The first raindrops hit my windshield at 1:55pm, somewhere north of Baltimore, but the sky was bright and the rain quickly stopped. Then it started again at 2:24. Then it stopped. Then the sun came out and stuck around.
Mapquest was right on the money. I didn’t get lost until I arrived at RFK and circled the ballpark without finding a parking lot that was open and somehow ended up back on the highway…followed by another highway…and then some back roads…but I didn’t panic. Not only am I very good at being lost, but I had four hours until gametime.
I made it back and found LOT 3.
I was the first one there.
I picked a corner spot in Section D.
That’d be easy to remember: 3-D.
I took a picture just in case.
I walked to RFK and took a lap around it. That’s what I always do when I go to a stadium for the first time: wander, explore, take lots of pictures. It’s not just the baseball–or the baseballs–that I’m after; stadiums, on their own, fascinate me. They’re huge and mysterious, and each one has its own atmosphere, especially on the outside when there’s no one else around. I love the nooks and crannies, the ramps, the cracks in the asphalt, the stairs, the turnstiles, the gates, the railings, the Port-O-Potties, the ticket windows, the media entrances, the statues, the trees, the signs, the barricades, the canopies, the drains, the souvenir stores, the garbage cans, the lampposts, the wires, the TV trucks, the sidewalks, the roads, and even the parking lots.
My critique of RFK: it’s dumpy and ugly and gloomy and depressing.
And guess what…I loved it.
I don’t care if a stadium is “nice.”
Safeco Field is “nice.” Coors Field is “nice.” Turner Field is “nice.”
And you know what?
They’re the cookie-cutter stadiums of the 21st century, and I can’t tell them apart any more than I could differentiate the concrete beasts of the 1970s, like Three Rivers, Veterans, and Riverfront.
As far as ballparks go, RFK is a disaster, but it’s also interesting. It has a personality, a unique look and feel.
At every gate, there was a sign that listed the rules and prohibited items. “No backpacks,” it said, and I didn’t think much of it. After 9/11, every ballpark made a no-backpack rule, and Yankee Stadium remains the only place that actually enforces it (reason #27 why I hate going there). Just to make sure, I poked my head into a little security/media entrance, where I happened to spot a familiar face. It took me a moment to figure out who it was. He looked older and shorter in person. “Mr. ______,” I said, “could you sign an autograph for me, please?” He nodded and walked over. I reached into my backpack, pulled out an old Mets-Philles ticket stub, and handed it to him with my un-capped blue Sharpie. He took it and signed it and handed it back to me. “It’s nice to finally meet you,” he said. “I’ve been waiting all my life to sign an autograph for you.” Okay, that’s not really what he said, and it’s not even that close to what I said. I did tell him I was glad to meet him–that much is true–and I shook his hand…and that was it. We couldn’t stand around exchanging pleasantries all day. We both had work to do. Who was this mystery man? You tell me. His signature isn’t THAT hard to read. Anyway, the security guard confirmed that backpacks are not allowed inside the stadium. After entering the gates, I’d be escorted to Guest Services where I would check my bag. After the game, I’d be allowed to pick it up. (Yankee Stadium won’t even hold your bag for you. If you don’t have a car or some other place to put it, you have to leave it at the bowling alley across the street. No joke.) This was bad. Really really bad. I had a LOT of stuff with me–Mets hat, Mets jacket, Expos hat (haven’t bought one yet for the Nationals), journal, pens, rubber bands, Sharpie, keys, food, glove, ticket stubs, wallet, camera–and there was no way I’d be able to carry it all in my arms. And what about all the balls I’d be getting?
I went to the ticket window to get a second opinion (and a ticket). “It depends on the security alert,” said the lady behind the bullet-proof window, “but you probably won’t be able to bring in anything except a bottle of water.” I asked her if I’d be able to enter the field level without a field level ticket. “No,” she laughed as if that were the dumbest question she’d ever heard–so I had to shell out 40 bucks for a seat along the right field foul line…a seat which I never even sat in.
It was 4pm and sunny. The gates would be opening in 90 minutes. I felt good about the weather. I felt bad from having gotten only five hours of sleep. I was worried about my backpack, so I went to the Nationals office…you know, that sterilized waiting room with a receptionist and the team logo high on the wall and a security camera watching your every move. I told the lady that I’d just driven down from New York and that it was first time at RFK and that I was really nervous about not being able to bring my bag inside. “Oh don’t worry,” she said, “I see people with backpacks in there all the time. If anyone gives you a hard time, you just come right back here.” I still had my doubts. “NO” was still winning, 2-1. I asked if there was a bathroom open to fans this early in the day. “Just around the corner, you’ll find one,” she said, referring to the Port-O-Potty. I told her it was locked. (It really was.) “Really?” she asked apologetically. Really. She told me to have a seat, and when her replacement showed up two minutes later, she took me upstairs and pointed me down a corridor toward the men’s room. Let’s just say that it was a LONG drive.
