First game of the season. Chilly but gorgeous. Shea looked good from the #7 train. New coat of paint?
I was there at 3:40pm, a full hour before Gate C opened. I really didn’t need to be there THAT early, but it paid off. Within the next 30 minutes, Jose Guillen and ESPN announcer Chris Berman showed up, and I got their autographs on last season’s ticket stubs.
Berman personalized it and shook my hand after I started rattling off my favorite nicknames…
Lance “You Sunk My” Blankenship
Bert “Be Home” Blyleven
Chuck “New Kids On” Knoblauch
Carlos “One If By Land, Two If By Sea, Three If” Baerga
Todd “Snap, Crackle” Van Poppel
C.C. “Splish Splash I Was Taking A” Sabathia
Todd “Which Hand Does He” Frohwirth
And so on.
He was delighted. (No really, he was.)
Gate C opened, and I raced to the right field foul line. I had the whole stadium to myself, but I knew it wouldn’t last. I needed that first ball of the season. My heart was racing. If I got one, I knew everything would be okay…and then, almost immediately, some right-hander on the Mets (possibly Ramon Castro) laced a line drive in my direction. The ball skipped off the warning track and dropped into a little gap between the wall and the stands. There it was, sitting five feet below me on a forgotten patch of dirt. I noticed that it had multi-colored stitches and thought, “Oh great, another one of those stupid no-logo balls…”
A few other fans had made their way inside, but they went straight behind the Mets dugout for autographs. Out in right field, the only other person was a mean old usher who’d been giving me a hard time for years.
“Can I get it?” I asked.
“You know what happens if you go down there,” he growled.
“No no, I don’t need to go down there. I can get it from right here.”
He gave me a suspicious look and then remembered the glove trick. Awwww, that’s right, baby. Didn’t take long for me to need it–and it didn’t take long to get the ball. I reeled it in and took a look and could not believe what I was holding. It wasn’t a no-logo ball. It was an official 2005 All-Star Game ball! The orange and blue stitches were for the Tigers who hosted the game at Comerica.
2006 was off to a gooooood start…
…that is, until other fans showed up and the usher told me that I had to give away any other balls I caught. He wasn’t kidding.
I headed up to the Loge and settled into my favorite corner spot. I wanted more All-Star balls. The logo on the one I got was partially scuffed. But were there more? Did the Mets get a whole shipment of leftovers and just mix them in with the rest? There was only one way to find out.
Thirty feet below, and to my right, there was a ball sitting in a catcher’s mask on a bench in the Mets bullpen. I kept my eye on it, and when Tom Glavine finished his session with pitching coach Rick Peterson, I called down to the future Hall of Famer. He didn’t see the ball until I explained where it was. Then he walked over, grabbed it, and threw it right to me. All-Star ball?! No. Just a regular one. Poo.
Dave Racaniello, the Mets bullpen catcher, strolled out to right field, and one of the batters promptly hit a ball his way. I called down. He looked up.
“How many balls do you need?” he asked. Unbelievable. My first game in six months, and guys are recognizing me.
“How ’bout a ‘Welcome to 2006’ ball?” I suggested. “And then I’ll shut the **** up.”
He laughed and threw it in my direction, but it fell short and hit the protective screen in front of the DUNKIN DONUTS ad and plopped back down to the field.
“C’mon!” I shouted. “One more try! I can catch!”
He tossed it again, this time right to me, and I had my third ball of the day. All-Star?! Yes, and it was a beauty. No scuff marks at all. Yum.
There was one other fan in the section, a schlumpy middle-aged man with a glove. He was standing several rows back and way over near the foul pole–not the greatest spot.
“Wow! You’re having quite a day!” he shouted.
“So far, so good,” I said.
I didn’t think I’d get any more balls there. I assumed that all the players in right field had heard me yelling at Racaniello. So when a ball rolled to the wall and Victor Diaz jogged over to retrieve it, I called his first name softly, almost apologetically. He looked up. I held my glove open. He tossed me the ball. All-Star?! No. I was disappointed. And then I was almost embarrassed. I felt bad for the other guy in my section, but he didn’t seem angry or jealous or anything.
Two minutes later, I got another ball from Chris Woodward. More disappointment. Funny how that works. And two minutes after that, I got ANOTHER ball–my sixth of the day–from Endy Chavez. It wasn’t an All-Star ball, and it wasn’t a regular ball. It was something I’d never seen: an “official training ball.” What the–
But hey, cool, I’ll take it. It’s one more interesting ball to add to the collection.
The other fan wandered over and asked, “What’s the most balls y’ever got in one game?”
“Nineteen,” I admitted.
