2011 Home Run Derby
My day started with a short walk to the Phoenix Convention Center. That’s where FanFest was taking place, and it was scheduled to open at 9:00am. I got there 15 minutes early. There was already a huge line…
…but I didn’t have to wait in it. Why, you ask? Three words: State Farm, baby!
As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, State Farm hooked me up with an all-expenses paid trip to the Home Run Derby, and better yet, they set up an opportunity for me to meet Cal Ripken Jr., my all-time favorite baseball player and childhood hero. Ripken was going to be at FanFest, leading a youth baseball clinic with a local branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. This event was not open to the public, but because it was sponsored by State Farm, I was one of the lucky few who got to participate.
Anyway, after making my way inside the convention center and heading downstairs, I got a sneak peek at the batting cages where Ripken would soon be doing his thing:
There was lots of media. There were State Farm reps. There were FanFest employees. And there were a couple dozen other folks who got to be there for one reason or another. The place was buzzing, and when Ripken arrived some time around 9:30am, it was simply amazing. The older I get, the less-star struck I get, but when I first saw him — when I realized that I was actually breathing the same air as him — my heart started racing. I’d gotten his autograph a few times at baseball games over the years, and I briefly met him and his brother Billy at a book signing in New York City in 2004, but this was the first time that I was going to get to hang out with him and actually TALK to him like a real person.
The first thing that Ripken did was pose with the kids and another celebrity. Check it out:
The other celebrity was Mandy Moore, and when the minute-long photo op ended, she and Ripken walked right past me:
Moore was at FanFest to help raise awareness for State Farm’s Go To Bat program — a virtual Home Run Derby that fans can play online to raise money for many different charities. One of those charities is Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit organization that provides baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world; I’ve been fundraising for Pitch In For Baseball since 2009, so this whole State Farm experience was special on a number of levels.
It was also special for my friend Ben Weil. He’s the guy who owns more jerseys than you and all your friends combined, and he’s in love with Mandy Moore. Literally. It’s actually kind of scary. (He has a poster of her over his bed and once flew from New York to Detroit to see her in concert.) He had no connection to State Farm or any idea that she was going to be at FanFest, so I gave him a heads-up on where to be and when to be there. Eventually, when Moore stepped out of the batting cage area, Ben politely flagged her down, and I served as his personal photographer. This was the result — a photo of him (note the Ripken jersey) with Mandy Moore:
I could have met Moore and gotten a chance to talk to her if I’d been willing to wake up when it was still dark outside. Much earlier in the morning, she was available to the media and to the folks connected to State Farm, but I just couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice THAT much sleep. No offense to her. I think she’s lovely. But all I could think about was meeting Ripken and being as well-rested as possible.
Finally, the youth baseball clinic got underway. Here’s Ripken talking to the kids…
…and here he is giving some hands-on hitting pointers:
There was no restriction on how close I could get to him. I was simply told to steer clear of the TV cameras, but other than that, I could wander anywhere and take as many pics as I wanted from all possible angles. Here’s another shot from afar:
There were lots of people on the outside looking in:
In the photo above, the guy on the right is a fellow writer/blogger who was also invited by State Farm to participate in the festivities. More on him and the others in a bit…
At around 10:15am, another major leaguer showed up. Here he is talking to Ripken:
Unfortunately, that’s the only photo of him that I got, so you’ll have to take my word that it was Sean Casey.
The two men squared off in a pitcher/batter battle of sorts; Ripken fed a bunch of balls into one of the pitching machines, and Casey flat-out RAKED. For a guy who’s 37 years old and hasn’t played in the Major Leagues since 2008, his bat speed was still shockingly quick, and his mechanics were a thing of beauty. I moved behind the cage for a closer look and stared in awe. It’s like I was watching a different species. Human beings don’t move like that or get balls to explode off baseball bats like that.