Next stop was the team store, housed in a flimsy white structure that looked like it’d been built just for this homestand. No, I didn’t want a Christian Guzman jersey. No, I didn’t care about the 8″ x 11″ glossy photographs of the president throwing out the season’s ceremonial first pitch. I just wanted to see the balls. Not counting all the fake/plastic ones, there were two different kinds for sale: regular MLB balls for $21 and the commemorative “Washington Nationals 2005 Inaugural Season” balls for a dollar more. I inspected the commemorative ball so long that a sales lady came over and asked me if I was interested in buying it. “I’m gonna see if I can catch one first,” I said and left for the gate.
It was 4:15pm. I had an hour and a quarter to kill. I found a butt-sized patch of pavement that did NOT have bird poop on it, and I sat down and leaned against the gate and wrote in my journal. Heaven.
Forty-five minutes later, people started lining up, so I stood up and joined them and had several conversations, all of which were about two things: baseball and the weather. Just about everyone I talked to was there for the first time. There was one family that’d driven from Kentucky and another that had taken the train from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There were lots of Mets fans, too–lots of “WRIGHT 5” and “BELTRAN 15” jerseys. Why do I keep thinking that I’m going to be the only Mets fan if I see them on the road? So much for using my Mets jacket to give myself an advantage.
The clouds moved in at 5:10pm, the thunder began at 5:15, and five minutes before the stadium opened, it started POURING. I wished I wasn’t there.
My backpack has three main compartments. When the stadium opened, security searched one of them for two seconds and sent me on my way. I had my ticket scanned and raced inside to find the tarp covering the infield, with the batting cage and other remnants of BP having been moved hastily aside. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
Security chased me out of the seats and sent me back into the concourse. Why? Because the main aisle–and all the steps below it–is made of metal, and there was lightning. Nice going, stadium architects. Keep up the good work.
I caught a glimpse of several Mets scampering from the right field bullpen (at RFK, the visitors are on the right side), so I threw on my Mets jacket and headed that way, carefully avoiding all metal surfaces so I wouldn’t get killed or scolded. There was a cluster of Mets fans out there, and some guy immediately started talking to me: “Do you know when Trachsel is coming back? What do you think about Reyes being moved to the 7th hole? Sheffield for Cameron?! Yeah right! How disappointing is Glavine? Are you from New York? I’m from Norfolk. I see the Triple-A team all the time. My cousin played high school ball with David Wright. Can you believe that Floyd isn’t going to Detroit? What do you think about Rick Peterson? The bullpen is really struggling. And Zambrano…”
DUDE!!! SHUT UP!!! I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE METS!!! I ROOT AGAINST THEM SO THAT FEWER PEOPLE WILL SHOW UP AT THEIR GAMES!!!
There was a ball sitting under one of the benches in the bullpen. Did these other fans want it? There were some kids with gloves, looking in the ball’s direction, but did they even see it? It was far away, on the other side of a gap and a fence–and 20 feet down. I knew it was going to be tossed into the crowd, but the competition was stiff….that is, until the rain stopped and security opened up all seating areas. The crowd dispersed. It was beautiful. I was now alone out there, staring at a soggy baseball and an empty bullpen.
Zambrano came out of a passageway in the right field corner, tiptoed around the puddles on the warning track, and wandered into the bullpen.
“Victor!” I called, and he looked up. “Could you please toss me that ball?” He didn’t see it. I had to point it out. He walked slowly toward the bench, kneeled on a little platform and reached for the ball. Oh baby, this was too easy…he took a few steps toward me, reached back to throw it but then flung the ball underhand. It stuck in his hand just a fraction of a second too long, went too high, sailed too far to the right, and fell short, hitting the base of the wall and rattling around in the gap between the bullpen and the stands. All the other fans saw it and came running over. Victor walked out of the bullpen, to give me another chance, I assumed, but he left the ball lying there and headed to the outfield grass to do some running. A Mets coach came out of the passageway and headed through the gap toward the field. I yelled for the ball and told him that Zambrano had tried to throw it to me. The coach didn’t look at me. He just flipped it up randomly and it went five feet to my right where some other guy (not even wearing a glove or any Mets gear) caught it.
“Sorry,” he shrugged and walked off with my ball.
The field was still empty, and it was less than an hour until gametime. My 26-game streak of four or more balls per game, it seemed, was about to die.
