Results tagged ‘ espn ’

2009 NLDS — Game 2

This wasn’t just another game. Not only was it the National League Division Series — Cardinals vs. Dodgers — but there was something extra special about it for me: it was the day before my appearance on “The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien” and I was going to be filmed by a roving camera crew.

Half an hour before the gates opened, I headed to the Top Deck and picked up my media credential:

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I headed down to the left field pavilion and met up with the crew along the way. Here I am explaining my various T-shirts to the camera:

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Once inside the stadium, my job was simple: snag as many balls as possible so that there’d be some exciting footage for the show.

In the photo below (taken by my girlfriend Jona), I’m the guy wearing the “RAMIREZ 99″ shirt:

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There wasn’t much action early on — I had a couple close calls — so I spent most of my time explaining things to the camera.

Finally, after 15 minutes of nothingness, Manny Ramirez launched a home run over my head and I raced up the steps:

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There was an all-out scramble for the ball as it rattled around underneath the benches, and I managed to come up with it. Huge relief. Up until that point, I felt like I was personally letting down Conan — like I was a ballhawk fraud who’d made preposterous claims and then failed to back them up.

Several minutes later, I caught a ground-rule double behind the left field wall…and that was it for the Dodgers’ portion of BP. Not good. I’d been hoping to pad my numbers early on before it got crowded, but at least both of the balls had a Dodgertown stamp on the sweet spot. (If you want to see my complete collection of stamped/marked balls, click here.)

Because of my media credential, I was able to exit the pavilion and re-enter the main part of the stadium. My plan? To get some balls from the Cardinals on the right field side. First, of course, I changed into my bright red Cardinals gear, and even though my Dodgers shirt was poking out underneath, I was able to convince Ryan Franklin to toss me a ball. If you look closely at the photo below, you can barely see the edge of the ball as it disappeared into the pocket of my glove:

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Soon after, Matt Pagnozzi threw me my fourth ball of the day. Here I am preparing for the easy two-handed catch:

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I headed to the right field pavilion after that and snagged a home run that ricocheted down into the gap behind the wall. (I’m not sure who hit it.) Then, when Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday started taking their cuts, I raced back around to the left field side and positioned myself deep in the cross-aisle, more than 400 feet from home plate. Holiday hit two consecutive bombs that reached the aisle. I bolted to my right for the first one, but it sailed over my head and was promptly snatched by another fan. The second homer came closer to me, and I was able to climb over a few benches and reach out over the bullpen for a back-handed catch. The whole section booed me because of my clothing, so I lifted up my Cardinals shirt and revealed my Dodger Blue underneath. Some people laughed, some people cheered, some people continued booing, and some people were like, “Huh?” It was pretty funny.

I played the staircases for the rest of BP…

…but nothing else came my way.

Right before the game started, I headed back into the main part of the stadium and got Mark DeRosa to toss me his warm-up ball behind the 1st base dugout.

Then Slash performed the national anthem…

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…and I headed back outside the stadium once again. It was time to change into my Waldo shirt:

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In my previous entry I mentioned I was going to wear it, not because it’s sexy but because I knew it’d be easier for people to spot me in the crowd. The only problem was…I was never IN the crowd. I spent the first few innings halfway down a staircase behind the left field wall, and then when security told me I couldn’t stand there, I moved to the very bottom. That really sucked because it meant I couldn’t even see the game. All I could do was look up at the sky and hope that I’d be able to see the baseballs coming toward me. In the bottom of the 4th, I came *really* close to snagging Andre Ethier’s home run, but it took a bad bounce after it cleared the wall and ricocheted right to the ONE other guy who’d raced down a different staircase. That also really sucked, but at least I got to hang out with Manny:

 

The guy in the photo above is named Jose (aka “Mannywood” and “Jose Being Manny” and he told me that he sometimes refers to himself as “The Mexican Zack Hample”). You can see more photos of him on MySpace and MyGameBalls.com. He’s a super-cool guy, and he always hangs out in the left field pavilion.

The game itself was DAMN exciting, but it didn’t end the way I wanted. With two outs in the bottom of the 9th and the Dodgers trailing, 2-1, James Loney hit a line drive right at Holliday in left field. All Holliday had to do was catch it, and the game would’ve been over. The Cardinals would’ve evened up the series at one game apiece. But Holliday failed to make the catch. He said later that he never even saw the ball, and I believe him. As he charged in toward it, it nailed him in the stomach. Casey Blake then drew a nine-pitch walk and Ronnie Belliard followed by ripping the first pitch he saw into center field for a game-tying single. Everyone in the stadium was going nuts, but for different reasons; the other 51,818 fans were simply cheering on their beloved Dodgers. I, however, was ecstatic because it meant the game might go into extra innings, which meant I might get another chance to catch a home run. Russell Martin walked to load the bases, and then Mark Loretta ruined everything with a game-winning single.

Final score: Dodgers 3, Cardinals 2.

After the game, the camera crew got a final shot of me holding up all seven of my baseballs. Once they took off, I gave away two of the balls to kids and then got a friend to take my picture with Jona:

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Good times. Playoff baseball is intense.

SNAGGING STATS:

12_the_five_i_kept_10_08_09.jpg• 7 balls at this game (five pictured here because I gave two away)

• 3 ticket stubs collected at this game (pictured below the balls)

• 532 balls in 59 games this season = 9.02 balls per game.

• 628 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

13_tickets_10_08_09.jpg• 11 consecutive post-season games with at least one ball

• 4,352 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 126 donors (click here to make a pledge…or just to learn more)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $176.82 raised at this game

• $13,438.32 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

One last thing…

The best article EVER written about me was published yesterday on ESPN.com. Here’s the graphic that was originally up on the site…

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…and here’s the article itself.

Next game for me?
Who knows…

8/10/09 at Camden Yards

1_if_you_cant_stand_the_heat.jpgIt was really hot.

And I was interviewed for ESPN.com.

I met the reporter, Patrick Hruby, at my hotel at 2:30pm. Then we went out for (mediocre) Thai food (which ESPN paid for) and drove to Camden Yards at 4:45pm.

