Results tagged ‘ heath bell ’

6/8/10 at Citi Field

I attended this game for one reason only: to see my buddy Heath Bell. (If you’re new to this blog, click here, here, here and here to read old entries about Heath’s awesomeness.) But before he and his Padres teammates took the field, there were Mets BP balls to be snagged…

My first ball was tossed by a player who was jogging on the warning track. I think it was Fernando Nieve, but I’m not sure because I never got a good look at him. In any case, the ball sailed right over a little kid in the front row, so as soon as I caught it, I gave it to him. My friend Brandon was at this game and took the following photo as I handed the ball over:

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In the photo above, the fan wearing the white shorts is a friend of mine named Brian (aka “puck collector” in the comments). The other fan wearing the red cap is his dad, Wayne (aka “father puck”). I didn’t know they’d be there, so it was a nice surprise to see them. Brian got off to a slow start during BP, but recovered nicely and finished with a total of four balls. As for me, my day got off to a blistering pace.

John Maine tossed me a ball in left-center…

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…but his throw fell short and bounced off the plexiglass at the bottom of the steps. Guess what happened next? He went and got another ball, and he threw that one too short as well. I’m not sure if he was messing around with me or what, but he was acting like his arm hurt too much to reach me. (For the record, he is on the 15-day DL with “right shoulder weakness,” but come on, he couldn’t have been much more than 50 feet away.) Francisco Rodriguez, who was shagging in right field, saw what was happening and took over for Maine. He got a ball and FIRED it at me from about — oh, I don’t know — 150 to 200 feet away, and his aim was perfect. (Too bad he can’t pitch like that when it counts.) It felt great to catch it. I’d been trying for years to get one from him, especially in recent years after he set the single-season saves record, but he was always…how should I say this? Umm…rude.

Chris Carter tossed me my third ball less than a minute later, and then I lunged awkwardly over the railing and grabbed a ground-rule double that unexpectedly bounced all the way up off the warning track.

Ready to see a VERY cool photo? Look what a fancy camera can do:

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Here, let me give you a closer look:

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It was a home run that was hit by a right-handed batter on the Mets. I wish I knew who, but whatever, the most important thing is that I caught it, and as you can see, I was straddling a row of seats at the time. Basically, what happened is that I ran to my right when the ball was hit, and then once I got in line with it and determined that it was going to fall a bit short, I started climbing forward over the seats. What I love about the photo is that you can see the seams on the ball. There’s no way that I could ever capture that kind of movement/detail with my little rinky-dink camera, but hey, that’s why Brandon is a professional videographer and I’m not. (That’s part of the reason, at least. It also helps to have mad camera/editing skills.)

Speaking of video, Brandon was filming when Jason Bay belted a home run right to me. Here are a few screen shots that show how it played out. You can see the ball in the first one:

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See the guy wearing the white shirt on my left? He was cutting through the row just in front of me, and if you look closely, you can see that he was reaching up with his bare hand even though he had a glove. What you can’t see is that this guy was out of control. I didn’t mind that he tried to rob me — a home run is anyone’s ball, and he had every right to go for it — but I didn’t appreciate the fact that he smacked into me. That said, check out what happened next:

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That’s right. The guy lost his balance and went flying. (He wasn’t hurt, and he ended up snagging two baseballs later on, so don’t feel too bad for him.) In the photo above on the right, you can see me holding up my arms as if to say, “I have nothing to do with this.”

My seventh ball of the day was tossed by Hisanori Takahashi (yes, I asked him in Japanese), and my eighth was totally unexpected. Jose Reyes was in the cage, taking cuts from the right side and peppering line drives all over the field. At one point, I turned to watch one, and before I knew it, I heard everyone around me yelling, “HEADS UP!!!” I looked up just in time to see another ball flying 10 feet to my left and five feet over my head. And then — CRACK!!! — Reyes promptly hit another line drive somewhere. Could Reyes have hit a home run in such a quick time frame when I wasn’t looking? It seemed unlikely, and after I chased down the ball, I looked up and noticed that a coach was hitting fungos from shallow center field. I would bet that the ball was a fungo that sailed too far. The guys in front of me insisted it was a Reyes homer, but I didn’t trust their baseball knowledge.

Here’s another series of three photographs, but I’m going to show them one at a time. First, Brandon took a shot of me standing around (which he later converted to sepia):

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Then Jose Reyes scorched a deep line drive in my direction. Brandon told me later that he thought the ball was going to sail over my head. This was never even an option in my mind. I had it all the way and knew that it was going to fall short, so I drifted down to the front row…

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…and then lunged as far over the railing as possible:

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I caught the ball in the tip of my glove and got a thumbs-up from Takahashi.

I had nine balls. It was 5:02pm. The stadium had only been open for 22 minutes. (If the wind hadn’t been blowing in, I’m sure I would’ve had at least a dozen by that point — maybe even 14 or 15.) That’s when my friend (and former Watch With Zack client) Ross showed up. (You might remember him from 9/6/09 at Citi Field and 9/23/09 at Citi Field.) Here we are talking to each other:

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“Want to guess how many balls I’ve snagged?” I asked.

“One?” he said. “Two?”

He was rather surprised to hear the actual number, and he took it well. (He was supposed to have arrived at the start of BP, but got held up because of an unfavorable train schedule.) He ended up snagging two baseballs — a respectable total under any circumstances, and especially good for having missed such a big chunk of time at the start.

Okay, get ready for another three-part photo, and let me first explain what you’re about to see…

The batter hit a home run to my right — a full section to my right — so I started running through a half-empty row. There was a man standing in the middle of the row, so I knocked him down and kept running. Just kidding. (No really, I’m kidding.) Without slowing down, I leapt over the seats into the next row and kept running. I didn’t end up getting the ball, so you know it has to be cool if I’m still showing it. Here, check it out:

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See what I’m talking about? In the first photo, I’m jumping off my left foot and lifting my right leg over the seats. (You may recall that I sprained my left ankle on 5/19/10 at Turner Field. Needless to say, it’s all better.) In the middle photo, I’m flying above the seats with my legs pulled up. And in the photo on the right, I’m about to land on my right foot while looking up at the ball. I didn’t even realize that I’d hurdled a row of seats until Brandon showed me the footage later on. (Don’t you just love the fact that Wayne is not even looking up? He was filling out his scorecard.)

This is when things slowed waaaaay down for me. You see, Heath Bell wandered out in front of the Padres’ dugout while Mets were still hitting, and I had to head over and talk to him:

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“First things first,” I told him, “congrats on an outstanding season in every possible sense.”

“Thanks,” he said, “but we still have a few more months to go.”

We chatted about random stuff for a minute, and then he asked, “How’s the book coming along?”

“Oh my GOD,” I said, “It’s killing me. It’s taken over my life, and I’m completely stressed.”

He asked me why, so I told him about my deadlines and all the remaining chapters that I still need to write and then edit.

I thought we were going to keep talking for a while, but all his teammates started pouring onto the field, so he had to go stretch with them. It was kind of frustrating because I knew he would’ve talked longer, but at least I got to see him.

