Results tagged ‘ pittsburgh pirates ’

Taking batting practice at PNC Park

The best thing that happened on my birthday this year was NOT snagging 22 balls at Camden Yards. Not even close. The highlight was receiving the following email from my friend Erik Jabs:

Zack,
I remember you writing that one day you’d like to take BP on a major league field.

PNC Park is having a season ticket holder batting practice on Tuesday,
Oct 6. It’s a regular BP with the cages and screens and everything.
They also use MLB balls, and you can elect to use players’ game bats.

I’d you’d like to, you’re welcome to be my guest and take BP on that day.

I wrote a little about it last year when my blog was beginning:
http://countingbaseballs.mlblogs.com/archives/2008/09/92408_pnc_park_season_ticket_h.html

Let me know,
Erik

Three weeks after I received this email, I flew to Pittsburgh with my mom (who came along just to watch) and my friend Brandon (who took all the photos you’re about to see)…

Here I am walking into PNC Park with Erik and a few of his friends:

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This was my reaction after stepping onto the field:

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It was nine o’clock in the morning. The sun was bright, but the grass was still wet, and it was only 49 degrees — not ideal conditions to jack one over the fence, but I was hopeful.

There were only about 100 people in our 9am-11am group, and we all gathered in the stands for the welcome speech:

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The speaker thanked us for supporting the Pirates in 2009 (You’re welcome!) and explained a few basic things about how our three-group session on the field was going to be run:

Group One would be hitting first…

Group Two would be free to roam anywhere on the field and shag baseballs…

Group Three would start by lining up on the warning track in right field and catching fly balls that were going to be fired from a pitching machine…

I was in Group Three, which meant that all the balls were going to be soggy by the time I stepped into the cage. It also meant that I had to break the rules for a couple minutes and play catch at shortstop:

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The rules, it should be noted, were not strictly enforced. Some people from Group Two made a beeline for the right field warning track, while others in Group Three (like me and Erik) wandered all over the place.

Here I am with Erik:

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(Erik is 6-foot-4.)

The fly ball machine was positioned on the infield dirt behind first base:

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It wasn’t THAT exciting to catch routine 200-foot fly balls fired from a machine, especially when I had to wait in line for five minutes between each one. What WAS exciting was simply being on the field:

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Quite simply, it was a dream come true.

Finally, after more than an hour, Group Three was called in to hit. I raced to the front of the line and grabbed an aluminum bat that belonged to one of Erik’s friends. I could’ve used wood — there were more than a dozen players’ bats lying around — but I decided I’d go with metal until I put one out.

Unfortunately, that never happened (and here’s where I make tons of excuses)…

In addition to the balls being damp, I had to hit off a pitching machine that was firing most of the balls shoulder-high. Also, the late-morning sun was shining right in my eyes from straight-away center field. In addition, I only got eight pitches, which included my bunt to start the round as well as another pitch that I took moments later because it was head-high. There were so many people waiting to hit, and the guys feeding the machine were in such a rush to get me out of the cage that they only gave me three seconds between each swing to get ready for the next one. It was like, “Hurry up and have your fun and get the hell out.” (But don’t get me wrong: it WAS fun.)

Here I am taking a mighty cut at one of the only belt-high pitches I saw:

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Although, as I mentioned above, I didn’t hit a ball out of the park, I did manage to hit a line drive that bounced onto the warning track. If the ball weren’t damp and heavy, it might’ve gone out, and if I’d swung about an eighth of an inch lower, it definitely would’ve gone out.

After everyone in Group Three got their eight-pitches (no one in any group even came close to hitting one out), we each got to jump back in the cage for a four-pitch lightning round. Brandon wandered out behind the mound and took the following photo of me at the plate:

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Same result:
Damp balls.
Too high.
Good swings.
Totally rushed.
Decent contact.
No homers.
Major frustration.

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It was exhilarating to get to take BP on a major league field, and
while it certainly went down as I expected, it wasn’t anything like
what I’d dreamt of so many times. In my own personal FantasyLand, I
have a stadium all to myself. The grass is dry. It’s 82
degrees. Leon Feingold is pitching BP fastballs to me with pearls, and of course I’m hitting the crap out of them.

Former big league pitcher Rick Reuschel was hanging around near the batting cage. He and I talked for a minute and then had our picture taken.

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(In my next life, I’m going to be 6-foot-7.)

Here I am with a gentleman named Nick Pelescak: 

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Nick is:

1) a friend of Erik’s
2) a Pirates season ticket holder
3) the owner of the metal bat I’d used
4) a member of the Ballhawk League
5) a good ballplayer
6) a great guy

As you can see in the photo above, Nick brought his copy of Watching Baseball Smarter for me to sign…which I did…with an extra big smile because it was the most worn-out/well-appreciated copy of the book that I’d ever seen. Nick told me he’d read it several times and underlined his favorite parts, which turned out to be half the stuff in it. Check out this two-page spread in the “Umpires” chapter:

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The whole book looked like that.

It was lunchtime. Our two-hour session on the field had ended.

We entertained ourselves at the speed-pitch booth:

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In the photo above, that’s me on the left, Nick on the right, and Nick’s younger brother Bryan in the middle. Bryan (who’s just 16 years old) threw the fastest pitch of the day at 73mph.

Then it was time to eat:

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And then we wandered back down to the field:

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Thanks to a not-so-secret loophole in the system, we all got to head back onto the field. Here I am, waiting for my turn to hit:

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See the batting glove I’m wearing in the photo above? On this fine day in Pittsburgh, I decided to use Jeromy Burnitz’s batting gloves — the ones he tossed to me in 2004 at Shea Stadium. (Here’s my whole collection of batting gloves, in case you care.)

There were a dozen helmets lying around next to the cage…

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…and none of them fit.

