My day began at 7am when I woke up with four and a half hours of sleep. I jumped in the shower, crammed my stuff into my bag, missed the free breakfast at the hotel, and caught a ride to the airport at 7:30am.
I worked on yesterday’s blog entry throughout the two-hour flight to Houston (except when the guy in the next seat was telling me about his daughter who’s in dental school and that she’s writing a book about nutrition and that Houston’s medical center has 63,000 employees and that minor league baseball is popular in Midland because there’s nothing else to do there and that he’s a lawyer and that my computer is really nice).
I blogged while waiting for my Shuttle Express van.
I blogged on the van, struggling to keep my distance from the kid with Cheese Doodle residue all over his hands and face and clothing.
I checked into my hotel, went to my room, plugged in my laptop, and kept blogging (1pm). And blogging (2pm). And blogging (3pm). I realized that I was running out of time to get to the ballpark early enough to explore its surroundings (3:15pm), but I still had to upload the photographs (3:45pm). Finally, I gathered my stuff (4pm) and headed out and walked to the ballpark (4:09pm).
There was already a huge line of fans at the “Home Plate” entrance. It didn’t make any sense. The game wasn’t starting until 7:05pm. I was pretty sure the gates would be opening two hours before that…so why were all these people lining up so early? I quickly bought a ticket and got on line and asked the guy in front of me what time the gates open.
“Four-thirty,” he said.
“Whoa! Seriously? That’s awesome that they open up so early.”
He looked at me funny.
I was excited. Very few ballparks open two and a half hours before gametime. I had a good feeling about the day, but it WAS crowded, and I had no strategy, no plan for what to do or where to go once the gates–or in this case, the doors–opened. I hadn’t gotten to walk around the stadium. I hadn’t gotten a chance to peek inside at any of the seats. I felt completely rushed and unsettled. When I go to a new stadium, I’m as interested in the exterior as the interior, possibly even more so because I get to see the interior on TV all the time. The exterior is foreign land. It’s a true adventure to wander and soak up the atmosphere and take pictures and inspect the design and consider what it must be like for local fans who go there every day.
It was 4:25pm, and I still hadn’t decided whether to go to left or right field. I knew there’d be more balls hit to left because most of the Astros hitters are righties and the outfield wall is ridiculously shallow. But I figured that the section would be crowded. It’s only about eight or 10 rows deep, so I wouldn’t have much room to maneuver. It was the classic dilemma: More opportunities with heavy competition versus fewer opportunities with less competition. Since the Astros, like most home teams, occupy the right side of the stadium, I decided, with one minute to spare, to head to right field where I’d have a better chance of getting balls thrown to me.
Minute Maid opened and I ran inside. My first thought was something along the lines of: “Oh baby. I’m finally here.” My second thought: “Oh ****, I’m on the 3rd base side of home plate.” So I went to left field.
Half a dozen balls landed in the seats within a couple minutes, but I didn’t get any because there were so many other people. Several balls flew over my head and ricocheted off the arches/facade into the lower rows. I knew that was going to happen, but I couldn’t plan for it because I would’ve had to stay in the lower rows where it was even more crowded.
I moved to the center field end of the section, where there’s a high fence to prevent people from leaning over. I noticed that Willy Taveras had two baseballs, and I called out to him. He chucked the first one back to the bucket, so I yelled again, reaching above the top of the fence with my glove. He turned toward me and made a perfect throw. One foot lower and it would’ve hit the fence. Three feet higher and I wouldn’t have been able to reach it. I felt a burst of happiness; I had now caught at least one ball at 40 different major league stadiums.
It was only 4:35pm and the Cubs were already in left field.
“This is WEIRD,” I thought. I’d never heard of a visiting team warming up two and a half hours before gametime.
Then the Astros jogged off the field, and the Cubs started setting up for BP. What the heII?
I asked the closest fan what time the game starts.
“Six,” he said.
I grabbed my wallet and whipped out my ticket. “6:05pm.” I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the pocket schedule that I’d gotten 20 minutes earlier. “7:05pm.” I was thoroughly confused.
“Yeah,” said the fan, “they moved up the game for TV.”
Gee whiz, Astros, thanks for letting me know. Thanks for being as lame as the Reds and opening up your precious little ballpark a pathetic 90 minutes before the first pitch.
I moved into foul territory and shouted for a ball from a Cubs pitcher. It was either Jerome Williams or Roberto Novoa. I didn’t know, but luckily it didn’t matter. The guy told me to hold out my glove as a target, and then he threw the ball right to it from about 40 feet away.
“That’s SKILL!!!” I shouted, and he gave me a nod before walking off.
Left field was packed, but right field was practically empty so I ran over there. Greg Maddux and Mark Prior were both snotty. Neither of them threw a single ball into the crowd or even acknowledged any of the screaming kids. Thankfully, I didn’t need their help because Derrek Lee came through for me by hitting a deep fly in my direction. I ran down about 10 steps–I shouldn’t have been standing that far back for a righty–and reached out over the wall and caught it. Brand new! I mean flawless, like right out of the Rawlings box, first pitch, bang, into my glove. Three minutes later, Lee hit another one to my left. I raced through the empty second row, climbed into the crowded first row, reached out just in time, and caught it.