Zambrano finished his running and stretching, then played catch with bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello. That lasted about ten minutes, and THEN he went back into the bullpen to throw off the mound for Peterson. Nationals starter Esteban Loaiza began throwing in left field. Several players were signing autographs along the 3rd base line, but I couldn’t leave. I’d invested so much time on Zambrano that I had to stick around to try to get that ball. And anyway, I always go for balls before autographs, especially when it’s 45 minutes before gametime and I’m being shut out. Zambrano kept throwing and throwing. Fastballs. Curveballs. Sliders. My lord. He must’ve thrown 75 to 100 pitches. Maybe more. This was the only action on the Mets side, so all the fans had made their way over to check it out. Finally, the bullpen session was done, and the three guys–pitcher, catcher, and coach–headed out onto the warning track and around the foul pole and back through the gap toward the passageway. “Victor!!! Victor!!!” I was screaming louder than anyone. It was half an hour ’til gametime, and I was desperate. I’d stopped thinking about getting four balls. I was just hoping for one. My 398-game streak with at least one ball at every game was very much in danger. Zambrano kept walking, and I kept shouting, and just before he disappeared from view, he turned and underhanded the ball to me–and it sailed five feet over my head into a thick crowd of people. O h m y g o d.
This was serious.
Loaiza had disappeared into the LF bullpen. It wasn’t worth going over there because the game’s starting pitcher hardly ever throws his warmup ball into the crowd. Zambrano wasn’t starting. He was just getting in some work between starts. This was Pedro’s game. Pedro was nowhere in sight, and there weren’t ANY players on the field. The sun was out. The tarp was long gone. It was 25 minutes before gametime. What was going on?! I was officially in panic-mode.
Still no players.
Are you kidding me?!
Finally, two Nationals–Jose Guillen and Matt Cepicky–came out to run and throw, so I bolted to the left field side. The ushers kept trying to kick me out of the section, so I kept pretending to leave (by walking up a few rows) and then returning. It was 15 minutes until gametime and so crowded behind 3rd base that the ushers forgot about me. Cepicky and Guillen were winding down. They got closer and closer. Who would end up with it? Guillen? No problem, I’d ask him in Spanish. No! It was Cepicky, and he started walking toward the dugout. “MATT!!! MATT!!!” He didn’t look up. I kept shouting and finally got his attention, and he tossed the ball to me. It was 6:53pm, twelve minutes before gametime. The shutout was over…and to make things even better, it was a commemorative ball! Unfortunately, the logo was semi-worn, but whatever. I was thrilled.
Five minutes later, just before the national anthem, I got Vinny Castilla to throw me a ball (a very regular, non-commemorative ball) at the dugout, and that was it for the Nat’s. They were all off the field, and it wouldn’t be long before the managers exchanged lineup cards and got the game underway. Ramon Castro and Jose Reyes popped out of the Mets dugout for a quick warmup catch. I figured that Reyes, the better player, would end up with the ball, so I hurried to his side–the 1st base side–of the dugout…but Castro ended up with it, 50 feet away, all the way down on the home plate side. Amazingly, there were no other fans anywhere along the dugout who were asking for the ball. I let out a mighty “RA-MON!!!” and waved my arms. He looked up, just before heading down the steps, and lobbed the ball to me. There was a guy sitting on my left in the front row. I was afraid he’d reach out and grab it, but he made no effort whatsoever, allowing me to lean out and one-hand it. (Regular ball…no reason why the Mets would be using the Nationals’ commemorative balls.) One minute after that, David Wright was finishing playing catch with Chris Woodward in shallow right field. Wright ended up with it. I called out. He ignored me and started heading toward the dugout. I darted through the mostly empty rows of seats to keep up with him, calling his name the whole time. Nothing. But when he got closer, just on the other side of the photographers’ box, he heard me loud-n-clear, and since there was no one else wearing a Mets jacket in the 88-degree humidity, he tossed it to me, a nice little floater of knuckleball. It was 7:01pm. I’d gotten four balls within eight minutes.
But I wanted another. I wanted a game ball…or any ball with a crisp Nationals logo on it…but the game was starting, so I figured it had to be a gamer. I also wanted to explore the inside of the ballpark, and I spent the first three innings doing so. I took pictures of everything from the ramps and concourses to the field and views from the upper deck. I did my wandering early so that the seats would fill up. There was no point in sitting down somewhere and then moving five minutes later when the latecomers arrived. And by the way, no one ever asked to see my ticket. Nice ploy by the ticket office to get
me to pay $40. Here’s my revenge: When you go to RFK, buy the cheapest seats available and sit anywhere you want. Tell your friends. And tell them to tell their friends. And tell them all to bring backpacks. Mwahahaha!!!