These were some of the bats:

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I took my eight swings with Nick’s metal bat…

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…and finished up with Jose Bautista’s wood bat. No homers. But I hit some deep fly balls and got a compliment from former Pirate John Wehner. Here I am with him:

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Wehner said that even HE wouldn’t have been able to hit a home run with such bad balls. (I wish I had a photo of the balls, but since I don’t, let me just say this: the worst ball that you could possibly catch during BP at a major league game would be better than any ball I was invited to hit at PNC Park.) He might’ve just been saying that to make me feel better…but then again, he did only hit four career homers in the big leagues…but no, it was nice to hear.

Brandon and I wandered out to the bullpens. Here I am on the mound:

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Here I am on the bench:

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Here’s a sign that was on the wall out there:

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Here I am clowning around on the warning track (robbing a…double?) with Bryan looking on:

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Brandon and my mom and I were going to have to leave for the airport soon, so I spent my remaining time catching fly balls from the pitching machine.

Here I am getting ready to catch one:

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Here I am losing my footing on another:

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(We were not allowed to wear spikes or cleats.)

I failed to catch that particular ball and ended up like this:

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Good times!

Here’s one final photo of me and mom before we headed out:

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are awesome for letting their season ticket holders take over the field for a day. By comparison, the New York Mets “rewarded” their season ticket holders by letting
them run the bases (for 20 seconds) after the final game of the season.

I have to end this entry with a BIG thank you to Erik for giving me the opportunity to do this. Check out his blog. He should have an entry up about it soon. Also…thanks to Brandon for taking all the photos.

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:

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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.

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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…

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…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.

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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…”

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…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:

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(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:

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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:

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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.

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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

4/28/09 at Miller Park

This was the final game of my trip, and I started off by using the glove trick to snag two balls from the gap in left field. The first was easy because it was sitting right below me, but the second ball was way off to the side and it took me TWENTY minutes to reel it in! (It was worth it; there was nothing else going on at the time.)

The following photo (taken by my friend Kelly) will give you an idea of the challenge I faced. I’ve drawn a red “X” to indicate where the ball was initially sitting, and as you can see below, I moved the ball a bit, but it was now trapped against a wall:

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One thing that made this so tough was that the area in the gap was slightly sloped. I had to swing my glove back and forth to try to knock the ball closer, and every time I managed to do that, it kept rolling back to where it had been.

Here’s a photo that shows me swinging the glove:

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As you can see, there were a couple bars/pipes that were perpendicular to the wall. This meant that I couldn’t swing my glove as hard or far as I wanted in either direction.

Eventually I managed to knock the ball away from the wall, and then once it was out in the open, I managed to knock it closer. Finally, when I’d moved it right below me, I was able to lower my glove gently and snag it. Here’s a shot of my glove dangling just above the ball…

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…and here I am, reaching out for it after carefully lifting the glove back up:

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I must not have put the rubber band on tight enough because as you can see, the ball was barely being held in place. Anyway, the trick worked. That’s all that mattered. I don’t need style points. I just need baseballs. (And yes, I really do “need” them. Some people need air. I need baseballs. Don’t question me. Well, I also need air.)

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the edges of my glove got VERY scuffed because of my antics. Every time I had swung the glove to my left, I tried to drop it on the ball and tug it back in one motion. (This took far more athleticism and hand-eye coordination than almost any ball I’ve ever caught on the fly.) But I kept missing 9 out of 10 times, and as a result the glove kept hitting/skimming the concrete. My glove now looks like absolute crap, and I’d have to say it was worth it.

5_ball3923_got_game.jpg There was a third ball that landed in the gap, and as I was in the process of trying to knock it closer, a stadium employee retrieved it and (much to my surprise) tossed it up. That was my third ball of the day, and the words “GOT GAME” were already written on the sweet spot.

Over the years, many teams have marked their balls in various ways, but the Brewers (as I discovered firsthand the day before) have recently been scribbling random words and phrases. I’m not sure if this is their attempt to deter employees from stealing the balls, or if the players and coaches are just being silly. Either way, it doesn’t bother me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s nice to snag a ball that’s different from all the others, but I’d be pretty disappointed if I’d never gotten a single ball and then ended up catching one that had been defaced.

When the Pirates took the field, I got Jesse Chavez to toss me my fourth ball of the day. Then I ran over to the seats along the left field foul line because there was a ball sitting on the warning track, about a foot out from the wall. By the time I got there, a fellow ballhawk named Shawn was already standing above the ball. I was pretty sure he had a glove trick of his own, yet he wasn’t setting it up, so I asked him if I could go for it. At first it seemed like he wanted the ball for himself, but then I realized he was cool with it. He was there with his mom, and they were both focusing on Pirates bullpen coach Luis Dorante (who was playing catch and had two balls in his back pocket) so we each had our own agenda. Anyway, I set up my trick, waited for the nearby on-field security guy to look the other way, and then plucked it.

Even though the Pirates had taken the field, they hadn’t started hitting. The Brewers were still taking their final cuts, so I raced to their dugout…

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…and got two balls tossed to me within a 30-second span when everyone came off the field. The first was given to me by a ballboy and the second was flipped by bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel. At first, it didn’t seem like he was going to hook me up, so I modified my request and asked for a dirty ball. That convinced him, and this is the ball he gave me:

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Now let’s get something straight, once and for all…

Over the years, I’ve taken some heat from fellow ballhawks–especially the old-school guys–because I “beg” for balls and use my glove trick so often. My only response is: “Why is that a bad thing?” Some ballhawks are only interested in catching home runs, and I’ll be the first to say that they deserve a TON of credit. It’s not easy, and some of their numbers are mind-boggling. There are, however, other ways to snag baseballs, and I think that those ways should be respected. If you look at how my stats break down in Erik Jabs’ ballhawk league, you’ll see that only a small portion of my baseballs were batted. It’s not that I’m bad at judging fly balls, or that I can’t catch them when they start flying at me…it’s that I just don’t spend that much time in the outfield seats. For me, it’s all about maximizing my numbers so I like to roam and get baseballs in all sorts of ways. If it somehow became illegal to ask players for balls, or if fans received the death penalty for using glove tricks, then yeah, I’d focus on catching home runs, and I’m sure my numbers would be pretty good. But for now, I’m content snagging baseballs any way I can get ‘em. Thank you.