As we headed toward the media entrance, I stopped to take a photo and Patrick inadvertently walked into the frame:

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I didn’t bother to retake the photo because we were in a rush. He had to pick up his media credentials. I needed to walk halfway around the stadium to meet Jona, who was holding a spot for me at the front of the line.

Patrick wasn’t allowed to enter the stadium until 5pm, and even then he had to use the media entrance behind home plate. By the time he caught up with me in left field, I had already snagged three balls. The first was a home run by a left-handed batter (possibly Luke Scott, but I’m not sure) that landed in the totally empty seats in left-center. (I ended up giving that ball to a kid during the game.) The second was a homer by Melvin Mora that I scrambled for in straight-away left, and the third was a homer that also landed in the seats. I have no idea who hit that one.

Just as Patrick made his way out to left field, he saw me sprint across two sections toward the foul pole and beat out a couple other guys for yet another home run ball. The photo below shows Patrick interviewing one of them; the arrow is pointing to Erik Jabs, founder of the ballhawk league (which recently got a nice mention in USA Today):

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I made sure that Patrick and Erik talked to each other.

My fifth ball was a home run that I caught on the fly. It was only 5:08pm. I was all pumped up and ready for a monster day, but then things slowed down and the bad luck kicked in. Adam Jones, for example, hit a home run right at me when I was the ONLY fan in the section. The ball fell two rows short, smacked off a seat, and bounced back onto the field. If the ball had stayed in the seats — even if it had ricocheted 30 feet in any direction — I would’ve been able to get it. I did, however, manage to snag two more home run balls that landed in the seats. I have no idea who hit them. Most of the hitters were wearing warm-up jerseys that covered their uniform numbers, and I was also distracted (in a good way) by Patrick’s steady stream of questions.

Four of the seven balls had interesting markings:

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I’m pretty sure that the ball on the top left got scuffed by landing on a concrete step in the stands. The “Rawlings” logo on the top right probably got smudged by a non-squarely-hit drive off the bat. The ball on the bottom left? No idea. Maybe it hit one of the screens? The ball on the lower right probably got its mark from skipping off the infield dirt.

I changed into my A’s gear for the second half of BP, and Patrick kept interviewing me:

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I only managed to snag ONE ball during the A’s portion of BP. It was a lame performance on my part. There’s no denying it. I just wasn’t on my game. I wasn’t judging homers as well I normally do, and of course I had more bad luck…for example…I was in the third row and got Trevor Cahill to toss a ball in my direction, but the ball fell a bit short, which enabled the fans in front of me to reach up for it. The ball tipped off of someone’s glove and ended up hitting me on the left wrist as I was reaching down to make the catch — and then the ball bounced off in some crazy direction and someone else grabbed it. Crap like that. As for the one ball I snagged from the A’s, it was “thrown” into the crowd in the form of a bounce-pass off the rubberized warning track. I don’t even know who threw it (which is another example of the lameness of my overall performance), but I did make a decent play on it. I was in the front row, and it was pretty crowded, and the ball was sailing three feet over my head, so I jumped as high as possible and reached up with my right hand and swatted at the ball with my fingertips in an attempt to tip it back toward me, and it worked, but I bobbled it a bit, and everyone was grabbing for it, but I managed to secure it after a second or two. Phew! That felt good.

After BP (another mistake was not making it to the A’s dugout) I spotted a ball in the staircase next to the bullpens in left-center. Here’s a cool photo, taken by Jona, that shows me leaning out and looking at it:

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Then I made a brazen attempt to reel it in with my glove trick

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…and I was stopped by a female usher within five seconds. I kind of expected that, but hey, ESPN was with me so I had to go for it. (And hey, did you notice my delicious crack sweat?)

The thing that bothered me in this situation is that the usher threatened me with a trespassing charge if I didn’t bring my glove back up. (Please.) As soon as I climbed down off the seats, a whole bunch of fans (who recognized me and had been talking to me throughout BP) approached her and said, “Do you know who this guy is?!”

“No,” she said, “should I?”

The fans then proceeded to tell her all about me. They mentioned that I was there with ESPN and that I had caught over 4,000 balls.

“Am I supposed to be impressed?” she asked in the most condescending of tones.

They told her all about my TV appearances and mentioned that I’m snagging baseballs for charity and said that I give balls away to kids (“That’s what a good Christian does,” she replied a little too enthusiastically), but she didn’t seem to care. At one point, she asked me if other stadiums allow fans to use ball-retrieving devices, and I informed her that YES, some places do.

Anyway, enough of that.

Right before the game started, I got autographs from Tommy Everidge and Rajai Davis…

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…and snagged two more baseballs. The first was thrown by Adam Kennedy along the shallow left field foul line, and the second ball was tossed further down the line by A’s bullpen coach Ron Romanick (who has used it to play catch with Kurt Suzuki). It was beautiful. Although the front row was full, I was the only fan with a glove, so it was basically a guaranteed ball. I need those to balance out the inevitable bad luck. It’s sort of like how a .300 hitter needs to get his share of swinging-bunt base hits and broken-bat bloopers to make up for all the “at ‘em” balls.

In case you’ve lost count, I had 10 balls at this point — a number I’d told Patrick after lunch that I’d be shooting for. Even though it wasn’t a particularly skillful or action-packed 10, at least I hadn’t embarrassed myself.

Patrick followed me everywhere during the game:

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I had warned him that I’d be moving all over the place and suggested that he wear comfortable shoes.

Here we are in the tunnel on the right side of home plate:

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It was a great foul ball spot, and I had a great opportunity to catch one…BUT…bad luck, of course. The ball shot back over the protective screen, ricocheted off the concrete facade of the press level and bounced RIGHT back to me as I darted to my left through the cross-aisle. Unfortunately, however, just as I put up my glove to make the catch, a man stood up in the seats above me (those seats are behind the aisle, and they’re elevated about six feet) and he reached out and caught the ball bare-handed.

See what I mean? Yes, sure, fine, I had snagged 10 balls (and raised an additional $247.50 for Pitch In For Baseball). I know that’s nothing to be complaining about. Most people don’t snag 10 balls per week, month, season, lifetime, etc. I realize this. But for ME, things just weren’t going well. I hope I don’t sound spoiled or obnoxious. The fact is, I know what I’m capable of (when I’m at an awesome stadium with an attendance under 15,000) and I’m very competitive, and I’m a perfectionist, and I hold myself to very high standards…and it simply wasn’t happening as I envisioned it. Does that make sense? I know that my fellow ballhawks (especially the ones who average half a dozen balls per game) understand what I’m talking about, but I want everyone to get it.

