October 2011

2011 World Series — Game 4

This was my 131st and final game of the season — my last dance at the Big Dance — so I had to make it count. My main goal was to catch a home run during the actual game, but if nothing else, I simply wanted my last ball to be special. No matter how I ended up snagging it, it would be the exclamation point on a truly epic season, one in which I visited all 30 major league stadiums and attended the Home Run Derby, All-Star Game, and all three rounds of the post-season. Of course, I had also set a record by snagging more than a thousand baseballs; my final ball, therefore, would establish the new record and represent a *very* important number.

When I first ran inside the stadium, the Rangers weren’t yet taking batting practice. That’s how it had been the day before, and I’d spent the first 13 minutes eating pepperoni pizza and wandering in the outfield. This time, however, I made a beeline for the 1st base side and got three balls thrown to me with minimal effort. The first came from Rangers coach Johnny Narron near the home-plate end of the dugout. Then I moved past 1st base…

…and got balls from Yorvit Torrealba and Esteban German. It was crowded near the field, so I had stayed 10 rows back and gotten both guys to throw the balls over everyone (and everything) in front of me. It was laughably easy — and that’s the World Series for you. Yeah, it’s crowded as hell, but most people are just there for the game, and most of the regular ballhawks are priced out of the stadium.

Here’s some evidence of the crowdedness — a photo of the left field seats at the very start of BP:

I only managed to snag one baseball during the entire Rangers’ portion of BP  — an Adrian Beltre homer to straight-away left field that landed on the steps and bounced all the way up to the second deck. The ball glanced off the facade roughly 30 feet above me, and for some reason, when it began to descend toward the row behind me, everyone else gave up on it. I kept my eyes on it the whole time, and at the last second, I lunged/dove over the seats and caught it bare-handed. A bunch of people cheered, and the guy standing next to me helped me up.

Several Cardinals eventually made their way into the left field bullpen:

In the photo above, Jaime Garcia is standing on the mound, bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist is holding onto the fence with both arms over his head, and bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy is wearing the solid red shirt. Murphy ended up tossing me my 5th ball of the day, and less than a minute later, I got another from Garcia, who obviously hadn’t noticed.

I didn’t know where to go or what to do after that. It was absolutely packed on both sides of the center field berm…

…and the left field seats were pretty damn crowded as well:

My friend Ben Weil (the guy who owns a gazillion jerseys) caught a Matt Holliday homer on the fly. I wasn’t as lucky, and as the minutes ticked by, I began to worry that the ball I’d gotten from Garcia would end up being my last ball of the season. That wouldn’t have been a disaster, but I was hoping to do better.

Enter Albert Pujols.

Pujols batted in the group after Holliday, and when he first stepped into the cage, I told Ben that I really wanted to snag one of his homers. Ten minutes later, I got my opportunity, albeit somewhat indirectly. One of Pujols’ final longballs fell short of the stands and dropped down into the gap behind the left field wall. I hurried over and pulled out my camera and took a really quick photo that turned out to be blurry:

If I’d taken a few extra seconds, I would’ve gotten a nice crisp photo, but I didn’t feel like I had ANY time to spare. I was concerned that an employee was going to appear below and snatch the ball, or that other fans were going to swoop in with their own ball-retrieving devices, so I did everything as quickly as possible. Luckily, no one interfered as I lowered my glove trick down into the gap, and I ended up snagging the ball. That made me very very very very very happy.

Toward the end of BP, Ben posed with the ball he’d caught…

…and when BP ended, I posed with the Albert Pujols home run:

It was my 1,157th ball of the season, and I had a feeling that it would be my last.

During the lull between BP and the game, I gave a (different) ball to a kid who was sitting nearby with his family. The following three-part photo shows how it played out:

I know it looks kinda staged, and I’ll admit that I did ask Ben to take photos, but the fact is…I would’ve given the ball away even if Ben hadn’t been there to document it. And I still would’ve given the kid a high-five. And his mother still would’ve asked me to pose with him. And I still would’ve shown the kid how to hold the ball so that the logo faced the camera. And I still would’ve told him to try to catch another ball during the game. And he still would’ve given me a hug after it was all said and done. Yes, that actually happened. The kid reached out and put his arms around me as I began heading up the steps. That had never happened before. It was pretty damn sweet.

Shortly before game time, I headed out to my seat beside the berm. This was the scene:

I’ve taken a bit of heat for pulling out my camera during the national anthem, so let me say this: the photo above and the photo below were both taken just before the anthem…

…and this one was taken immediately after:

This was my view during the game…

…and this is what it looked like behind me:

As I mentioned two entries ago, my ticket for Games 3 and 4 was not on the end of the row. I had the 3rd seat in, so I had to do some wheeling and dealing in order to get people to slide over. At Game 3, it took $80 to get someone to move. At Game 4, it took a similar amount *plus* a batting practice ball AND a signed copy of The Baseball, which I’d brought strictly as a bargaining tool.

Ready to see something random/awesome? After the 2nd inning, there was an announcement about Twitter — or so I’m told. I completely missed it, and from where I was sitting, I couldn’t see most of the JumboTron, so this story (and photo) comes from Ben. Evidently, fans were encouraged to post tweets about their favorite Ranger to @theRangersGame, and the best ones would be displayed for everyone in the stadium to see. That said, look who made it onto the JumboTron half an inning later:

It’s Benny_Bang_Bang! Those of you who follow me on Twitter might recall the tweet I’d posted earlier in the day from his phone. (Imagine the damage I’d do if I had my own smart phone. I’d probably own every team in the NL east by now, but eh, I can’t be bothered with silly people who want to text me all day long. Maybe someday. In the meantime, who the hell is de_frog? Someone needs to inform her that she made it onto my blog — Any volunteers? — which, let’s face it, is much cooler than making it onto the JumboTron.)

You know who else made it onto my blog? THIS GUY, sitting two seats to my left, who caught the 3rd-out ball that Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay tossed into the crowd after the 3rd inning:

AARRGHH!!!

When the ball was first hit, I drifted down the steps from my seat in the 6th row (and held up my arms to be more visible on TV). My plan was to get as close to the field as possible so that Jay would be able to see me and hear me. Unfortunately I was dressed neutrally, so when he turned to face the crowd, he spotted the guy in Cardinals gear and lobbed the ball to him — directly over my head. I bolted back up the steps while it was still in mid-air, hoping that it’d get bobbled in my direction, but no, the fan made a clean catch despite holding a can of Coors Light in his left hand. Incredible. And get this: the guy who caught the ball was sitting EXACTLY one seat behind my ticketed seat. My actual seat was Section 50, Row 5, Seat 28. He was sitting in Section 50, Row 6, Seat 28, so if (for some reason) I had accepted being trapped in the middle of the row and actually sat where I was supposed to sit, I would’ve easily been able to reach up and catch the ball. How lovely.

Based on the handful of tweets that came my way, I must’ve been visible when Jay first turned to throw the ball into the crowd. Check it out:

Late that night, I tweeted a response:

Coincidentally, my friend Frank was sitting right behind me when Jay tossed the ball into the crowd. (The guy who *had* been sitting behind me for the first two innings had gone to get beer, so Frank snuck into the section and wandered down to say hey.) (You might remember Frank from this photo on 4/27/11 at Rangers Ballpark.) He must not’ve been paying attention because he’s 6-foot-5 and would’ve easily been able to reach across two people, but he wasn’t that upset, and you know what? Neither was I. I mean, it sucked, but I didn’t feel like my life was over. I’d gotten World Series balls in the past (like this and this and this and this), but never caught a World Series home run. THAT was what I wanted; anything else seemed irrelevant, but still, I was pretty stunned to have barely missed the 3rd-out ball. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in between innings, I was staring longingly at the guy who’d snagged it, and Frank took a photo of me:

As for what I’m wearing in the photo above, the shirt is from an event called “BallhawkFest,” which took place on 7/23/11 at Camden Yards and was organized by Alan Schuster, the founder of MyGameBalls.com. And the hat? I simply decided to go with a slightly different look, and I also wanted to be dressed neutrally. That way, if I happened to catch an Albert Pujols homer, it wouldn’t look stupid if I celebrated. It’s important to think about these things ahead of time, and man, let me tell you, I was SO prepared with a hilarious celebration if I caught a Rangers homer.

In the top of the 4th, Frank took a photo of me sitting next to the railing…

…and in the bottom of the inning, I nearly had a chance to celebrate. With one out, Nelson Cruz connected on an 0-1 pitch from Edwin Jackson…

…and sent a deep fly ball toward dead center. From the very start, I was almost certain that the ball wasn’t going to leave the yard, so I paused for a split-second, considering whether or not to even bother running out onto the hill, but then I figured, “Why NOT run out there, dumb-ass?! You’re allowed to do it, so DO IT!! It’s free exercise, and you’ll get on TV, and if the ball carries a little farther than you expected, you’ll have an easy opportunity to make a very special catch.” (I thought about all of this within half a second. What can I say? My mind works fast in these situations. Not so much in others.) So I climbed over the railing and jumped down onto the grass:

As the ball reached its apex, I knew with total certainty that it wasn’t going to be a home run, so I slowed down and flung up my arms at the last second:

It was a calculated gesture, meant to convey my frustration. It might look like I was waving, but that wasn’t the case. I was flat-out pissed that I had the opportunity of a lifetime, but because it was only 68 degrees at game time (as opposed to the 108 degrees that it normally is during the summer), the ball fell about 15 feet short of me. Had it sailed over the fence for a home run, I would’ve caught it easily. I know I was ten feet to the side of where it landed, but like I said, I slowed way down, and of course I hadn’t even gotten a great jump in the first place. I kinda ran out there as a formality, in part to show the world that I was ready, but also for the practice. I wanted to see how much ground I could cover, and the answer was “lots.”