I headed back to left field while the Mets finished hitting. When the Padres came out to throw, Brandon took a bunch of photos of Heath, including this one:

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The Padres eventually began their portion of BP, and it was dead. The players shagging in left field were ignoring everyone (ahem…cough-cough…Mat Latos), so I headed over to right field. I thought I might have better luck there, and also, Heath was in right-center. I wasn’t planning to ask him for a ball. I just…I don’t know…wanted to stand closer to him because…why not?

Brandon followed me out to right field, and soon after we arrived, he began shouting like a madman. Let me paraphrase:

“ZACK!!! HERE IT COMES!!!”

When I looked up, the only thing I saw was the overhang of the Pepsi Porch. (That’s the second deck.) Where was the ball? Was it a home run? Or was a player throwing one into the seats?

THWACK!!!

A ball came out of nowhere and landed in my row about 15 feet to my right. Luckily, it didn’t take a crazy bounce, and I chased after it:

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I was able to grab the ball just before the other guy (wearing the orange shirt in the photo above) got there. It was my 10th ball of the day, and it was a beauty. Check out the double-scuff:

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Heath saw the whole thing play out and came over to talk to me. In the following photo, you can see me leaning out of the stands just to the left of the “M” in “The Mo’s Zone.” Heath had to keep one eye on the batter, so that’s why he’s not looking at me in this particular shot:

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The music was blasting, so we had a tough time hearing each other. In addition, Heath had to keep craning his neck to look up at me, so he told me to head over to the seats along the right field foul line.

Much better:

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See the cap I’m wearing? Here’s a closer look at it. Heath gave it to me on 8/31/08 at PETCO Park.

Heath and I talked for the rest of BP, and eventually, other fans got in on the conversation, too. One topic that came up was his recent bashing of the Mets organization. I hadn’t even heard about this. Another fan brought it up and was NOT happy about it. Heath was cool about it and defended himself well. He said that the newspaper pulled random quotes out of context and completely got the facts wrong, and that he’s so mad about it that he’ll never talk to any reporter from that paper again. He did, however, give a specific example of how badly the Mets treated him, and it was shocking. He said that when the Mets clinched the NL East in 2006, he was reprimanded and fined for “celebrating excessively” after the game. I asked him what exactly he had done that was deemed excessive. He said he was just spraying champagne in the clubhouse with David Wright and Jose Reyes and jumping around with everyone else and screaming and going nuts, but because he hadn’t been on the team all year — because he had spent more time in the minors than the majors — some people in the front office basically said he shouldn’t have been THAT excited…and that he was out of line…and that he didn’t really deserve to be such a big part of the celebration. These are not exact quotes. I’m just summing it up, but you get the idea. I was amazed and disgusted to hear that the Mets treated him like that. As Heath pointed out, he’d already been with the organization for many years at that point. He said he absolutely loved the Mets and rooted for them as much as anyone, even when he was in the minor leagues, so when he finally made it to the majors and the team clinched, he was as excited as anyone and just let loose. Can you blame him? All I can say is: shame on the Mets. Of course, there may be another side to the story, and if there’s anyone from the team’s 2006 front office who’s reading this, please get in touch and tell me the story from your point of view, and I’ll be happy to blog about it. (Maybe the Mets executives from 2006 are now running Best Buy. That would explain a lot.) Heath did say that he’d be happy to return to the Mets someday. He said he’s only upset about how he was treated by a small group of executives, most of whom are now gone.

Everyone appreciated hearing Heath speak from the heart, and let me make one thing clear: the time he spent chatting it up along the foul line wasn’t all negative. On the contrary, there were lots of funny moments. For example, there was an annoying kid who kept begging for a ball and eventually told Heath that it was his first game.

“It’s my first game, too,” said Heath. Then he paused and said, “Today.”

Everyone laughed, and then Heath turned to one of the security guards and said, “What about you?”

“It’s also my first game,” said the guy with a rough New York accent.

“Hey, me too!” I shouted. “This is my first game ever!”

It was hilarious. Everyone was cracking up and declaring that it was their first game, and as for the kid, Heath ended up signing an autograph for him, so all was right with the world. Heath signed for everyone. He was accommodating and funny and insightful and friendly. If you don’t root for him (at least when he’s not facing your favorite team of your fantasy players), then there has to be something wrong with you.

Shortly before the game started, I snagged my 11th ball of the day behind the Padres’ dugout. Jerry Hairston tossed it to me after playing catch, and then I grabbed a seat in the eighth row. It was a good spot to snag a 3rd-out ball, but I had some competition. Brian and Ross were there, and they were both wearing Padres gear. We decided to take turns each inning rather than simultaneously charging down to the front row and creating a mini-stampede. Brian, we all agreed, would get the 1st, 4th, and 7th innings, I would get the 2nd, 5th, and 8th, and Ross would get the 3rd, 6th, and (if necessary) 9th. We were all sitting behind the outfield end of the dugout — the perfect spot to get a ball from the first baseman, but a terrible spot to get one from the catcher. I would’ve gone to the home plate end, but I’d just gotten the ball from Hairston over there, and I didn’t want to intrude on the people in that section. I told Ross that he should go there, but he didn’t, and whaddaya know? Ike Davis struck out to end the first inning, and Nick Hundley, the Padres catcher, tossed the ball into the crowd right where he would’ve been. One inning later, when Mike Pelfrey tapped softly back to the pitcher for the final out, I headed down to the front row and knew that I was going to get the ball. There was absolutely no doubt about it. The only question was whether Adrian Gonzalez would toss me the actual game-used ball or if he’d pull a switcheroo and give me the infield warm-up ball instead.

Here’s a photo of the ball in mid-air, heading toward me…

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…and here’s the ball itself:

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Clearly, it was the infield warm-up ball; a gamer would never be that dirty and messy. Did I care? Not at all. I was just glad to have another ball.

That was the last time I went down to the dugout for the rest of the game. Instead, I sat with Brandon (and his family) near the back of the section. This was our view:

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His mother had purchased tickets there, and while it pained me to sit in the middle of a row, I knew that there really wasn’t any other place I could’ve gone that would’ve been much better. Citi Field is a decent stadium for batting practice, but once the game starts, it’s terrible for ballhawking. I won’t get into all the reasons why. Just take my word for it.

Late in the game, I headed out to the seats in deep right-center. This was my fabulous view:

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I wasn’t out there to look at the field. I just wanted to get close to the bullpen so I could see Heath again. This was the view to my left and behind me (after I reached over the railing with my camera):

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In case you can’t tell, that’s Heath on the left. Soon after I took that photo, he saw me and gave a subtle nod.

The game was awesome. The Padres were winning, 1-0, with two outs in the bottom of the 7th inning. I was counting down the outs — four to go at that point — until Heath would get a save opportunity, but Jose Reyes spoiled it with a deep drive to left. The ball hit the very top of the wall and bounced back onto the field. At first, it was ruled “in play,” but then the umps reviewed it and overturned the call and awarded Reyes with a game-tying homer.

