Sean and I were on the road before noon. The drive was easy. No traffic. No problems. The only issue was finding a place to park when we got to Camden Yards at around 3pm. When I was there last month, I parked in the first lot I found, but this time, that lot was “handicapped only” so we drove around and around (and around) and lost 20 minutes of valuable crab cake time before parking half a mile away at the Hyatt.
My obsession with getting baseballs was like Sean’s desire to get a fried crab cake sandwich at this place across the street from the stadium called Max’s Taphouse. For two days, he’d been telling me about the crab cakes. Crab cakes this. Crab cakes that. It concerned me. This was, after all, a baseball trip–but Sean turned out to be right. These were THE greatest crab cakes of all time. Go there. Eat one. You will be happy.
We walked to the ticket windows. I had an exact section/row/seat in mind, right on the staircase in front of the main aisle on the 1st base side of home plate–foul tip heaven–but it wasn’t available and the closest thing to it cost $55. I decided against it, and we bought three tickets in straight-away left field for $27 apiece. The third ticket was for Sean’s cousin, Dennis, who met us outside the Eutaw Street entrance just before the stadium opened at 5pm.
I was worried that BP would get cut short and that the game would be crowded because of the pregame ceremony for the 10th anniversary of “2131,” but everything about the day was normal. I was the first fan to reach the right-center field bleachers, and I got Bruce Chen to throw me a ball within the first minute. (Number one.)
Sean was looking forward to seeing the glove trick in action. I’d already told him about the gap between the outfield wall and the base of the stands. As soon as a ball landed there, he’d get to witness it.
Because the left-handed Ted Lilly was scheduled to make the start for the Blue Jays, all the Orioles hitters were batting right-handed. It was terrible. I was trapped in right field, 390 feet from home plate, with no chance of getting a ball. It was already a lousy day–and probably wasn’t going to get any better. The Orioles, however, did have one lefty: Jay Gibbons. As soon as he stepped into the cage, I raced over to the standing room only section down the right field line and stayed toward the back, so far back that Gibbons was completely out of view. I knew I wouldn’t be able to react as quickly as all the fans who were packed toward the front–but I also knew that just about every ball hit into the section would fly over their heads. Sure enough, moments later, I heard a CRACK and saw a ball rising up out of nowhere and heading 10 feet to my right. As soon as I took off, I lost it in the sun and actually had to retreat to avoid getting hit by it. The ball smacked the pavement, skipped past a few other fans toward the back of the section, got caught in some protective netting, and dropped at my feet. (Number two.)
Once Gibbons left the cage, I headed back down the steps to the bleachers to show Sean and Dennis the ball I’d just gotten. Sean was waving me over frantically.
“There’s a ball down there!!!” he shouted, pointing toward the gap.
I raced down to the front row and peeked over. My god. He was right. A ball had just landed there, and I hadn’t even seen it. I rigged up the inside of my glove, let out a few feet of string, and lowered it over the ball. Too easy. (Number three.)
Dennis had only learned about my collection 15 minutes earlier. Now he was on his cell phone, telling his wife all about it.
Sean had his glove and wanted a ball, but he wasn’t going to break a sweat–or his face–to get one. His lifetime total? Two. Not two thousand. Not two hundred. Not two dozen. Just two. He was there for the game. He was there to hang out and watch me do my thing. He was there to eat crab cakes and drink ice-cold beverages and buy souvenirs–and, having grown up in Pennsylvania and spent summers in Maryland, to see the Orioles win. His motivations made my life easier. Not only did I not have to compete with him, but I had an extra pair of baseball-savvy eyes looking out for me.
Gibbons was back in the cage, and I was back in the standing room only section. I positioned myself differently so that I’d be able to take a slightly different route to the ball and avoid frying my retinas. Good thing because he launched another home run to my right. This one was deeper and had more height. I drifted, drifted, drifted, heard the typical/clueless “Here it comes!!!” shouts, pushed right up against a concrete wall, reached out over the seats 15 feet below, and caught the ball. BOO-yah! (Number four.)
Suddenly, the day wasn’t so bad after all.
It was almost 5:30pm, which meant the rest of the stadium was about to open. I went back down to the seats and told Sean that I was heading over to left field. He said he’d follow me, and he showed up a couple minutes later, at which point I’d already caught an Eric Byrnes home run, on a fly, in traffic. (Number five.)