It just so happened that Jon Jay’s catch was photographed by every major news service, and the picture ended up in several places. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s website was one such place…

…and the sports section of USA Today was another:

Big THANKS to my friend Garrett Meyer for scanning that article and sending it to me. Slightly smaller thanks to everyone who tweeted at me and mentioned that they saw me on TV:

As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who came close to catching a World Series homer. Ben spent the whole game in the standing room area (at the back of the wide cross-aisle) deep down the left field line and came within five feet of Mike Napoli’s three-run bomb in the 6th inning. Here’s a photo that he took of the guy who ended up snagging it:

The story of the night, though, wasn’t home runs. It was Derek Holland’s masterful pitching (and frightening mustache). Holland pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits while walking a pair and striking out seven. The crowd was SO disappointed when Ron Washington took him out in the 9th inning, but nowadays that’s how it goes. Holland had thrown 116 pitches and just walked Rafael Furcal on a full count. The Rangers were leading, 4-0, at the time, and Wash didn’t want to let the game slip away, so he brought in Neftali Feliz. Naturally, Feliz ended up walking the first batter he faced, and not just any batter. He walked Allen Craig, who was hitting 2nd in the lineup ahead of Albert Pujols (who had hit three home runs the night before). Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman were due to bat after Pujols, so even though the Rangers had a four-run lead, things got pretty tense. Pujols ended up flying out to center (if only he’d hit the ball 150 feet farther!) and Holliday went down swinging. Game over. Final score: Rangers 4, Cardinals 0. The World Series was tied at two games apiece, and I had to fly back to New York City the following morning.

After the final out, I got a group photo with some of the fans who’d been sitting near me:

See the guy with the unbuttoned Cardinals jersey? His name is Brian. He’s the one who moved over and let me sit next to him (for a serious chunk of change and some goodies). The other guy wearing Cardinals gear is his brother Tim. He’s the one who caught the Jon Jay 3rd-out ball. See the guy in front grabbing his belt? I never did catch his name, but he was hilarious. Throughout the game, he was talking trash (in a funny/friendly/drunk way) and saying that he was gonna tackle me and beat me out onto the grass for a home run ball. “Let’s go!” I said every time. “Competition makes it fun!” We then gave each other a fist-bump and laughed, and oh-by-the-way, he was sitting three seats from the end. He would’ve had to climb over the two people on his right before he would’ve gotten the chance to tackle me, by which point I would’ve been halfway across the berm, making 52,000 people laugh with my celebratory antics. Maybe next year if the Rangers make it back to the Series?

Before leaving the section, a gentleman named Greg (who leaves comments on this blog as “txrangersfan”) asked me to sign his copy of Watching Baseball Smarter. Here we are with it:

Two things about the photo above:

1) Greg is 6-foot-4. If he’d threatened to tackle me, I wouldn’t have been smiling.
2) I’m holding the Albert Pujols BP homer — my 1,157th and final ball of the season.

Here’s a closer look at The Ball…

…and here’s an even closer look at it:

Funny how a seemingly ordinary batting practice ball can be so valuable.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 7 balls at this game (five pictured here because I gave two away)

• 1,157 balls in 131 games this season = 8.83 balls per game. (Interesting bonus stat: when there was batting practice, I averaged 9.67 balls per game; when there wasn’t, I averaged 5.13.)

• 47 balls in 6 post-season games this season = 7.83 balls per game.

• 792 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 317 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 19 consecutive post-season games with at least one ball

• 7 consecutive World Series games with at least one ball

• 5,819 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(I raised money this season for Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. If you made a pledge, sit tight until the World Series is done. I’m planning to email everyone with instructions on how to actually make the donation.)

• 61 donors

• $7.47 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $52.29 raised at this game

• $8,642.79 raised this season

2011 World Series — Game 3

There’s something about the World Series that brings out the best in people — and in goats:

Three and a half hours before game time, that was the scene outside the stadium, and for the sake of Rangers fans, I hope that the goat was allowed inside or else the team is gonna be cursed.

Speaking of fans, look how many people there were outside the 3rd base gate:

The game was scheduled to begin at 7:05pm (central time). The gates opened at 4pm, which probably sounds great, but consider this: batting practice hadn’t yet started, which meant that the seats were going to get increasingly crowded before I had a chance to snag any baseballs.

I passed the time by heading down to the front row in straight-away left field:

In the photo above, do you see the yellow thing on the railing? Those things were all over the place. Here’s a closer look at one of them:

As you may recall, this is the section where a fan named Shannon Stone had fallen to his death three months earlier. The reason why I went there the other day was to see if anything had changed as a result. I expected there to be a net covering the gap and thought that the railing might be higher, but no, the only difference that I recognized since my last visit in April was the abundance of the yellow stickers.

At around 4:10pm, I wandered over to the 1st base side. Look how crowded it was:

BP got underway three minutes later, so I raced back to left field. Look how crowded it was:

A funny thing happened a little while later. I was standing in left field, hoping for a home run to fly my way, when I saw a ball drop into the gap behind the left-center field wall. I decided to run over and try to snag it with my glove trick, but first I had to grab my backpack off a nearby seat. That took two seconds. Then I began to run up the steps, but before I got far, I sensed that everyone around me was jockeying for position, so I stopped and turned back toward the field and looked up and saw a home run flying right at me. With my backpack flung over my right shoulder, I jumped up and caught the ball with my left hand, then bolted up the steps and ran to the bleachers in left-center and snagged the other ball with my device. (In case you’re wondering, these balls did not have the World Series logo; they were just regular balls.)

After that, I thought about playing the berm in dead center, but look how crowded it was:

I ended up finding a spot along the railing, but never jumped over. With dozens of overeager kids and aggressive adults surrounding me, the idea of running out onto the grass seemed like an injury waiting to happen, so whenever a ball landed there, I just stood and watched the ensuing scrum. It wasn’t exactly how I’d planned to spend my time during BP, but it’s not like I had many other options. Look how crowded it was:

Then another funny thing happened. Josh Hamilton launched a home run toward my edge of the berm. Half a dozen gloveless fans jumped over the railing and reached for the ball simultaneously, causing it to deflect off their hands and bounce gently *right* to me. I didn’t even have to lunge or reach for it. I mean, if I hadn’t caught it, it would’ve hit me in the stomach.

“Thanks, guys!” I yelled sarcastically to the fans on the berm, prompting everyone else around me to laugh.

Halfway through the Rangers’ portion of BP, Darren Oliver threw a ball to a little kid in the front row, roughly 30 feet to my right. Not surprisingly, the kid dropped it and the ball ended up in the gap. As I headed over to have a look, the same thing happened again with the same kid: another dropped toss-up that landed in the gap. As I began setting up the rubber band for my glove trick, I decided to give one of the balls to the kid, but just before I had a chance to lower the glove, Oliver threw another ball. By this point, I was standing next to the kid, and as it turned out, the throw sailed a bit too high, so I reached up and caught the ball bare-handed and immediately handed it to him. The kid’s father (who was standing in the 2nd row) thanked me, and then I went to work with the glove trick. Unfortunately, one of the Rangers pitchers found his way into the gap as I was reeling in the first ball, so of the two that had been sitting there, I only snagged one. That said, my total for the day had reached five, so I wasn’t about to start complaining.

Several minutes later, I saw something that I’d never seen before: someone on the Rangers tossed a ball into the crowd which *appeared* to have the cowhide cover partially torn off. From where I was standing, it was hard to tell. As the ball sailed through the air, all I saw was an extra white blob attached to it, so I assumed that that’s what it was — and when the ball fell short of the stands and landed in the gap, I got VERY excited. I hurried over to have a look, and sure enough, part of the cover was indeed separated from the ball. Check out the following photo of me (taken by my friend Frank). It shows my glove dangling above the ball:

For two solid minutes, I failed to get the ball to stick inside my glove. I knew why I was struggling — the partially detached cover made the ball too wide — but I didn’t know what to do about it. Finally, a solution popped into my head, but right at that moment, a college-aged kid approached me from behind and asked if he could “take a crack at it.” I noticed that he had a ball-retrieving device of his own, and while I greatly appreciated that he checked in with me first, I simply needed to test my new strategy. I asked him if he’d let me try once more — and he very kindly held back while I gave it a final shot. My solution was easy: move the rubber band over so that it created a bigger space at the tip of the glove. DUH!!! I should’ve thought of it sooner, but anyway, my slightly modified device worked perfectly, and I managed to snag the ball. (The other kid snagged a ball two minutes later, so everyone was happy.) Here I am taking a photo of it…

…and here I am posing with it:

Is that crazy or what?

For a split-second, I debated whether or not to count the ball in my collection, but my main thought was that it should absolutely count. This ball was no less of a ball than, say, a person with a missing leg is no less of a person. Furthermore, it was an official major league ball, and it had come from a player who was on the field at a World Series game, so why NOT count it, right?

(One of the main things that I love about ballhawking is that it never gets old. After 22 years of going to games, and after snagging more than 5,800 baseballs, I’m still experiencing new things and solving wacky challenges.)

The ball with the partially missing cover was my 6th of the day. Of the five that were still in my possession, four had the word “practice” stamped on the sweet spot. Check it out:

When the Cardinals took the field, I got Jaime Garcia to throw me my 7th ball of the day in foul territory. You can see him in the following photo (wearing No. 54) walking away from me:

I was hoping to snag three more balls and reach double digits, but that didn’t happen.

Why?

Look how crowded it was:

It wasn’t quite as crowded as the 2011 All-Star Game, but it had that feel, and as a result, I didn’t know where to go or what to do with myself. I wandered for the next 45 minutes, didn’t come close to snagging anything, and eventually headed toward the 3rd base dugout. Look how crowded it was:

I didn’t snag anything there. The only thing I got was a photo of this adorable sign…

…and a photo with my friend Ben Weil:

As I’ve mentioned many times, Ben owns more jerseys than you can even imagine. Someday, perhaps this coming off-season, I’m going to visit his home and photograph his collection and blog about it — so get ready. What you see will be shocking (and will hopefully make me look normal in comparison).

Ben had a standing room ticket and found a place to hang out near the left field foul pole. I had a ticket near the berm in right-center and had to do some serious bargaining in order to get the perfect spot. As I mentioned in my previous entry, I had the 3rd seat in, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to get the two people sitting next to me — whoever they turned out to be — to trade seats. As it turned out, those people were 20-something-year-old guys who didn’t want to move. Given the fact that they each had a beer in their hand when they first showed up, I offered to buy them all the beers they could possibly drink for the entire game. No deal. Then I offered them $100 cash. No deal. It was obviously their right to stay where they were, but as you can imagine, I was pretty frustrated and stressed; I had NOT flown all the way to Texas to be trapped in the middle of a row, so I was determined to find another way to get an end seat.

