I was the only fan in left field for the first five minutes of batting practice, and guess what: nothing was hit into the seats. Shea was officially dead, and I had to start begging, so when Mets coach Jerry Manuel grabbed a ball off the warning track, I called out to him. What did he do? He waved to me, then fired it toward the infield. Aaron Heilman came out to shag some balls. I asked him five different times. He ignored me five different times. A bunch of fans eventually wandered out to my section, including three young boys and a girl. Heilman ignored all of them, too.
After ten minutes, I gave up on left field and ran around to right, where a few Mets pitchers were standing around. After ten more minutes of getting dissed (mostly by Danny Graves and his 7.85 ERA), I asked Dae-Sung Koo for a ball–in Korean–and he tossed it to me without hesitating. It might be the dirtiest ball I’ve caught all season.
It was 5pm. I’d been inside the ballpark for 20 minutes. I don’t like it when it takes that long to get the first ball of the day.
Right field was already filling up, so I ran back to the left side and went down to the first row behind 3rd base. Chris Woodward and Jose Reyes were taking fungos, and I was about to ask them for a ball when Gerald Williams strolled past 2nd base with one in his glove.
“Gerald!!!” I shouted. He looked up and several other fans started calling for the ball. He wasn’t sure who to throw it to, so I yelled his nickname (“Ice”). It worked. He gave me a perfect lob from about 100 feet away, and I caught it with two hands. (My glove is old and floppy and has duck-tape and rubber bands and twist-ties holding it together.) That was my second ball of the day, and as you can see in the pic, its logo is smudged and blurred.
I didn’t get anything else for half an hour. The first row in every section was packed, the Mets were being stingy, and the hitters were hitting everything in fair territory–the nerve!–so I ditched the foul line for the last ten minutes of the Mets’ BP and used the time to work my way into the front row behind their dugout on the 1st base side. When all the players and coaches came off the field at 5:30pm, Carlos Beltran tossed me a ball and Manuel threw me another within 30 seconds.
“That’s TWO!!!” someone protested.
I resisted the urge to say, “Actually, that’s four.”
Ever since the Mets signed Beltran in January, I’d been hoping that I’d get to add his name to my list, but center fielders are tough, especially at Shea where there aren’t any outfield seats. (The bleachers don’t count.) I never had a chance to get close to Beltran. That’s why it took this long. Rigo finally has some company.
The Manuel ball has a streak of magic marker across the sweet spot. I didn’t draw it. The Mets did, and I was surprised. Some teams stamp or mark their practice balls in order to keep track of them. The Astros write a big ugly “H” on every ball. Back in the 90s, the Mets used to write a small “NY” but they haven’t written anything on their balls since. (I wrote the “2562” because it’s my 2,562nd ball.)
I managed just one ball during the 40 minutes that the Padres took BP. Clay Hensley tossed it to me in the left field corner. Because I’d printed the Padres roster the night before, I was the only fan out there who knew his first name.
Davey Lopes, the former Dodgers All-Star and current Padres’ 1st base coach, started signing by the corner of the 3rd base dugout. I raced over and tried unsuccessfully to reach through a cluster of hardcore autograph collectors with my ticket and Sharpie.
“Last one, guys, I gotta go,” said Lopes as he scribbled his name for a kid dressed head-to-toe in Mets gear.
“You’re gonna sign the last one for a Mets fan?!” I asked.
Lopes looked up and saw my Padres cap. “I don’t give a damn baseball is baseball,” he said before signing my ticket and disappearing into the runway.
Right before the national anthem, Robert Fick started throwing with some bullpen-catcher-type-guy near the left field corner. I jogged over and settled into a front-row seat. (The seats out there were now mostly empty since BP was done.) I looked around. No competition. Not a single kid or Padres fan or person with a glove. It was pretty much a guaranteed ball, but I made my request early just to be safe: “Hey, Robert, is there any chance you could toss the ball over here when you’re done, please?” He didn’t respond, but I knew he heard me, and I waited patiently for a couple minutes until he was about to finish. I stood up and called his name. As he looked my way and lobbed the ball, several kids charged down the steps out of nowhere. I reached a little higher at the last second, and as the ball kissed the pocket of my glove, one of the kids whacked me in the back of the head and knocked my hat off. I had to lunge over the railing to catch it. As I headed up the stairs, some guy shouted, “Give it to the kid!” He was actually serious.
I headed up to the Loge with six balls in my bag. No empty seats, at least not anywhere worth sitting, so I was faced with another game on my feet. It’s exhausting, but the one good thing about standing is that I get to double my chances by playing righties and lefties differently on the 1st and 3rd base sides of home plate. I didn’t come close to anything for the first two innings. Then, on a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the top of the 3rd, Brian Giles tipped one in my direction. I knew right away that it had the perfect height and distance, but I was standing in the slanted runway between Sections 4 and 6, and the ball was heading ten feet to my left. I bolted up the concrete ramp and hung a sharp left through the narrow aisle as the ball whistled toward a man standing up with a glove. I didn’t know if I’d be able to reach it, so I took one final step and lunged to my left and felt the ball smack the pocket of my glove. I ran back through the aisle down the runway as fast as I’d crashed the scene. I had a feeling that the fans of Section 6 weren’t too happy, and I never went back. Didn’t matter. There were more righties in the starting lineups. Unfortunately, none of them hit a foul ball anywhere near me for the rest of the night.
Do I feel bad about reaching in front of that guy? Hmm, let me think about that. No. Just because he happened to have a seat there does NOT give him the exclusive right to (try to) catch the ball. More importantly, the ball was hit, so it obviously wasn’t meant for him…and anyway, this is New York City.
Final score in 11 innings: Mets 3, Padres 1 on a walk-off job by Chris Woodward.
And now, some ZackStats:
–The ball from Koo made it 404 consecutive games with at least one ball.
–The ball from Manuel made it 30 straight with at least four, and it moved me ahead of Willie Davis into 75th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Richie Ashburn with 2,574. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, read my entry called “Chasing Rickey and Rose and…Willie Davis?” and then come back.)
–The Giles ball is my 83rd lifetime game ball and 4th of 2005, giving me seven straight seasons with at least four gamers.
–This season, I’ve caught 134 balls in 20 games for an average of 6.7 balls per game…the same numbers I ended with in 2001.
–My grand total is 2,565, which means I’ve collected exactly 2,000 balls since creating a certain e-mail address with the number ‘565’ in it.
–Finally…it’s only 26 days ’til I arrive in Cincinnati.