Remember when I mentioned at the end of my last entry that I had some big book-related news? And do you remember the entry I posted nearly five years ago about how much I’d always dreamt of visiting the Rawlings baseball factory in Costa Rica.
Hello from Costa Rica.
I visited the factory today.
Rawlings has given me permission to share two photos here on my blog. This is the first. It shows the outside of the factory from the parking lot…
…and this is the second. It shows me stitching a baseball (very slowly and badly, I must admit):
Pretty cool, huh?
I took more than 100 photographs at the factory, but as I mentioned above, these are the only two that I can share for now. I’m going to try to get permission to use some in my book, and then at some point down the road, I’ll try to get permission to share even more on the blog.
Speaking of roads, here are two more photos that I don’t need permission to share. I took them during the two-hour drive from the hotel in San Jose to the factory in Turrialba. This is the first…
…and this is the second:
That’s not much of a guardrail, but anyway, these photos should give you an idea of what the trip was like — or at least the most rural/scenic parts of it.
Finally, in case you’re wondering, the factory is absolutely-totally-thoroughly NOT open to the public — it’s not even open to media, for the most part — so don’t bother trying to visit. It’s ringed with barbed wire and guarded 24 hours a day, and I had to show my passport at the entrance. Seriously, it’s no joke. The reason why I got to visit is that a) I’m writing a book about baseballs and b) a high-ranking MLB executive gave Rawlings his approval.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to write a monster chapter about it…
It’s only been 10 days since my last Gustavo Watch, but what can I say? The guy keeps pitching badly — and last night I had the pleasure of watching his mini-meltdown on TV.
QUESTION: What do you do when you’re craving baseball, but you have a ton of work and a huge family dinner planned?
ANSWER: You go to batting practice and then leave.
That’s what I did yesterday at Citi Field (and yes, I still had to buy a ticket just like everybody else).
Here I am with some of the usual supects before the stadium opened:
In the photo above, you’re looking at:
1) Greg Barasch, who recently joined the 1,000-ball club.
2) Gary, who has some pretty impressive stats of his own.
3) Brian (aka “puck collector”) who’s not too far behind Gary.
6) Mike from Denver. I had just met him through a mutual friend: Robert Harmon of 762 fame.
7) Brian’s father Wayne (aka “father puck”) who’s holding up his copy of the new Sports Illustrated article about me.
When the gates opened at 4:40pm, Brian won the race to the left field seats and narrowly beat me out for the first ball of the day. It was a BP homer that landed in the 3rd row, and he was all over it.
Less than a minute later, I got Elmer Dessens to throw me a ball in left-center field, and moments after that, I got another tossed to me by Mike Pelfrey. That second ball was pretty special:
As you can see, it had a Citi Field commemorative logo from last year’s inaugural season of the stadium. It’s nice to see that these balls are still floating around. (Here’s what a good one looks like, and while we’re at it, here’s my entire collection of commemorative balls.)
After the seats had filled up a bit, I saw Chris Carter toss a ball to a little kid in straight-away left field — and wouldn’t you know it? The kid dropped it. I wandered closer as Carter jogged over to retrieve the ball, and when he gave it another toss, it happened to sail over the kid’s head and come right to me. I made the easy catch and immediately handed it to him. That was my third ball of the day. (I count balls even if I give them away.)
A bunch of lefties started hitting, so I headed over to the right field side. I wasn’t too optimistic because of the overhang of the second deck…
…but I gave it a shot anyway. As I headed down to the corner spot near the bullpen, a fan dressed in Rockies gear recognized me and introduced himself as Alex. He reads this blog. He was wearing a glove. And he pointed out a ball that was trapped nearby in a narrow gap behind the outfield wall. Check it out:
I asked Alex if he was gonna go for it, but he didn’t have a ball-retrieving device, so basically, it was all mine. All I had to do was a) use my glove trick to knock the ball closer and b) not get caught by stadium security.
While I was contemplating my next move, Hisanori Takahashi picked up a ball in right field. Once again, I asked Alex if he wanted to go for it — to call out to Takahashi and ask for it — but he was like, “Nah, that’s all you.”
So…I called out to Takahashi in Japanese, and he threw it to me.
