Shea was nice and empty once again, and I decided to start off in left field. Even though I was the ONLY fan on that entire side of the stadium, it still took me 20 minutes to get my first ball. Tim Hamulack tossed it to me from about 100 feet away. He must’ve been concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to catch it because he didn’t come close to reaching me. The ball hit the wall and bounced back on the field. A security guard walked over and picked it up.
“He was trying to throw it to me,” I said.
The guard gave me a suspicious look but got a nod from some trainer-type dude near the foul line, so he tossed it to me. Then I wondered…should I give Hamulack credit for throwing me the ball? Does his name deserve to be on the almighty list? I’m still not sure, but for now the answer is no.
In any case, it was my 2,699th ball so I started paying extra attention to who was stepping in and out of the cage. I wanted to make sure I knew the source of ball #2,700.
I didn’t get anything for the next 10 minutes. Left field was as lifeless as it was empty, so I ran all the way around the ballpark and up two ramps to the RF Loge.
Yesterday, I predicted that #2,700 would come from Tom Glavine. That didn’t happen. Mike DiFelice tossed it to me instead. It was pretty simple. He fielded a grounder in deep right field. I yelled and got his attention. He turned and fired it up toward me.
Ball #2,701–my third of the day–was much more interesting. It was a home run that landed in that dead area between the wall in right-center and the huge scoreboard. Usually, a guard will make his way out there and pocket the balls, but this one just sat there. Five minutes later, a grey van (pictured on the right) pulled up to the edge of the players’ parking lot, which is just behind the scoreboard. Three guys got out and started heading through the narrow passageway that leads to the area in front of the board. (That area connects to a wooden walkway along the edge of the Mets’ bullpen. The walkway leads to the concourse that runs past the clubhouses and umpires’ room and batting cages and everything else we dream of visiting.) These guys might’ve been players but I didn’t recognize them. Just before they turned left to enter the bullpen, I called out and asked if they could get me the ball. They looked around, then looked up at me and shrugged. They didn’t see it, so I made a gesture to indicate it was behind them and pointed at the base of the scoreboard between the “Banco Popular” and “HIP” ads. Now they saw the ball. One of the guys walked toward it, about 20 feet to his right, and picked it up. Then he headed back in my direction and entered the bullpen via the walkway (which you can barely see at the the bottom left of the photograph). I stood at the railing and held up my glove. By this point, I knew he was going to throw it to me, but he took me by surprise by tossing it from 50 feet away. It was an ill-advised throw which fell 10 feet short, hit the wall below me, and bounced back onto the walkway. One of the other guys caught it on a bounce and tossed it back up, right to me.
What a weird way to get a ball. I love stuff like that. That’s one of the few fun things about Shea. There are endless nooks and crannies and gaps and holes which, at times, provide for some interesting pursuits. Shea is the fifth oldest ballpark in the majors. It’s cramped. It’s poorly designed. It’s falling apart. There’s chipped paint all over the place. There are puddles in the seating areas because the uneven pavement doesn’t allow the water to drain. My friend George is going to get mad at me for saying this, but Shea is flat out crappy. It’s not just ugly, it’s fugly. See all those green dumpsters? I mean, seriously, what other ballpark would store those in open view between the bullpen and the team bus?
And yet I love Shea.
I love to complain about it, but deep down it makes me happy. I’ve been to over 340 games there. It’s my second home. I’ll be sad when the Mets move in 2009. Shea might be a dump, but it’s MY dump. It’s a dump with character. So many new ballparks are boring. Safeco? Coors? Comerica? Citizens Bank? They’re all pretty much the same. They’re the cookie-cutter ballparks of the 21st century.
But I digress.
I went to the Mets’ dugout as they were wrapping up BP. Within a few minutes, I got a ball from bench coach Sandy Alomar, Sr. and another from 3rd base coach Manny Acta. (Acta’s thrown me four balls this year and eight since 2003.)
The Marlins were already playing catch in left field, so I headed out there. I got my sixth ball of the day from Paul Quantrill after he finished throwing with Josh Beckett. (Quantrill is now the third ‘Q’ player to have given me a ball, joining Ruben Quevedo and Robb Quinlan. Oh baby.)
Now get this…
Moments later, Ron Villone tossed me a ball. Let me repeat that with emphasis on a particular word: Ron Villone tossed ME a ball. There were some other fans in the seats by this point, but none of them were within 10 feet of me. As soon as I caught the ball, some guy in the front row shouted, “Hey! You got TWO! Give one to the kid!”
“Yeah!!” shouted the rest of the fans. “He’s got TWO!!”
“You got TWO?!” yelled Villone from left field. “Give it to the kid!”
