Results tagged ‘ home run apple ’

8/11/10 at Citi Field

QUESTION: What do you do when you’re craving baseball, but you have a ton of work and a huge family dinner planned?

ANSWER: You go to batting practice and then leave.

That’s what I did yesterday at Citi Field (and yes, I still had to buy a ticket just like everybody else).

Here I am with some of the usual supects before the stadium opened:

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In the photo above, you’re looking at:

1) Greg Barasch, who recently joined the 1,000-ball club.

2) Gary, who has some pretty impressive stats of his own.

3) Brian (aka “puck collector”) who’s not too far behind Gary.

4) Me!

5) Mateo, my Watch With Zack client from 7/27/10 at Citi Field.

6) Mike from Denver. I had just met him through a mutual friend: Robert Harmon of 762 fame.

7) Brian’s father Wayne (aka “father puck”) who’s holding up his copy of the new Sports Illustrated article about me.

When the gates opened at 4:40pm, Brian won the race to the left field seats and narrowly beat me out for the first ball of the day. It was a BP homer that landed in the 3rd row, and he was all over it.

Less than a minute later, I got Elmer Dessens to throw me a ball in left-center field, and moments after that, I got another tossed to me by Mike Pelfrey. That second ball was pretty special:

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As you can see, it had a Citi Field commemorative logo from last year’s inaugural season of the stadium. It’s nice to see that these balls are still floating around. (Here’s what a good one looks like, and while we’re at it, here’s my entire collection of commemorative balls.)

After the seats had filled up a bit, I saw Chris Carter toss a ball to a little kid in straight-away left field — and wouldn’t you know it? The kid dropped it. I wandered closer as Carter jogged over to retrieve the ball, and when he gave it another toss, it happened to sail over the kid’s head and come right to me. I made the easy catch and immediately handed it to him. That was my third ball of the day. (I count balls even if I give them away.)

A bunch of lefties started hitting, so I headed over to the right field side. I wasn’t too optimistic because of the overhang of the second deck…

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…but I gave it a shot anyway. As I headed down to the corner spot near the bullpen, a fan dressed in Rockies gear recognized me and introduced himself as Alex. He reads this blog. He was wearing a glove. And he pointed out a ball that was trapped nearby in a narrow gap behind the outfield wall. Check it out:

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I asked Alex if he was gonna go for it, but he didn’t have a ball-retrieving device, so basically, it was all mine. All I had to do was a) use my glove trick to knock the ball closer and b) not get caught by stadium security.

While I was contemplating my next move, Hisanori Takahashi picked up a ball in right field. Once again, I asked Alex if he wanted to go for it — to call out to Takahashi and ask for it — but he was like, “Nah, that’s all you.”

So…I called out to Takahashi in Japanese, and he threw it to me.

Then I took another peek at the ball in the gap:

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There was a gutter with a small metal flap jutting out at the bottom. I was going to have to be careful not to get my string tangled around it.

Long story short: I knocked the ball closer on the first try and reeled it in without incident.

I thanked Alex for being so generous, and before I took off, we got a photo together:

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Alex is a fan of both the Rockies and Yankees, and he writes a blog called “Purple & Pinstripes.” Here’s the link. Check it out if you get a chance.

At around 5:30pm, I changed into some Rockies gear of my own. Remember when I got that free jersey on 8/26/09 at Coors Field? Well, it was time for the jersey to make its Citi Field debut:

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The jersey didn’t draw as much attention as I’d hoped for, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Once the Rockies started hitting, Ubaldo Jimenez tossed me a ball in left-center, and I later got one in the same spot from Jorge De La Rosa. The latter wasn’t thrown specifically to me. It was tossed high in the air, and when I came down with it, I noticed that there was a really little kid standing nearby, so I handed him the ball.

At one point toward the end of BP, I had another chance to use my glove trick. This time the ball was sitting one foot out from the wall on the warning track in left field. I looked around, wondered if security was watching, and although I didn’t see a direct threat, I decided against going for it. Thirty seconds later, Gary hurried over with his cup trick and began lowering it over the railing. I got my camera out to take a photo of him reeling it in, but instead I ended up with a photo of this:

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Stadium security (wearing maroon) appeared out of nowhere and confiscated the cup trick from Gary (wearing the black Rockies T-shirt). They didn’t give him a warning or anything. They just took it, leaving me to wonder what would have happened if they’d caught me instead. A cup is relatively easy to replace, but a well-worn baseball glove? Not so much.

In case you’ve lost count, I was now up to seven balls for the day. It would’ve been eight, but Gary had actually robbed me of a home run in right field during the Mets’ portion of BP. I’m not complaining — just reporting. He had a better angle on it and reached out right in front of my glove for the catch. You want to know how severely he robbed me? When I squeeze my glove to make the catch, I ended up squeezing his glove in the process. I basically caught his glove as he caught the ball. Lots of people teased me about it — Greg had seen the whole thing play out from right-center — but that’s just how it goes. You can’t win ‘em all, and as I often say, what makes it fun is that it’s a competition.

I raced over to the Rockies’ dugout at the end of BP and got two baseballs within a 60-second span. The first was tossed by hitting coach Don Baylor, and the second came from bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter.

Of the seven balls that I kept, four looked pretty cool:

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Did you notice that the ball on the upper left is lopsided? And that the ball on the bottom right has a crooked logo? I love that kind of stuff.

It was tempting to stay and go for double digits, but quite simply, I *had* to head home.

This was my view of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda on my way out:

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It bothered me that just inside the entrance, Jackie Robinson’s name was covered by a bunch of dirty floor mats, but hey, that’s the Mets for you.

The area outside the stadium was bustling, and let me tell you, it felt weird to be out there right before game time.

I’m not really sure what to say about the following photo other than the fact that I took it before heading to the subway:

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What was that dog looking at, you ask?

See here:

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Poor dog. Dressed up in Mets gear. How humiliating.

The dog’s owner, it should be noted, was making a LOT of money. Just about everyone (including me) put a dollar in the jug.

I took one final photo of Citi Field from the platform of John Rocker’s favorite train:

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And that was it.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 9 balls at this game (7 pictured on the right because I gave two away)

• 220 balls in 24 games this season = 9.2 balls per game.

• 653 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 355 consecutive Mets home games with at least one ball

• 17 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least two balls

• 4,578 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 45 donors (click here to learn more)

• $6.49 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $58.41 raised at this game

• $1,427.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

4/7/10 at Citi Field

This was my first game of the season. Don’t let my facial expression in the photo below fool you. I was indeed happy to be there:

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Mainly, I was (and still am) shocked that the season had arrived — that I was actually standing outside Citi Field. The off-season flew by. I never had a break from baseball. I was (and still am) working full-time on my book.

(If you’re not familiar with Citi Field, the Home Run Apple wasn’t there last year. It was hidden behind the bullpens. And FYI, this is the old Apple from Shea Stadium, which I miss very much.)

Now, onto another important topic…

As I mentioned recently on Twitter, I’ve gained 11 pounds in the last six months. I went from a light-on-my-feet weight of 167 pounds to a sluggish-and-constantly-feeling-bloated 178. I basically haven’t gotten any exercise since Game 5 of the 2009 World Series, so it was good to be back at a stadium where I’d be “forced” to run around. It was also good that my friend Greg was there with an old ball. He and I and another friend named Matt tossed it around for 20 minutes before the gates opened, and thankfully, I hadn’t forgotten how to catch. Here’s Matt getting ready to fire the ball to Greg:

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There was a fairly big crowd waiting to get in:

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In the photo above, you can see Greg waving. He started the day with a lifetime total of 875 balls, and because Citi Field is Citi Field, I got stuck in a bad line, and he got a major head start on the dash to left field — and surprise-surprise, he had two baseballs by the time I got there.

I was completely out of breath. It was pathetic. I mean, it’s a long run from street level behind home plate to the elevated concourse in the outfield, but still, that’s just lame. I have some serious work to do.

It didn’t take long for me to snag my first ball of the season. Mets reliever Ryota Igarashi threw it to me after I asked him for it in Japanese. Here it is:

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Oh yeah, baby, a Citi Field inaugural season commemorative ball. As it turned out, every single one of the Mets balls were commemorative. They obviously have a lot left over from last year.

Moments later, I snagged a Fernando Tatis home run that landed in the seats in left-center, and then I caught another one of his homers. That one came right to me. There was nothing to it. The real challenge came five minutes later when David Wright smoked a deep line drive in my direction. For some reason, I was standing in the middle of the third row when I determined that the ball was going to fall a bit short, so I quickly climbed over the seats into the second row, then climbed over THAT row of seats so that I was standing in the front row. I got there just as the ball was about to land, and I reached over the railing and made the catch.

“How did that feel?!” asked a man on my right, who probably thought it was the first ball I’d ever caught.

I shrugged and said, “Great.”

What else was I supposed to say? That those few seconds from the time the ball jumped off Wright’s bat until it smacked the pocket of my Mizuno glove showed me that I still had it?

When I finally looked at the ball, I noticed that it had a beautifully smudged logo:

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Matt’s goal for the day was to snag one ball. As soon as he got it, he came over and grabbed my camera and took a few action shots of me. Here’s one that shows me climbing over some more seats as a home run flew into the second deck. I was trying to get in position in case it bounced back down into the front row (it didn’t). The red arrow is pointing at Greg:

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Here I am scrambling unsuccessfully for a home run ball:

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The guy in the black jersey ended up grabbing it. I suspect that the man in the gray jersey was bending over in case the ball trickled down the steps. (He looks kinda funny, no?)

Angel Pagan then tossed up a ball that sailed over the first few rows and was about to sail over my head, too…

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…but I managed to climb up on a seat at the last second and catch it.

Matt told me to hold up the ball so he could take a photo, but I didn’t want to take my eye off the batter. In the two-part photo below, the pic on the left shows me saying, “Hold on,” and the pic on the right is the actual pose that Matt had requested:

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Toward the end of the Mets’ portion of BP, I caught two Luis Castillo homers on the fly in straight-away left field, then happened to catch another homer out in left-center. I wasn’t looking at the batter. I was trying to get someone to toss me a ball from down below, when all of a sudden, I heard people shouting at something else, so I looked up and saw a HIGH fly ball coming toward me. At first, I didn’t think it was going to reach the seats, but it carried, and I reached far over the railing and made the catch. It was either hit by Jeff Francoeur or Jason Bay. Not sure.