Before the game, this was the view to my right…

…and this was the view to my left:

The player introductions probably lasted 10 or 20 minutes, but I don’t remember any of it. I was so nervous about my seating location that the whole thing was a blur. (I don’t like the introductions anyway. Never have. Never will. It’s just a lot of useless hype. I know who everyone is. Play the damn game.) (Wow, I sound really cranky.) (You know what? I just realized why I don’t like the intros. Twenty-five years ago, it was impossible to find out the exact time when the first pitch would be thrown. The networks would say 8pm, but then when I tuned in, there’d be half an hour of B.S. and commercials. That always pissed me off, and THAT is why the introductions still annoy me. It brings back bad memories of my precious childhood being wasted. PLAY. THE. GAME.) (Does anyone else agree?) (Yay, parentheses!) (Okay, I’m going to move on now.) (For real.)

When the game started, there happened to be an empty seat at the end of Row 9, so I grabbed it, knowing that my time there was *very* limited. This was my view of the field…

…and this was my INCREDIBLE view to the right:

I had so much room to run that I was practically drooling at the possibilities. An inning later, as I was devising various ways to celebrate if I caught a home run, the people showed up for their seats. I had to think fast, so I asked the lady sitting at the end of Row 8 if she’d be willing to slide over and give me six inches of bench space for 80 bucks. My heart sank as she said no, but just then, the guy sitting at the end of Row 7 said, “HOW much?!”

“Eighty bucks,” I said, reaching for my wallet and pulling our four crisp twenties.

“You got yourself a deal!” he said, and just like that, I had the absolute best seat that anyone has ever had in the history of major league baseball.

Of course, of the six home runs that were hit during the game, none went to center field, but that almost didn’t matter. I was having so much fun just BEING there that the 80 bucks seemed like a bargain. Albert Pujols hit three of the homers, joining Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to hit three in a World Series game. Pujols ended up going 5-for-6 with six RBIs, four runs scored, and 14 total bases. There are no words to describe him.

Late in the game, I was visited by two fans who’d brought their copies of The Baseball. The first was a 14-year-old girl named Meggie, who’d recently won an essay contest sponsored by Major League Baseball. Meggie (aka “writerkid”) posted the essay in the comments section of my previous entry, and let me just say that if you haven’t read it, you really ought to check it out. Click here to see the comments and scroll down a bit. It’s truly inspirational and very well written, not just for a teenager but for anyone. Here we are together:

The other fan was a 20-something-year-old guy named Casey, and like Meggie, he waited patiently for me to sign the book. You see, when someone asks me to sign it, I don’t simply write “Zack Hample.” That would be lame, so I try to come up with an original inscription that captures something about the person and/or the situation. As a general rule, I always need a little bit of time to think, and in this case, since the game was in progress, I could only write a few words at a time during quick breaks in the action. Here’s a photo of me and Casey:

The Cardinals won the game, 16-7, to take a 2-1 series lead — kinda nuts to have such a lopsided game in the World Series.

After the final out, I was recognized by a Korean couple who asked if they could take photos with me. Here’s a photo (taken by Ben) of me being photographed:

When I asked the couple how they knew who I was, they said that they’d just seen the documentary about me. I didn’t even know that it was out yet, so that was a pretty cool surprise. (If you don’t know about the documentary, click here and here and here and here.)

On my way out of the stadium, I saw the cutest kid of all time (dressed as an actual Cardinal) and got permission from his parents to take a photo. Have a look:

That was it. My final game of the season was only 20 hours away…

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 7 balls at this game (six pictured here because I gave one away)

• 1,150 balls in 130 games this season = 8.85 balls per game.

• 791 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 316 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 18 consecutive post-season games with at least one ball

• 6 consecutive World Series games with at least one ball

• 5,812 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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.)

• 61 donors

• $7.47 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $52.29 raised at this game

• $8,590.50 raised this season

Look for me on TV at the World Series

As I mentioned at the end of my last entry, I’m going to Games 3 and 4 of the World Series. Now I want to show you where I’ll (most likely) be sitting.

First take a look at my tickets:

As you can see, I have one ticket in section 50 for each game. Check out my seat location on the following seating chart (which I grabbed from StubHub):

Now check it out in the following photo (which I grabbed from my own blog entry):

Do you see that huge grassy area to the left of my seat? I’m *hopefully* going to be sitting right next to it, and if that happens, I’ll be able to run out there if anyone hits a bomb to dead center. Why hopefully? Because the end seat (closest to the grass) is No. 30, and my ticket is No. 28. Somehow I’m going to have to convince the two people next to me to slide over and let me sit on the end. Any suggestions? I’m thinking I could offer them BP balls and/or signed copies of my books. If that doesn’t work, I’d even consider offering to pay them — but how much? Maybe I’ll get lucky, and the folks sitting next to me won’t be thinking about catching home runs balls — but what if they are? What if they refuse to move? I don’t know if I’ll stay there. I might wander all around the stadium in search of a better opportunity.

Assuming I do get the end seat, here’s another look at where I’ll be:

In order to make myself as visible as possible, I’m going to wear these shirts:

Right now, I’m planning to go with Homer Simpson for Game 3 and the BallhawkFest shirt for Game 4. I might switch them and save Homer for Game 4, but whatever, either way, I’ll be wearing yellow, so look for me on TV.

Finally, do you remember the 17-year-old fan who ran onto the grass and caught Kelly Shoppach’s homer during Game 1 of the ALDS? He made headlines because he threw that ball back onto the field as soon as he caught it — yes, the actual ball — and looked pretty damn slick in the process. His name is Trent Williams, and I’ll be sitting in his seat. He and I met on 4/25/11 at Rangers Ballpark, and we’ve become friends. He’s really into hockey, plays on a team, and will be out of town for Games 3 and 4, so he sold me his tickets. Now I just need someone (Albert Pujols?!) to go yard…

2011 ALCS — Game 5

QUESTION: What happens when the home team falls behind three games to one?
ANSWER: Ticket prices plunge and very few people show up early for batting practice.

VERY few people. When Comerica Park opened at 2pm, there was such a small crowd outside the right field gate that I almost couldn’t believe it. There couldn’t have been more than three dozen fans, and best of all, despite the iffy weather, there *was* batting practice.

Here’s a photo of the right field stands that I took less than a minute after running into the stadium:

In the photo above, do you see the man wearing the backpack in the 4th row? That’s my friend Dave, whom you might remember from this photo on 9/10/11 at Comerica Park. See the kid standing in the front row with his back turned to the field? That’s Dave’s seven-year-old son David. And finally, do you see the fan in the white T-shirt, standing about a dozen rows back, also with his back turned to the field? That’s my friend Ben Weil, whom you might remember from a zillion different entries this season. (He’s the guy who owns more jerseys than Lady Gaga has Twitter followers.) Here we are together:

In the photo above, Ben is wearing his “BallhawkFest” T-shirt from 7/23/11 at Camden Yards, and in case you’re wondering, he’s holding up three fingers because he’d already snagged three balls. Of course, I’d already snagged four (mwhahaha!!) and when we changed into our Rangers gear, I let him know it:

How did I snag those first four balls?

The 1st was sitting on the warning track in right-center, and I reeled it in with my glove trick. The 2nd was thrown by Phil Coke in right-center; his aim was so bad that I had to lunge out of the stands and trap the ball against the padding of the outfield wall. He responded by giving me a thumbs-up and complimenting my athleticism. The 3rd ball was tossed by Doug Fister in straight-away right; it was intended for David, but sailed over his head, and since David had already snagged half a dozen balls and was rubbing it in my face (in an adorable seven-year-old kinda way), I decided to keep it…for the time being. The 4th ball was thrown by Austin Jackson in right-center, and Ben got the unofficial assist. One of the batters had hit a line drive toward the gap, so I started running toward it, hoping that I’d be able to glove-trick it at the base of the wall. Jackson, however, raced over and fielded it, and for some reason, I completely gave up. Ben shouted at me to keep going and told me to ask Jackson for the ball — so I did. And I got it. I don’t know what I was thinking. Normally, I would’ve been all over it, but in this case, I guess I just lost my focus.

I snagged my 5th ball with the glove trick, got my 6th from Neftali Feliz, and used the glove trick again for No. 7. That brought my lifetime total to 5,799 balls, so the next one was going to be extra special — and here it is, sitting two feet out from the wall on the warning track:

I used my glove trick to snag it and quickly noticed that the logo was askew. Have a look for yourself:

Did you notice that the star on the left side of “OFFICIAL” is much closer to the stitches than the star on the right? It’s not a big deal — just kinda funky.

Rangers infielder Andres Blanco had seen me using the glove trick from afar. Evidently he was intrigued because he walked over and asked me how I did it.

“Put another ball down there,” I said, “and I’ll show you.”

“No!” he yelled emphatically, shaking his right index finger and then pointing at me. “Show me with THAT ball!”

I told him that if he placed another ball on the warning track for me, I’d give it away to a kid — and that’s exactly what happened. But that’s not the whole story. While I was dangling my glove over the ball, the glove was twirling slowly, and Blanco kept moving with it so that he could see exactly how it worked. In other words, whichever direction the open pocket was facing, that’s where Blanco went, so he was practically running in circles to make sure that he had the best possible view. As a result, he wasn’t paying attention to the batter and nearly got drilled by a deep fly ball. Blanco reacted as you might expect from someone in that situation: he was startled as hell and nearly jumped out of his shoes. Rangers outfielder Endy Chavez saw the whole thing play out from shallow right field, and when Blanco cautiously turned his attention back to my glove trick, Chavez fired a ball in his direction. The ball thumped off the padding of the outfield wall and completely freaked him out, prompting a whole lot of laughter (from Chavez and his teammates) and a barrage of Spanish curses (from Blanco). It was truly hilarious.

Soon after, I took a photograph from the 3rd row in straight-away right field. Here’s what it looked like out there:

Toward the end of BP, I got Matt Harrison to toss me a ball, which was significant for two reasons:

1) It was the first time that I’d snagged 10 balls at a postseason game.
2) It was the first time that I’d snagged 10 balls at Comerica Park.