I played the right field standing room only section for lefties…

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…but there wasn’t any action.

More bad luck? Gio Gonzalez, a left-hander, was pitching for the A’s, so the Orioles stacked their lineup with righties. Only two Oriole batters were left-handed. That would be Nick Markakis (future Hall of Famer…don’t argue) and Luke Scott, who hit the game’s lone longball to center field.

It rained like HELL during the 7th inning…

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…which should’ve been a good thing. I figured that after the rain delay I’d have a chance to get a ball thrown to me when the players came back out to warm up…and I did…but the throw was a bit off, which enabled another fan to reach out and catch the ball right in front of me.

NOW do you get it?

But wait, that wasn’t the end of my bad luck. In the eighth inning, a foul ball shot back over the screen and landed in the press box. First of all, if it had gone six inches lower, it would’ve hit off the base of the press box and ricocheted into a section which, by that point, was completely empty. Secondly, I was the first fan to run up there (you can just about look into the press box from the last row of seats) and asked the guy who retrieved the ball if I could “please possibly” have it. He said he wanted to give it to a little kid, and he scanned the seats to find one.

“There ARE none!” I wanted to scream, but I just stood there silently, knowing I wasn’t gonna get it. Five seconds later, the guy finally spotted a kid. How much did the kid want that ball? Let’s just say that even when the guy called out to him, the kid didn’t look up. So…I offered to deliver the ball to the kid, which I did (resulting in a big round of applause), and no, I’m not counting that ball in my collection because it was predetermined to be for someone else. If I’d randomly gotten the ball and THEN decided to give it away (as I normally do), then I would’ve counted it.

Blah blah blah. I even failed to make it to the A’s dugout at the end of the game. Why? More bad luck…duh! Melvin Mora was on second with one out in the bottom of the ninth, and I was making my way though the cross-aisle on the first base side. What happened next? Not only did Cesar Izturis swing at the first pitch, but he lined it back to the pitcher for a 1-6 double play.

UN-BE-LIEVE-ABLE.

And then, of course, I saw a ball get tossed right to the spot where I would’ve been standing.

Final score: A’s 9, Orioles 1.

I’m not sure when the story will be up on ESPN.com, but I was told that it’ll probably be a couple weeks.

SNAGGING STATS:

13_the_nine_i_kept_08_10_09.jpg• 10 balls at this game (nine pictured here because I gave one away)

• 356 balls in 41 games this season = 8.68 balls per game.

• 610 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 112 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 50 lifetime games outside of New York with at least 10 balls

• 4,176 total balls

• 13 days until I’ll be at Coors Field

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $24.75 pledged per ball

• $247.50 raised at this game

• $8,811.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/15/09 at Citi Field

Two weeks ago I attended a college game at Citi Field, but let’s pretend that never happened. As far as I’m concerned, THIS was my first real game at the Mets’ new ballpark and I was there with my friend Leon Feingold:

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Leon is rather tall–6-foot-6 to be exact–and if he looks like a baseball player, that’s because he is. He pitched in the Indians’ minor league system in the mid-90s, and his fastball at the time was clocked in the mid-90s. For the last two years he’s pitched professionally in the Israeli Baseball League, and just last week he had a tryout with the Newark Bears. (Leon has made several appearances on this blog since last year. He and I played catch in a cramped gym, attended two games at Camden Yards, and checked out the NYC Scrabble Club.)

The funny moment of the day took place as Leon and I were walking toward the left field gate. I noticed that several Padres players happened to be walking right alongside us, so I ran ahead and pulled out my camera, and this is what they did:

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That’s right. They hid their faces. The guy with the leather jacket (I wish I knew who it was) came charging right at me as if he were going to knock me down. The guy on the right (whose jacket is pulled over his face) had a shaved head. I think it might’ve been Kevin Kouzmanoff.

Now…one thing you have to know about Leon is that he’s a total troublemaker, and yet he never seems to get IN trouble. That said, he brazenly walked past the security guard outside the 3rd base VIP gate, then told the guard on the inside that he was one of the players and that he was looking for the press box. Incredibly, the guard waved Leon through and I got to tag along as his “guest.” (Leon does have an active APBPA card, which is supposed to get him access anyway, but he wasn’t asked to show it.)

We walked past the guard and found ourselves in the concourse underneath the seats. It was bustling with employees (including security guards) but no one paid any attention to us. They probably figured we belonged there. I was scared to death that we were going to get busted (half the people who work for the Mets recognize me and would’ve been suspicious if they’d seen me down there), but Leon insisted we weren’t doing anything wrong.

“What’re you gonna say if someone stops us?!” I shouted in a whisper.

“Don’t worry,” he said calmly. “I’ll think of something.”

I noticed that there were security cameras all over the place, and I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself by stopping to take a photograph, so I waited until the concourse cleared out and took the following shot on the move. That’s why it’s blurry:

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We kept walking and the concourse kept getting emptier, and eventually there was no one else in sight. I had no idea where we were, but I figured we must’ve walked halfway around the stadium. The concourse just kept going and going, and the way I saw it, we were getting unsettlingly deep into enemy land.

Eventually the concourse spat us out though a couple metal doors…and oh my God…we were behind the bullpens:

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I could see the field to my left…

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…so naturally I walked up for a closer look:

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Here I am, just slightly happy:

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I reached down and ran my fingers through the dirt on the warning track. (Heaven!) Then I poked my head out and looked to my left:

Leon and I hung out there for about five minutes, and no one said a word. I was feeling too giddy at that point to worry about getting caught, so I kept my camera out and took dozens of photos. Here’s a shot of the visitors’ bullpen…

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…and here’s a look at the space between the bullpens. Aside from getting to hang out with major leaguers, I would hate to watch a game from there:

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We headed back into the concourse and made our way toward the exit. Of course this story wouldn’t be complete without a photo of me standing right outside the Mets clubhouse:

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Wow.