Then I took another peek at the ball in the gap:
There was a gutter with a small metal flap jutting out at the bottom. I was going to have to be careful not to get my string tangled around it.
Long story short: I knocked the ball closer on the first try and reeled it in without incident.
I thanked Alex for being so generous, and before I took off, we got a photo together:
Alex is a fan of both the Rockies and Yankees, and he writes a blog called “Purple & Pinstripes.” Here’s the link. Check it out if you get a chance.
At around 5:30pm, I changed into some Rockies gear of my own. Remember when I got that free jersey on 8/26/09 at Coors Field? Well, it was time for the jersey to make its Citi Field debut:
The jersey didn’t draw as much attention as I’d hoped for, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Once the Rockies started hitting, Ubaldo Jimenez tossed me a ball in left-center, and I later got one in the same spot from Jorge De La Rosa. The latter wasn’t thrown specifically to me. It was tossed high in the air, and when I came down with it, I noticed that there was a really little kid standing nearby, so I handed him the ball.
At one point toward the end of BP, I had another chance to use my glove trick. This time the ball was sitting one foot out from the wall on the warning track in left field. I looked around, wondered if security was watching, and although I didn’t see a direct threat, I decided against going for it. Thirty seconds later, Gary hurried over with his cup trick and began lowering it over the railing. I got my camera out to take a photo of him reeling it in, but instead I ended up with a photo of this:
Stadium security (wearing maroon) appeared out of nowhere and confiscated the cup trick from Gary (wearing the black Rockies T-shirt). They didn’t give him a warning or anything. They just took it, leaving me to wonder what would have happened if they’d caught me instead. A cup is relatively easy to replace, but a well-worn baseball glove? Not so much.
In case you’ve lost count, I was now up to seven balls for the day. It would’ve been eight, but Gary had actually robbed me of a home run in right field during the Mets’ portion of BP. I’m not complaining — just reporting. He had a better angle on it and reached out right in front of my glove for the catch. You want to know how severely he robbed me? When I squeeze my glove to make the catch, I ended up squeezing his glove in the process. I basically caught his glove as he caught the ball. Lots of people teased me about it — Greg had seen the whole thing play out from right-center — but that’s just how it goes. You can’t win ‘em all, and as I often say, what makes it fun is that it’s a competition.
I raced over to the Rockies’ dugout at the end of BP and got two baseballs within a 60-second span. The first was tossed by hitting coach Don Baylor, and the second came from bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter.
Of the seven balls that I kept, four looked pretty cool:
Did you notice that the ball on the upper left is lopsided? And that the ball on the bottom right has a crooked logo? I love that kind of stuff.
It was tempting to stay and go for double digits, but quite simply, I *had* to head home.
This was my view of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda on my way out:
It bothered me that just inside the entrance, Jackie Robinson’s name was covered by a bunch of dirty floor mats, but hey, that’s the Mets for you.
The area outside the stadium was bustling, and let me tell you, it felt weird to be out there right before game time.
I’m not really sure what to say about the following photo other than the fact that I took it before heading to the subway:
What was that dog looking at, you ask?
Poor dog. Dressed up in Mets gear. How humiliating.
The dog’s owner, it should be noted, was making a LOT of money. Just about everyone (including me) put a dollar in the jug.
I took one final photo of Citi Field from the platform of John Rocker’s favorite train:
And that was it.
• 9 balls at this game (7 pictured on the right because I gave two away)
• 220 balls in 24 games this season = 9.2 balls per game.
• 653 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 494 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 355 consecutive Mets home games with at least one ball
• 17 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least two balls
• 4,578 total balls
• 45 donors (click here to learn more)
• $6.49 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $58.41 raised at this game
• $1,427.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
On August 3rd, a reporter from Sports Illustrated spent five hours with me at Camden Yards.
Yesterday afternoon, I received the following email:
As a big fan of yours, and loyal blog reader, I think it is time for another Gustavo Watch. My favorite team is the Milwaukee Brewers, who are currently DOMINATING Gustavo. Just wanted to let you know that he was getting roughed up.