After Casey finished showing off, the rest of us normal people got to hit. An hour earlier, I didn’t even know that I was going to have that opportunity, so by the time my turn came along, I was more psyched than ever. That said, I somehow managed to hold it together for this photo:
The photo above (along with the four of me in the cage below) was taken by a gentleman named Griffin Hammond. Officially, he’s in charge of public affairs and social media for State Farm; at this event, he was also serving as the official photographer/videographer. Here are the photos of me in the cage…
…and here’s a short video that Griffin filmed and edited:
As you can see, Ripken was pitching the balls to me nice and slow, so they were really easy to hit. The only challenges were (a) making sure to pull the balls so I wouldn’t drill him with a come-backer and (b) not re-injuring my still-weak left ankle. Every time I swung, I had to step and land and plant on my left foot, and let’s just say that it didn’t exactly feel great. Normally, when I swing at a pitch, I keep my front side closed, but in this case I was forced to fly open early so that when my foot hit the ground, my toes would be pointing toward Ripken. By stepping like that, I was much less likely to roll my ankle over, as I did on 6/3/11 at Citi Field. The point is, don’t judge my hitting skills solely on that video. I’ll be the first to admit that my swing looks rather crude.
I don’t know how many swings I took — 30 or 40, at least — but as I tweeted the following day, I took enough to make myself completely sore. I’m not complaining, just reporting.
The clinic and BP session was a fundraiser in and of itself, and at the tail end of it, State Farm presented the Boys & Girls Club with a $5,000 check:
Ripken then signed autographs for the kids:
I probably could’ve gotten him to sign, but I didn’t ask. I was trying not to go totally FanBoy on him, and anyway, I really just wanted to talk. That had been a lifelong dream — to simply have a conversation with Cal Ripken Jr. — and I didn’t want to taint it by asking for anything.
I lined up with my fellow bloggers against the back wall…
…and we waited for Ripken to finish talking to the media.
In the meantime, we were told that because time was running out, we’d have to talk to him in pairs. That was disappointing. I didn’t want to “share” him with anyone, so I offered to spend half as much time with him in order to get him one-on-one. Everyone was fine with that, and I finally got my chance. Here I am talking to THE MAN — Cal Ripken Jr.:
In the photos above, Ripken is holding a copy of my newest book, The Baseball. I had brought a copy to give to him, and he looked it over for a bit.
In the days leading up to this moment, I’d spent lots of time thinking about what to say to him. I figured I’d only have a couple minutes, and obviously I wanted to make it count. I started by telling him about myself — that I’d written three baseball books and snagged almost 5,200 baseballs in the stands at Major League games. Basically, it was important to me for Ripken to know who I was — that I had an unusual baseball story and wasn’t just some random fan. Once that was out of the way, I wanted to ask him questions that (a) he hadn’t already heard a million times and (b) were connected to ballhawking and the baseball itself. Here’s how it went down…
ZACK HAMPLE: “Did you notice, over the course of your career, that the baseballs got a lot harder or that they were easier to hit out?”
CAL RIPKEN JR.: “It’s interesting — the whole controversy of tightly wound baseballs. Generally speaking I don’t believe in that. I didn’t see that. They’re all very consistent. It’s a great baseball. Rawlings is the best. The only blemish, I think, would be the Home Run Derby. I won in ’91, and I was hittin’ balls that I’ve never ever come close to hitting before, and I kept thinking, ‘Okay, was it me? Was it my adrenaline? Or was the ball really juiced?’ So in the back of my mind, I got the feeling that maybe there was a super-charged rubber ball in the center.”
ZACK HAMPLE: “Did you ever catch a foul ball as a kid in the stands, or even after you retired?”
CAL RIPKEN JR.: “Sittin’ behind the screen — I’d be so mad because my dad put us there in the minor leagues to protect us from gettin’ hurt, and my mom wouldn’t have to pay attention so close. Well, one of the first games I went to, the ball went over the screen, and it landed and hit the box seats and trickled right to where I was and I got it.”
ZACK HAMPLE: “How awesome did that feel?”
CAL RIPKEN JR.: “I can still almost kinda see it. I was so surprised and happy with no expectation. Sometimes players would pick me out and give me a ball, but I thought mostly it was about my dad.”
Toward the end of our time together, the topic of my baseball collection resurfaced. “I remember a little bit about that — the whole story,” he said. “I think I read up on you about how you get balls.”
I responded by telling him about the three foul balls that I’d caught on 5/12/11 at Camden Yards, and he asked me where I had positioned myself in the stands.