Before the stadium had opened, Matt predicted that I’d snag 12 balls. I thought his guess was too high, but by the time the Marlins took the field, I was two-thirds of the way there. Hmm…

My ninth ball of the day was thrown by Burke Badenhop. It helped that I had changed into a Marlins cap and shirt, but my outfit didn’t do me any good for the rest of BP. I’m happy to report, though, that I caught three more home runs on the fly. (That’s a total of eight home runs that I caught on the fly, in case you lost count.) The first was hit by Dan Uggla, and I have no idea who hit the next two. I gave one of them to the nearest kid.

With a few minutes remaining in BP, I made my way toward the dugout and didn’t get anything there — except a photo of my Marlins crew:

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From right to left, you’re looking at Greg (who ended up with nine balls), Matt (three), Ben (only one because he missed most of BP), me (keep reading), Ryan (six), and Ryan’s friend T.J. (three). Not one of us is actually a Marlins fan. We just had the gear to try to get extra baseballs.

Matt had bought a ticket in the front row behind the Marlins’ dugout. (Don’t ask how much it cost. He’s from California. This was his one and only game here, and the rest of his trip was paid for by his job, so he splurged.) I could’ve stayed down there with him, but I felt like wandering and playing for home runs. The left field seats were basically packed…

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…so I headed toward the newly named “Shea Bridge”…

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…and went up to the second deck in right field so I could take a photo of the bullpens. This is how the ‘pens looked last year. (If you’re too lazy to click that link, just know that they ran parallel to the outfield wall. The Mets’ bullpen was closer to the field; the visitors’ bullpen was tucked out of view below the overhang — stadium design at its worst.) This is the new bullpen configuration:

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Weird but better. (Does anyone know anyone who works for the architectural firm that designs all these stadiums? It used to be called HOK. Now it’s named Populous. With all due respect, they could really use my help.)

By the way, when I first tried to photograph the bullpens from the field level seats in right field, the security-guard-usher-type-person stopped me. He wouldn’t let me down the steps from the concourse — and this was 20 minutes after batting practice had ended. He told me that I needed to have a ticket to go down there. I told him that I’d heard about the new improvements to Citi Field, and that I was excited to see them and take some photos so I could blog about it, but he was like, “Sorry, you’re not allowed. You need a ticket. That’s what I’ve been told.” How sad that some teams are so un-fan-friendly.

There really wasn’t anywhere for me to go. Mike Jacobs was sitting on 99 career home runs, so I found my way into the seats in deep right-center for each of his at-bats. This was my lousy view:

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I don’t enjoy sitting 3.2 miles from home plate, but I’m willing to do it on special occasions. Of course, Jacobs ended up going 1-for-5 with a single and two strikeouts. I have nothing against the guy, but he doesn’t look good. He’s batting .111 so far this season, and it’s no surprise. He always seems to be behind in the count 0-2, and his swing looks awfully long.

Eventually, I went and sat with Matt behind the Marlins’ dugout. The view there was much better…

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…and thanks to his generosity, I got a third-out ball from Gaby Sanchez after the fifth inning. I was going to let Matt go for it, but he insisted.

“It’s for the charity,” he said.

When the Marlins made a double-switch with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, I was back in right-center. Emilio Bonifacio took over in center field, so Tim Wood came out of the bullpen to play catch with him. I quickly changed into my Marlins gear and heard a few grumbles (about my lack of team loyalty) from the fans sitting nearby. I hurried over to the side railing and got Wood’s attention as he was walking back toward the bullpen. He threw me the ball, and when I turned around, all the fans were smiling. They knew what was up, so once I was out of Wood’s view, I made a big production of taking off the Marlins gear and revealing my Mets shirt underneath. It was classic. The whole section burst into laughter, and then, for added comedic effect, I pretended to wipe myself with the teal-colored clothing.

The game was rather entertaining — and unusual. Not only did the Mets tie it up after trailing 6-1, but all six of their runs scored without a hit. In the bottom of the first, there was a sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the seventh, there was another sac fly and a bases-loaded walk. One inning later, they plated three more runs on a throwing error, another bases-loaded walk, and a balk.

In the top of the 10th, I was sitting several rows behind the Marlins dugout with Matt, Greg, Ben, and Ryan. Wes Helms led off the inning, and on a 2-1 pitch, he dribbled a foul grounder toward Joey Espada, the third base coach. Ryan reacted quickly and made a beeline for the front row. Espada scooped up the ball and tossed it into the seats. It wasn’t thrown to anyone in particular. It was just one of those up-for-grabs lobs, and Ryan gloved it. There was some talk about whether or not he’d “stolen” the ball from a kid, but I don’t think he did. Check out this screen shot from the game (sent by a friend in Florida):

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See the little red numbers?

1 = Ryan
2 = me
3 = Greg
4 = Ben

From where I was standing, it appeared that the ball sailed above the kid’s left/bare hand. (I’m talking about the kid wearing the white striped shirt.) To some people, it may have appeared that Ryan reached in front of him, but in fact Ryan respectfully stayed behind the kid and simply reached above him. It’s hard to tell. There’s so much gray area with these things, but really, it looked like a clean play as far as I could tell.

Here’s another screen shot:

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5 = Matt

The Marlins ended up taking a 7-6 lead, and guess who came in and notched his first major league save in the bottom of the 10th. That’s right: my boy Tim Wood.

After the final out, I got a ball from Laz Diaz, the home plate umpire, as he walked off the field. It was my 15th ball of the day — a new Citi Field record. My previous high for this stadium was 14 balls, which I accomplished on 8/4/09.

On my way out of the stadium, I gave another ball away to a kid and then posed with my eight Citi Field balls:

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SNAGGING STATS:

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• 15 balls at this game (13 pictured on the right because I gave two away)

• 131 balls in 14 lifetime games at Citi Field = 9.36 balls per game.

• 630 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 121 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 4,373 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 13 donors (click here to see what this is all about)

• $1.37 pledged per ball

• $17.81 raised at this game

• $17.81 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball.

9/20/09 at Citi Field

Sixteen months ago, I had a Watch With Zack game at Shea Stadium with a seven-year-old kid named Cooper. Remember? It was Cooper’s first game ever, and even though there wasn’t batting practice that day, I managed to snag two commemorative baseballs for him.

Well, Cooper is now nine years old, and yesterday his family brought him back back to New York for another game with me. Here we are outside Citi Field:

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In the photo above, the woman is Cooper’s mother Becky; the older gentleman is his grandfather Arthur.

As soon as the stadium opened, Cooper and I raced out to the left field seats. It was a day game, so I was glad to see that the Mets were taking batting practice. Meanwhile, Cooper was excited because it was the first time that he’d ever been to batting practice. Here he is, running down into the seats:

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As soon as we reached the front row, Mets coach Razor Shines tossed a ball to another kid. That kid was older than Cooper (and wasn’t nearly as cute), so I called out to Shines and got him to look up at us, and then I asked him if he could possibly spare another ball. Shines said no and proceeded to mumble something about how we should stay where we were because there’d be some balls hit to us. (Gee, thanks!) But then he retrieved another ball that had rolled onto the warning track and, without much warning, tossed it up toward Cooper. Please don’t drop it, I thought. The ball was coming. I held my breath. It was falling a bit short, but Cooper wasn’t phased. He reached six inches over the railing and made a nice two-handed basket catch. I gave him a high-five and took his photo with the ball:

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It was the first ball that he had ever snagged on his own.

The Mets didn’t throw many balls into the crowd after that, and the seats were still pretty empty, so I moved back a few rows and focused on snagging home run balls. I explained some basic strategies to Cooper, and he caught on quickly. Even though we were more than 375 feet from home plate, and even though he had never been to BP, and even though he was only nine years old, he was able to track the flight of the balls. He admitted that he wasn’t quite ready, however, to actually make an attempt at catching one, so when David Wright lifted a deep fly ball in our direction, I drifted down the steps and reached out over the wall for the easy one-handed catch. As soon as I took the ball out of my glove, I realized that I had reached in front of another kid who’d been camped out underneath it, so I handed him the ball. Then, two minutes later, I grabbed another Wright homer after it sailed over my head and ricocheted back to me.

That was it for the Mets’ portion of BP. The players were only on the field for 20 minutes, so Cooper and I headed to the 3rd base side. The Nationals were stretching in front of their dugout, but because the rules at Citi Field are so strict, we couldn’t get anywhere near them. Still, I was able to convince coach Marquis Grissom to throw us a ball from more than 100 feet away. In the following photo, the arrow is pointing at Grissom…

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…and did you notice that Cooper was no longer wearing his Mets cap? Little things like that make a difference, but anyway, as the ball started sailing toward us, I was hoping that Cooper would be able to catch it. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t within his reach, so I had no choice but to lean out over the railing and snare it. (It was a training ball.) Cooper had said that he didn’t mind which one of us actually caught the balls, but I knew it would be more exciting for him if he was actually the one to get them.

When the Nationals started playing catch along the left field foul line, I positioned Cooper behind THE most generous ball-giver in baseball: Livan Hernandez. Cooper was now wearing a red Nationals cap. He was all set. This was our view:

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As soon as Hernandez finished throwing, I called out to him and asked for the ball on Cooper’s behalf. Hernandez turned and tossed it to him. Here’s a photo of the ball in mid-air, and as you can see, the guy on my right tried to reach out and catch it:

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It was no coincidence that I was standing between Cooper and this other guy. I could tell just by looking at him that he was going to try to catch the ball no matter what, so I used my body as a shield to prevent him from reaching all the way out…and Cooper was able to make the catch! I was actually hoping that Hernandez had been using a training ball — Cooper had never gotten one of those — but it was just a standard Selig ball. I told Cooper that if he didn’t snag a training ball, I’d give him mine.

