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5/4/10 at Target Field

I woke up in Cleveland at 5:15am with three hours of sleep. By the time I checked into my hotel in Minnesota, I was so tired that my eyes hurt. I should’ve taken a nap, especially considering that I was going to be on TV later that evening, but I was too excited about Target Field. To hell with sleep. I had to get over there and see it. This was my first look at it:

(Did you notice the HUGE Target logo on the walkway?)

I could tell from afar that the place was gorgeous, and once I got closer, I noticed that the Twins (unlike the Mets) did an amazing job of honoring their past. One of the first things I saw was a long, wall-like display featuring the team’s former stadiums:

Right nearby, there was a fence with pennant-shaped tributes to important players and executives in Twins history…

…and then I saw Gate 29:

That’s kind of a random number for a gate, right? Well, it was named after Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who wore uniform No. 29 for the Twins for 12 seasons. Target Field has five gates, all of which are named after Twins players who’ve had their numbers retired. Genius.

I walked clockwise around the outside of the stadium. Here’s the team store…

…and here are some of the many team-related banners:

Nice, huh?

FYI, there are service ramps behind those long wooden boards. If you look closely at them, you can see a door on the lower left that swings open.

Check out the view through Gate 14 (named after Kent Hrbek):

It was one o’clock. First pitch was scheduled for 7:10pm. That’s why there weren’t many people around.

This is what I saw when I walked past Gate 14 and turned the corner:

The fence on the left was lined with poster-sized replica Topps baseball cards of Twins players, past and present. Brilliant.

At the far end of the walkway, I passed a Light Rail station…

…and turned another corner:

Here’s another sneak peek inside the stadium through Gate 6 (named after Tony Oliva):

I felt very welcomed, indeed.

I kept walking. Here’s more of what I saw:

I passed some artwork (officially known as the “5th Street Panels at Target Field”) on the far end of the building:

This piece in particular is called “A History of Minnesota Baseball.”

I risked my life to take the following photo:

Okay, not really, but I *was* standing awfully close to the train tracks.

(Gate 3, which you can see in the photo above, is named after Harmon Killebrew. I later learned that on Opening Day, Killebrew stood just inside the gate and greeted fans as they entered. That’s how to run a major league organization.)

Here’s where it gets weird. I’d been walking around the stadium without any problems. Everything was beautiful and clean and simple. But when I passed Gate 3, this is what I saw:

What the–???

Where was I supposed to walk? Into the tunnel? Was it even possible to walk all the way around the outside of the stadium? I crossed the street on the left side and headed onto a narrow walkway. I had no idea where I was going. There were no signs. There was nothing but a pair of unmarked glass doors:

Just when I was was preparing to retrace my steps and head back toward Gate 3, two guys walked by and gave me directions. They said I had to enter the doors and walk through a long hallway and follow the signs and head upstairs…and…what? I was so confused, but they seemed convincing, so I did what they said.

This is what it looked like just inside the doors:

Was this a trick or a scam? Perhaps a hidden-camera TV show? Should I have been concerned for my safety?

I walked quite a ways down the hallway and eventually saw this:

What was the Target Plaza? Was that connected to Target Field? Ohmygod, what was going on? I hadn’t researched the stadium beforehand. I intentionally showed up knowing as little as possible so I could explore and discover things.

There were escalators at the far end of the hallway:

I headed up to the second level and saw this:

Uh…was I supposed to go up to the 3rd level?

It looked like there was a little sign on the door, so I walked over for a closer look. This is what it said:

Hooray! Thank you! Finally, there were clear directions that applied to what *I* hoped to find. Target Field, through the doors. Right?

Umm, not so fast…

This is what I saw when I opened the door:

WHAT THE HELL?!?!?!

I figured the sign had to be right, so I walked across the garage and encountered another set of doors. This is what I saw on the other side:

Phew!!

I walked past the Kirby Puckett statue. This is what was on the right:

Now we’re talking.

Gate 34…the right field gate…just behind the standing room area. I hurried over for a peek inside:

Oh yeah.

The giant “gold” glove was sitting nearby on the right:

Just how big is it? Here’s my backpack:

I still had a little more exploring to do, so I continued heading around the stadium:

Is that a slick design or what?

In the photo above, do you see the fan wearing red sleeves? More on him in a bit, but first, I have to show you even more Twins history that was on display. Check this out:

You know what those things on the fence are?

Twins rosters:

There was a roster from every single season since the franchise moved to Minneapolis.

Even the team store was exquisite:

Back outside, I walked right past Justin Verlander and two of his teammates:

One fan approached Verlander and asked for an autograph.

“Not today,” said the Tigers ace.

(Ballplayers are so friendly nowadays.)

Okay, remember the guy wearing red? His name is Greg Dryden, but he’s known simply as “Waldo.” He’s the No. 1 ballhawk in Minnesota. He used to sit in the front row in left-center at the Metrodome, and he always wore a helmet. That was his thing. I’d been hearing stories about him for years — some good, some bad. Everyone I knew who visited the Dome had something to say about the guy, and here he was. I knew it was him because the back of his jersey said “WALDO 13,” so I walked over and introduced myself, and as it turned out, he had heard lots of stories about me, too. Here we are:

I knew that we were only going to have a few minutes to chat, so I asked him the basic questions about how many baseballs he’d snagged over the years. He told me that he only kept count one season and ended up with 352. (He was a season ticket holder and attended all 81 of the Twins’ home games.) He said that was probably a typical season for him and that he’d been ballhawking regularly since 1999.

“So you’ve probably gotten over 3,000 balls?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess.”

“How many game home runs?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “probably 40 or 50…and I’ve gotten about 20 ground-rule doubles.”

Not too shabby.

At 2pm, two attractive women (who looked to be in their mid-20s) started walking right toward us. Waldo’s jaw literally dropped, and when they got closer, one of them asked me, “Are you Zack?”

“Catherine?” I asked.

She welcomed me to Minnesota and introduced me to her twin sister, Laura-Leigh. Then, as the three of us headed off together, I turned toward Waldo and shouted, “I’ll see you back here in an hour!” The look on his face was priceless.

The ladies led me to a nearby mall called Butler Square. Here’s the main entrance:

See the arrow in the photo above? There’s a restaurant in the mall called Smalley’s 87 Club:

That’s where we went. It’s named after former major league All-Star Roy Smalley, who played nine of his 13 seasons with the Twins. Now get this…

1) Roy Smalley just happens to be their father.

2) Roy Smalley is the president of Pitch In For Baseball.

3) Roy Smalley is a commentator on FSN North.