Before I headed back to the dugout, I met a young man named Brian (not to be confused with the Brian that I mentioned earlier) who told me he’d been reading this blog for a couple years. He also told me that he had a photo of me, and he asked if I would sign it. My answer, of course, was yes, and he let me take a photo of him holding it up:

Anyone want to guess what baseball I’m holding in the signed photo? Here’s a hint: you can find it in the photo section of my website. Also, FYI, the number under my name says “4520.” That was my current ball total at the time that I signed it. I’ve been signing all snag-related autographs like that since my first book came out in 1999. I never signed Watching Baseball Smarter with my ball total under my name, but I plan on going back to that signature when The Baseball comes out next year.

I made it back to the dugout during the top of the 10th inning, and Ike Davis won it in the bottom of the 11th with an absolute BOMB to right field. According to Hit Tracker, the ball traveled 444 feet (and jumped off the bat at a speed of 113.7 miles per hour). Look where it went. Cool, no?

Davis’s home run was a solo shot.

Final score: Zack 12, Mets 2, Padres 1.

My Ballhawk Winning Percentage is now .833 (12.5 wins, 2.5 losses). That’s good for first place in all six major league divisions.

Next game for me? Who knows. I seriously have to get back to work on my book.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 12 balls at this game (11 pictured on the right because I gave one away)

• 162 balls in 15 games this season = 10.8 balls per game.

• 644 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 490 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 353 consecutive Mets home games with at least one ball (338 at Shea Stadium; 15 at Citi Field)

• 127 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 4,520 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 37 donors (click here to learn more)

• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $64.92 raised at this game

• $876.42 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

7/23/09 at Citizens Bank Park

This is one of those stories that requires context, so here it is:

1) I’ve become friendly with Padres closer Heath Bell.
2) Heath knows about my baseball collection and seems to enjoy adding to it.
3) When I saw Heath on 4/15/09 at Citi Field, he told me he had saved a ball for me from the World Baseball Classic–but he didn’t have it with him. The ball was in San Diego.

heath_bell.jpgEver since that game, Heath and I have been texting back and forth, trying to figure out when and where we could meet. Obviously, since the Padres’ travel schedule was set, it was up to me to make the effort.

Here’s some more context…

The week before the All-Star Game, Heath left me a voice-mail in which he asked if I was going to be there. “Unfortunately I don’t have a ticket for ya,” he said, “just ’cause I got a bunch of people coming, but hey, if you are, hit me up.” I called him back, got his voice-mail, and told him that I was not going to be attending the All-Star Game. Then I reminded him that I’d be in Philadelphia on July 23rd and said that if he happened to see an extra All-Star Game ball lying around, it’d be cool if he could grab it for me, but if not, no worries.

On July 21st (the day before the Padres were going to be leaving on an eight-game road trip), I texted Heath with a “friendly reminder” to bring the ball from the World Baseball Classic.

1_driving_in_the_rain.jpgYesterday was THE day: July 23rd at Citizens Bank Park. Was Heath really going to bring the ball? I wasn’t sure…and it ended up raining like hell during the drive down to Philly (see the photo on the right)…but I had to keep going. I had to be there. To hell with batting practice. There was no other way I’d ever get to count a ball from the World Baseball Classic in my collection. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t count Spring Training balls, and the only minor league balls I’ve counted were used by major league players at major league stadiums at actual major league games. (For the last few years, the uber-cheap Tigers have been using balls like this and this during BP.) Along these lines, I decided back in 2006 not to count balls from the Classic–it’s an exhibition that isn’t exclusively played by major leaguers–but if I somehow were to snag a Classic ball at a regular season game, that would be the one exception.

I reached the stadium at around 3:30pm, and even though it was really gray and windy, there was no sign of rain:

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There was no sign of life either, and for a while I didn’t know what to think. Would there possibly be batting practice? Would there even be a game?

By the time the stadium opened at 4:35pm, there was a huge crowd waiting outside the gates, and when I ran inside, this is what I saw:

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Sweet Jesus!

Of course the left field seats (where everyone is confined for the first hour) ended up getting unbearably crowded:

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During that first hour, I managed to snag three balls. The first was thrown by Joe Blanton at the furthest edge of the seats in left-center field. The second came via the glove trick near the foul pole, and the third was a home run that I caught on the fly. I don’t know who hit it. There’s a slim chance that it was Jayson Werth, but whatever. Doesn’t matter.

I spotted Heath as soon as the Padres took the field:

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I shouted his name and waved my cap (the one that he gave me on 8/31/08 at PETCO Park) and he looked up and spotted me in the crowd. As he started throwing, he told me to wait for him in foul territory. For some reason, though, the rest of the stadium still hadn’t opened by 5:40pm, so when Heath headed off to the clubhouse (presumably to get THE ball), I wasn’t able to keep pace with him by cutting through the seats toward the dugout. That sucked. It meant I had to wait with everyone else near the foul pole, where the wall was so high that I wasn’t going to be able to have a normal conversation with Heath or shake his hand. And then it started to rain. The Padres kept hitting, however, and eventually Heath came back out and started walking toward me:

It looked like he had something tucked inside his glove, and as he got closer and tossed it up, I still had no idea what it was:

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I could tell that there was a ball inside…no wait…there were TWO balls inside. It was some sort of tube sock…dark green fabric…with knots tied around each ball to keep them separate. My mind couldn’t process it, but I snapped back to reality just in time to yell “Thank you!!” as Heath jogged off toward right-center. Two balls?! Seriously? Had he given me two balls from the World Baseball Classic? Or was one of them from the All-Star Game? Or maybe from some other All Star event? Since I now number my baseballs, how would I know which one I’d snagged first? I got them both at the same time. But why even number them if they were each one-of-a-kind?

Hmm…

I was dying to untie the knots and see what was inside the sock, but there was a ball that was sitting on the warning track in left-center. I decided that my surprise would have to wait for a couple minutes, so I ran over and leaned way out over the flower bed and used my glove trick to reel it in. When I pulled the ball out of my glove, this is what it looked like:

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The rain, meanwhile, was great. It was light enough that the Padres kept hitting, but heavy enough that it chased half the fans out of the seats:

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I took the sock out of my backpack…

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…but just as I was about to start untying the knots, several righties starting taking their cuts, so I threw the sock back in my bag. AAHH!! It was killing me to keep waiting, but it would’ve killed me to miss any opportunities.

My decision paid off. Someone on the Padres hit a home run that landed near me in a small cluster of fans. The ball got bobbled (not by me) and landed briefly on the top edge of the back of the seat right in front of me, at which point I snatched it. Nice! That was my seventh ball of the day, including the two that Heath had given me.

Okay.

Deep breath.

It was time to see what was in the sock…

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Like, wow.

If I’d gone to the All-Star Game, the flights and hotel and ticket would’ve cost more than $1,000, and what would I have hoped to get out of it? Umm, snagging the ball pictured up above on the right. Yay for Heath Bell. That’s all there is to it. (Oh…and if you want to see my entire collection of commemorative balls, click here.)

Anyway, a bunch of lefties started hitting so I ran over to right field and ended up catching a home run on the fly. See the guy below in the “HAMELS 35″ jersey?

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After I caught the ball by reaching in front of him, he threatened to throw me over the wall.

Stay classy, Philadelphia! Yeah!