We moved to the left field corner in foul territory. Ron Villone jogged past and picked up a ball. Cooper was in the front row. I was standing right behind him. I asked Villone if he could toss the ball “to the little guy” and he DID toss it, but it sailed five feet over Cooper’s head and came right to me. Once again, I had no choice but to make the catch. That was my fourth ball of the day, and then after moving with Cooper to the seats in left-center, the same thing happened with Logan Kensing. I asked for the ball FOR Cooper, but it was tossed to me instead. (Another training ball.) My theory is that the players were afraid that Cooper wasn’t big/athletic enough to make the catches. Finally, J.D. Martin showed some faith and tossed a ball to Cooper, who caught it easily. (Standard ball.)

When batting practice ended, I had five balls and Cooper had three, and there was a chance to get one more. Someone on the Nationals had hit a home run that landed on (and rolled to the bottom of) the batter’s eye:

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I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to use my glove trick, so I took Cooper to the other side of the batter’s eye (where the side railing is much lower) and asked a security guard if he could get someone to walk out there and retrieve the ball. The four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise) shows what happened next:

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Let me explain:

TOP LEFT: A police officer climbed over the railing.
TOP RIGHT: The officer walked around the Home Run Apple toward the baseball.
BOTTOM RIGHT: The officer returned with the ball.
BOTTOM LEFT: The usher bobbled the ball when the officer tossed it to him.

And then the usher handed it to Cooper. (Another standard ball. Aarrghh!)

Cooper and I headed over to Shake Shack, where his mother and grandfather were already on line. We saw them before they saw us, so I placed all four of Cooper’s balls in his glove and had him stand in just the right spot so that when the line snaked back around toward us, his mother and grandfather would see him. This was their reaction:

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And THIS was my lunch:

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Arthur was kind enough to treat me, and let me tell you…I didn’t need to eat again for seven hours.

The photo above was taken from our actual seats. As good as they were, I still wanted to be a bit closer so that Cooper would have a steady flow of chances to snag a 3rd-out ball. Since we were on the Mets’ side, Cooper changed back into his Mets cap. Here he is from behind, sitting on the end of the row, getting ready to race down the steps:

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Most of the 3rd-out balls ended up in the hands of first baseman Daniel Murphy, who tossed them unpredictably all over the place. I really wanted Cooper to snag a Citi Field commemorative ball, or at least to snag one for him. In the middle innings, I nearly caught one of Murphy’s throws, and then late in the game, Cooper nearly got his glove on a toss from Carlos Beltran. Check out the photo below. You can see Beltran right above the security guard’s head. Cooper is in the front row (just to the right of the guard) and the ball is in mid-air (in front of the red advertisement on the left field wall):

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Unfortunately, the kid to the right of Cooper got that ball, but not all hope was lost.

In the 9th inning, I worked my way down with Cooper into the seats on the 3rd base side. The home plate umpire was Rick Reed. He was our last shot at getting a Citi Field ball, but the final three outs seemed to last forever, and Cooper seriously HAD to get going. He and his mother had to catch a flight at 5:30pm, and the game (which had started at 1:10pm) was coming up on three hours. She and Cooper probably would’ve left in the 7th or 8th inning if not for me, but I convinced them to stay until the end. I told them there was a good chance at getting one more very special ball, so she and Arthur lingered patiently (though perhaps anxiously) in the concourse while Cooper and I did our thing. Brian Stokes was not cooperating. He retired Willie Harris on seven pitches, but then surrendered a single to Ian Desmond, an RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman, and an RBI single to Adam Dunn. Then pitching coach Dan Warthen held a tea party on the mound. Then Stokes struck out Josh Willingham and walked Elijah Dukes after getting ahead on him 0-2. It was ugly. Manager Jerry Manual had seen enough. Pitching change. (Oh my God! Hurry UP!!!) Francisco Rodriguez came in and fanned Christian Guzman to end the game. (Finally! Thank you!!!) I bolted down to the front row and tried to get Reed’s attention as he headed toward the tunnel. He blew right past me without looking up, but I saw him pause briefly to toss balls to some other fans, so I raced back up the steps and moved alongside him as he walked quickly through the tunnel down below. Just before he reached the end, he pulled out one final ball and tossed it up near me. There were some other fans reaching for it too, but I managed to grab it, and I immediately handed it to Cooper. Here he is with that ball:

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But wait, there’s more!

The Nationals relievers were walking in from the bullpen, so I raced back over near the dugout and squeezed into the front row behind the photographers’ box. Someone wearing No. 55 was walking toward me with a ball, but I had no idea who it was, so I frantically pulled out my roster for a quick look. It was Marco Estrada. “MARCO!!!” I shouted when he was still 40 feet away. He spotted me and threw the ball right to me, but some HUGE guy on my right reached out in front of me. Our gloves bumped and the ball fell down into the photographers’ box. A security guard climbed down in there and got the ball and tossed it back to Estrada. I pointed at Cooper, and he threw the ball toward us for a second time. I wanted Cooper to be the one to catch it, but I knew that if I hung back and let him go for it, someone else was going to reach in and snatch it, so I reached out as far as I could and made the grab. It was a standard ball, and I handed that one to Cooper as well. Phew!

I really wanted to stay and take some photos, but Cooper and his mother ***HAD*** to go, so I walked outside with them and gave Cooper a training ball and said a very quick goodbye.

Final score: Zack 7, Mets 6, Cooper 4, Nationals 2.

SNAGGING STATS:

14_the_three_i_kept_09_20_09.jpg• 7 balls at this game (three pictured here because I gave four away)

• 472 balls in 53 games this season = 8.91 balls per game.

• 622 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 349 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 20 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls (click here for more Watch With Zack stats; note that Cooper is now the youngest client to have snagged a ball)

• 4,292 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 126 donors (it’s not too late to become No. 127)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $176.82 raised at this game

• $11,922.72 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

8/4/09 at Citi Field

I hardly ever get my baseballs signed. Normally I don’t even try too hard to get autographs in the first place, and when I do, I usually get them on ticket stubs. In 1996 I made an exception and got my 1,000th ball signed by Pedro Borbon Jr., the player who threw it to me. In 2003 I made another exception and got No. 2,000 signed by Joe Roa. Then, on 5/7/07 at Yankee Stadium, I used my glove trick to snag my 3,000th ball, so I didn’t get it signed by anybody. But here’s the thing…with Borbon and Roa, I livan_hernandez_2009.jpgwas able to get their autographs shortly after they tossed the balls to me–both of them came over and signed as soon as batting practice ended–but when Livan Hernandez threw me my 4,000th ball on 5/18/09 at Dodger Stadium, I was trapped in the left field pavilion where there was no chance to get near him.

Fast-forward to this past weekend. I still hadn’t gotten Livan to sign The Ball, so I wrote a blog entry in which I asked for autograph advice. What I learned was: Livan is nice about signing autographs in general, but it’s really hard to get the Mets to sign on their way into the ballpark because fans aren’t allowed near the entrance where they walk in from the parking lot.

Yesterday, feeling nervous about taking my 4,000th ball out of my apartment and hoping that I wouldn’t ever have to do it again, I arrived at Citi Field at 2pm and made a beeline toward the players’ parking lot:

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Here’s another photo that shows exactly where I headed:

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Once I reached the end of the walkway, I saw firsthand why it’s so tough to get autographs. The players enter on the other side of a black, six-foot-tall fence; fans are kept 30 feet away from the fence by a barricade. This was as close as I could get:

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Is that obnoxious or what?

I soon learned a piece of good news from the few other autographs collectors who were there: if we got a player’s attention and he called us over, the security guard would allow us to slip through the barricades and approach the fence.

More good news: I was armed with secret weapon:

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How could Livan Hernandez possibly ignore my charming homemade sign?

Over the next 20 minutes, every single Mets player ignored our polite requests and blew right past us: Daniel Murphy, Alex Cora, Jonathon Niese (karma), Bobby Parnell, Angel Berroa, Jeremy Reed, and a few others that I’m forgetting. I heard that Carlos Beltran and Brian Stokes had signed earlier, but still, it was a disgusting display of human behavior. I mean, Angel Berroa?! Really?! Does he think his 2003 AL Rookie of the Year award gives him the right to blow people off? There were FOUR of us asking for autographs. It would have taken him–or any of the other players–approximately 20 seconds to stop and sign. Maybe 30 seconds if they cared to sprinkle a few pleasantries into the interaction. I was just about ready to start screaming obscenities at the next player when Livan pulled up in a big, boxlike silver vehicle. I held up my sign, shouted his name, jumped up and down like a little schoolgirl, and to my surprise/delight, he waved me over! I rushed to the fence and handed my ball over and resisted the urge to tell him why it was special (I didn’t want him to feel used) and simply asked him to sign it on the sweet spot. Here he is, doing it…

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…and here’s his signature:

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Woo-hoo!!

Five minutes later, Nelson Figueroa started walking past us with two big rolling suitcases. We asked him to sign and he said, “One minute.” He disappeared into the stadium for no more than 10 seconds, then returned without the bags and waved us over. He was VERY nice and talkative and articulate, and he even posed (as best he could) for a photo through a small gap in the fence. What a guy. I got his autograph on a Shea Stadium ticket that I’d brought from home:

7_nelson_figueroa_autograph.jpg

I could’ve gotten a few more autographs after that, but I chose instead to sit in the shade and read Portnoy’s Complaint. (That book is beyond brilliant and hilarious; I was too young to appreciate it fully when I first read it in college.) While I was reading, a man wearing black spandex shorts and a sweaty white T-shirt walked strangely close, prompting me to look up and realize that it was Tony LaRussa. If he hadn’t been wearing earphones, I might’ve said hello. Colby Rasmus also walked by around that time and refused to sign baseballs on the sweet spot.

“I’m just a collector, I swear,” pleaded one fan.

“That’s what they all say,” said Rasmus.

another_dickhead_ballplayer.jpgYou know what *I* say? Colby Rasmus (and every other baseball player who refuses to sign balls on the sweet spot) is an ass. Who the hell does he think he is? He was a first-round draft pick in 2005 and received a $1 million signing bonus. Now he’s earning $400,000 this year to PLAY A GAME, and he stands to earn a lot more if he stays healthy. (I, for one, hope he doesn’t). And yet, God forbid some fan out there might possibly want to make twenty bucks by showing up early at a stadium, standing out in the 90-degree heat, obtaining his precious autograph, and then selling it.