Wisconsin’s Second Best Ballhawk
After reading this email, I checked the box score, and sure enough, Gustavo Chacin was once again being victimized by the Hample Jinx – his punishment for having stolen a baseball from me on 8/1/06 at Yankee Stadium.
When the dust settled, Gustavo had surrendered a walk, three hits, and three earned runs in just one inning. Those runs, it should be noted, all scored at once; Casey McGehee hit a three-run homer off him — the only longball of the game. This raised his already pathetic ERA from 4.76 to 5.52.
This was one of the most fun/hectic days I’ve ever experienced at a major league stadium.
For starters, it was a Watch With Zack game; my client was a 23-year-old from Indiana named Justin. We were joined by Phil Taylor, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who’s working on a big story about ballhawking. And that’s not all. There was also a two-person film crew following my every move and getting footage for a separate documentary about collectors. (I blogged about the filmmakers two months ago when they first interviewed me.)
See what I mean?
Fun. And hectic.
Let me point out that Justin didn’t mind the media being there. In fact, he was looking forward to getting a behind-the-scenes look at how it would all go down. He had booked this game a month in advance, so when the media contacted me and asked if they could tag along with me at a game, I ran it by Justin first to make sure it was okay. If he had said no, then I would’ve picked a different game to do the interviews.
Anyway, let’s get to the first photo of the day. It shows some friends, acquaintances, and “key players” outside the gate:
From left to right, you’re looking at:
1) Phil Taylor from Sports Illustrated.
3) Justin, my Watch With Zack client.
4) An aspiring ballhawk named Andrew. He and I have now run into each other three times since last season, all at different stadiums.
5) Avi Miller (check out those orange socks) who writes an outstanding Orioles blog.
6) Rick Gold, a fellow ballhawk, who began the day with 937 lifetime balls.
7) My good friend Ben Hill, who writes a blog about minor league baseball’s wackiest promotions. He lives in NYC and traveled to Baltimore with me for the day. He’s gone to several games with me in the past, including this one three years ago in Philly.
I saw some other familiar faces outside the gate and made a couple new friends during the hour that we were all standing around. By the time the stadium opened, there were a ton of people. Everyone was really friendly, we had a lot of laughs, and I remember thinking, “Phil picked a good day to join me.” I mean…most of the people I see/meet at games are friendly, but it just felt like love was in the air a bit more than usual. During the five hours that Phil spent with me, several fans asked for my autograph, one guy asked to have his six-year-old son’s picture taken with me, and two female ushers greeted me with hugs. Bottom line: ballhawking has gotten some bad press in recent seasons, so I’m hopeful that Phil got a positive impression of it based on our time together.
Five minutes before the stadium opened, the filmmakers showed up. I didn’t take a photo of them at that point because I was distracted. I was being interviewed by Phil, and I was giving Justin a few pointers, and I was focused on being the first one in so I could try to beat everyone else to the left field seats. Moments after I got there, I took the following photo:
Justin, wearing the orange Orioles shirt that he’d received on the way in, was already in position 13 rows back. Rick, wearing the black shirt, was walking through my row.
BP was dead at the start. An usher had already combed through the seats to pick up the loose baseballs, and the Orioles weren’t hitting many home runs. It’s too bad there wasn’t more action because the media was officially on the scene:
That’s Paul with the big camera and Meredith with the smaller one (and of course that’s Phil from Sports Illustrated sitting between them).
After ten minutes or so, I raced one full section to my left and snagged a home run ball that landed in the seats, and on the very next pitch, I sprinted back to my original spot and caught a homer on the fly. That felt good. I was on the board. I’d even used a bit of athleticism. Phil had gotten a good view. Paul and Meredith had gotten good footage.
What about Justin, you ask?
Two days earlier, when I had spoken to him on the phone, he told me that he wanted ME to break double digits. He also told me that he didn’t want any of the balls that I caught, and that he mainly wanted to learn by watching me in action. But still, he wanted to snag some baseballs on his own, and I did my best to help him.
Unfortunately, the Orioles stopped hitting at 5:16pm — roughly 15 minutes ahead of schedule — so that took a major chunk of opportunities away from us. It did, however, give us a chance to wander into foul territory and focus on getting balls from the Angels.
