my friend Andrew from 7/8/09 at Citi Field? He’s the one who came along, and he was rather mellow about the whole experience. Here he is with Jona, walking toward the skydiving registration area:

2_walking_to_the_skydiving_place.jpg

I had no idea what to expect, and the unknown was exciting. It was hard to believe that I could wake up in my bed in New York City with NO skydiving experience whatsoever and then end up jumping out of a plane in New Jersey just a few hours later. What kind of training would I have to go through? (I imagined myself being dangled over a large mat in the position in which I’d be falling from the sky.) Would they have to give me some kind of psychiatric evaluation to make sure I wasn’t going to cut a hole in the parachute?

As it turned out, the process was simple. First we checked in at the blue desk in the following photo…

3_skydiving_registration_area.jpg

…and then we were escorted to the video screening area…

4_video_screening_area.jpg

…where the registration lady (for lack of a better term) made her best attempt to scare us off. She picked up a clipboard and monotonously read a short passage aloud. It began as follows:

“You are about to go skydiving. We do everything we can to make it as safe as possible, but you are jumping out of a plane. You can be seriously injured or killed as a result. You will be asked to sign a Release of Liability & Agreement Not To Sue. Please read it carefully as it is a legal document…”

I didn’t appreciate being reminded so matter-of-factly that I could die, but of course I knew deep down that it was a very real possibility. In fact, I had pondered death quite a bit in my own matter-of-fact way leading up to this adventure. On one hand, I knew that I simply HAD to go skydiving at some point in my life, and on the other hand, I decided that if I were going to die as a result, this would be a good time. No wife. No kids. Insanely stressful winter of book-writing ahead of me. Et cetera. So really, I felt pretty good about the whole thing, and while the thought of death never left my mind, it never bothered me. I was going to be making a tandem jump with a VERY experienced skydiving instructor. I figured that he’d want to live through it too and would therefore do his best to keep us both safe.

This was the front page of the Release of Liability:

5_release_of_liability.jpg

Jona was too nervous to even look at it, so she flipped through it as fast as she could and scribbled her initials in all the necessary spaces. I took a little more time to see what it actually said. Here’s a summary: “You might get killed, and if you are, your family can’t sue us, ever, for any reason, ever, blah blah blah, ever.”

5b_bearded_guy_in_video.jpgThen we were shown a short, amateur video in which some creepy guy with a crazy beard repeated the death warnings, and an ambulance was shown driving out into a field. This guy (pictured here on the right) happened to be the inventor of the tandem jump parachute.

After watching the video and wondering what the hell had just happened, we headed back to the registration area to get weighed. (On a tandem jump, you can’t weigh more than 220 unless you’re very fit. I weighed in — with all my clothes and a belly full of breakfast — at 179 pounds. Jona weighed in at…uh, yeah.) This was essentially our last chance to chicken out and NOT have to pay.

We paid.
$215 each.
Jona and I each paid an additional $80 to have our jumps filmed.

The registration lady stamped our hands…

6_hand_stamps.jpg

…and sent us back outside to the field house.

We were greeted by a Brazilian skydiving instructor who gave us a short speech on what to expect. After a few minutes, he climbed onto a blue wooden platform (which was a crude replica of the inside of the plane) and showed us how to maneuver once we reached our cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. Here’s he is, demonstrating how to climb out the door onto the step. Check out Jona’s reaction:

7_how_to_jump_out_of_the_plane.jpg

Finally, it was time to get ready for the jump. I had to put all my stuff in a locker, including my camera. That’s when my personal skydiving instructor showed up with his video camera. (The Brazilian guy didn’t go up in the plane with us. He only gave us the demo on the ground.) His name was Joe. He was very confident and energetic and friendly and Italian. I felt safe in his presence. Here are some screen shots from the five-minute video he filmed, starting with a shot of himself:

8_my_instructor_joe.jpg

In the screen shot above, you can see me on the left (I’d changed into a black sweatshirt) and Jona in the background. She and I had to put on some silly pants, which you’ll see later. Mine were orange. Hers were purple. They both had a camouflage pattern. Then we got hooked up to our harnesses, which were promptly double-checked and triple-checked and quadruple-checked by our respective instructors.

We climbed into a van (aka “The Shaggin’ Wagon” because of its furry interior) and took a short ride to a small runway. Once we got out, we saw a REALLY small plane waiting for us:

9_teeny_plane.jpg

The plane could only hold five people — the pilot and two pairs of
jumpers — so Andrew had to part ways with us and go up in a different
plane. We weren’t too happy about that, but we had no choice.

Another thing I wasn’t thrilled about was that my video was being filmed BY my instructor. No offense to him, but I was hoping that a third person would jump out of the plane with us and get a shot from 10 or 20 or 50 feet away…but no, my instructor simply had a camera attached to a sturdy velcro strip around his wrist. THAT’S how he was filming me. Bleh.

The inside of the plane was so small that I had to sit right next to the pilot with my back against the front of the cockpit:

10_zack_cockpit.jpg

The inside of the plane was about four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. (Kind of like my old studio apartment.) It was totally cramped and uncomfortable, but that was all part of the fun.

There was a bumper sticker inside the plane which pretty much summed up my day:

11_bumper_sticker.jpg

We were high in the sky at this point. Joe was wearing an altitude gauge on his arm and got a shot of it as we reached 5,000 feet.

12_altitude_gauge.jpg

We were above the clouds. This was the view:

13_view_from_one_mile_high.jpg

I considered the possibility that our pilot could have a heart attack, or that our plane might run out of fuel and begin to nosedive, but it didn’t worry me because we had parachutes! Ha-HAAAA!!!

Jona, as brave as she was to go through with this, was still nervous:

14_jona_nervous.jpg

Meanwhile, I was just chillin’ and checking out the view:

15_zack_chillin.jpg

When we reached an altitude of roughly 10,000 feet, Joe told me to unbuckle my seatbelt and get ready. I struggled to remember what the Brazilian guy had told me half an hour earlier…about how I had to move slowly…and not bump the pilot…and try to stay calm. That last part was easy…

16_zack_getting_ready_to_jump.jpg

…because I was so READY for this experience. I can’t describe it any other way. What was there to be nervous
about? I’d been waiting my whole life to do it. Hundreds of thousands
of people had done it before me. What was the big deal? It was only gravity. It’s not like I was gonna have to do algebra while falling. All I had to do was…fall and enjoy it.

Joe had hooked himself onto me at that point, and he had checked and re-checked and re-re-checked the harness once again. Then he handed me my safety goggles, which had been tucked into a compartment behind my right shoulder.

It was showtime.

He opened the door of the airplane. The 90-mph wind whipped against my face. We were high above the clouds, and that’s when it hit me: HOLY SH*T!!! That’s when it felt most real. That’s when I felt most alive. Up until that moment, I’d been aware that my heart wasn’t beating any faster than normal, but then the adrenaline kicked in. (Same thing with Leno. Everyone assumed that I was crapping my pants, but I wasn’t nervous at all. Just pumped up.) I was SO looking forward to the sensation of free-fall…thirty seconds of it. Yes yes yes!

We leaned out the door…

17_about_to_jump.jpg

…and I fought the wind while trying to stabilize myself by placing my right foot on the little step outside. I was truly stepping out of the plane. It went against every possible instinct, but I wanted to do it, and I knew it was going to be okay, and then…we were off:

18_first_moment_out_of_the_plane.jpg

Now…you might not believe what I’m about to say, but in all seriousness, I was disappointed by the free-falling. I thought it was boring. We were so high up that the view barely changed, so it didn’t even look like we were falling, and as for the physical sensation, it was a big letdown. I wanted to feel weightless, like I was floating or falling or cutting through the air, but it wasn’t like that at all. The air resistance was pushing fiercely against my face and chest and arms and legs, and as for my back…well, all I felt was the constraint of the harness, so it wasn’t a freeing sensation at all. And it was loud as hell. And the rapid change in pressure hurt my ears.

Still, it was pretty cool just to KNOW that I was falling. In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise), I’m 1) soaking in my first glimpse after leaving the plane, 2) yelling “Yeeeeeaaaaah!!!” 3) thinking happy thoughts, and 4) holding my nose and blowing out air to unclog my ears.

19_free_falling.jpg

This was my reaction after the parachute deployed and we began floating earthward:

20_zack_happy_while_floating.jpg

Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. It’s just not what I expected.

This was the view looking straight down:

21_nuts_over_jersey.jpg

The best part of it — better in my opinion than the free-falling — was when Joe had me hold the straps that controlled the parachute and then told me to pull down on one of them. The result was that we spun around REALLY fast. It felt like one of those amusement park rides that makes you dizzy, and best of all, we were still a couple thousand feet high. Here’s my critique:

22_ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.jpg

A few minutes later, Joe was guiding us down for a gentle landing:

23_zack_about_to_land.jpg

Then he handed me my certificate:

24_zack_skydiving_certificate.jpg

Here’s a look at the certificate. Kinda budget, but cute:

25_skydiving_certificate.jpg

The certificate was pre-printed to say that we jumped at 10,000 feet, but we actually went 1,000 feet above that. I’m not sure why. I think it had something to do with the wind currents.

Joe kept filming…

26_joe_still_filming.jpg

…while I raced and got my camera and took a photo of Jona’s landing. (That harness looks comfy, no?) Here she is on the final approach…

27_jona_about_to_land.jpg

…and here she is touching ground:

28_jona_landing.jpg

Check out the pants:

29_zack_jona_after_landing.jpg

The best part of the day for me…was ALL of it. I loved the entire process, starting with waking up at 6am (on a Sunday) and racing to Penn Station to catch a New Jersey Transit train and riding it for two hours to some random town that I’ve already forgotten the name of, then calling a cab and telling the driver what we were about to do, then walking to the registration center, surviving the lady’s scare tactics, watching the ridiculous video with the creepy bearded guy, signing my life away on a waiver form, getting weighed on a scale that said “lie detector” on it, and so on. It was a glorious day, and yes, the video that my instructor filmed is on YouTube. CLICK HERE to watch it.

On the train back to New York City, Andrew called his mom and told her what he’d just done:

30_andrew_calling_his_mom.jpg

This blog entry is how I’m telling mine.

9/20/09 at Citi Field

Sixteen months ago, I had a Watch With Zack game at Shea Stadium with a seven-year-old kid named Cooper. Remember? It was Cooper’s first game ever, and even though there wasn’t batting practice that day, I managed to snag two commemorative baseballs for him.