I had seven balls in my backpack when I decided to head up to the 2nd deck in left field. Rather than using the concourse to get from the dugout to the left field side, I cut through the seats and ended up getting Craig Monroe to throw me a ball along the left field foul line. I was about ten rows back and he fired it over everyone’s heads in front of me. *Then* I headed upstairs and got three more balls thrown to me during the next half-hour. Nothing fancy. The first came from Ian Snell, the second (which I later gave away to a kid) came from Brandon Moss, and the third came from Mister Jesse Chavez out in left-center. He must’ve thrown a dozen balls into the crowd, and he wasn’t being too selective.

By the end of BP, the 2nd deck was officially crowded, but get this…almost everyone was sitting down:

8_BP_from_2nd_deck.jpg

People in the Midwest pride themselves on being laid-back, but this was ridiculous. There were very few kids (perhaps because it was a weekday in April), and only a handful of adults had gloves, so there wasn’t really direct competition. Instead, people were just in the way. My friend Nick (aka “The Happy Youngster”) had warned me about that. He was at this game too–I had stayed at his place the night before–and he snagged a bunch of balls as well. Miller Park is heavenly. That’s the official Zack Hample assessment.

I had 11 balls at the point. Five of them had the word “PRACTICE” stamped onto the sweet spot, and another ball had a big “P” drawn on by the Pittsburgh Pirates:

9_practice_balls.jpg

You can see the little numbers that I wrote. The ball on the upper left, for example, says “3921” because that was the 3,921st ball I ever snagged, and if you’re wondering why the numbers are above the sweet spot on some balls and below it on others, the answer is that I always mark the balls on the same spot. Evidently, the person who stamps “PRACTICE” on them isn’t too concerned with which way the balls are facing. (By the way, I photographed the “GOT GAME” ball before I marked it. That’s why there’s no number on it.)

I snagged my 12th ball of the day at the Pirates’ dugout after BP. Some random equipment guy rolled it to me across the dugout roof. Thrilling, yes.

After that, I rushed to the upper deck and crammed all my wandering and photo-taking into the 40 minutes before game time. (Miller Park is so great for foul balls during games that I didn’t want to miss a single pitch.) This is what I saw as the escalator was approaching the upper deck:

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Here’s a look at the retractable roof…

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…and this is what I saw when I peered over the side edge of the upper deck:

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The word “beautiful” might not come to mind when you first see these pics, but that’s actually how I would describe this stadium. The angles are really interesting, and I love how the roof narrows/hinges into one spot. The glass panels above the last row of seats are tasteful; I like how there are beams AND how the light comes streaming in. Domed stadiums, to some extent, always look like spaceships and are often ugly. I’d say Tropicana Field is the worst and Minute Maid Park is the best, but Miller Park might be a close second. I don’t know…Chase Field is also pretty nice.

The concourse behind the left field foul pole was empty…

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…and didn’t look like like it was ever meant to be seen by fans. I love finding quiet areas inside major league stadiums. It keeps getting harder, with all these new facilities that are built without nooks and crannies, so I was glad to see that anything’s still possible in Milwaukee.

Here’s my panorama from the last row behind the plate:

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I ran into my friends Scott and Chad (you might remember them from 4/25/09 at U.S. Cellular Field) on the way to my seat on Loge level, and I met up with Kelly in the concourse.

I don’t want to discuss or even think about the game because it’s too frustrating. I’ll just say very quickly that was only ONE foul ball that flew back the entire night. It basically came right to me, right to the spot in a gloriously wide and empty aisle where I’d been campingout throughout the game, but at the exact moment that this ball was hit, I got blocked by two guys who were standing around with their beers, and they pretty much knocked the ball out of my glove. What should have been THE easiest catch of all-time turned into a frantic scramble that I lost. I can’t even begin to describe how pissed I was, so let’s just leave it at that.

Here’s a photo (taken by the lovely Kelly) that shows me in the aisle…white shirt, arms folded in disgust, leaning against the back wall:

15_zack_aisle_during_game.jpg

(I’m still pissed. I don’t want to think about it. And yet I’m still thinking about it. Leave me alone, brain! Think about something else. AAAHHH!!! Help.)

The Brewers won, 6-5, and Trevor Hoffman recorded his first non-Padre save since 1993. I love the guy, and I’m rooting for him all the way, but I don’t think he’s going to be an effective closer this season. The velocity just isn’t there. His fastball topped out at 86mph and was clocked several times between 82 and 84. Sure, Jamie Moyer is barely cracking 80 these days, but he’s a starter, and he’s also the exception to the rule. When I think of what a closer should be, I think of the words “dominating” and “intimidating.” Maybe that still applies to Hoffman because of his reputation. All I’m saying is…it makes me nervous to watch him pitch. It’s like when amateurs sing the national anthem. Do you ever feel like this? I find myself rooting for them simply NOT to mess up, rather than rooting for them to succeed. It’s the same whenever I watch Olympic figure skating (which is not often). Even though the competitors aren’t amateurs, I still cringe whenever they do a jump because I’m afraid something bad is gonna happen. That’s how it was for me at this game whenever Hoffman threw a pitch. Not a good sign.

Okay…

Just because I’m about to list my stats doesn’t mean you should stop scrolling down the page. There are some very important (and perhaps disturbing) photos coming up at the end…

SNAGGING STATS:

• 12 balls at this game

• 112 balls in 14 games this season = 8 balls per game.