In retrospect, I should have gone for balls at the start of the game because I lost valuable opportunities. I ended up using a double strategy. Every half inning, I moved back and forth behind home plate for righties and lefties (for foul balls) until there were two outs, and then I went to the dugout for the third out to try to get the ball tossed into the crowd when the players came off the field. It was exhausting, but I was determined. I needed a good Nationals ball. I came close after the bottom of the 4th when Woodward came in and tossed the ball to the guy right in front of me. The guy was sitting in the second row. I was a little late getting down there and only made it to the third row. We both put our gloves up as the ball came in. He caught it six inches in front of mine. That hurt. I should’ve done my wandering in the middle of the game. In the first few innings, none of the fans ever realize that the players will continually toss balls into the crowd, so I should have been down there, trying to work it before everyone caught on. Stupid Zack!
I came close to two foul balls. No wait. Three foul balls. There was one that landed in a TV booth and got tossed down, five seconds before I could get over. There was another ball that flew over my head, and as soon as I started running up the steps for it, it clipped the bottom of the facade of the press level and ricocheted back and landed TWO seats right in front of where I’d been sitting…if only I’d stayed there! But how was I to know? And then there was a two-out, check-swing bullet that came my way when I happened to be sitting a few rows behind the 1st base dugout. It shot into the crowd ten feet to my right, and when I scampered for it, I accidentally stepped on some woman’s foot. She made such a big stink about it that I grabbed my bag and left before the situation got out of hand. That incident wiped out any chance I had of going back to the Mets’ dugout, but whatever. It was the 7th inning, and there were so many kids running down to the first row after every 3rd out that I wasn’t going to get a ball there anyway. As for the Nationals’ dugout, I was banned from there as well, not because of any incident, but because the usher knew I didn’t belong and told me not to come back.
I was mad. I’d come close to so many balls, and both of my main spots were now dead. I wandered out to the LF corner to have a look at the Nationals’ bullpen. What did I see when I got there? A ball, just sitting on the ground in the gap between the pen and the stands. Was this a joke? The seats were packed. How was it possible that none of the fans spotted it? None of the players saw it either. Gary Bennett walked by. I called out. He ignored me. He’s always been rude. Moments later, Joey Eischen passed by. I shouted and he looked up. I pointed to the ball and asked if he could toss it. He walked over, picked it up, and threw it right to me. “Thanks!” I yelled and fumbled with it frantically to see if it had the Nationals’ logo. Nope. Just a regular ball. And it was waterlogged. (It could have been soaked with tobacco juice for all I cared. A ball is a ball.) That was #5.
Meanwhile, there was a nice little pitchers’ duel going on, and I hadn’t even noticed. Washington was winning 1-0…and promptly tacked on a couple more runs on an RBI-double by Jose Vidro and a run-scoring single by Guillen.
I stayed in left field until the top of the 9th, then went back to the Nationals’ dugout but stayed back a dozen rows so the usher wouldn’t see me. It had been a quick game, and I really wanted it to end so I could hit the road. Also, if the Nationals could hang on, I’d have a better shot at getting a commemorative ball. Loaiza gave up a leadoff single to Cliff Floyd and got lifted for Chad Cordero, the major league leader in saves, but two more singles and a boneheaded throwing error by Guillen made it a 3-1 game with one out and runners on 2nd and 3rd. Jose Reyes grounded out to make it 3-2. Two outs. Tying run on 3rd. Please Please Please…c’mon, Mets…lose! Pinch-hitter Brian Daubach popped out to Jamey Carroll at short. Ballgame!
The usher didn’t stop anyone from going down to the dugout, so I followed the crowd and squeezed into the front row. The Nationals headed out onto the field to congratulate each other. Blah blah. I waited for Cordero to come back, but he kept the ball. That was predictable. It was his 30th save. I was hoping someone else would have a ball…and someone did. Unfortunately, I only got a glimpse of this person before he tossed it to me and ducked into the dugout. At first, I thought it might have been Nilson Robledo, the bullpen catcher, but now I think it was Hector Carrasco (who tossed me ball #1,500 at the Metrodome in 1999). I looked at the ball…and YES! There it was: a near-perfect Nationals logo. My night was complete.
I hung around, asked people for their extra ticket stubs, took some pictures of the empty seats, and headed back to 3-D to begin the long journey back to New York City.
2,548 total balls
117 balls in 17 games this season = 6.9 balls per game
399 consecutive games with at least one ball
27 consecutive games with at least four balls
38 major league stadiums with at least one ball
448 total balls outside NYC
73 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
3,989 words in this entry