And then I got another — No. 11 on the day — with my glove trick. Harrison saw me going for it and appeared to be ever-so-slightly miffed, but was nice enough to let me keep going. Ben, meanwhile, had snagged eight (including a really nice play on which he climbed up on a bench and caught a home run), and David (who never stopped talking trash) had gotten seven.

I made it to the 1st base dugout just in time to see this:

In the photo above, do you see the two guys handling the basket of balls? The man on the left was wearing a jersey that simply said “13” on the back. There was no name, but that didn’t matter. I simply took a peek at my cheat-sheet and learned that it was a coach named Johnny Narron. Then I called his name and got him to toss me my 12th ball of the day. Hooo-haaaa!!!

Now, do you remember everything I said about the standing-room-only tickets in my previous entry? To refresh your memory, those were the tickets that Ben and I had bought, and we were allowed to stand in an awesome foul-ball spot *in* the actual cross-aisle behind home plate, but in order to keep that spot, one of us had to stay there at all times. I’m repeating this because Ben and I had the same tickets again for Game 5, and if not for a very kind gentleman named Mike, we would’ve been screwed.

Who is Mike, you ask? He’s the guy wearing the gray All-Star Game shirt in the first photo of this blog entry — and now here he was in Detroit, doing me an incredible favor. Quite simply, Mike stayed in my favorite standing-room spot for ALL of batting practice and somehow managed to prevent anyone from standing next to him. If not for this act of kindness, Ben and I would’ve had to take turns missing BP in order to stand there, or we just wouldn’t have been able to stand there at all during the game. HUGE “thanks” to Mike. I was really blown away by the sacrifice that he made for us, and because of it, this was our stellar view during the game:

Compare the tranquility of the photo above to the madness of the photo below:

It was a good game. The Rangers, one win away from their second straight World Series appearance, took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 1st inning. The Tigers tied the game in the bottom of the 3rd and took a one-run lead in the 4th. The Rangers tied it in the 5th, but the Tigers answered with four runs in the 6th. And so on. Very exciting and lots of fun.

Before the game, Mike had asked me to sign his copy of The Baseball; during the middle innings, Ben took our photo with it:

At one point, when I darted several steps for a nearby foul ball, a gray-haired security supervisor told me to be careful and added that “it’s just a baseball.” The next time he walked by, I handed him Mike’s copy of my book, told him that I’d written it, and said, “Not to me.” He was actually really cool, and we chatted for a minute between innings. He asked all about the book and told me that he has a huge collection of baseballs “dating back to the Spalding era.”

“Are these balls that you’ve purchased or snagged at games?” I asked.

“All of the above,” he said.

For the first half of the game, I never left my spot (except to chase the occasional foul ball). I never went down to the Rangers’ dugout for 3rd-out balls, and when left-handed batters stepped up to the plate, I never headed to the 3rd base side. Most of the batters were right-handed anyway, and I was content to just stand there and watch — that is, until the top of the 6th inning. That’s when I decided to move to the 3rd base side whenever there were two lefties in a row, as was the case with David Murphy and Mitch Moreland. As it turned out, one of them did hit a foul ball near me, and even though I didn’t catch it, it was nice just to use my legs and to see the game from a different angle.

In the bottom of the 6th, Alex Avila was the lone lefty, but I still made the effort to hurry to the 3rd base side. Same result: no foul ball for me, but whatever. I was having fun running around, so I wasn’t stressed out about it — but then again, I kind of did want to catch a foul ball. After batting practice, I had called Alan Schuster, the webmaster of MyGameBalls.com, and learned that I’d already broken two records: most balls at a postseason game and most balls in one game at Comerica Park. Therefore, if I did somehow manage to get another ball, I’d be setting the bar even higher for the next challenger.

Fast-forward to the top of the 7th. Elvis Andrus (a righty) was due to lead off, Josh Hamilton (a lefty) was going to bat second, and Michael Young (a righty) was in the No. 3 slot. I’d noticed that Hamilton hit lots of foul balls throughout the game, so I made sure to get over to the 3rd base side when his turn came up. Every single standing-room spot was taken over there, so in order to hang out in that vicinity, I had to stand against the side wall of a staircase behind the cross-aisle. Normally, I would’ve been kicked out of that spot, but because it was so crowded, I kinda managed to blend in. And then it happened: Hamilton swung a bit too late at a pitch from Justin Verlander (who doesn’t?) and fouled the ball back in my exact direction. At the time, I was standing on the first step of the staircase, and I determined right away that the ball was going to fall about ten feet short, so I scooted down into the aisle, then crossed the aisle, and finally headed down the steps into the seats. Lots of fans had spilled onto the staircase, so I had to weave my way around a few other guys, and at the last second, as the ball was coming right toward me, I jumped and reached up and caught the damn thing right above everyone else’s hands. Part of me was stunned; I’d actually managed to impress myself. But the other part of me just shrugged it off; I was, after all, standing in a high-probability spot, so what was the big deal? Even though I didn’t *know* that Hamilton was going to hit a foul ball, I was more prepared for it than anyone else around me, so that’s why I’d gotten a good jump on it.

By the time Ben took my photo with the ball, the sky had gotten dark, and I was feeling rather Zen about the whole thing:

Here’s a closer look at the ball itself:

It’s a shame that Major League Baseball no longer uses commemorative balls during the first two rounds of the postseason. They used to (from 1996 through 1999), and it made ballhawking much more fun. Check out this ball from the 1999 ALDS and this ball from the 1999 NLCS. Those were the good ol’ days.

Soon after I caught the Hamilton foul ball, I was approached by a teenaged fan who recognized me from this blog. His name is Mitchell, and he was with a friend named Jack. Here I am with them. Mitchell is on the left:

With two outs in the top of the 9th and the Tigers leading, 7-4, Ben and I headed down to the umpire tunnel directly behind home plate. This was our view:

In the photo above, that’s Josh Hamilton at bat. He ended up drilling a double to center field and scoring on a single by Michael Young. The next batter, Adrian Beltre, drew a five-pitch walk. Anyone want to guess what happened on the one pitch that was a strike? That’s right. Beltre hit a foul ball DIRECTLY to the spot where Ben and I had been standing ALL GAME. Unbelievable. Then Mike Napoli grounded into a fielder’s choice.

Final score: Tigers 7, Rangers 5.

After the final out, Ben and I got completely ignored by the umpire, so we hurried over to the Rangers’ dugout and got ignored by everyone over there. The highlight was seeing Nolan Ryan walk by with a few other people:

Before leaving the stadium, Ben needed 15 minutes to make some phone calls, so I passed the time in three ways. First, I stood in the middle of the concourse and looked for little kids with empty gloves. I’d decided to give away two baseballs (in addition to the one I gave away during BP), and it took quite a while to find a pair of worthy recipients. Second, I got Orel Hershiser (who strolled by casually with Dan Shulman) to sign a ticket that Mike had given to me. Check it out:

And third, I sat here and watched the rain begin to fall:

Then Ben and I made the 600-mile drive back to New York City. I got home at 6:30am and (because I’m an idiot) didn’t get into bed for three more hours.

Keep scrolling down past the stats to see a few more photos…

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 13 balls at this game (ten pictured here because I gave three away)

• 1,143 balls in 129 games this season = 8.86 balls per game.

• 790 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 315 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 181 lifetime games with ten or more balls

• 49 games this season with ten or more balls

• 32 lifetime stadiums with at least one game with ten or more balls

• 22 stadiums this season with at least one game with ten or more balls

• 165 lifetime games balls (not counting game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd; 148 foul balls, 16 home runs, and 1 ground-rule double)

• 21st time snagging foul balls during back-to-back games

• 17 consecutive postseason games with at least one ball

• 5,805 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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.)

• 61 donors

• $7.47 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $97.11 raised at this game

• $8,538.21 raised this season

Okay, ready for more photos?

First, of the ten balls that I kept, four have invisible ink stamps. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of those balls in regular light versus black light:

It’s been a while since I posted black light photos, so if you have no idea what it’s all about, click here.

Now check this out — an email that I got from the Tigers after I made it back to New York:

When I clicked the “Start Tagging” button, I was taken to a page on MLB.com that looked like this:

I started zooming in and quickly spotted myself:

Have a closer look…

…and an even closer look:

In the photo above, that’s me in the white T-shirt (yapping about something), Ben in the yellow shirt (wishing I’d shut up), and Mike standing just to the right (looking at us quizzically). Good thing we weren’t picking our noses.

Next up for me? Games 3 and 4 of the World Series. As I mentioned last night on Twitter, I’ve already booked a flight to Texas, and as I didn’t mention on Twitter, I might end up with incredible seats. Stay tuned for an update in the next few days…

2011 ALCS — Game 4

As a baseball fan without a favorite team, I was thrilled when the Yankees and Phillies got knocked out of the playoffs, but as a ballhawk from New York City, I suddenly had to make a big decision: take a road trip or call it a season.

Given the fact that (a) I’d been hoping to attend at least one game during each round of the postseason and (b) every additional ball I snagged would extend the single-season record, I decided to go for it.

Where did I end up? Have a look at the fans below:

Yeah, Comerica Park. And it was raining. Here’s what it looked like inside the stadium:

If there was one thing I wanted, it was nice weather. No…wait, let me backtrack and correct that. My friend Ben Weil had made the trip with me. We’d driven 600 miles the day before, gotten to Detroit at 2:30am, and found a really cheap hotel near the airport; if there was one thing I wanted, it was NOT to have to deal with bedbugs. (Yes, you read that right: mother-effing bedbugs! If there’s one piece of advice I can give you, it’s to avoid the Quality Inn in Romulus, Michigan.)

Supposedly there’s a bedbug epidemic in New York City, but it hasn’t affected me. In fact, I’d never even seen a bedbug until I was getting ready for bed the other night (at the Quality Inn in Romulus, Michigan). When I first saw the bug crawling on my pillow (at the Quality Inn in Romulus, Michigan), I raced over to my laptop and did a Google image search for bedbugs. Then, since the bug (at the Quality Inn in Romulus, Michigan) was nice enough to wait there for me, I took a photo of it and posted it on Twitter. And now I’m posting it on my blog:

For the record, Ben and I switched rooms/floors, slept without incident, discovered another bedbug the following night, immediately checked out (of the Quality Inn in Romulus, Michigan), got a full refund, and used the money to get an excellent room at a nearby Holiday Inn.