Then the whole section started chanting, “GIVE IT TO THE KID!!! GIVE IT TO THE KID!!! GIVE IT TO THE KID!!! GIVE IT TO THE KID!!!”
I didn’t want to give it to the kid. First of all, you have to keep in mind that ever since I started collecting in 1990, I’ve kept EVERY single ball I’ve EVER caught (while helping countless kids along the way get balls for themselves). Secondly, “the kid” was a little girl who not only wasn’t wearing a glove–an indication, as far as I’m concerned, that she might not have wanted a ball THAT badly–but hadn’t even been paying attention.
I hadn’t even been holding the ball for 15 seconds when two security guards approached me. That made the entire section start booing and cursing and threatening. It was a nightmare turned real. I thought of similar moments in the past and considered how they’d all ended. I’d always kept the ball and, as a result, always suffered the wrath of stadium security. It wasn’t fair, but I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth it this time around…so I handed the ball to the girl.
The entire section erupted in cheers.
The security guards smiled and nodded.
Villone gave me a thumbs-up.
I didn’t want praise. I wanted peace. But even more, I wanted my ball. The way I see it, Villone could have easily gotten another one for the girl…or the guards could’ve taken one out of their own pockets for her…or her thankless father could’ve bought one at the souvenir stand…or I could’ve walked her over to the front row and called out to the players on her behalf. But instead, the entire left side of Shea Stadium robbed her of the pleasure of getting a ball on her own. As for me, I can’t count that ball in my grand total. What am I supposed to say? I caught seven but I have six? No. That’s messy. My number of balls reflects what I own.
I left the section and killed some time at the Marlins’ dugout until the end of batting practice. Then I got two balls within two minutes from two coaches: Pierre Arsenault and Bill Robinson. That made me feel a little better.
Marlins starter A.J. Burnett, topping out at 97mph and mixing in some 88mph change-ups and 81mph curves, had a no-hitter through six innings. Initially, I was glued to my so-so foul ball seat along the 3rd base line, but then I got antsy. Once Victor Diaz broke up the gem with an opposite field flare in the bottom of the 7th, I headed up to the Loge and found an empty seat in foul-tip heaven.
Nothing in the 8th.
Nothing in the top of the 9th.
The game was tied, 2-2.
Normally, I go to the winning team’s dugout for the final out and normally, when the Mets take a tie into the bottom of the 9th, I head to their dugout just in case. But last night, I had such a good seat that I decided to stay put. Todd Jones came in to pitch. Diaz took a called strike three. Carlos Beltran struck out swinging and once again got showered with boos. (I know how that feels.) Cliff Floyd worked out a walk. David Wright stepped to the plate and quickly fell into an 0-2 hole. Then came the foul tip I’d been waiting for, a low laser that was heading 15 feet to my right. I’d already jumped up and started bolting through the skinny aisle, but I was too late. Lucky me: the ball bounced off the hands of two gloveless men and popped into the aisle. Unlucky me: the ball bounced into the sloped runway between sections 3 and 5. Lucky me: no one was standing there, so I rounded the corner and darted after it. Unlucky me: the ball was already rolling away from me toward the concourse. I chased after it, HOPING that no one was down there. It was late. Lots of fans had already left. The crowd hadn’t even been that big in the first place. Please! Please, concourse, be empty! I heard footsteps right behind me. Even if the concourse was empty, I’d have to pounce on the ball immediately and snatch it cleanly on the first try. The ball rolled all the way across the concourse as I was still making my way through the runway. Lucky me: the concourse was empty. I sprinted after the ball and caught up to it just as it hit a little concrete lip and skipped up into my glove. The fan who’d been running behind me begged for the ball and said he was hoping to get it for his little girl, who hadn’t been wearing a glove because she was born without hands. Just kidding. He gave me a high-five, and that was the end of it.
Extra innings. No runs in the 10th. No runs in the 11th. I’d made up my mind to stay in Loge and was hoping that the game would last 20 innings. The Mets, who ended up going a combined 4-for-40, saved two of their hits for the bottom of the 12th. Wright belted a two-out double–his 41st of the season–to right-center. Then, after Brian Moehler intentionally walked Mike Piazza, rookie Mike Jacobs yanked a grounder just inside 1st base and down the right field line. Game over. No dugout for me. My day ended with nine balls. (Should’ve been 10.)
• CPB = 1.33
• 276 balls in 37 games this season = 7.5 balls per game
• 421 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 47 consecutive games with at least three balls
• 88 lifetime game balls (not counting the hundreds of game-used balls that’ve been tossed to me over the years)
• 1,062 lifetime “Major League Balls”…passes my total of 1,060 “National League Balls.” The record-breaking 1,061st major league ball was the one from Robinson.