Well, Cooper is now nine years old, and yesterday his family brought him back back to New York for another game with me. Here we are outside Citi Field:

1_becky_arthur_cooper_zack.jpg

In the photo above, the woman is Cooper’s mother Becky; the older gentleman is his grandfather Arthur.

As soon as the stadium opened, Cooper and I raced out to the left field seats. It was a day game, so I was glad to see that the Mets were taking batting practice. Meanwhile, Cooper was excited because it was the first time that he’d ever been to batting practice. Here he is, running down into the seats:

2_cooper_1st_batting_practice_ever.jpg

As soon as we reached the front row, Mets coach Razor Shines tossed a ball to another kid. That kid was older than Cooper (and wasn’t nearly as cute), so I called out to Shines and got him to look up at us, and then I asked him if he could possibly spare another ball. Shines said no and proceeded to mumble something about how we should stay where we were because there’d be some balls hit to us. (Gee, thanks!) But then he retrieved another ball that had rolled onto the warning track and, without much warning, tossed it up toward Cooper. Please don’t drop it, I thought. The ball was coming. I held my breath. It was falling a bit short, but Cooper wasn’t phased. He reached six inches over the railing and made a nice two-handed basket catch. I gave him a high-five and took his photo with the ball:

3_cooper_1st_ball_of_the_day.jpg

It was the first ball that he had ever snagged on his own.

The Mets didn’t throw many balls into the crowd after that, and the seats were still pretty empty, so I moved back a few rows and focused on snagging home run balls. I explained some basic strategies to Cooper, and he caught on quickly. Even though we were more than 375 feet from home plate, and even though he had never been to BP, and even though he was only nine years old, he was able to track the flight of the balls. He admitted that he wasn’t quite ready, however, to actually make an attempt at catching one, so when David Wright lifted a deep fly ball in our direction, I drifted down the steps and reached out over the wall for the easy one-handed catch. As soon as I took the ball out of my glove, I realized that I had reached in front of another kid who’d been camped out underneath it, so I handed him the ball. Then, two minutes later, I grabbed another Wright homer after it sailed over my head and ricocheted back to me.

That was it for the Mets’ portion of BP. The players were only on the field for 20 minutes, so Cooper and I headed to the 3rd base side. The Nationals were stretching in front of their dugout, but because the rules at Citi Field are so strict, we couldn’t get anywhere near them. Still, I was able to convince coach Marquis Grissom to throw us a ball from more than 100 feet away. In the following photo, the arrow is pointing at Grissom…

4_cooper_ball4288_location.jpg

…and did you notice that Cooper was no longer wearing his Mets cap? Little things like that make a difference, but anyway, as the ball started sailing toward us, I was hoping that Cooper would be able to catch it. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t within his reach, so I had no choice but to lean out over the railing and snare it. (It was a training ball.) Cooper had said that he didn’t mind which one of us actually caught the balls, but I knew it would be more exciting for him if he was actually the one to get them.

When the Nationals started playing catch along the left field foul line, I positioned Cooper behind THE most generous ball-giver in baseball: Livan Hernandez. Cooper was now wearing a red Nationals cap. He was all set. This was our view:

5_livan_hernandez_throwing_09_20_09.jpg

As soon as Hernandez finished throwing, I called out to him and asked for the ball on Cooper’s behalf. Hernandez turned and tossed it to him. Here’s a photo of the ball in mid-air, and as you can see, the guy on my right tried to reach out and catch it:

6_cooper_getting_2nd_ball.jpg

It was no coincidence that I was standing between Cooper and this other guy. I could tell just by looking at him that he was going to try to catch the ball no matter what, so I used my body as a shield to prevent him from reaching all the way out…and Cooper was able to make the catch! I was actually hoping that Hernandez had been using a training ball — Cooper had never gotten one of those — but it was just a standard Selig ball. I told Cooper that if he didn’t snag a training ball, I’d give him mine.

We moved to the left field corner in foul territory. Ron Villone jogged past and picked up a ball. Cooper was in the front row. I was standing right behind him. I asked Villone if he could toss the ball “to the little guy” and he DID toss it, but it sailed five feet over Cooper’s head and came right to me. Once again, I had no choice but to make the catch. That was my fourth ball of the day, and then after moving with Cooper to the seats in left-center, the same thing happened with Logan Kensing. I asked for the ball FOR Cooper, but it was tossed to me instead. (Another training ball.) My theory is that the players were afraid that Cooper wasn’t big/athletic enough to make the catches. Finally, J.D. Martin showed some faith and tossed a ball to Cooper, who caught it easily. (Standard ball.)

When batting practice ended, I had five balls and Cooper had three, and there was a chance to get one more. Someone on the Nationals had hit a home run that landed on (and rolled to the bottom of) the batter’s eye:

7_ball_on_batters_eye_09_20_09.jpg

I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to use my glove trick, so I took Cooper to the other side of the batter’s eye (where the side railing is much lower) and asked a security guard if he could get someone to walk out there and retrieve the ball. The four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise) shows what happened next:

8_cop_going_to_retrieve_the_ball.jpg

Let me explain:

TOP LEFT: A police officer climbed over the railing.
TOP RIGHT: The officer walked around the Home Run Apple toward the baseball.
BOTTOM RIGHT: The officer returned with the ball.
BOTTOM LEFT: The usher bobbled the ball when the officer tossed it to him.

And then the usher handed it to Cooper. (Another standard ball. Aarrghh!)

Cooper and I headed over to Shake Shack, where his mother and grandfather were already on line. We saw them before they saw us, so I placed all four of Cooper’s balls in his glove and had him stand in just the right spot so that when the line snaked back around toward us, his mother and grandfather would see him. This was their reaction:

9_arthur_becky_see_balls.jpg

And THIS was my lunch:

10_double_shack_burger.jpg

Arthur was kind enough to treat me, and let me tell you…I didn’t need to eat again for seven hours.

The photo above was taken from our actual seats. As good as they were, I still wanted to be a bit closer so that Cooper would have a steady flow of chances to snag a 3rd-out ball. Since we were on the Mets’ side, Cooper changed back into his Mets cap. Here he is from behind, sitting on the end of the row, getting ready to race down the steps:

11_cooper_during_game.jpg

Most of the 3rd-out balls ended up in the hands of first baseman Daniel Murphy, who tossed them unpredictably all over the place. I really wanted Cooper to snag a Citi Field commemorative ball, or at least to snag one for him. In the middle innings, I nearly caught one of Murphy’s throws, and then late in the game, Cooper nearly got his glove on a toss from Carlos Beltran. Check out the photo below. You can see Beltran right above the security guard’s head. Cooper is in the front row (just to the right of the guard) and the ball is in mid-air (in front of the red advertisement on the left field wall):

12_cooper_3rd_out_ball_attempt.jpg

Unfortunately, the kid to the right of Cooper got that ball, but not all hope was lost.

In the 9th inning, I worked my way down with Cooper into the seats on the 3rd base side. The home plate umpire was Rick Reed. He was our last shot at getting a Citi Field ball, but the final three outs seemed to last forever, and Cooper seriously HAD to get going. He and his mother had to catch a flight at 5:30pm, and the game (which had started at 1:10pm) was coming up on three hours. She and Cooper probably would’ve left in the 7th or 8th inning if not for me, but I convinced them to stay until the end. I told them there was a good chance at getting one more very special ball, so she and Arthur lingered patiently (though perhaps anxiously) in the concourse while Cooper and I did our thing. Brian Stokes was not cooperating. He retired Willie Harris on seven pitches, but then surrendered a single to Ian Desmond, an RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman, and an RBI single to Adam Dunn. Then pitching coach Dan Warthen held a tea party on the mound. Then Stokes struck out Josh Willingham and walked Elijah Dukes after getting ahead on him 0-2. It was ugly. Manager Jerry Manual had seen enough. Pitching change. (Oh my God! Hurry UP!!!) Francisco Rodriguez came in and fanned Christian Guzman to end the game. (Finally! Thank you!!!) I bolted down to the front row and tried to get Reed’s attention as he headed toward the tunnel. He blew right past me without looking up, but I saw him pause briefly to toss balls to some other fans, so I raced back up the steps and moved alongside him as he walked quickly through the tunnel down below. Just before he reached the end, he pulled out one final ball and tossed it up near me. There were some other fans reaching for it too, but I managed to grab it, and I immediately handed it to Cooper. Here he is with that ball:

13_cooper_with_ball4291.jpg

But wait, there’s more!

The Nationals relievers were walking in from the bullpen, so I raced back over near the dugout and squeezed into the front row behind the photographers’ box. Someone wearing No. 55 was walking toward me with a ball, but I had no idea who it was, so I frantically pulled out my roster for a quick look. It was Marco Estrada. “MARCO!!!” I shouted when he was still 40 feet away. He spotted me and threw the ball right to me, but some HUGE guy on my right reached out in front of me. Our gloves bumped and the ball fell down into the photographers’ box. A security guard climbed down in there and got the ball and tossed it back to Estrada. I pointed at Cooper, and he threw the ball toward us for a second time. I wanted Cooper to be the one to catch it, but I knew that if I hung back and let him go for it, someone else was going to reach in and snatch it, so I reached out as far as I could and made the grab. It was a standard ball, and I handed that one to Cooper as well. Phew!

I really wanted to stay and take some photos, but Cooper and his mother ***HAD*** to go, so I walked outside with them and gave Cooper a training ball and said a very quick goodbye.

Final score: Zack 7, Mets 6, Cooper 4, Nationals 2.

SNAGGING STATS:

14_the_three_i_kept_09_20_09.jpg• 7 balls at this game (three pictured here because I gave four away)

• 472 balls in 53 games this season = 8.91 balls per game.

• 622 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 484 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 349 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 20 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls (click here for more Watch With Zack stats; note that Cooper is now the youngest client to have snagged a ball)

• 4,292 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 126 donors (it’s not too late to become No. 127)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $176.82 raised at this game

• $11,922.72 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

9/15/09 at Camden Yards

The day got off to a GREAT start…

Camden Yards opened at 5pm. I was the first one in, of course, and when I ran out to the left field seats, I found a ball sitting in the front row in foul territory:

1_easter_egg_09_15_09.jpg

As soon as I reached the foul pole and looked to my right, I discovered another ball…

2_another_easter_egg.jpg

…and when I headed out toward left-center field, I saw this:

3_holy_crap_more_easter_eggs.jpg

Amazing. And then things got better.

During the next ten minutes (or so), I caught four home runs on the fly. I don’t know who hit any of them, but I can tell you that the last one impressed Jeremy Guthrie. He was shagging out in left field, just shy of the warning track, and had a perfect view.

