The sky was gray all morning, and I was hoping it would rain–I mean really rain–but when I left the hotel at 4:15pm, there was only a weak drizzle. I was on my way to a domed stadium for the first time in two years, and I wanted to get my money’s worth. Keeping the heat out? Not a priority. But still having batting practice during a monsoon? Now THAT would be cool.
The rain picked up slightly. I wiped off my glasses and put on my Astros cap and started running, not to avoid getting wet but because I was excited. I hadn’t gotten to walk around the outside of the stadium the day before. This would be my only chance to inspect it from all angles, to take pictures of the roof, to peer through windows, to talk to fans, to check out Union Station, to bond with huge baseballs, and to visit Halliburton Plaza. Did you know that with a few hand tools, a mixing box, a borrowed pump, a wagon and a team of horses, Erle P. Halliburton went into business in 1919 as the New Method Oil Well Cementing Company? I didn’t.
The area surrounding Minute Maid Park is crisp and clean and, with the exception of a black Hummer with Roger Clemens’ face on the side, quite beautiful. There are flawless patches of grass and trees planted in perfect rows. There are arches, glass walls, statues, plaques, huge canopies above each entrance, and nearby restaurants and bars. The building itself, specifically the structure supporting the retractable roof, is dramatic. At one point, I just stood there for several minutes, looking up at it.
When a cluster of people started forming at the left field entrance, I squirmed to the front of the pack and watched batting practice through the glass doors. It was 5:15pm. I had to wait for 15 more minutes–the longest 15 minutes on Earth–for the ballpark to open, and when it did, I ran right into the left field seats…the ones that took me a minute to get to the day before.
Within 10 seconds, BANG!!! A ball smacked a seat 20 feet to my right. There were already a few other fans in the section, but the ball luckily stayed in my row and I was all over it. It was an “H” ball. (Stands for “Haha, Houston, Hample’s heisted another one of your precious baseballs.”) I didn’t have time to label it. All I could do was stick it in the right pocket of my cargo pants because whoever was hitting–one of the team’s many righties–was pulling everything. Moments later, PLUNK!!! Another ball landed nearby. I scrambled for it and beat out the other fans. Another “H” ball, my fifth in two days.
It was 5:31pm. There was still no time to label the ball, so I put it in my left pocket, just as a wave of fans came charging down the steps. (The day before, I was part of that wave.) Even though I’d gotten two balls within 45 seconds, I knew it was time to get out.
The Brewers were already playing catch along the foul line, so I moved into foul territory and asked everyone for a ball. They all ignored me, just as they’d done two weeks earlier at Shea–but at least I had time to label the balls and throw them in my backpack.
A ball trickled into the left field corner. I hurried over so that I was standing 15 feet directly above it and started setting up my glove trick. I paused for a few seconds and looked around in case there was a security guard who was likely to yell at me. I didn’t see anyone, so I went for it. New ballpark. New rules. I didn’t know what to expect. If anyone had a problem with it, they could tell me, and that would’ve been the end of it, but no one said a word, and I got the ball easily. Three minutes later, another ball rolled to the wall in straight-away left field. I got that one, too, and returned to my spot in foul territory.
A gray-haired fan approached before I had time to do my labeling.
“What do you do with all those balls?” he asked.
“What does anyone do with anything they collect?” I replied. “I save them, and I love them.”
“Would you sell one of ’em?” he asked.
“No, I’m sorry, I really like to hold onto them.”
“Listen,” he said quietly, leaning in. “My son was just serving this country over in Iraq and got injured, and he’s coming to this game, and I’d love to be able to give him a ball.”
I resisted the urge to point out that there was a souvenir stand just across the concourse and said, “I appreciate your son’s effort, but I own every ball I’ve ever caught, and I don’t want to part with one because that’ll leave my collection incomplete.”
“Well you didn’t catch it, you fished it!” he protested.
“Caught, fished, snagged, obtained, gathered, retrieved, accumulated–“
“Okay okay,” he said with a smile, “fair enough.”
He walked away, and I ran to right field where I came within six inches of catching a Russell Branyan home run. The seats were crowded. I simply couldn’t get there in time. In between pitches, I quickly labeled the balls and put them with the other two.
A ball rolled onto the warning track, 100 feet to my right. I knew I could get it with my trick if I could get there before someone on the Brewers picked it up, but it took forever to weave through the crowd. I climbed over chairs. I sidestepped the railings. I took extra care not to bump into little kids and fat men with full cups of beer. I said “excuse me” a dozen times to people who reacted like turtles, and when I finally arrived, the ball was still there. Phew! I’d lost sight of it during my trek. It was about eight feet out from the wall, so I swung my glove out and let it drop, hoping to knock the ball back in. Chris Capuano saw me and walked over.