<insert shudder here>

Anyway, Ben and I had bought standing-room-only tickets on StubHub. The good thing about them is that we got to hang out in the cross-aisle behind home plate for the entire game. Take another look at the photo of the tarp (two photos above). That was our view all day — and I do mean ALL day. The bad thing about having standing-room-only tickets is that in order to keep our spot, one of us had to stay there at all times. Here’s a photo of Ben (wearing the Rangers hat) holding it down:

Comerica Park had opened a little more than two hours before the game was scheduled to begin, and for the first hour and a half, there was NO action on the field.

I started getting nervous about my streak. Really really nervous. I’d snagged at least one ball at every game I’d been to since September 10, 1993 — 788 consecutive games, to be exact — and now what? Was the game going to start on time? Were any players going to come out and play catch? Rain or no rain, I knew that the stadium would be packed. And what about security? I assumed that once the game started, all the ushers were going to clamp down and check everyone’s tickets. How was I going to make it down to the dugout or to the bullpens? Was I going to have to catch a foul ball during the game in order to keep my streak alive?

Finally, when it felt like the universe was really out to get me, two Rangers walked out of the dugout and began playing catch in shallow right field.

“Go,” said Ben. “It means much more to you than it does to me.”

My ears had never heard sweeter words.

I took off for the right field foul line, and when I got there, this was what I saw:

Colby Lewis (the player about to throw the ball in the photo above) was playing catch with C.J. Wilson. I hung back several rows, and when they finished, I got Wilson’s attention by shouting and waving my arms like a madman. He then chucked the ball to me (from about 75 feet away), and when I caught it, I felt a profound sense of relief. Here’s a photo of the ball…

…and here I am showing Ben how I felt:

I still desperately wanted to snag one more ball (but not AS desperately); the last time I’d left a stadium with just one ball was at the 2007 All-Star Game — a streak spanning 313 consecutive games. That said, when the rest of the Rangers pitchers came out to throw, I stayed in the cross-aisle so that Ben could try to get a ball, and let me tell you, it was painful to be so far from the action. Here’s a photo of Ben (inside the red circle) heading out to the right field corner:

He was wearing a bright red Rangers jersey (with “HAMILTON 32″ on the back), so we both figured that he’d get a ball pretty quickly. Assuming that happened, the plan was for him to hurry back so that I could then run over and try to get another ball.

Things didn’t go as planned.

As each pair of pitchers finished throwing, I saw them toss the baseballs to other fans. I felt terrible for Ben (who just wanted to get *one* ball at this playoff game), and as his chances kept slipping away, mine went down too. As it turned out, Ben didn’t get anything from the Rangers and returned empty-handed.

The game was scheduled to begin at 4:19pm, but because of the rain, there was a two-hour and 13-minute delay. Thankfully, our standing-room spot was barely covered by the overhang of the upper deck, but we still got kinda wet. Worse than that, though, was having to stand all day. Here’s a photo of us in the cross-aisle:

With a few breaks here and there, Ben and I ended up standing in that spot for NINE hours.

At around 5:15pm, it stopped raining. Half an hour later, the grounds crew removed the tarp…

…and half an hour after that, several Tigers position players began throwing in shallow left field. Even though Ben hadn’t yet gotten a ball, he *had* gotten a bunch of opportunities from the Rangers, so he agreed that it was my turn to try to get another.

With a great deal of effort, I worked my way down to the front row…

…and not surprisingly, I didn’t come close to getting a ball. Ben, meanwhile, had to watch helplessly from the cross-aisle as two pairs of Rangers played catch in front of the 1st base dugout. It was a ballhawking nightmare, and when the game finally began at 6:32pm, things weren’t looking good. He still hadn’t snagged a ball, and I only had one.

During the 1st inning, Ben and I talked about going down to the Rangers’ dugout, or at least trying. Even though this was a playoff game, the players were still going to be tossing 3rd-out balls into the crowd, so why not give it a shot, right? That’s how I felt, but for some reason, Ben wasn’t totally into the idea, so he hung back and watched my backpack.

With two outs in the bottom of the 1st, I headed toward the dugout, and when I reached the staircase that I thought was best, I turned left and walked down it. Just like that. The usher was talking to someone and had his back turned, and since it was so early in the game, I managed to find an empty (and totally wet) seat in the 6th row. I wish I could show you a photo of my view, but like I said, Ben had my backpack, so you’ll have to take my word for it. I was really there, and this really happened: Victor Martinez, batting right-handed against Matt Harrison, got under an 0-2 pitch and hit a towering pop-up to the middle of the infield. Shortstop Elvis Andrus made the catch, jogged back toward the dugout, and tossed me the ball. Just like that.

I felt like a million bucks. And things got better from there.

By the third inning, a steady mist was falling. Here’s what it looked like from our spot in the cross-aisle:

Around that time, I realized that Lou Whitaker was sitting directly behind me. Several other fans requested his autograph and asked to have their picture taken with him, but I just let him be. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t want to bother him, and I needed some time to think. Around the bottom of the 4th inning, the woman on my left asked if I was going to get him to sign anything.

“Nah,” I told her, “I don’t really go for autographs.” Then I paused for a moment and added, “I want to catch a foul ball and get a fist-bump from him.”

With two outs in the bottom of the 5th, Ryan Raburn stepped to the plate, swung at the first pitch, and sent a foul ball shooting back in my direction. Without even thinking, I quickly moved forward and darted several steps to my right and jumped and made the catch and got high-fives from everyone around me, including Mister Whitaker. Here’s a photo of the ball…

…and here I am getting that fist-bump:

(See all those white blobs and speckles in the photo above? Those are raindrops reflecting the light from my camera’s flash.)

Catching that ball was pretty damn exciting, but it didn’t really surprise me. You might recall that I caught two foul balls during the game on 9/11/11 at Comerica Park, so this just kinda felt like an extension of that. At Comerica, the cross-aisle behind the plate is one of the best places to catch foul balls in the majors, so I wasn’t merely hoping to get another; I was expecting it, and when it first started flying back toward me, I simply knew that I was going to catch it.

The game itself was a thriller, and OF COURSE it went into extra innings. I mean, we’d already been there all day, and our feet were already clammy and numb, so hey, why not? With the score tied, 3-3, Josh Hamilton led off the 11th inning with a double to right field off Jose Valverde. Adrian Beltre drew a one-out intentional walk, and it backfired; Mike Napoli followed with an RBI single to center, and Nelson Cruz put the game away (and gave the Rangers a 3-1 series lead) with a three-run homer to left-center. Final score: Rangers 7, Tigers 3.

After the game, there was a whole lot of activity on the field in front of the Rangers’ dugout:

Ben and I stuck around, and five minutes later, a ballboy poked his head out of the dugout and started tossing balls into the crowd. I caught one, and Ben kinda-sorta-but-not-really got one too. The ball he got was rolling toward him at an awkward angle on the dugout roof. As he was carefully lunging for it (so as not to bump into the woman on his right), a man reached out and grabbed the ball and handed it to him. The man was holding a little boy in his arms, and they’d just gotten another ball, so he was glad to give this one to Ben. The problem was that Ben wasn’t the first fan to actually acquire possession of the ball, so even though it was intended for him, he decided not to count it in his stats. It was a brutal way for him to end the night — but it wasn’t nearly as bad as having a bedbug (at the Quality Inn in Romulus, Michigan) crawl on him at four in the morning. Is there a bedbug epidemic in Arlington, Texas? If not, I might have to start rooting for the Rangers to reach the World Series.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 4 balls at this game (three pictured here because I gave one to a little kid after catching the foul ball)

• 1,130 balls in 128 games this season = 8.83 balls per game.

• 789 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 314 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 147 foul balls during games (including two during the post-season; the other one hit by Jorge Fabregas in the 13th inning of Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS)

• 16 consecutive postseason games with at least one ball

• 5,792 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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.)

• 60 donors

• $7.46 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $29.84 raised at this game

• $8,429.80 raised this season

2011 ALDS — Game 5

This game drew the largest crowd in the three-year history of the new Yankee Stadium — 50,960 fans to be exact — and it seemed as if all of them were waiting outside Gate 6. Look how packed it was:

It’s always packed at Yankee Stadium, and it’s always extra-packed in October, but in this case, it was ridiculously packed because of how late the gates opened. Yankee Stadium normally opens two hours before game time. Anyone want to guess how early it opened for this VERY important decisive Game 5 of the playoffs?

That’s right: two hours before game time.

If the Phillies, Rangers, Nationals, Mariners, Red Sox, Indians, Padres, Brewers, Reds, Royals, and Braves all open their stadiums two and a half hours early DURING THE REGULAR SEASON, why the hell can’t the almighty Yankees open that early during the playoffs? (Okay, fine, so the Brewers, Reds, and Royals charge extra to get inside that early, but still.) Three words: That’s the Yankees.

Anyway, when the stadium finally did open, I raced out to the right field seats, and before things got crazy, I caught my first ball of the day — a home run that I think was hit by Eric Chavez. I was in the second-to-last row and ran about 30 feet to my right. The ball was so high above me that I didn’t think I was going to be able to reach it, so I kinda jumped for the hell of it and was surprised to feel it smack the pocket of my glove. Then I headed to the left field side and caught two more homers there. I’m not sure who hit the first. I think Eduardo Nunez hit the second. I had to jump for both of those balls and reach up through a sea of hands. It was stupid-crowded out there.

When the Tigers took the field, I headed into foul territory and stayed ten rows back. This was my view:

See the double-arrow in the photo above? It’s pointing to Brad Penny (left) and Phil Coke (right). Each of those guys threw balls to me. The ball from Penny was a laser that nearly fell short; I had to lunge over the row in front of me and made a back-handed grab. The ball from Coke was thrown slower, but sailed 10 feet over my head; I had to scramble for it and chase it down in the mostly empty seats. Some random fan who saw me snag both balls called me greedy. I shrugged at the time and gave one away after BP.