• 41 balls in 3 lifetime games at Miller Park = 13.7 balls per game

• 583 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,932 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $18.27 pledged per ball

• $219.24 raised at this game

• $2,046.24 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Okay, it’s time for a few more photos, but first I have to ask if you remember the part in my previous entry where I showed Nick’s sports memorabilia. Does that ring a bell? Remember when I mentioned that he’s a police officer and that he has an effective way of protecting his collection? Good. Check it out:

17_nick_guns.jpg

That’s Nick in the photo above (and no, he’s not really a Pirate fan). When he first told me that he had guns in the house, I nearly threw up a little bit in my mouth, and when he first showed them to me, I thought they were fake. I know NOTHING about guns. Guns make me nervous. I’m a nerdy Jew from the Upper West Side. I play Scrabble and I like bagels. I went to a Quaker college. GUNS?! For real?!?! I’m friends with someone who owns guns?! How did this happen? Where did I go wrong?

The photo below shows the handguns. The one on the left (with the wooden handle) is a Ruger .357 magnum, and the one on the right is a Glock .40 caliber:

18_handguns.jpg

At least that’s what Nick claimed. He might’ve been lying, but I wasn’t about to argue.

Then he showed me the bullets:

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I’m going to assume that the red stuff on the upper right is paint and not blood. That’s a good assumption, right? I actually didn’t notice the red until I got back to NYC and started going through the pics. (Nick…if you’re reading this, what IS the red stuff? Did you drop your bullet in a glass of cherry cola?)

Being close to Nick’s guns was so far beyond my realm of reality that I kinda got into it. It’s like I was in a foreign land with an expert tour guide. On one hand, I felt totally helpless when it occurred to me that if Nick wanted to kill me and steal all my baseballs, he could’ve done so in approximately seven-tenths of a second, but on the other hand, I felt very comforted by the fact that he knew what he was doing and probably didn’t want to cause me any harm. Like I said, he’s a cop. He’s been trained extensively with firearms. In addition, these guns were licensed, and he went though numerous safety checks to make sure they weren’t loaded. Then he assured me that there was nothing illegal about me touching them and taking photos with them and sharing it on my blog.

And so…here I am:

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Wow, did that really happen? What have I done?! Quick!!! Let’s all think happy thoughts…

Rainbows! Kittens! Lollipops! Flowers!

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Ahh, I feel so much better.

4/27/09 at Miller Park

I woke up in Chicago, took a 90-minute train ride to Milwaukee, and found my friend Nick Yohanek waiting for me outside the station:

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Nick is an extremely skilled ballhawk who’s known as “The Happy Youngster.” He has his own website and blog, and although we’d been emailing back and forth for a couple years, the first time we met in person was 20 days earlier in Toronto. (One great thing about being a ballhawk is that friendships often develop fast with other ballhawks. Three weeks ago, I barely knew Nick…and now here he was, picking me up at a train station and letting me crash at his place for a night.)

Nick gave me a scenic tour of Milwaukee (which even HE would admit is an oxymoron) on the way to his place. We drove past Miller Park…

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…and pulled into his driveway less than 10 minutes later:

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As much as Nick loves the Brewers, he loves the Green Bay Packers even more. His basement is basically a memorabilia shrine for the two teams. Check it out below. Here’s one wall of stuff…

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…and here’s another:

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In the photo above, the home plate-shaped display case holds all 48 game home run balls that Nick has snagged. Truly remarkable. On the lower left, you can see his trademark t-shirt: Glove + Ball = Happy. (Nick is a police officer and has a very effective way of protecting his memorabilia collection. I’ll explain in my next entry.)

We headed to the stadium at around 3pm–plenty of time for me to wander all the way around the outside of it and take some pics. But first, here’s one that Nick took of me:

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Nick then walked me out to a nearby spot in the parking lot and showed me this:

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It says: “This marks the landing location of the final home run of Hank Aaron’s career, #755, hit at County Stadium on July 20, 1976.”

That final home run ball, by the way, caused a LOT of controversy. It was retrieved by a groundskeeper, and when the team asked the guy for the ball, he said he wanted to hand it over himself to Aaron. The team refused, so he was like, “Fine, then I’ll just keep the ball.” What did the team do? They fired him AND they docked him five dollars from his final paycheck for the cost of the ball. True story. (Shame on the Brewers.) I’ll be writing more about this in my next book, along with a bunch of other ball-related controversies. The last thing I’ll say about it for now is that the groundskeeper eventually got the last laugh.

Nick followed me as I kept wandering and taking pics. Miller Park is very nice, but the surrounding area is, in a word, nondescript:

8_outside_miller_park.jpg
There’s no real atmosphere outside the ballpark. There are just a bunch of parking lots, but at least everything was clean and well-built and non-sketchy.The temperature was in the 70s, and the retractable roof was barely open:

9_outside_miller_park.jpg
The roof ended up staying closed for the game, but it was cool to get there early enough to see a sliver of sky peeking through.Here’s another look at the outside of the stadium. There’s nothing WRONG with it. It’s just not sexy:

10_outside_miller_park.jpg

Two edges of the stadium are slightly elevated above the surrounding land, so there’s a railing around the perimeter:

Now…I know that the people in Milwaukee are passionate about their bratwurst, so as I made my way around the stadium with Nick, it saddened me greatly to see the following:

12_outside_miller_park_brat.jpg

I can’t explain it. It was just…there.

Here’s one final look at the outside of Miller Park. This is the home plate entrance (and you can see Nick in the yellow shirt):

13_outside_miller_park.jpg

As for the inside of Miller Park…

I met a fellow ballhawk named Shawn and his mother Sue (who also snags her fair share of baseballs). Shawn had a copy of my first book, How to Snag Major League Baseballs, and Sue had the new one, Watching Baseball Smarter:

14_sue_shawn_books.jpg

I signed the books for them and then got my snagging underway.

Ball No. 1 was tossed by Brewers coach Joe Crawford, and it had something strange written on it. Check it out:

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I’ve snagged a lot of marked balls over the years, including this one from the Brewers back in the 1990s, but I’d never seen anything like this. Within the last year or two, I’d been hearing stories about how the Brewers were writing random stuff on their practice balls, so it was great to finally get one.