“That’s two!!” I heard someone protest. I was running all over the place and positioning myself differently for every hitter and shouting for balls. I could tell that the lovely people of Houston had never seen anything like this.
Lee finished his round with a left-handed swing and hit a 380-foot fly ball to center. The left-handed Jeromy Burnitz followed with a right-handed swing. Not only did he miss, but his attempt was so awkward that he lost his balance and fell down.
Fifteen minutes later, a Cubs lefty (not sure who, maybe Matt Murton) mashed a ball way over my head. Everyone in the section started moving back. I moved forward, anticipating that it would land in the 2nd deck and possibly bounce down. It did. Right to me. Ball number five.
“That’s three!!!” shouted the irate fan.
It was 6:15pm. Batting practice was almost done, so I headed to the Cubs’ dugout on the 3rd base side. It was still early. I figured I’d get at least one more ball before the day was through. Possibly two. After snagging just eight balls in two games at Great American Ball Park, I wanted 12 in Houston so I could end my trip with 20. If I could get seven balls at this game, I’d only need five the day after.
I headed down the steps to the dugout and was stopped at the second row. Once batting practice is over (or in this case, almost over), security becomes extremely protective of the first row all around the ballpark, so I stayed in the second row and got Henry Blanco to toss me a ball as he came off the field. That was number six.
One minute later, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry stepped out of the dugout and started grabbing balls from the basket and tossing them to everyone who was wearing Cubs gear. He spotted my hat and flipped one to me. Number seven. He gave away at least 15 balls. I’d never seen anything like that.
I asked him for an autograph and when he nodded, I hooked an old Cubs-Mets ticket stub to my Sharpie and flung it over the dugout roof. He signed it and hooked the stub to the marker and tossed it back–with the cap off!!! The tip of the marker hit the dugout roof and got smushed. Then the marker bounced off and hit me on the shin and left a blue streak on my pants. No wonder the Cubs haven’t won since 1908.
I wandered and took a few pics but didn’t stray too far because the players would be coming back out soon to warm up again. Normally, I try to get pregame balls on the visitors’ side, but in this case, there were so many Cubs fans along the 3rd base line that I stayed in shallow right field. Several Astros were throwing, and there was only one other fan with a glove anywhere near the field–a 40-something-year-old with tight jeans and a mustache–who shouted for the ball every time Adam Everett caught it. I politely asked if I could have it when he was done, and that’s all it took. Everett appreciated that I understood that he was actually in the process of using it (what a concept!) and tossed it to me. Ball number eight.
“Oh man!” shouted the other fan as if he were the unluckiest guy in the world. (Actually, he was. If I hadn’t come to Houston, that ball would’ve been his.)
Eric Bruntlett and Orlando Palmeiro started playing catch one section to my right, so I moved over and hung back a few rows. Now the front row was completely empty. I couldn’t believe it. Where had all the autograph seekers gone? Where was Mr. TightJeans? I looked behind me and saw a teenage boy with a glove sitting next to the steps, about six rows back. He looked like he was going to run down to the front and ask for the ball, but when the players finished, he just sat there and contemplated his zits while I stood up and got it from Bruntlett.
“That’s two!!” shouted a fan. “Can I have one?”
Can you have one? Absolutely! Just bring a glove and put in a shred of effort. I have no doubt that you’ll get one…on Friday.
That may have been the easiest ball I’ve ever gotten. It was embarrassingly easy. It’s like beating the Royals or hitting a home run in Denver. It shouldn’t count. Anyway, I’d like to revise all previous statements about the Astros being stingy. I mean, they still mark every ball with a big “H” but yesterday they were as generous as any team I’ve seen, so my new opinion of them is as follows: They are the stingiest ROAD team in baseball.
I had nine balls when the game started. I could tell that the ballpark wasn’t good for foul balls (very high protective screen, no aisle through the seats) so I decided to work the dugouts for balls at the end of every half inning, just as I’d done for the last few days in Cincinnati. At Minute Maid, there are ushers checking tickets at the top of every staircase. If you don’t have a ticket, you can’t go down. It’s as simple as that. My $44 seat was in the perfect section on the Cubs’ side, but I needed to find a way to get down to the Astros’ dugout. I waited near the usher until a large family walked up. The father flashed a stack of tickets.
“These guys are all with you?” asked the usher.
He nodded. I followed right behind. No one said a word. I found a perfect seat near the dugout.
The top of the 1st inning ended. No ball. But I did get to say hello to Dan Wheeler who still recognizes me from his Shea days. He was pretty surprised to see me.
I had to make a decision: Leave the section and risk not being able to get back in so I can try to get a ball on the Cubs’ side…or forfeit the Cubs’ side for an inning in order to get to stay behind the Astros’ dugout. I decided to go for it on the Cubs’ side, and just as I was about to exit the section, I spotted a loose ticket on the ground. Wow.
No ball from the Cubs after the bottom of the 1st, so I went back to the Astros’ dugout. The couple sitting behind me noticed I was up to something and asked what I was doing.