An interesting phenomenon of October baseball is that it often gets dark during batting practice. Check it out:

In the photo above, the little white speck at the top is the moon, and if you’re thinking that the seats don’t look particularly crowded, that’s because the security supervisor had just swept through and kicked everyone out who didn’t have a ticket for that section. What’s up with that, you ask? Three words: That’s the Yankees.

Before the game, while standing beside the left field bullpen, I got my 6th ball from Tigers coach Mike Rojas.

When the game started, this was my view:

With one out in the top of the 1st, Don Kelly and Delmon Young hit back-to-back homers to put the Tigers on top, 2-0. That made me very happy (despite the fact that neither ball came close to me).

Joe Girardi, accused by many of over-managing, brought CC Sabathia into the game in the top of the 5th. Austin Jackson greeted the big lefty with a double down the left field line. After that, Kelly and Young both went down swinging, Miguel Cabrera was intentionally walked, and Victor Martinez delivered an RBI single to center. Tigers 3, Yankees 0. That made me even happier.

The crowd, meanwhile, was surprisingly dead for an elimination game. Sure, there were moments when everyone was standing (and screaming obscenities at the Tigers relievers), but compared to Game 1 of the NLDS in Philadelphia, this felt like the Cactus League. Yankee fans, it seems, have come to expect so much that they no longer appreciate anything. This game was simply “business as usual” — nothing more than an annoying hurdle that the team would simply kick down en route to its 28th championship. I got the sense that if the Yankees won, Yankee fans would criticize the team for not beating the Tigers in Game 4.

In the bottom of the 5th, Robinson Cano crushed a two-out solo homer into the second deck in right field, and two innings later, Mark Teixeira drew a bases-loaded walk to make it a one-run game. The story of the 7th inning, however, and of the entire series, for that matter, was Alex Rodriguez’s inability to do anything. A-Rod had batted before Teixeira and struck out. Nick Swisher, meanwhile, batted after Teixeira and also struck out.

For the Tigers and Yankees, the entire season boiled down to that moment. If Swisher had been able to get a hit with the bases loaded, two runs would’ve scored, and the Yankees would’ve taken the lead. Then it would’ve been lights out for Detroit with David Robertson pitching the 8th and Mariano Rivera pitching the 9th. (Have you seen Robertson’s stats? He finished the regular season with a 1.08 ERA and struck out 100 batters in 66 2/3  innings. That’s just sick.)

As the Tigers batted in the top of the 9th inning, Jose Valverde, 50-for-50 in save opportunities this season, was lurking in the bullpen:

The Tigers still had a 3-2 lead when the game entered the bottom of the 9th inning. Curtis Granderson led off, and when the count went full, I felt that the entire season was once again on the line. If Granderson walked, it would set up a rally for the heart of the order, but if Valverde managed to get him out, then the Tigers were set. As it turned out, Granderson hit a routine fly ball to left fielder Ryan Raburn.

One out.

Next up? The Yankees’ best player — Robinson Cano.

Cano went after the first pitch and hit a rocket up the middle. Unfortunately for him, it had a bit too much hang time and went directly to center fielder Austin Jackson.

Two outs.

It was hard to believe that the Yankees’ season was one out away from ending. Of course, A-Rod was stepping to the plate, and I seriously had no idea how it would turn out. With one swing of the bat, he could go from goat to hero — but I was expecting him to fail. Valverde quickly got ahead in the count 0-2, and I knew it was over. A-Rod hadn’t even swung at the first two pitches, which he really can’t be blamed for. He was probably taking the first pitch just to work the count, and then he probably got fooled on the second pitch and happened to take it for a strike, but still, as the saying goes, “Stick a fork in him — he’s done!” A-Rod took the third pitch and then swung through the next one, and just like that, the Yankees’ season was over. Although the game lasted three hours and 34 minutes, it still felt sudden. The Tigers relievers raced out of the bullpen (note the celebration in the following photo, way off in the distance) and a swat team of police officers lined the field:

The crowd was stunned and angry. As most folks hung their heads and filed out, several people flung full cups of beer onto the field. (Those beers cost $12. What were they thinking?!) It was the closest thing to a riot that you’ll see in the new museum-like stadium.

Less than a minute later, I peeked down into the bullpen and saw this:

The Tigers’ bullpen crew was in such a rush to celebrate that they left nearly a dozen balls behind! (In addition to the cluster on the mound, there were several other balls scattered about, including one near the bottom right corner of the “Scotts” advertisement. See it sitting there?) I ended up getting one of the balls tossed to me by a groundskeeper. My friend Ben Weil got two, thanks to a lucky bounce and some solid hustling on his part. Here we are before heading out:

Ben is the guy who owns a googolplex jerseys. This one said “CHAPEL 14″ on the back. Do you know why? Or who Chapel is?

As Ben and I walked toward his car, we saw something funny on a nearby street. Someone had made a little sign and left it leaning up against a gate:

The sign didn’t actually say “censored.” I photoshopped that in there to shield you from a certain expletive. While I was photographing the sign, several Yankee fans walked by, and they were all cursing A-Rod. Two guys went on and on about the portion of their anatomy they supposedly wanted A-Rod to suck, and a woman took off her A-Rod jersey and trampled it, right there on the gum-stained sidewalk. I filmed a short video of the shenanigans, which I’d *love* to put on YouTube, but it’s so “offensive” that I don’t think I should. Of course, it’s fine for TV networks to show people getting killed — hooray for guns and violence! — but god forbid anyone from hearing a curse every once in a while, or worse, seeing a naked female breast! Think about the children!

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 7 balls at this game (six pictured here because I gave one away)

• 1,126 balls in 127 games this season = 8.87 balls per game.

• 788 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 313 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 157 consecutive Yankees home games with at least one ball

• 15 consecutive postseason games with at least one ball

• 5,788 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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.)

• 60 donors

• $7.46 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $52.22 raised at this game

• $8,399.96 raised this season

2011 NLDS — Game 1

As far as playoff games go, this one was rather uneventful. The first pitch was scheduled for a little after 5pm, the stadium was going to open at 2:30pm, and because there wasn’t any traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, I arrived at 12:30pm. Not surprisingly, there weren’t any other fans at the left field gate:

An hour and a half later, there were signs of life on the street next to the stadium:

There was a band (playing a Simple Minds cover — guess which one) and a huge inflatable slide (for kids only — life is unfair):

There were radio tents doing live broadcasts. There was free ice cream, courtesy of Turkey Hill. And so on. It was fun and festive but whatever. I just wanted to get inside the stadium and start my day of snagging. Before I could do that, however, I needed a ticket, and supposedly I was going to be receiving one (for free!) from a gentleman named Howard Goldstein.

I’d only met Howard in person once before, but we’d be emailing back and forth sporadically since he first got in touch with me last October. Why did he initially get in touch? Because he’s a historian/collector of all things related to Jews in baseball, and he heard about me in a Yahoo chat group. (Yes, I’m Jewish, although I’m probably the least religious person you’ll ever meet.) Recently, he’d gotten back in touch with an offer to treat me to a Phillies playoff game — so here I was, waiting and hoping that (a) he’d actually show up, (b) he’d arrive before the gates opened, and (c) our tickets wouldn’t be in the last row of the upper deck.

As it turned out, Howard got there with plenty of time to spare and handed me a ticket for the ideal section. Check it out:

In the photo above, that’s Howard looking at the camera, and as you can see, the ticket was for section 130 — ten rows behind the visitors’ dugout! How did I get so lucky?

There was quite a crowd by the time the gates opened…

…and because I was the first one to run in, I snagged two easy baseballs within a minute. The first was an Easter egg sitting half a dozen rows back in left-center field, and the second was a homer that I caught on the fly in straight-away left. (Not sure who hit it.)

After that, there wasn’t much action for me during the Phillies’ portion of BP. There were plenty of home runs, but no matter where they landed, there always seemed to be at least three guys with gloves camped out underneath them. (Welcome to Philadelphia.) I played all the way back here for Hunter Pence…

…and it nearly paid off. He ended up launching a home run that pretty much came right to me, but as I reached up to make the catch, someone in front of me reached a bit higher and caught it. The same thing had happened ten minutes earlier on a homer near the front of the section; I was in a near-perfect spot and reached up for what should’ve been an easy catch, but someone else grabbed it right in front of me. Very frustrating.

While I was running all over the place, Howard was kind enough to watch my stuff. Here he is at the back of the section:

Howard came with me when I headed to right field. This was the view…

…and it was totally dead. (I need to stop expecting Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to go yard during BP. They were completely useless on 9/8/11 at Miller Park, and they were just as bad earlier this week at Turner Field. Of course, the Phillies swept the Braves during that final series of the regular season and ended up with the best record in baseball, so perhaps I should stop criticizing the players’ pre-game routine.)

Back in left field, I used my glove trick to snag a ball that rolled onto the warning track. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being photographed from afar. Here’s a photo that shows me dangling my glove above the ball…

…and here’s another that shows me reeling it in:

(Planking with a purpose! Almost.)

Those photos were taken by a guy named Joe whom I’d met twice before, most recently on 8/4/11 at Sun Life Stadium. He had brought his copy of The Baseball that day. Remember?

Anyway, I ended up giving that ball to Howard, and when the Cardinals pitchers finished throwing, I got a ball in foul territory from Jake Westbrook. Here’s a photo that I took moments later as he was walking off:

I snagged two more balls during BP, both of which were home runs that I caught on the fly in left-center. I’m not sure who hit the first one, but I can tell you that Albert Pujols hit the second. By that point, the seats in straight-away left field were packed:

That’s why I was all the way out in left-center. It’s not that I knew that there’d be home runs landing there. If anything, it was a lower-probability spot. I just figured that since it was less crowded, I’d have a much better chance if anything happened to come my way. And then I got lucky.

Before the gates had opened, I ran into a kid named Harrison who recognized me from this blog. He was *really* hoping to snag a ball — and also hoping that I’d  include a photo of him in this entry.

DOUBLE-WIN!!