Anyway…

I raced to the left field seats as soon as the stadium opened at 4:40pm, and I immediately got Gary Sheffield to throw me a ball. I was so out-of-breath that I almost wasn’t able to call out to him, but it all worked out, and the ball turned out to have a worn Shea Stadium commemorative logo (like this).

For some reason, all the batters during the first two rounds were left-handed, so I headed over to right field:

8_view_from_right_field_08_04_09.jpg

There was a ball on the warning track near the foul pole–one of the few places in the stadium where the outfield wall isn’t absurdly high. As I began to reel it in with my glove trick, Brian Stokes jogged over and threw his glove at mine. His glove thumped against the wall, causing me to jerk my glove which caused the ball to fall out. I noticed then that it was a 2008 Yankee Stadium commemorative ball (like this). Stokes walked over and stood there, watching me. I lifted my glove back up to readjust the rubber band and asked him brian_stokes_2009.jpg
to give me one more chance to go for the ball. He didn’t say anything. He just kept standing there, so I went for it, and sure enough I got the ball to stick inside my glove. As I started lifting it, Stokes moved closer and tapped my glove with his bare hand, knocking the ball loose for a second time. He picked it up off the warning track, then took a couple steps toward the infield and drew his arm back as if he were going to fire the ball toward the bucket. Just when I was ready to put the Hample Jinx on him, he turned around and smiled and flipped it to me.

Oliver Perez walked over and asked, “How many balls you got?”

It was the first time he had ever spoken to me, so it came as a surprise that he recognized me. Meanwhile, I didn’t want to give him a specific answer; better he should assume I had a few hundred than a few thousand.

“How many?” I asked. “You mean today? Or in my whole life?”

“In your life,” he said, “because I’ve seen you on TV and I know what you do.”

oliver_perez_2009.jpg“But did you know that I’m now collecting baseballs for charity?”

He asked what I meant by that, so I told him all about Pitch In For Baseball, and how I’ve been getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag this season, and how I’ve raised more than $8,000 so far, and how I also give away baseballs at just about every single game I attend.

“I don’t want you to think I’m greedy,” I said. “I want you to know that I give back a lot.”

“That’s good,” he said.

And that was the extent of our conversation.

Two minutes later, a left-handed batter ripped a deep line drive in my direction. I knew that it was going to fall short, but I knew that it had a chance to bounce up to me, so I shuffled over a few feet and as the ball skipped up in the form of a gigantic in-between hop, I turned the palm of my glove face down and swatted down at the ball, hoping to trap it against the padded outfield wall. It was a maneuver I’d tried in the past, without much success because it requires perfect timing and an equally perfect prediction about how high the ball is going to bounce. Somehow, on this fine day, I nailed it and got a nice round of applause from the fans along the foul line.

I headed over to the deepest part of left-center field, all the way out near the Home Run Apple, and I got Livan to throw me my fourth ball of the day. This is what the field looked like from the spot where I caught it:

9_livan_hernandez_left_center_field.jpg

Then, when the righties finally started hitting, I battled the crowd in straight-away left field and caught a Gary Sheffield homer on the fly. Moments later, Jeff Francoeur launched one in my direction–a bit over my head–and I jumped at the last second to try to make the catch. The ball hit off my glove (I should’ve caught it) but luckily landed right near me in a semi-crowded row. I bent down and scrambled for it and snagged the ball just before the nearest fan was about to grab it. It turned out that the other fan was a woman who was there with kids, so I handed her the ball. (That ball counts toward my grand total, FYI.)

As the Cardinals took the field, the seats became more and more crowded:

10_crowded_as_usual_08_04_09.jpg

In the photo above, do you see the fan standing in the front row wearing red? He’s almost a full section away. That’s a friend and fellow ballhawk named Gary (aka “gjk2212″ in the comments section).

I headed back to right field because, once again, there were a bunch of lefties hitting. It’s nearly impossible to catch batted balls in right field at Citi Field (because of that stupid Pepsi Porch overhang), so I had to focus on other sources: the players’ kids. There were four of them shagging balls in the outfield: two kids with blank jerseys, one with “FRANKLIN” and another with “PUJOLS.” Here’s Trever Miller with two of the kids:

11_little_pujols.jpg

Young Franklin fired a ball up into a patch of empty seats in right field. It was a two-person race: me and a 40-something-year-old man in a Cardinals shirt. (I was wearing a Cardinals shirt, too, at that point.) Neither of us could find the ball at first. We must’ve searched for five seconds (which at the time felt like five years), and eventually I spotted it, tucked out of view against the back of a seat. That was my seventh ball of the day, and I got another one right after from Miller. I would’ve snagged it on my own with the glove trick because it was sitting right below me on the warning track, but some old grumpy security guard in the bullpen (who has personally cost me about 30 balls since 1992) made me stop.

Remember where I got the ball thrown by Livan in left-center field? I headed back there and got another one from Little Pujols. The kid made a heck of a throw from about 60 feet away and 15 feet below. Right on the money. I was stunned, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given his last name.

I moved to Death Valley after that–the deepest part of the ballpark in right-center field where it says “415″ on the outfield wall. This was the view:

12_ball4162_location.jpg

I didn’t expect to catch a batted ball out there. I was just focusing on trying to get one of the players to throw one to me, when all of a sudden I heard people shouting, “Heads up!!” so I looked up and saw a deep fly ball heading about 10 feet to my right. I shuffled through the empty row and tracked the ball and couldn’t believe that it kept carrying and carrying. Eventually I reached out and made a back-handed catch. (Remember Gail from 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium and from Game 4 of the 2008 World Series? She was in the section at the time and thanked me for “saving” her from the home run ball, but I don’t think it would’ve hit her. She and I ran into each other a few times throughout BP, but we could never talk for more than a minute because I was always running off to a different spot.)

As soon as I caught this home run, I started shouting, “Who hit it?! Who hit it?!”

Soon after, a man walked over and showed me the screen on his fancy digital camera.

“This is the guy who hit it,” he said.

It was a zoomed-in photo of Colby Rasmus. Bleh.

I asked him if he was 100 percent sure, and he said yes, so I’ll just have to take his word for it.

During the final 20 minutes of BP, it was an absolute zoo in left field. Pujols and Matt Holliday were batting, and people were in a snagging frenzy. It was the most crowded I’ve ever seen Citi Field during BP, and granted, this was only my seventh time there, but still. It was nuts. Every staircase was packed. Every row was full. There wasn’t any spot in left field where I had more than five feet on either side…so I pretty much gave up. It was Shea Stadium all over again, which is to say that batting practice was in progress, and there was absolutely NO point in even being there.

I made my way over to the Cardinals’ dugout at the end of BP and got Little Pujols to throw me another ball on his way in. Ha-HAAA!!! I was standing five rows back, and he made another perfect toss, this time right over everyone’s head.

I lingered 20 rows behind the dugout for the next half-hour, read more of my book, and eventually moved back into the front row when Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo (pictured below) came out to play catch:

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I’d picked the end of the dugout where DeRosa was throwing, figuring he’d be the one to end up with the ball, but I was wrong. Luckily, I was the only fan behind the entire dugout who was yelling for the ball, so Lugo lobbed it to me from about 50 feet away. As easy a toss as it was, I almost dropped it because I lost it in the lights. It was my 12th ball of the day (tying my personal Citi Field record), five of which had the word “practice” stamped onto the sweet spot:

14_practice_balls.jpg

I stayed behind the dugout for the first few innings, hoping to get a third-out ball tossed to me by Pujols. This was my view:

15_ball4165_location.jpg

It seemed as if there were always at least two vendors blocking my view and/or the stairs.

Pujols ended up with the ball after the first inning, but tossed it to someone else. I noticed that the ball had a standard MLB logo on it, which meant that Pujols had switched the game-used ball with the infield warm-up ball.

In the second inning (thanks to a Luis Castillo ground out), Pujols ended up with the ball once again. I was blocked at the bottom of the stairs so as Pujols approached the dugout, I scooted about five feet to my right through the partially empty second row. I waved my arms and shouted at him and pointed straight up as if to say, “Throw it high so the people in front of me won’t be able to reach it.” Pujols DID throw me the ball, but he threw it on a line. Chest-high. Oh no. Easily interceptable. I said a silent prayer, knowing I was at the mercy of the people seated directly in front of me, and I reached straight out, hoping to be able to make the catch. As it turned out, no one in the front row even noticed or cared that a ball was sailing two feet over their heads, and I snagged it. The ball had a Citi Field commemorative logo, but I don’t think it was THE ball that had been used in the game. It looked really beat up. Take a look for yourself. Here are two different views of it:

16_ball4165_two_views.jpg

Is it possible that Pujols switched balls and still ended up tossing me a commemorative ball? Sure, why not. I believe that’s what happened.

As soon as I turned to head back up the steps, some guy asked me for the ball. Duh. Not only was it commemorative (I never ever ever ever never ever ever EVER give those away), but it came from Albert effing Pujols. Did you hear me? Albert Pujols!! Okay, so it was the second ball I’d ever gotten from him, but so what? ALBERT PUJOLS!!! (It should be noted that I never give baseballs to people who ask for them, whether or not they’re commemorative, but that’s another story.)

I wandered a bit during the game and eventually made it back to the 3rd base side when things started getting interesting in the eighth inning. With the Mets leading, 7-4, and Johan Santana still in the game, Senor Pujols led off the frame with a mammoth homer to dead center. Then, in the top of the 9th, Francisco Rodriguez melted down, and in the process of throwing 41 pitches, he managed to give up two runs. Tie game. Blown save. No win for Johan. In the top of the 10th, Pedro Feliciano allowed the Cardinals to load the bases. Then Sean Green came in and, in typical Mets fashion, hit DeRosa with his first pitch. That gave St. Louis an 8-7 lead. Next batter? God Himself. Green quickly got ahead in the count 0-2, but God wasn’t bothered by such insignificant things as balls and strikes. The third pitch was a foul ball. The fourth pitch resulted in a grand slam to left-center. It was God’s fifth granny of the season, tying a National League record.