See where I’m going with this? In case you’re new to this blog, I’ve been raising money for the last two two seasons for Pitch In For Baseball — a charity that provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. Roy was planning to interview me live on the Twins’ pre-game show about it, and he was at the restaurant. Here I am with him and his daughters:

(Catherine is on the left, just above my red-and-white Pitch In For Baseball cap, and by the way, I should mention that both plates of food were mine: chicken strips and a caesar salad. The food there is great.)

We all hung out for a couple hours, during which time Roy let me play with his 1987 World Series ring:

Here’s the ring with Roy in the background…

…and here are two close-up shots of it:

(His championship ring is slightly cooler than mine.)

My lack of sleep was killing me, but I was so happy that it didn’t even matter.

By the time I made it back to the Target Field Plaza (that’s the official name of the area outside Gate 34), there were quite a few people milling about:

At 5pm (half an hour before the stadium opened), look who showed up and found me:

It was my girlfriend, Jona.

As I’d mentioned the day before on Twitter, there was a chance that she wasn’t gonna be able to make it to Minnesota, but everything ended up working out, and here she was.

Remember the small crowd waiting outside the gate on 5/1/10 at Progressive Field? If not, click here to see what I’m talking about. Here’s the difference between Cleveland and Minneapolis. Ready? Take a deep breath and brace yourself:

Holy mother of GOD!!! And don’t forget that this was just one of five gates. My biggest gripe about the stadium is that it doesn’t open earlier. I think it’s a real slap in the face to the fans that they can’t even get inside early enough to watch the Twins take batting practice. Every team should open its stadium two and a half hours early. Not just for season ticket holders. Not just on weekends. Always. For everyone. Forever. And especially when it’s the first season of a new stadium and the crowds are extra large. Seriously, Twins: duh.

Shortly before the stadium opened, I learned that FSN’s cameras were going to be filming me from afar during BP. I wasn’t going to be miked up. They didn’t need any audio. They just wanted some B-roll footage that they could later use during my interview with Roy. Catherine (who helped set up the interview) told me to call the producer as soon as I ran into the stadium. She said I needed to let him know where I was so he’d be able to make sure that the cameras were following me — and if I ran to another section, I was supposed to give him another call.

You know what I did instead? I handed my phone to Jona, who offered to make the phone calls for me.

I was so stressed and tired, and at 5:30pm it was time to roll. I raced inside and peeked at the right field seats and quickly decided to head for the left field bleachers. Jona chased after me and called the producer.

“Where do I tell him we are?!” she shouted.

“Ohboy,” I mumbled loud enough for her to hear me, then yelled, “Tell him I’m running behind the batter’s eye!”

It was nuts, and yet Jona somehow managed to take photos while all of this was happening. Here I am in the bleachers:

The bleachers were awful. Too steep. Too crowded. Too many railings. Tucked underneath an overhang. And because of the flower bed down in front, there was absolutely no chance to use the glove trick:

If someone asked me to design a miserable section for catching home run balls, I probably would’ve come up with this. Oh…and the sun was in everyone’s eyes, too.

The bleachers got crowded pretty fast:

Things were NOT looking good.

At one point, I had a chance to catch a home run ball:

(In case you can’t tell, I’m wearing the dark blue jacket with a Tigers shirt.)

Here’s that same moment captured by an FSN camera:

Want to see how it ended?

Here:

Yeah, the short guy in the front row jumped up and caught the ball two feet in front of my glove. Then, five minutes, later, I got robbed once again by a guy who reached out and made a bare-handed grab as I was cutting through the second row:

The reason why I wasn’t looking at the ball is that I didn’t want to take a deflection in the face. That’s what happened to me on 4/22/08 at Champion Stadium, and it wasn’t pretty.

My overall assessment:

My friend Bob (aka “Big Glove Bob” in the comments section) made an appearance in the bleachers:

He had kindly picked me up at the airport that morning, and he’d given me lots of tips on Target Field and Minneapolis in the previous weeks. It was great hanging out with him — this was the first day that we had ever met in person — and I foolishly neglected to get a photo with him. (Random coincidence: he was interviewed on TV that day, too.)

I was getting desperate. I still didn’t have a ball. I was worried about my streak. And I was embarrassed to be putting on such a lousy ballhawking display for the cameras, which were evidently capturing my every move.

After what felt like an eternity, I finally got Tigers reliever Brad Thomas to throw me a ball. He was in left-center field. I was standing near the slanted railing next to the bullpens. His throw fell short. I nearly had a panic attack. I reached way out — full extension — and caught the ball in the tip of my glove. It was a true snow-cone. Here’s an FSN screen shot…

…and here I am pointing at Thomas as if to say, “You’re the man. Thank you.”

I was so relieved at that point. My streak was alive, and I had snagged a ball in my 47th different major league stadium. Here I am with the ball:

I wasn’t sure what type of balls the Tigers were going to be using during BP; in 2008 they used Pacific Coast League balls and in 2009 they used International League balls. As you can see in the photo above, the ball that Thomas threw me was an official major league ball, but check out the logo:

The Tigers had marked it. Many other teams have done the same thing over the years, but never on the logo itself.

My phone rang. Jona handed it to me. I answered it. It was Roy. He asked me to swing by the FSN set down the left field line, and since BP was such a colossal waste of time, I didn’t mind sacrificing a few minutes of it to go check in with him:

He asked me to be back there by 6:25pm. The pre-game show was going to start at 6:30. I was going to be interviewed during the second segment, and I needed to get miked up…so for the time being, I was free to run around a bit more and try to snag a few additional baseballs. Unfortunately, there weren’t any more to be snagged — at least not during BP. The bleachers were dead, and when I ran over to the Tigers’ dugout at the end of BP, I didn’t get anything there. The look on my face tells the whole story:

I had snagged ONE pathetic baseball during batting practice. I was sweaty and exhausted…

…and I wanted to go back to Cleveland.

It was time to head over to the FSN set, so I cut through the seats with Jona. I stopped along the way to photograph a fugitive hot dog:

Here’s what it looked like from my perspective:

Remember the random sausage I photographed on 4/27/09 at Miller Park? Yeah, I don’t know what to say. It’s just one of those things that needs to be documented.

I made it to the FSN area as Roy and his fellow commentators were finishing up the first segment:

He and I caught up for a moment during the commercial break…

…and headed into the left field bleachers:

(Roy is adjusting his ear piece in the photo above, and if you look closely, you can see The Ring on his right hand.)

See those two women sitting behind us? When we walked into the bleachers, the blonde one said to Roy, “You look like you’re famous.”

“Umm, that’s because he IS famous,” I said.

“Oh,” she said, half-excited and half-embarrassed, “should I know your name?”

I turned toward Roy and said, “Would you like me to to be your spokesperson?”

“Smalley,” he said to the women. “I used to play for the Twins.”

The women were like, “Smalley…Smalley…oh! Yeah!” but they had no idea who he was.