When the Pirates took the field, there were still a few of the Brewers’ balls laying around on the warning track, and I got Zach Duke to toss one to me. (The line I used was, “How ’bout a ball for a fellow Zack?” First time I ever used that line successfully. I even offered to show him ID, but he took my word for it. Zacks are just cool like that, as are Zachs.) This second ball also had something written on the sweet spot, and when I ran over the right field bullpen and used my glove trick to reel in the following ball…

16_ball3911_bullpen.jpg…there was yet another random thing written on it.

Here are those first three balls I snagged, logos up:

17_marked_balls.jpg

Now, here they are with the sweet spots up…

18_marked_balls.jpg

…and let me just stress again that I did NOT write this stuff on the balls. They were like this when I caught them.

I managed to glove-trick another ball from the bullpen before security shut me down. There was just one usher who seemed to have a problem with my device, and when he told me I might get ejected if I used it again, I decided to move my operation to the second deck in left field.

19_second_deck.jpg

I didn’t expect to catch much up there, but it turned out to be a great spot. First, Brandon Moss threw me a ball, and then I snagged a home run that flew 10 feet over my head and landed in the mostly empty benches. Several minutes later, John Grabow tossed me my seventh ball of the day, and soon after I snagged another home run off the steps.

That wasn’t it.

While I was labeling the balls and scribbling down some notes about how I’d gotten them, I noticed that Craig Monroe was getting ready to throw a ball to some fans in the front row about 30 feet to my left. As he fired it up, I bolted to my left and cut through my row. The ball sailed over the fans’ heads, landed several rows behind me, hit the back of a bench, and bounced right back to me as I was cutting across. It was beautiful. I ended up giving that ball away, but it was still fun to catch it, and of course it counts in my stats and for the charity.

Nyjer Morgan then threw me another ball. I hadn’t even asked him. He just looked up into the seats and spotted me, so I pointed at him to acknowledge that I was ready. He fielded a ball moments later and immediately turned and fired it up at me. Perfect aim. Embarrassingly easy. And just like that, I had reached double digits.

I made it to the Pirates’ dugout just before the end of BP and a got my 11th ball tossed to me by coach Luis Dorante as everyone was coming off the field. It was a real beauty:

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Nick and Shawn were also down by the dugout, and since security is so laid-back and awesome in Milwaukee (with the exception of that one guy who’s anti-glove trick), we sat down and hung out for about 20 minutes. Turns out we were captured by the Pittsburgh TV cameras. Thanks to Erik Jabs for passing along the following screen shot. You can see Nick on the left, Shawn in the middle, and me on the right:

21_pirates_fans_on_tv.jpg

My plan for the game was simple: Go to the second deck behind the plate, stay there all night, and catch a foul ball. Miller Park has THE best spot for foul balls in the Major Leagues. By far. The only other time I’d ever been to this stadium was on June 11, 2003. I snagged 17 balls that day including two foul balls during the game in that section.

What’s so good about it?

This was my view of the field (I was hearing Bob Uecker’s voice all night)…

22_foul_ball_view_right.jpg

…and this was my view to the left:

23_view_to_my_left.jpg

Is that not THE most glorious cross-aisle you’ve EVER seen?

The height and distance of the section is perfect. The protective screen at the backstop is not too tall. Heaven, I tell you! If I were going to custom-build a stadium, just for myself in order to have the best possible chance of catching a foul ball, this is what I would’ve come up with.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t any action during the first third of the game, but I got my chance in the top of the 4th. Brian Bixler fouled one back and to my left. It was heading toward the “family section” portion of the “KOHL’S” sign in the photo above, so I took off running. I couldn’t reach the ball in time to catch it on the fly, but because the aisle was completely empty, the ball smacked off the blue wall, ricocheted back and hit a seat back, then rolled back toward the wall…and that’s when I swooped in and scooped it up.

Check out the mark on the wall/ball:

24_paint_on_foul_ball.jpg

Sadly, that was the only ball that came back there all night, but I was satisfied. I mean, what kind of jerk would complain about “only” snagging one foul ball during a game? (Don’t answer that.)

The Brewers had a 10-5 lead heading into the 9th inning, so who did they bring in? All-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman. He’d been hurt. This was his Brewers debut. The crowd went nuts, and I ran down to the dugout…

25_trevor_brewers_debut.jpg

…just in time to see him record the final out.

Five minutes later I realized that the foul ball I’d snagged was my 100th ball of the season. (I’d started the day with 88 and the modest of goal of snagging 12 balls combined in the two days I’d be at Miller Park.) Here I am with the ball at the Pirates’ dugout:

26_zack_100th_ball_of_2009.jpg

You can see a closeup of the ball in the photo down below on the right. I’m pretty sure that the smudge (on the seams to the right of the MLB logo) came from the bat. The blue mark on the sweet spot (shown three photos above) obviously came from the wall. But what’s with the smeared logos in two different places? You can see that “Rawlings” is smeared on the top of the ball, and so is the word “baseball.” Very strange. I’ve never gotten a game-used ball with that many markings.

27_ball3920_100th_of_2009.jpg
SNAGGING STATS:

• 12 balls at this game

• 100 balls in 13 games this season = 7.69 balls per game.

• 12 consecutive seasons with at least 100 balls

• 582 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 126 lifetime game balls (not counting game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)

• 3,920 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $18.17 pledged per ball

• $218.04 raised at this game

• $1,817.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

8/13/08 at PNC Park

My girlfriend Jona attended this game…

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…and wandered around the stadium with me before the gates opened.
There was a lot to see. Check out the four-part pic below. Starting on
the top left and going clockwise, you can see 1) the view of PNC Park from the middle of the bridge, 2) the steps leading down to the water, 3) kayaks for rent, and 4) the promenade behind the right field edge of the stadium (where balls hardly ever land):

outside_PNC_park2_bridge_and_water.jpg

Jona and I had lots of time to kill (which was the point), so we had to
find various ways to spend it. In the four-part pic below…1) we’re posing with the home plate gate in the background, 2) I’m trying to look mean after Jona tied a bandana around my head in the team store, 3) I’m being overwhelmed by gravitational force, and 4) Jona is inspecting the Willie Stargell statue (no disrespect intended):

outside_PNC_park3_jona_zack.jpg

Speaking of the home plate gate, here’s a closer look:

outside_PNC_park4_home_plate_gate.jpg

Nothing special, right? Well, here’s an even closer look:

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I know the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992, and I know attendance is sagging to the point that PNC Park resembles a ghost town, but c’mon, this is ridiculous. I’ve only seen spider webs in one other major league stadium. Anyone want to guess where?

