“Zack Hample?” asked a voice outside Gate C. I looked up at a tall kid with a Mets cap and a glove. “The Baseball Collector?” he continued.
“That’s me. Are you Chuckster?”
Just before I left for this game, ‘chuckster’ (pictured here) left a comment on my previous entry to say that he was going. It was nice to finally meet him–and to have someone to talk to while waiting 40 minutes for the stadium to open.
He told me he started going for balls after he read my book, and now has 82 in his collection. “If my parents met you,” he said, “they’d say you owe them a lot of time.”
“Nice blog,” said another guy who told me he stumbled upon it recently and has been reading it regularly ever since.
A father and his young son recognized me from TV. They said they’d never gotten a ball and asked where they should go. I told them to head down the foul lines and mentioned that right field, while more crowded, would be better because that’s where most of the Mets would be hanging out. I told the kid to ask the players for balls–by their first names–and to say “please.”
There was a huge line by the time the gate opened at 4:40pm, so I bolted inside and raced up to my corner spot in the right field Loge. I figured I wouldn’t catch the most exciting balls there, but it was a safe place to go to make sure I’d get a few…and I did.
Billy Wagner tossed the first one from the grass just in front of the warning track. It fell short, smacked a railing, and bounced back down onto the field. Wagner got another ball and fired it 10 feet over my head. Luckily, I was still the only one there, so I had no problem chasing it down.
Several minutes later, Alay Soler tossed me a ball from the bullpen after his session with pitching coach Rick Peterson, and soon after that, Ramon Castro strolled into the ‘pen and tossed me another. That one had a nice big smudge on it.
The father and son had made their way out to the first row in foul territory in the right field corner. They looked up at me and waved.
“You’re in a great spot!” I shouted. The father looked relieved and gave me a thumbs up, and moments later, someone threw them a ball. I think it might’ve been Wagner, but that didn’t matter. They were thrilled. I saw ‘chuckster’ get one, too.
I managed to get one more ball in the Loge. It was thrown (of course) by Mets catching instructor Tom Nieto. How bad is Shea? For the first 50 minutes, there was exactly ONE ball that was hit into seats on the entire right side of the stadium–and THAT is why I focus on getting balls tossed to me.
The stadium was filling up. Along both foul lines, the first row was packed. It wasn’t even worth trying to get down to the Mets dugout. I felt lucky to have the corner spot, and I would’ve stayed there if not for one thing: Bucky Dent.
In the early 90s, I attended Bucky’s baseball school in Delray Beach, Florida. He had been a shortstop. I was a shortstop. We worked together on infield drills, and for a while, when he came to Shea as the third base coach of the Cardinals, he recognized me…but I never got a ball from him. Then he became an infield coach with the Rangers…but I hardly got to see him because I didn’t attend as many American League games. Then he started managing in Triple-A, and it was hopeless. I lost track of him for years. But NOW, he was back in The Show and briefly in my home town, serving as the Reds’ bench coach. The Reds were about to take the field for BP. I had to move closer to the action. I was wearing an old “Bucky Dent’s Baseball School” T-shirt for the occasion.
I headed downstairs, and only then did I realize that Bucky (real name: Russell Earl O’Dey) was pitching BP. That was bad. It meant I needed to run out onto the field to talk to him…but instead I waited like a fool. When he finished pitching and started hitting fungos, I headed back to the outfield to try to get some more balls. Total waste of time. Then Bucky abruptly finished hitting and disappeared into the dugout. I was pretty bummed, unsure if I’d get another chance to see him.
BP was almost done, and I was still stuck on four balls. I desperately wanted to get down to the first row behind the Reds’ dugout, but it was impossible. The crowd was three rows deep, and when BP ended, I saw Bucky walk out onto the field and pick up a few balls. Since I couldn’t get in front of the crowd, I had to elevate above it. I stepped on an orange seat, then got an extra foot higher by climbing onto the rusted arm rests.
I was really sticking out.
“Hey! It’s the foul ball guy!” someone shouted.
I was praying that security wouldn’t come over and make me get down.
As Bucky made his way in, I screamed my head off and got his attention and pointed to my shirt. He waved. I held up my glove and flapped it open and closed. He pulled a ball out of his back pocket and underhanded it to me over everyone’s head…but it was falling short. I was stuck on the arm rests and couldn’t move. I reached forward as far as I could, nearly losing my balance, and was about to catch it in the tip of my glove when someone reached up and swatted the ball away. I didn’t have time to cry. Bucky saw what happened and tossed me his other ball, putting a little more muscle into it. It was heading a bit to my left, but it had the distance, and I reached out and made the catch. I pumped my fist at him and yelled “Thanks!” He waved again and disappeared into the dugout for good.
I caught up with ‘chuckster’ who managed to get a second ball. We both got Brandon Phillips autographs before the game. He got him on a card. I got him on my ticket stub.
The game started, and I decided to head back up to the right field Loge, just in case Ken Griffey Jr. happened to jerk one down the line. His next homer–No. 548–was going to tie him with Mike Schmidt for 11th place on the all-time list.
I entered the Loge and walked through the runway toward a small patch of empty seats near the foul pole. A security guard asked me where I was going. I told him that I actually had a Field Level ticket, and I asked politely if I might be able to sit in this section instead.
“I don’t want you around here,” he said.
“Why is that?”
“I have my reasons.”
Small twinkie, perhaps?
Six innings later, Griffey hit a long home run to straight-away right field, which is exactly where I would’ve been sitting IF THERE WERE SEATS OUT THERE. But in the monstrosity that some people like to call Shea Stadium, there’s nothing but tar and weeds in front of that gigantic, ugly scoreboard.
Small patch of empty seats aside, the stadium was ridiculously crowded. I think it was the largest crowd I’ve ever seen there on a weeknight. Yay! The Mets are in first place! Lucky me.
It was SO crowded that I actually went to my own seat. Someone was sitting in it. It wasn’t even worth asking her to move.
I roamed. Bronson Arroyo was pitching a gem. It drizzled for five minutes around the seventh inning, sending thousands of “fans” scurrying for the exits. That was nice. The Reds won, 4-2, and I got a ball at their dugout after the game from first base coach Billy Hatcher. The end.
• 6 balls
• 92 balls in 11 games this season = 8.363636363636 balls per game.
• 438 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 64 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 2,844 total balls…moves me ahead of Charlie Gehringer (2,839) and into 42nd place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Brooks Robinson (2,848). If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here.