The Blue Jays took the field, and I had a secret weapon. I always have a team roster with me so I can identify players by their numbers, but this time, I had headshots of the entire pitching staff.
I don’t know why I waited so long to do this. It was easy. All I did was go to the Blue Jays’ web site, click “Roster,” click the players’ names, and copy/paste the pictures into Microsoft Word. (Lilly’s missing because he was activated from the 15-day DL hours earlier. Towers looks like the Phantom of the Opera because the paper was folded and got rubbed all day in my sweaty pocket.) I spaced them out a bit so I could write their names underneath. I suppose it would’ve been easier to type them in, but whatever. Some guys were wearing their windbreakers over their jerseys, and I didn’t have to guess who they were. I just took a look at my CheatSheet, and I knew.
A ball rolled to the edge of the grass in front of the rubberized warning track. Scott Schoeneweis was walking by, and I asked him for it. He ran up to the ball and kicked it at me. (Turk Wendell is the only other player I’ve seen kick balls to fans. He used to do it all the time at Shea. He once kicked a ball into the Loge Level. I couldn’t believe it.) Schoeneweis’ kick fell three inches short. I leaned way over the wall and the ball tipped off the end of my glove. It was clearly his fault, so he came over and picked it up with his glove and gave me a backhand flip. (Number six.)
Someone hit a home run over my head. I drifted back but got blocked by a mob of people as it landed in the semi-empty seats. Some guy in an Orioles jersey scrambled and grabbed it. I looked up. It was Sean! I was glad. Even though he didn’t REALLY care about getting a ball, I still would’ve felt crappy to end up with a backpack full of them if he got shut out.
The Jays were about to finish throwing along the left field foul line, so I jogged through the rows of seats and hung a left at the foul pole. Two minutes later, I got Jason Frasor to toss me a ball. He was so close that I just bare-handed it. (Number seven.)
Two minutes after that, some Orioles fan (not Sean) was asking Miguel Batista for a ball. Batista was standing on the warning track, right against the wall, telling this fan that he was wearing the wrong hat. This was happening 10 feet to the right of where Frasor had just given me the ball. I wasn’t sure if Batista had seen me.
“Miguel!” I shouted. “Look at my hat!”
He looked up and walked over.
“Ahh,” he said with a big smile before turning toward the other fan and pointing at his Blue Jays cap. “You see? That’s what I’m talking about.” Then he handed me the ball. (Number eight.)
A little kid ran over. “You got a ball?!” he asked.
“I got THREE!” he snapped.
I moved back to straight-away left field and caught up with the guys. Sean informed me that there were two balls that had rolled to the wall. Once again, I ran down to the first row to take a look. He was right! Again! How had I missed them? If he hadn’t pointed them out, a player or security guard probably would have picked them up within a minute or two. One ball was right below me. (Number nine.) The other was five feet from the wall, so I swung my glove out and knocked it back in. (Number ten.)
After 10 or 15 minutes of running around for home runs that kept eluding me, another ball rolled to the wall. The players ignored it. The guard in the left field corner ignored it. (Number eleven.)
Several minutes later, another ball rolled to the wall, but this one got stuck underneath the padding. Two-thirds of the ball was poking out, so I dangled my glove right against the wall and, maintaining my grip on the string, tried to drop it right on top of the ball to knock it out. I must’ve made dozens of attempts and spent at least five minutes going for it. It was 6:15pm. I was worried that batting practice was going to end before I had a chance to make it to the Blue Jays’ dugout. I was also worried that I’d get in trouble–but no one said I word, and I kept at it. At one point, I successfully dislodged the ball and moved it three inches away from the wall…but the warning track must have been slightly sloped because on my next attempt, my glove accidentally tapped the ball, and it rolled back underneath the padding. Now I was mad. And sweating. I kept dangling and swinging and dropping my glove, and FINALLY, I knocked the ball back out. Very carefully, I positioned my glove between the wall and the ball and moved it even further out. Then I raised my glove, readjusted the rubber band and Sharpie, and lowered it for one final attempt. (Number twelve.)
Sean had a “You’re the Man” look on his face. I told him I was heading to the Jays’ dugout and that I’d meet him at the seats at gametime if I didn’t run into him beforehand.