My goal, at that point, was to snag two more balls and reach double digits. I didn’t snag anything else during BP, but I did get my ninth ball right before the game started. Drew Macias was playing catch with Will Venable…

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…and Macias hooked me up when they finished. (I’m proud of myself–even though it’s indicative of other problems–for not getting distracted by the cheerleaders.)

Over the course of the day, several people recognized me from YouTube, including one guy who’s 6-foot-10, and since I have an obsession with height (obviously not my own), here we are:

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If I’m remembering correctly, his name is Morgan. I asked him if he has ever tried to catch baseballs at games, and luckily for the rest of humanity, his answer was no. Can you imagine how much he would dominate? Who would ever stand next to him? He’d have a whole section to himself wherever he went. Is there anyone reading this who’s freakishly (and I mean that in a good way) tall? If so, I want to hear about your snagging experience. I wonder if there’s ever been a seven-footer who was serious about ballhawking. Yikes.

After the national anthem, Heath and I caught a glimpse of each other near the dugout. I mouthed the words “thank you” and put my palms together and make a little bowing gesture. He gave me a nod as he began walking across the field toward the bullpen, and that was the last I saw of him.

As for the game, I’d splurged and bought a Diamond Club ticket. Why, you ask? Because of all this room to run for foul balls:

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The only problem was that there weren’t any foul balls to be caught. That area seems like it would be awesome, but it’s so close to home plate and so close to field level that most foul balls fly way overhead.

One good thing about the Diamond Club is that there’s a sweet view of the batting cages. Here’s Eric Bruntlett taking some mid-game hacks:

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Another good thing is the food. Yes, it’s expensive, but the quality really is the best I’ve ever experienced at a stadium. Check out what I got for 11 bucks:

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That’s a burger with grilled onions, swiss cheese, and bacon, along with a caesar salad and fresh pineapple. Yum! (I’d also eaten two hot dogs after BP, one with diced/raw onions and another with cheese sauce. So?)

After the game, I went to the Padres’ dugout (even though they lost) and saw a ballboy tossing out ball after ball. I got him to toss one to me, and for a second, I thought it was commemorative because there was a big dark spot on it, but it turned out just to be a smudge:

Still, the ball was clearly game-used, so that was cool.

As soon as I snagged it, I gave one of my BP balls to a little kid. It just so happened that an on-field security guard (who recognizes me, it should be noted, and is exceptionally rude) saw me hand it over. What was his response? Instead of a) praising my generosity or b) simply keeping his mouth shut, he c) started scolding the ballboy for giving a ball to me (“What’s the matter with you?!”) and demanding that I give away balls to all the other kids in the section.

Citizens Bank Park has officially become Yankee Stadium.

SNAGGING STATS:

19_the_nine_balls_i_kept_07_23_09.jpg• 10 balls at this game (9 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 320 balls in 37 games this season = 8.6 balls per game.

• 606 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 109 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 48 lifetimes games outside of New York with at least 10 balls

• 4,140 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $24.59 pledged per ball

• $245.90 raised at this game

• $7,868.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/25/09 at U.S. Cellular Field

Screwed by the weather!

No batting practice.

Miserable day all around.

Game time temperature: 39 degrees.

Don’t go to Chicago in April.

This is what I saw when I ran into the stadium:

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Thankfully (and for some strange reason) there was a ball waiting for me in the right field bullpen:

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I might not have noticed this ball if not for my new friend Scott and his friend Chad. (In the photo above, Scott is the guy wearing jeans and a black jacket, and Chad is in a maroon shirt just beyond/above the red tarp.) I was staying back under the overhang of the second deck because it was pouring. These two gentlemen, however, were down in the seats and looking for easter eggs when they discovered the ball in the bullpen. Scott doesn’t have a ball-retrieving device and Chad had left his at home, so they waved me down and let me go for it.

In the following photo (which was taken by Scott), you can see me trying to knock the ball closer:

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The bad news is that my string got horribly tangled (I blame the wetness) and I failed to reel in the ball. The good news is that a couple of groundskeepers eventually walked into the bullpen and one of them tossed it to me. Although there’s no official “assist” category for ballhawks, Scott and Chad definitely deserve one. Not only had they pointed out the ball, but they didn’t even ask for it when the groundskeepers made an appearance. So…BIG thanks to them.

The ball was soaked, and it weighed about half a pound. My glove was also soaked. My string was soaked. My backpack was soaked. My feet were clammy. The ink on my rosters had bled all over the place. My whole body was freezing. It was just a day of suck. And to make matters worse, when it stopped raining, the Blue Jays never came out. Normally, when there’s no BP, the teams will still take the field and play catch. But no. Not this time. There was nothing happening on the field. There was no way to snag baseballs…so I wandered and took photos, starting with the open-air concourse in center field:

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I headed to the left field corner of the upper deck…

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…and then made my way toward home plate:

I’m not sure what to make of the support beams. Are they really necessary? I mean, are the really
holding up the top edge of the upper deck? Or are they just there to make The Cell look charming and old? I’m pretty sure–and correct me if I’m wrong–that when construction began on this stadium in 1989, technology had advanced to the point where view-blocking beams would’ve been unnecessary. This upper deck is rather high and far and steep; if I were trapped in the last few rows and THEN had to sit behind one of those beams, I wouldn’t be happy. But then again, security is so laid-back at this stadium that unless it’s sold out, there’s no reason why anyone would ever have to sit there.

Here’s my panorama attempt from behind the plate:

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This is what the upper deck concourse looks like. Pretty nice, pretty standard:

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I noticed some lousy stadium design as I cut through the seats toward the right field side. In the following photo, look how far the steps extend toward the front of the upper deck:

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What’s the big deal?

Let’s say you’re sitting in the front row and you want to get to the concourse. When you reach the steps, you’d either have to climb over them or scoot carefully between the bottom step and the railing. It took somewhat of an effort for ME to reach the tunnel in an empty stadium, so I can only imagine how tough it would be for old/fat people when it’s packed.

Here’s another oddity. Not a mess-up. Just something cute and quirky. Look at the little segment of railing attached to the side of the beam:

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Here’s another panorama:

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I wasn’t kidding when I said security is laid-back. I *did* have to pay $34 for a field level ticket in order to get into the field level seats, but once I was in, I was free to go everywhere, including here:

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Can someone please tell me why it’s okay for autograph collectors to cluster at the dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, but not at Wrigley Field? Or Citi Field? Or the new Yankee Stadium? I hate that certain teams (read: owners) have the right to enforce all kinds of strict rules. There should be a league-wide policy that gives every fan permission to get as close to the field as they want, in any section, at any time of the day until the game begins. Then, if certain anti-fun owners feel the need to instruct their security guards to check tickets, so be it. I wish I were the commissioner of Major League Baseball and/or an owner. (Evidently you can be both at once.) I’m telling you, the world would be a better place.

