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Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico?
The Mets and Marlins moved a three-game series to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, and I made the trip from New York City to be there:
Yeah, I was a bit excited. It was my first time at this stadium, and as you might expect, I took a ton of photos. (For some reason, when the Expos played a bunch of games here in 2003 and 2004, I neglected to take advantage.)
Let’s start with the Hiram Bithorn statue:
Did you know that there was a guy named Hiram Bithorn? I wasn’t aware of that until I booked this trip and did a little research. Bithorn, born in 1916, was the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. Check out all the info about him on the statue’s plaque:
In 1943, the dude went 18-12 with seven shutouts and a 2.60 ERA. That’s pretty impressive, and THAT is how you get a stadium named after you.
It was only 3pm. The gates weren’t going to open for another two hours, so I had plenty of time to wander.
Here’s the area with all the media/TV trucks:
Look at the slanted light towers:
Here’s a close-up of the trucks:
Here’s my first glimpse of the scoreboard inside the stadium:
In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise), you can see 1) the area beyond the right field corner of the stadium, 2) lawnmowers parked in the parking lot and Roberto Clemente Stadium in the distance, 3) the edge of the grandstand on the first base side, and 4) the road that curves around from right field to left field:
While walking along that road, I saw an open gate:
It was some sort of employee entrance. This is what I saw through the bars:
It was the back of the right field bleachers. I had a bleacher ticket. I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to move back and forth from right to left field, but it looked promising. I also didn’t know if there’d be batting practice. It had just been pouring for 20 minutes, and there was still thunder and lightning in the area.
Here’s another four-part photo that shows 1) the road behind the right field edge of the stadium, 2) a Puerto Rican stop sign, 3) a view of the stadium from deeeeeeep center field, and 4) another gate of some sort:
I was so confused.
Nothing was marked, few people spoke English, and let me tell you, I was in heaven. It’s like I was discovering a new way to watch baseball.
Hiram Bithorn Stadium is the largest baseball stadium in Puerto Rico, and it only holds about 20,000 fans. There’s no upper deck. No club level. No standing-room sections. No cup holders. No flat-screen TVs. No waiter service. It’s incredibly simple, and yes, also dumpy and run-down, but that’s what makes it nice. It’s the opposite of the new Yankee Stadium. It’s unrefined, and I don’t mean that as an insult. I like unrefined. I like it when puddles don’t drain. I like it when garbage cans overflow. That’s real life. You know what I mean? Take Target Field, for example. That stadium is an architectural marvel, but it’s almost too perfect. When I was there last month, it kinda felt like I was in a modern art museum.
But let’s get back to Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Look at all this clutter sitting around just inside the random gate:
Is that a beautiful sight or what? I’m totally serious. It was great to experience Major League Baseball in a facility where every inch of space wasn’t being micromanaged.
Here’s another four-part photo that shows 1) the area outside the left field corner of the stadium, 2) police guarding an employee entrance along the left field foul line, 3) the view as I cut across toward the 3rd base line, and 4) the walkway that leads to the main entrance.
This is what the gates look like…
…and here’s a sneak-peek at the concourse inside:
The sun finally came out. I ran across the street to use a bathroom inside a gigantic mall and took this photo of the stadium on the way back:
The stadium was jumping at that point. There were food tents and vendors and DJ booths and promoters aggressively handing out thunder sticks. The whole place had a carnival-like atmosphere. Look how crowded it was:
Luckily, there was a special someone holding a spot for me near the front of the line:
I’m talking about my girlfriend Jona, pictured above in the white shirt and torn jeans. Unfortunately, we were in line at the wrong spot. We couldn’t enter the main part of the stadium with bleacher tickets, so at the last second, we had to get out of line and head halfway around the stadium, and by the time we got inside, we’d missed a few minutes of batting practice. But hey, at least there WAS batting practice. The Mets were on the field, and before I had a chance to blink, a right-handed batter crushed a home run to the back of the bleachers. I raced up the steps and grabbed the ball after lunging over a railing.
Mission accomplished! It was the 48th “major league” stadium at which I’d snagged at least one ball. I wouldn’t have counted Hiram Bithorn on my list if I’d snagged baseballs at a Puerto Rico Baseball League game or even at the World Baseball Classic, but this was different. I was here for an actual regular-season major league game. If the wins and losses and stats were gonna count for the teams and players, then it was only fair that the balls would count in my collection.
