There were just a few other fans in left field when Derek Jeter launched one to my left. I knew it was going to reach the seats, so I took off, and when the ball fell a row short and squirted past me into the main aisle, I dove for it. Headfirst on the concrete. No hesitation.
When I got up, the security guards were laughing. They know me. They know how crazy I am. But what was so funny about diving for a ball? I looked around and realized that there wasn’t anyone within ten feet of me—and I laughed, too.
The first ball of the day is the most important, especially at Yankee Stadium which fills up fast during batting practice, and I’d dive all over again for that Jeter home run. It extended my record to 388 consecutive games with at least one ball. I didn’t even have time to put the ball away before Gary Sheffield stepped back into the box and smoked a 370-foot line drive right to me. A few fans reached up for it, but it sailed over their heads. I took a couple steps forward and caught it. Easy.
“How many are you up to now?” asked one of the guards.
“Twenty-four sixty,” I said and kept moving.
Tony Womack was out in left field, and he let me down. No wait, he didn’t just let me down…he dissed me. He completely ignored my requests for a ball despite the fact that we both attended the same teeny Quaker college in North Carolina that no one’s ever heard of. (That’s Guilford, by the way.) Womack is almost a decade older than me, but we got to know each other during my freshman year. I was on the baseball team, and he worked out with us in the fall. He and I turned double plays in practice, and I once lined out to him in an intrasquad game. For a few years, he remembered me at major league games. He’d come over to chat and sometimes gave me a ball. I don’t know how it changed, but now he’s a stranger. I still root for him though. But yesterday it was war, and when he started making his way out to the left field corner to pick up a ball that had rolled onto the warning track, I used my glove trick to pluck it before he could get there.
The Mariners took the field, and Jeff Nelson tossed me my fourth ball of the day when he finished playing catch. I was six rows back, and the ball fell two rows short. That’s a LONG way to reach. My feet left the ground, and I barely caught it in the tip of my glove. In the process, my forearm whacked the back of a seat.
Although my fifth ball was tossed gently by a Mariners’ middle reliever, it was extra special because it came from a guy named J.J. Putz. I was hoping I’d get one from him so I could add his name to my list of players and coaches who’ve thrown me balls. Actually, I was proud of myself for getting that ball because Putz was wearing his warmup jacked over his jersey (Can you blame him?), and I couldn’t recognize him at first…but his face was familiar. I’d seen him on the Mariners’ web site just a few hours earlier. He was big and very white, and I remembered having written “Blaine Neal” next to his name—whatever it was—on the roster that I’d printed. Blaine Neal is a reliever on the Red Sox. He and Putz aren’t identical, but they look similar enough for me to use one to identify the other. Anyway, I pulled out my roster, took a quick look, saw “Blaine Neal” next to Putz, and yelled “Jay-Jay!!!”
There were several lefties in the Mariners’ final round of BP, so I moved to the left field foul line. One of them (no idea who) sliced a shallow pop-up in my direction. I scurried toward home plate through a narrow row of seats, and I beat out several people in the mad scramble that followed.
That was it for the day.
33 this season in 6 games
5.5 balls per game
Grand total: 2,464
I sat in the right field corner until the middle of the 3rd inning and then left. Very frustrating, yes, but I had to get to work by 9pm. (In case you’re interested, here’s an example of what I do there.) In couple of hours, I’m heading back to the Bronx to do it all over again. Is it worth paying $16 to watch two and a half innings? If you’re me, then yes.