Here’s how it played out (and FYI, all the photos of me were taken by my girlfriend Jona)…

As the home run was approaching, I drifted into the middle of a row to get in line with it, and then I realized that it was going to carry a few feet too far, so I stepped up onto a seat:

4_zack_about_to_catch_ball4268.jpg

At the very last second, I jumped up FROM the seat and made the catch high over my head, reaching back all the way. The following photo shows me at the peak of my jump with the ball already in my glove:

5_zack_catching_ball4268.jpg

Do you see the guy right in front of me with the dark blue shirt? He’s always out in the left field seats at Camden Yards, and Guthrie got all over him.

“Dude, you got posterized!!!” shouted Guthrie, who then reenacted the fan’s failed attempt to catch the ball:

6_jeremy_guthrie_reenacts_posterization.jpg

That other fan happens to be a nice guy and a talented ballhawk. I forget his name (because I just suck with names sometimes) but we’ve snagged together a bunch of times. He robbed me of a few homers earlier in the season, and this time I got the better of him. It happens.

Guthrie and I talked for a few minutes after that. He asked me how things were going with the charity, and I told him that this was probably the last Orioles game I’d be attending this season.

I ended up catching so many home runs during BP that I now can’t remember any of the details. It was truly insane. The following four-part photo shows me catching (or rather, ABOUT to catch) four different homers. In the bottom two photos, I’m wearing a dark blue Rays shirt:

7_zack_catching_homers_09_15_09.jpg

Everything was going my way. I happened to be in the right spot almost every time. Was it luck? Or skill? I suppose it was a combination of the two, but I really can’t explain it beyond that. I’d never experienced a batting practice like this in my life. Even the previous game (at which I finished BP with 17 balls and ended up with 22 by the end of the night) wasn’t this good.

Naturally, over the course of BP, there were some highs and lows and lulls.

There was running:

9_zack_running_09_15_09.jpg

There was pain:

10_ow_ow_ow_ow_ow.jpg

(The running needed work.)

And there was friendship:

8_adam_and_zack_09_15_09.jpg

You know how you’ll run into a person several times over the course of a few months or years, and you never really connect or get to know them, but you can tell that it’s someone you could potentially be great friends with, and then eventually it all clicks into place and you finally have a solid conversation with them? Well, last night was THAT night for me and the guy pictured above in the orange shirt. His name is Adam. He’s a regular at Camden Yards, and he reads this blog.

Back to snagging…

For those keeping score at home (including Alan Schuster, who is kind enough to update my MyGameBalls.com profile for me), here’s a rundown of all the balls I got during the first 45 minutes:

1) easter egg
2) easter egg
3) easter egg
4) easter egg
5) Orioles homer; caught on the fly
6) Orioles homer; caught on the fly
7) Orioles homer; caught on the fly
8) Orioles homer; caught on the fly (“posterized”)
9) Orioles homer; grabbed it after it bounced
10) Orioles homer; caught on the fly
11) thrown by an unknown lefty pitcher on the Rays
12) B.J. Upton homer; caught on the fly
13) Rays homer; caught on the fly
14) Pat Burrell homer; caught on the fly

It was around this time that I realized I had a chance to snag 20 balls for a second consecutive game. Could it be done?!

Matt Garza threw me a ball from about 120 feet away. The ball was falling short, so I leaned waaaaay out and down below the left field wall to try to catch it…

11_zack_leaning_over_wall_09_15_09.jpg

…but it tipped off the end of the my glove and settled on the warning track. Grant Balfour walked over and picked it up. I was afraid he’d recognize me from the previous day (when he gave me a ball during BP), and perhaps he did, but either way, I convinced him to toss it up.

Then I caught another home run on the fly in heavy traffic. One guy’s glove was RIGHT in my face, but I managed to hold on.

tom_foley_2009.jpgThen Tom Foley, the Rays’ third base coach, was walking through the outfield with a ball in one hand a fungo bat in the other.

“Coach!” I yelled, “Hit me a fungo!”

He looked up and threw me the ball instead. I was about five rows back, and the ball was falling short, so I climbed over a row while the ball was in mid-air and then reached way down over the next row to make a lunging catch.

Then a young kid behind me bobbled a home run ball, which I was able to snatch on one bounce. I immediately turned around and handed it to him. It was my 18th ball of the day.

Without warning, a ball smacked down into the seats one section to my right. I couldn’t tell where it had come from. I’d been watching the batter the whole time, and he hadn’t hit anything that reached the seats. Then I realized that Foley was standing on the foul line just behind 3rd base. He was hitting deep fungos toward left field so that the pitchers (who had nothing better to do) could try to rob home runs. The next fungo fell several feet short of the wall, and I lunged way out for it…

12_zack_getting_robbed_by_player.jpg

…but I got robbed by Brian Shouse. In the photo above, you can see the ball streaking into his black glove. You can also see Lance Cormier’s glove flying 30 feet in the air. He had thrown it up to try to hit the ball. (If I were a manager, I wouldn’t let my players goof around like that unless we had already clinched a playoff berth.)

Then I got my revenge. I think it was Balfour who tried to catch the next fungo, but the ball cleared the wall by three feet, and I was all over it:

13_zack_catching_ball4279.jpg

That was my 19th ball of the day!

And then I had my chance to snag No. 20. There was a home run hit half a section to my left, so I drifted over and made a leaping catch at the last second, right next to a man who’d been whining about all the balls I was catching (even though he’d already snagged quite a few balls himself). He also accused me of never giving balls to kids (even though I’d just given one to a kid two minutes earlier). In the following photo, you can see this clown standing behind me in the light blue shirt. As for me, this was my reaction after catching the ball and reaching TWENTY for the second straight day:

14_zack_20th_ball_of_day.jpg

Foley was still hitting fungos. One more of them reached the seats, and I caught it.

(?!?!?!?!?!)

There was one final home run ball hit to me during BP. Here I am tracking it:

15_zack_tracking_ball4282.jpg

Here I am reaching up to make the catch:

16_zack_about_to_catch_ball4282.jpg

See the guy with the long hair and goatee? He must’ve weighed about 250 pounds, and then…

BAM!!!

17_zack_catching_ball4282.jpg

He slammed into me and nearly sent me tumbling headfirst over the railing, but guess what? I held onto the ball.

“AND ONE!!!” I yelled with a smile, indicating that he had fouled me.

Everyone else in the section laughed.

I had snagged 22 balls, including 11 home runs on the fly. Both of those totals were BP records for me.

Six of the 22 balls had interesting markings, smudges, scuffs, and grass stains:

18_six_cool_balls.jpg

In the six-part photo above, the ball on the top left has a small bat imprint on it. I’m pretty sure the imprinted word (which appears here in reverse) is “SELECT.” This is the ball that Balfour tossed to me after Garza’s throw fell short. The ball on the lower right was my 20th of the day.

After batting practice, I raced to the 3rd base dugout and got my 23rd ball of the day tossed by Rays bullpen coach Bobby Ramos. (This ball broke my single-game Camden Yards record of 22, which I had set the day before.) Then, right before the game started, I got No. 24 from Evan Longoria. He was using the ball to play catch with Willy Aybar, and when they finished, he threw it to me as a knuckleball. It was such a great day that even Jona got a ball after BP. I was in the front row behind the Rays’ dugout, and she was half a dozen rows back with my camera. I asked George Hendrick, the Rays’ first base coach, for the ball, but he scanned the seats and spotted her and tossed it her way instead. D’oh! (I need an uglier girlfriend.)

I spent the game in the standing-room-only section in right field. Here’s a photo of me walking toward Jona during an inning break:

19_zack_flag_court_09_15_09.jpg

I stayed out there for all the left-handed batters.

This is where I positioned myself for the righties:

20_zack_righty_foul_ball_spot.jpg

I did lots of running all night, even with my battered right ankle which by this point was stinging and badly bruised. But it was worth it. This was a good foul ball spot. I had empty rows on both sides. But, unfortunately, nothing came close.

Back in right field, there was some action in the bottom of the 7th inning. Luke Scott led off and smoked a 2-0 pitch deep and to my right. The ball was clearly going to land in the seats and NOT in the standing-room-only section, but I took off and ran for it anyway. There were so many empty seats that anything seemed possible.

The following photo is a screen shot that I took from MLB.com. The red arrow is pointing to me:

21a_zack_running_for_luke_scott_homer.jpg

Miraculously, the ball bounced all the way into the narrow walkway at the back of the section. As it began rattling around, there were two other guys closing in on it from the opposite direction, and I was sure, for an instant, that they were going to get there first…but then the ball hit the edge of one of those brick pillars and ricocheted in MY direction. The ball was heading right for my knee, and it nearly got past me. I barely had time to react as I bent down to simply try to stop it from getting away:

21b_zack_snagging_luke_scott_homer.jpg

And then, suddenly, I felt the ball in my right hand. Just like that! It bounced RIGHT into my hand. I kind of trapped it up against the wall and against my leg. I couldn’t believe it, but I *did* in fact have sole possession of the ball.

This was my reaction:

21c_zack_celebrating_like_a_madman.jpg

It was my 9th career game home run ball (toss-ups excluded). I feel like that’s an embarrassingly low number, but in my own defense, I *have* snagged 124 foul balls and one ground-rule double.

It’s tough to catch balls in the standing-room-only section. The view from the back looks like this…

22_view_during_game_09_15_09.jpg

…so you can’t even see the ball until it’s a third of the way to you.

The following photo shows where I ran to grab the Luke Scott home run ball:

23_ball4285_cross_aisle.jpg

See what I mean? There’s not that much space back there.

Here’s the home run ball itself…

24_ball4285_luke_scott_homer.jpg

…and here’s the video highlight on MLB.com. I hope it works. I always have trouble with streaming video on my laptop. If there’s anyone reading this who either taped the game or can somehow pull this clip off the internet and convert it into an .AVI or .MOV format, please let me know. I’d love to upload the clip to this page on my web site, which lists all of my game home runs.