Here’s another look from the front row next to the dugout:

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Half an hour before game time, two White Sox players started throwing in shallow left field. I figured there’d be a mob of fans trying to get the ball (at least there would’ve been in New York) but the only mob was passing by on the warning track:

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The White Sox had invited 2,200 Girl Scouts (and their parents/siblings/etc.) to take a lap around the field. I was concerned that one of the kids might get hit by an errant throw, but the two players–John Danks and Gavin Floyd–were very careful. (One little girl walked right up to Danks with a ball and pen in her hand and was quickly stopped by security.) Meanwhile, I was the only fan in the seats who had a glove, and when the guys finished throwing, Danks had no choice but to toss me the ball.

Then I got Floyd to sign my ticket:

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The game was delayed 14 minutes at the start, and it rained on and off throughout the night. (I’m surprised it was rain and not snow.)

I decided to stay behind home plate and go for foul balls. This was my view late in the game:

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Why was I there and not in the outfield? Because Jim “Future Hall of Famer” Thome and A.J. “99 Career Homers” Pierzynski weren’t playing. It was so miserable and cold that I decided I deserved the pleasure of sitting close to the action.

Scott and Chad had the same idea. They were sitting one section to my right. There were a few foul balls that came close enough for us to get up and run, but we didn’t snag any of them. I got a third-out ball from Jose Bautista after the second inning, and Chad kept his mini-streak alive by getting a ball from the ump after the game, but that was it. Hardly any action. Super-lame. The White Sox won, 10-2, and then there were fireworks. Whoop-Dee-Doo!

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One final thing…

At some point during the game–I think it was the top of the 5th inning–I felt my phone vibrate in the upper right pocket of my cargo pants.

“Who the HELL is texting me?” I thought as I reached for it. (I don’t text. I have T-Mobile. I didn’t sign up for texting, but I still get charged 20 cents every time I send or receive a text. It’s complete B.S., and as a result, whenever I give my cell phone number to someone, I have to insist that they never text me. But they still do. And my phone bill get inflated several dollars every month. The cheapest texting plan from T-Mobile is $5 per month, so I’m still saving money, but it’s still a ripoff, and I can’t wait to dump them and get an iPhone. Anyway, there IS a point to this story…)

I pulled out the phone and flipped it open, and this is what it said:

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Yes, that would be THE Heath Bell who pitches for the San Diego Padres–he’s the only one who has permission to text me–and he was talking about my charity. I had told him about it when I saw him on 4/15/09 at Citi Field, and he told me to email him the link. (Very quickly, for those who don’t know, I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag during the 2009 season. That money will go to a charity called Pitch In For Baseball, which provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. The largest pledge so far is one dollar per ball. The smallest pledge is a penny, and it’s all adding up in a big way. If you want to see the complete list of donors and learn more about it, click here.) I was surprised that Heath signed up so quickly. Ten days? I would’ve been glad to have him sign up after ten weeks, for even a nickel per ball, but he came through. He is truly The Man. I can’t say it enough.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 3 soggy balls at this game

• 88 balls in 12 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.

• 581 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,908 total balls


CHARITY STATS:

• 95 donors

• $18.16 pledged per ball

• $54.48 raised at this game

• $1,598.08 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.

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“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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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…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:

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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:

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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):

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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:

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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:

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And that’s about it.

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

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 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

8/31/08 at PETCO Park

I can’t believe I almost skipped this game. Wow. What a mistake that would’ve been. I’d gone to Angel Stadium the night before and PETCO Park the night before that.
Over the course of those two days, I’d snagged a total of 32 balls and
ended up with a comparable number of bruises and blisters. I needed to
sleep. I needed some painkillers. I wanted to blog. I wanted to go to
the beach. And to top it all off, this was a dreaded
day-game-after-a-night-game; I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be
batting practice.

I arrived at PETCO at 9:30am, and two good things happened within the
next 15 minutes. First I ran into my friend Leigh (aka “padreleigh” if
you read the comments) who’d been given an extra $50 ticket and passed
it along to me for free. Then I saw Brad Hawpe entering the ballpark
and learned that the Rockies WERE planning to take BP. Hot damn!

Of course the Padres were nowhere to be found when the stadium opened
at 10:30am, but the protective screens–minus the batting cage–for BP
were indeed ready to go. This was the view from behind “the beach” in
deep right-center field:

beach1_no_action.jpg

Did you notice the sand sculpture in the photo above? Here’s a closer look…

beach2_sculpture.jpg

…and here’s the other side:

beach3_sculpture.jpg

Finally, the batting cage was on its way toward home plate…

beach4_batting_cage.jpg

…but when the rest of the stadium opened at 11am, this was the only action:

rockies_playing_catch.jpg

In case you can’t tell from the photo above, Rockies bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter was playing
ball3674_dirty.jpg
catch in front of the dugout with bullpen coach Rick Mathews. If this
were New York, there would’ve been about 50 people screaming at them by
the time they finished, but here in San Diego only two other fans had
made it down to the dugout. One was Leigh, who had a glove but no
Rockies gear, and the other was a man with Rockies gear and no glove.
It almost goes without saying that I was the guy who ended up getting a
ball from Mathews, and what a ball it was. He had dug around in the
basket for at least 10 seconds before pulling one out and tossing it to
me. I think he was trying to find the dirtiest, most beat up ball, and
that was fine by me. Brand new balls, while fun to snag because I feel
like I’m getting away with robbery, are not nearly as interesting.

As soon as I snagged that first ball, two Padres began playing catch in right field:

padres_playing_catch.jpg

How convenient. And best of all, there was NO competition. A father and
son wandered down to the front row at the last second, but neither of
them had a glove or even bothered to ask for
josh_geer.jpg
the ball. The player who ended up with it was a pitcher named Josh Geer
who had made his major league debut the night before and gone five
innings for the win. When I asked him to throw me the ball, he said,
“Are you gonna throw it back?”

“Absolutely!” I said. “I’d love to play catch. I really need to warm up my arm.”

Geer then threw me the ball and held up his glove to indicate that he
wanted it back. I threw a perfect chest-high strike and was excited to
be playing catch with a major leaguer, even someone who’d been one for
less than 24 hours, but he then threw the ball back and told me to keep
it. So much for that.

The Rockies started taking BP soon after, and I raced out to the left
field seats. As I got there, Troy Tulowitzki lined a ball that landed
20 feet to my right and one row below me. There was another fan in that
row, cutting through the seats from the opposite direction, and I was
sure he was going to end up with the ball, but he didn’t because I got
one of the luckiest bounces of all time. Basically, the ball rattled
around, as if trapped briefly in a three-dimensional pinball machine,
and bounced up into my row. It was fantastic and I grabbed it, fully
aware that it was my third ball of the day and No. 399 on the season.
I’d never reached 400 before. The next ball was going to be historic–at
least for me–and I started paying extra close attention so I’d be able
to identify the source.

“Excuse me,” said another fan who was standing in the front row, “are you Zack?”

“Yeah.”

“Here,” he said, holding out his cell phone, “Heath Bell wants to talk to you.”

Excuse me?!” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “he’s been looking for someone named Zack for the last two days.”

WHAT?!?!

I did recognize the guy with the phone–I’d seen him two days earlier
and remembered him from the three games I attended at PETCO in 2006–but
how the hell would he have had Heath Bell’s number? I was sure one of
my friends was playing a trick on me. Leigh? Brandon? Someone in the
ballpark knew that *I* knew Heath and was messing around. They had to
be. So I decided to play along.