Final score: Cardinals 12, Mets 7.

What does one ask God after such a performance? I don’t know, but apparently someone was brave enough to stick a microphone in front of His face:

17_albert_pujols_postgame_interview.jpg

In this tainted era of Major League Baseball, I can only say that I ***hope*** Pujols’ name never appears on any “list.” Of course it wouldn’t surprise me if it does, but until then I’ll be rooting for Him.

After the game, Trever Miller threw me a ball at the dugout–the second from him on the day and my 14th overall–as he walked in from the bullpen.

SNAGGING STATS:

18_the_13_balls_i_kept_08_04_09.jpg• 14 balls at this game (13 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 346 balls in 40 games this season = 8.65 balls per game.

• 609 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 345 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 7 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least nine balls

• 111 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 62 lifetime games in New York with at least 10 balls

• 4,166 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 117 donors (if you make a pledge now, it will include all the balls I’ve snagged this season)

• $24.74 pledged per ball

• $346.36 raised at this game

• $8,560.04 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

7/8/09 at Citi Field

The Dodgers were in town, Manny Ramirez was back from his 50-game suspension, and the sun was actually shining. Citi Field, as I expected, ended up being unbearably crowded, but for the first 20 minutes after the gates opened, I had some room to maneuver, and I made the most of it.

My first ball of the day should have come from Mike Pelfrey. Within the first minute after I reached the left field seats, I got him to throw one to me–but he chucked it 10 feet over my head. The stands were still totally empty at that point, so I wasn’t too concerned about his horrible aim until I turned around and saw another fan who just happened to be walking down the steps at that very moment. This other guy didn’t have a glove and of course he ended up with the ball.

That hurt. But then things got better.

A right-handed batter on the Mets (no idea who) launched a high fly ball in my direction, and as it sailed over the wall, I drifted a few feet to my left and caught it easily on the fly. The ball had last year’s Shea Stadium commemorative logo. Check it out:

1_ball4110_shea_commemorative.jpg

The logo, as you can see above, was smudged, but that didn’t bother me. I’d snagged a bunch of these balls last season and had plenty (like this one) that were game-used and in “perfect” condition.

Two minutes later, I caught another home run that (I think) was hit by Nick Evans. It was a line drive that hooked 15 feet to my right. I bolted through an empty row and made the back-handed catch and then noticed that the ball had a pristine Shea logo.

A few minutes after that, two home runs landed in the seats, prompting an all-out scramble among the fans. I lost out on the first ball to an older man, but grabbed the second ball under a seat just before the nearest guy could get his hands on it.

That was the end of the first round of BP. There were a bunch of lefties due to hit in the second round, and I noticed that there was a ball sitting on the warning track in right-center field…

2_ball4113_on_field.jpg

…so I ran over there and stood above it and decided to wait until a player came to retrieve it. The section began filling up a bit during the next few minutes, but I figured I still had a great shot at getting it. Under normal circumstances, I would have simply snagged it with my glove trick, but Citi Field is not normal. Security is incredibly strict, and as soon as I had entered the stadium, I had been warned/threatened not to use the trick by a guard who recognized me (but obviously didn’t know about my charitable efforts).

Sean Green was the player closest to me:

3_sean_green_from_deep_right_center.jpg

He’s usually nice about tossing balls to fans, so I was still liking my chances.

Now…I should mention that my friend Andrew Gonsalves was at this game. Andrew and I met a few years ago at my writing group, and just this past winter, he and I spent many many hours together, designing the program that now accepts pledges for the charity.

Three more things you should know about Andrew:

1) This was his first game of the season.
2) He lived in L.A. for a while and loves the Dodgers.
3) He had never snagged a baseball, nor had he even tried.

He hadn’t planned on trying to snag anything at this game. He just wanted to watch his favorite team and see me in action, but once he saw how many balls Livan Hernandez was tossing into the crowd, he decided to give it a shot. I took a photo of him from where I was standing…

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…and then he took a photo of me:

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Green eventually came over and tossed me the ball, and then less than a minute later, Andrew got one from Livan:

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Andrew even snagged a second ball after that and handed it to the woman standing next to him.

When I headed back to the left field seats, I saw a ball sitting on the batter’s eye, just to the side of the Home Run Apple:

7_batters_eye_frustration.jpg

It would’ve been SO easy to snag it with my glove trick, but I was too scared to go for it. If I’d gotten caught, I might have been ejected or had my glove confiscated. (I was ejected four times from Shea Stadium for committing horrible crimes such as catching too many baseballs and not sitting in my assigned seat, and I did once have my glove confiscated at Yankee Stadium, although I was able to get it back soon after.)

Toward the end of the Mets’ portion of BP, I made a nice catch on a Gary Sheffield homer. It was a high fly ball that was carrying a bit over my head and 10 feet to my right. While the ball was in mid-air, I took my eye off it and climbed back over a row of seats, then picked up the ball as it continued its descent. At the last second, as I reached up to catch it, I was clobbered from behind by a man who of course was not wearing a glove. Not only did I manage to hang onto the ball, but when my hat went flying, I swooped it up before it hit the ground and put it right back on my head in one motion. The man congratulated me and apologized. I noticed that he was wearing a media credential. How dare he compete with (and crash into) fans?

Dodgers BP was a nightmare. I couldn’t even get into the front row to try to get players to toss balls to me. Look how crowded it was:

8_BP_crowded_for_dodgers.jpg

You know why it’s so crowded? Because Fred Wilpon, the owner of the Mets, thinks it’s a good idea to keep fans out of the seats behind the dugouts during batting practice. (Imagine all the horrible things that would happen if fathers and sons were to loiter there and try to collect autographs. God forbid!) Therefore, all the fans are forced to stand along the foul lines and in the outfield. It’s awful. Shame on the Mets. I refuse to root for a team that treats its fans this way. Go Royals!

Somehow, against all odds, I managed to catch two more home runs on the fly during a 10-second span at the end of BP. They might have been hit on back-to-back pitches. I have no idea, but I remember that I was still holding the first ball in my bare hand when I caught the second ball in my glove. Both balls came within five feet of where I’d been standing, but when the seats are packed, five feet feels like a mile. That said, I judged both balls perfectly. I mean…before the balls even reached their apex, I was carefully weaving in and out of people toward the EXACT spot where they ended up landing, and then I had to reach above all the other gloves (a few of which were bumping into mine) to actually catch them. After I caught the second of these two homers, everyone with a glove crowded around me, as if moving closer was somehow going to increase their chances. One word: duh.

It ended up not making a difference. There wasn’t much else that landed in the seats after that, so I took off for the dugout.

I got some equipment guy to toss me my eighth ball of the day after all the players had disappeared into the clubhouse.

Then Donald Trump made an appearance and started signing balls:

9_donald_trump_signing.jpg

Andrew got him:

10_trump_autograph.jpg

(I think the signature says “Duuuuuuy” which of course would be pronounced “DOYYY!!!”)

I could have easily gotten an autograph, but there was no way I was going to allow Donald T. Rump to deface one of my precious baseballs. That just wasn’t going to happen. (How would he like it if I wrote my name on one of his buildings? Yeah.)

Right before the game started, I got Casey Blake to toss me his warm-up ball at the dugout, and then two minutes later, I got another (my 10th of the day!) from Mark Loretta. That one was marked by the Dodgers on the sweet spot:

11_ball4118_marked.jpg

I later wrote the “4118″ because this was the 4,118th ball I’d ever snagged. (If you want to see my entire collection of marked balls, click here.)

I headed out to left field for Manny’s first at-bat, and there was really no point in being there. There simply weren’t ANY empty seats, not at least in the section I had chosen, so I headed back to the Dodgers’ dugout with Andrew, and we stayed there for the rest of the night.

Here’s Oliver Perez (fresh off the DL) pitching to Manny several innings later:

12_oliver_to_manny.jpg

You can see the ball in the photo above, but it doesn’t look like a ball. My camera’s shutter speed isn’t all that great, so the ball looks like a streak. It’s on the grass just below the white ESPN sign…just barely above and to the right of first base.

I was hoping to get a third-out ball tossed to me, but there was some serious competition:

13_kids_on_staircase.jpg

I’m talking about the kids who were sitting near the bottom of the staircase, ready to race to the front row as soon as the third out was recorded.

As for my claim about left field being packed, here’s proof:

14_left_field_packed_during_game.jpg

There aren’t any cross-aisles on the field level at Citi Field, so once the seats fill up, the only way to catch a batted ball is to pick a staircase and pray. Sorry, but even with two members of the 500 Home Run Club (Sheffield was the other) in the starting lineups, I wasn’t going to waste my time in the outfield. And hey, my decision to stay close to the action paid off. No, I didn’t snag a third-out ball or an infield warm-up ball or a foul ball, but for the first time in my six games at Citi Field, I grabbed a T-shirt during the T-shirt launch:

15_zack_t_shirt_launch.jpg

The guy sitting behind me offered me $20 for it, but his offer was only good if I left the shirt wrapped up. (He wanted to give it away to someone as a gift.) Up until that point, I had never gotten a look at one of these shirts, so as tempting as the offer was, I decided to keep the shirt and unwrap it and take my chances that it would turn out to be something cool that I’d actually be proud to wear. Here’s how that played out:

16_zack_t_shirt_launch.jpg

Given the fact that the Citi Field logo is an utter disaster (Dominos Pizza, anyone?), I should’ve known that the shirt would be fugly.

I was really hoping to snag one more ball. That would’ve given me 300 for the season–a number I’ve never reached before the All-Star break–but there weren’t any other balls to be snagged.

(Click here for Andrew’s blog entry about this game.)

SNAGGING STATS:

17_the_nine_i_kept_07_08_09.jpg• 10 balls at this game (9 pictured here because I gave one away to a kid as I was leaving the stadium)

• 299 balls in 34 games this season = 8.79 balls per game.