Okay, so this seems like the best day ever, right? Well, unfortunately, I pissed it all away with one inexcusable error. In the bottom of the 8th, Matt Wieters hit a deep home run that was heading toward the center-field side of the standing-room-only section. I bolted about 40 feet to my right and, to put it simply (because it’s too painful to relive the details), I should’ve caught the ball and didn’t. Epic fail. No excuses. I was (and still am) stunned and humiliated, and I just hope that I get the chance to redeem myself someday. The few people who witnessed (or heard about) my meltdown tried to comfort me with words of wisdom. The worst thing that anyone said was, “Think how boring life would be if you were perfect.” (That asinine gem came from a female usher who then hugged me.) The best thing anyone said was, “Hey, it happened to Luis Castillo.” (That came from my friend Leon Feingold.) Ultimately, nothing will cheer me up. I’ll just have to get over it, in my own way, at my own pace, and focus better from this moment on…

SNAGGING STATS:

25_the_24_i_kept.jpg• 25 balls at this game (24 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 465 balls in 52 games this season = 8.94 balls per game.

• 621 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 117 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 6 lifetime games with at least 20 balls

• 9 lifetime game home runs

• 4 different stadiums with at least one game home run (Old Yankee, Shea, PETCO, and Camden)

• 4,285 total balls

• 1 gut-wrenching mistake

CHARITY STATS:

• 126 donors (it’s not too late to make a pledge)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $631.50 raised at this game

• $11,745.90 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

9/14/09 at Camden Yards

I spent my birthday with one of my favorite people in one of my favorite places: with my girlfriend Jona at Camden Yards. The weather was perfect. The tickets were cheap. The crowd was small. I just knew it was going to be a great day.

When the stadium opened for batting practice at 5pm, I raced out to the left field seats, and by the time Jona made it out there with my camera several minutes later, I had already snagged two baseballs. I found the first one sitting in the second row all the way out near the bullpen in left-center field, and Chris Waters threw me the second.

Jona took the following photo as she approached the left field seats. I’m the guy wearing the black t-shirt and tan shorts:

1_zack_left_field_seats_09_14_09.jpg

Moments later, Chad Moeller ripped a deep line drive in my direction. I could tell right away that it had the potential to reach the seats, but I knew that it wasn’t going to reach my spot in the 7th row, so I scooted down the steps, and as the ball approached, I braced myself against the wall at the bottom. The red arrow in the following photo is pointing at the ball:

2_zack_about_to_catch_ball4241.jpg

I made the easy one-handed catch.

There was lots of room to run in the seats, and I took full advantage:

3_zack_running_and_climbing.jpg

Jona took a great sequence of photos as I ran for my fourth ball of the day. I’m not sure who hit it. All I know is that it was a righty on the Orioles, but anyway, the ball was launched half a section to my right, and from the moment it left the bat, I could tell that it was going to land well past the row where I was standing. I immediately turned around (so that my back was facing the field) and raced up the steps:

4_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

Take a look at the other fan (wearing the striped shirt) in the photo above. Do you notice where he’s looking? He’s keeping his eye on the ball. Do you notice where I’m looking? I’m NOT looking at the ball. The following photo shows more of this:

5_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

While the other guy was frozen in place, trapped by the railing and trying to figure out where the ball was going to land, I was focusing on my path to spot where I had already predicted it was going to land. That way I was able to reach the spot as quickly as possible.

Take a look at the guy in the next photo. He’s still looking at the ball, and I’m already cutting through the seats several rows behind him:

6_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

The ball ended up landing in the empty row directly behind me as I kept running through the seats…

7_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

…and I was able to snag it before the other fans got there. That one felt good because I’d done everything right and then got lucky when the ball didn’t ricochet away from me.

Moments later, another Orioles righty hit a home run that was heading toward the first few rows all the way out in left-center. I was more than a dozen rows back at that point, and I was three sections away, but I raced to my left anyway. There were several guys playing shallow in left-center. If the ball had stayed where it landed, they would’ve been all over it, but it ended up taking an unlucky bounce for them…which turned into the luckiest bounce ever for me. The ball hit the railing just inside the fence that separates the seats from the bullpens, and then it ricocheted all the way back into my row. The other guys started running up the steps and climbing over seats, but I was already closing in on it, and I snagged the ball well before they got there. That was my 5th ball of the day, and then I made a leaping catch for a line-drive homer in straight-away left field. In the following photo, I’m *just* about to squeeze my glove around it:

8_zack_catching_ball4244.jpg

The snagging gods were clearly helping me celebrate my birthday. Two minutes later, as I was walking back to my normal spot through an empty row in left-center, I heard everyone yell, “Heads up!!!” and before I knew it, I heard a ball smack a seat right near me. I never saw it coming, but when I looked down, the ball was sitting at my feet. This was my reaction after picking it up:

9_zack_shocked_after_ball4245.jpg

(The shirt I’m wearing was a birthday present from Jona. Jona’s birthday was the day before mine, and I’ll be blogging about it soon.)

My 8th ball of the day was another line-drive homer. No clue who hit it. I ran to my right as the ball was approaching, and as the fans just in front of me reached up for it, I pulled back (so that if they deflected it, it wouldn’t smack me in the face) and ended up making a very tentative back-handed catch as the ball sailed six inches over all their gloves. Then I ran to my left and caught a ground-rule double (hit by a lefty) that bounced high off the rubberized warning track into the second row. I got whacked in the face by some other guy’s glove as I made the catch. He apologized. It was all good.

dan_wheeler_2009.jpg
The Rays took the field, and I looked for Dan Wheeler. I hadn’t seen him all year, but I figured he’d still remember me, so when he walked out to left field, I shouted, “Is that my friend Dan Wheeler?!”

He looked up and said, “Hey, Zack!”

Very cool.

Then he asked me where my Rays cap was.

“Hang on,” I said. “I’m about to change into my Rays gear, but don’t tell your teammates. This needs to be our little secret, okay?”

“Okay,” he said with a smile on his face.

Then I ducked down so that I was blocked by the wall in the front row and put on my Rays cap and Rays shirt:

10_zack_changing_into_rays_gear.jpg

Then Wheeler came over and talked to me. He asked me how I’d been and what was up. I told him about the new book I’m working on and explained how I’m now snagging baseballs to raise money for charity. I gave him one of my contact cards, and we talked for a few minutes:

11_zack_talking_to_dan_wheeler.jpg

In the photo above, do you see the ball I’m holding? While we were talking, one of the Rays batters hit a deep line drive that bounced right to Wheeler. He grabbed it and said, “Here you go,” and tossed it to me in one motion.

“Thanks so much,” I said, “but you know you didn’t need to do that.”

“I know,” he said, “but I have to give you a ball every time I see you.”

“Well, I’ll be here tomorrow,” I said, “but one ball per series is enough.”

Then a couple homers were hit deep into the seats and Wheeler told me, “You better get back to work.”

I thanked him again and headed off to add to my total.

Now…if you look back at the photo of me talking to Wheeler, you can see that at the back of the left field seats, there’s a concrete wall with even more seats above it. Well…a home run ball ended up bouncing over that wall into the seats up above, and there was an all-out sprint between me and one other guy for it. We both got there at the same time, but then neither of us could find the ball. I scanned the seats like a madman, hoping to spot it, and then I saw it, tucked underneath a seat, and I pounced on it. I didn’t notice until 30 seconds later (when there was a brief lull in the action) that the ball had a huge gash on it. Check it out:

12_gash_on_ball_4249.jpg

I’ve snagged two other “gash balls” in the past. Here’s one, and here’s the other.

I got Grant Balfour to toss me my 12th ball of the day, and then I raced out to right-center field and used my glove trick to snag a home run ball that had landed in the gap:

13_zack_glove_trick_4251.jpg

While I was out there, I got Dioner Navarro to throw me a ball that rolled to the wall in center field. He threw it with curveball spin, and the sun was right in my eyes, but I stuck with it and made the catch. Then, back in left field, Wheeler tossed a ball to some fans who ALL went for it and somehow managed to bobble it back right into my row. It was incredible, and I was able to race to my left and grab it. Wheeler then got another ball and tossed it to the clumsy fans, so everyone was happy. Then I moved way back for a couple of power hitters, and while I was back there, I got Russ Springer to throw me a ball over everyone’s heads down in front. And finally, with just a couple minutes remaining in BP, I caught another home run on the fly.

WOW.

I raced over to the Rays’ dugout just before all the players and coaches cleared the field. Bullpen coach Bobby Ramos threw me my 18th ball of the day. In the following photo, the vertical arrow is pointing at Ramos, and the horizontal arrow is pointing at the ball:

14_zack_about_to_catch_ball4256.jpg

I *needed* to snag two more balls and reach 20 for the day. I’d already broken my Camden Yards record (17 balls on 9/6/05), but I simply HAD to keep adding to it.

I moved around to the home plate side of the dugout and waved my glove at George Hendrick, the Rays’ first base coach. The arrow in the following photo is pointing to him:

15_zack_waving_at_george_hendrick.jpg

I didn’t know if he even had a ball, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Maybe there was a ball sitting around in the dugout and he could grab it for me? Well, to my surprise/delight, Hendrick HAD a ball and under-handed it to me. Here’s the ball in mid-air…

16_zack_about_to_catch_ball4257.jpg

…and here it is streaking into my glove:

17_zack_catching_ball_4257.jpg

Ten seconds later, it occurred to me that this was my 4,257th ball…which meant that I had just passed Pete Rose on the all-time hits list! For those who don’t know, I’ve been comparing my ball total to the all-time hits totals since 2005, so this was a big deal (on a random personal level). I had actually brought a Reds cap with me on this two-day trip to Baltimore. I thought it’d be cool to honor Rose by wearing the cap at the time that I passed him, but the cap was in my hotel. Camden Yards is great for snagging, but I didn’t think it was gonna be THIS great. I figured I’d snag 19 balls in two days combined (assuming there was no rain), but 19 in one day?!

Here I am with Ball No. 4,257:

18_zack_with_ball_4257.jpg

Here are the two balls that tied me with Rose and then moved me past him:

19_balls4256_and_4257.jpg

Once all the players and coaches were gone, I took the following photo…

20_nineteen_balls_after_BP.jpg

…and then gave two of the balls away to little kids with gloves who were just entering the stadium with their dads. Naturally, they were all thrilled, and I told the kids that even though they now had baseballs, I wanted them to keep wearing their gloves during the game and try to catch a foul ball. They said they would.