“Just trying to get a ball.”
“Good,” said the lady. “I need you to protect me.”
When Michael Barrett stepped into the batters box with two outs, I turned around and said, “If this guy grounds out, there’s a seventy-five percent chance that I’m going to get the ball from Mike Lamb.”
On the very next pitch, Roy Oswalt got Barrett to hit a grounder to Everett at short. Everett fielded it cleanly and fired it to Lamb at 1st. I walked down to the first row (no security in sight) and Lamb tossed me my 10th ball of the day as he jogged off the field.
“How did you know that?!” demanded the lady when I returned to the seat to get my backpack.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” I said. “Now I’m gonna try to do it on the Cubs’ side, so I’ll see you later.”
I actually haven’t been doing it for a long time. This whole dugout strategy is new to me. I only started doing it three days ago because Great American was such a tough place to catch a foul ball. It’s impossible (and I mean impossible to get down to the dugouts at Yankee Stadium, but I might need to start doing this at Shea, at least during the first few innings of each game before every kid catches on and tries to do the same thing.
Oswalt and Carlos Zambrano were both working fast. After 45 minutes, the game was in the 4th inning. I gave up on the Astros’ dugout once the kids started taking over the section. I got myself some pizza and a bottled water and returned to my spot in the 3rd row on the Cubs’ side. (The photo shows the view.) I couldn’t believe how hard Oswalt was throwing. It was almost comical. He reached 98mph at one point. Zambrano also topped out in the upper-90s and consistently made the Astros hitters look stupid. I enjoyed sitting back and eating and drinking and actually watching the game. Of course, I was still wearing my glove. I would’ve been nervous to sit so close without it.
I had just put the last bite of pizza in my mouth when Zambrano fanned Everett to end the bottom of the 4th inning. Fingers still greasy, I hurried down to the front row and chewed fast and managed to shout at Barrett as he walked off the field with the ball. He under-handed it to me. Number 11. Easy.
I was so tired that I couldn’t deal with running back and forth anymore. I wanted to wander around the stadium and take pictures, but the mere thought of it gave me a headache. (Or maybe it was the country music blasting during the 7th inning stretch.)
Whatever I did, I knew I had to stay until Lee ended up with the ball after a 3rd out. He still hadn’t gotten the chance to take one back to the dugout because freakin’ Zambrano kept striking everyone out. I stayed for another few innings, and the game kept zipping along, and it got to the point where I didn’t have time to wander, even if I really wanted to.
“A few more innings” turned into the rest of the game (Lee never made an inning-ending play), and because the Cubs won, I was already in the perfect spot to try to get a ball after all the players and coaches walked out onto the field to shake hands. The Cubs did their thing and came back in. No ball. Dusty Baker passed right below me, and I asked for the lineup cards. He didn’t respond, but I knew he heard me. That’s the good thing about a win by the visiting team…the crowd behind the dugout is smaller and the people aren’t going crazy.
Baker walked to the far end of the dugout and pulled out the lineup cards and put them on a clipboard and started writing on them. I didn’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing. Probably bad. Why would he take the time to mess with them if he was going to give them away a minute later? Finally, he stopped doing whatever he was doing, and walked back in my direction.
“Dusty!!! Dusty!!!” I shouted.
He looked up from 20 feet away and put his index finger to his lips to shush me. Then he disappeared from view. Then he poked his head out right below me and reached up over the dugout roof with the lineup cards in his hand. He didn’t fling them as Felipe Alou had done after the previous two games in Cincinnati. Baker held them until I crawled out and grabbed them.
I don’t know what to say. I went five years without getting a lineup card, and now I’ve gotten them at three consecutive games. (I’m still not selling them.) Maybe it’s a Midwest thing? I mean, I’m stunned. This is not normal. (See those handwritten numbers in circles? They indicate which players made the final out of each inning. Nomar Garciaparra, for example, struck out to end the 1st…and left soon after with stiffness in his lower back, which is why his name is crossed out with “Hurt Back” written below.)
I asked a fan to take my picture with them and before I had a chance to put them away, someone out of view in the dugout below tossed a ball to me. Just like that. Number 12 on the day. Number 20 on the trip.
I got the attention of a security guard standing on the field.
“Was that the ballboy who tossed it?” I asked.
I ran up the steps and into the concourse and spent 15 minutes asking people for their tickets and then bought one of my own for the next day…which is now today. Clemens should be pitching. The crowd will be large. I doubt the game will be completely sold out, but I didn’t want to take that chance by walking up to the ticket window at the last second.
• 183 balls in 27 games this season = 6.8 balls per game.
• 411 consecutive games with at least one ball.
• 37 consecutive games with at least three balls. (Heh heh.)
• 77 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball.
• 475 total balls outside NYC.
I’m heading back to Minute Maid Park in just a few minutes, and this time, I’m going to wander all around and take more pictures than I’ll know what to do with. It might even be more fun this way…that is, waiting until the second day to explore the outside of the ballpark. I feel like I’m getting to go to a new place all over again.