Here I am with Harrison, who’s holding the TWO baseballs that he’d snagged:

I had snagged six, but given two away. In addition to the ball I gave Howard, I handed one to a little boy at the very end of BP. As the players were jogging off the field, I saw him walking up the steps (in left-center) looking completely bummed. His mom was trying to cheer him up, so I inched closer and asked, “You didn’t snag a ball today?” I already knew the answer, and when the boy shook his head, I handed him a ball. Some kids don’t really seem to care when I give them baseballs (some even refuse the balls in the first place), but this kid’s face lit up. It was pretty damn cute.

As for Harrison, he told me that he reads this blog every day, and he proved it when he mentioned some details about my final entry from Atlanta. He also has a glove trick, and he owns copies of my last two books, so he’s well on his way to ballhawking superstardom.

After BP (which, by the way, ended more than an hour before game time), Howard headed straight to his seat, and I went to get food. Ten minutes later, as I headed down the steps into section 130, I took the following photo to show where he was sitting:

Not bad. But there was one small problem: our seats weren’t on the end of the row. More specifically, Howard had seat N0. 6 and I had seat No. 5. The first four belonged to Howard’s friends — two men and two women — so after they all got settled in, I turned to them and said, “Okay, how many beers do I need to buy you guys in order to get to sit on the end?”

“We’ll take two baseballs instead,” said one of the women.

For a moment, I thought she was kidding, but then she added, “We have two kids, and they’ll love ‘em.”

And so? I gave her two baseballs. Here’s her husband putting them in his bag:

The end seat was mine. Even if I didn’t end up snagging any extra baseballs as a result, it was great to at least have a chance. I really don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the game if I had to watch it from the middle of the row.

This was my view during the pre-game introductions…

…and this is what it looked like in the top of the 1st inning:

Roy Halladay was pitching. Easy win for the Phillies, right? Not so fast. Two minutes after I took that photo, Lance Berkman launched a three-run homer.

My end seat came in handy at the end of the 2nd inning. Raul Ibanez grounded out (off Kyle Lohse) to 3rd baseman David Freese. Freese threw the ball across the diamond to 1st baseman Albert Pujols. Pujols jogged back toward the dugout with it, and when he reached the foul line, he flipped it to catcher Yadier Molina. Molina then tossed it to me on his way in. Look how beat up the ball is:

When I first looked at it, I thought that it might’ve been the infield warm-up ball — you know, that Pujols might’ve made the switch before flipping the actual gamer to Molina. But the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that Pujols hadn’t yet received the warm-up ball from the dugout, which would mean that I did get the game-used ball. But if that’s the case, why was it so beat up?

Do you remember the blog entry that I posted earlier this year called “Baseballs and black light“? Well, here’s a two-part photo of the 3rd-out ball; the image on the left shows it in regular light, and the image on the right shows it in black light:

As you can see, there’s a faint invisible ink stamp on it. (Ohh, black light, how I’ve missed thee…)

The funny moment of the day occurred in the bottom of the 3rd inning. See if you can figure out what’s happening based on the following photo:

There were two Cardinals fans sitting two rows in front of me; the Phillie Fanatic climbed in front of them and scratched its ass in their faces.

I was also wearing Cardinals gear, and I took my own share of abuse for it. When I caught the two BP homers in left-center field, I got booed by the entire section, and for the rest of the night, whenever I went anywhere (to the bathroom, for example, or to get food), there was at least one random Phillies fan who screamed “Cardinals suck!!!” in my face. (Welcome to Philadelphia.)

Here’s a photo of Ryan Howard at bat in the bottom of the 6th inning…

…and here’s a photo of him rounding 3rd base after CRUSHING a three-run homer into the second deck in straight-away right field:

ESPN Home Run Tracker estimates that the ball traveled 423 feet.

Two batters later, Raul Ibanez hit a two-run homer to put the Phillies on top, 6-3. Then the Phillies scored three runs in the 7th and two more in the 8th to put the game away. The Cardinals plated three runs in the 9th, which sort-of-almost-maybe-but-not-really made things interesting. And that was it. Final score: Phillies 11, Cardinals 6.

After the final out, I couldn’t get near the umpires, but I still managed to snag two more baseballs. The first was tossed by a ballboy, and when the Cardinals relievers walked in from the bullpen…

…I got another ball rolled to me across the dugout roof. I’m not sure who tossed it because all the guys had just disappeared from view. At the time, there was a little kid standing next to me with a glove, and since he hadn’t gotten a ball, I gave him one of mine.

Then I posed for a photo with Howard…

…and signed the ball that I’d given to him. Here’s how he asked me to sign it:

FYI, David is his son.

After my name, I wrote:

NLDS Game 1
10-01-11

Many MANY thanks to Howard for his generosity. He could’ve sold his extra ticket for quite a bit of money, so I truly appreciate that he chose to give it to me instead.

As for the rest of the postseason, I have no definitive plans. All I can say is that I *really* want to attend at least one game in each round. I feel like that would be a solid end to an epic season — all 30 stadiums, 1,000 balls, the Home Run Derby, All-Star Game, and one game in each round of the postseason. It has a nice to ring to it, no? Of course, since I don’t have tickets, I’m at the mercy of StubHub, so if anyone can help me out (even by selling me a ticket at a reasonable price), that would be awesome.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 9 balls at this game (four pictured here because I gave five away)

• 1,119 balls in 126 games this season = 8.88 balls per game.

• 787 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 14 consecutive postseason games with at least one ball

• 5,781 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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.)

• 60 donors

• $7.46 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $67.14 raised at this game

• $8,347.74 raised this season

9/28/11 at Turner Field

The playoffs arrived one day early in Atlanta — sort of.

This was the final game of the regular season, and the Braves were tied with the Cardinals for the National League wild-card. Of course, since the Cardinals were playing the Astros in Houston, there was a chance that things would still be tied at the end of the day.

Lots of fans showed up early…

…and none of them sounded confident when I asked them what they thought of their team’s chances.

“The way things’ve been going,” said one fan, “they’ll probably lose this game.”

“They might win tonight,” said his friend, “but they’re definitely not going deep into October.”

I was stunned by the extreme pessimism. Granted, the Braves had melted down in September, but still, anything is possible in baseball, right?

Things got off to a good start for me during batting practice. When I first ran inside, I saw a ball sitting in the gap behind the left-center field wall and snagged it with my glove trick. Just as I was recoiling my string, a home run landed half a dozen rows behind me and bounced back onto the field. I got Jason Heyward to toss it to me and then raced over to the seats in right-center. Less than five minutes later, George Sherrill threw me my 3rd ball of the day (I offered it to a little girl who refused), and I followed that up by reeling in another ball from the gap. This is what it looked like when I pulled it out of my glove:

Ew. But then again, it was only mud…I hope.

Seriously, though, the gap was wet and muddy in some places. Did you notice the water in the gap in the previous photo? I had actually decided that if a ball landed in that puddle, I was going to leave it there. Thankfully, that never happened because I probably would’ve changed my mind and gone for it. And that would’ve been messy.

I used my glove trick again to snag another ball from the gap in right-center. Then I moved to right field and got Cristhian Martinez to toss me my 6th ball. In the following photo, Martinez is the player on the left (with his arms folded) near the edge of the warning track:

When the Braves’ portion of BP ended, I was standing behind their dugout on the 1st base side. Hitting coach Larry Parrish tossed me my 7th ball of the day…

…and bench coach Carlos Tosca flipped one to me moments later:

In case you’re wondering, yes, I took those photos myself (and yes, my timing was a bit too quick with Parrish). My glove was on my left hand. My camera was in my right hand. Easy.

Incidentally, the ball from Tosca was the 2,500th that I’d ever snagged outside of New York — a nice little personal milestone, but whatever, let’s not dwell on that. Do you remember the two tape-measure homers by Hunter Pence that I snagged the day before during BP? Well, Pence was at it again, and I was back in position. This was my view from deep left field…

…and this was what it looked like on my right:

Long story short: I caught three of his homers on the fly. I reached over the railing for the first one, drifted a bit to my left for the second, and made the best play of all on the third.

Long story long: Pence’s final homer was somewhat of a line drive, and I determined fairly quickly that it was going to sail over the aisle. I had to run about 30 feet to my right, and there were two other (gloveless) guys who ran for it too — one who was right in front of me and another who came charging from the opposite direction. At the very last second, when the two guys converged at the spot where they thought the ball was heading, I scampered up the steps that led to the seats above the aisle. I didn’t make it far — just far enough to watch the ball clear their outstretched hands and smack into the pocket of my glove. The guys weren’t pissed. They knew they’d been beaten fair and square, and one of them congratulated me. One of the ushers (pictured above in the red shirts) came over and asked me if I played ball. When I told him that I briefly played college ball, he told me that it showed — that he could tell by the way I got good jumps on the ball and that he’d never seen anyone move like that in the stands. That was really nice to hear.

Two minutes later, when Carlos Ruiz stepped into the cage to take his last few cuts, I darted back down into the seats. I knew that he wasn’t going to reach the cross-aisle, and sure enough, he ended up hitting a home run that pretty much came right to me. I had to drift 10 feet to my left and make a leaping catch, and when I came back down with the ball, the whole section was buzzing. Soon after, I had a chance to catch a 5th homer on the fly, but because I took a bad route for it, I ended up one row too far back, and when I reached down as far as I could, the ball tipped off the end of my glove and deflected to another fan. So you see? I’m not perfect. And by the way, the first Hunter Pence homer was my 1,100th ball of the season.

My 13th ball of the day was tossed by Ryan Madson in right field. Here’s a photo of him that I took moments later:

Before Madson hooked me up, he’d been tossing balls left and right to little kids and attractive women. I knew that in order to be considered for a free souvenir, I was going to have to stand out in some way or say something clever.

“Hey, Ryan,” I eventually shouted, “I’m not cute, but can I please have a ball anyway?”

That’s all it took.

At one point, when Madson tossed a ball to a little boy, the kid’s mother asked for another for her other child.

“One baseball per family,” said Madson with the hint of a smile. He was really friendly to everyone, including me when he ultimately recognized me.

“How many shirts are you wearing?” he asked.

“Umm, well, I *do* have another shirt on underneath this,” I said, tugging at my Phillies gear.

“It’s a Braves shirt, right?”