“You should see kids’ faces when you use the ZackTrap,” he said. “They’re awestruck.”
“Yeah because remember, they’re kids. They haven’t seen a naked woman yet, so THIS is the greatest thing they’ve ever seen.”
At the dugout, I begged every player and coach for a ball as they came off the field. Everyone ignored me. Pete Walker had been standing on the top step the whole time and probably felt sorry for me. I didn’t know it, but he had a ball in his glove all along. Just before he ducked out of view, he tossed it to me. (Number thirteen.)
Then the groundskeepers took over the field, and I got some ice cream. Vanilla. Soft-serve. The best. I decided that from that moment on, I would reward myself with ice cream at future games whenever I reached double digits. (This is a big deal because I’m hypoglycemic and generally avoid sugar.)
I walked my cone out to left field and watched the beginning of the “2131” ceremony. It was nice, but dinky. Cal and some other people–presumably his family…I wasn’t paying attention when they were introduced–were sitting on chairs behind the pitchers mound. Cal had a microphone, and some sports announcer dude was interviewing him. There was no official speech. It was nice and informal.
I finished my cone and headed down to the front row along the left field foul line because Lilly was long-tossing with Gregg Zaun. Zaun was the close one. Lilly was way out in left-center, throwing toward the seats. The second row was full, but the first row was nearly empty, so I had my choice of seats and lined myself up with Zaun in case there was an overthrow. There was, and I reached over the low wall and caught it.
“Nice catch!” said an excited fan behind me.
Really? What was nice about it? It came right to me. The catch I made on the Byrnes homer was “nice” because there was an aggressive idiot with a mullet who nearly knocked me down as the ball was coming in. But anyway, Zaun didn’t have a back-up ball–nor did pitching coach Brad Arnsberg–so he asked me for it and told me he’d give it back when he was done. (This happens every 500 balls or so. Back in 1991, the first ball I ever caught at Yankee Stadium was a Roberto Kelly overthrow to Jesse Barfield. Barfield asked for it. My dad yelled, “No! Don’t give it to him!” but I gave it to him, somehow confident as an inexperienced 13-year-old ball collector that I’d eventually get it back. It felt great to watch two major leaguers play catch with MY ball and to know that Barfield would ignore all the other screaming fans and give it to me when he was done.) I flipped the ball back to Zaun, and he and Lilly kept tossing. Two throws later, Lilly launched another one over his catcher’s head, and I caught that one, too.
“That’s TWO!!” shouted the fan at Zaun. “You owe him TWO balls. You better give him a helmet or something!!”
Zaun looked back at me and didn’t say a word. He just held up his glove, and I flipped him the ball. He fired it back to Lilly who started moving closer right away, and within two minutes, they were done. Zaun tossed me the ball (number fourteen) before heading off the field and into the bullpen. (Is it any surprise that Lilly walked five batters in just 2.1 innings?)
The Jays’ strength and conditioning coordinator was playing catch with someone in very shallow left field, so I moved over and lined myself up. I didn’t know who the other person was. Was it a ballboy? Was it a player?! He looked big enough to be a player, but he sure didn’t throw like one. He was short-arming the ball, and half his throws were tailing off to the right. I couldn’t figure out who it was. He was 120 feet away, and his mechanics were so bad that I couldn’t catch a glimpse of the back of his jersey because he wasn’t winding up or following through. He wasn’t wearing a wristband. He wasn’t wearing a batting glove. He wasn’t wearing eye-black. He didn’t have a can of chewing tobacco bulging through his back pocket. Who was this klutzy guy in a Blue Jays uniform who got to play catch on the field just before gametime? He started moving closer and closer. The throwing was about to end, and I didn’t know whose name to shout. Was this clown even allowed to throw the ball into the seats? I stood up and moved to the front row and held up my glove–and the guy threw me the ball. (Number fifteen.)
It was laughably easy…but WHO WAS THIS GUY?!?!?! He started jogging off the field, and I looked at the back of his jersey. Number 18. What?! Gabe Gross?! Wow. Yes. Gabe Gross. Totally weird.
Right before the game, I went behind the Orioles’ dugout on the 1st base side. Four players were throwing, and when they were done, Luis Matos tossed me one of the balls. (Number sixteen.)