We made it. We were back outside. No one had said a word.

Leon and I headed to the left field gate and played catch for about 20 minutes. (I’m so sore right now.) We long-tossed for a bit, and when we got so far apart that I could no longer reach him, I started rolling the ball back to him. We were SO far apart at one point that when people walked past me I got some strange looks, presumably because they couldn’t figure out why I was standing all alone with a glove, staring into space. A few passersby looked in the direction that I was looking, and when they saw that there was another guy way off in the distance, they had to stop and see if he could actually throw the ball that far. The answer is yes, he could, and this was after he’d pitched the day before. (Freak of nature.)

My friend and bellow ballhawk Gary (aka “gjk2212″ from the comments) was the first one in line at the gate. As the crowd continued to grow, we didn’t see any security guards getting up, and we began to worry that the gate wasn’t going to open. Long story short: At the last second, we had to run over to the Jackie Robinson Rotunda and wiggle our way into line and enter there. Look how crowded it was:

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The gates opened 10 minutes late, and as soon as security finished looking inside my bag, I made a beeline for the left field seats. (Leon was already there. He’d wandered off and talked his way into the stadium half an hour earlier. Don’t ask.) Less than a minute later, a right-handed batter on the Mets launched a ball toward the empty seats in left-center field. Thanks to the fact that I had to deal with those cheap, non-juiced International League balls last week in Toronto, I misjudged this one and watched helplessly as it sailed five feet over my head. Luckily it did
13_citi_first_ball.jpgNOT take a crazy bounce, and I was able to grab it off the steps a moment later.

I was on the board! First ball ever at Citi Field! I was hoping it would have the Citi Field commemorative logo, but no, it was just a regular ball (pictured here on the right). I hadn’t yet seen the logo, not even in a photograph. I’d made a point of not looking at it throughout the winter. I knew I was going to snag some of the commemorative balls eventually, and I wanted to be totally surprised when I got the first one.

A couple minutes later, Fernando Tatis sent another ball flying in my direction. The seats were still fairly empty at that point, so even though I wasn’t close enough to catch it on the fly, I was still able to grab it off the ground. Another regular ball. Bleh.

It felt great just to have room to run for home run balls. Shea Stadium had plenty of quirks and provided a few advantages, but overall it was a dreadful place for batting practice. There were hardly any seats in fair territory, so all I could do was beg the players for balls. Yeesh. I don’t even want to think about that. Quick…I have to erase the memory. Here’s what BP looked like yesterday out in the left field seats:

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The biggest problem with BP at Citi Field is that there’s not a great place to go for left-handed batters. The second deck in right field swallows up some of the balls, but it’s a pain to get up there (Gary was kicked out of that section during BP), and the seats on the lower level don’t get much action because of the overhang. The only other option is the section way out in right-center, which unfortunately sits next to a “415” marker on the outfield wall. When you’re out there, it might look like a good spot, but in reality it’s a loooooong way from home plate, and there won’t be too many balls that reach the seats. Here’s the view:

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Carlos Delgado did manage to hit one ball out there, and I snagged it. I was in the third or fourth row at the time, and it landed several rows behind me, so it was quite a shot. Did it have a commemorative logo?! No, but at least I had my third ball of the day.

Toward the end of the Mets’ portion of BP, I was able to use my glove trick to pluck a ball off the warning track in straight-away left field, and let me tell you, it’s a long way down. I think that wall is 16 feet high. Commemorative ball? Nope.

The Padres took the field and started hitting. Another ball rolled onto the warning track in left field. I rigged my glove, lowered it to the field, pulled up the ball, and took a look at it. WHAT?!?! I did a double-take when I saw it. There was a different type of the logo on the ball. Was that…it?! THAT?! The logo was tall and narrow and generic. All it said was “2009 inaugural season.” No mention of the Mets or Citi Field or New York. Nothing. Just a little piece of artwork that I gathered was supposed to represent the outside of the stadium. Have a look for yourself:

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It was so disappointing. Of all the commemorative balls I’ve snagged over the years, this is the worst. By far. Only the Mets could possibly manage to screw up a ball. Am I being too harsh? What do you think about this new ball? Does anyone actually like it?

Heath Bell came out and started throwing with the rest of the pitchers…

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…and I got his attention.

A little context: I got to know Heath five years ago when he was a Quadruple-A reliever for the Mets. I played catch with him from the seats at Shea in 2005, and he’s always been really cool to me whenever I’ve seen him. Last year, when I saw him at PETCO Park, he hooked me up with a very special ball and also gave me a cap. I can’t explain it, but the man is truly looking out for me. Most players who recognize me won’t give me baseballs, and in fact some have even gone out of their way to prevent me from getting balls, but Heath is just the opposite. I guess he likes the fact that I’m such a big fan, and he gets a kick out of adding to my collection. I’d heard from a few friends (who know that I know him) that Heath was looking for me two days earlier, but I wasn’t able to go to that game. (Too expensive.) One of my friends (I think it was Gary…or maybe it was Gail…too many emails…ahh!) told me that Heath wanted me to give him a call. But I didn’t have his number. I’d mailed him a letter during Spring Training and given him MY number, but I never heard from him. I once talked to him on someone else’s cell phone. So close…and yet so far. I still didn’t know how to get a hold of him, other than showing up at a stadium and waving him down. Anyway, on this fine day, he told me that he wanted to talk to me, but he said he had to throw and run first, and that when he was done he’d meet me out in that deep section in right-center field.

Sweet!

I could’ve kept trying to snag balls, but I didn’t want to miss him, so I immediately headed out there, and of course I missed a few snagging opportunities as a result. But I knew it was worth it.