The interview itself went pretty well…I think. Here’s a photo that Jona took while it was in progress:

We were being filmed by the camera behind home plate in the upper deck.

The interview flew by — they always do — but I got to talk about Pitch In For Baseball. That was the most important thing, and I ended up getting a few new pledges as a result.

I still have yet to see the interview itself, but I did manage to get a screen shot. Here’s what it looked like to the folks watching on TV, and for the record, I did NOT write the text that appeared below my name:

The interview ended just in time for me to make it down to the front row along the left field foul line for pre-game throwing:

I ended up getting a ball from Scott Sizemore, and then less than 60 seconds later, because there wasn’t anyone else competing with me, I got another from Adam Everett. That made me feel a little better, but of course the FSN cameras weren’t on me anymore, so as far as the general public in Minnesota was concerned, I was just some random putz who happened to catch ONE ball during batting practice and then talked about some charity thing.

I spent most of the game in the standing room area down the right field line. Here’s that section from above. The red “X” marks the spot where I was standing:

Here’s what my view from that spot looked like:

Yeah, it was rainy and nasty and cold — about what I expected.

Here’s a photo from the back of the standing room area, with my back against the inside of Gate 34:

(I can’t explain that random box, so don’t ask.)

Waldo was on the outside looking in:

He’s “protesting” Twins management because he feels he got screwed over on his season tickets. Long story. Go to Target Field and ask him about it. But anyway, as part of his protest, he’s refusing to enter Target Field this year. He also wants to catch the first home run that either flies or (more likely) bounces out of Target Field, so in that sense, his spot just outside Gate 34 is actually ideal. Personally, I would go crazy if I had to spend even one game outside a stadium with such slim odds at snagging a homer, but he seems content (relatively speaking) out there, and he doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone, so I say hey, why not?

Jona and I sat in a few different places throughout the game. Here’s one…

…and here’s another:

I thought it was going to be really tough to move around, but a) there were empty seats to be found and b) the ushers were really laid-back.

After the bottom of the 8th inning, I got Miguel Cabrera to throw me a ball as he jogged off the field:

Although it had a commemorative Target Field logo, I knew it wasn’t the actual third-out ball that’d been used in the game because it was kinda beat up.

In the photo above, do you see the kid on my right, reaching up with both hands? It was a girl who was probably about 10 years old. Even though she didn’t have a glove, I just felt that giving her a ball was the right thing to do, so I pulled out a regular/non-marked/non-commemorative ball from my backpack and handed it over. I ended up sitting next to her and her father for the last half-inning, and they thanked me about a dozen times.

The Twins won the game, 4-3, on a run-scoring wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth. That made a winner of starter Nick Blackburn, who went the distance. It also meant that I notched a rare “tie” in the Ballhawk Winning Percentage category. My record moved to 4.5 wins and 1.5 losses, so my percentage is .750, second only to the Rays, who lead all of baseball with a .759 mark.

Jona was freezing her you-know-what off, but I was not in any rush to leave. (Sorry, baby.) I took more photos of basically everything around me, including the beautiful MLB logo atop the visitors’ dugout:

And then I had to stick around and watch the FSN crew do their on-field analysis of the game-ending wild pitch:

1 = Tim Laudner

2 = Bert Blyleven

3 = Roy Smalley

Very cool to see former players using the field itself as a teaching instrument. That’s how it should be.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 4 balls at this game (3 pictured on the right because I gave one away; the middle ball has an insert which shows the sweet spot)

• 66 balls in 6 games this season = 11 balls per game.

• 635 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 47 different major league stadiums with at least one ball

• 4,424 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 29 donors

• $3.85 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $15.40 raised at this game

• $254.10 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

One last thing…

I just discovered that someone with Minnesota Public Radio wrote a short article about me — and about this actual blog entry. Here’s the link to it, and here’s a screen shot of the piece:

9/30/09 at Nationals Park

This was the Nationals’ final home game of 2009 — a 4:35pm start — and my friend Brandon was there with his fancy camera…

When we first ran into the stadium at 2:05pm, all the Nationals players were stretching in right field, yet batting practice WAS taking place. There was some type of bonus round of BP for Nationals employees, and as you can imagine, most of them were terrible hitters. One guy, however, was good enough to reach the warning track, even with the crappy training balls that were being used, and I ended up getting two them tossed to me. The first came from a ballboy near the foul pole, and the second came from a coach named Jose Martinez who was shagging in straight-away left field. In the following photo, the horizontal arrow is pointing to me as I reached out to catch my second ball, and the vertical arrow is pointing to Martinez:

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My third ball of the day was a ground-rule double — hit by the random/talented employee — that barely cleared the railing and landed in the third row. There was only one other fan who was close enough to go for it, but he didn’t move until the ball was already in the seats, so I was able to beat him to it.

Without any warning or any break in the action, Adam Dunn stepped into the cage so I raced over to the right field seats. Moments later, a ball rolled onto the warning track in right-center, and I convinced a different random employee to toss it up. Brandon was still in left field at that point, but he had his camera aimed at me and got the following photo of the ball in mid-air:

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In this photo (which you can click for a closer look), the arrow pointing up shows the ball, and the arrow pointing down shows me. The guy who tossed it was moving to his left at the time, so it looks as if the ball is heading toward the other fan in the front row, but I assure you that’s not the case.

Marquis Grissom tossed me my fifth ball of the day in straight-away right field, and then 10 seconds later, he saw me catch a Dunn homer on the fly. I was standing on the staircase, six rows back. The ball came right to me. I made a two-handed catch. It was embarrassingly easy, and by the way, every single one of these balls was a training ball.

adam_dunn_2009.jpgMy seventh ball of the day was thrown by Marco Estrada, and my eighth was another Dunn homer. I had to run about 15 feet to my right for it, and then as the ball was descending, I climbed back over a row (in the middle of the section) and reached over my head to make a back-handed catch. A gloveless man behind me complained that I’d already gotten a ball. I responded by offering to give him the one I’d just caught, but he didn’t want it.

“Give it to a kid instead,” he said.

You have no idea how much I do for kids,” I replied, but the guy clearly wasn’t interested in anything I had to say, so I let it go and moved on and continued to put on a snagging clinic.

(For the record, there was only one other kid in the section, and he’d already gotten a ball. It was one of those days where the players were being generous. Basically, everyone who asked for a ball got one.)

Saul Rivera threw me ball No. 9, and he did it as if he were turning a double play. He had Victor Garate throw him the ball, and as he caught it he made an imaginary pivot (as if he were a second baseman) and then fired it in my direction.

