Game time was 7:05pm.
The stadium opened at 5:05pm.
I was there at 4pm, and this was the view right before the #4 train pulled into 161st Street…
I don’t get nervous anymore at Shea Stadium. My heart might beat a little quicker as the gates open, but it’s more adrenaline than anxiety because I know that I won’t be going home empty-handed. Even though I’d snagged at least one ball at each of my last 97 Yankee games, there were plenty of times–21 to be exact–when I’d only snagged one. There’s no guarantee at Yankee Stadium. The average attendance is 50,000, and it’s almost impossible to get to the dugouts. On top of that, Yankee fans are savages.
I was the first fan to enter the ballpark, and I raced through the concourse and runway and into the right field seats. With a huge crowd behind me, I knew I’d only have the section to myself for a few seconds, so I quickly looked for loose balls.
A minute later, the narrow aisle behind the outfield wall was nearly full. The batter hit a ball to the warning track. Yankees pitcher Ron Villone started walking over, and everyone jostled for position. Villone flipped up the ball without looking. Everybody else reached. I jumped and plucked it out of the air with my bare hand.
“Next one you steal,” said the man on my right, “you’re goin’ over the edge.”
The next one I stole was from the Yankees. Bernie Williams was taking fungos in right field and missed an in-between hop. The ball rolled to the wall, and I got it with my glove trick. Less than a minute later, I caught a Johnny Damon homer.
This was fun.
“Excuse me,” said another man. “Weren’t you just on TV on the Mets channel?”
“Yeah, that’s me!”
“Hey listen,” he said, “I’m here with my kids. Can you give them some tips on how to get balls?”
“Uh, well, I’m kinda busy right now…but if you go to MLBlogs.com, your kids can check out my blog and read about everything I do at games. It’s called ‘The Baseball Collector’.”
“YOU’RE the baseball collector?!” another fan asked.
“Yeah. That’s me.” And so it went…
I ended up posing for a photograph with the father and his kids. No one asked for my autograph.
I used the glove trick again for ball #4, then ducked into the runway for a moment to coil up my string. The overall fan noise suddenly cranked up a notch, so I looked up, and sure enough, a ball was flying over my head. It landed behind me in the runway and bounced 50 feet away into the concourse, and I was already on the move. I was sure that some lucky stiff who happened to be passing by at THAT moment would end up with the ball…
…but the concourse was empty! The ball ricocheted off a garbage against the back wall, and I was all over it.
A policeman poked his head out around a corner.
“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t mean to disrupt the peace, but I had to get the ball.”
The policeman shrugged.
Back in the seats, I came close to several home runs. On one of them–a rocket by Hideki Matsui–I raced through the aisle and reached up and to my right to make the grab when some monster of a fan stuck up his glove at the last second and caught the ball six inches in front of me. That hurt.
The Devil Rays took the field, and Jonny Gomes promptly started tossing one ball after another into the crowd. The fans dropped one of them onto the warning track, and Gomes left it there. Glove trick! Ball number six! (Every time I used the trick, a swarm of fans asked me how I did it. I answered as quickly as possible and told everyone to read my blog.)
Gomes hadn’t seen me use the trick, so I was able to get another ball from him two minutes later. I was at the far end of the section, close to the bleachers in straight-away right field. Gomes underhanded the ball from about 50 feet away, and I could tell right away that it was going to fall short. I jumped up, hung halfway over the slanted concrete ledge, reached way down over the wall (into that alley type area where the ambulances park) and made the catch. That was number seven.
Moments later, I would’ve had an easy chance to use the glove trick again from that corner spot, but a fan had quickly taken that spot when I stepped away, and he wouldn’t let me in.
“You’re NOT gonna let me in?!”
“I don’t like you. You’re annoying. Go away.”
(And YOU, sir, look like you should be the bouncer at a HeII’s Angels social club, except you’re too ugly.)
I went away…and used my glove trick elsewhere.
Then I used it again.
I couldn’t believe that NO ONE else had their own trick.
I couldn’t believe that security had no problem with mine.
I couldn’t believe that every time a ball rolled to the wall, the Devil Rays just left it there.
I couldn’t believe that I had just broken my one-day Yankee Stadium record with 11 balls.
I’m ashamed to admit that I had two balls hit my glove in the last few minutes of BP. One was a homer. The other was tossed. I dropped the balls because it was CROWDED, and other people’s gloves smacked into mine. But I was still pissed. Really pissed. I mean, to be THAT close and not come up with those balls–and at a time when every ball would’ve added to my record…
I hadn’t gotten to label my last four balls because I’d gotten them all so quickly. I put the first of the four into my right pants pocket, the second in the left, the third in my right jacket pocket, and the fourth in the left. I don’t think I’ve ever been four balls behind, but because of my pocket pattern, I was able to remember which ball was which and write the appropriate numbers on them after BP.
The grounds crew did their thing, and eventually, half a dozen D’Rays came out to run and stretch. If I could’ve gotten down to the dugout, I would’ve gotten a ball from Tomas Perez, but instead, I had to go all the way down the 3rd base line, where there wasn’t much action. I did, however, get five autographs: Nick Green, Ty Wigginton, and Jonny Gomes on that day’s ticket stub…Carl Crawford on an Orioles-Devil Rays stub from last year…and Joey Gathright on a Yankees-Devil Rays stub from 2004.
