Lia and I got to the ballpark way too early, but that was good because we were first in line outside GATE 6, and there was plenty of time for me to draw a diagram of the right field seats and discuss all the options. Did she want a ball? Did she want to watch ME get balls? Did she want to sit or stand? Sun or shade? Be in a place where a home run might land? Hide in spot where she wouldn’t get hit?
She wanted a ball, so I told her where to go: main aisle behind the outfield wall, all the way out in straight-away right field where the grandstand ends.
The gates opened at 5:05pm. I ran inside and got a ball in the RF corner with my glove trick. (395 consecutive games with at least one ball.) Then, before I had time to coil the string or remove the Sharpie or put my hand back in the glove, a right-handed hitter on the Yankees sliced a deep foul ball to my left. I took off through the empty aisle, kept my eye on the ball, spread my glove open with both hands, and made the running catch. It was 5:06pm.
I jogged over to Lia. She’d seen me get both balls–and was still waiting for her first. By this point, there were already a few dozen fans around us, so if she was going to get one, it had to come soon. Just then, Yankees reliever Buddy Groom fielded a deep fly ball nearby. “Hey, Buddy!” I yelled. “How ’bout a ball for this girl!” He looked up, saw me pointing at Lia, and tossed it to her. His aim, however, was off, and the ball sailed to Lia’s right, toward the other side of the slanted concrete wall that marks the end of the grandstand. On the other side, there’s a 10-foot drop, a wide gap, and the bleachers. Lia reached to her right and made a two-handed, bare-handed catch over the wall. It was beautiful. And it was her first ball ever.
She stayed there a bit longer, decided one ball was enough, and took a seat 15 rows back.
Meanwhile, I was hard at work. (The word “enough” doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.) I got my third ball via the glove trick after another fan, a 40-something-year-old guy in a Yankees jersey, failed to get it with HIS trick. He had a roll of duck tape tied to a string. I’m not exactly sure how it worked–he did get a ball later–but I can tell you that he dropped the roll hard on the ball. The inside edge of the roll was barely smaller than the ball. I don’t know if there was something sticky on it or if he just wedged the ball in there. Interesting. I’ve seen various ball-retrieving contraptions over the years, but never anything like that.
My fourth ball was a Hideki Matsui home run that I caught on a fly, ten rows back–perfect positioning, thank you very much–and it extended my streak to 23 consecutive games with at least four balls. The ball has a special mark on it that I’ve only seen a couple times before: the imprint of the lettering on the barrel of the bat. Matsui’s bat? Who knows. Just because he cranked the ball doesn’t mean that he’s the one who left the mark. It might have come from a foul tip two weeks earlier. There’s also a trace of a player’s signature, but I can’t identify it. (George, are you reading this? Get to work, baby. Tell me who it is. Come over and see the ball in person. This photograph is so-so, but it’s the best I could get.) Anyway, click the picture to take a closer look. You can see a backwards portion of the words “NEW YORK YANKEES.”
Of course, as soon as I caught this ball, every guy with a glove decided to stand next to me. So I left. The seats were unbelievably packed, but that’s what happens when a game is attended by 48,828 people.
Tanyon Sturtze tossed a ball to some people who were standing where Lia had been. They all reached for it at once and dropped it on the warning track. I saw this from 40 feet away and ran over as Sturtze headed toward the ball. I figured he’d toss it a little deeper into the crowd, and he did, this time with a high arc. I was in the middle of the very crowded aisle. The ball started its descent, and I crouched slightly and waited…and waited…and jumped as high as I could with my glove hand extended. Bam! Right in the pocket, inches above a dozen other hands. That one felt good. It was my third athletic play of the afternoon, although the Matsui homer was easy in comparison.
There were a couple of guys–out-of-towners, thank god–who saw me use my glove trick the day before and copied it. They said they’d practiced in their hotel room and got it to work, but I could tell it was a cheap rip-off. Sure enough, they failed in their attempt to get a ball off the warning track. I let them try twice more, and then they gave up. Luckily, Mr. Duck Tape was nowhere in sight, so I squeezed my way into the first row and started lowering my glove. The ball was hard to get because it was hugging the wall. Brian Meadows walked over and moved it two feet out for me. Whatta guy. I got it easily: ball #6 on the day.
The glove trick paid off once more. Near the end of BP, I was lowering my glove over a ball when a Pirates player (no idea who) came over and took it. He pretended to throw it back toward the infield, then turned back toward me and tossed it. That was #7, and the grounds crew cleared the field.
Lia and I headed to the 3rd base line, where I got Freddy Sanchez and Daryle Ward to sign my ticket stubs. When I asked Sanchez to sign, he said, “Let me get the kids first.”
I was shocked. I mean SHOCKED. It was like the first time I had to shave, or the first time someone called me “Sir.” I’d never gotten that reaction at a baseball game, and I said, “If only you knew how much of a kid I really am.”
He didn’t laugh.
He didn’t smile.
He didn’t look up.
He signed for all the kids.
Then he signed for me.
Lia told me she didn’t want to move around from seat to seat during the game. (That’s an unreasonable request. Sorry.) I told her I’d try to keep the moving to a minimum, and I’d say I did a pretty good job, as we sat in just four different spots. For most of the evening, we were sitting down the right field line. No balls. Just a group of annoying fans who:
a) started cheering instantly after every routine fly ball because they thought everything was going to be a home run
b) kept getting up, which forced us to get up
c) talked on their cell phones
d) booed the visiting pitcher after every pick-off move
e) said, “Are you serious?!” every time a Pirate got a hit
f) accidentally cheered for the Pirates because they didn’t realize which team was batting
g) shrieked as loud as screeching subway wheels
Lia was glad to leave those seats in the top of the 8th inning. I was glad when Jason Bay hit a solo bomb to center to make it a 5-2 Pittsburgh lead; there was a much better chance of getting a ball after the game at the Pirates’ dugout than on the Yankees’ side.
The Yanks, of course, scored twice in the bottom of the 8th to make it a one-run game. Mariano Rivera pitched a scoreless 9th, and Jose Mesa (a.k.a. “Joe Table” if you translate his name into English) came in to try to preserve the lead. I managed to get myself into a perfect position behind the Pirates dugout. Just three outs. That’s all I needed. I was sure I’d get a ball after the game.
Even after a Jeter groundout, a walk to Bernie, and a fielder’s choice by Sheffield, Mesa couldn’t do his job. A-Rod hit a broken bat single to center, and Posada doubled to right. Sheffield scored. Tie game. A-Rod was thrown out on the plate. Extra innings.
Mariano pitched a scoreless 10th.
In the bottom of the frame, Juicin’ Giambi hit a two-run homer. Game over. No ball for me.
At least Mariano got the win. I like him. His ERA is 1.09. Mesa is now 0-5 with a 4.56 ERA. And me? I am now the owner of 2,519 baseballs and, with 88 in 13 games this year, I’m averaging 6.8 balls per game.
Can’t decide if I’m going back today. It’s $5 night. The place is going to be even more crowded. And I’m busy. I need to do laundry and pay bills and go to the bank and edit the third chapter of my friend’s manuscript and send a “Top 10” list of ball-snagging strategies to Elliott Kalb. More on that later…