By the time the center field gate opened at 5pm, there were dozens of people waiting on line. I raced inside ahead of all of them and snapped a quick photograph of the bleachers while I still had the place to myself…

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…and then handed the camera to Jona. Check out this cool shot she took of me at the start of BP:

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I only snagged one ball during the 13 minutes that the Pirates were on the field. It rolled to the wall in straight-away left field, and I got it with the glove trick as Jeff Karstens was walking jeff_karstens.jpgover to pick it up. He easily could’ve snatched it, but instead he walked back to his spot in the outfield and watched with several of his teammates. Then, at the last second, as I was lifting my glove with the ball tucked firmly inside, another ball came flying out of nowhere and thumped off the padded wall below. It had missed my glove by inches and made me flinch. I looked up and Karstens was grinning.

“Nice try!” I yelled. I got the sense that he was just being playful–that even if he’d knocked the ball out of my glove he would’ve given it to me–so I added, “Thanks for letting me get it!”

Karstens responded with a subtle wave, and that was that.

Chris Dickerson (who picked up his first major league hit the night before) was the first player to take the field for the Reds. As he was back-peddling to his spot in left field, a left-handed batter sliced a line drive right at him. Dickerson half-heartedly reached for it and somehow missed it, allowing the ball to tip off the side of his glove and roll all the way to the warning track. I used the glove trick to snag this one as well, and Jona snapped a few quick pics of me in action:

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In the pic on the left, I was making sure the rubber band wasn’t too tight or too loose. In the middle pic, I had just knocked the ball closer, and in the pic on the right, I had just gotten the ball to stick inside the glove.

I forgot to mention that as soon as the Reds took the field, I’d changed into my Reds outfit. Pretty convincing, eh?

zack_during_BP_08_13_08b.jpg

I snagged three more balls during the remaining 45 minutes of BP. The first was thrown (right to me over several rows of Pirates fans) by Jerry Hairston in left-center field. The second was a fungo hit by coach Billy Hatcher, and I made a web-gem-type catch. I immediately judged that the ball was going to sail five to ten feet over my head so I climbed up on a bench, took my eye off the ball briefly as I stepped onto the bench in the next row, then turned back toward the field and spotted the ball flying toward me…and jumped and lunged and made an over-the-shoulder catch high above my head the in the tip of my glove…with the sun in my eyes. It felt great. And as for the last BP ball I snagged…I got it with the glove trick and immediately handed it to the kid on my left.

I made it to the Reds’ dugout one minute before BP ended and got my sixth ball of the day tossed by the equipment manager. Then, with nearly an hour to spare before the first pitch, Jona and I headed to the upper deck:

upper_deck_jona_zack<br />
.jpg” class=”mt-image-left” style=”float:left;margin:0 20px 20px 0;” height=”412″ width=”550″ /></a></span></p>
<p>We wandered and I took photos from every possible angle…</p>
<p><span class=pnc_park_upper_deck.jpg

…and ended up behind home plate where I took some pics for my traditional/cheap panorama:

pnc_park_panorama.jpg

As much as I was complaining in my previous entry about PNC Park not being all that exciting, I have to say that it really is a gorgeous stadium. When Jona and I made it back down to the field level, even the concourse behind/below the left field seats caught my eye:

pnc_park_field_level_concourse.jpg

Concourses aren’t the most exciting things in the world–I will acknowledge that–but having suffered for the last 20 years inside the cramped and dingy concourses of the New York City stadiums, I had to take a moment to appreciate the spaciousness and cleanliness and architectural design of this one in Pittsburgh.

Before the game started, I got autographs from Adam Rosales and Steve Pearce…

rosales_pearce_autographs.jpg

…and then got Luis Rivas to toss me a ball–my seventh of the day–after he finished playing catch along the right field foul line. When I caught that ball, the entire front row was packed with kids, but none of them had gloves. They were ALL there for autographs, so no one protested when I reached out and made the easy catch.

marked_balls_08_13_08.jpgSix of the seven balls I’d snagged at that point were either marked (with a “C” by Cincinnati) or stamped (with “practice”) on the sweet spot. As for the small four-digit numbers that appear on the balls, I wrote them as I snagged each one. They indicate how many balls I have. The ball in the middle of the lower row, for example, was the 3,588th ball of my collection, and if you’re wondering why some of the numbers are upside-down…it’s not my fault. It’s the Reds’ and Pirates’ fault. I mark every ball in the same spot: to the left of the main portion of the stamp, all the way over near the sweet spot. The Reds and Pirates were obviously not concerned with making each mark or stamp face the same way. As far as I’m concerned, THEY marked and stamped some of the balls upside-down; I merely turned them all so they’d face the same way in this photograph.