I looked at the clock. It was only 2:24pm. The stadium had been open for 19 minutes. Oh my God. I wasn’t just thinking about reaching the 20-ball plateau; I was thinking about what it would take to snag 30 and possibly even break my one-game record of 32. Meanwhile, Brandon finally made it out to the right field seats and got a cool shot of me catching my 10th ball of the day:

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It was thrown by Livan Hernandez from the foul line, and as you can see in the photo above, there weren’t a whole lot of kids in the stands. Even the guy in the red jacket got a ball thrown to him. I’m telling you…there were PLENTY of balls to go around, and as a result, I was truly heading for the game of my life.

But guess what happened next…

Here, let me show you:

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That’s right. It wasn’t even raining, and the grounds crew decided to (leisurely) roll out the tarp.

Unbelievable.

The good news is that there were several balls sitting in the left field bullpen, and I was able to use my glove trick to reel in one of them. The following three-part photo (which you absolutely HAVE to click) shows how it played out:

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The ball was sitting underneath the overhang, so I had to swing my glove out and back in order to knock the ball out into the open. As you can see in the photo on the left, the the string angled back at the bottom of the Harris Teeter ad. The photo in the middle shows two important things (in addition to the ball itself): 1) my awesome farmer’s tan and 2) the glove being being propped open by the Sharpie. The photo on the right shows me reaching for the ball. I’m always paranoid that the ball will fall out at the last second, but it rarely does. The key is not to panic — not to rush — while raising the glove. I just try to keep lifting it up steadily.

In the middle photo up above, do you see the man in the light gray vest jacket? While I was carefully lifting up my glove, he said, “Excuse me, but your last name isn’t Hample by any chance, is it?”

I told him it was, and he told me that he owned a copy of my second book (Watching Baseball Smarter) and that his eight-year-old son loved it and that they actually had it with them and that they’d been hoping to get it signed…so of course I signed it as soon as I was done using my glove trick, and then I posed for a photo with his son. When I changed into my Mets gear soon after, three other kids recognized me and asked me to sign their baseballs. Here’s the autograph session in progress…

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…and here we are with the balls:

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Five minutes later, several Mets players and coaches walked out to the bullpen and tossed the remaining balls into the crowd. I got one of them from Sandy Alomar Jr.

Then it started raining, and for some reason, someone in the bullpen tossed a ball into left field. The arrow in the following photo is pointing to it:

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I found out later that the ball had been used by Pat Misch during his bullpen session, and that when it started raining, it slipped out of his hand and sailed high above the catcher and hit a railing and ricocheted sideways all the way onto the field. Of course I wouldn’t be telling this story if I hadn’t ended up snagging it. Randy Niemann eventually tossed it to me while walking in from the bullpen:

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Abe Lincoln was not impressed:

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It got sunny again by 4pm, and with the game set to start on time, I headed to the seats near the Mets’ bullpen. There was lots of activity out there. It just seemed like the place to be. Bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello was warming up Tim Redding in left field. Omir Santos was playing catch with Alomar on the warning track. Several relievers were standing around with baseballs in their hands. Ken Takahashi tossed a ball to the kid on my right. Then Brian Stokes (who has recently gotten to know me) spotted me and tossed me the ball that he was holding. Here I am reaching out for it:

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In the photo above, Stokes is the guy who’s standing still and cradling his glove against his chest.

Another thing about the photo above…

On the left side, you can barely see a catcher sitting down. He’s mostly chopped out of the picture, but just above the red flowers and the green edge of the outfield wall, you can see his black shin guard curling up over his knee. Right? Well, that was Santos, and when he headed into the bullpen one minute later, I leaned over the side railing and asked him for his ball in Spanish:

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This was the result:

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He flipped it up directly from his glove. It was my 15th ball of day. It had a Citi Field commemorative logo on it. Yay.

Josh Thole and Nelson Figueroa started signing autographs along the 3rd base line, so I headed over there and got them both. Thole signed my September 30th ticket, and Figueroa signed one from the previous day. Here I am after getting Thole…

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…and here are the autographs themselves:

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Right after the national anthem, David Wright tossed me his warm-up ball at the dugout:

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I was tempted to stay behind the dugout and go for 3rd-out balls — I only needed four more balls to reach 20 — but the temptation to catch a home run was even greater, so I headed back out to left field. Here’s where I sat:

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I had empty rows on both sides. There were very few fans with gloves. The circumstances were ideal. But of course nothing came anywhere near me.

Halfway through the game, when Nationals starter John Lannan came to bat, I noticed a statistical oddity on the scoreboard. Can you spot it? I’ll tell you what it is after the photo:

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His on-base percentage was higher than his slugging percentage, which means that over the course of the season, he’d collected more walks (two) than extra bases via hits (one).

In the middle of the 7th inning, I got my 17th ball of the day from a Mets reliever in the bullpen, and I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t identify him. I think it was either Tobi Stoner or Lance Broadway, but I’ll never know for sure.

In the bottom of the 9th inning, Brandon and I moved to the third row behind the Nationals’ dugout. This was our view:

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Francisco Rodriguez was pitching. The Mets had a 4-2 lead. The left side of my brain (or maybe it was the right) figured he’d nail down the save. The right side of my brain (or maybe it was the left) figured he’d blow the game. Either way, I was convinced that the Nationals’ dugout was the place to be. As I mentioned at the top of this entry, it was the Nats’ final home game of the season; I thought the players might be extra generous and throw some bonus items into the crowd.

Alberto Gonzalez led off the bottom of the 9th with an infield single. Then Mike Morse was called upon to pinch hit and took a called first strike. The second pitch was a 55-footer. Omir Santos blocked it and handed it to Kerwin Danley, the home plate umpire. Danley inspected it and handed it to the ballboy, who’d jogged out with a supply of fresh baseballs. As the ballboy returned to the dugout with the scuffed ball, I simply stood up and made eye contact with him and flapped my glove, and he tossed it to me. (HA!!!) Four pitches later, Morse ripped a ground ball single up the middle. Willie Harris followed with a sacrifice bunt and Elijah Dukes walked on a full count to justin_maxwell_2009.jpgload the bases. Ryan Zimmerman came up next and struck out on three pitches. There were two outs. The Mets were still winning, 4-2. The bases were still loaded, and then Adam Dunn walked on another full count. This forced in a run and trimmed the Mets’ lead to 4-3. Justin Maxwell, who had entered the game as a pinch runner in the 8th inning and remained in center field as a defensive replacement, stepped up to the plate. He took the first pitch for a ball and then watched the next two pitches zip by for called strikes. The fourth pitch was a ball. The count was even at 2-2. Then he fouled off the fifth pitch and took the sixth to bring the count to 3-2. Everyone in the stadium knew that Rodriguez was going to throw a fastball; the right-handed Maxwell, however, was so geeked up that he swung too soon and yanked a monstrous drive over the 3rd base dugout. On the next pitch — another 3-2 fastball — he swung too late and lifted a foul pop-up into the seats on the 1st base side. It was the most exciting at-bat I had ever seen in my life, and on the following pitch — the 9th pitch of the battle — Maxwell’s timing was perfect. He centered the ball and launched it into the flower bed in left field for a walk-off grand slam:

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Final score: Nationals 7, Mets 4.