Right before the game started, I went back down to the Rays’ dugout to make an attempt at snagging my 20th ball of the day. Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac came out and started throwing. Longoria was on the home-plate end of the dugout, so I positioned myself near him. Usually, the more experienced player ends up with the ball, but in this case, Brignac was the one who took the ball back toward the dugout. He was 30 feet to my left, and there were a couple other fans standing just on MY left. It wasn’t looking good, but at least the other fans were grown men who did not have baseball gloves. “REID!!!” I shouted, prompting him to look up. I
reid_brignac_2009.jpgwaved my glove and made sure he could see my Rays gear, and then he threw the ball toward me. I nearly had a panic attack because the ball was heading too close to the other fans. I was sure they were going to reach out and rob me, which would have been their right, but they kept their hands at their sides and allowed me to catch it. I asked the guy right next to me why he didn’t go for it. He said that I had been the one to call out for it, and I was the one wearing a glove, so I was the one who deserved it. (I might have to move to Baltimore.) And just like that, I had snagged 20 balls at a single game for just the fifth time in my life.

That’s when my luck ran out. I had several close calls on foul balls during the game, and I also came within 10 feet of snagging Brignac’s 1st major league home run. But everything either went over my head or took an unfortunate ricochet or settled in the hands of a nearby fan. It was very frustrating, but obviously I wasn’t about to start complaining. One happy thought that popped into my head was that I had raised more than $500 for charity at this game alone!

While I was running all over the stadium, Jona split her time between sitting in one place and following me around…and when she DID follow me, she was kind enough to carry my very heavy backpack:

21_jona_holding_my_backpack.jpg

Don’t let Jona’s expression fool you. On the inside she was thrilled — just thrilled!! — to be carrying my bag.

The stadium, meanwhile, was like a ghost town. Excluding all the rain delays and blowouts that I’ve attended, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many empty seats:

22_empty_seats_late_in_game.jpg

It was tempting to go for third-out balls because that would’ve likely helped me pile up the numbers, but I resisted the urge and stuck to my standard Camden game plan. As a result of that plan combined with several bouts of bad luck, I was still stuck on 20 balls when the game ended.

Final score, by the way: Rays 8, Orioles 4. Brignac went 4-for-4 with a homer, two doubles, and three RBIs.

As soon as the final outs (double play) were recorded, I bolted down the steps behind home plate and positioned myself next to the tunnel where the umpires exit. Dale Scott, the home plate ump, handed balls to the few little kids near me and then placed one final ball in my open glove. Then I zig-zagged through the exiting crowd and worked my way into the front row behind the Rays’ dugout. After the first wave of players and coaches left the field, the guys from the bullpen walked in. I shouted at everyone for a ball (and said “happy birthday” to Chad Bradford, who was also born on September 14th), but the only person who even acknowledged my requests was Bobby Ramos. I had taken off my cap before asking him for a ball so he wouldn’t recognize me, and it seemed to work. He didn’t have any baseballs on him, but I saw him get someone’s attention in the dugout. That person tossed Ramos three balls. Ramos then threw the first one to me and gave the other balls to kids.

Jona and I got a photo together on our way out. The ball I’m holding is my 22nd of the day:

23_zack_jona_postgame_09_14_09.jpg

Happy birthday to ME.

SNAGGING STATS:

24_the_twenty_i_kept.jpg• 22 balls at this game (20 pictured here because I gave two away)

• 440 balls in 51 games this season = 8.63 balls per game.

• 620 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 116 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 5 lifetime games with at least 20 balls

• 4,260 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $555.72 raised at this game

• $11,114.40 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

One last thing…

People often ask me how I remember the details of each ball, especially when I snag so many balls in one game. It’s easy: I take notes. Nothing fancy. Just a few words for each ball to trigger my memory later on. Usually I write the notes on the back of my rosters. That’s what I did at this game. Check it out:

25_rosters_and_notes.jpg

9/8/09 at Citi Field

This was a very special day…

Not only was it my parents’ 35th anniversary, but it was the first time that I walked all the way around the outside of Citi Field since that snowy day in February of 2008.

Naturally, I took photos of everything, starting with the view from the subway exit:

1_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

I headed past the Brooklyn Dodgers Rotunda…

2_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

…and walked the length of the stadium toward the left field gate:

3_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

Kinda nice. Kinda whatever. I think the weeds should be replaced with flowers (maybe even of the orange and blue variety), but hey, I’m no landscaper.

I rounded the corner and walked to the outermost edge of the parking lot. Here’s what the stadium looked like from afar — from about a quarter of a mile from home plate in straight-away left field:

4_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

I didn’t like what I saw. It didn’t look like a baseball stadium. It looked like a jumbled mess of generic modern architecture.

I walked closer…

On the right side of this edge of the stadium, there was some type of employee entrance:

5_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

In the middle, there was a chain-link fence blocking off a huge area of loading docks:

6_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

On the left side, there was a security guard and a “DO NOT ENTER” sign:

7_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

Do you see all those cork-shaped objects poking out of the ground every four feet? Do you know what those are for? Here in New York City, they’ve been popping up on sidewalks outside of new and important buildings. They’re there to prevent extremists (i.e. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, disgruntled Mets fans, etc.) from driving too close with explosive-laden vehicles.

Several policemen eyed me suspiciously as I walked around taking photos. I eyed them right back and rounded another corner…

8_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

…and peeked through one of Citi Field’s many glass doors. This is what I saw:

9_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

In case it’s not clear, this construction zone is inside Citi Field — basically at the deepest part of center field. Can anyone explain why the stadium is still under construction six months after it opened? Do we have Bernie Madoff to thank for this? What was/is this area supposed to end up being? I thought this new stadium was supposed to be “intimate.”

I approached the bullpen gate in right-center field:

10_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

In the photo above, did you notice all the cars and signs on the left side of the road? You know what’s over there, RIGHT across from the stadium? If you were to stand with your back facing the bullpen gate and walk across the street, this is what you’d see:

11_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

Lovely.

Instead of paying Oliver Perez $36 million to “pitch” for three years, the Mets should’ve bought out all the auto repair centers and replaced them with a public park…with some orange and blue flowers…and a few restaurants…and fountains…and a small baseball field where people could play catch…and statues of players who actually played for the Mets.

I rounded yet another corner and headed past the right field gate:

12_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

The following photo shows where the Mets players walk in from their parking lot:

13_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

Normally (as you might recall from my entry on 8/4/09 when I got Livan Hernandez to sign my 4,000th ball), this area is gated off in order to keep the fans as far away from the players as possible. The reason why it wasn’t blocked when I passed by is that it was already 4:15pm. All the Mets players were safely inside.

I made it all the way back around to the Rotunda:

14_outside_citi_field_09_08_09.jpg

(GOSH I love barricades!)

As I was looking for the best spot to wait in line, I ran into a new-ish friend (and aspiring ballhawk) named Ryan. He was there with his friend Keith. You’ll see a photo of them at the end of this entry.

Citi Field opened at 4:40pm, and I raced out to the left field seats. For a few minutes, I pretty much had the place to myself…

15_left_field_seats_09_08_09.jpg

…but of course almost every batter was swinging from the left side of the plate. As a result, a ball ended up rolling onto the warning track in right-center field, so I ran over there. Ryan and Keith were standing nearby in the seats. They knew that I was there to snag that ball with my glove trick, but they didn’t mind. In fact, they even strategized with me about how I could get it without being seen by security. It was then that another ball rolled onto the track. Josh Thole jogged over to retrieve it, then tossed it to me (after I asked him politely for it) and left the other ball sitting there. Very strange. Moments later, a home run landed on the slanted area in front of the batter’s eye. Perfect! The security supervisor standing at the back of our section walked down a few rows and then climbed over the side railing to go get it. Ryan pulled out his camera and took a few photos while Keith stood next to me and used his tall frame as a shield. Here’s a pic of me getting the ball to stick inside the glove…

16_zack_glove_trick_09_08_09.jpg

…and here’s another shot of the glove trick in action. You can see that I’m lifting up the ball while the yellow-shirted supervisor is wandering off in the background:

17_zack_glove_trick_09_08_09.jpg

Some people consider this to be theft. My response: It’s not 1915 anymore. Fans are allowed to keep baseballs nowadays. Players and coaches (and ballboys and groundskeepers and ushers and photographers and announcers and mascots and vendors and security guards and other stadium personnel) actually GIVE balls to fans. Welcome to 2009.

And by the way, the ball that I snagged with my glove trick was a 2008 Yankee Stadium commemorative ball. The Mets are cool like that. They often use old/random commemorative balls during BP.

I headed back to left field, and once again, there was very little action. Brian Stokes walked by. He didn’t have a ball in his hand, and even if he did, I wouldn’t have asked him for it. Two days earlier, he had recognized me as That Guy who snags lots of baseballs. Normally, when players recognize me, it’s a bad thing. It means they’re not going to give me any more balls…ever. There’ve been exceptions — Josias Manzanillo, Pedro Martinez, and Heath Bell to name a few — but it’s rare. Anyway, when Stokes walked by, I shouted, “Hey, Brian, what’s brian_stokes_2009.jpgup?!” He looked over and spotted me and waved, and it sounded like he yelled, “Hey, Zack!” I could be wrong. There’s a chance that he didn’t actually say my name. I might just have been hearing what I wanted to hear, but in any case, it was nice that he remembered me.

Thirty seconds later, while I was standing in the middle of the left field seats, minding my own business, watching the batter and hoping for a home run, I heard/saw someone trying to get my attention down below on the field. It was Stokes! He now had a ball in his hand, and he was making a gesture to indicate that he was going to throw it to me. I held up my glove…and…whooooosh!!! He fired a strike right to me.

“Thanks!” I shouted. “Is that for the charity?”

“I haven’t checked out your site yet!” he shouted back.

“But you still have my card?!”

“Yeah I got it!”

“Cool!” I said. “Thanks again!”

Then he waved and headed toward the foul pole, and I took a photo of the ball he’d thrown to me:

18_ball4231_brian_stokes.jpg

Yup, another Yankee Stadium commemorative. Brian Stokes is my new favorite player. With my luck, the Mets will trade him next year, and with the Mets’ luck (as was the case with Heath Bell), he’ll develop into an All-Star closer.

Halfway though the Mets’ portion of BP, a ball rolled onto the warning track down the left field foul line:

19_ball4232_on_field.jpg

I waited for a minute to see if a player or security guard noticed that it was there, and when nobody went for it, I made my move. I raced over to the seats in foul territory and got as close as possible to the ball. Then I used my “half-glove trick.” That’s what I call it when I don’t actually use the rubber band or Sharpie, when all I do is fling the glove out and then yank it back in order to knock the ball closer. That’s all I had to do here because the wall was so low. Once I had the ball in my hand, I was thrilled to discover that it was a 2008 All-Star Game ball.

