7/2/11 at Nationals Park
I’m such an optimist. The Nationals were hosting the Pirates for a single-admission doubleheader, and I assumed there’d be batting practice — or rather, I hoped there’d be batting practice. The weather was perfect, and the first game was scheduled to begin at 3:35pm. Nationals Park opens two and a half hour early. Batting practice at 1:05pm? Okay, fine, I thought there was at least a decent chance that there’d be batting practice. But no. There was none. This was the story of my first hour inside the stadium:
Yeah, it was THAT kind of day, but I still got off to a good start. When all the Nationals pitchers came out to get loose, I got three balls in the second deck in right field. The first was thrown to me in the front row by Tyler Clippard, the second came from Jason Marquis one section to the right, and for the third, I moved four rows back and got Collin Balester to chuck it over several other fans. I gave the third ball to a girl, and for the record, there were several other balls that got thrown into the crowd, so it’s not like I was hogging them all for myself.
When the rest of the stadium opened at 2:00pm, I made my way down to the seats along the foul line in very shallow right field. Ryan Zimmerman was doing some fielding drills with a guy named “GARBER.” Here they are from afar:
Garber wasn’t on the active roster, nor was he listed among the coaches, but I did find him in the “Staff” section on my cheat-sheet. See for yourself:
I’d always wondered how to get into the very front row along the foul lines, and I finally learned the answer: the Nationals are fan-friendly. The ushers allow everyone to go down there until about 20 minutes before game time. Nice, huh? (If only the Mets would extend the same courtesy to fans at Citi Field…)
Fifteen minutes before Game 1 got underway, a bunch of Pirates began throwing in shallow left field. In the photo below, the red arrow is pointing at Brandon Wood because…
…he tossed me the ball when he finished. (If you don’t know who Brandon Wood is, or if you think he’s just another scrubby infielder, check out his minor league stats and look how old he was when he had that monster season in 2005. I was writing for minorleaguebaseball.com at the time, and I remember just how amazing it was to see him dominating. Even though he’s never done much at the major league level, he’s still just 26 years old. That’s why the Angels kept him around for such a long time and why the Pirates are taking a chance on him now. You can’t ignore potential like that. Some folks are late bloomers, and I’m hoping he’s one of them.)
Take another look at the photo above. Do you see the guy who’s out on the field with the Pirates and NOT wearing a uniform? I’m going to assume that he’s the team’s “Strength & Conditioning Coordinator,” so if I’m right, that’d mean his name is Chris Sobonya. (Check out the bottom left name/title on my cheat-sheet.) Why am I telling you this? Because (a) the Pirates left one ball on the field, (b) Sobonya picked it up and took it back to the dugout, and (c) I hurried over and got him to toss it to me just as he was heading down the steps.
This was my view when the game started:
Why was I sitting there? Duh. To get the infield warm-up ball from Pirates first base coach Mark Strittmatter. He tosses them into the crowd almost every inning, and sure enough, like clockwork, just before the bottom of the 1st got underway, he hooked me up.
That’s when it occurred to me that I had a chance to do something special — very very extremely special: hitting double digits on a day without batting practice. In the 22 years that I’ve been snagging baseballs, I’d only managed to do it once before. It happened on July 26, 2001 when I somehow managed to get 12 balls on a BP-less day at Shea Stadium. (Oh, how I miss Shea. Is it too late to bring it back?)
Now, I had a great seat in foul-ball territory behind home plate, but I decided to stay at the dugout for another half-inning. I still needed four more balls to reach double digits, and I probably wasn’t going to catch four fouls, so I had to work other angles. In this case, I was hoping for a 3rd-out ball, and I got my chance when Ryan Zimmerman lofted a harmless, inning-ending fly ball to right fielder Garrett Jones. After Jones caught it, he threw it to 2nd baseman Neil Walker, and as Walker jogged in, he tossed it to me in the front row. So easy. Almost embarrassingly easy. I was the *only* fan behind the dugout who was standing up and asking for it. But you know what? I don’t care that it was easy. In fact, I loved it. Ballhawking has been such an unpleasant struggle in New York that I was glad to score a few uncontested snags here in D.C.
I had seven balls when I headed up to my real seat. This was my view of the field…
…and this was my view to my right:
In the photo above, do you see the beefy guy with his hands on his knees? He’s wearing jeans and sunglasses. That’s Jeff Garber — the dude who was working with Ryan Zimmerman on his defense. How cool is that? I got to talk to him on and off throughout the game and heard about his career in pro ball. He played in the minors for eight years, managed for a bit, and now roams throughout the Nationals’ organization, working with players on their defense. Zimmerman, fresh off a stint on the disabled list, had his mechanics get a bit out of whack, so Garber is helping to get him straightened out.