Wow.

After all the celebrating and shaving-creaming was done, the Nationals DID toss a bunch of stuff into the crowd. They must’ve thrown 100 T-shirts (leftovers from the T-shirt launch) and two dozen balls. One player (not sure who) threw his batting gloves over the dugout. Incredibly, I didn’t get any of it. Not one damn thing. It was quite a letdown, but obviously I was still happy about the overall outcome of the day — that is, until Brandon and I made it back outside and walked to the parking lot. I’ll show you what I’m talking about after the stats…

SNAGGING STATS:

23_the_seventeen_i_kept_09_30_09.jpg• 18 balls at this game (17 pictured here because I gave one away after the game)

• 523 balls in 57 games this season = 9.18 balls per game.

• 626 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 120 lifetime games with at least ten balls

• 4,343 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $454.68 raised at this game

• $13,210.98 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

As I was saying, the parking lot…

When I parked my parents’ gray Volvo there earlier in the day, it was in perfect condition, and when I returned eight hours later, it looked like this:

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That’s me in the photo above, crouching down to assess the damage while holding a cell phone up to my ear and telling my dad about it.

Someday — SOME day — I’m going to attend a game at Nationals Park and have everything go smoothly…

8/10/09 at Camden Yards

1_if_you_cant_stand_the_heat.jpgIt was really hot.

And I was interviewed for ESPN.com.

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

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

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

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

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

3_patrick_hruby_interviewing_fan.jpg

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

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

Four of the seven balls had interesting markings:

4_four_cool_balls_08_10_09.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” she said, “should I?”

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

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

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

Anyway, enough of that.

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

8_autographs_08_10_09.jpg

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

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

Patrick followed me everywhere during the game:

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

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

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

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

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

11_standing_room_only_interview.jpg

…but there wasn’t any action.

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

It rained like HELL during the 7th inning…

12_rain_delay_08_10_09.jpg

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

NOW do you get it?

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

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

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

UN-BE-LIEVE-ABLE.

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

Final score: A’s 9, Orioles 1.

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

SNAGGING STATS:

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

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

• 610 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 112 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

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

• 4,176 total balls

• 13 days until I’ll be at Coors Field

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $24.75 pledged per ball

• $247.50 raised at this game

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

7/23/09 at Citizens Bank Park

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

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

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

Here’s some more context…

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

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

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

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

2_dry_and_windy_at_stadium.jpg

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

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

3_there_is_batting_practice.jpg

Sweet Jesus!

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

4_enormous_crowd_for_batting_practice.jpg

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

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

5_heath_bell_throwing.jpg

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

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

7_heath_bell_hooking_me_up.jpg

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

Hmm…

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

8_ball_4136.jpg

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

9_raining_during_batting_practice.jpg

I took the sock out of my backpack…

10_sock_from_heath_bell.jpg

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

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

Okay.

Deep breath.

It was time to see what was in the sock…

11_treasure_inside_sock.jpg

Like, wow.

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

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

12_ball4138_location.jpg

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

Stay classy, Philadelphia! Yeah!

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

13_drew_macias_pregame_throwing.jpg

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

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

14_zack_and_morgan.jpg

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

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

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

15_room_to_run_during_game.jpg

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

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

16_eric_bruntlett_hitting.jpg

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

17_food_for_11_dollars.jpg

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

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

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

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

Citizens Bank Park has officially become Yankee Stadium.

SNAGGING STATS:

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

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

• 606 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 109 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

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

• 4,140 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $24.59 pledged per ball

• $245.90 raised at this game

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

6/9/09 at Camden Yards

You know it’s going to be a bad day when you’re waiting outside a stadium and there’s a middle-aged man wearing a cut-off T-shirt:

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See what I mean? Bad day. It went from bright-n-sunny at 4:30pm to dark-n-cloudy by the time the gates were set to open half an hour later:

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And sure enough, once again, I got screwed out of batting practice. This is what I saw when I ran inside the stadium:

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At least the Mariners came out and played catch in shallow left field:

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(Did you notice the psychotic sky in the photo above?)

Here I am in the front row:

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I basically had the place to myself, but then of course it started drizzling, and then there was thunder and lightning, so the ushers kicked me (and the few other fans) out of the seating bowl. Somehow, apparently, it was perfectly safe for the players to stay on the field, but it was a life-and-death situation for everyone else.

Anyway, the ushers were nice enough to let me stand in the cross-aisle just underneath the overhang of the second deck. This was the view (from right behind my crinkly, circa-1995 Mariners cap):

6_zack_wanting_balls_from_afar.jpg

A couple players finished throwing and launched a ball over my head to the fans sitting above the aisle. In the photo below, you can see me turning and looking at it:

7_ball_thrown_over_zacks_head.jpg

Who was taking all these photos, you ask?

Hmm…

Another pair of players finished throwing and chucked their ball right to me. Sweeeet! The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out who threw it–mighta been Brandon Morrow–but that’s because I got THREE more balls within the next 60 seconds. It was nuts. There’d been a huge bolt of lightning right near the stadium and then it started pouring half a minute later, so all the players abandoned the field within a very small time frame. Felix Hernandez threw me my second ball of the day, and I have no idea who threw me the third. Here’s an action shot of that snag:

8_zack_catching_thrown_ball.jpg

I ended up giving that ball away to a kid, and I’m glad to report that the fourth ball came from David Aardsma. I’d been hoping to get one from him because of his last name, which is first alphabetically in the history of major league baseball. You know that long list I have of all the players and coaches who’ve thrown me balls? Now it really starts with a bang. (No offense to Jim Abbott.)

My friend Mike (the one who hooked me up with free parking on 6/3/09 at Nationals Park) showed up soon after, and we hung out for a bit and got pizza. Look how awesome the pizza is at Camden Yards:

9_camden_yards_pizza.jpg

(The ball is there for perspective. Without it, you might’ve thought that each slice was only three inches wide.)

This is the best food deal I’ve ever found in any stadium. You get ALL that pizza for $6.25, and yes, that’d be a ripoff in the real world, but as far as MLB concession stands are concerned, it’s great. (You can find this pizza stand behind third base on the field level concourse. Go there, eat some, and think of me.)

The highlight of the game was seeing a two-run homer overturned because of fan interference. Mariners left fielder Endy Chavez tried to make a leaping catch at the wall, and as soon as the ball skipped off his glove and landed in the front row, he protested. The umps huddled and then walked off the field and were gone for like 5 or 10 minutes (during which time, I would argue, the replay should have been shown on the Jumbotron), and when they returned, they called the batter out. Naturally the fans were pissed, but they got what they deserved.

