GATE C opened five minutes late because the ticket-scanning devices weren’t working. Once I got inside, I went straight to right field (since LF was dead the day before) and for a few minutes, Shea was all mine. I dropped my backpack on a chair and started walking up the stairs and back down, climbing over railings, and combing through the orange rows. I always do that in case there’s a loose baseball that security somehow missed. Usually, I don’t find anything. This time I did. The ball was just sitting on the pavement, right in the front row. How nice is that? As you can see, it has “PRACTICE” stamped on it, and there’s a mysterious smudge. I have no idea what could have made it. Any theories?
Two minutes later, after one other fan had made his way out to my section, Victor Zambrano strolled out of the bullpen and tossed me a ball that had been lying on the warning track.
It was only 4:50pm when someone on the Mets launched a home run into the empty Loge Level in left field. (Shea has four levels: Field, Loge, Mezzanine, and Upper.) I’ve raced up the ramps from the Field to the Loge plenty of times for balls just like that–except this one was on the other side of the stadium.
I knew the other fan saw it. I knew he was thinking what I was thinking, so I just said it: “I’m thinking about running over there to look for it.”
“Yeah, me too,” he said.
Neither of us moved. We couldn’t believe that NO one else in the stadium had seen it. Maybe there was an usher or a security guard already there that we hadn’t seen? Those guys sometimes hide out in the last few rows early in BP. Or maybe there was a fan on the 3rd base side who was already making his way up there?
We kept staring at the section, waiting for someone to pop out of the runway and claim the ball.
“It’s impossible,” I said.
The seats, however, remained empty, and I decided to go for it.
“Good luck!” shouted the other guy as I headed off. He was more interested in autographs.
I couldn’t sprint through the main aisle because I’d get stopped by the ushers, so I had to take the slightly longer/curved route through the concourse. I was moving and turned a few heads in the process, mostly those of the vendors who were setting up their stands. Mmm, sausages. I passed home plate after 30 seconds and continued through the concourse behind 3rd base and passed the foul pole. I hung a left, galloped up a two-part ramp, turned right, and bolted through the furthest runway and into the main aisle of the LF Loge. There was no one else around, and I couldn’t decide if that was a good thing. I was either the first one there or someone else came and grabbed the ball and took off. Then I looked down and saw the ball resting against the back of a chair, 10 feet to my left. Amazing. I walked over, picked it up, held it over my head, and saw the fan across the stadium pump his fists. (The arrow is pointing to the spot where my journey began.)
I stayed in the Loge for the next half-hour, and didn’t get anything. Of course, the day before when I wasn’t there, the Mets hit three balls into that section.
I went to the Mets’ dugout and got a ball from Jose Offerman as he came off the field. In my last four games, I’ve gotten eight balls there at the end of Mets BP, but I’ve had to spend so much time jockeying for space in the front row that I’ve lost other opportunities.
Because this was a Pedro game, the seats filled up toward the end of BP, so I stayed in the left field corner on the Field Level and tried to get the Brewers to throw me balls. Rick Helling? Ignored me. Russell Branyan? Ignored me. Pitching coach Mike Maddux? Whatever. Chris Capuano? Too far away. Derrick Turnbow? Totally rude.
At 6:20pm, I was still stuck on four balls, and BP was about to end, so I hurried over to the Brewers’ dugout. Trent Durrington was one of the few guys who actually had a ball in his hand as he came off the field. I called out to him, afraid that he’d recognize me as “That Guy I Gave A Ball To Yesterday,” but he tossed it up. I reached out casually to make the easy catch when some kid, not more than 12 years old, who’d been standing innocently on my left, lunged in front of me and snatched the ball just in front of my glove and ran away with it before I blinked. Trent was already gone. He didn’t see it. First I was in shocked. Then I was furious, not at the kid, but at myself for letting my attention slip. All I had to do was make an active attempt to reach OUT for the ball instead of waiting for it to come to me. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I gave that one away. At least Marcus Hanel (the bullpen catcher) tossed me a ball a minute later, so I walked away feeling a little bit better about life.
I ran into my friend George (a.k.a. “loveg30” if you’ve been reading the comments) and spent some time with him until several Brewers came out for some pregame stretching and running. Durrington was among them, so I went down toward the field and called out for an autograph. He was still getting loose, so he gave me the universal “hold on a minute” gesture.
Finally, he came over.