Only then did I start thinking about breaking my one-day record of 19. The game was about to start, so I tried to figure out how I could possibly get four more balls. I quickly came up with a plan: stay behind the Orioles’ dugout for the top of the 1st inning and get a ball from whoever ends up with it after the third out. Then move to the 3rd base side and do the same thing at the Jays’ dugout. Then slip into a seat behind the plate and get one lousy foul ball. Finally, go to the winning team’s dugout and get a ball after the game. Yes! That was it. It seemed doable, and my mission began…and quickly got derailed when an usher kicked me out of the section just two outs into the game. I went to the 3rd base side for the bottom of the 1st. Gibbons struck out to end the frame, and I ran down to the front row. Zaun rolled the ball back to the mound. Dammit!
I was feeling guilty about abandoning Sean and Dennis, so I put my quest on hold and found them in left field. They were happy to stay there and keep each other company while I ran off and did my thing.
I tried to make it back to the Orioles’ dugout by the middle of the 2nd inning, but the evil usher was lurking nearby, and I didn’t make it down in time. I decided to spend the first two outs of the bottom of the 2nd trying to get a foul ball in my favorite spot. The perfect seat was open, and I was able to sit down, undetected. Javy Lopez led off by grounding out to Lilly. Alejandro Freire walked, and Byrnes struck out. That was two outs. It was time to go to the Jays’ dugout, so I grabbed my backpack and took off. Guess what happened. The very next hitter, a fellow by the name of Matos, hit a foul ball R I G H T where I’d been sitting 60 seconds earlier. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. He ended up walking, and Geronimo Gil singled before Brian Roberts bounced into a 5-4 force out to end the inning. Orlando Hudson ended up with the ball and took it with him off the field. I ran down to the front row and yelled his name obnoxiously loud. He tossed it to someone else.
I was so frustrated that I abandoned my quest entirely and went back to left field to sit with the guys. I reached section 80 and started heading down the steps to row LL.
“How nice of them,” I thought, “to have left me the end seat. If anyone happens to hit a home run, I’ll be able to jump up and run for it.”
Then I sat down and realized why they had left me that seat. This was the view:
I stayed there until the 8th inning. It was nice to sit next to Sean and get to know Dennis a little bit and watch the game (and the recreation of the “2131” magic in the middle of the 5th), but I was bored out of my skull. I didn’t even realize until I read the box score the following day that Daniel Cabrera had tossed a gem, giving up just four hits and one walk while striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings. Miguel Tejada scored three runs and hit his major league-leading 46th double. Who knew?! Not me. Luckily, my head was in the game enough to appreciate the debut of the heaviest player in major league history, but without foul balls to chase, I felt like I might as well have been watching a little league game. Or soccer. Or croquet. Or oatmeal. I just didn’t see the point. It’s strange because I absolutely adore baseball. I read every box score every day, and I watch hours of the sport on TV whenever I have the free time…but when I’m actually AT a game, I need to have my own game within the game or else my brain rots.
Dennis took off in the 8th inning. Sean and I wandered through the concourse toward home plate. I devoured two bland slices of pepperoni pizza before working my way down to the Orioles’ dugout in the top of the 9th. I ended up getting a ball from 1st base coach Dave Cash (number seventeen) and quickly asked someone else for another.
The evil usher heard me.
“Don’t be greedy,” she said.
I found a few ticket stubs on the way out. Sean and I went to Max’s. He ordered a crab cake sandwich to go. Then we walked to the garage and made the three and a half-hour drive back to New York City.
• 17 balls ties my 2nd highest one-game total (Miller Park, 6/11/03) and sets a new record for most balls in one game without getting a game ball.
• CPB = 1.59
• 239 balls in 33 games this season = 7.2 balls per game
• 417 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 43 consecutive games with at least three balls
• 39 lifetime balls at Camden Yards breaks my non-NYC single-stadium record of 38 at Turner Field.
• 499 lifetime balls outside of New York City
• 2,670 total balls…moves me into 60th place on the all-time hits list ahead of Ted Williams (2,554), Harry Heilmann (2,660), George Davis (2,660), Nellie Fox (2,663), and Max Carey (2,665). Next up is Fred Clarke (2,672).