Jona and I wandered throughout the game after getting kicked out of a great foul ball spot in the third inning. (Good job, Pirates management. Not only have you assembled an unwatchable team, but you have more empty seats than fans, and you’re instructing your ushers to act like bullies. Bravo. Enjoy another 15 years in the cellar. And while we’re at it, your dollar hot dogs sucked.) We checked out the view from deep left-center field and poked our heads inside the restaurant:

pnc_park_restaurant.jpg

We wandered back toward the field and got a good look at the open space behind the bleachers where I’d caught a BP homer the day before (I highly recommend this spot whenever a power-hitting righty comes up):

open_space_behind_bleachers.jpg

I was filmed juggling three balls late in the game (sorry for the poor quality but this is a screen shot from a low-quality video)…

zack_juggling1.jpg

…and shown on the Jumbotron for at l
east 20 seconds:

zack_juggling2.jpg

As you can see in the photo above, the Pirates had a 4-1 lead after six innings. Each team added a run after that…and that was it. There were four home runs hit in the game, and I didn’t come close to any of them. Paul Maholm worked eight solid innings to earn the win. The game lasted just two hours and 14 minutes. The attendance was a minuscule 15,787. After the final out, I got a ball tossed to me by home plate umpire Kevin Causey as he walked off the field (on the outfield end of the third base dugout) and then got another ball from an unidentifiable Pirate one minute later at the dugout. (It had to be a pitcher because he walked across the field from the bullpen. He was tall and had a beard, and I think he was right-handed. Any ideas who it might’ve been?) I gave this ball to a girl on my right, collected a few extra ticket stubs, and went out to dinner with Jona.

Goodbye, PNC Park.

postgame_view_from_bridge.jpg

STATS:

? 9 balls at this game

? 317 balls in 44 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 540 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 131 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

? 3,594 total balls

Several other things…

1) I’m five balls away from breaking my single-season record.

2) I’ve decided to go for 400 balls this season, and since I have about 20 more games planned, I should be able to do it.

3) It looks like I’m going to be in Philadelphia with Clif (aka “goislanders4″) on Tuesday.

4) I haven’t had ANY time lately to answer emails or comments (I’ve barely had time to blog and eat and sleep), but I’m hoping to catch up at some point this weekend…

8/12/08 at PNC Park

This was the second game I’d ever attended at PNC Park. The first was seven years ago, and I don’t remember much. I know I snagged seven balls that day, but I didn’t have a blog or a digital camera back then so it’s almost like it never happened.

Anyway, THIS day started with four crappy hours of sleep and continued with a seven-hour drive from New York City, a confusing check-in at the Holiday Inn Not-Express, and an interminable wait for a taxi to the stadium. By the time I made it there, half a dozen people were already waiting on line at the center field gate so my picture-taking was going to have to wait one more day.

PNC Park opens two hours early for season ticket holders and 90 minutes early for everyone else. Long story short: I was stressed out of my skull but ended up getting inside two hours early. This is what it looked like in the left field bleachers:

early_BP_08_12_08.jpg

I used the glove trick to snag my first ball of the day in straight-away left field as Ian Snell was coming over to retrieve it. He was amused.

My second ball was a home run that I caught on a fly after ranging 30 feet to my left through a long, narrow row between the benches. If my friend Brian (aka “puckcollector” in the comments section) hadn’t told me to bring sunglasses, there’s no way I would’ve caught this ball. The sun was absolutely brutal. I had to look right at it whenever a ball was hit in the air, so I’m officially passing along Brian’s advice to all of you: BRING SUNGLASSES if you’re going to PNC Park. Trust me.

Due to a combination of stupidity, bad luck, and quirky architectural design, I still only had those two baseballs when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:30pm. (An example of the bad luck: I was BP_from_RF_08_12_08.jpgscooting through the second row, about to make an easy basket catch on a line drive home run, when a man in the front row who had lost the ball in the sun darted to the side in a last-second attempt to duck out of the way, but he ended up ducking right into it and getting in my way as the ball slammed off his shoulder and plopped back onto the field.) I ran out to the right field seats, thinking it might be better there…but no, it was a total waste of time. The wall was too high. It would’ve been tough to use the glove trick, only because the ushers and security guards would’ve had a chance to stop me. The section was too steep. There were too many tunnels and railings. There was no room to run. And it started getting crowded.

C_balls.jpgI went back to left field, changed into my Reds shirt and Reds cap, and snagged three more balls during the remaining half of BP (all of which were marked with a “C” on the sweet spot). The first was tossed by a player that I couldn’t identify, the second was a deep home run that I caught on a fly in that open area behind the benches, and the third came via the glove trick near the foul pole. Not bad, not great. It could’ve been worse, but I also could’ve hit double digits by this point if I’d REALLY been on my game.

As for that open area behind the bleachers…here I am standing there:

zack_during_BP_08_12_08.jpg

It was a great spot except for one thing: it was well over 400 feet from home plate so there weren’t too many guys who could reach me.

One problem with the bleachers at PNC is that the wall measures 383 feet from home plate in straight-away left field. That’s kinda far. Another problem stems from the fact that fans in any stadium always cram into the first few rows; the bleachers here only HAVE a few rows–a mere half-dozen in one spot–so despite the low attendance at this game, that whole section still got uncomfortably crowded toward the end of BP:

LF_crowded_08_12_08.jpg

Batting practice ended at 6pm–about 20 minutes earlier than usual–so I lost a few more snagging opportunities. It just wasn’t a good day, and I was kicking myself for not going to see the Mets in D.C. instead.

Just before the game started, I snuck down to the Reds’ dugout (which is on the first base side at PNC) and got my sixth ball of the day tossed by some guy I’d never heard of. Adam Rosales? I hadn’t even noticed his name when I printed the team’s roster the night before. Seriously, who is he? Who were half the players in the game? I thought I was watching minor league baseball.

I moved to the seats behind the third base dugout and ran down to the front row when Javier Valentin lined out to end the top of the first inning. Doug Mientkiewicz caught the ball and flipped it to me on his way in. Check out the bat imprint on it:

view_behind_1B_dugout.jpg
crabby usher, which was especially frustrating because the Reds must’ve tossed 20 balls to the people in the front row throughout the game. No joke. Not only did every third-out ball get tossed into the crowd, but 1st base coach Billy Hatcher gave away the infield warm-up ball every inning as well. And there were other balls that got tossed up…foul balls from the ball boy, random balls from the players and coaches. It was crazy. And yeah…I had to stay 10 to 15 rows back and watch helplessly as all of this was taking place.