• 603 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 344 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 6 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least 9 balls

• 108 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 61 lifetime games in New New York with at least 10 balls

• 12 games this season with at least 10 balls

• $6.95 remaining on the MetroCard I found on the third base side in the top of the ninth inning

• 4,119 total balls (73 more balls needed in order for my ball total to surpass Ty Cobb’s lifetime hit total)

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $24.37 pledged per ball

• $243.70 raised at this game

• $7,286.63 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

By the way, in the wake of all the negative attention I’ve been getting because that silly Wall Street Journal story, it’s nice to get emails like this:

Hi Zack–

Just wanted to drop a line and let you know that we are big fans, here in Boise, ID (home of the (last place) Hawks!)

I’m sorry about the negative press in the WSJ and others, but I hope you don’t pay attention to people who don’t get what you do. You have brought a lot of fun into our family with your books and blog. My husband has only become interested in baseball after reading Watching Baseball Smarter.

Also, I gave a copy to my brother-in-law, whose claim to fame up to now has been that the only book he ever read was ‘The Outsiders’ in seventh grade. Now he can add yours to his list! Yay!

Take care and keep up the awesomeness!

Heather
Boise, ID

p.s. I think the Watch with Zack program is so cool. I have been impressed with how respectful you are of the families and kids. I really appreciate your passion and love for the game. If we were closer I’d send my seven year-old with you in a heartbeat!

5/8/09 at Citi Field

This was a Watch With Zack game, and my “client” was a 14-year-old named Joe. When we met outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, I did a double-take when I saw the shirt he was wearing:

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It was THE Homer Simpson shirt–the same shirt I’ve been wearing (on rare occasions) since 4/24/08 at Champion Stadium. Hilarious. Joe had just gotten it because the Pirates were in town; he didn’t have time to buy a Pirates shirt, but he wanted to color-coordinate.

Despite the fact that Joe and I had only met once before in person, it felt like we already knew each other. That’s because he’d been reading this blog regularly and leaving lots of comments (as “yankees5221″). Still, he asked a ton of questions, and I had a few of my own for him. One of the first things I asked was, “What exactly do you want to happen today? Is there anything specific that you want to accomplish or do you mainly just want to hang out?”

The answer wasn’t obvious. Did he want help getting autographs? Or baseballs? Did he want me to catch balls for him? Did he want to snag them on his own? Did he want me to explain the rules and nuances of the game? He told me had both of my books and that he had snagged 38 lifetime balls, including a one-game record of five. He seemed to be very athletic and knowledgeable about baseball, so I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to be able to help, but it all became clear. He said he really wanted a Citi Field commemorative ball–he still hadn’t snagged one–and he also wanted some help with the glove trick. For some reason, he just couldn’t get it to work consistently, so I took a look:

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After a minute or two of playing with the rubber band and Sharpie, I realized why Joe was having trouble: the fold of his glove wasn’t quite right. He was forced to place the rubber band at a tricky angle over the fingertips, and it didn’t leave enough space for the ball to slip inside. It wasn’t his fault. Some gloves (like mine) are great for the trick and some (like his) aren’t. That’s just how it goes, but at least I knew I was going to be able to fulfill Joe’s final request, namely to run around with me all day and snag as many balls as possible. Hell, that’s my specialty, and what made it even easier was that his dad Bob let us do our thing and didn’t even insist that we stick together. If he had told me not to let his son out of my sight, then obviously I would have stayed with Joe throughout the day, but Bob was cool with it. When the stadium opened, he headed straight to his seat. He just wanted to relax and watch the game.

That left me free to roam with Joe, who said he didn’t want to get in my way at all. I told him I didn’t want to get in *his* way.

“This is YOUR day,” I said, but he insisted that he was as interested–if not more interested–in my ball total than his own.

Joe changed into a blue shirt before the stadium opened at 4:40pm, and then we raced to the left field seats. I quickly spotted a ball sitting on the warning track near the foul pole, and when I looked up after reeling it in with the glove trick, I saw Joe in straight-away left field. He was about to get his first ball of the day tossed by Daniel Murphy:

3_joe_in_left_field_seats.jpg

Awesome.

We were both on the board, and we’d only been inside the stadium for a couple minutes. I knew it was going to be a big day.

Soon after, Mike Pelfrey retrieved a ball near the warning track. Joe and a couple other kids called out for it. For a moment it looked like Big Pelf was going to fire it back toward the bucket, but then he inspected the ball and turned around to look up into the crowd. Who was the lucky fan that he picked out? Joe. Was there something special about the ball that had caught Pelfrey’s eye? See below for yourself:

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I was thrilled for Joe, but I’m sure he was even more thrilled. It was a perfect commemorative ball, and it was rubbed up with mud, which meant it had probably been used briefly during an actual game.

All the pressure was off. He had his ball. Now it was just a matter of seeing how many more we could get.

ryan_church.jpg

I ran over to the left-center field end of the section (all the way out near the home run apple) when I saw Ryan Church walking over to retrieve two baseballs on the warning track in right-center. I figured it was unlikely that he’d throw a ball to me from so far away, but I had to give it a shot.

“Ryan!!” I yelled. “Let’s see the gun!!”

Church turned and chucked a ball to me. Then he fired the other one to Joe, who had followed me. (Joe plays 3rd base for his middle school team; he had NO trouble catching any of the balls that were thrown to him.)

I asked Joe how he felt about us splitting up for a bit, and he was totally fine with it. He decided to stay in left field and ended up making a nice jumping catch on a ball that was thrown by Fernando Tatis. Meanwhile, I headed out to the seats in deep right-center and got two balls tossed to me within five minutes. The first came from Sean Green, and the second came from Livan Hernandez.

“Hey, don’t be greedy,” said a middle-aged man who wasn’t wearing a glove and then proceeded to shout for balls without saying please or even calling the players by their names. (Putz.)

I spotted a ball sitting on the warning track along the right field foul line, so I ran around the concourse behind the right field seats…

4_ball3972_on_field.jpg

…and ended up snagging it with the glove trick. Then I got another ball with the trick in straight away right field, underneath the overhang of the second deck.

Two minutes later, Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello walked over and picked up a ball near the warning track. (Racaniello has recognized me for years, and he’s always been really cool. Even though he knows about my collection, he still gives me baseballs. This was the first time I’d seen him this season.)

“Dave!” I shouted, prompting him to look up and walk toward me. “I have a question,” I continued, and before I said another word, he threw the ball to me. I caught it and said, “Okay, that wasn’t even going to be the question, but thanks.”

“I know,” he said with a shrug and asked what’s up.

I noticed that the ball had a semi-worn commemorative logo.

dave_racaniello2.jpg

“Have you seen any balls floating around with the video game logo?”

“You mean the commemorative logo?” he asked.

“No, not the Citi Field logo,” I said. “I’m talking about those balls that’re like an advertisement for a video game. They say ’2K Sports’ or something like that. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “I’ve seen those.”

“Well, I’ve only HEARD about them, and I’m dying to get one. Any chance you could hook me up if you see one? I’ll give this ball back in exchange for one.”

He held up his glove, and I tossed the commemorative ball back to him. (I decided not to count it. I think it’s cheap if you give one ball away in order to get another and then count them both.) He then tossed it to another fan.

The Mets were almost done with BP, and they only hit one other ball near Racaniello. He went and got it, took a peek at it, looked up at me, shook his head, and jogged off the field with everyone else a minute later. I wasn’t concerned. It’s a long season. He’ll hook me up eventually, and anyway, it was good to show him that I’m not desperate to get my hands on every single ball. (Well, actually I am, but I gave the appearance that I’m not.)

I ran back to the left field seats and caught up with Joe. He had changed back into his yellow/Pirates outfit, and he told me he was going to hang out on the left field foul line and try to get a ball from the Pirates when they were done throwing. His plan worked. John Grabow tossed one his way, tying his single-game record of five balls. I then left Joe in left field again, ran back to right field, and got three balls thrown to me within a 10-minute span. The first came from Craig Hansen, the second came from the always-generous Craig Monroe, and the third was tossed up by Zach Duke. Joe had made his way over to my section at that point. (It was easy for him to spot me because of my bright yellow “CLEMENTE 21″ shirt.) I felt bad because it occurred to me that I might have cost Joe a ball by getting the players to toss all three to me, but he insisted it was fine. If anything, he was excited that I was now only one ball away from double digits. I was excited because he was one ball away from setting a new personal record.

He asked me where he should go, and I thought about it for a moment. Left field was crowded. Right field…had been used up. Do you ever get that sense? You catch so many balls in one spot that you just kinda KNOW that the players are done tossing balls into the crowd. Right-center field was crowded, not to mention being 420 feet from home plate. It was tough. Batting practice was winding down anyway. There was another round or two remaining, but I could tell that the best opportunities were behind us.

“Left-center field,” I told him. “Next to the apple. See the kid in the corner spot? He’s not REALLY in the corner. I think you can squeeze in next to him, and you should be able to get a ball tossed to you there.”

It took forever to make our way around the outfield because the concourse behind the batter’s eye was packed, but when we made it, the corner spot was indeed open. We did a lot of shouting at the players after that. Everyone was shouting. It was kind of insane, but eventually, after about five minutes, we got Nate McClouth to toss up a ball. The angle was tough. McCouth was on the right, and there were some other kids on OUR right, which meant that they’d have a chance to reach out for the ball, but the throw sailed just far enough that they couldn’t reach it…but it was falling short. Super-Joe made a clutch play, reaching far down over the railing and catching the ball in the tip of his glove. I was impressed. I didn’t think there was any chance he’d reach it, so I give him a lot of credit. It was a true Web Gem. Here’s Joe with his record-breaking sixth ball of the day:

6_joe_breaks_his_single_game_record.jpg

Joe absolutely wanted to get to the dugout by the end of BP, so he headed over toward the foul line with about 10 minutes to spare. I told him he had more time to hang out in the outfield, but he didn’t want to take any chances. I ran out to right field and used my glove trick one final time to snag my 10th ball of the day. The ball was a bit too far out from the wall, so Sean Burnett moved it closer for me…and some Mets photographer walked out onto the warning track and started taking pictures of both me and the contraption. I have no idea if/where these pics will be used, so keep a lookout for me. Maybe in the Mets magazine or yearbook? Don’t forget that I was wearing yellow at the time.