Sure enough, about 10 or maybe 15 minutes later, Heath started jogging out toward my section in right-center, and I had to convince some fans in the front row to let me in. When Heath got close, I leaned over the wall as far as I could, and he jumped up and gave me a little handshake in mid-air. Then he just stood there on the warning track and talked to me for…I don’t know, at least another 10 minutes:

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I can’t remember everything we talked about, but basically I congratulated him on becoming the closer. He asked me how I’ve been. I asked him if he happened to save any balls from the World Baseball Classic. He said he got a whole bunch and would give one to me…but he said the balls are in San Diego. He asked if I was planning to head out that way this season. I said no, but that I might have to come out just to get one of those balls. He said it wasn’t worth it, and I explained that it IS worth it. I told him that I only count balls from major league players at major league games, so the only way that I could ever possibly have a WBC ball in my collection would be if he gave one to me at a regular season game. He asked me if I’m going to be seeing the Padres on the road, like in Philly or D.C., and I said I wasn’t sure. So…he was like, “Well keep me posted and let me know where you’re gonna be, and we’ll try to figure it out.” I told him that I still didn’t have his phone number and that I had no way of getting a hold of him. He said he had my number. He was like, “That number you sent me is your cell?” I said yes, and he said he’d text me after batting practice. I wasn’t sure if he really had the number, so I grabbed one of my contact cards and wrote my number on it and gave it to him. Then we started talking about other stuff.

heath_bell.jpg
“So you’ve heard about my charity?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “someone was talking about it. What’s the deal with that?”

I told him all about it, how the charity is called Pitch In For Baseball, and how it provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world, and how I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag this season, and how every ball I snag is already worth close to $16 for the charity, and that it’d be AWESOME if he were to pledge something, even a teeny amount, just so I could say I had a major league player on board.

“Send me the info,” he said, “I’ll check it out.”

“I won’t charge you for the balls you give me,” I told him.

He asked me if I’d gotten one of the commemorative balls yet. I couldn’t lie. I told him that I *had* just gotten one about half an hour earlier, but that didn’t stop him from giving me another. When a ball rolled onto the warning track about 50 feet away, he went over and picked it up and inspected it to see if had the “special” logo, and when he saw that it did, he walked past all the screaming fans in the front row and tossed it right up to me.

Heath Bell is THE MAN, and the Mets were stupid to let him go.

I can’t even remember what else we talked about. Like I said, it was a long conversation, but we wrapped it up with my saying “thanks sooooo much” and “congrats again.” He said he’d text me after BP and we said we’d talk soon.

I only managed to get one more ball during BP. I snagged it with my glove trick near the LF foul pole, it was commemorative. Very strange that the Padres were using those balls and the Mets weren’t. (Does anyone know Mets equipment manager Charlie Samuels? I’d really like to talk to him and ask him a few questions.)

After BP, I met up with Leon behind the Padres’ dugout. Dave Winfield was down there, and Leon shouted at him and told him he played with him in Spring Training one year. Here’s Winfield’s reaction:

19_citi_dave_winfield.jpg

Here I am with the seven balls I’d snagged (I gave one of them away to a kid after the game):

20_citi_zack_seven_balls.jpg

As promised, Heath texted me after BP, and he included his email address. Obviously I can’t share that address here, but I will say that it contains the word “heater.”

It was Jackie Robinson Day. Here are all the No. 42’s being worn in his honor:

21_citi_number_42.jpg

After the ceremony, when Heath walked back in toward the dugout, he spotted me in the seats and asked if I’d gotten his text. Coolness.

Game time!

This was my view in the first inning:

22_citi_seat_in_1st_inning.jpg

When David Wright struck out to end the bottom of the first, I bolted down the steps and got Padres catcher Nick Hundley to toss me the ball on his way in. So easy. No competition. And finally, I had a commemorative ball that was actually rubbed up and game-used.

Gary Sheffield, stuck on 499 career homers, was getting his first start of the year and batting sixth. When he came up in the bottom of the second, this is where I was sitting:

23_citi_going_for_sheffield_500.jpg

It wasn’t ideal, but that’s Citi Field for ya. There’s no cross aisle, so if a game is crowded (as it will be all year and probably for all of eternity), there’s no way to run left or right for a home run ball. If Sheffield had gotten a hold of one, he would’ve had to hit it exactly in my direction, and my range would’ve been limited to that one staircase. Not good. But at least I had a chance. Sheffield, though, didn’t do his part and struck out swinging.

After that I moved up to the club (aka “Excelsior”) level. Good foul ball spot. This was the view:

24_citi_foul_ball_spot.jpg

If the guards had actually let me stand in the aisle, this is what it would’ve looked like on my left…

25_citi_foul_ball_spot_left.jpg

…and this is what it would’ve looked like on my right. Notice the baseball writers in the press box and the blue SNY booth in the distance:

26_citi_foul_ball_spot_right.jpg

Here’s a closer look at the booth. Keith Hernandez is on the left, Ron Darling is in the middle, and Gary Cohen (whom I adore) is on the right:

27_citi_SNY_booth.jpg

Here’s at look at the ESPN booth. Rick Sutcliffe is on the left, Joe Morgan is sitting next to him, then Rachel Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s widow), and Dave O’Brian on the right. Not a shabby group. Security didn’t appreciate the fact that I took this photo (and yet they had no problem with the fact that I was practically standing on the field five hours earlier…go figure):

28_citi_ESPN_booth.jpg

I kept moving around between the left field seats for Sheffield (who went 0-for-2 with a walk and got pulled for a pinch hitter late in the game), the club level for foul balls (there were none), and the Padres’ dugout for third-out balls. Leon, who told me he’d run out onto the batter’s eye to grab a ball during BP, spent the entire game sitting in the second row behind the dugout. (Oh, and I forgot to mention that he ended up snagging three balls, including a Sheffield BP homer that was heading right into my glove; I need shorter, less athletic friends.)

The following photo shows my view in the seventh inning:

29_citi_seat_in_7th_inning.jpg

Once again, it was David Wright who ended the frame, this time with a fly out to right fielder Brian Giles. By this late point in the game, all the fans in the section knew there was a chance to get a ball every inning, but they were too dumb to figure out why. They all charged down the steps and yelled at first baseman Adrian Gonzalez as he jogged off the field, and as soon as he was gone, they all dispersed and headed back to their seats. Fifteen seconds later, Giles jogged in, and since I was the ONLY fan standing in the front row at that point, I had no trouble getting him to toss me the ball. That was my ninth and (unfortunately) final ball of the day.

After the game, I got a photo with Gary (pictured below on the right) and a fellow ballhawk named Donnie (aka “donnieanks”) that I had finally met for the first time earlier in the day. Here were are:

30_citi_donnie_zack_gary.jpg

And that’s about it.