As for the game itself…whatever. I mean, it WAS Major League Baseball (at least that’s what I was told), but there really wasn’t much to get excited about. Two lousy teams. No superstars. Unenthusiastic fans. Terrible cheese steak (with no cheese). What is there to say? I actually missed Shea and Yankee Stadium. (Did I really just say that?) Edinson Volquez pitched well and earned his 14th win. Mike Lincoln also pitched well and earned his ninth hold. Valentin and Brandon Phillips hit home runs. Rosales and Chris Dickerson picked up their first major league hits. Corey Patterson went 2-for-4 to raise his batting average to .194. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals called a great game.

???

I’m at a loss.

STATS:

? 7 balls at this game

? 308 balls in 43 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 539 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 130 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

? 3,585 total balls

4/29/08 at Shea Stadium

There’s one spot outside Shea Stadium that provides a partial view of the field: the elevated subway station of the #7 train. When I reached this station yesterday, I took a peek at the field to make sure the screens were set up for batting practice. Two hours earlier, it had been raining and I had no idea what to expect. This is what I saw:

view_from_subway.jpg

That’s right. No screens.

It was 3:30pm. I hadn’t yet bought a ticket. Shea wasn’t going to open for another 70 minutes, so I stood there and waited. My plan was simple. If I saw the grounds crew set up the screens before 4:40pm, I’d exit the subway, run over to the ticket windows, buy a cheap seat, and head inside. Otherwise I’d go home.

Finally, after nearly 40 minutes, I saw two groundskeepers slowly roll a big screen into place in shallow center field. I ran out and bought a ticket, but feared that BP might start late, and sure enough, it did. When I reached the seats, no one was hitting. Everything was set up, but the only action (if you can call it that) was half the team jogging in shallow right field:

batting_practice_delayed.jpg

Fabulous.

Five minutes later, a few guys started throwing…

mets_playing_catch.jpg

…and 10 minutes after that, Angel Pagan (standing in the distance to the right of the screen) threw me my first ball of the day.

Because Shea is so lame, I only managed to catch one other ball during the entire Mets’ portion of BP, and it was a ball I shouldn’t even have gotten. Let me explain…

My girlfriend Jona ended up making a VERY last-minute plan to join me for this game. She arrived at the stadium at around 5:10pm and found me in the right field Loge. After all the Mets pitchers made it clear that they were going to ignore me for the duration of BP, I asked Jona to ask for a ball, and of course the players immediately looked up at her. Before long, Pedro Feliciano (who throws approximately one ball into the seats per season) lobbed one in commemorative1.jpgher direction. As the ball approached, a 300-pound guy wearing tight sweatpants (who had just given me a speech about how “real men don’t wear gloves”) tried to reach in front of us and grab it, so I reached in front of HIM, and thanks to the extra few inches that my glove provided, I was able to make the catch. Then, to make Feliciano happy, I made a whole production of handing the ball to Jona, and as soon as he looked away, she handed it back. It had a commemorative logo, and for an instant Shea felt a little less lame.

Hitting coach Howard Johnson tossed me my third ball of the day at the 1st base dugout after the Mets finished BP, and while the Pirates were taking their cuts, I snagged three more balls with the glove trick. The first was about five feet out from the wall along the left field foul line, so I ran down from the Loge and slipped into the corner spot and began by flinging my glove out to knock the ball closer:

zack_field_level_glove_trick.jpg

Thankfully, the on-field security guard was about 80 feet away and had his back turned, but even if he’d seen me going for it, he might not have said anything. I hate to admit it, but Shea’s employees HAVE become nicer in recent years when it comes to the glove trick. Sometimes they’ll stop me from using it when I’m going for a ball that’s on the field, but usually they have no problem when I’m going for a ball that’s trapped in a dead area.

damaso_marte.jpgIn the four-part pic below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise)…

1) I’m carefully lowering my glove from the Loge Level so that it fits between the metal beams behind the advertising board.

2) Pirates reliever Damaso Marte watches the glove drop over the ball.

3) Marte crouches to get a better view.

4) Marte inspects the glove as I pull it up with the ball tucked snugly inside.

Check it out:

zack_loge_glove_trick.jpg

There was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, standing nearby as I reeled i
n the ball, and I was thinking of giving it to him until he said of my glove trick: “That’s so gay!”

bat_imprint.jpgWhen I took a good look at the ball, I realized I wouldn’t have given it to him anyway (I would’ve given him a different ball) because there was something special on it: a bat imprint. I’d only snagged a handful of these imprinted balls in my life, and you can see four of them here on my web site. The imprint on the ball I snagged yesterday (seen here on the right) was the same as the ball on the lower right (at the link I provided above), which I recognized as the TPX logo. TPX is a type of bat made by Louisville Slugger. For some reason I can’t find this logo on a bat, but here it is on a golf club.

As for the third ball I snagged with the glove trick, it was sitting on that sloped grassy area in front of the DreamSeats and I went for it as an usher looked on:

zack_grassy_area_glove_trick.jpg

Once I had the ball in my bare hand, I turned around and shouted loud for the entire section to hear: “This ball is for the first kid I see who has a glove and HASN’T already gotten a ball today!” Incredibly, there wasn’t ONE kid anywhere near me who qualified, so I gave it to an usher instead–not the usher in the pic above, but rather a nice old man in the Loge who’d asked me for a ball once before so he could give one to his grandson.

I stayed in the Loge for the entire game and didn’t come close to a single foul ball, but at least the game itself was entertaining. The Mets won, 5-4, on a bases-loaded, walk-off single by commemorative2.jpgDavid Wright in the bottom of the 11th, after which I got another (very rubbed up but otherwise pristine) commemorative ball from home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt.

STATS:

? 7 balls at this game

? 94 balls in 9 games this season = 10.4 balls per game.

? 505 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 323 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

? 3,371 total balls

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