I headed back to left field and caught three home runs on the fly. The first — another Yankee Stadium commemorative — was hit by Jeff Francoeur, and I gloved it after running a section and a half to my left. The second was hit by Cody Ross (the Marlins had taken the field by this point) and it came right to me. The third homer? I have no idea who hit it because I was looking somewhere else and didn’t even see the ball coming until the very last second, at which point I darted to my right and made a lunging, back-handed catch.

The three homers gave me seven balls on the day. That might sound great, but I was pissed that I didn’t have a dozen. I misjudged one homer that ended up sailing five feet over my head. (I was in the middle of a section — in other words, NOT on a staircase — so I would’ve had to climb over two rows of seats while the ball was descending. It was a tough chance, but I feel like I should’ve had it.) Another home run tipped off the very end of my glove after another running/lunging attempt. Two more home runs were heading RIGHT toward me but fell five feet short. The Marlins players didn’t toss me a single ball despite the fact that I was decked out in zack_is_a_crybaby.jpg
hideously ugly aqua-colored Marlins gear. Another home run sailed ten feet over my head and landed in a totally empty patch of seats. All it had to do was stay there and I would’ve been able to walk over and pick it up, but it ricocheted about a mile away. It was just one of those days when very little seemed to be going my way. The fact that I *did* have seven balls at that point was amazing and lucky. It shows how good Citi Field can potentially be (even though it’s nearly impossible to catch batted balls in right field). Someday…SOME day…mark my words: I’m going to snag 20 balls in a single game there. It might take a few more years of the Mets winning 45 percent of their games in order for the crowds to shrink sufficiently, but it *will* happen.

Another lame thing that happened during batting practice was that I had to deal with a hater. I was standing in the front row, getting ready to call out to a Marlins player, when I heard a man’s voice coming from the right, saying something about “running around like an idiot.” The voice was rather faint, and there wasn’t anyone standing nearby, so it didn’t occur to me that the words were aimed my way. Still I wanted to see who was talking so I looked over and saw an averaged-sized, 40-something-year-old man, sitting 15 feet to my right. He was wearing a glove and glaring at me.

“Are you talking to ME?” I asked. I wasn’t trying to start a fight. (Remember, I went to Quaker schools for eight years.) I was just taken by surprise by the whole situation, which seemed to be arising from nothing, and I genuinely wanted to know if, in fact, he WAS talking to me. It didn’t make any sense.

“Yeah, I’m talking to you!” he snapped.

I was already so annoyed by all the balls I’d missed that I was ready to explode, but I thought better of it and just shrugged it off and went about my business. Ten minutes later, when there was a lull between rounds of BP, I was still bothered by the whole thing. Why did the guy have a problem with me? I didn’t know him. I’d never talked to him. He obviously didn’t know me, so what the hell was his problem? I decided to confront him — but in a nice way. I walked over to his section. He was facing the field. I approached him from behind (since the front of the section was packed) and climbed over several rows of seats. As I sat down right behind him, he turned around quickly and noticed me and flinched, ever so slightly. That amused me. He obviously wasn’t expecting to see me again, and I swear, I just wanted to have a conversation with him and get to the bottom of his mysterious hostility.

“How’re you doing,” I said warmly but firmly. (This wasn’t a question. It was a statement.) “I was just wondering what exactly it is about me that you find idiotic.”

The guy was reasonably nice — as nice as he could be while telling me why he thought I sucked. He gave two reasons. First, he accused me of bumping into a kid, but then he admitted that he hadn’t really seen it, and that he HAD seen me pat the kid on the back after the kid got a ball. (In truth, the kid was a bit out of control and had bumped into me, but having once been an out-of-control kid myself, I let it slide.) Second, the guy accused me catching too many balls and therefore preventing other kids from getting them.

“Did you know,” I asked him, “that I give away balls to kids every time I go to a game?”

“I’ve never seen you give one away here,” he said.

“That’s because I usually wait until after the game to give balls away.”

“Well, that’s nice of you,” admitted the guy.

“And did you know,” I continued, “that I’ve been raising money for a kids’ charity this season with all the balls I catch at games?”

“I did not know that,” he said, now softening up.

I proceeded to tell him all about Pitch In For Baseball, and how I’ve gotten 123 people to make pledges for each ball that I snag, and how I’ve raised over $10,000 which will be used to ship baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world.

By the time we were done talking, the guy apologized to me and shook my hand. I also apologized to him for doing anything that might have given him the wrong impression. And that was that.

Right before the game started, several Marlins played catch in front of the 3rd base dugout:

20_cody_ross_using_ball4236.jpg

In the photo above, the player on the left is Hanley Ramirez, and the player on the right (wearing No. 12) is Cody Ross. Ramirez finished first and tossed his ball to another fan one section to my left. Ross wrapped it up soon after, walked toward the dugout, scanned the seats for a cute little kid, and when he couldn’t find one (school is back in session, heh heh) he settled for tossing his ball to me.

I had a GREAT time during the game because I’d gone on StubHub earlier in the day and splurged for a ticket in the fancy “Sterling Level” seats behind home plate. At the beginning of the season, those seats were selling for hundreds of dollars apiece, but now, with the Mets embarrassing themselves, I was able to find one in the $70 range. That’s much more than I usually spend on tickets, but every now and then, I like to treat myself, and besides, I’d never been to that part of Citi Field, so I figured it was worth it to experience it once.

I headed out through a door on the field level concourse and then walked down a set of stairs. I don’t often get to go below field level, so this was quite a treat. This is what it looked like as I headed down. The red arrow is pointing to the Sterling Level entrance:

21_stairs_to_sterling_level.jpg

(Can we get some artwork on the walls? Maybe a big Mets mural? Or some old photographs? Maybe a trophy case? Something? ANYthing? Who the hell designed this place, and why wasn’t I consulted?)

Once I got through the doors, I felt incredibly out of place. I was wearing sneakers, cargo shorts, a T-shirt, a Mets cap, and a baseball glove. (And socks and underwear, in case you were wondering.) Everyone else there looked like…wait…was I even in a baseball stadium? This was the view to my right…

22_sterling_club_view_to_the_right.jpg

…and this was the view to my left:

23_sterling_club_view_to_the_left.jpg

What?!

A well-dressed employee approached me and said, “You look lost.”

It took an effort to explain (without losing my patience) that I was intentionally lost…that it was all part of my plan…that it was my first time down there…that I just wanted to be left the hell alone to wander and take photos and soak it all in.

I got some funny looks as I hurried through the club toward the seats. The game (there WAS a game, right?) was about to start…and…what? There were people sitting at a bar:

24_sterling_club_bar.jpg

I was excited to be in the fancy club, but I didn’t like it at all. “Sterling Club” should be renamed “Sterile Club.” It was clean and spacious and luxurious, I suppose, if that’s your idea of luxury, but there was no charm or character or purpose. Not to me, at least. Why would anyone want to go to a baseball game and then sit at an air-conditioned bar watching it on TV? Am I missing something? Were all these other people there for the first time, too? It was like an airport lounge.

I was about to lose my mind. I had to get to the seats. This is how I got there:

25_tunnel_to_sterling_seats.jpg

My view for the game — or rather “for left-handed batters” — was outstanding. Check it out:

26_sterling_seats_view_for_lefties.jpg

My actual seat was in the middle of a row somewhere, but since the section was half-empty, the friendly usher told me I could grab a seat at the end of a row.

After the top of the first inning, I recognized a security guard at the bottom of the section — a guy who was always really nice to me at Shea Stadium — so I got permission to go down there and talk to him. I couldn’t go ALL the way down to the protective screen. The seats there are separated by a “moat” (which you’ll see a bit later) and are reserved for people like Mrs. Beltran (yes, she was actually there). So, I went down to the first row behind the moat. I talked to the guard. We were glad to see each other. Last year at Shea, he had told me that Citi Field was going to be “a separation of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.'” I didn’t believe him at the time, or at least I didn’t think that the separation was going to be all that noticeable, but he was absolutely right. Citi Field is an elitist club that was built for millionaires (as opposed to the new Yankee Stadium, which was built for multi-millionaires); the average die-hard fan is an afterthought. This night confirmed it. Once the bottom of the first got underway, I sat down and kept talking to the guard. Angel Pagan, batting leadoff for the Mets, lifted a high foul pop-up that was heading 10 rows back and a full section to my left. I jumped out of my padded seat angel_pagan.jpg
and raced up the steps and cut through an empty row and came much closer to snagging the ball than I should’ve. There weren’t ANY other fans wearing gloves. I settled back down near the guard at the bottom of the section just as Pagan hit another foul ball. This time, it was heading into my section. I raced up the stairs and came within five feet of it as it landed. The ball then bounced back toward me and sailed one foot over my glove as I jumped and reached for it. I turned around and noticed that the ball had come to a rest against the bottom of a seat several rows below me. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a shot at it, but here in Moneyville, everyone else reacted in slow-motion. I bolted back down the steps, squeezed past an old man wearing moccasins, and dove on top of the ball. I was very careful not to bump into anyone; the only person who got banged up was me. I scraped my knuckles and slammed my right knee on the ground. There was a little blood. Nothing serious. But most importantly, and as I already said, NO ONE was hurt except me. I can’t stress that enough. It was a controlled dive on my part, if that makes sense. There was another fan approaching from the opposite direction, and I knew that he was going to reach the ball first unless I laid out. So I did. And I got it. And then he dove on top of me! I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t know what he was thinking. He actually tried to grab the ball out of my hand after I clearly had sole possession of it. I mean, it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t like a “held ball” in basketball where two guys grab it at the same time. No way. I had the ball in my bare hand when his hand was at least six inches away. I used all my strength (as I lay sprawled out on the concrete) to grip the ball and prevent him from prying it out of my hand. This was my first foul ball at Citi Field, so there was no way I was going to have it taken from me. I won the battle and finally got up — my camera had gotten banged up too — and returned to my aisle seat at the back of the section. I made eye contact with the guard at the bottom. He didn’t know whether or not I’d gotten the ball, so I held it up and he shook his head in disbelief. Moments later, my phone rang. It was Clif (a former Watch With Zack apprentice; aka “goislanders4″ in the comments section) who was sitting behind the Marlins’ dugout. He’d seen the whole thing.

I caught my breath, tested my camera (it still loved me!), and inspected the ball. It had a beautiful patterned marking on one part of the cowhide. I can’t describe it or explain it. I can only show it:

27_ball4237_cool_marking.jpg

The area with the marking was slightly — almost negligibly — rougher than the rest. How could this have happened? Is it possible that the pattern was imprinted when the ball first landed on the concrete steps in the stands? That’s my best guess. One thing I learned last month in Philadelphia when I got a lesson on how to rub mud on game balls is that the subtle patterns and abnormalities in the cowhide will be accentuated when the mud is rubbed on. Still, I can’t imagine that this pattern could’ve found its way onto the ball through mere rubbing alone. (BTW, if you want to see photos of other weird markings and defects, click here.)