We talked about a few other little things here and there, and that was pretty much it. At the very end, I said, “It’s great to talk to you. Thanks for taking the time. I was a shortstop growing up, so, you know, I looked up to you in a lot of ways.”
“Thank you,” he said, making sincere eye contact. “I appreciate that.”
I ended up talking to him for four SOLID minutes, which was more than I expected. Of course, the time seemed to fly by, but that’s how these things go. Ripken, for the record, was patient and good-natured and soft-spoken. He treated me and the other bloggers with the utmost respect and I truly can’t thank him enough. Same goes for State Farm. Same goes for the Weber Shandwick team of Jake Ricker, Brian Israel, Leslie Hopp, and Heather Cmiel (Extra thanks to Heather, pictured two photos above wearing all black, for taking the pics of me talking to Ripken.)
When the event with Ripken was done, a bunch of us went for lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant near the convention center. On the way out, I took a photo of some fans from above…
…and at the restaurant, I posed for a photo with my fellow bloggers:
In the photo above, the woman on the left is named Danielle Smith. She runs a website called Extraordinary Mommy and has more than 13,000 followers on Twitter. (Those are her kids in the photo — Delaney on the left and Cooper on the right.) The guy with the goatee has one of the best names of all time. Ready for it? Carlo Lorenzo Garcia! He runs a site called Living Philanthropic — he’s in the process of donating to 365 charities in 365 days — and is also on Twitter. The fellow on the right is named Chris Osburn. He’s the sports editor for a men’s magazine called The Father Life, and like the rest of us, he’s on Twitter too. Great bunch of people. They all lingered at the restaurant. I said my goodbyes and raced back to the hotel to get ready for the Home Run Derby, and hey, look who I bumped into in the lobby:
Kindly disregard the weirdly-shaped orb floating next to my baseball cap; all that matters is that I’m standing next to Angels owner Arte Moreno.
It was 1:00pm local time. The Home Run Derby wasn’t scheduled to begin for four more hours, but Chase Field was set to open at 2pm. I hurried up to my room, gathered all the stuff that I was going to need for the day, and changed into my yellow Homer Simpson t-shirt. I had time to do this because Ben was holding a spot for me at the front of the line outside the left field gate.
I flagged down a pedicab…
…and made it to the stadium with roughly half an hour to spare:
When the gates opened, I made a beeline for the left field bleachers. Not only was security checking tickets in the outfield for batting practice, but they actually made (or tried to make) everyone stay in their actual seats. I was able to get into the left field seats — that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I was trapped eight rows back! Totally unacceptable. This was my view as the National League was warming up:
As you can see, fans were scattered throughout the bleachers because they weren’t allowed to go down toward the front. I knew that the whole section was going to be packed. I knew that it was going to be almost impossible to catch home runs. My whole strategy was based on being in the very front row and calling out to the players for toss-ups, so when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do that, I got really nervous about getting shut out.
After 10 painful minutes of watching the fans in the front row snag all the baseballs, I managed to climb down over a few benches and creep a little closer to the field. The other fans didn’t mind. A lot of them were trying to sneak closer too. I just had to watch out for security, so I hung back in the 5th row and continued to watch the action unfold. Moments later, Matt Kemp blasted a homer that landed in the left-center field concourse and ricocheted all the way back down onto the field, not too far from where I was standing. Someone with “GUERRERO 16″ on the back of his jersey walked over to retrieve the ball. No one in the bleachers knew who he was — except for me. Sandy Guerrero. That’s who it was. He’s a minor league coach in the Brewers’ system. I’d seen him earlier in the year (or maybe it was last year?) at Citi Field. I didn’t know who he was then, so I did a little research and figured it out, and it paid off here in Phoenix. I waited for him to reach down and pick up the ball, and then I went for it. I climbed over a few more rows and shouted his name. He and the security guard looked at me simultaneously. The guard started shouting at me to get back to my seat, but his command came too late. Guerrero had already chucked the ball to me, and my eyes lit up when I pulled it out of my glove for a closer look:
My day was officially complete, or at least that’s how I felt. My modest goal had been to snag *one* ball with a Home Run Derby logo, so at this point, anything else was going to be a bonus.