“Chris! Can you give me a little help? Whaddaya say!”
I didn’t need his help. I needed him to go away, but what else was I supposed to say? Obviously, I said the right thing because he picked up the ball and tossed it to me. (That was ball number five. I labeled it right away. It’s a constant struggle to document my collection while I’m in the process of adding to it. The previous night, I dreamt that I ran into a stadium and found so many balls lying on the ground that I lost track of which was which as I grabbed them all. I’m still not sure if that was a good or bad dream.)
At Minute Maid, the placement of the bullpens is ideal. Bullpens normally make it tougher to get balls because they take the place of outfield seats and become a huge obstacle when trying to run around. But here, the visitors’ bullpen is tucked completely out of the way, behind the left field wall and under the field level concourse. The Astros’ bullpen, as you can see, runs parallel to the right field wall and therefore only wastes a few rows of seats. But was it a waste? I realized that I might be able to fish a ball out of it at some point. Unfortunately, however, the back wall of the ‘pen is concrete, so the few balls that landed there had ricocheted all the way back to the benches just behind the outfield wall. There was no way I would attempt to swing my glove that far, so I kept watching and hoping for a lucky bounce, and eventually I got one. I’m not sure how. I think the ball might’ve short-hopped the wall and kicked up with enough backspin to roll in the right direction. Regardless, I hurried over and swung out my glove and knocked the ball closer…and closer…and closer until it was directly below me. Easy.
The only problem was that it was 6:15pm. Batting practice was going to end in FIVE minutes. I was in right-center field and had to make it halfway around the stadium to the Brewers’ dugout on the 3rd base side. I bolted up the stairs and started jogging through the concourse when I saw another ball land in the bullpen. This one was further out from the back wall. I didn’t know if I could get it and still make it to the dugout. In fact, I didn’t know if I could get it at all, but I had to try. It took several tosses of the glove and a couple minutes, but eventually I got it. Number seven. It was crazy. I’d gotten five balls with my glove trick. The day before? None.
It was 6:18pm, so I SPRINTED up the stairs and through the concourse. I was running so fast that people were stopping to watch (and perhaps because they feared for their lives). I passed the batter’s eye and balconies in left-center. I passed the seats in left and then the foul pole. The concourse was so crowded with people arriving for the game that I cut to my left and ran down the steps in shallow left field. I sped through the mostly empty rows, and as I passed 3rd base, I saw the Brewers start collecting the balls and jogging off the field. I kept running and running and reached the dugout just as they were walking in. I was drenched with sweat and completely out of breath.
“Chad! Chad!” I huffed/puffed. Chad Moeller, who looks more like a farmer than a catcher, was heading toward me with a ball in his hand. He looked up. “CHAD!!!”
“You just got one out there,” he said, pointing toward right field.
“No, that must’ve been my twin brother,” I shouted.
He tossed the ball to someone else.
At least I got some free exercise.
During the ball-less half hour before pregame warmups, I got Jose Capellan’s autograph on an old Brewers-Mets ticket stub and labeled my last two balls and asked some kid to take a picture of me so I could show you just how sweaty I was. Then I wandered and took more pics until the Astros came out to throw. The day before, there was no competition for these pregame balls. Now, for whatever reason, the first row was packed with kids, and I didn’t come close.
Then, after the national anthem, Rickie Weeks and Bill Hall started throwing in front of the Brewers’ dugout. When they were done, the ball went to a little kid who’s probably drooling and/or chewing on it as I type this.
Clemens took the hill and started mowing down the Brewers. I was behind the 1st base dugout, hoping for a groundout to end the inning so that Lance Berkman would end up with the ball and toss it to me on his way in–but Lyle Overbay lined out to left field. No ball. I ran to the 3rd base dugout and worked my way down to the second row. Perfect spot. Tomo Ohka (who, by the way, is not nice) fanned Morgan Ensberg to end the bottom of the 1st. I moved to the front row and started shouting at catcher Damian Miller. I had my glove. I was wearing my Brewers cap. There were no kids in sight. It was going to be too easy…and then Miller rolled the ball back to the mound.
