My dad and I tried to deny that we were lost. If we weren’t sure where we were, but it turned out that we weren’t lost, were we actually lost? MapQuest let us down. The roads were poorly marked. One wasn’t marked at all. We were confused enough that we had to stop and ask for directions, then turn around and drive back the other way–but only for a minute! So is that really being “lost”?
Luckily, I made him leave NYC so early that we still got to Citizens Bank Park at 3pm, four hours before gametime. He thought that was nuts, but I had it all figured out. We parked. We walked around the ballpark and bought tickets. He got a bland grilled chicken wrap at McFadden’s; I had a killer cheesesteak. We were the first fans at the left field gate at 3:50pm. He probably thought THAT was nuts, but by the time the park opened 45 minutes later, there was a huge line behind us. Not only were the Mets in town (along with many of their fans), but it was “Toyota Jimmy Rollins Collectible Figurine” night. Joy.
One minute after I got inside, Phillies 3rd base coach Bill Dancy, who was shagging out in left field, walked toward the warning track to get a ball that had sailed over his head. I yelled. And yelled. And yelled. He finally got the ball and looked up at me.
“Please,” I said, “any chance you toss me that ball? I promise I’ll shut up.”
“I don’t want you to shut up,” he answered.
“Okay, then I’ll be LOUD!” I shouted, and he flipped it to me.
The left field seats were filling up fast. Lucky me. I picked the game that happened to have the largest walk-up sale (6,300) in the history of the ballpark, and the game itself ended up being sold out. Home runs were flying all over the place, but I could hardly move. I came within a few feet of at least a dozen balls–no luck, much frustration–but I was glad that my dad got to see me in action.
This was a day for the glove trick. I’d already made it 396 consecutive games with at least one ball, but I wanted to get three more to extend my other streak. The tough thing about using the trick in left field at this ballpark is the three-foot wide flower bed that separates the seats and outfield wall. I had to balance myself on the railing by supporting all my weight with my stomach and lean way out just to see the ball directly below. Then I had to reach out in order to lower my glove. In addition, it was windy, so my glove was swirling around and bumping against the outfield wall. The trick had temporarily lost its magic, and I suffered through several failed attempts, fearing that stadium security was going to apprehend me. Amazingly, no one approached and after a few minutes, I got the ball.
Another ball trickled to the wall right below me. The fans were getting into it and wanted to see the trick again. I had more trouble with this one and probably would’ve gotten it eventually, but Cory Lidle came over and tossed it to me. That was #3. Just one more.
Even thought it was 83 degrees, I wore my Mets jacket when the Mets took the field. Ugh. I was already sweating without it. Anything for an edge…
I hurried to the left field corner, confident that Royce Ring or Heath Bell would throw me their ball when they were done throwing. They didn’t. Kaz Ishii was no help either. Dae-Sung Koo ignored me even though I asked him in Korean. Victor Zambrano and Roberto Hernandez were too far away. Same with Braden Looper and Aaron Heilman. The whole Mets staff let me down. Still, I loved seeing them. I loved that THEY were the visiting team. It was so easy to recognize everyone. I never had to pull out my roster.
Another ball rolled to the wall in straight-away left field, and no one on the field went for it, so I darted through fans and staircases and rows, climbing over and stepping on empty seats when necessary, to get there as quickly as possible. The ball was still on the warning track, but it was a few feet out from the wall, so it took a minute to swing the glove out and knock it back in. Some kid standing a few seats away shouted, “Oh, man! It’s that guy from New York! I’ve seen him on TV! He’s got like four million balls!”
“Not quite that many,” I said and got back to what I was doing, but I struggled once again. This time, however, it was my fault. The rubber band wasn’t tight enough, so the ball wasn’t staying in the glove. I lifted the glove and tightened the band, then lowered it for another try. Just as I was about to get it, the Mets’ strength & conditioning coach walked over, picked up my glove (I was already shouting at him at this point), took the ball, peeled off the rubber band, took my Sharpie, and walked away. I didn’t panic. I had other pens, and I always carry a spare rubber band, but damn! Why did he do that? What was he doing? I leaned way out and barely saw him. He was standing 40 feet to the right, leaning against the outfield wall, futzing with my stuff. Was he going to return it? I had no idea what was going on. The seats were absolutely packed. Home runs were still flying all over the place, but I knew I had no chance. Every time a ball landed, there were half a dozen gloves reaching up for it, so I stayed at the wall and waited. After a minute, the strength coach walked over, looked up, and tossed me the ball. He’d wrapped the band around it with the Sharpie. Oh, how cute.