“I’m the guy from Boise,” I reminded him as he signed my ticket from the day before, a ticket which I could’ve gotten signed by several other people but didn’t because I was holding out for this very occasion. “I was a groundskeeper out there, and me and this other guy stole your bat one night to take a little BP and ended up breaking the damn thing–“
“Oh yeah, I remember that,” he said with a smirk.
“–and you were so nice about it,” I continued. “Anyway, I’ve been following your career for the last decade, and it’s great to see you here.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Hey, would you mind signing another one for me ‘To Zack’? That’s -Z-A-C-K.” I handed him my other ticket, and he began writing, using the rolled up tarp as his surface. “I just wish these clowns would give you more than seven at bats in sixteen games.”
“Yeah right,” he laughed and started signing for other people. I began taking photos of him, and some lady offered to take one of the two of us. It was rushed and came out a little crooked, but I didn’t care. I was too busy being happy.
I didn’t get a ball from J.J. Hardy at the dugout before the game, nor did I get the Mike Piazza foul tip that whistled right over my head, two pitches before he sent a 430-foot bomb over the bleachers in the bottom of the 4th…but because of all my running around in the Loge, I ended up catching a Jose Reyes foul tip–on the fly–two innings later. I’d been standing in the empty runway between section 4 and 6 for every left-handed hitter, but during Reyes’ previous at bat, the usher from the next runway decided to head my way, forcing me move one section over (via the concourse) to his vacated spot. Reyes, of course, ended up slicing a ball RIGHT where I’d been standing 20 seconds earlier–and where I continued to stand once the usher moved back to his regular spot. That was beyond frustrating. But yeah, in the bottom of the 6th, the usher was back where he belonged, so I had MY regular spot when Reyes defied probability and floated another foul ball (pictured on the right) to the same spot. I love second chances. If only there were more of them in the real world.
I never did find a seat (Pedro on the hill, attendance = 40,659), so I ended up running around for the whole game. Two straight nights of this have exhausted my feet.
Pedro left in the 7th with a 4-3 lead, but Roberto Hernandez surrendered a solo shot to Carlos Lee in the 8th which tied the game at 4-4. (Meanwhile, there was a serious lack of foul tips.) Braden Looper gave up two runs in the top of the 9th, so I went to the Brewers’ dugout. (Poor Durrington pinch ran–make that seven at bats in 17 games–and got hosed at 3rd on a stolen base attempt and got ejected for arguing.) In the bottom of the 9th, Turnbow gave up two hits, but used a 96mph fastball to escape the jam. Final score: Brewers 6, Mets 4. The players all walked out and slapped hands and then headed back my way. I was the ONLY fan behind the dugout with a glove and the only fan with a Brewers cap. I shouted my head off at Turnbow, both before and after his on-field interview, but he held onto the ball (which is his right) and completely ignored me. Didn’t look up. Didn’t wave. Didn’t say, “Sorry, I gotta keep this one.” Nothing. I hope he spends the rest of his career rotting with mediocre teams.
All the players were off the field, but I stuck around just in case. It’s my policy not to leave until security makes me. In some ballparks, that can be half an hour. In NYC, it’s about two minutes.
There were still a few other fans nearby when Wes Helms poked his head out of the dugout. I asked for ball. Instead, he tossed his batting gloves, and I snatched them with MY glove as they were heading toward two other guys. One of them said a few not-nice words and threatened to take the gloves AND my hat if I didn’t leave. I love New York.
I’ve gotten about half a dozen pairs of batting gloves over the years, and I just realized that I’ve never made a list of the guys who’ve given them to me. Instead, I’ve just written their names on little pieces of paper and stuck them into the gloves themselves…which, along with 2,431 of my baseballs, are at my parents’ place. I’ll dig ’em out next time I’m there.
As I walked to the subway, I started to try on the gloves but stopped because they were still sweaty. (Some people might be into that–“Ooh!! A major leaguer’s bodily fluid!!”–but I’m not one of them.) I just tried them on now. No longer sweaty, but too big.
Here be some stats:
-407 consecutive games with at least one ball.
-33 consecutive games with at least four balls.
-Five consecutive games with at least six balls. (This streak will be in danger if/when I go to Yankee Stadium next week.)
-156 balls this season in 23 games = 6.7826086957 balls per game.
-85 lifetime game balls (including two in my last two games and three in my last four).
-2,587 total balls (moves me ahead of Ernie Banks (2,583) and Reggie Jackson (2,584) for 72nd on the all-time hits list. Next up is Ed Delahanty (born in 1867) with 2,596. If you have no idea why I’m comparing baseballs to basehits, click here.)
-11 days ’til I leave for Cincinnati/Houston.