The worst thing about Citi Field is that you can’t get down to the dugout during BP unless you have a ticket for that section. As a result, Joe and I were trapped along the 3rd base line when all the players and coaches walked off the field. Still, we each managed to get a ball from some Pirates equipment guy who was in the process of transferring the balls from the basket into a zippered bag. We were standing on the outfield side of that glassy tunnel, and the guy spotted us all the way from the dugout and threw the balls to us. Here we are with those final two BP balls. You can see the tunnel right behind us, and you can see how far it is from there to the dugout:

7_zack_joe_after_batting_practice.jpg

Our mutual friend Clif (aka “goislanders4″) was also at this game, and after we de-yellowed ourselves, we got him to take a couple photos of us with our baseballs. Here’s my favorite shot:

8_zack_joe_lotsa_balls.jpg

For some reason, the Citi Field ushers are militant about keeping people away from the dugouts during BP, but after that it’s not hard to get down there, so that’s where Joe and I hung out for the next few hours.

Just before the game started, Joe was standing behind the home-plate end of the Pirates’ dugout, waiting for the players to come out and throw. Clif (who had snagged several balls as well) was also at the home-plate end, so I called Joe over to the outfield end. There were two reasons why I did this. First, I didn’t want Clif and Joe to compete in the same spot, and secondly, Freddy Sanchez ended up being the guy playing catch on the outfield side. I’ve seen the Pirates a bunch of times over the past few seasons, so I knew that he’s usually the guy who ends up with the ball after the pre-game throwing. Joe hurried through the seats, and when he reached me (I was carrying both of our backpacks), I lent him my Pirates shirt and then pointed out a spot in the front row where he could squeeze in. Less than a minute later, Sanchez finished throwing (with rookie Brian Bixler; the more experienced player usually ends up with the ball), took a couple steps toward the dugout, looked up and spotted Joe and lobbed the ball in his direction. I was afraid that someone would reach in front of Joe, but he reached way out for it and caught it just a few inches in front of the nearest hand. (I had my camera ready and tried to get an action shot, but my timing was off.) The young man had EIGHT balls. We talked about the possibility of double digits. He needed to snag a third-out ball and then get a ball from the umpire after the game.

Could it be done?

We were sitting in the perfect spot:

9_joe_moving_closer.jpg

In the photo above, you can see Joe in the yellow shirt, getting ready to make his move. Whenever the Pirates were on the field with two outs, he moved down a few rows so he’d be closer to the dugout. The rest of the time, he sat next to me. We’d made a deal: he let me sit on the end of the row so I could jump up and run for foul balls (there were a few close calls), and I let him go for all the third-out balls. Clif got the first one, and then for a few innings after that, the balls were being tossed to other sections.

I kept telling Joe that I wanted to give him one of my balls. He told me that he wouldn’t count it in his collection.

“I know,” I said, “but I still feel like you should own an official Zack Hample baseball.”

“I’m having the best time of my life right now,” he said. “I don’t need a ball.”

What he meant was that he didn’t need a ball from ME. When Daniel Murphy ended the bottom of the 6th inning by flying out to right fielder Brandon Moss, Joe was all over it. He beat the other kids down there and and got himself into a perfect spot. Moss tossed the ball right to him, but a grown-up reached in from the side and I thought “Oh no…”

10_joe_catching_third_out_ball.jpg

…but my man made the catch! Out-STANDING!!! He out-snagged someone who was half a foot taller than him, and he got himself a real game-used ball (which of course was commemorative, and by the way, in the photo above, the ball is already inside Joe’s glove).

After that, the usher told Joe not to run down to the dugout again so that the other kids could have a chance. Fair enough…I suppose. I never like it when stadium employees try to regulate how many baseballs people can catch, but it WAS nice of the usher not to kick us out of the section. It was an usher who’d given me a hard time way back in the day at Shea Stadium, so he probably knew that I didn’t belong in the fancy seats, but for some reason he was really laid-back. No complaints. I’m actually starting to like Citi Field a whole lot. Easy dugout access. No hassles with the glove trick. The gates open two and a half hours early. It could be a LOT worse (and hey, it IS a lot worse right across town).

Joe wanted to wander for a bit after that, so we took a lap around the entire stadium via the field level concourse. (He got a slice of pizza that made him sick. I got a stromboli which was good by ballpark standards but awful by NYC-pizza-place standards.) The area behind the big scoreboard in center field is really nice. I hadn’t yet been back there. There’s a batting cage, lots of concession stands, some video games, and tables where people can stand and eat/drink. And…on the back of the scoreboard, there’s a decent-sized screen that shows the game, along with a mini-scoreboard underneath it so people can follow all the action. I could do without all the advertisements–it’d be nice if there was more nostalgic Mets stuff on display–but overall, it was a great place to be. Check it out:

11_area_behind_center_field.jpg

(That’s Joe with the big black backpack–an item that would be prohibited inside Yankee Stadium, and for all you Yankee fans out there, don’t get on me for bashing your brand new ballpark. I’m just telling it like it is. If you want to complain, write a letter to the Steinbrenners and tell them to chill the **** out and stop running the place like a prison. Or just be like me and go there as little as possible. It’s no coincidence that of the 20 games I’ve attended this season, only one has been in the Bronx.)

We followed the concourse out to right-center field, headed down some steps, and found ourselves behind the bullpens:

12_area_behind_bullpens.jpg

Pretty nice, huh? (That’s the original home run apple.)

I still think the Mets made some questionable architectural decisions, but overall I’m liking this stadium more and more.

The game was tied, 2-2, after seven innings. Then the Mets put up a five-spot in the bottom of the eighth. There were only three outs remaining so Joe and I got into position for the umps.

The Pirates scored one run in the top of the ninth, but their rally was snuffed out soon after. Game over. Final score: Mets 7, Pirates 3. The umps started walking off the field, and I gave Joe some advice at the last second about where to stand and what to say. This is what happened moments later. It’s a photo of home plate ump Jerry Layne placing a (commemorative) ball into Joe’s glove:

13_ump_gives_joe_his_10th_ball.jpg

Double digits had been achieved!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(That’s one exclamation point for every ball that Joe and I ended up snagging.)

I got ball No. 12 at the dugout from Matt Capps when he and a few other relievers walked in from the bullpen. As soon as I caught it, I noticed a little kid on my right who was wearing a glove. Before the usher had a chance to nag me, I asked the kid if he’d gotten a ball, and when he said no, I handed it to him. The usher was stunned. The kid was ecstatic, and his father thanked me. What mattered was that I gave the ball away on my own terms, not because a fan asked for it or because an employee insisted. But let’s not get started on a whole discussion about that. It was a perfect day with a perfect ending.

14_zack_joe_outside_after_game.jpg

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 12 balls at this game (11 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 159 balls in 20 games this season = 7.95 balls per game.

• 589 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 341 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 3 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least nine balls

• 15 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

• 10 balls snagged by Joe is a new Watch With Zack record

• 22 balls combined is also a new Watch With Zack record

• 3,979 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $20.38 pledged per ball

• $244.56 raised at this game

• $3,240.42 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:

7_citi_zack_happy.jpg

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…

9_citi_bullpen.jpg

…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:

10_citi_area_between_bullpens.jpg

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:

11_citi_zack_clubhouse.jpg

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:

12_citi_rotunda_gate_crowd.jpg

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):

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:

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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

Citi Field critique

For the last six months, people have been sending me photos and videos of Shea Stadium being torn down. I never looked at a single one. The mere thought of it not being there was too painful, but I had to face that reality today as the No. 7 train approached the Willets Point station. Shea was now just a big pile of rubble–and Citi Field, trying so hard to be charming, stood nakedly behind it:

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Speaking of Willets Point, the signs no longer say “Shea Stadium” on them:

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This was Citi Field from the subway platform…

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…and this was Shea just a couple hundred feet to the left:

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Maybe it was the gloomy weather. Maybe it was the fact that I had to wake up at 8am (which for me is essentially the middle of the night) to get there. I don’t know, but I wasn’t happy. It felt lonely and foreign, like the first day at a new school.

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I walked up to the gate outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, stuck my camera through the bars, and took a pic. I have to admit it was nice. Seriously nice. Downright glorious, in fact:

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“Are you Zack?” asked a voice. It was a kid named Aaron (aka “Howie” in the comments section) who knew I was going to be there. I signed his copies of my first two books, and in exchange he and his father Jon gave me a free ticket (for the meaningless college game that was scheduled to begin at 1pm). Here we all are:

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A few other baseball collectors met us there, and then we all headed over to the left field gate, which was going to open first:

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Because I happened to be the first fan to run inside, I got interviewed by a reporter from the New Jersey Star Ledger:

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As a result of the interview, it took a few minutes for me to reach the “seating bowl” and get my first look at the place:

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A couple minutes after that, I went to the nearest concession stand and got a hot dog–the very first hot dog sold in the history of Citi Field (according to the employees there). Here it is:

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It sucked. It cost $4.75 and the bun was stale, and even the dog itself wasn’t all that great, and you want to know what else sucked? One of the ushers tried to stop me from walking down into the left field seats. It was two hours before the start of a COLLEGE game, and he asked to see my ticket. Are you kidding me?! Fortunately the other ushers let me walk down into the seats and take pics. Ready for more suckiness? First of all, there’s no cross-aisle…so it’ll be impossible to move laterally during games…so for anyone who hopes to catch a game home run, you’ll have to sit on the end of a row and pray that the ball is hit directly toward your staircase…and then you’ll have to judge it perfectly. Secondly, there’s a big railing that makes it impossible to move directly from fair to foul territory:

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Third, there are smaller railings on all the staircases that block two out of every three rows, and if that’s not bad enough, they were built six inches too long (in my not-so-humble opinion) so they jut out into the rows that they’re not even supposed to be blocking:

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These railings are pointless and in some cases dangerous. Some ballparks have them. Some don’t. If they really made people feel THAT safe, and if they really prevented THAT many folks from taking nasty spills, I think you’d see them in every stadium. (Citizens Bank Park, by the way, doesn’t have any staircase railings.) Lucky me. I’ll be battling these effin’ things until I die. At least the seat backs are raised enough for balls to trickle down the steps:

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That’ll be good for me and bad for just about everyone else who makes the mistake of running directly to the row where the ball lands. Anyway, the railings are annoying, and the overhang of the second deck will be a nightmare (don’t bother trying to catch a ball behind Row 10) but at least the home-run-catching area spans from the foul pole all the way out to left-center:

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Another good thing: glove trick opportunities at the bottom of the hill next to the (new) home run
apple. It’s kind of hard to see in the following photo, but the slope flattens out at the bottom. Of course stadium security will probably be stupid and strict and try to prevent fans from using ball-retrieving devices, but if we can get away with it, this will be a good spot:

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Remember the huge scoreboard out in right field at Shea Stadium? On the top of that scoreboard, there was a NYC skyline. Nice to see it survived the demolition and has a home in the new ballpark:

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Here’s a look at the bullpens (terrible design to have them side by side and not even have the one in back elevated) and a row of tables above them:

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(Am I being too negative?) It would be fun to use the glove trick from up there, and maybe I’ll get away with it once, but I don’t expect that to be a permanent option. That said, behold the bridge!