The rest of the night was uneventful. I camped out in the standing-room-only section for lefties, ran around to left field whenever the switch-hitting Matt Wieters was batting right-handed, and played all other righies along the right field foul line. I didn’t get any more balls, but I did get a cool picture of the sky:

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And…uhh…that’s it.
Boring, boring, boring.
Ken Griffey Jr. was worthless.
Final score: Zack 4, Orioles 3, Mariners 1.
I haven’t been to a game with batting practice in TWENTY days.
That’s a ninth of the season!
Karma?

SNAGGING STATS:

• 4 balls at this game

• 197 balls in 26 games this season = 7.58 balls per game.

• 595 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 4,017 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 107 donors (click here for more info and to make a pledge)

• $24.00 pledged per ball

• $96.00 raised at this game

• $4,728 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

5/7/09 at Camden Yards

I attended this game with my friend Sean, and we met up with a couple other guys who read this blog: Donnie (aka “donnieanks” in the comments) and Gary (aka “gjk2212″). Here we all are outside the Eutaw Street gate. From left to right: Donnie, Sean, me, and Gary:

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As a baseball fan, this was one of the worst days of my life. Not only did I learn that Manny Ramirez is officially a fraud (I’m done rooting for him now), but it was sunny and there was NO batting practice. This was the ugly scene when I ran inside the stadium at 5pm:

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Jeremy Guthrie was walking from the bullpen through right-center field. I ran down to the front row and called out to him and thanked him for playing catch with me the day before. He told me he saw me get the two foul balls during the game. I asked him why there wasn’t batting practice. He shrugged and headed off toward the dugout. (I later heard two theories about the lack of BP. The first was that the field was still too wet from all the rain the night before, and the second was that the managers decided to skip BP because the players had been up so late.)

I saw a pitcher throwing in the Orioles’ bullpen, so I ran over…

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…and got one of the guys to toss me a ball when they were done, but it fell inexcusably short and bounced off the wall and rolled back toward them. Bullpen coach Alan Dunn walked over and picked it up.

“Go ahead and THROW it!” I shouted. “I won’t get hurt. I’ll catch it. I promise.”

That convinced him and he fired the ball right to me. It felt good to get that first ball out of the way.

There wasn’t anything else going on at that point, so I cut through the seats and slowly made my way toward the infield. Moments later I saw Sean running toward me and frantically waving me over. He said Guthrie had been talking to Ken Rosenthal about me, and that Rosenthal wanted to interview me.

“Are you SERIOUS?!” I said. “Thanks so much! How did that happen?”

Sean just told me that Guthrie was in the dugout and that I should go over there and talk to him.

This is what I saw when I got to the dugout:

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In the photo above, you can see Rosenthal wearing a suit and tie, standing off in the distance on the warning track. I couldn’t believe this was really going to happen. Finally, I was going to have a chance to tell a national audience about my charity efforts.

I asked Guthrie what was up. He told me to “go over and talk to Ken.” I thanked him profusely and then headed toward the outfield end of the dugout.

Rosenthal was busy talking to Adam Eaton, so I stood there and waited.

Then the grounds crew covered the field:

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In the photo above, Rosenthal is like, “Is this really happening?”

That was my thought too. This whole thing seemed fantastically bizarre, so when Eaton finally walked off, I shouted, “Hey Ken!”

He looked up, and I continued by saying, “I think I might be the victim of a practical joke, but Jeremy Guthrie told me you were looking for me.”

“Yeah, you are,” he said.

“Oh…” I replied, mildly amused and a bit deflated by the whole situation…”well, do you know who I am?”

“No.”

ken_rosenthal.jpg

“He didn’t tell you about me? I’m the guy who collects baseballs. I have almost 4,000 of them and–“

Rosenthal clearly wasn’t interested, so I stopped talking and walked off. Guthrie was already gone by that point, and 10 seconds later I saw Gary get a ball tossed to him behind the Twins’ dugout. Fabulous. Jeremy Guthrie COST me a ball (and cost Pitch In For Baseball roughly $20), but I suppose it was worth it. I can forever say that I’ve been pranked by a major league baseball player.

I did end up getting a ball behind the Twins’ dugout about five minutes later. Two coaches were playing catch. Gary was still over there, camped out in the front with his Twins gear, so my only chance was to move back about 10 rows and hope that the coach who ended up with the ball would take pleasure in making the more difficult throw to ME. That’s exactly what happened. The only problem was that the coaches were wearing warm-up jerseys covering their uniform numbers, so I had no idea who they were. Before they disappeared into the dugout, I pulled out my camera and took a few quick pics of the guy who’d hooked me up. When I got back to NYC late that night (and was reunited with my internet connection), I emailed the pics to my friend Bob (aka “bigglovebob”) in Minnesota and asked him who it was, and when I woke up this morning, I had an answer: Jerry White. Yay for technology. (And thanks to Bob.)

I headed toward the right field foul line because a couple Orioles were playing catch:

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In the photo above, you can see two fans all the way down in the front row. The fan on the right (in the orange shirt) was Donnie, and he still hadn’t snagged a ball, so I told him I’d stay back, and that I wouldn’t even ask for the ball when the guys were done. The only problem for Donnie was that he didn’t assert himself enough when the throwing session ended. The guy closer to him was first base coach John Shelby, and he started walking toward the dugout with TWO balls in his glove.

“Go on,” I told Donnie, “walk alongside him in the seats.”

Donnie moved slowly and asked softly, and Shelby was escaping with his brisk walk.

I decided at that point that I had to go for it, so I cut through the seats and caught up with Shelby and said, “Excuse me, is there any chance you could spare a baseball, please?”

“SPARE a baseball?” replied Shelby. “I never heard THAT one before. SPARE a baseball? Are you planning to give it back?”

(Yeah…anyway. Thanks. I didn’t say “borrow,” so why don’t you stick to coaching first base and leave the wordplay to the professionals?)

Thankfully it was a rhetorical question, and as soon as he finished asking it, he reached into his glove and pulled out a ball and flipped it to me.

Five minutes later, the confused grounds crew half-removed the tarp…

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…and several Twins came out and started throwing:

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Jesse Crain tossed me a ball when he was done, and less than a minute later, an overthrow (by Jose Mijares, I think) skipped off the top of the brick wall and landed several rows back. There was an all-out race for the ball, and thanks to the fact that other fans never seem to realize that gravity makes balls roll down steps, I ended up getting it. (People always run RIGHT to the spot where the ball lands, rather than heading to a spot several rows below as I always do.)