[insert expletives here]
Top of the 2nd. 1st base dugout. Hall flies out to right. No ball for Zack. Bottom of the 2nd. 3rd base dugout. Clemens grounds out. Overbay goes to the other end of the dugout. No ball for Zack. Top of the 3rd. 1st base dugout. Weeks strikes out. Brad Ausmus tosses the ball to someone else. Bottom of the 3rd. 3rd base dugout. Orlando Palmeiro grounds into a 1-2-3 double play. Overbay tosses the ball to someone else. No ball for Zack. Zack gets frustrated. Zack realizes he has less than two hours left inside Minute Maid Park. Zack abandons his quest for balls and begins wandering all around the stadium and taking pictures. Zack will no longer write about himself in the 3rd person.
It was a tough decision to leave the 2nd row behind dugout and head for the top of the upper deck. Clemens was pitching a gem, and I really wanted one more ball so I could end up with 20 in two games…but in the grand scheme of things, one ball was not nearly as important as taking advantage of my only opportunity to fully experience the ballpark.
I climbed all the way to the last row of the upper deck and got blasted with ice cold air from gigantic air conditioning vents. That’s because I was standing, and the vents were face-high. Once I sat down, the air passed several feet over my head and I didn’t feel it. I took two photographs, one of left field and one of right, so I could combine them later and make a cheap panorama. (Note the sunset.) I always do that when I visit a new ballpark.
I kept wandering and taking pictures of everything: chairs, runways, concourses, concession stands, Halliburton signs, designated smoking areas, aisles, arches, balconies, bullpens, foul poles, retired numbers, the roof, the field, the train, the track, the press box, the souvenir store (where baseballs were selling for only $22), the party deck, the batters eye and, of course, THE HILL. So weird. I loved it.
I loved the whole stadium. It’s brilliantly designed. I could tell that the architects covered every little detail. I mean, it was perfect. No matter where I went–even in the bathrooms and on the escalators–the place looked good. Even the railings were pretty. There was not an inch of wasted space. No uneven pavement. No jagged edges. No chipped paint. No garbage on the ground. No oversights. I was thoroughly impressed.
Even though the roof was closed, it didn’t feel like I was indoors. (It didn’t feel like I was in Texas either. All I saw was the airport, my hotel room, and the ballpark. I could’ve been anywhere.) That’s because one whole side of the stadium is made of glass. During the afternoon and early evening, the interior was flooded with natural light. Once it got dark, the night sky was on full display.
I wandered for five full innings, stopping briefly to watch Clemens get yanked after giving up five earned runs in 6 1/3 innings. (His ERA ballooned from 1.32 to 1.53.) The attendance was 29,844, which was slightly LOWER than it was the previous night. I couldn’t believe it.
I made it back to the Astros’ dugout in the top of the 9th. Carlos Lee hit a leadoff single off Brad Lidge and drew several pickoff throws even though he was only four feet off the base. A fan several rows back stood up–this is what a Texas heckler sounds like–and shouted: “Who yew kiddin’, Lee!!! Yew ain’t stealin’ no base!!!”
Hall was caught stealing to end the inning. Shortstop Adam Everett had the ball. I ran down to the front row. He threw it to someone else.
The Brewers were winning, 5-2, and the Astros were coming up for the last time, so I headed back to the 3rd base dugout. Derrick Turnbow walked Jason Lane. Then Palmeiro bounced into a 4-6-3 double play and Everett grounded out to Weeks at 2nd. Game over. The players walked out and congratulated each other. Turnbow came back with the ball. I asked for it. He ignored me. Manager Ned Yost was gathering his stuff. I asked for the lineup card. He ignored me and disappeared. That was it. No ball. No lineup card. Big letdown.
I walked around and found some tickets in the empty seats. Turnbow was being interviewed near the dugout, and because there was a group of Brewers fans waiting for him, he came over and signed. I bolted down the steps and got his autograph just before he left for the clubhouse. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a messier signature. What’s his problem?
I found some more tickets and took a few pictures of the groundskeepers doing their thing and loitered in the concourse until an old usher told me it was time to go. There’s something magical about being in an empty ballpark.
I ate a hot dog and a drank a bottle of water as I walked back to the hotel. My trip was done. Mission accomplished. Two new ballparks. Four games. Twenty-seven balls. Lineup cards. Ticket stubs. Pocket schedules. Autographs. Photographs. Memories for a lifetime.
• CPB = a Miltonesque 6.29. (I splurged and bought another $44 ticket.)
• 190 balls in 28 games this season = 6.8 balls per game.
• 412 consecutive games with at least one ball.
• 38 consecutive games with at least three balls.
• 78 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball.
• 482 total balls outside NYC.
• 40 major league stadiums with at least one ball.
• 2,621 lifetime balls.