I went to Citizens Bank Park with two friends–Mike and Ben–who both LOVE the Phillies. Here we are in the parking lot:
We bought our tickets and started walking toward the left field gate when a kid walked up and asked, “Are you Zack?” He recognized me from my web site and this blog. I recognized him because we’d been e-mailing on and off for months. He lives in the area and wanted to meet me, so as soon as I’d finalized my plans a day or two earlier, I told him I’d be there. His name is Josh. He’s half my age and twice my size. It was embarrassing. He brought his copy of my book and asked me to sign it. (“Talk to my agent.”) Here we are:
Weather.com said it was going to rain…and it WAS cloudy…but it wasn’t raining. Still, the sissy grounds crew had covered the field with the tarp. That made me sad. But because there was no batting practice, I had time to eat a cheesesteak. That made me happy.
Finally, Tim Hamulack and Juan Padilla started throwing in very shallow left field. Most of the stadium was closed until 5:30pm, so I had to wait all the way out in the home run section. There were a few other people with gloves, but I was the only one with a Mets cap AND and jacket. I knew I was going to get the ball–and I did. Hamulack fired it at me from 150 feet away, but it fell three feet short and thumped against the padded wall, then bounced 50 feet back onto the outfield grass. He walked over and tossed it to me.
An hour passed.
I hung out with Josh, caught up with Mike and Ben, and got five autographs on old tickets:
Earlier in the day, when I saw Bell heading to the bullpen, I shouted, “Hey Heath! I came all the way from New York City to harass you!”
He looked up and realized who I was. “Great!” he shouted back sarcastically, then walked over and said, “You know I don’t hate you, right?”
(He was referring to our conversation on 9/14/05 at Shea Stadium.)
“I know, I know,” I said. “I was just messing around. You’ve always been really nice to me, and I appreciate it.”
“I just don’t want to throw you a ball every day,” he said.
“Are you coming tomorrow?” he asked.
“No…why? What’s happening tomorrow?”
“Nothing. Just wondering,” he said.
“I wish I could, but I have to be back at work in New York…but I’ll be at Shea on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.”
“Me too,” he said. “I might even be there on Sunday.”
Anyway, Rheal Cormier and Cory Lidle started playing catch in the right field corner. I was the first one out there and quickly made my request: “Rheal, is there any chance that when you’re done, you could toss a ball up here, please?” He had three balls–the other two were sitting on the grass 10 feet away–and when he finished 10 minutes later, he tossed me the first one and gave the others to the little kids who had swarmed the section.
Another hour passed.
It drizzled briefly and stopped. The tarp was still on the field. All the players were inside–and that’s how it stayed until 7pm. No rain. No players. Lots of groundskeepers standing around doing nothing. (The Phillie Phanatic was making fun of them.)
Why was the tarp still on the field? The game was supposed to be starting, and I was getting nervous. I needed ONE more ball to give me fifty consecutive games with at least three, and I didn’t know if I’d get another chance.
Finally, a few Mets came out to left field to throw and stretch and run. No ball.
No game, either. It was 7:05pm. Then 7:10. Then 7:15. The tarp was still on the field–and THEN it started raining. The delay lasted two hours and 35 minutes, and it ended up being a great thing. Not only did thousands of “fans” leave the stadium, but the Phillies announced that all tickets could be exchanged for select games at the start of 2006.
During the delay, Ben and Mike and I grabbed a few seats toward the back of the section behind the Mets’ dugout on the 3rd base side. Awesome view. Shielded from the rain. Perfect staircase for running down to the dugout after the third out and trying to get a ball from the Mets as they came off the field.
Finally, the tarp was removed, and the Mets came back out to warm up all over again. I ran down to the front row along the left field foul line. It was surprisingly crowded. All Mets fans. Anderson Hernandez was playing catch with Miguel Cairo, and when he was done, I had to SHOUT his name half a dozen times to get his attention. There were people all around me, shouting for it too. Hernandez made eye contact with me from about 60 feet away and fired the ball so quickly and so hard–right to my glove–that the other fans didn’t even have a chance to reach for it. As soon as I caught it, though, there were hands all over my glove and in my face. Good thing the man with two last names has a strong arm.
I went back to the seats for the start of the game. In the top of the 1st, the Mets got a couple guys on base but didn’t score. In the bottom of the 1st, Jimmy Rollins led off with a long home run to right field and got a three-minute standing ovation. He’d extended his hitting streak to 31 games, tying Ed Delahanty’s 1899 mark for the longest in team history. Six batters later, David Bell lined out to Carlos Beltran in center field to end the inning. Beltran–and all the Mets–started jogging off the field. I ran down to the front row. Beltran headed to the 3rd base side of the dugout, but I was trapped, one section over, on the 1st base side. I watched helplessly as he tossed it into the crowd.
One inning later, Bobby Abreu made the third out by grounding out to Jacobs. This one was going to be all mine. I was already halfway down the steps by the time Jacobs stepped on the bag, and I was leaning over the dugout roof by the time he approached. I shouted his name. He looked up. I shouted again. He tossed me the ball. I was all over it. (That was #4 on the day.)
I moved down a few rows. Ben and Mike followed. The ushers saw us but didn’t care. It was that kind of night.
It was a bit chilly, but that didn’t stop me from taking off my Mets jacket. If I was going to run down to the front row again, I couldn’t let Jacobs recognize me. I decided I’d pick a different spot instead of waiting right at the bottom of the stairs.