If I’d had anything worth getting signed, I probably would’ve gotten about a dozen autographs. It seemed like half the Twins’ roster came over and signed, but I didn’t have any ticket stubs, and I didn’t want the balls signed (I keep those pure except for my own teeny markings), so I just got close and took photos. Here’s a shot of Kevin Slowey (what a horrible name for a pitcher, but at least his first name isn’t Homer) and Joe Nathan:

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You know how players have their names stitched onto their gloves? Well, I don’t know if this was Nathan’s practice glove or what, but there was something funny stitched on it. Check it out:

10_joe_nathans_glove.jpg

I got my sixth ball of the day thrown by Michael Cuddyer right before the game started. Nothing fancy. Pre-game throwing along the foul line. Yawn. None of the six balls were commemorative.

I spent most of the game in the standing room only section (aka “the flag court”) down the right field line. Here’s a look at that section from a spot just foul of the pole:

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Pretty nice, eh?

The only problem with that section, from a ballhawking perspective, is that when you’re standing at the back of it, you can’t see the field:

12_view_from_flag_court.jpg

I nearly caught Aubrey Huff’s home run in the bottom of the third inning. It was a line drive that barely cleared the wall on my right, and as I ran up to make the catch, the people who were standing at the wall backed up and flinched and got right in my way, forcing ME to back up and flinch (so I wouldn’t get creamed by a deflection). The ball hit some lady on the butt, and before I could see where it landed, some other guy (with no glove, of course) swooped in and snatched it. I definitely would’ve caught it on the fly if not for these people. Very very very very very very very frustrating…but I can’t blame them. I blame Aubrey Huff for not hitting it five feet higher.

That was the only action for me for the rest of the night. I ran over to the Orioles’ dugout with two outs in the ninth inning…

13_ninth_inning_05_07_09.jpg

…but didn’t get anything there.

Final score: Zack 6, Orioles 5, Twins 4.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 6 balls at this game

• 147 balls in 19 games this season = 7.7 balls per game.

• 588 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,967 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $20.38 pledged per ball

• $122.28 raised at this game

• $2,995.86 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

5/2/09 at Rangers Ballpark

I’m so optimistic.

I knew there was rain in the forecast, and I could see how gray the sky was, but I was still hoping there’d be batting practice.

1_outside_rangers_ballpark.jpg

I took a cab from my motel to the ballpark at around 2:45pm and started wandering around with my camera:

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It’s a beautiful stadium, inside and out. Easy to get to. Nice area. Not too desolate. Not too crazy. Just perfect, really.

As I approached the first base entrance, I saw the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium way off in the distance:

3_outside_rangers_ballpark.jpg

I don’t know anything about football. I don’t care about football. But I *am* intrigued by stadiums in general, and I figured there’d be some people reading this blog entry who’d enjoy getting a look at this impressive new facility, and I had lots of time to spare, so I decided to take a little stroll and get a few closeups.

This is as close as I got:

4_outside_rangers_ballpark.jpg

(I’m telling you…all domed stadiums look like spaceships. In fact, I think they secretly ARE spaceships. When aliens finally get around to invading/destroying our planet, they will use our domes as escape vessels. And they’re gonna start with Olympic Stadium. Just you wait-n-see.)

The sky got darker. I felt a raindrop. It seemed like a good idea to head back toward the Rangers’ ballpark.

The following photo shows how deep into the parking lot I had walked; the red arrow is pointing to a tree under which I foolishly took cover for the next few minutes:

5_outside_rangers_ballpark2.jpg

By the time I reached that tree, it had started raining. Not too hard. Probably not even hard enough to have delayed a baseball game, had one been taking place at that moment. It was just an annoying rain, and I didn’t feel like walking around in it, and the tree was providing excellent shelter. So I stayed there.

Then it started raining a little harder, and I started getting ever-so-slightly wetter. I thought about running across the street and looking for a dryer spot inside (or along the outer edge of) the stadium, but there wasn’t an obvious place to go.

Then it started raining a little harder. Crap. And a little harder. Double crap. My sneakers and shorts and baseball cap were all getting wet, but I decided to stay under the tree, hoping that the rain would let up…and *then* I would make a run for it. Then it started raining harder. Then there was thunder. Then it started raining EVEN harder. My feet were now soaked, and the wind picked up. My backpack was getting drenched. I covered my camera with my wet shirt. Then there was lightning, followed immediately by the loudest crack of thunder I had ever heard. Holy hell. Then there was a gust of wind that blew a huge/portable construction sign 50 feet down the street RIGHT in front of me. I held onto the tree, afraid that I might get blown away from it, and then remembered that standing under a tree when there’s lightning isn’t the best idea. And…then the sky opened up. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen rain that hard, let alone been caught
25_rosters.jpgout in it. I had no choice but to dash across the street (while trying not to get hit by cars or blown over the by the wind or slip on the pavement) and race alongside the edge of the stadium until I reached an alcove with some ticket windows. I was so wet and uncomfortable…it was as if I’d been standing in a cold shower fully clothed. I started going through a mental checklist of all the items in my backpack and thinking about what might’ve gotten ruined by the rain. My wallet was soaked. My contact cards were mush. Oh man…my rosters. They were toast. The paper was so soggy that it started to tear as I gently unfolded it, and as you can see in the photo on the right, the ink had bled all over the place.

It was 3:15pm. The stadium wasn’t going to open for another 75 minutes, and even then, there obviously wasn’t going to be batting practice. What the hell was I supposed to do? Just keeping hanging out and be cold and wet for the next seven hours?

As a general rule, I spend my money carefully and avoid all unnecessary costs, not just when I’m traveling, but in life. This, however, qualified as an emergency. I didn’t want to get pneumonia and die, so I called a cab, went back to my motel, cranked up the heater in my room all the way, put my shoes on it (as well as my soaked “Homer” shirt which I said I’d be wearing in my previous entry), changed my socks and underwear, replaced my wet cargo shorts with dry (Ahh, dry!!!) cargo pants, and entertained myself with FARK.com for most of the next hour.

I called another cab, and when I got back to the ballpark at 4:30pm, there was a HUGE line of fans, waiting (in the rain) to get in. Why? Because there was some Nolan Ryan statue giveaway. Oh my Lord. Well, it didn’t even matter. It was still raining. I knew there wasn’t going to be anything happening on the field…and it was then, while I was standing in line, that I heard about the building collapse at the Cowboys’ training facility just 15 (or so) miles away in Irving, TX. Scary stuff.

The stadium seemed eerily calm when I headed inside, and of course the field was covered:

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I thought about wandering up to the upper deck and taking photos, but then an announcement was made over the stadium’s PA system. It said that there was a severe thunderstorm in the area with powerful wind (really?!) and dangerous hail (Christ!). The announcement continued. All fans were told to stay on the field level concourse.