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Here’s the way-too-steep section in right field:

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There are lots of interesting angles and nooks and crannies at Citi Field. Some were clearly intentional and some were just as clearly random byproducts of questionable design. In the photo below, you can see that the rows of seats end with a foot or two (or three) of space next to the concrete wall. So…although there IS room for people to walk between the seats and the wall, it wasn’t meant to be used as a staircase because there aren’t any little/manageable steps. And let me tell you, if there IS room for people to move around, the room WILL be used. So basically, what you’re gonna have here is people wedging themselves between the seats, trying to climb up these gigantic double steps. It’s funny for me because I’m 31 years old and in the best physical shape of my life so I can treat Citi Field like my personal playground and stomp all over these unintentional obstacles, but I feel strongly that this is TERRIBLE stadium design. Thus, I’m forced to ask: when is HOK going to hire me as a consultant?

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Ready for more weirdness? Check out the space surrounding the right field foul pole:

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I’m thinking there might be cameras there during the regular season, and if there are, then the Mets should install a chain to keep people out. If, however, there’s neither a camera nor a chain, this area will be great for catching home runs during games, especially for the fan in the front row who’s sitting closest to the pole. Here’s a look at that same area from above:

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More weird angles:

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I really don’t understand the point of all these walls and railings. I think the architects were just showing off. And here’s the weirdest one of all. I’ve never seen anything like this in ANY stadium. Can someone please explain this? Here…look:

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Yes, that’s right, there’s a random row, right in the middle of all the other rows, where the seats are elevated a few feet. If there were an aisle in front of the elevated row, I could understand it. You know…give people a spot to cross through the seats. But no. It just randomly…goes up…and there’s not much extra space. Maybe a few inches. You know what that means? I’ll tell you. The people in the elevated row will be the only people in the stadium without cup holders. This means they’ll be forced to put their cups on the ground (life is hard) and then those cups, when kicked over (and they WILL be kicked over) will splash the people’s heads sitting in front of them. Brilliant. And even if the people sitting in front don’t get splashed, they will definitely get kicked in the head, especially when little kids are sitting behind them. Just look at this absurdity:

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Why not just have the entire lower level of seats slant up uniformly? It seems to work fine in every other stadium. Ready for something else? This’ll look like an ideal spot to catch foul balls and get autographs…

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…except you will never, EVER be allowed to go down there. Not even God will get to sit there. I have no idea what those fancy seats are for (millionaire fans and their disabled companions?) but I can guarantee you they will be totally off limits. It’s just another example of opportunities to collect being taken away. And wait…it gets worse. Ready for THIS? The entire seating area behind home plate is completely sectioned off. I think it’s called the Sterling Club, or some nonsense like that, and the face value on those tickets starts in the triple figures. Here, have a look. I’m standing at the edge of the section (you can see the railing at the bottom of the photo), and I’ve drawn a red arrow which shows the boundary on the other side. That is a LOT of real estate which is now completely off limits:

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At least the water fountains are good:

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The field level concourse behind home plate? Awful. The ceiling is claustrophobically low to make room for an extra level of suites. Look:

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But okay, I’ll take a break from my complaining to show you the magnificent Rotunda. This is truly incredible. HOK deserves some props for this:

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I had to talk my way down into the seats behind the third base dugout. It looks a lot like Philly, except there are railings on the staircases. Pretty standard design. I can work with that:

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The St. John’s players began warming up…

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…and even though I didn’t bring my glove or bother to print their roster, I still got one of them to toss me a ball. I learned later that it was a player named Scott Ferrara, who can supposedly run the 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds. Hey look! There’s more weird space around the left field foul pole:

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I returned to the foul line when another group of players began throwing and I got a second ball from a freshman named Kevin Kilpatrick. Here are the two balls (which will NOT count in my collection):

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Did I mention that the balls will NOT count? Good. Okay. Ready for another critique? This one is minor, in the grand scheme of things, and it’s going to take three photos to illustrate my point, so bear with me. Here’s the first. It shows the ramps leading up to the “Empire,” “Excelsior,” and “Promenade” levels:

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(By the way, what’s with the fancy names of the seating levels? Are they actually planning to play baseball here or are they just gonna sit around and plan wars?) Here a photo of the first landing. Notice where the big metal beam is?

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It’s right at eye level! It completely blocks the view! DUH!!! Why not put that beam a couple feet higher and create a nice little area where people can look out and catch their breath? Am I crazy?

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Here’s something that actually looks pretty…

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…but upon closer inspection, there appears to be a bit of a drainage problem:

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Here’s a nice look at the lowest concourse from a couple levels up…the third deck…the Excelsior Level:

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Here’s the field from the third base side. Not bad:

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This brings me to the club itself. I don’t know if it’s going to be open all the time, or if this was a special day. I hope it’s open all the time because people seem to like it, and the more people who go up there, the fewer people I’ll have to deal with in the seats. It was “nice” in that it was clean and spacious and well designed, but I think the design would be more appropriate for a mall and/or an airport:

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I mean…really?

All right, here’s the single greatest thing about Citi Field. If you can afford $150 tickets (or whatever they cost…probably more on StubHub), you’ll have a phenomenal foul ball opportunity behind the seats on the Excelsior Level. Here’s the view of the field…

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…and here’s the view to the left:

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Wow! The only problem is that in order for the ball to reach the aisle, it’ll have to fly back on a line or else it’ll clip the facade of the upper d–err, I mean, the “promenade” level. But seriously, if I can find a way to get into that heavily guarded section during the regular season, I’ll be a happy boy.

I bought a six-dollar slice of pepperoni pizza. It was small (the baseball is in the shot for perspective) and forgettable. It was like college-cafeteria-quality pizza. Soooo not worth it. Granted, I only tried a couple items, but my early assessment is that the food at Citi Field sucks bigtime. Do yourself a favor and eat before you go to the ballpark, then pack a protein bar and avoid having to eat there. Stick it to the Mets for raising ticket prices and trying to sell crappy food:

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I wandered up to the right field corner…

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…and saw the very nice bridge from above, as well as the old home run apple…

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…and made it to the top corner of the second deck (which is the top deck in right field):

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There was a big open-air concourse up there, which looks a lot like the one in Anaheim:

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Then I went to the Promenade level and got a photo from the highest/furthest corner in right field:

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Here’s the Pepsi Deck from above. I think you’ll see guys like Adam Dunn and Prince Fielder hit balls completely over the seating area. It should be fun up there during the Home Run Derby:

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I’m not sure how far back foul balls will fly (I can’t judge distances in a college game where the pitchers are topping out at 81mph or whatever), but I’d say that some foul balls WILL reach the top deck. This is the view from a potentially good foul ball spot up there:

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It’s good because of the room to run on either side:

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But like I said, there might not be too many balls that go up that high. We shall see. Here’s the view from the last row of the upper deck directly behind the plate:

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Here’s more weird random space, this time between the staircase and the wall, under a lowish ceiling:

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Check this out. Look how easy it’ll be for people to jump onto the roof and run around near the fans and cause all kinds of trouble. People WILL do it. People will get drunk and clown around and climb up there, with very little effort, and if they stick their fingers into that machinery…yeah:

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Here’s the Promenade concourse:

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I want to see Fred Wilpon and the CEO of HOK sit and watch a game from the last row of the Promenade level in left-center field. This is what it’ll be like for them:

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What the bloody hell is the purpose of that obstruction? Why have it in the first place? And why build seats that’ll force people to stare at it? Here’s another look from the side:

133_upper_deck_last_row.jpg

Here’s one final shot from way up high that shows the area behind the batters eye:

134_behind_the_batters_eye.jpg

That’s it. I know I complained quite a bit, but it’s more fun that way, right? I have to be critical because I’ve been to 44 other major league stadiums, and this is the one I’m going to be stuck with for the rest of my life. My overall assessment is that it’s a quality structure. Aside from several drainage problems, it’s well put together. Solid. Pretty. Nice. I just question some of the choices that were made. The third base side looks like Philly. The left field seats look like Cincinnati. The right field seats look like Washington D.C. combined with Arlington. It’s like a big Mr. Potato Head stadium. Too segmented overall. Too complicated. It’s like a poster with ten different fonts and too many exclamation points. It’s trying sooooo hard to be nice, and in most places it succeeds, but if you look closely and KNOW what you’re looking for, you can see a lot of flaws. Fan interference is going to be a big problem at this stadium because there’s nothing that separates the fans in the front rows from the field. No gaps. No flower beds. Nothing. So get ready for that. The whole place strikes me as a haphazard collection of quirks and interesting features without much consideration about how it’s all going to play out and what it’s going to be like for the majority of fans who either want to collect things and get close to their favorite players or who simply can’t afford the best seats. The main thing that’ll make this place tolerable is that it will open two and a half hours before game time. Eventually, when the Mets lose 100 games and Citi Field is old news and the crowds shrink to 20,000 or so per game, this place might be great, but until then, I don’t expect to average much more than my typical seven balls per game. And even THAT might be tough to achieve here for quite some time.

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