“You got one!” yelled an excited fan on my left.
“I got four,” I said and took off for the foul line.
I’d done it again. Four balls for the 24th straight game.
Mike Piazza hooked a line drive into the corner. The ball hit the padded wall and came to a rest several feet out from the foul pole. There was no flower bed to deal with, but I was much higher–about 15 feet above the warning track–so I had to make sure that the rubber band was stretched around my glove just right. My dad had seen me get the last one, but I was much closer to him now. This was the first game at which he’d ever seen me use the trick. He’d seen it at home when I invented it as a 15-year-old, and he’d seen it on TV six years later, but he’d never seen it in person when it really mattered.
The wind died down. The fans were cheering me on. Pedro Martinez stopped playing catch momentarily to have a look…and I nailed it. I was thrilled. My dad was proud. The fans were in awe. It was ball #5 on the day.
Left field was so crowded at this point–it was like some sick joke. I left my jacket with my dad and sprinted around the ballpark to the right field side. Two minutes later, when Mike Cameron flipped a ball straight up into the crowd, I jumped and made a bare-handed catch. That was my 6th ball of the day, breaking my previous record at Citizens Bank Park.
Three minutes after that, Brian Daubach yanked a deep drive in my direction. I immediately turned my back to home plate, raced up the steps, cut to my right, looked up, saw the ball coming, reached up through a thick cluster of fans, got bumped from every side…and the ball smacked the palm of my glove and bounced away.
A young usher came over. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m okay, but I’m [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted].” (Don’t worry. There weren’t any kids around.)
BP was winding down, so I headed to the Mets’ dugout on the 3rd base side and squeezed into the front row. Third base coach Manny Acta tossed me a ball as he came off the field, and less than a minute later, bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello gave me another. I wasn’t wearing my jacket, but I was the only person within 100 miles who knew his first name. That’s why I got the ball. I now had eight and really wanted two more to reach double digits, but neither team did much of anything until the game started. Three Mets–Cliff Floyd, Jose Reyes, and David Wright–signed autographs at different times, and I missed each of them by no more than 15 seconds.
My dad and I sat about 20 rows back along the left field foul line. After one inning, Floyd tossed the ball he’d caught into the crowd one section over. Later, I raced up the steps for a foul slicer, but it landed ten feet away and didn’t get bobbled in my direction. Not much action beyond that.
The game itself was good. The Mets had a 6-5 lead after four innings and tacked on two insurance runs in the 8th. I was rooting for them because it’s easier to get a ball after the game at the visiting team’s dugout–and that’s where I headed in the bottom of the 9th. Looper beaned Mike Lieberthal to start the frame, and Mr. Figurine hit a one-out single to center to bring the tying run to the plate. I was wearing my Mets hat and Mets jacket. I had my glove. I was in the perfect spot. I knew I was going to get a ball if the Mets could hold on. Kenny Lofton grounded into a fielder’s choice for the second out, and Bobby Abreu grounded out to 3rd to end the game. Wright fielded that ball and fired it to Doug Mientkiewicz at 1st. Mientkiewicz handed it to Looper. The Mets came out, shook hands, slapped five, bumped fists, patted butts, and headed back toward the dugout. I had my eye on Looper the whole time. When he got close, I shouted his name–but he was distracted. He was being pulled aside for an interview, but I kept shouting. And shouting. Finally, after about ten seconds (that’s a lot of shouting), he looked up and under-handed the ball to me. There were fans all around, so I dove forward (so that none of them could reach in front of me) and made the catch, belly-flopping on the dugout roof. My 9th ball of the day was the ball that Looper used to earn his 14th save of the season and the 89th of his career. Cool. (All this with only 2 hours and 45 minutes of sleep.)
Of course, I was still kicking myself over the Daubach home run that had hit off my glove during BP, even though the official scorer of ball-snagging, if there were such a thing, would not have ruled it an error.
2,528 total balls.
97 balls in 14 games this season = 6.9 balls per game.
442 total balls outside NYC.
72 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball.
At my next game, whenever that might be, I should get my 100th ball of the season.
It was a great day in that special father-son way. The only bad thing was getting lost–officially lost–on the way to the Walt Whitman Bridge and getting stuck in horrendous traffic on the Jersey Turnpike…not really much of a surprise, I suppose.