I quickly headed to the weird/interesting/quirky concourse at the back of the seats and took the following photo…

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…and then headed down and took this one:

8_field_concourse_rangers.jpg

For the record, the arches in the outer wall of the New Yankee Stadium’s Great Hall are not unique. Arlington had ‘em 15 years earlier.

As I made my way around toward the left field side, I met up with a man named Brian (who was there with his 10-year-old daughter Sarah) who’s been reading this blog for a while and leaving comments as “bmpowell74.”

We ended up wandering around together for more than an hour, during which I signed his copy of Watching Baseball Smarter and took dozens of photos of the stadium.

Check out this amazing cross-aisle at the back of the left field seats:

9_left_field_cross_aisle.jpg

It’s kinda far from home plate, but balls DO land there.

The rain had stopped briefly (as you can see in the photo above) but then it started pouring again.

We took cover under the narrow overhang of the center field offices…

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…and then headed to the second deck behind the right field foul pole. The following photo really shows how much rain had fallen:

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Brian led me up to the club level. Check out the stream of water pouring off the roof:

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Here’s what it looked like through one of the tunnels. You can see the rain streaking behind the seat on the left:

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Now…for all you people out there who called Shea Stadium home…remember how nasty the field level tunnels used to get when it rained? You know how there was always a huge scummy puddle at the bottom because the drains were small and clogged and poorly placed? (I actually miss that.) Behold the stupendous tunnel drainage at Rangers Ballpark:

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This stadium is awesome. I know that sounds silly when I’m talking about something as specific as this, but seriously, it’s an outstanding facility.

Look at this classy (yet understated, unlike the new Yankee Stadium) club level:

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I mean, c’mon. That is just outstanding.

We headed downstairs and I took some more photos along the way. I love this next one, which shows all the beams and railings and platforms and open-air concourses:

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The rain finally stopped and two White Sox pitchers (John Danks and Scott Linebrink) came out and started playing catch along the left field foul line. When they finished, they tossed the ball to a little kid in White Sox gear–hard to argue or compete with that. It was around 6:30pm at that point, and I still didn’t have a ball. I wasn’t worried about being shut out because at the very least, I figured I’d be able to play the dugouts during the game and get a third-out ball…but I didn’t WANT to play the dugouts. I wanted to hang out next to the batter’s eye and go for a home run. I could’ve padded my stats and stayed near home plate all night, but this is a special ballpark and I wanted to do something spectacular.

After the start of the game was pushed back to 7:45pm, Octavio Dotel and Bartolo Colon began playing catch. I went down to the front row, lined myself up with them, and waited patiently. The following photo, taken by Brian, shows me standing there with some White Sox gear of my
own:

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By the way, that “HAMILTON” jersey in the photo above just reminded me that in one of the team stores out in center field, there’s a ball signed by Hamilton (on the sweet spot) that’s “selling” for $249. Shame on the Rangers’ ownership. They get their one and only demerit for that.

Dotel airmailed Colon several times. It might’ve been because the ball was slick, or maybe it was just due to the fact that he’s not THAT good, but regardless, on one of these occasions, the errant throw sailed so far above Colon that I was able to reach over the railing and catch it. Ha-HAAAAA!!! No shutout!!!

Colon and Dotel had brought an extra ball out with them, but Colon had airmailed Dotel a few minutes earlier, and the ball rolled all the way to the warning track in center field. Dotel didn’t bother retrieving it, so I had essentially caught their only ball. Colon looked up at me and waved his glove as if to say, “Throw it to me.”

“Are you gonna give it back when you’re done?” I asked.

I had no idea if he spoke enough English to understand me (he probably does–he’s been in the major leagues for a while) but he nodded, and I figured he wasn’t going to screw me over, so I tossed the ball to him (as a mediocre knuckleball) and watched contentedly as the two pitchers finished playing catch with it.

At one point, their throwing was interrupted by a procession of flag-toting Boy Scouts:

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I found this to be rather amusing, and I loved the fact that Colon was holding MY ball with his multi-million dollar right hand. (If you look very closely at the photo above, you can see the other ball sitting on the field just to the left of the yellow “STANLEY” ad…right above the blueish flag, third from the right.)

It was such a slow day that THIS is the best action shot I can provide. It’s a photo of me taking a photo. Wow…

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Colon eventually tossed me the ball, and then (after changing out of my White Sox costume) I got a photo with Brian:

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The game started and I found a seat in the third row next to the batter’s eye…

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…and then there were a bunch of rain delays. Four different delays? I don’t know. I lost count. The game itself lasted 2 hours and 37 minutes, and all the delays lasted a combined 2 hours and 27 minutes. It was a looooooong night. There wasn’t any action on the batter’s eye, but the delays did allow me to snag a couple extra balls.

At one point, I saw a glove with four balls sitting on a ledge in the White Sox bullpen…

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…so I waited there for about 10 minutes until bullpen coach Juan Nieves came out.

“Any chance you could spare a baseball, please?”

He looked up at me, saw all the White Sox stuff, picked out the dirtiest ball (dirty because it had been rubbed up for a game), and tossed it up.

A bit later on, after the longest of the delays, the Sox ran and stretched and threw in shallow left field, as if they were warming up at the start of a normal game. Chris Getz (who has failed in the first two games of this series to hit his first career home run to me) tossed me a ball after he finished throwing, and that was that.

I was forced to snag Wiffle Balls from the mini-field in deep center:

23_wiffle_ball_snagging.jpg

That’s when you KNOW you’ve reached an all-time low as a ballhawk.

The stadium was pretty empty when the grounds crew removed the tarp for the final time…

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…and I considered playing for foul balls behind the plate, but the thought of a home run landing on that batter’s eye drew me back to the bleachers.

In the final inning, there was a foul ball that flew back and hit the facade of the second deck and dropped RIGHT down to the exact spot where I would’ve been sitting (which didn’t have another fan within 20 feet), so that hurt, especially when nothing came my way in center field, but I still feel like I made the right decision. After two decades of chasing insignificant foul balls, I’m trying to be more home-run conscious, at least when I’m at a stadium that’s set up in such a way to increase the odds.

I have one more game here tonight. It’s gonna be on ESPN at 8pm ET, so you have NO excuse not to watch it and look for me. I’ll be sitting next to the batter’s eye in the ninth row (over the right edge of the Samsung ad in the photo above), and I’ll be wearing my ridiculous Waldo shirt, possibly over my gray hoodie if it’s cold. (Oy. The fashion police are going to arrest me.) Even if there’s a just a harmless fly ball hit in my direction, I’ll stand up so you can see me.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 3 balls at this game

• 123 balls in 16 games this season = 7.7 balls per game.

• 585 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 3,943 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

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

• $20.38 pledged per ball

• $61.14 raised at this game

• $2,506.74 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

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