After getting that first ball, I took a few photos of the glorious bleacher configuration. Look at the cross-aisle in front…
…and check out the gap behind the outfield wall:
I got one of the Mets’ strength/conditioning coaches to toss me a ball near the left field foul pole, and then things slowed way down. The bleachers were general admission, so everyone showed up early to claim a good spot, and as a result, the whole section got crowded fast. There just wasn’t much room to run. Batting practice was a major struggle. The expression on my face tells the whole story:
(That’s me in the Mets gear.) Here’s a closer look:
Finally, after 20 minutes of frustration, I got my third ball of the day from Bobby Parnell. The fact that I spoke perfect, accent-free English probably helped convince him to hook me up. There were very few people from the States. I’d say 99 percent of the fans were Latino/Puerto Rican. Although there’s no telling what kind of effect that had on my ability to snag baseballs, it’s an interesting factor to consider.
Left field was dead, so I decided to see if I could move to the right field side. Naturally, I took some photos along the way.
First, here’s the staircase that leads up into the left field bleachers:
Here’s the view to the left:
See all those people walking toward the batter’s eye in center field?
(Oh yeah, baby…)
Not only was I free to roam between left and right field, but there was a TON of open space in between. Check it out:
Here’s one more photo to show you what I’m talking about. I took it behind the wall in center field.
I couldn’t decide where to go. The opportunities — the ball-snagging potential — was truly mind-boggling.
All of a sudden, I saw a ball fly over the wall in right-center and drop down into the gap in front of the bleachers. Was I allowed to chase after it? I had no idea what the rules were, so I raced over…and this is what I saw:
The photo above is blurry because I was running full speed when I took it, but anyway, yeah, I was totally allowed to run under the bleachers. The ball was just sitting there, waiting for me. My first three balls of the day were regular MLB balls; this one was a training ball. It was all muddy, so I kept it in my hand as I headed back into the left field bleachers. When I got there, a female security supervisor (who’d seen me get a ball earlier) asked me if I could spare the ball. She told me there was a kid who was crying because someone else had taken a ball from him.
“Where’s the kid?” I asked, expecting to see a five-year-old.
“Over there,” she said, pointing to a teenaged boy curled up with his face in his mother’s lap.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “He’s too big to be crying.” I was going to tell her that there’s no crying in baseball, but I didn’t know if she’d get it. Anyway, it was no laughing matter, so I handed her the ball so that she could be the one to give it to the boy.
Well, the kid was thrilled, his entire family was thrilled, and the supervisor loved me after that and took good care of me for the rest of the series.
That was it for batting practice. The Mets finished hitting at 5:50pm — half an hour earlier than I expected — and I was stuck in the bleachers. There wasn’t anything to do. There wasn’t anything to photograph. So I just sat there with Jona and waited for the game to start.
This was our terrible view…
…but it was worth it because I had lots of room to run through the aisle on either side.
Do you remember my previous blog entry? I said I was going to be wearing my “Where’s Waldo” shirt in order to make it easier for people to spot me on TV. (I brought four shirts to this game.) That’s all. just wanted to remind you of that fact.
Before the top of the 2nd inning got underway, Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan threw his warm-up ball into the bleachers. He hadn’t aimed for anyone in particular. It was just a random toss. It happened to come right to me, but it was several feet over my head, so I jumped as high as I could…
…and came down with it. (Jona’s camera could not contain me!)
With no outs in the top of the 5th inning, Jason Bay smoked a 1-1 pitch from Ricky Nolasco down the left field line. The ball hooked foul and rattled around in the corner, and by the time Coghlan jogged over to retrieve it, I had already bolted through the aisle so that I was standing right behind him. Once again, he randomly flipped the ball up into the crowd, and wouldn’t you know it, I was able to grab this one as well. But this wasn’t any ordinary ball. Have a look:
Oh yes, my friends, that’s right. MLB and Rawlings International had designed a special commemorative logo for this series. Here’s a closer look:
I had heard from one of my contacts at MLB that these special balls were only going to be used during games — not during BP. He actually offered to send one to me before I went on this trip, but I didn’t take him up on it.
“Let me see if I can snag one on my own first,” I said.
And…voila! Another mission had been accomplished. At that point, the only thing left for me to achieve was catching a game home run, and if ever there was a time to do it, this was it.
Of the 18 players in the game, 14 were batting from the right side, and yet the first four home runs of the night went to right field. It was tempting to run over there, but I decided to hold my ground in straight-away left.
With two outs in the bottom of the 8th, I pulled out my camera and took the following photo:
There were two runners on base, and Mike Stanton was batting, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Mainly, I just wanted a photo that captured the simplicity of the scoreboard. There was no pitch count. There were no stats other than his .203 batting average. It didn’t even say what he’d done earlier in the game.
The count was 1-1, and the next pitch was a strike.
No big deal.
I took another photo to capture all the room I had on my left:
“What a waste,” I thought, “that there haven’t been any homers hit to left field.”
On the very next pitch, Stanton cranked a deep fly ball in my direction.