“God bless,” he said.
It was 5:30pm. I headed back to the field level, ran to the Mets dugout, and worked my way down to the front row. When the Mets’ BP ended a few minutes later, I got a dirty All-Star ball from 3rd base coach Manny Acta and a bat from Cliff Floyd.
Yeah. A bat.
Only my second one in over 600 games. Just like that. I hadn’t even asked for it. As Floyd had been heading off the field, we made eye contact, and he tossed it to me, right over the dugout roof. There were guys on both sides of me, and they grabbed it just after I got my hands on it.
“Mine!! Mine!! Mine!! Mine!! Mine!!” I yelled. “I got it!!!” And thankfully, they let go.
It’s easy to claim a ball. It’s palm-sized. When it’s in your hand, it’s in YOUR hand. But a bat? There’s lots of room for other hands.
Surprisingly, the bat wasn’t broken. But it wasn’t one of his gamers. Those are black and red. This one was white. It smelled like pine tar, and it was still a bit sticky.
Suddenly, I was the man. Everyone was coming up to me and asking how I got it (luck) and if I knew him (no) and if could they hold it (sure!) and if I was gonna get him to autograph it (dunno). The attention continued for the rest of the night. At first it was cool. Eventually, it became a burden. The bat didn’t fit in my backpack, so I had to carry it with one of my two precious ball-snagging hands. And I stuck out. There were times during the game when I wanted to move from section to section, but I knew that security would’ve spotted me. I got some interesting looks in the bathroom.
I was so happy that it truly didn’t matter what happened for the rest of the night–yet it occurred to me that I was just three balls away from double digits.
Ryan Zimmerman was taking fungos at 3rd base. He ignored me and was rather snotty about it, but Royce Clayton came to the rescue and flipped me a ball. Another green one.
I grabbed my bat and hurried to the left field corner. People wanted to talk. I was on a mission. It was crowded out there, and most of the balls were being thrown to little kids and guys who could speak Spanish way better than me. Fair enough.
Someone on the Nationals smoked a drive down the 3rd base line. The ball hit a three-wheeler that was parked on the warning track in foul territory and caromed into shallow left field. One of the players came over and grabbed it. I had no idea who it was, but it didn’t matter because everyone was shouting and jostling for position. He flipped it up and to my right. I lunged through the pack, jumped a few inches, and snatched it above everyone’s head with my bare hand. (Another training ball.) The guy had a distinctive face, and when I got home, I revisited the Nationals’ roster and realized it was Damian Jackson.
Ten minutes later, right before the end of BP, I got my 10th ball from Felix Rodriguez. (Yet another training ball. I don’t know how I feel about this.)
So I had 10 balls, and nine of them were thrown–and the one that was hit hadn’t even come right to me. That’s Shea Stadium for you. Terrible design. Can’t wait ’til 2009 when the New Shea will supposedly open. Look at all those Field Level seats in fair territory! Home runs galore! Actually, I’m not thrilled with the design of the new ballpark, and in a few days, I might write a whole entry about it.
Anyway, I went to the dugout as the Nationals finished BP. Nothing.
I went to LF when the catchers were warming up before the National Anthem. Nothing.
I went to the dugout right before the game. Nothing.
During the game, I sat right behind the main aisle on the 3rd base side. Nothing.
After the game, I went to the Mets dugout. Nothing.
But that was fine. I had 10 balls, two autographs, and a bat.
Plus, the game itself was great. Pedro Martinez made his first start. Carlos Beltran picked up his first hit of the season–a two-run homer that extended the Mets lead to 8-5. Jose Reyes tripled. David Wright had three hits and, despite it being just the third game of the season, got an “M-V-P!” chant from the crowd. And there was nearly a brawl.
When Guillen got beaned for the second time, he walked halfway out toward the mound and pointed his bat at Pedro before being restrained. The dugouts emptied. Guys ran in from the bullpens. Good stuff. Then, just a few innings later, Felix Rodriguez was ejected (along with manager Frank Robinson) when he plunked Paul Lo Duca. There was even an appearance by the tallest player in Major League history. This game had it all.
• 10 balls = the 2nd highest total in my first game of a new season. On April 15, 1999, I opened with an 11-ball performance.
• 428 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 54 games with at least three balls
• 55 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 2,762 total balls
• You may recall that in the middle of 2005, I started competing with the all-time hits leaders…you know, comparing my ball total to players’ career hits…just for fun. So my new lifetime total moves me into 45th place ahead of Vada Pinson (2,757). Next up is Andre Dawson (2,774).
I’m not sure when I’ll make it back to Shea, so for now, I’ll leave you with a few pics I took when I got home…