I picked up the phone and said, “Yeah, hello?”

“Zack!!” said the voice on the other end.

“Who is this?”

“It’s Heath!”

“Okay, really, who is this?”

“I see you in left field,” said the voice. “Look across the stadium. I’m waving in front of the dugout.”

I looked up…and oh my God…Heath WAS waving at me from across the field and holding a phone next to his ear.

“Wow, it really IS you,” I said.

“What are you up to right now? You trying to get some baseballs out in left field?”

“Well, yeah…why, what’s up?”

“I have a ball here for you,” he said. “I think it might be something
you haven’t seen. I don’t know, maybe you already have one, but do you
want to come over and take a look? Or do you want to wait ’til after
BP?”

On the one hand, I *did* want to wait until BP was over so I wouldn’t
lose any snagging opportunities, but on the other hand…could there
have possibly been a better way to snag (or in this case “receive”)
ball No. 400?

“I’ll head over right now,” I told him, “but it’s gonna take me at least three minutes to get there.”

“Perfect,” said Heath, “the ball’s in my locker so it’ll take me a few minutes to get it.”

“I’ll even take off my Rockies gear for the occasion.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it.” he said. “Leave it on. Just meet me right here.”

I handed the phone back to the guy and sprinted around the
stadium. PETCO is one of those segmented ballparks–the shortest
distance between two sections is never a straight line–so it really did
take several minutes to reach the dugout, and when I got there, a
security guard standing on the warning track looked up and said, “Heath
Bell?”

“Yeah…?”

“Wait here,” said the guard. “He’ll be right out.”

Thirty seconds later, Heath popped out of the dugout and tossed me a Padres cap:

heath_bell_cap.jpg

He was wearing an identical cap, so it’s not like he took this one
right off his head and gave it to me–but clearly it was HIS cap because
his uniform number was written on the inside.

Then he tossed me a ball and said, “Here, tell me what you think.”

I had no idea what to expect. I’d been assuming (or at least hoping)
that the ball would have some type of commemorative logo, and when I
got my first look at it, my jaw literally dropped. This is what I was
holding:

400th_ball_of_2008.jpg

“Oh my GOD!!!” I shouted. “Thank you SO much!!!”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Heath.

“No really,” I replied, “I can not thank you enough.”

I told him that I’d once gotten an Opening Day ball during BP that was
so worn that I could barely read the logo. And of course I loved the
cap as well. I actually needed a Padres cap (the plastic, adjustable
strap on my old one broke two days earlier), and I’d been making
late-nite trips with Brandon to various Walmarts in search of a
replacement. Unbelievable.

I asked Heath if I could actually give the cap and ball back to him for
a moment so I could get a photograph of him holding them. He suggested
that we get a photo together instead, so security let me down into the
camera-well next to the dugout, and the guard on the field took our pic:

zack_heath.jpg

The guard handed the camera back to me as I was asking him to take
another pic, so Heath grabbed the camera and held it out at arm’s
length and took the pic himself. It didn’t come out well, only because
I wasn’t ready and was looking off to the side, but whatever. I was
still in shock over the whole thing.

I thanked Heath again. He asked how long I was gonna be in town. I told
him I’d be seeing him the next two days in L.A. and then flying back to
New York City. We then shook hands, and I ran back out to left field to
continue snagging.

The fan who’d lent me his phone was still there:

guy_with_the_cell_phone.jpg

His name is Ismael. He has season tickets. He knows people. Incredible.

I snagged four more balls in left field during the next half-hour. The
first was a deep drive by Matt Holliday that Ubaldo Jimenez caught near
the warning track and tossed to me. The second was a home run to
left-center that got snared by the netting that separates the stands
from the Padres’ bullpen. The third (which I later gave away) came via
the glove trick, and the fourth was thrown by Scott Podsednik.

I headed over to right field when a bunch of lefties started taking
cuts, and I snagged my ninth ball of the day behind the foul pole. One
of the batters hooked a deep line drive that landed in a totally empty
section, so I had all the time in the world to walk over and pick up
the ball. (I love the Padres for being in last place. I wish every team
could be in last place.)

clint_barmes_playing_catch.jpg
I didn’t snag anything else during BP. I had to wait until closer to
game time to reach double digits. Two pairs of Rockies started playing
catch along the left field foul line, and I got Clint Barmes to throw
me his ball when he finished. Simple. Easy. No competition once again.
I was in heaven.

I caught up briefly with Leigh and met another PETCO Park
regular/ballhawk named Rob (aka “juveasts”). We all chatted for a bit
until the Padres started throwing in right field. I ran out there and
ended up getting Nick Hundley to toss me my 11th ball of the day just
after the national anthem.

My actual/assigned seat was behind the Padres’ dugout, so I stayed
there for the whole game and waited for a chance to snag a third-out
ball. I was still banged up from Anaheim, and the blisters on the
bottom of my right toes were now on fire. Jake Peavy was on the hill. I
knew it was going to be a good game, and although this might come as a
surprise to many people reading this, I actually wanted to sit in one
spot and watch it. Peavy, meanwhile, kept making things difficult for
me by ending each inning with a strikeout. I was behind the outfield
end of the dugout, hoping that first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would end
up with the inning-ending balls, but catcher Josh Bard kept getting
them and tossing them to little kids behind the home-plate end of the
dugout. Thus, the only ball I snagged for the first eight innings was
made of nerf and thrown by the mascot:

zack_nerf_ball.jpg

I later gave this ball to Brandon’s roommate.

Peavy ended up fanning 13 batters in eight innings and handing a 1-0
lead to Trevor Hoffman. What did Hoffman do? He gave up a run…which
was a shame…but it gave me an extra chance to snag a ball. I knew
there’d be a bottom of the ninth…which meant there’d be another
third-out ball tossed into the crowd after the top of the ninth
(instead of an on-field celebration), and wouldn’t you know
it…Tulowitzki ended up grounding out to third baseman Kevin
Kouzmanoff to end the frame. Gonzalez took the throw at first. All the
kids were waiting behind the home-plate end of the dugout. I had no
competition at the outfield end. Gonzalez jogged in and tossed me the
ball.

But wait, it wasn’t THE ball. It was too scuffed to be THE ball, and I
realized he must’ve switched balls. You know how the first baseman
always catches a ball on his way into the dugout after each inning?
That’s the infield warm-up ball. Gonzalez, for whatever reason (maybe
he’s a baseball collector too?), had tossed me that one and kept the
gamer for himself. Here’s the ball he tossed to me:

ball3685_gonzalez_warm_up.jpg

The Padres ended up scoring in the bottom of the ninth on three
singles. Game over. Thank God. I needed to rest. I’d be running into
Dodger Stadium less than 24 hours later…

STATS:

? 12 balls at this game

eleven_and_a_half_balls.jpg
? 408 balls in 54 games this season = 7.6 balls per game.