“HOLD THIS!!! HOLD THIS!!! HOLD THIS!!!” I yelled at Jona, reaching to my right to hand the camera to her.
From the second the ball left Stanton’s bat, I knew it was coming to me. I mean right to me. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. And I also knew I was going to catch it. It was as simple as that.
Here are a few screen shots from the TV broadcast to show you how it played out. First, you can see Jason Bay running back toward the wall. Note the “Waldo” stripes directly behind him:
In the screen shot above, approximately five feet to the left of where I was standing, you can see a fan wearing a white shirt with red sleeves. He ended up drifting over, and he nearly cost me the ball. Look how close he was when I reached up for it:
Like I said, the ball was coming RIGHT toward me. I wasn’t going to have to jump or lean out over the railing. All I had to do was reach up for it, but this other guy (who was not wearing a glove) was reaching up, too. His hands were right in front of my face, and I knew that it was gonna be a battle to see who could reach the furthest.
Here’s a closer look at the screen shot above. I’ve drawn two little red dots over his hands, and I’ve drawn an arrow to show you the ball going into my glove:
That should illustrate just how close he came to getting a piece of the ball. I had tried to box him out (simply by holding my ground), but he managed to reach in front of me at the last second. Still, I think my effort to block him made a slight difference, and as a result, the ball cleared his left hand by about four inches.
I had the ball!!!
Here’s a closer look at my reaction:
(Unfortunately, you can’t see Jona in any of these screen shots, but she saw me. In fact, it was the first game home run that she’d ever seen me catch on the fly.)
Half the fans were really happy for me, and I got a few high fives:
The other half were p*ssed because it was the third ball I’d snagged during the game, and get this: three minutes later, before the top of the 9th started, I got another. Coghlan threw another warm-up ball into the crowd. It sailed about five feet over my head, but because all the fans reached for it at once, they all booted it, and the ball dropped right down to me. There was a huge crowd in the aisle, going for the rebound, but I managed to stick out my glove and catch it before it hit the ground.
I immediately handed the ball to the smallest kid with a glove, and then I reached into my backpack and pulled out another ball and gave that one away, too. Everyone started cheering and shaking my hand. A bunch of parents asked if they could take photos of me with their kids. It was nuts, Here I am with the two kids that received baseballs:
After the game (which the Marlins won, 10-3), I got more high-fives and handshakes. Several people asked me to sign autographs:
Did I mention that it was nuts? Everyone wanted to stop and talk. (One man said, “Everybody is famous for one day. Today is your day.”) It’s like I was their good luck charm — as if touching me or connecting with me was going to bring them fortune. I’ve never experienced fans reacting like that before. iViva Puerto Rico!
Everyone was energized, it seemed. Outside the stadium, the vendors were still selling food, the DJs were still blasting music, and people were dancing just about everywhere:
This was probably the most unusual major league game I’ve ever attended, and I’m not talking about the action on the field. There had been fans with air horns and vuvuzelas inside the stadium. There’d been people playing drums and singing and chanting. It was so happy and festive and joyous and just…I don’t know…raw…and stadium security didn’t really give a damn about anything.
Before Jona and I headed back to the hotel, I met up with two guys who’d been reading this blog and got in touch to tell me they’d be here. These guys didn’t know each other. One was from San Juan. The other was from Michigan. Here I am with them:
The guy on the left is named Gustavo. (Unlike this Gustavo, he’s incredibly friendly.) He had actually gotten in touch two years ago and sent me one of the longest/nicest emails I’ve ever received. You can read that email on this page on my web site. Just search for “Gustavo” or scroll down to September 14, 2008, and you’ll see it. The guy on the right is named Mike. He had contacted me a few weeks earlier, and he was really cool, too. He’s been to 46 major league stadiums.
One last thing…
There are lots of highlights of the Mike Stanton homer, but thanks to a friend in New York who taped the game, I got a hold of the best footage of all. It’s a one-minute clip from SNY, the Mets’ cable network. The file (.mov format) is 15MB, so you might need to give it a minute to load. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Mets’ announcers, the two guys talking about me at the end are Gary Cohen and former major leaguer Ron Darling. Enjoy…
• 8 balls at this game (5 pictured on the right because I gave three away)
• 176 balls in 17 games this season = 10.4 balls per game.
• 646 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 196 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 48 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 13 lifetime game home runs (not counting toss-ups); click here for the complete list.
• 6 different stadiums with a game home run (Old Yankee, PETCO, Shea, Camden, New Yankee, and Hiram Bithorn)
• 4,534 total balls
• 37 donors (click hereto learn more)
• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $43.28 raised at this game
• $952.16 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
UPDATE: My home run catch was written up on MyGameBalls.com. Click here to read the story.