Justin threw on a maroon Angels T-shirt and headed to the corner spot near the 3rd base camera well:
When the Angels started throwing, Justin moved down the foul line into shallow left field, and as a result, I happened to get the next two balls. Mike Napoli tossed me one. The other was a random overthrow that skipped off the rubberized warning track and bounced into the empty front row.
Paul and Meredith followed me everywhere and kept the cameras rolling:
I helped Justin pick the best possible spot along the foul line…
…and played a role in getting Jered Weaver to toss him a ball. This was only the third ball that he’d ever snagged at a major league game, and it was the first one that had been given to him by a player.
Moments later, another errant throw bounced off the warning track and ended up in the seats, this time ten rows back, so I scampered up the steps and grabbed it.
The Angels had started hitting by that point, and I noticed that a ball had rolled onto the warning track in straight-away left field. I hurried over, used my glove trick to reel it in, and immediately handed the ball to the smallest kid with a glove.
That was my sixth ball of the day, and I got Scott Kazmir to throw me No. 7 in left-center. I was about eight rows back when I got his attention. He lobbed it perfectly, right over everyone and into my glove. (After batting practice, I gave that ball away, too.)
That’s when things slowed way down. The stands got really crowded, and I ran into some bad luck. For example, I was standing in one spot for about ten minutes, and there was NO action there. Eventually, I ran down to the front row to chase a ball that ended up falling short, and while I was there, Howie Kendrick hit a home run that landed right where I’d been. But hey, that’s just how it goes. I realize that I’d gotten lucky earlier with the two overthrows that bounced near me in the seats.
Justin was in a good spot, or at least a spot that’s normally good, but the balls just weren’t flying our way, and the Angels abruptly stopped hitting at 6:08pm. The visiting team’s batting practice normally goes until 6:20-ish, so that sucked. On the plus side, though, the shortened session of BP gave us extra time to eat and talk to Phil. (Justin got interviewed, too.) Paul and Meredith suggested eating at one of the tables near the concession stand. That certainly would have been easier because they had to deal with their equipment in addition to their food and beverages, but I insisted on heading back to the seats — and it’s a good thing. Halfway through the meal/interview, I noticed that Orlando Mercado and Mike Napoli were getting close to finishing playing catch down the left field line.
“Run over there,” I told Justin with a mouthful of pepperoni pizza. “You’ll probably get that ball, but you have to hurry.”
He looked over in the direction where I was pointing, shrugged, and took another bite of his chicken strips.
“Fine,” I said, “I’ll go over there.”
I threw my pizza back in the box, wiped my hand on my shirt, grabbed my glove…and returned 90 seconds later with the ball. Mercado, thankfully, had been the one who ended up with it. I’m pretty sure that Napoli would’ve recognized me and thrown it to someone else.
Shortly before game time, I got Torii Hunter’s autograph on my ticket:
(I tried to get him to use my blue Sharpie, but he was moving quickly with his own black marker.)
Justin and Phil and I spent most of the game in the standing-room-only section in right field:
There were lots of lefties in the lineup, so it was a good spot, but of course there wasn’t any action. The closest we came was when Luke Scott blasted a home run to right-center field, which, according to Hit Tracker, traveled 447 feet. The ball cleared the seats and landed in the narrow walkway at the very back of the section. I ran in that direction from the standing room…
…but got trapped behind a couple other fans approximately 15 feet from the spot where it landed.
Paul and Meredith had already taken off by that point, and Phil left soon after. He felt like he’d gotten enough info/material, and he told me he’d get in touch if he had any follow-up questions. His article, by the way, will either run this season as the pennant races are heating up or it’ll run next spring in the “baseball preview” issue. Phil told me that he had interviewed some other ballhawks (he wouldn’t say who) and that they all told him that he had to talk to me. (That was nice to hear.) I mentioned a lot of names to him, so there’s really no telling who else he’ll end up interviewing.
Anyway, late in the game, Justin and I went for foul balls. This was our view for several left-handed batters:
Then, in the top of the ninth, I helped him sneak down to the umpires’ tunnel behind the plate. He took the right side of the tunnel, and I hung back a few rows on the left. In the following photo, the red arrow is pointing to him:
After the final out, home plate ump Jerry Layne placed a ball in Justin’s glove…
…and then he handed me a ball, too, just before he disappeared.