I hope the Padres win the NL West and Heath Bell saves 74 games.

SNAGGING STATS:

31_citi_the_eight_i_kept.jpg
• 9 balls at this game (8 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 40 balls in 5 games this season = 8 balls per game.

• 574 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 339 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 45 major league stadiums with at least one ball caught

• 3,860 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $15.87 pledged per ball

• $142.83 raised at this game

• $634.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

2008 Home Run Derby

There are rumors that I stole baseballs from kids, knocked over other fans, and got into an argument with a Chinese lady.

Allow me to set the record straight:

1) I didn’t steal a ball from anyone.
2) Other fans were crashing into ME.
3) The lady was Japanese.

The 2008 Home Run Derby was scheduled to begin at 8:00pm, batting
practice was going to start at 5:30, and Yankee Stadium was set to open at
4:30. What time did I get there? Shortly after 12pm, of course.

I had a ticket for the right-field bleachers (thanks to a friend who
hooked me up), and I’d planned my strategy days in advance. It was
pretty simple–or at least it was supposed to be: Be the first one on
line. Be the first one in. Grab the corner spot near the batter’s eye.
Use my big glove to get attention. Get lots of balls thrown to me.

Well, I *was* the first one on line–in fact I was the only person on line for nearly an hour and a half…

zack_1st_in_line.jpg

…and that’s when things went awry. But wait. Let’s slow this story
down. The day wasn’t all bad. There were some happy moments before the
stadium opened.

First of all, the big glove got lots of attention. Comments/questions
from passersby ranged from “I don’t wanna be sitting behind you” to
“Is that Shaq’s glove?” to “Aren’t you the guy who was on TV and
catches all the balls?” to “Where the **** did you find that thing?” to
“Oh my God that’s HUGE.” (Why…thank you.)

Here’s one of the dozens of random people who asked to try it on:

hottie_with_big_glove.jpg

Robert Harmon (the guy from my Bonds 762 story) stopped by and said hello on his way to Gate 6:

robert_harmon_drops_by.jpg
I got interviewed by a local news station and
hung out for a bit with a friend and fellow snagger named Clif (aka
“goislanders4″ if you read the comments) whom you might remember from 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium.

clif_zack_derby.jpg
See the white pole on Clif’s right? It’s a “nuclear
radiation detector.” One of the nearby cops was poised with a portable
version:

cop_with_scary_gadget.jpg

By 4pm, there was a crazy-long line that snaked around the stadium:

line_outside_bleachers.jpg

Someone had held my spot at the front of the line. That’s how I was able to wander and take pics, but by the time I returned, there were several other fans who’d slipped in ahead of me. One of these fans was a Japanese woman I’d met two weeks earlier during BP. I figured she was a regular and that she knew someone else in line, but I didn’t appreciate the fact that she’d cut in. Still, I didn’t really care because there was NO WAY that I was going to let her cut in front of me when the gate actually went up…so I didn’t say anything.

This was when my day started falling apart. (I hope you’re sitting down.)

As soon as the gate went up, one of the security guards gave me a funny look and walked over.

“You can’t bring that inside,” he said, eying my big glove.

Are you serious?!” I demanded. Why not?!” I was about to ask to speak to his supervisor, and then I noticed that his shirt had the word “SUPERVISOR” on it.

He took a hold of my glove and said, “It’s too big.”

“Who cares?!?!”

He grabbed another fan’s glove and held it up against mine. “See?” he said. “This is a normal glove. Yours glove is too big.”

“So what?!?!”

weapons1.jpg
“So what?” he repeated, clearly trying to buy himself some time. “It could be used as a weapon.”

“WHAT?!?!?!”

“Yeah,” he said and then mimed swinging it around as if it were an ax.

Wow.

I really didn’t think the Yankees would stoop THIS low, but what could I do? The ticket-takers were activating their scanners and unlocking the turnstiles. The stadium was going to open any minute, and I **HAD** to get the corner spot. Batting practice wasn’t going to begin for another hour, by which time the bleachers would be packed. Snagging a ball wasn’t going to have anything to do with skill or luck. It was going to be all about positioning.

I stepped out of line, raced across the street with the glove, and spent six bucks to leave it at a bowling alley which in recent years has become more known for its bag-check than for the bowling. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankee security guards receive kickbacks.)

I barely made it back in time, and yes, in case you’re wondering, I’d also brought my regular glove. But get this…when I was finally given the green light to approach the turnstiles, my ticket wouldn’t scan. The scanner kept giving an error message.

“This is no good,” said the ticket-taker.

“EXCUSE ME?!?!”

“The code hasn’t been entered into the system. You need to go to Window 74 and have them take care of this.”

“WHAT?!?!”

Window 74?! The guy started giving me directions as he reached for the next fan’s ticket. That one wouldn’t scan either. Meanwhile, at least a dozen other fans–including the Japanese woman–filed past me at the next turnstile and hurried into the bleachers. I climbed over a railing, handed my ticket to the other ticket-taker, and successfully got scanned.

By the time I reached the bleachers, the other fans who’d gotten in first had spread out randomly along the railing, except for the Japanese woman. She was standing in the corner spot.

To make a long story short, we argued over who had the right to be there, and she finally moved when another fan (who’d seen that I’d been first in line) took my side. We quickly made peace and even shared a few laughs after she heard me ask for a ball in Japanese. AND…just so you don’t feel bad for her…she and her boyfriend ended up snagging two of their own.

As for me…
There was a lot of time to kill before BP so naturally I played with my camera. This was the view to my left:

view_from_corner_spot1.jpg

This was the view straight ahead:

view_from_corner_spot2.jpg

And this was the view to my right:

view_from_corner_spot3.jpg

Robert took a pic of me from the corner spot in the grandstand:

zack_corner_spot1.jpg

Finally, after waiting through one of the longest hours of my life, BP got started and bad luck took over. The outfield was crawling with the players’ kids who tossed at least half a dozen balls directly over my head. After 20 minutes, a kid with “RIVERA 42″ on his back fired a ball right to me, but I didn’t get it because some cameraman from ESPN who was standing near me on the batter’s eye stuck his hand out at the last second and deflected it elsewhere. (He claimed he did it in self defense, but I’m not so sure.) I seriously couldn’t catch a break, and I was getting a bit nervous because I had no chance to use the glove trick. Every time a ball landed in the gap between the outfield wall and the base of the bleachers, another cameraman went and got it and tossed it up to a cop who handed it to a kid. Good for the kids. Bad for me. I just wanted one ball. ONE BALL so my streak wouldn’t end. Even though this wasn’t an official game, it was still a major league event in a major league stadium so it counted for me.