? 550 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 136 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball

? 89 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

? 34 lifetime games outside NYC with at least 10 balls

? 3,685 total balls

8/29/08 at PETCO Park

As I headed to this game with my friend Brandon, I told him that my goal for this entire trip was to snag 20 balls–but perhaps I should’ve been more optimistic. Good things tend to happen to me at PETCO Park. The last time I was there, I caught Barry Bonds’ 724th career home run, and now I was back to be filmed by Steve Smith for San Diego’s Channel 10 News.

zack_being_filmed_center_field.jpg

In case you’ve forgotten (or are new to this blog), Brandon is the guy who photographed me the day I brought my Big Glove to the Rays-Jays series at Champion Stadium. Thankfully, he likes using his camera more than his baseball glove, so he followed me around the stadium and documented the action.

Moments after the stadium opened, I convinced Padres manager Bud Black to throw me my third ball of the day, and yes, you read that right: third.

Before the stadium had opened, I’d found a way to get inside and snag a couple balls. Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis tossed me the first, and a female security guard hooked me up with the second. That’s all I can say. The place I went to is kind of a secret spot–more of a well-guarded secret, really, and the person who shared it with me did so only after I promised not to tell anyone else. Sorry.

heath_bell_2008_headshot.jpgSoon after I got the ball from Bud Black, I spotted Heath Bell walking by in right-center field and I shouted, “Heath!!! It’s me, the baseball collector, from New York!!!”

Heath looked up and immediately walked over and made his best attempt to shake my hand through the chain link fence. He had gotten to know me when he was an under-appreciated middle reliever with the Mets–and he has remembered me ever since. (One time, while he was still with the Mets, he played catch with me at Shea Stadium. He was on the field. I was in the stands. He even crouched down like a catcher and called balls and strikes. It was awesome. That was also the day Ryan Speier gave me his glove, and you can read about it here. As far as I’m concerned, Heath Bell is BY FAR the nicest major league baseball player.)
 
“What’re you doing out here?” he asked as Steve walked up with his camera.

heath_bell1.jpg
“I’m just going to a few games and hanging out with a friend,” I said, “and doing some TV stuff with the local news.”

We talked on and off for the next 15 minutes. The only reason it was “off” was because I had to race back from the fence to chase a few more balls. At one point, I got one tossed to me by someone I couldn’t identify–until I asked Heath and he told me it was Chad Reineke.

“Did you know I have a new book?” I asked.

Heath said he didn’t, so I asked if he had another minute to spare.

“I’m not doing anything right now,” he said.

“Cool, wait just a moment,” I said. “I have a copy in my bag. I’ll run and get it.”

I ran back to the first row of the bleachers and grabbed the book, and as I was about to run back, a right-handed batter hit a deep drive toward right-center that I knew had a chance to reach the warning track and bounce over the outfield fence…so I bolted to my left as the few other grown-ups in the section did their best impressions of statues, and finally, as the ball cleared the fence and bounced to the back of the sandy area, everyone started chasing it. The ball ended up hitting a concrete wall and ricocheting back toward the field as I cut across at just the right angle to scoop it up and keep running back to Heath:

zack_book_and_ball.jpg

Moments later, Heath had the book in his hands:

heath_bell2.jpg

At around 4:55pm–five minutes before the rest of the stadium was going to open–I asked Heath if he was going to give me a “welcome to San Diego” ball.

“Just hang out here,” he said. “I’ll get you one.”

“Well, actually, I was planning to head over to left field at 5pm.”

“No problem,” he told me, “I’ll get you one before that.”

Less than a minute later, he got one of his teammates to throw one to him, and then he flipped it to me:

heath_bell3.jpg

We kept talking about a million things after that. He told me he’s hoping to get the closer’s job after Trevor Hoffman retires…and that he gets heckled for being fat…and that I inspired him to be more creative with the ways in which he gives balls to fans…and that Pedro Martinez is a cool guy. It was the BEST conversation. Oh my God. It seemed like the conversation wasn’t ever going to end. I was enjoying myself so much that I sacrificed the first few minutes of BP in left field–and definitely lost a few balls as a result, including an easter egg I heard about later from my friend Leigh (aka “padreleigh” in the comments section), but it was totally worth it.

Steve filmed me running to the left field seats and kept the camera rolling after I got there. In the four-part photograph below, starting on the top left and going clockwise, I’m 1) hurrying back into position after trying unsuccessfully to get a ball in the left field corner, 2) scribbling notes about all the balls I’d snagged, 3) giving a glove trick tutorial, and 4) showing how I labeled one of the FIVE balls that I plucked off the warning track.

zack_being_filmed_left_field.jpg

It was crazy. I kept pulling up one ball after another, and the ushers weren’t saying a word. Were they giving me a break because I was being filmed? Or because they were distracted by the guy who got hit on the nose by a home run ball and was bleeding all over the place? I had no idea. I just kept doing my thing and Brandon kept taking pics. Here are some highlights:

zack_petco_glove_trick1.jpg

zack_petco_glove_trick2.jpg

zack_petco_glove_trick3.jpg

zack_petco_glove_trick4.jpg

Here are the five consecutive balls I snagged with the glove trick:

five_straight_glove_trick_balls.jpg

I got Brian Fuentes to throw me my 12th ball of the day and then used the glove trick to snag No. 13. It was then that an usher finally walked down the steps and informed me that security had been watching me on various cameras and that I had to stop. So I did.

There was still half an hour left in BP when Steve decided he’d already gotten enough footage and took off. Ugh. I’d been planning to give away a ball or two right after BP, as I often do, and I was looking forward to having Steve film that. I wanted the world (or at least the people of San Diego) to see that I’m not a total ball hog…but…so much for that.

The Rockies were hitting bombs into the second deck in left field, and since I couldn’t use the glove trick anymore, I went up there. It would’ve been great if I didn’t have to share the terrain with a legendary ballhawk named T.C. (aka “tracycollinsbecky”), but that’s his regular spot for right-handed batters so I gave him some room. He caught several balls up there, and I only got one–a ball that he would’ve had if not for a silly/lazy mistake on his part. Someone on the Rockies crushed a deep home run over the aisle, and T.C. beat me up the steps. The ball landed on the steps and bounced all the way to the back of the section to where we couldn’t see it. T.C. assumed it had bounced over the back railing and into the concourse down below so he gave up and headed back down to the aisle.

“You don’t think it’s there?” I asked?

“I don’t know,” he said as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “You can check.”

I did check. And the ball was there, waiting for me in the last row.

Several minutes later, Brandon got a cool action shot as a home run sailed into the seats below. Check it out. I’m on the far left, leaning over the edge of the second deck, watching as a guy in the front row makes a leaping catch in front of Leigh and next to a woman ducking for cover:

zack_watches_action_from_above.jpg

After BP ended, I got Jeff Francis to toss me my 15th ball of the day at the Rockies’ dugout, and Brandon got a couple great photos. Here’s the first one. It shows Francis as he’s about to under-hand the ball to me:

jeff_francis_thrown_ball1.jpg

Here’s the second pic, which shows the ball in mid-air, about a foot from my glove:

jeff_francis_thrown_ball2.jpg

Brandon took some photos of me with my 15 balls (the best pic turned out to be the one he took two seconds before I was ready)…

zack_15_balls.jpg

…and then I gave one to kid (who had a glove!) who was sitting a few sections over with his dad.