That was it. Justin doubled his lifetime total by snagging two baseballs, and I finished with nine — not terrible considering that the teams skipped half an hour’s worth of batting practice.
Final score: Orioles 6, Angels 3. (Nice debut for Buck Showalter as the Birds’ new skipper.)
In case you were wondering, my friend Ben Hill was nowhere near me during the game. He met up with his own friend, and they sat together behind the Orioles’ dugout. Ben has finally achieved full-time status at MLBAM (Major League Baseball Advanced Media), so he now has a pass that gets him into any non-sold-out major league game for free, and once he’s inside, he can sit wherever he wants. Pretty cool, huh? If only he had more free time to take advantage.
Ben took one final photo of me and Justin after the game:
Justin and I then said our goodbyes. Ben and I then made the three-hour drive back to New York City.
• 9 balls at this game (7 pictured on the right because I gave two away)
• 211 balls in 23 games this season = 9.2 balls per game.
• 652 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 199 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 24 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls (click here to see all the stats and records from my Watch With Zack games)
• 4,569 total balls
• 45 donors (click here to learn more)
• $6.49 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $58.41 raised at this game
• $1,369.39 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
It was another day of A-Rod hysteria:
Perhaps “hysteria” is an exaggeration. “Anticipation” and “excitement” and “teenage girls hoping to get on TV” would be a better way to describe the atmosphere.
When the stadium opened at 5pm, I raced out to the right field seats. My girlfriend Jona followed close behind with my camera. Here’s a shot of the section from afar. I’m standing in the last row (see the red arrow) wearing a black T-shirt and khaki green cargo shorts:
When A-Rod stepped into the cage, I moved up a few rows and quickly got my first chance of the day when he launched a deep fly ball in my direction. I could tell right away that it was going to fall a bit short, so I climbed over a row of seats…
…and when the ball predictably tailed to my left, I began to drift with it. If you look really closely at the following photo, you can see the ball in mid-air:
One second later, I reached to my left and made an uncontested, one-handed catch:
For the first 10 minutes, the seats remained fairly empty. I took advantage by running all over the place…
…but it didn’t always pay off. Here’s a photo that shows me tracking a home run ball…
…and here’s another that shows me NOT catching it:
I always seem to make great facial expressions when I narrowly miss baseballs. In my own defense, I missed this one because it sailed five feet over my head. Anyway, I got a chance to redeem myself moments later. A-Rod was back in the cage, and I was in position:
He launched another home run ball, this time to my right, and I took off after it:
Once I got close to the spot where I knew it was going to land, I slowed down a bit and started drifting:
I reached the spot:
The ball was heading right for me, but I could tell that it was going to sail a few feet over my head. There was no time to climb up on a seat. Did I have enough vertical leap in me to make the catch?
Here’s your answer:
Here I am just after landing with the ball…
…and here I am holding it up for Jona (who deserves received many hugs and kisses for taking these outstanding photos):
Five minutes later, Curtis Granderson really got a hold of one and sent the ball flying deep to my left. The sun was in my eyes, so as I started moving through my row, I held up my right hand to reduce the glare:
As soon as I passed the Modell’s sign, I climbed over a row of seats:
The ball landed, and I climbed over another row:
And then I climbed over another:
That’s when I grabbed it. (Did you notice that the guy in the red shirt never even moved? All he did was turn around to see where the ball landed.)
Moments later, I caught another A-Rod homer on the fly. It’s too bad that Jona didn’t get a photo of this one because I got clobbered while making the catch. I was in the middle of a cluster of people, and when I jumped for the ball, another guy crashed into me, elbowed me in the back of the head, caused my hat to go flying, and nearly made me tumble forward over a row of seats. I don’t think he meant to hurt me. I just think that some people are out of control and have no sense of their surroundings.
I’d snagged four baseballs in the first 15 minutes. Things were looking good. I thought I was on my way to double digits for the first time ever at the new Yankee Stadium — but then things slowed way down.
I still kept running all over the place…
…and climbing over seats…
…but I couldn’t get close to any other balls. I was still stuck at four when the Yankees’ portion of BP ended.
