The last time I went to a major league game and did NOT catch at least one ball was on September 2, 1993. That was 383 games ago, and I still get nervous that I’m going to get shut out.
I probably shouldn’t worry. Over the past decade, I’ve averaged almost six balls per game (including batting practice), so the real issue isn’t whether I’m going to get one, but rather how many I’m going to get. I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but I was annoyed after Doc Gooden’s no-hitter in 1996 because I only snagged one ball that night.
Anyway, April 14th was my first game this season and my goal for the day was to get at least ten balls. I’m usually not that ambitious, but I’d finished 2004 with eight consecutive games in double digits and desperately wanted to keep the improbable streak alive.
I knew it was going to be tough because the stingiest team in the majors–stingy in terms of giving away balls–was in town. Their name: The Houston Astros. How stingy are they? They write a big “H” on all of their practice balls so they can keep track of them. Other teams have tried this for a season or two, but Houston’s done it for as long as I can remember.
The #7 train got me to Shea with nearly half an hour to spare. I saw the familiar faces behind the ticket windows. I bought the cheapest seat possible. I wandered over to Gate C. I shared off-season anecdotes with fans I hadn’t seen since the fall. And when the gates opened at 4:40pm, we all pushed inside. Shea was still ugly, and it was great to be back.
Most of the early-arriving fans head to the dugouts for autographs. The rest usually cluster in the right field corner where the Mets warm up. I headed toward left and didn’t stop running until I reached the first row by the foul line, and before I caught my breath, Roberto Hernandez threw me my first ball of the season.
(insert sigh of relief here)
The first ball of the day is always the best, but the first ball of the season carries some serious weight. I’m always afraid that somehow I will have lost all my ball-snagging prowess over the winter, that every team will turn into the Astros, that stadium security will be stricter, that there will be a new plexiglass partition between the stands and the field, that batting practice will no longer exist. I guess, in a way, I keep expecting my luck to run out. But when Roberto’s toss kissed the pocket of my glove, I knew I was good for at least one more season.
A few fans found their way to left field, but I beat them out for a slicer that landed a couple sections away. Mighta been Jose Reyes, but I have no idea who hit it. Unless the batter’s stance or swing is unique, it’s hard to identify him from 275 feet away when his warmup jacket hides his uniform number.
Ball #3 came from Hernandez again. He was either trying to throw it to the man next to me or the people several rows back, but he missed everyone–proof that the Mets bullpen is in trouble–and the ball plunked down in the empty seats. I hurdled a few railings for that one.
It was only 4:49pm. I was off to a great start. And then my pace died. I swear it wasn’t my fault. The righties just weren’t pulling anything, and I waited half an hour before a hooking liner hit the warning track and skipped right to me.
The Astros pitchers strolled out to left field and started throwing. I was hoping for a ball from Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens. I have a list of the players and coaches who’ve thrown me balls, and those guys would’ve been good additions.
No luck. I had to settle for an “H” from Russ Springer, my fifth ball of the day. Dan Wheeler saw me catch it and said something to me.
“What?!” I yelled. LaGuardia Airport is like two miles from Shea, and there was a jet flying directly over my section.
He spoke louder. I picked up the inflection in his voice. He was asking me something.
“I still can’t hear you!” I shouted, pointing up.
He looked up, nodded, and walked over. “Aren’t you the guy with the photograph?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said.
Last year, before the Mets traded him, Wheeler began to recognize me because I asked him every day if he wanted to play catch…and because I was always catching balls and running around like a madman during BP. One day he asked me what I do with all the balls. “You must have a hundred of ’em by now,” he laughed. I took out my wallet and opened up that little flap where the picture of my girlfriend is supposed to be and showed him the bathtub pic. He called Braden Looper over to have a look and later pointed me out to John Franco.
Now he was summoning Springer for a glimpse. It was embarrassing. The guy had just added to my collection. I felt like some third-rate hustler. But it was worth it. I got to talk to a real-life major league baseball player.
I still had five balls when BP ended. I’d come close to a few others, but there were too many fans and too few opportunities. The Astros didn’t take infield/outfield practice or play catch in front of the dugout before the game. I knew my streak was done. And I was freezing.
The attendance was just 17,214, so there were plenty of empty seats. I found one near my favorite foul ball spot behind home plate in the Loge level. I caught two shirts during the Pepsi Party Patrol tee-shirt launch–but no foul balls.
And that was it: five balls and an Andy Pettitte autograph on my ticket stub. 2,436 and counting…
Oh, by the way, the Mets won 4-3.