Yesterday, the first-place Mets faced the hated Atlanta Braves, and Pedro Martinez was going for his 200th career win…
Chilly weeknight in April? Didn’t matter. Shea was jumping. The whole day was exciting for me as a baseball fan–but as a baseball collector who was about to be filmed for SportsNet NY (SNY), it made me jittery. But at least it was sunny. Normally, the weather gods poop on me whenever I have a big interview.
June 11, 1996…the day a reporter came to Shea to watch me catch my 1,000th ball? BP was rained out.
June 29, 1999…the day CNN took me to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia? BP was rained out.
August 24, 2004…the day FoxSports sent a film crew to Shea to catch me in action? Yeah.
Anyway, I was supposed to be at the Press Gate at 4:30pm, and of course I got there way too early. I had some time to kill, so I started–
“Are you Zack?”
I looked up. A man with one of those fancy laminated media badges was walking toward me. I shook his hand.
“Are you Andrew?”
It wasn’t Andrew. It was Tony. Andrew was the SNY producer who’d be doing my segment. He’d sent this guy to look for me.
Tony brought me to the security checkpoint where I signed a waiver (didn’t read it) and some sort of logbook. The young woman seated behind the table then handed me a media pass…
Not counting the time when a fan who was holding my legs dropped me, I’d only been on the field a couple times before–once for Banner Day back in 1993 and again the next year for a tryout–so it was pretty exciting to get to walk through the tunnel and out below the seats and onto the warning track directly behind home plate.
The Mets pitchers were taking early BP, and several position players were throwing in front of the dugout. Julio Franco walked right past us.
Tony introduced me to Andrew and the rest of the film crew, and we all hung out there and talked about what I’d be doing and how they’d get it on film. Andrew told me that this wasn’t going to be a straight-up interview, but rather a first-person account of what I was doing and why I was doing it. In other words, I was going to have to keep talking to the camera and explain all my strategies/neuroses as the day progressed.
I was PUMPED.
But I had to wait there…and NOT take pictures…and NOT ask for balls…until 4:40pm. That’s when the gates opened for the regular fans. (Heh. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)
The crew had hooked me up with a microphone. They put the transmitter in my pocket and ran the wire up the inside of my shirt and clipped the mic where it wouldn’t be seen. Unfortunately, it ended up slipping out of place a few times, so in addition to the main camera, Andrew used a palmcorder for backup.
I headed out to the right field seats, and the four-person crew followed me. Ushers were stepping aside, and fans were staring. It felt incredible to be the center of attention. I mean, what can I say? It really did. I don’t consider myself famous. I suppose I’m well known…but only in the baseball world, and even within this world, I try to lay low at games and blend in. But yesterday, there was no blending. I had the opportunity to play the role of celebrity, and I went with it.
Within a couple minutes, I got Mets pitcher Jorge Julio to toss me a ball. Phew! I was in shallow right field, along the foul line, and Julio was way out on the warning track in front of the Mets bullpen. The seats were mostly empty. I shouted. He looked up. I waved. We made eye contact. He lobbed the ball from about 100 feet away. It was all pretty standard stuff, but it felt great. I held up the ball for the camera and showed how I numbered it, and I explained that I keep a ball log on my computer and that I’d type up all the details when I got home.
Andrew did ask me a few questions here and there, just to prompt me. I assume those questions will be edited out…but anyway, he wanted me to give an intro to the camera, so I said something like, “Hi, I’m Zack, and I collect baseballs at major league games. We’re here at Shea Stadium on April 17th. Pedro’s going for his 200th win, and I’m going for as many baseballs as possible.” He had me say some other stuff including, “Hi, I’m Zack, the baseball collector, and you’re watching Mets Weekly.” I nailed most of the lines on the first shot, but a few times, I muffed a certain word or went on too long, so he had me try it again. Fun, fun, fun.
Some other fans had found their way out to my section, so I told the camera that it was time to head up to my corner spot in the Loge Level. I did well in that spot at my last game, getting balls from Tom Glavine, Victor Diaz, Chris Woodward, Endy Chavez, and bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello. Yesterday, I was afraid that all those guys would remember me, but luckily, there was a whole different batch of players out in right field. With the cameras rolling, I got balls thrown to me by Brian Bannister, Victor Zambrano, Billy Wagner, and Duaner Sanchez. NICE! I had five balls, and it was only 5:10pm.
Twenty minutes later, I hurried back downstairs and ran through the main aisle to the Mets dugout. Of course, I first had to tell the camera why, then look into it and say, “C’mon! Let’s go!”
Somehow–actually I don’t know how because it was seriously crowded–I was able to squirm into the front row behind the dugout. When the Mets came off the field after BP, I got a ball from coach Manny Acta. That guy is my hero. He tossed me two balls in 2003, two more in 2004, four in 2005, and two already this year in only two games. That’s TEN balls, and there might be more. I didn’t start my ball log until ’03.