I asked Garber about Bryce Harper.
“Good kid,” he said. “He’s the best 18-year-old hitter I’ve ever seen.”
Talking to him was the highlight of my day, and after I mentioned my own baseball story, he was rooting for to me catch a foul ball. Nothing came near me in Game 1 — Final score: Pirates 5, Nationals 3 — but after the final out, I ran into a kid named Joey who’s been reading this blog for years. Here were are, holding the balls that we both got from home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth:
Joey recently created a profile on MyGameBalls.com, and you can check it out here. This was his first major league game of the season — and the third major league ball he’d ever snagged. He was really glad to meet me, and you know what? I was glad to meet him. It’s always cool to talk to people who share my passion.
When Game 2 got underway, I made another attempt to snag a 3rd-out ball by sitting here:
With two outs in the top of the 2nd, Josh Harrison bounced a soft grounder into foul territory. The ball caromed gently off the protective fence in front of the dugout and trickled near Pirates 3rd base coach Luis Silverio. Totally prepared for this situation, I hurried down the steps and waved my arms and called his name and got him to toss it to me.
The ball was particularly rubbed up and had two distinct marks on it — a smudge from the bat and a dirty scuff from being pounded into the ground. Check it out:
I just needed one more ball, and I came really close to snagging a Garrett Jones foul in the sixth inning. I was back in my regular seat, and let’s just say that if my ankle weren’t screwed up, I would’ve had it. I was pretty bummed after that. Not only did I lose my chance to hit double digits, but I missed out on what would’ve been my first (unassisted) foul ball ever at this stadium.
Jona was with me (and deserves an award for sitting through 18 innings of baseball in one day). Our seats were right next to the fancy club section where fans get all their food for free. Not only is there a huge indoor buffet, but “vendors” periodically walk through the seats and hand out various snacks and drinks. For free. (That’s how it was when my friend Paul Avrin treated me to a ticket in the Legends area on 5/23/11 at Yankee Stadium.) In the bottom of the 7th inning, one of these vendors gave away a bunch of ice cream bars to some fans in our less-fancy section. For free. He didn’t have any more by the time he made it over to where we were sitting, but I held out my hands anyway to show him that I wanted one.
“Hang tight,” he said. “I’ll come back with some more.”
In the top of the 8th, he kept his promise and gave one to each of us:
Ice cream is great. Free ice cream is super-great, and in this case, it actually made me feel better in the wake of my foul ball failure. (For the record, I didn’t drop the foul ball; I was simply slow getting out of my seat because I had readjusted my ASO brace, and I hadn’t quite finished retying my left sneaker. Okay?) Still, I wasn’t satisfied to just sit around with my free dessert, so when I got down to the last few bites, I got up out of my seat, and as I headed to the empty cross-aisle, I said to Jona, “I’m going to catch a foul ball while eating my ice cream.”
This was the result:
I kid you not. After making that declaration, the very next batter was Garrett Jones, and he sent several foul balls flying back my way. One of them was a towering pop-up that was heading roughly 40 feet to my left. At first I thought the ball was going to sail over my section and land in the suite seats just above, but I still scampered/limped toward it, just in case. The ball had a ton of backspin on it, which conveniently caused it to land right in the cross-aisle; I was still on the move when I reached out and caught it on the fly with my glove.
After the final out of Game 2 — final score: Washington 4, Pittsburgh 3 — the Nationals decided to commemorate my brilliant 10-ball effort with fireworks:
In the photo above, the stadium looks nice and empty, but don’t be fooled. It was still packed:
The paid attendance for the doubleheader was 39,638, which is rather insane for Nationals Park. If I’d known that the crowd was going to be so large and that there wasn’t going to be batting practice, there’s no way I would’ve gone.
• 10 baseballs at this game (eight pictured on the right because I gave two away, and yes, when it comes to my own stats, a single-admission doubleheader is one “game.” The rainout that I attended on 4/12/11 at Yankee Stadium also counts as a “game,” so it all evens out. Basically, each trip to a stadium counts as a game, regardless of how many innings are played.)
• 498 balls in 61 games this season = 8.16 balls per game.
• 722 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 247 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 155 lifetime games with ten or more balls
• 136 lifetime foul balls during games (not counting balls that get tossed into the crowd)
• 5,160 total balls
(I’m raising money again this season for Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. Click here to learn more.)
• 56 donors
• $7.12 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $71.20 raised at this game
• $3,545.76 raised this season