An inning later, Pat Burrell drew a leadoff walk and Ryan Howard popped up to Cairo at 2nd base. David Bell followed by bouncing into an inning-ending 1-4-3 double play (Jae Seo to Cairo to Jacobs). I darted down the steps and slid 10 feet to my right when I reached the front row. Jacobs took the ball with him and jogged toward the dugout. Same story. I shouted his name louder than everyone else was shouting it, and I ended up with the ball. This time, however, the other fans weren’t too happy about it–and I can understand why, but the fact of the matter is that Jacobs tossed it right to me. If he’d pointed to someone else or rolled it delicately toward a kid on either side of me, I would’ve let it go. No doubt about it.
There was lots of competition at the dugout–don’t get me wrong–but it was still embarrassingly easy to have gotten two balls in two innings from the same player in the same section. It made me think…Should I NOT have gone for that second ball? Should I feel guilty about being luckier (and more strategic/obsessive in my approach) than everyone else? In the end, I didn’t stress over it because I’d done nothing wrong. It was as clean a snag as could be.
I had to change my appearance again, not only for Mr. Jacobs but to avoid being recognized by the grumbling fans. I pulled an extra tee-shirt out of my bag–the one I would’ve changed into if I’d gotten sweaty during batting practice–and threw it on. My first tee-shirt was solid white. This one was black, with some lettering on it. No coincidence.
It started raining again in the top of the 4th, and half of the remaining “fans” ran for cover in the concourse. When the stampede ended, there was an entire empty row on my left! I told Mike and Ben that because of the rain, I’d probably be able to get another ball…now, if a Mets outfielder caught the third out, I could cut through the seats to the next section.
Mike and Ben’s reaction: “NO!!! YOU ARE NOT GOING BACK DOWN TO THE DUGOUT!!!”
But when Rollins flied out to Beltran to end the bottom of the 4th, I took off. I couldn’t help it. Something possessed my legs and made me run through the seats and down the steps. I got the ball.
On my way back, someone shouted, “How many outfits do you have?!”
It was my last outfit–and my last ball during the game. I had other chances to run down to the dugout, but I stayed in my seat to prevent a riot.
After the Phillies (check that: Ugueth Urbina) blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the 8th, I decided that if the Mets held on for the win, I’d go to the dugout after the game.
Amazingly, Roberto Hernandez tossed two scoreless innings, and the Mets won, 6-5.
Down the steps I went, like a salmon fighting the current. All the people who’d been aimlessly begging for balls all night and blaming me for their misfortune started heading up the steps, unaware that they were walking away from a great opportunity. By the time I made it all the way down, the front row was empty except for two people. There was a kid on my left who asked enthusiastically, “Hey, aren’t you The Baseball Collector?” and wanted to know what my lifetime ball total was…and there was a 50-something-year-old woman on my right who was so busy cursing at me and threatening to unzip my backpack and steal all my baseballs that she forgot to pay attention to the action on the field. Roberto Hernandez kept his precious ball–that third save of the season goes right on the mantle!–and bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello tossed a ball to someone else…but THERE were the umpires, walking off the field in a cluster. One of them–presumably Ron Kulpa, who’d worked the plate–looked at me and tossed a ball. And then another. The two balls rolled right to me along the wet dugout roof, RIGHT behind the back of the woman who was still yelling at me. When she suddenly realized what had happened, she whirled around and tried to grab the second ball out of my bare hand. She actually pinned my arm to the dugout! This came right after she’d told me to act my age.
Based on her reaction, you’re probably thinking that I trampled a few toddlers during the game and didn’t admit it, but I assure you that I did nothing wrong.
And that was it. Eight balls without batting practice.
I was pretty psyched to get those last two. Before that, I’d only gotten one ball from an ump in my life–and later on, it occurred to me how truly special they are: they’re unused game balls. No scuffs. No grass stains. No pine tine tar. No rosin. They’re like eggs that never hatched.
It was almost 1am. Ben and Mike were thoroughly dejected. At the start of the night, their team was one game behind the idle Astros for the wild-card. If the 5-2 lead had held up, it would’ve been half a game. Instead, it was a game and a half. As we walked to the car, Mike questioned whether or not he would pay to watch the Phillies anymore. Ben second-guessed the manager. They both moaned about the bullpen…and the defense…and Pat Burrell’s wimpy check-swing come-backer that ended the game with runners on 1st and 2nd.
We found our way onto the Walt Whitman Bridge and tuned into the sports talk radio stations. Fans were calling in and second-guessing the manager and whining about the bullpen and promising not to pay to watch the Phillies anymore.
The Jersey Turnpike was empty. We stopped and got gas and junk food. We made it back to NYC after 3am. I drove Mike home. Then I drove Ben home. Then I blah blah…
• 8 balls without batting practice ties my 2nd highest total under those circumstances. My record for most balls without BP is 12, set on July 26, 2001 at Shea Stadium.
• 297 balls in 40 games this season = 7.4 balls per game
• 4 balls needed to break my single-season record
• 424 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 50 consecutive games with at least three balls
• 80 consecutive games outside of NYC with at least one ball
• 507 balls outside of NYC…the one from Hamulack was #500.
If you still have a few minutes to spare after reading all of this, check out Ben’s baseball blog.