“No!” I said with exaggerated denial, lifting it up to reveal my yellow Homer Simpson shirt.

Madson laughed and then jogged off to retrieve another ball. When he returned, I had to get his attention all over again, so I shouted, “Ryan, am I in trouble?!”

He turned back and took a quick glance at me and shook his head.

“But how did you know who I am?!” I asked.

Madson responded by pointing at a coach/BP assistant named Ali Modami.

“HE told you?!” I asked.

Madson nodded.

Evidently, he was done using actual words to communicate because when I asked him how Modami knew, he just shrugged, and that was the end of it. Modami was too far away for me to try to engage him in conversation. Perhaps I’ll run into him someday and ask — or maybe I’ll avoid making eye contact so that he won’t remember me. How else will I be able to con him into tossing me another ball, mwahaha?

Thankfully, Michael Schwimer didn’t recognize me (despite having given me two baseballs earlier in the month) and threw me my 14th ball of the day.

At the every end of BP, I had another “I’m not perfect” moment when I jumped as high as I could for a home run and failed to catch it cleanly. I did, however, manage to get my glove on it and snag it after it landed near me. That ball was brand new so I gave it to the nearest fan. I mean, I would’ve given it away regardless, but I was glad that it was new. I prefer to keep the beat-up baseballs (like the one below) because they have character:

Those are two photos of the same ball — a beautiful ball that lived a happy life of major league use and fulfillment.

After BP, I wandered through the concourse in search of dinner. (I ended up getting a decent slice of pepperoni pizza.) On the way, I ran into this guy:

I didn’t know him. I just had to say hello and take his picture, and in case you’re wondering, the back of his jersey said, “RYAN 34.”

You remember what I said about the Astros at the beginning of this entry, right? They were going to be playing the Cardinals. The Braves and Cardinals were tied for the wild-card lead, so to put it simply, Braves fans were rooting hardcore for the Astros.

Ready for a little eye-candy? This was the scene after the national anthem:

During the game, or at least the first eight innings of the game, I sat in the front row behind the Phillies’ dugout. This was my view:

Not bad, eh?

The story of the game, at least for me, was (a) toss-ups and (b) scoreboard watching.

When Freddie Freeman grounded out to Chase Utley to end the 3rd inning, I didn’t have to move. All I did was stand up and wave my arms, and Ryan Howard tossed me the ball on his way back to the dugout. The ball was clearly intended for me, but there was a little kid standing nearby, so I handed him a ball — not THE actual game-used ball, but one of the balls that I’d gotten during BP. The kid, of course, didn’t know the difference, and his parents thanked me.

As for the scoreboard watching, the Braves jumped out to 3-1 lead…

…and that was a very very very good thing for the folks in Atlanta because the Cardinals put up a five-spot in the top of the 1st:

The Cardinals’ lead wasn’t particularly surprising; entering the final day of the regular season, the Astros’ won-lost record was 56-105.

In the top of the 6th inning, Hunter Pence swung a bit too soon and a bit too high at a 1-0 pitch from Tim Hudson. The result was a foul grounder that slammed off the protective fence in front of the Phillies’ dugout and ricocheted to Braves 3rd baseman Chipper Jones. Jones scooped up the ball and tossed it to Phillies 3rd base coach Juan Samuel. Samuel then under-handed it to me, and I promptly handed it to the nearest kid. I really wanted to keep that ball, but giving it away seemed like the appropriate thing to do, and since I didn’t have a BP ball handy, I turned over the actual game-used ball. Whatever. It was still fun to snag it, and I was glad to get to add Samuel’s name to my list. (Did you know that Samuel held the rookie stolen base record before Vince Coleman? True story. Check out Samuel’s stats. They were really impressive in the early years of his career. Sure, he struck out way too much, but I used to love to look at the back of his baseball cards. I loved how he achieved double digits in doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases in each of his first four full seasons. I loved that in his first full season, he amassed 701 at-bats. At the time, he was only the second player in major league history to do that; Willie Wilson held the record with 705. This is how I spent much of my childhood — marveling and obsessing over baseball statistics and hoping that one day I would amass some impressive stats of my own.)

With two outs in the bottom of the 6th inning, runners on first and second, and the Braves still holding a 3-1 lead, Jack Wilson ripped a line drive single to right field. Dan Uggla, the runner on second, attempted to score, but was thrown out at the plate by Hunter Pence. Carlos Ruiz made the tag and lobbed the ball to me on his way in. I wasn’t anywhere near the home-plate end of the dugout, so I was surprised that Ruiz saw me, but hey, very few of the nearby Phillies fans had gloves, so I received most of the snag-related attention. This was my 18th ball of the day, and as soon as I caught it, I handed one of my BP balls to another kid. Normally, if a grown man catches even one ball near a dugout, he’ll get booed, but because I kept giving balls away, no one was pissed off. In fact, everyone kept giving me thumbs-ups and acknowledging my generosity.

At the start of the day, I’d decided that when the game ended, I wanted to be behind the winning team’s dugout, so when Craig Kimbrel came in to protect the Braves’ 3-2 lead in the top of the 9th, I headed to the 1st base side. This was my view:

As you can see in the photo above, there were a couple of runners on base. For the Braves, the inning was a disaster. All they needed to do was NOT allow a run, and they would’ve at least been guaranteed to play a 163rd game the next day in St. Louis. By this point, the Cardinals had jumped out to an 8-0 lead over the Astros, so the Braves HAD to win this game or their season would be over. Kimbrel, however, cracked under pressure. After allowing a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, he issued back-to-back, one-out walks to Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins. That loaded the bases for Chase Utley, who delivered a game-tying sacrifice fly. Kimbrel then walked the next batter and got yanked by manager Fredi Gonzalez. Kris Medlen entered the game and got Michael Martinez to hit an inning-ending pop-up, but the damage was done. The Braves had lost their momentum, and the game was tied, 3-3.

Meanwhile, an equally tense showdown was playing out in the American League. The Red Sox (on the verge of a historic collapse) and Rays (on the verge of an equally historic comeback) were also tied for the wild-card. As you can see below, the Sox were clinging to a 3-2 lead in Baltimore…

…and the Rays were getting blown out at home against the Yankees:

I don’t have a favorite team, so I tend to pull for underdogs, and in this case the Rays clearly qualified. It wasn’t looking good for them, though, but I remember thinking about how awesome it would be if they came back to tie the game. I don’t know why I even thought it was possible, but I did. That’s baseball. Anything IS possible.

As the Braves game moved to the bottom of the 10th inning…

…the Cardinals game went final:

Now it was official: the Braves truly HAD to win this game.

Twenty minutes later, I nearly did a double-take when I glanced up at the American League scores. Never mind the fact that the Red Sox were in a rain delay. Look at the Rays score on the upper right:

OH MY GOD!!!

And then, against all odds, the Rays tied the game in the bottom of the 9th!

Sorry for the lousy photo quality, but my puny camera isn’t really designed to zoom that far in.

Unfortunately for the Braves, they ran out of quality pitchers in the 13th inning. That’s what my friend (and diehard Braves fan) Katie implied when Scott Linebrink entered the game. At that point, she predicted that the Braves were going to blow it, and she was right. Brian Schneider drew a one-out walk, and Chase Utley and Hunter Pence hit back-to-back singles to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead. Pence’s bat, it should be noted, traveled about as far as the ball did; it shattered into a zillion pieces, but did its job. The ball found somewhat of a hole on the right side of the infield and sucked the energy right out of the stadium.

In the bottom of the 13th, I moved back to the Phillies’ side. The ushers weren’t checking tickets — they were too busy watching the game — so I waltzed down the staircase at the home-plate end of the dugout. Everyone on my right was standing. Everyone on my left was sitting:

I didn’t care who won. I just wanted the game to be as exciting as possible, so if anything, I was rooting for Chipper Jones (at bat in the photo above) to go yard.

That’s not what happened. He struck out swinging on a foul tip.

Dan Uggla, the following batter, had hit a two-run homer on an 0-2 count off Cole Hamels in the 3rd inning. This time up, with two outs in the bottom of the 13th, he fell behind in the count 1-2, but ended up drawing a walk off David Herndon. Excellent plate appearance. The Braves had life. But then Freddie Freeman grounded into a 3-6-3 double play to end the season.

What?!
Yeah.

I managed to get one more ball from home plate umpire Dale Scott. That was my 19th of the day and 1,110th of the regular season. Here’s a look at it:

I was surprised to see a dirt/scuff mark on a ball that came from the umpire. Normally, balls that get scuffed are tossed out of play, but for whatever reason, Scott decided to stick this one back in his pouch. I’m not complaining, of course. I think it’s pretty damn special to have snagged four game-used balls in one game.

The stadium cleared out pretty fast:

Did you notice the out-of-town scoreboard in the photo above?

What scoreboard, you ask?

Exactly.

As soon as the final outs were recorded, the scores were replaced by the words “DRIVE HOME SAFELY.”

In my case, it should’ve said, “WALK BACK TO YOUR HOTEL SAFELY.”

On the way there, I stopped at a sports bar/restaurant called The Bullpen. There were more TVs in the place than I could count, and most of them were tuned to two different games — the Red Sox and Rays. The Sox players were walking off the field completely dejected.

“Did this just happen?!” I asked a group of guys sitting nearby.

Yes. It happened. After an 86-minute rain delay, Jonathan Papelbon had *just* blown a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the 9th. Final score: Orioles 4, Red Sox 3.

And then?

Minutes later, the MLB Network showed Evan Longoria hitting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th. At first, I didn’t get THAT excited because I figured it was a replay; the MLB Network has so many “live look-ins” combined with five-minute-old highlights that it’s hard to tell what’s what. But then it hit me. The Rays had won and were going to the playoffs!!!

It was truly an unbelievable night of baseball, and I was thrilled to have seen (and snagged) some of it in person.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 19 balls at this game (15 pictured here because I gave 4 away)

• 1,110 balls in 125 games this season = 8.88 balls per game.

• 143 balls in 10 lifetime games at Turner Field = 14.3 balls per game.

• 786 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 311 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 180 lifetime games with ten or more balls

• 5,772 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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.)

• 60 donors

• $7.46 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $141.74 raised at this game

• $8,280.60 raised this season

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