The guard had his eye on me after that, so I shifted over to the far end of the section. That didn’t seem to bother him, and then when he wasn’t looking, I quickly moved a few rows closer to the field. Soon after I got there, Joel Hanrahan fielded a ball near me and tossed it in my direction. I was standing on a bench at that point (as were many other people), and although the ball fell a bit short, I was able to reach forward and catch it over several other outstretched hands. Meanwhile, the folks in the front were still getting most of the action. I simply had to get down there, so after the National League finished hitting, I walked down to the front, and before I got yelled at, I offered to pay one of the fans there for his spot.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “You can just have it. We’ve gotten five balls already.”
“Are you serious?!” I asked in disbelief.
“Oh, yeah,” he said casually. “It’s no big deal. We’re here everyday and get lots of ball. Go right ahead and enjoy yourself.”
As it turned out, I enjoyed myself a whole lot. Two minutes after the American League started hitting, I got Chris Perez to toss me my 3rd ball of the day, and soon after that, I caught a home run on the fly. I’m not sure who hit it, but I think it was Miguel Cabrera.
“Do you want your spot back?” I asked the guy.
“Nah, we’re fine back here,” he said from the row behind me.
“Well,” I said, “in that case, I guess I’ll try to get another ball, but please let me know when you’re ready for me to take a hike.”
I was so glad to be in the front row and not trapped in the middle of the crowd. Look how packed the bleachers were:
I was standing right next to the ESPN platform. Check out the view to my left:
Do you recognize the guys looking down at their mobile devices? Barry Larkin is wearing the white shirt and John Kruk is sporting the suit.
Halfway through the American League’s portion of BP, I got Aaron Crow to throw me my 5th ball of the day, and toward the very end, I got another from David Robertson.
Here I am with my haul:
Here’s a painfully cute dog:
Here’s the crowd just before the Derby got underway:
In the photo above, did you notice my new BFF Cal Ripken Jr. on the TV screen? He had just thrown the ceremonial first pitch.
The first round of the Derby was painfully slow. That’s because I was trapped in left field and the right-handed hitters — Matt Kemp, Matt Holliday, Rickie Weeks, and Jose Bautista — were useless. The highlight (or rather the moment that made my heart race) was when Holliday launched a gold ball in my exact direction. It was a line-drive homer that fell about 15 feet short. Here’s a photo of the guy who caught it:
That is one snazzy baseball, complete with REAL gold. It kinda looks like a Christmas tree ornament, no?
All four of the right-handed hitters were eliminated after the first round, so I headed over to the right field side. The center field concourse was barricaded (you’ll see a photo of it in a moment), so I had to walk all the way around the stadium. I didn’t really have a plan at that point, so I just wandered as far as I could go. This is where I ended up:
The front half of the concourse was off-limits, but the back half (near the concession stand) was wide open. I knew that it was going to take an absolute BOMB to reach me, but with Prince Fielder still in contention, I figured that anything was possible. This was my view:
Four hundred seventy feet? That’s not out of the question, right? Well, what I didn’t realize at first was that the “470” sign didn’t factor in the elevation above the field — so really, it would’ve taken a 500-foot home run to reach me. And then some.
During a commercial break in the second round, I connected with a friend in right field who helped get me down into the seats. This was my view from the new spot that I picked:
Not great, you say? Well, check out all this room I had on my right:
Even though it felt like I was a mile from home plate, I knew that I *was* at least within potential home run range. More importantly, though, if a ball did end up flying my way, *I* was going to have some range.
During Prince Fielder’s turn at bat, I noticed something bizarre as one of his home runs sailed into the crowd. It vaguely appeared that a fan had lost his balance and was dangling over the concourse railing up above. Given the fact that this incident took place on the same day as the memorial service for Shannon Stone, the media was on high-alert and made a big deal of it — but I’m not so sure they should’ve. I heard lots of speculation that the near-fall was staged, and although I obviously can’t confirm that theory, I can tell you from having witnessed the incident from 30 feet away that it’s definitely possible. For starters, the fan who nearly fell wasn’t even close to the ball, so there’s no reason for him to have been reaching for it. More importantly, it didn’t even look like he was ever in any danger. It appeared that once he was partially over the railing, he made no effort to get back into the stands. I remember thinking, “What the hell is going on?” because it almost looked like the guy was lingering on the railing and climbing out over it on purpose. I seriously thought it was a joke at first, so I was shocked to see all the articles about “the tragedy that was narrowly avoided.” I want to make it clear that I don’t take this lightly. There’s nothing funny about falling (or almost falling) over a railing. I don’t want to piss people off by claiming that something wasn’t a big deal when it really was. I’m just speculating here and telling you what I saw, and although I could be wrong, I think that the media (and baseball world) got trolled.