Finally, just when I was starting to believe that a Higher Power was out to get me, I convinced one of the players’ kids to throw me a ball. As soon as I caught it and looked at it, my heart sank because it was a Futures Game ball. I’d snagged six of them the day before and this_one_counts.jpgreally didn’t need another. At least that’s how I felt at first, but then it occurred to me that it was actually kinda cool because I’d be able to count this ball in my collection. The Futures Game is a minor league event, so I hadn’t counted any of the balls I snagged that day. But hey, it wasn’t MY fault that one of these balls found its way into the BP bucket (and then into my glove) on the day of the Derby.

Would you believe that the fans behind me (who were trapped in the crowded aisle because they weren’t smart enough to arrive early) started whining after I caught this ONE lousy ball? One guy had the nerve to tell me to get out of the corner spot and give someone else a chance. Was this the first time he’d ever set foot inside a major league stadium? Or was he from Canada? I don’t know what his deal was, but there was no ch
ance I was moving. I simply HAD to snag at least one ball with the Home Run Derby logo on it. If that meant I had to snag 20 more balls before I got one, so be it.

Toward the end of the American League’s batting practice, I shouted at Mariano Rivera (in Spanish) and asked for a ball. He looked up at me and shrugged as if to say he didn’t have one. Then I noticed that he was drinking an ice-cold bottle of water (I could see the condensation) so I asked for that instead by making a drinking motion and shouting “Agua!” He laughed and held up the bottle as if to say, “You want THIS?” I nodded excitedly and made an exaggerated gesture with my shirt to show how hot it was. He kept looking at me and smiling so I kept going with it. I grabbed my throat with my right hand and made a choking gesture, then drooped my eyelids as if I were passing out. To my surprise, he started walking toward me, and when he got within 30 feet, he underhanded the bottle in my direction. It was falling short, so I reached over the railing and extended my glove…and the damn thing tipped off my fingers and dropped into the gap. I flung up my arms in disgust, and he did the same.

Not all hope was lost, however.

I shouted at the cameraman, and when he came over, I pointed out the bottle and asked him to hand it to me.

He looked at the cop for guidance.

“It’s okay,” said the cop. “Mariano Rivera tried to give it to him.”

The cameraman looked totally confused, but once he heard that, he fetched the bottle and tossed it to me. Woo-hoo!!! I truly WAS thirsty and didn’t care that the bottle was two-thirds empty; if Mariano Rivera had cooties, I wanted them.

agua_from_mariano_rivera.jpg

I chugged the water as the American Leaguers jogged off the field and snagged my second ball of the day 10 minutes later. Some random kid wearing a Rockies cap tossed it to me from the warning track, and I took an elbow to the kidney as I reached straight out to make the catch.

At this point, the people around me seriously started going crazy. There was a skinny little kid with glasses, standing directly behind me, who couldn’t have been more than eight years old. He was so intent on pushing his way up to the front that every time I leaned forward (to see where a ball was landing elsewhere in the bleachers) and settled back down from my tip toes, I ended up stepping on HIS toes. He was literally wedging his feet in the space underneath MY feet whenever he had a chance. I don’t know what he was thinking, but when it became clear that he wasn’t going to stop, I turned around and looked him in the eye and told him gently but firmly that it was impolite and dangerous for him to crowd me like that. He said he was sorry, ended up getting a ball from the cop two minutes later, and quickly disappeared. The cop, meanwhile, wasn’t too happy about the fact that I now had two baseballs.

“Ya gotta let the kids get some,” he growled.

“The kids are getting plenty thanks to you,” I said. “They don’t need MY help.”

Now don’t get me wrong…I love it when kids get balls, especially kids who are wearing gloves and making a sincere effort to snag on their own. I often go out of my way to help kids get balls, and I now give away at least one of mine at just about every game I attend. But this 2008_home_run_derby_ball.jpg
was a different story. I wasn’t about to give away my Futures Game ball, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that I was going to part with my second ball. Why? Because it had a Home Run Derby logo on it. That’s why.

Of course the cop didn’t get it. First he asked me to give away a ball, and when I refused, he asked me to move from the corner spot.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he insisted.

I resisted the urge to tell him that the right thing for HIM to do was to mind his own business and consider Weight Watchers. Instead, I calmly explained that I’d gotten to Yankee Stadium an hour and a half earlier than everyone else for the sole purpose of standing in this spot.

“Where are you supposed to be?!” he demanded. “Where’s your ticket?!”

“It doesn’t matter where my seat is,” I said. “This is batting practice. Everyone’s standing wherever they want.”

This prompted the man who’d elbowed me to turn around and shout (in a derisive, sing-songy manner) to everyone behind us: “WHO THINKS HE SHOULD GO?!?!?!” The whole section cheered. “WHO THINKS HE SHOULD STAY?!?!?!” he continued, and the whole section booed.

“That’s it,” said the cop, “you have to go back to your seat.”

“That’s ********,” I said. “You can’t make me move. You can’t make a special rule just for me. I’m not moving unless you make everyone else go back to THEIR seats.”

So he did!

I couldn’t believe it. He actually got on his walkie-talkie and issued a directive to all the other cops, and in less than a minute, EVERYONE was forced to step away from the railing and vacate the aisle and tunnels. People were NOT happy about it, and I don’t blame them. The whole thing was arbitrary and dumb. The cops tried enforcing a rule that simply shouldn’t have been enforced. Some fans (including me) kept lingering in the aisle while pretending to head somewhere else. A few people simply defied orders and stood there anyway, and as you might expect there were some pretty nasty confrontations.