When right-handed batters came up after that, I moved to the other side of home plate. There was lots of room to run…

28_sterling_seats_room_to_run.jpg

…but nothing came my way.

During inning breaks and pitching changes, I explored the rest of the club. Here’s what the concession area looks like. I took this photo from the edge of the concourse that runs between the Rotunda and home plate…

29_sterling_club_concession_area.jpg

…and here’s the concourse itself, if it can even be called that:

30_sterling_club_area_behind_home_plate.jpg

It’s really more of an entrance, although it DOES connect the left and right sides of the Sterling Level clubs.

At some random point in the middle innings, I felt a stinging sensation on the outer edge of my right wrist. I took a look at it. There was a small scrape. It took me a moment to realize that it must’ve happened while I was scrambling for that foul ball. This made me happy. It was the sign of a good injury; I was having so much fun and the adrenaline had been so high that I didn’t even know where I’d been hurt. Two days have passed since this game, and I *just* noticed that I have a larger scrape on my left shin. After careful review and analysis, I have determined that it’s the result of having lunged across the concrete ledge for the half-glove trick.

Anyway, on with the tour…

Here’s the Sterling Level patio seating:

31_sterling_club_patio_seating.jpg

That’s a good foul ball spot for righties, although there’s very little room to run.

Are you wondering about the bathrooms? I sure was, and since there weren’t any signs pointing to them, I had to ask a restaurant staff member to point me to them. I didn’t whip out my camera in the men’s room. (I was tempted to photograph all the marble and fancy appliances, but that just would’ve been creepy.) Instead, I took a photo just outside the men’s room, which shows where I had to walk to get there:

32_sterling_club_view_from_bathroom.jpg

(WHY ISN’T THERE ANY METS STUFF ON THE WALLS?!?!)

Speaking of the restaurant, here it is:

33_sterling_club_restaurant.jpg

At the far end, there were a couple tables near a window:

34_sterling_club_cage_seating.jpg

Those tables overlook the visiting team’s batting cage…

35_sterling_club_cage_seating.jpg

…but don’t get too excited. This type of “sneak peek” exists in a number of other new stadiums, including Citizens Bank Park, which is better than Citi Field in every conceivable way (except for all the Phillies fans) and opened five years earlier.

Way way WAY over, on the far end of the Sterling Level (on the 1st base side of home plate), there’s a window overlooking the Mets’ batting cage:

36_tennis_ball_pitching_machine.jpg

That crazy pitching machine was filled with tennis balls, each with small colored numbers 37_numbers_on_tennis_balls.jpgprinted in several places. The Mets (and perhaps other teams as well) run a hitting drill in which these balls are fired at the batters, who try to identify the numbers on them. I tried to take a close-up photo of the balls, but my camera wasn’t good enough. (Or maybe *I* wasn’t good enough.) You can see the photo here on the right. I apologize for the blurriness, but it’s the best I could do. And let me further explain something about the balls, since it might be impossible to see it for yourself: there aren’t different numbers on each ball. Instead, each ball has the same number in several places. Does that make sense? Good. Here’s a photo of another bar, taken from the corner near the batting cage window:

38_another_sterling_club_bar.jpg

The TVs over the bar were showing both the Mets and Yankee games as well as a live match from the U.S. Open.

Here’s a photo that shows the enormity of the club. This is only about one-fifth of it:

39_sterling_club_huge.jpg

I went back to the seats and stayed there. Here’s that moat I was talking about:

40_sterling_seats_moat.jpg

Late in the game, I ran into SportsNet New York reporter Kevin Burkhardt. He and I had met briefly last season, and he already knew about me then. This time, we got to talk for a full inning. I told him some details about my baseball collection, filled him in on the charity, and gave him a glove trick demo. While we were talking, I had chances to snag two more foul balls, but I came up short. I took a bad route on one and misjudged another because of the crazy backspin (long story) but Kevin was impressed just by the way I raced after them. He gave me his email address and told me to drop him a line next time I’m going to be at Citi Field, and he said he’d interview me during the game and plug my web site and mention the charity. The Mets only have 10 more home games, and I’ll only be free/motivated to attend a couple of them, so we’ll see…

After the game (which the Mets lost), I got a ball from Scott Barry, the home plate umpire, and then I raced over to the Marlins’ dugout where I got Fredi Gonzalez to give me his lineup cards. Unfortunately, when he tossed them to me, the wind separated them, so I was only able to grab one of the two. BUT…I’m happy to report that the one I grabbed happened to be the Mets’ card.

A few minutes later, I met up with Ryan and Keith:

41_zack_keith_ryan_postgame.jpg

Ryan (wearing the Marlins gear) had snagged four balls, which was quite an accomplishment considering that his lifetime total entering the day was just two! (Hey, you have to start somewhere. I remember when I only had two baseballs. It was 1990. I was in 7th grade. I hated it. That was probably the worst year of my life. But I digress.)

Here’s a look at the lineup card:

42_lineup_card_09.08.09.jpg

Notice how the switch-hitters have an “S” drawn next to their names? And how the lefties have an “L”? And how there’s a pitcher on the Mets named “Stoner”?

(If you want to see my complete collection of lineup cards, click here.)

Just before I headed up the steps, I pulled a ball out of a special compartment of my backpack. It was the ball that had been tossed to me by Josh Thole. I’d decided when it first came into my possession that it was going to be my give-away ball. Now the time had come for me to find a worthy recipient. I noticed a young kid with a glove heading up the steps with his dad. I caught up with them. The kid’s glove was empty. I handed the ball to him and told him how I’d gotten it. He was thrilled. His father shook my hand. They both thanked me and then disappeared into the night.

SNAGGING STATS:

43_the_nine_i_kept_09.08.09.jpg• 10 balls at this game (nine pictured here because I gave one away)

• 418 balls in 50 games this season = 8.36 balls per game.

• 619 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 483 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 348 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

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

• 18 different stadiums with at least one game ball

• 4,238 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $25.03 pledged per ball

• $250.30 raised at this game

• $10,462.54 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Commemorative balls…?

If you could ask anything you wanted about commemorative baseballs, what would you want to find out? What secrets or mysteries would you want explained?

Three days from now, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be talking to someone at MLB who handles commemorative balls. I already have a list of questions, but I want to know what’s important to you; I don’t want to forget to ask anything important.

I’ll say more about this later. For now, just know that this is all connected to my next book

9/6/09 at Citi Field

This was a Watch With Zack game, and my client was a 13-year-old Mets fan named Ross. (I need to come up with a better word for “client.” It sounds impersonal. Any suggestions?) Here we are outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, waiting for the gates to open:

1_ross_zack_outside_stadium.jpg

Ross’s parents and 18-year-old brother also attended this game, but the day was all about him; it was a present for both his birthday (which was in August) and Bar Mitzvah (which he had celebrated the day before).

Earlier in the week, Ross had told me that his goal for this game was to snag 10 balls — a rather lofty goal given the fact that a) his lifetime total entering the game was 10 balls and b) his single-game record was 3 balls. I told him I’d help him snag as many balls as possible, but I warned him that it’d be really tough to reach double digits. First of all, I explained, we’d be attending a weekend game which meant there’d be a zillion little kids competing with him for balls. Secondly, it was going to be a day game which meant that there might not be batting practice. And third, the Mets were going to be facing the Cubs, a team with a HUGE fan base, which meant that our Cubs gear wouldn’t exactly make us stand out.

Ross changed his goal to six balls after that — still a significant challenge, but certainly more reasonable.

When we ran inside the stadium and got our first glimpse of the field, this is what we saw:

2_no_action_early_on_09_06_09.jpg

This was good news and bad news…

BAD: There wasn’t a player in sight.
GOOD: At least the batting cage was set up.

Pat Misch began playing catch with Josh Thole in deep right-center field. Ross and I ran out to the nearest section of seats, and I set him up in the corner spot near the entrance to the Mets’ bullpen:

3_ross_set_up_in_corner_spot.jpg

Just as Misch appeared to be finishing, I helped Ross come up with the politest possible request for the ball — when you’re all alone in the seats, the way you ask for a ball is going to be much different from when you’re buried in the crowd — but Misch held onto the ball and took it with him into the bullpen. He had to do some more throwing, and I had a good feeling that if Ross waited patiently in the corner spot, he’d get rewarded at the end. Meanwhile, the rest of Ross’s family caught up with us, and we all posed for a photo. Pictured below from left to right, you’re looking at: me, Ross, father Steve, mother Cindy, and brother Ethan:

4_zack_ross_steve_cindy_ethan.jpg

See the box that Ethan is holding? It was Frankie Rodriguez bobblehead day. I gave them my bobblehead.

Anyway, as I predicted, Misch finished his bullpen session and then threw his ball to Ross. In the following photo, you can see the ball sailing toward him:

5_ross_getting_1st_ball_of_the_day.jpg

Ross reached up and made a nice one-handed catch and then posed with his souvenir:

6_ross_with_1st_ball_of_the_day.jpg

Did you notice the logo? It was a Citi Field commemorative ball. Nice.

A few minutes later, another fan (who recognized me and knew about my glove trick) pointed out a ball that he thought I might be able to snag. Do you see it in the following photo?

7_ball4227_on_canopy.jpg

Here’s a closer look:

8_ball4227_on_canopy.jpg

Finally, there was a tangible reason for the existence of those fugly white canopies over the bullpen. The most difficult part of snagging the ball wasn’t the use of the glove trick itself. Oh no no. The challenge was waiting for all the security guards to look the other way simultaneously. They were swarming all over the place, and you can even see three of them two photos above, standing behind the railing at the top of the section. For some asinine reason (which I would SO love to discuss with the Wilpons), the security guards at Citi Field have been instructed not to let fans use ball-retrieving devices, even for balls that are trapped in random/harmless places far away from the field itself. It truly makes no sense. The way I saw it…I was going to do a service for the Mets by snagging that baseball. If not for me, one of the guards (or hapless maintenance workers) was going to have to climb down there or set up a ladder in the bullpen or find a long 9_ball4227.jpg
pole to poke the ball out. It seems like such a hassle, and you know, the Mets have already endured enough stress this season, so yes, I was going to help out, rules or no rules, by snagging the ball. I slowly made my way up the steps and headed to the side railing and peered over at the ball down below. It was nice and rubbed up with mud, and I could see that it had a Citi Field commemorative logo. My back was turned to the guards, so I waited until I got a signal that the coast was clear — or at least as clear as it was going to be. Then I lowered the glove down over the ball. Boom! It only took five seconds, and as soon as my glove touched the canopy, I heard one of the guards yelling at me from behind. He was demanding that I bring my glove back up, so I did…slowly…with the ball nestled snugly inside. He didn’t even know that I had the ball, and with all the other guards now heading over to deal with the situation, I managed to secretly slip the ball out of the glove and hide it underneath my cupped palm and stick it in my back pocket. The security supervisor then gave me a whole speech about how I’d been warned before and blah-blah-blah and this-and-that and you-should-know-better. Then he cut the string off my glove – Oh no, not my precious string! – and sent me on my way. Another fine job by Mets personnel.