I switched from my Mets cap to my Braves cap, got heckled for it–on camera–by two fans, and headed to the 3rd base side. That’s when I ran into my friend Sean…the guy who went to Camden Yards with me on September 6, 2005.
Sean knew what was up. I handed him my crappy little digital camera, and he went nuts with it.
The stadium was packed. There was hardly an empty space in the first row all the way around the field. Even the Loge was full, and as a result, I managed just one more ball during the entire Braves batting practice. But it was a good one. Kyle Davies tossed it toward some other people, and it fell short and landed on that fenced off, sloped, grassy area just short of the foul pole…and so, I got to use my glove trick for the cameras. It all happened so fast that I had to take a one-minute timeout from BP and explain it. (I’m wearing the Braves hat…)
Two little kids, decked out in Mets gear and face paint, started asking me all about the trick. I told them some strategies (“DON’T wear Mets gear…”), and they kept asking questions, and the cameras kept rolling. That happened a few times with other kids over the course of the day.
The cameras followed me to the Braves dugout at the end of BP. Nothing. I was still stuck on seven, which I realize is not terrible, but it was frustrating. I’d gotten five balls in 30 minutes, then two balls in 60 minutes. If ever there was going to be a record-breaking day, why couldn’t THIS be it?
There wasn’t much taking place on the field at this point, so Andrew conducted a mini-interview with me and Sean, then asked Sean a couple questions on his own. When Sean told the camera that I’m crazy, I butted in and told that camera, “In my world, “crazy is a compliment.”
Sean left for his seat in the Mezzanine. The crew took a little break. I scarfed my ham-and-cheese wrap and tried unsuccessfully to get a ball right before the game at the Braves dugout. Then I met up with the crew in the concourse behind home plate, and we all headed up to the Loge.
The Loge is the BEST spot for foul balls, but there weren’t any empty seats, and security had been cracking down on me for standing in the runways.
Having a film crew following me changed everything. The two supervisors who had previously given me a very hard time were as nice as could be. They let me run back and forth from the first base side of home plate to the third, and the crew stayed close behind. I had a couple of close calls on foul balls. First, David Wright tipped one that shot back into a press box. I quickly moved down a few steps, hoping for a better angle when the ball would get tossed down–except it wasn’t. I guess the box was empty, and somehow, the ball trickled back out and plopped right down where I’d been standing two seconds earlier. Still, the fans dropped it, and it bounced down to the step right below me, so I dove headfirst over a railing and tried to grab it while practically doing a handstand. I scraped my right forearm and got bashed in the eye by someone’s elbow, which nearly knocked my glasses off, and I didn’t even get the ball. But hey, THAT’S compelling television. When I got up, I looked into the camera as if it were a mirror and straightened my glasses and said something like, “How do I look? Are my glasses all crooked now? Oh well, whatever. It’s not about beauty. It’s about balls.”
There was some other foul tip on the 3rd base side an inning later. Not as exciting. Pete Orr hit it. The ball shot back straight at me, fell a few rows short, got bobbled, bounced straight up in the air in my direction, and some tall guy in the row right in front of me reached up and snatched it. What the [expletive deleted].
Even though I came close twice in two innings, Andrew decided to stop filming. That was a real bummer. He was a bit nervous to leave me with that press pass–I could’ve used it to get into the press box or even the clubhouse–but I assured him I’d behave. And I did. The supervisors, meanwhile, granted me “diplomatic immunity” for the rest of the night. “Go do your thing,” they said. They even told the ushers to let me stand in the runways. Way cool. But no more balls, and that was almost okay. The cameras were gone, so I felt like it didn’t matter, and anyway, Pedro was going for No. 200. He left after 6 2/3 innings with eight strikeouts and a 4-3 lead. Duaner retired the next four batters, and Billy Wagner tossed a scoreless ninth. The end. Pedro Martinez had reached his milestone, and I was there.
Oh, and by the way, four of my seven balls were of the 2005 All-Star variety, mwahaha.
• 17 balls in two games this season = 8.5 balls per game
• 429 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 55 consecutive games with at least three balls
• 2,769 total balls
As for today…
Well, it’s now 5:17am. In approximately five and a half hours, the camera crew will be meeting me at my parents’ place. They’re gonna get some footage of ALL the balls and interview my folks. (“So, how does it feel to have a nutjob for a son?”)
Then, I’ll be meeting Andrew at Shea and doing the whole thing over again. Yesterday, I was filmed for “Mets Weekly.” Today, I’ll be interviewed for “Kids Clubhouse.” Two different shows. I’m not sure when they’ll air, but I’ll find out.
Oh, and to MLBlogs:
Happy, HAPPY birthday. Here’s to many more…