Earlier in the day, I’d been thinking about sitting near the foul pole in the right field upper deck. It’d been empty there the night before, and I was willing to lower my odds of getting a game ball in exchange for having that potential ball be a home run. But now that I had a record in progress, I didn’t care what kind of ball I got. I just wanted ONE more ball to extend my record and undo the pain and sorrow from having missed those two balls at the end of BP. Naturally, I decided to go for foul balls. I just had to pick a side of the stadium. First base for righties? Third base for lefties? At Yankee Stadium, there’s no running back and forth. It’s too crowded, and security is too strict, so I paid close attention as the starting lineups were announced and counted the lefties on both teams…Carl Crawford, Tomas Perez, Travis Lee, Joey Gathright, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Bubba Crosby. That was 10. That meant there were only eight righties. There’d be more foul balls hit to the 3rd base side, so I chose a seat on that side of home plate, just behind the main aisle.
It was a good spot, not only because a foul tip could come right to me, but also because the facade of the press level was directly above me. If a foul ball were to shoot 40 feet over my head, it might hit the facade and drop straight down. This was my view…
In the first inning, several foul tips came close enough that I had reason to jump out of my seat and race down the aisle–but they weren’t close enough. Still, I knew it was gonna be a good night. Seth McClung, the 6’6″, 250-pound starter for the Devil Rays, was throwing gas. (An hour and a half later, on his 103rd pitch of the game, he hit 98mph.)
In the bottom of the 2nd, Cano fouled off a couple pitches to work the count to 2-2. Normally, I sit on the edge of my seat in anticipation, but before this next pitch, I just felt something. I can’t really describe it. All I can say is that I knew he was going to hit one my way.
And he did.
It was like some weird sixth-sense thing. The ball flew 40 feet over my head, hit the facade, and dropped right into the aisle. I would’ve caught it on the descent, but my path to the aisle was blocked by a couple of vendors. (I couldn’t predict THAT.) The whole event seemed to play out in slow motion–I knew where the ball was going and watched helplessly, blocked by these vendors, as it floated to the ground. To everyone else, it must’ve seemed like the ball shot back and slammed down in the blink of an eye because no one else was even out of their seats. Luckily, when the ball hit the concrete aisle and bounced back up, it clipped the back of the seats in front of me and settled at my feet. I had my 12th ball of the day.
“Nice catch!” said a lady who passed by moments later.
“Well, actually, I didn’t CATCH it.”
“Oh, you weren’t the one that caught that foul ball?”
“No–oh, nevermind. Thank you.”
The fan across the staircase asked to see the ball, so I handed it over.
“You know,” he said, “they rub up these balls with mud.”
“Yeah, Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. All professional teams use it. Secret ingredients. Comes from a tributary of the Delaware River in Southern New Jersey.”
“How do you know that!” he demanded.
The fan behind me asked about the ball, then about me, and I briefly told him about my collection.
“You should be on TV,” he said.
I really thought I was going to get another foul ball. It was only the 2nd inning, and the game was crawling along. McClung was throwing lots of pitches. “More opportunities for me,” I thought, but nothing else came my way.
I really wanted the Yankees to lose. I mean, I pretty much always want them to lose, but it was especially important on this night. After games, it’s always easier to get a ball at the visiting team’s dugout–that is, if the visiting team wins–so I was bummed when Gary Sheffield tied the game at 2-2 with a two-run homer in the bottom of the 5th…and that’s how the score remained through nine innings.
I love Mariano Rivera. He’s one of the few Yankees that I will absolutely never EVER root against, but let’s just say that I didn’t exactly mind when the Devil Rays scored two runs off him in the top of the 10th.
In the bottom of the frame, Posada drew a leadoff walk, Cano and pinch hitter Bernie Williams struck out, and Damon walked. Mr. Clutch–that would be Derek Jeter–then followed with a single to load the bases and bring up Sheffield. It was very exciting. Two outs. Bottom of the 10th. Bases loaded. Tying run in scoring position. Shawn Camp on the mound?! Almost didn’t seem like a fair matchup. I was all set for Sheff to end my night with a three-run double to left-center, but instead, he grounded out to Wiggy at 3rd base. Game over.
I bolted down the steps toward the dugout, fighting my way past the dozens of fans who were making their way out. (Silly people.) The Devil Rays gathered near the mound, slapped hands, bumped fists, patted each other’s arses, and made their way back.
The unused relief pitchers were slowly making their way in from the bullpen. At some ballparks, they go from the ‘pen to the clubhouse via the underground concourse, but in the Bronx, they just walk across the field. Finally, Yankee Stadium was doing something for me.
The seats behind the dugout were nearly empty by the time Scott Dunn approached. Actually, I didn’t know it was him at the time, and I wasn’t sure if he even had a ball, so I made a generic request. It worked. He did, indeed, have a ball tucked inside his glove, and he tossed it to me. THIRTEEN!
A couple of tourists asked me to take their picture. I asked them to wait one minute because I saw a couple more guys coming in from the bullpen. I had no idea who they were…until I remembered what my ball-snagging friend Dan (a.k.a. “drosenda” for those of you who read the comments) had told me earlier in the day:
“Head to the bullpen, and ask Tampa Bay bullpen coach Bobby Ramos (#7) for a ball in Spanish. He is short, squatty mexican dude if he has his warmup over his number.”
Yes! It was Ramos!
“Bobby!! Bobby!!” I shouted as he approached the dugout. He looked up, pulled a ball out of his back pocket and flipped it to me.
I took a pic of the tourists, then handed them my camera and ran down to the first row and help up my final ball…
What a day. I take back everything bad that I said about Yankee Stadium. (Okay, almost everything.)
• 14 balls = a new one-day record for Yankee Stadium, breaking my old high of 10 on May 10, 2005.
• 33 balls in 4 games this season = 8.25 balls per game.
• 431 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 57 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 56 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 90 lifetime game balls
• 8 consecutive seasons with at least one game ball