The Mets pitchers were already throwing along the right field foul line, so Ross and I ran over there and I helped get Brian Stokes to throw him his 2nd ball of the day. We were standing about 10 rows back because the front row was so crowded. I had shouted at Stokes and waved my arms to get his attention, at which point he lobbed the ball right to Ross over all the fans standing in front of us. It was beautiful.

When the Mets finally started hitting, Ross and I headed back to left field. I set him up in an empty row and then moved a section over so we wouldn’t get in each other’s way. In the following photo, you can see him at the end of my row in the orange shirt:

10_ross_during_batting_practice.jpg

I think the Mets managed to hit two home runs into the seats during their entire portion of BP. Okay, fine, the wind was blowing in, but it was truly pathetic. There just wasn’t any longball action, so Ross squeezed into the front row…

11_ross_during_batting_practice.jpg

…and focused on getting balls tossed by the players, but he didn’t snag anything there. It was a tough day to be a ballhawk.

Ten minutes later, I noticed that Stokes was tossing a ball up and down near the wall in left field to tease the fans. I ran over near the spot where he was tossing it, and I ended up catching it when he threw it a little too close to the stands. He immediately recognized me as THAT GUY who gets all the balls, so he told me to give the ball to the kid on my right…which I did. (Yes, that ball counts in my collection.) Then he asked me why I need so many baseballs. brian_stokes_2009.jpgHe was very friendly — genuinely interested in the answer — so I told him that I’m raising money for charity by catching balls at games.

“Which charity?” he asked.

Pitch In For Baseball,” I told him. “They provide baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world.” He kept looking up at me so I kept talking. “I’ve been getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag this year at major league games. So far, I’ve raised over ten thousand bucks.”

He asked me if I had any info about the charity. I told him I could give him a card that would direct him to my web site where there was a link on the home page. He waved at me to indicate that I should toss one down to him, so I did, and as soon as he caught it, he looked at it and asked, “Are YOU Zack?”

“That’s me,” I told him, and then I mentioned that Heath Bell had made a pledge.

“Cool,” he said, “I’ll check it out.”

The Mets finished batting practice soon after. Unfortunately, the Cubs did not hit, but Ross and I still changed into our Cubs gear:

12_zack_ross_cubs_gear.jpg

All the Cubs pitchers were hanging out along the left field foul line, and I *do* mean hanging out. They seemed to be doing more talking than throwing. It was strange:

13_ross_eyeing_cubs_pitchers.jpg

That’s Ross on the lower right of the photo, looking out at the field. It was painfully crowded (as you can see). There was nowhere to go, and we didn’t get anything from the pitchers.

During the half-hour lull before the game, Ross and I caught up with his brother and parents. It was then that I learned more about his Bar Mitzvah. Inspired by my work with Pitch In For Baseball, Ross decided to snag baseballs to raise money for Project A.L.S. (A.L.S. stands for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”) But instead of making it a season-long project, he was raising money at this game only. During the speech at his Bar Mitzvah, he announced his plan and solicited pledges from his guests. Then, during the party, he had a
project_als.jpgposter on the wall that featured pictures of me, 2) info about ballhawking in general, and 3) additional info about his charity plan. He also had slips of paper on which people could fill out their pledges. (Wow!) He told me that he’d gotten 20 pledges, ranging from $1 per ball all the way up to $25 dollar per ball, and that when all the pledges were combined, it added up to $102 per ball. He also told me that the pledges applied for my baseballs! That meant he had already raised $408. I was more determined than ever to help him pad his totals…

Shortly before the game started, I positioned Ross in the corner spot behind the tarp and helped shout at the players for their warm-up balls. Ross did end up getting a ball thrown to him, but it didn’t come from a player. It was thrown by some trainer-type-guy — possibly the team’s “Strength and Conditioning Coordinator.” It’s hard to say. All I can tell you is that Ross made another nice catch as the kid next to him made his own attempt to snag it. Here’s an action shot, which I took just after Ross squeezed his glove around the ball:

14_ross_getting_3rd_ball_of_the_day.jpg

It was Ross’s third ball of the day, and he wasn’t finished. When Anderson Hernandez flied out to center fielder Sam Fuld to end the second inning, Ross bolted down the steps toward the Cubs’ dugout where the ball was tossed to him. There were so many other fans reaching for it, however, that it deflected off his glove and bounced back into the dugout. Ross turned around and looked at me and threw his arms up in disgust. I made a “V” shape with my middle and index fingers and pointed at my eyes, then pointed the “V” back at the field as if to say, “Turn around and be on the lookout.” I knew there was a chance that the ball could get tossed back into the crowd for a second time, and sure enough, five seconds later, it was. Guess who snagged it: my man Ross. Here’s a photo that shows the ball heading toward his open glove:

15_ross_getting_4th_ball_of_the_day.jpg

Ross had broken his single-game record, and he managed to do it at a game when one of the teams hadn’t even taken BP. Not too shabby.

By the end of the game, there were some empty seats farther down, so we moved even closer to the dugout. This was our view:

16_view_late_in_game.jpg

Ross had a chance to snag another third-out ball. He managed to squeeze into the front row and he got Derrek Lee to toss it right to him, but he got robbed by a grown man who claimed he was going to give the ball to his son. That really sucked.

After the final out, Ross and I worked our way down to the tunnel where the umpires walk off the field. I gave him a few pointers on how to ask Fieldin Culbreth, the home plate ump, for a ball. The following photo shows Culbreth pulling a ball out of his pouch, half a second before placing it in Ross’s outstretched glove:

17_ross_getting_5th_ball_of_the_day.jpg

This ball (along with Ross’s first ball from Misch and the third-out ball from Fuld) had the Citi Field commemorative logo. It also gave Ross FIVE balls on the day.

Could he reach his goal of six? There was one final chance.

Ross and I raced back to the Cubs’ dugout, just as the relievers were walking across the field from the bullpen. At the last second, John Grabow threw a ball right to him, but Ross was robbed again, this time by a middle-aged woman who didn’t have a glove or a kid! What the hell?! It was a frustrating end to an otherwise great day. Overall, Ross was pretty happy with his total of five balls — so happy that he didn’t bother to change out of his Cubs gear for our post-game photo:

18_ross_zack_postgame.jpg

(No, that’s not a man-boob on me, I swear. It’s just the shirt. Really. And also, not that it matters, but the Mets beat the Cubs, 4-2.)

SNAGGING STATS:

• 2 balls at this game

• 408 balls in 49 games this season = 8.33 balls per game.

• 618 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 482 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 347 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 19 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

• 4,228 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 123 donors (click here if you’re thinking about making a pledge)

• $25.03 pledged per ball

• $50.06 raised at this game

• $10,212.24 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Ross finally changed out of this Cubs gear. Then he and I played catch in the parking lot:

19_zack_ross_playing_catch.jpg

His parents drove me back to the Upper West Side, and the five of us had dinner at one of my all-time favorite restaurants: a pizza/burger joint called Big Nick’s, where the menu is 27 pages. Good times…

Ball No. 4,200

Remember when I snagged 11 balls on 8/17/09 at Citi Field?

My final ball that day happened to be the 4,200th ball I’d ever snagged. It was tossed to me after the game by some random guy in the Giants’ dugout. I had no idea who he was, so I took two photos of him (see below), hoping that someone might be able to identify him:

ball4200_provider.jpg

The day after I posted these photos, someone left a comment and said that the mystery man looked like Bill Belichick. Other people said he looked like Scott Boras and Andy Richter, and there were other names jokingly tossed out there as well, but the best theory was that the guy was Mario Alioto, the Giants’ Senior Vice President of Corporate Marketing.

I was nearly convinced that that’s who it was until a friend of mine in San Francisco (who knows almost everything about the Giants) insisted that it wasn’t Alioto. He didn’t know who it was, though, and it seemed that my quest had hit a dead end.

Fast-forward two weeks…

The date was September 2nd, and I received the following email:

From: someone@aol.com
To: Zack Hample
Sent: Wed, Sep 02, 2009 4:33 am
Subject: Re: Here’s who gave you your 4200 baseball

>Hello Zack-
>
> Saw your blog page and picture related to your attempt to identify the individual from the SF Giants who gave you ball # 4200. If you are still in need of the info, he is Jim Moorehead, Senior Director of Media Relations with the SF Giants.
>
> Take care.

It just so happened that I’d been in touch with Moorehead earlier in the season (I’d contacted him to request a couple interviews for my book) so I fired off the following email:

From: Zack Hample
To: Moorehead, Jim
Sent: Wed, Sep 02, 2009 10:01 pm
Subject: random baseball mystery

Hey, Jim-

We were in touch a few months ago. I’m the guy who’s writing a book about baseballs, and I’m also a baseball collector.

This is going to seem totally random and bizarre, but I have to ask…

On August 17th, shortly after the final out of the Giants game at Citi Field, I happened to get a ball tossed to me by someone in the Giants’ dugout. The person who gave it to me wasn’t in uniform, so I had no idea who it was. He lingered on the top step for a minute, so I pulled out my camera and took a picture of him, which I later posted on my blog.

Long story short: I just got an email from a diehard Giants fan who saw the photo and insists that it’s you.

Could this coincidence be true?
Would you like to see the photo?

Thanks for your time (and, perhaps, for the ball as well).

-Zack

Hours later, I got this response:

From: Moorehead, Jim
To:
Zack Hample

Sent: Thu, Sep 03, 2009 2:50 am
Subject: Re: random baseball mystery

That was me. :)

Ha-HAAAAA!!!
Mystery solved.
Case closed
The End.

(Thanks to everyone who helped out with this.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 306 other followers