What did Brandon look like on this fine day? See below:

brandon_08_29_08.jpg

Earlier in the day, I’d met a kid named Timmy (aka “holdsworthtimmy”) who’s been reading this blog for a while. When I ran into him after BP, I found out that he’d snagged almost as many balls as me! Here we are with Leigh who’d also snagged a bunch.

timmie_zack_leigh.jpg

Soon after this pic was taken, four Rockies began playing catch along the left field foul line. Timmy ended up getting one of the balls, and I was left to try to talk Troy Tulowitzki out of the other. When he finished throwing, he tucked the ball in his glove and walked
over to sign a few autographs. Instead of asking him to sign anything, I asked for the ball, and when it appeared that he might not give it up, I said, “In all seriousness, Troy, it would be a real honor to get a ball from you.”

“Why is that?” he asked as he finished signing and backed away from the wall.

I thought fast and said, “I just love how you play the game. I played shortstop too.”

He then nodded and flipped me the ball.

Several Padres had just started playing catch across the field, so I raced around to the RF foul line and got there just in time. Will Venable, who’d been called up from the minor leagues earlier that day, ended up with one of the balls, and I got him to toss it to me…but the ball fell a bit short and tipped off the end of my glove as I reached over the wall for it. Then it rolled about six feet to my left and a security guard started walking toward it. I quickly let out some string and flung my glove to the left, got it to land just beyond the ball, and then tugged the string to jerk the glove back and bring the ball with it. It worked on the first shot! The ball rolled back along the warning track, right to the spot in front of me, and I was able to lunge over the wall and grab it with my bare hand.

Brandon got a pic of this too. In fact, he got about two dozen pics, but I won’t share them all–just the best one:

zack_snagging_17th_ball.jpg

I had 17 balls at that point. I needed to get three more, and my plan was simple: snag a third-out ball during the game from each dugout, then get a ball from the home plate umpire after the game.

I wasn’t sure how strict security was going to be, and I didn’t have a ticket for the seats behind either dugout, so I carefully inched a few sections closer to home plate and sat down. Leigh had generously given me one of his season tickets in left field and Brandon, meanwhile, had splurged and bought a $50 seat behind the Rockies’ dugout because–get this–he was actually looking forward to sitting in one spot and watching the game. What to do…what to do. I was hoping for a third-out ball after the top of the first inning–that would’ve made things a whole lot easier–but that didn’t happen because I was behind the outfield end of the dugout and Garrett Atkins struck out to end the frame. In other words, the catcher ended up with the ball and tossed it into the seats behind the home plate end of the dugout. If Atkins had made contact and hit an inning-ended grounder, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would’ve ended up with the ball, and I would’ve been in the perfect position to get it.

Just then, by some miracle, the man sitting to my right made a comment about my glove and said he wanted me to protect him from foul balls.

“I’d love to,” I replied, “but I actually don’t belong in this section.” I then told him I had to run over and visit a friend behind the other dugout and asked if I could possibly borrow his ticket stub for “five to ten minutes.” Naturally he didn’t want to hand it over so I offered my book as collateral.

That did the trick.

“Wait,” he said as I headed off. “You WROTE this?”

I nodded and told him to enjoy it and that I’d be back half an inning later.

I raced around to the third base side and called Brandon. He understood the situation, and because he’s so awesome, he was willing to trade ticket stubs and sit out in left field with Leigh. (No offense, Leigh, but your view can’t compare to dugout seating.)

I didn’t get anything after the first inning because Gonzalez struck out, and I was in the wrong spot.

adrian_gonzalez.jpgIn the top of the second inning, I used the borrowed ticket stub to get back down into the seats behind the Padres’ dugout. How many more innings could I keep this up? The back-and-forth business was stressing me out. I absolutely NEEDED to get a ball this time, but I was at the mercy of the action on the field…and when Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook came up with two outs, I didn’t like my chances. I was convinced he was going to strike out, and when he fell behind in the count 0-2, I seriously thought I was doomed. But then another miracle occurred: he made contact! He stuck his bat out and punched a weak grounder to shortstop Luis Rodriguez. YES!!! Gonzalez took the throw at first base and jogged off the field with the ball. When he approached the dugout, he looked up and rolled it across the roof a foot to my left. I reached out and scooped it easily with my glove…and then realized I was surrounded by little kids who had apparently charged down the steps behind me after the out had been recorded. I felt kinda silly, towering above all those kids, so I handed the ball to the smallest one I could find and got a big round of applause from the entire section. That was my 18th ball of the day; remember that I still count balls even when I give them away.

garrett_atkins.jpgAtkins, the Rockies’ first baseman, kept ending up with the inning-ending balls, but he was tossing them all over the place to fans who were several rows deep. He was hard to predict, but I didn’t outsmart myself. I just ran down to the front row every inning and hoped that eventually he’d toss one right to me…and he did at the conclusion of the fifth inning after Cook induced Rodriguez to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play. SWEET!!! I only needed one more ball, and for the rest of the game I tried like crazy to catch a foul ball behind the plate–but nothing came close.

Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth. The Rockies were clinging to a 9-4 lead. This meant I was going to have (at least) two more chances to snag ball No. 20–one from umpire Dana DeMuth who’d be exiting the field at the home plate end of the Rockies’ dugout, and of course another chance from the Rockies themselves.

Brian Fuentes fanned the first two batters in the ninth and then got Josh Bard to pop up to second baseman Clint Barmes to end the game.

I bolted down to the corner spot at the far right end of the dugout and got my 20th ball from DeMuth. WOO!!!

Less than a minute later, all the Rockies players and coaches walked in, and I spotted Fuentes with the ball in his glove before he even crossed the foul line. I knew he wasn’t going to keep it because a) it wasn’t a special ball (he hadn’t used it to record a save), and b) he throws lots of balls into the crowd. Well, sure enough, I got him to toss it to me, and just like that, I’d tied my second highest single-game total ever. (The other time I got 21 balls was on 9/19/07 at Chase Field.)

Here are the last two balls I snagged:

20th_and_21st_balls_of_the_day.jpg

Here are the 19 balls I kept:

the_19_balls_i_kept.jpg

Here are the notes I’d frantically scribbled throughout the day (so that I’d be able to remember the details later and write this entry):

notes_08_29_08a.jpg

Here’s one final pic that Brandon took. He’d taken a bunch of shots from across the field as I was snagging those last two balls. This one shows me jumping for what would’ve been ball No. 22. Glenallen Hill tossed it five feet over my head on his way in, and if you look closely you can see the ball in mid-air as it’s about to sail over my outstretched bare hand:

zack_dugout_postgame.jpg

Oh well. I won’t complain about that one getting away.

STATS:

? 21 balls at this game (tied my second highest one-game total)

? 385 balls in 52 games this season = 7.4 balls per game.

? 548 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 134 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball

? 87 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

? 32 lifetime games outside NYC with at least 10 balls

? 3 lifetime games with at least 20 balls, all of which occurred outside NYC (of course)

? 3,662 total balls

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