But enough about that. Let’s focus on happier things, like the fact that I caught a t-shirt during a quick break in the action:
Of course, that’s not the only thing that I caught out there in right field. See here:
As many of you already know (and commented about on my previous entry), I caught Robinson Cano’s 7th home run during the final round, and if I heard correctly, it was the 4th longest home run of the entire Derby. Estimated distance: 466 feet. There really wasn’t anything fancy about it. I had a little room to maneuver on the staircase, but it was pretty much hit right to me. If it had traveled one or two feet shorter, the fans in front of me probably would’ve been able to reach up and catch it. If it had traveled five feet farther, I would’ve been able to back up against the wall and make a leaping catch. (But not too much of a leaping catch because my left foot still isn’t feeling right.) Was I lucky? Yeah, no doubt, but in a way, I was also unlucky. It was a great spot, and if things had gone just a little bit differently, I easily could have caught two or three more.
In the screen shot above, do you see the fan directly above me, behind the railing? As soon as I caught the ball, that guy asked me if he could take a picture with it.
“Sure,” I told him, “but let’s wait until after the Derby is over.”
Well, after it ended (with Cano as the winner), I caught up with the guy in the concourse. He didn’t have a camera, so we took the following photo with mine…
…and I told him I’d email it to him.
Normally, I do NOT give away commemorative balls, nor do I give balls to grown-ups, nor do I give balls to fans without gloves, but this seemed like a good time to break my own rules.
“Did you get a ball today?” I asked him.
“Nah, I didn’t get anything,” he replied.
“Well,” I said, reaching into my backpack and pulling out the cleanest ball I’d gotten during BP, “this one’s for you.”
I wasn’t going to hand him the actual home run ball from the Derby itself, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. He was thrilled just to have ANY ball, and it made me really happy to give it to him.
Before leaving the stadium, I caught up with a bunch of friends in left field. Take a look at the following group photo, and then I’ll identify everyone:
From left to right…
1) Greg Barasch, a fellow ballhawk from New York City.
2) Tony Dobson, a Chase Field regular.
3) Greg’s father Sheldon.
4) Zachary Ben Hample.
5) Ben Weil, holding some of the hats he brought on this trip.
6) Tim Scott, the nephew of the woman on the right.
7) Kelly McMahon, a former Watch With Zack client and current friend.
I mean, wait, no, it’s not. Keep reading past the stats…
• 537 balls in 66 games this season = 8.14 balls per game.
• 727 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 252 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 3 consecutive Home Run Derbies with at least three balls
• 5,199 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 get involved.)
• 56 donors
• $7.12 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $49.84 raised at this game
• $3,823.44 raised this season
Finally, about that t-shirt:
Pretty sweet, eh? In case you can’t read it, the front of the shirt says, “Chase Field, home of the 2011 All-Star Game,” and the back says, “I caught this during the D’Backs’ t-shirt toss!”
Oh wait, one more thing. It’s now 3:02am ET as I sit here typing this. I’ve been posting Twitter updates (like this) about the status of this blog entry. Check out all the replies:
And hell, as long as I’m showing Twitter replies, here are some more that came my way after I caught the Cano home run:
Thank you all for the Twitter love and blog comments and emails. I know I’ve been lame about replying lately, but that’s only because it has taken a FULL-time effort to keep up with the blog. I still need to write about my (truly insanely incredible) experience at the All-Star Game, and yes, @oriolefan123, I’m going to be at Camden Yards today (July 14th) and tomorrow.
I was invited to the State Farm® Home Run Derby and Go to Bat kick-off programs by State Farm. All my travel, food, and lodging expenses were taken care of by State Farm. I was not paid to write this post.