I wandered toward the foul-pole end of the bleachers and took a peek at the grandstand:

robert_corner_spot.jpg

Sure enough, the cops over there hadn’t forced anyone back to their seats–a good thing for Robert who technically belonged in the upper deck. Robert told me later that he snagged three balls (all with the Derby logo) and when other people started complaining, he shouted, “I have four grandkids so I’m still one ball short! Do YOU want to give me one?!” People left him alone after that.

I managed to snag one more Derby ball toward the end of BP. I should’ve had two more, but the second one (which was thrown by a teenage kid from about 100 feet away) fell short and tipped off my glove and landed in the gap. Even though he had clearly intended to throw it to me, the cameraman who retrieved it handed it to someone else.

That was it. Three balls. Not great. Not terrible. But if I’d been allowed to bring my big glove inside and stay in the corner spot, I would’ve snagged at least a dozen. I really believe that.

The Derby itself ended up being extremely frustrating. I had a second-row seat and found myself trapped behind a group of fans who jumped up at all the wrong times. Whenever a left-handed batter lifted a routine fly ball in our direction, they were on their feet in no time. But the few times that a right-handed batter hit a home run to right-center, they didn’t move because they weren’t expecting it. When they didn’t move, I couldn’t move. I felt like a caged animal. It sucked.

zack_caged_in_during_derby.jpg

The highlight of the day (other than not being shut out during BP) was getting to witness the  first-round, record-breaking performance by Josh Hamilton. The man hit twenty-eight home runs, including two that traveled more than 500 feet.

josh_hamilton_domination.jpg

During the second half of the Derby, security wasn’t quite as strict about keeping people in their seats, so I escaped from the second row and moved around a bit. I had three very close calls, including a chance to catch one of the coveted gold balls, but I came up short for various reasons. I misjudged one, failed to be blessed with a 36-inch vertical leap on another, and got boxed out on the third. That was the gold ball. Ouch. It was a lazy fly ball (relatively speaking) that barely cleared the railing five feet to my left. The aisle was packed and I couldn’t move. Not even one foot. It’s like I was battling a brick wall.

It pained me to see other fans snag these gold balls, but I took a picture anyway of a guy holding one up:

fan_with_gold_ball.jpg

It also pains me to see this screen shot from ESPN (which someone was kind enough to send my way). It shows a fan directly behind me zack_espn.jpginspecting a ball that he caught on a fly. This is the one I misjudged, but you have to understand what “misjudged” means in this case. I bolted two steps to my left as the ball exploded off the bat–that’s the direction that it was initially heading–and then when it drifted five feet back to my right, the aisle was too crowded for me to be able t
o drift back with it. If I’d just stayed put, it would’ve been an easy catch, but what can you do? These types of mistakes happen. I know a guy (a legendary Bay Area ballhawk, in fact) who would’ve caught Barry Bonds’ 714th career home run if he hadn’t outsmarted himself by reacting too soon and moving away from the spot where it ultimately landed.

Even though Hamilton put on a home run clinic in the first two rounds, he ended up losing to Justin Morneau in the finals. Everyone was criticizing the rules of the Home Run Derby, saying it wasn’t fair that one guy could hit so many longballs and still lose. But hey, that’s how it goes. If Hamilton had paced himself better, maybe he would’ve had more energy at the end. Or maybe he had plenty of energy and just happened to swing the bat poorly. Let’s not assume that his power outage in the finals was a direct result of his goose-bump-inducing performance in the opening round.

After the Derby was done, I went back to bowling alley and claimed my big glove, and while I was there I took a pic of the three balls I’d snagged:

three_derby_balls.jpg
Robert and I finally made it into the subway at midnight, and we were immediately approached by several fans wearing Minnesota Twins gear. One of them recognized me from TV and asked if I knew how to ask for a ball in Arabic. I told him I didn’t, so he taught me. Ready? It’s short-n-sweet. Here it is, spelled phonetically with the emphasis in CAPS:

OTT-nee KOO-rah

For the last syllable, you need to roll the ar. (Did you know that the letter ‘R’ is spelled ‘ar’?) Of course there aren’t any Arabic-speaking major leaguers yet, but boy, when one finally comes around, I’ll be ready.

tris_speaker.jpg
STATS:

? 3 balls at this game (or “event” or whatever you want to call it)

? 238 balls in 34 games this season = 7 balls per game.

? 530 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 118 consecutive games at Yankee Stadium with at least one ball

? 2 consecutive Home Run Derbies with at least three balls

? 33 languages in which I can ask for a ball

? 3,515 total balls…moves me past Tris Speaker (3,514) and into fifth place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Stan Musial (3,630). (If you’re wondering why I’m comparing balls to hits, click here.)

? 1 fancy-schmancy ticket stub that actually contains dirt from Yankee Stadium. Check it out and I’ll explain below:

2008_home_run_derby_ticket.jpg

Okay, so I’ve shown the front and back of the ticket. See the brown strip on the front, about an inch from the bottom? See how it’s kind of…speckled…as opposed to being one neat/solid color? Well, those speckled marks are actually little particles that are embedded into the glossy strip. On the back of the ticket, I’ve drawn a red arrow to a little blurb that says the following: “To commemorate the final season of the historic ballpark, this ticket contains dirt collected from the field at Yankee Stadium which has been authenticated under the auspices of the MLB Authentication Program.

Cool, huh? (Too bad that program failed miserably on No. 762.)

So yeah, the ticket is a true collector’s item, but I question the photography that was selected for it. First of all, what’s so special about a hot dog and why does the mustard stop short on the north end? Secondly, why does the view of the field show the area behind home plate instead of the unique facade in the outfield? Third, why was the photo of the seat taken while the rest of stadium was empty? (See the little patch of blue near the upper right in that photo? Those are empty seats.) And fourth…taxis? Seriously?! That’s the best design MLB could come up with? I’ll bet the people who designed this ticket haven’t ever BEEN to New York. And while I’m already dissing this, I might as well share my thoughts on the logos for the Futures Game and Home Run Derby. In a word: LAME!!! The 2007 Futures Game ball at least had some artwork, albeit generic, while the 2007 Home Run Derby ball had artwork that was unique to AT&T Park. Why didn’t this year’s Derby ball have a facade or some pinstripes or an image of Monument Park? When will MLB and ESPN finally learn that they need to hire me? I have so many great ideas. If only someone would listen…

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