I threw on my Blue Jays cap and headed over to the left field side:
I don’t know what caused it, but the Blue Jays (who lead the majors in home runs) experienced a severe power outage. There was hardly any action in the stands, and as a result, I only snagged two more baseballs. The first was tossed by Jesse Litsch (who recognized me from Toronto). It was my 200th ball of the season. Here it is:
The second ball was a John McDonald homer. I grabbed it when it landed in the seats and handed it to the nearest kid.
Simple stuff. Six balls. Not terrible. Not great. But that’s to be expected at Yankee Stadium.
Did you know that there’s a butcher inside the stadium? And did you know that Jona is generally repulsed by meat? This photo pretty much tells the story…
…although I should point out that the three balls I’m holding were my A-Rod homers.
Could A-Rod break out of his slump and hit one to me during the game?! Jona asked me what I thought my chances were of catching No. 600. This was my reaction:
All I can say is that Yankee Stadium stresses me out. One thing, however, that did temporarily improve my mood was the free chocolate samples that we got from a Dylan’s candy stand inside Gate Two:
In the photo above, it looks so empty and peaceful, doesn’t it?
One word: HA!!
This was my view during the bottom of the first inning with A-Rod on deck:
(Historical tidbit No. 1: This was the 31st anniversary of Thurmon Munson’s death.)
Jona and I had seats in the middle of a row. Early in the game, we were able to grab a couple open seats next to the stairs, but in the middle innings, every single end-seat was taken. I had to make a choice. The options were:
1) Move into the middle of the row and basically have no chance to move if A-Rod happened to go yard.
2) Leave the section and try my luck somewhere else.
We left the section. I couldn’t even bear the thought of sitting in the middle of a row. I knew I would’ve felt like a caged animal, so we wandered for a few innings and ended up in the bleachers.
Why does Yankee Stadium stress me out? Why haven’t I bothered to make a serious attempt at catching No. 600 in New York?
This is why:
The strategy for catching a milestone home run ball at Yankee Stadium is simple: be exactly where the ball is going to be hit. There is NO room to move. Security checks tickets at every section. And even if you can somehow sneak into a section, there aren’t any empty seats. It’s a ballhawking nightmare.
When A-Rod grounded out to end the 7th inning, some people foolishly assumed that he wouldn’t come up again — and they left. Jona and I took advantage and moved back to our original section. Look at all this room I had:
(At Yankee Stadium, that’s a lot of room.)
The Yankees got two guys on base in the eighth, which meant that A-Rod would be due to bat fourth in the bottom of the ninth…and…thanks to a one-out homer by Nick Swisher in the final frame, A-Rod did indeed get one last turn to hit.
It would have been nice if Mister Rodriguez hit a line drive right to me because I almost definitely would’ve caught it. Obviously, there’s no way to guard against someone in the front row throwing their glove up at the ball and deflecting it, but putting freak plays aside, I really do believe that if A-Rod had hit the ball anywhere within, let’s say…five feet of me, I would have caught it. But instead, he grounded out to shortstop to end the game.
Final score: Blue Jays 8, Yankees 6.
(Historical tidbit No. 2: During this game, the Blue Jays tied an American League record by hitting six doubles in one inning.)
I raced over to the Jays’ bullpen and got one final ball from bullpen coach Rick Langford. I didn’t take my camera or backpack with me — Jona was hanging onto all my stuff — so when she finally made her way over, this was the only photo that she got:
It shows Langford and Janssen and the bullpen catcher walking across the field toward the dugout.
(Jona would like you to know that she took that last photo with her brand new iPhone 4, which she loves.)
• 7 balls at this game (6 pictured on the right because I gave one away)
• 202 balls in 22 games this season = 9.2 balls per game.
• 651 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 493 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 139 consecutive Yankee home games with at least one ball
• 10 consecutive games at the new Yankee Stadium with at least two balls
• 7 consecutive seasons with at least 200 balls
• 4,560 total balls
• 45 donors (click here to learn more)
• $6.49 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $45.43 raised at this game
• $1,310.98 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
I was mentioned in the July 2010 issue of Sports Illustrated Kids, and I just tracked down a copy.