It was Mike Piazza’s return to Shea, and the pregame crowd was enormous. Some fans showed up just to see the video tribute. Hundreds of others were there just to take photos, or to try to get his autograph, or to see him take batting practice. Countless people wore “PIAZZA 31” jerseys and brought homemade signs. One lady had a life-size cardboard cutout and wouldn’t stop shrieking. It was insane.
I was out of breath and already sweating when I reached my corner spot in the right field Loge. A minute later, I got Chad Bradford to throw me a ball, and thirty seconds after that, some kid showed up and asked how I’d gotten there so fast. The kid got the next ball, which was thrown by the newly acquired Roberto Hernandez, and the section started filling up.
There weren’t any lefties in the first round of BP, but the second group had four: Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Jose Valentin, and Endy Chavez. I left my backpack in the corner spot and moved back six rows into the narrow aisle, where there was one other guy–about twice my age–camped out with a glove. (Almost everyone else was packed into the front row. Smart.) Moments later, Beltran jerked a deep drive down the line. The ball had the distance and was hooking to the left. The other guy froze. I darted to my left to squeeze past him. He still had no clue where the ball was heading, but he knew I had him beat, so he backed up and bumped into me in an unsuccessful attempt to cut me off. The ball was coming fast. I thought it was gonna CLANG off the foul pole, but it sailed past the foul side by three inches. The other guy chased me and lunged helplessly at the last second. I was one step above him and caught the ball on a fly. It was one of those no-logo balls with multi-colored stitches.
“Why don’t you stay on your side!” he snarled in a thick Queens accent. “You got like 900 balls!”
“Stay on my side?” I asked. “I didn’t realize I wasn’t allowed to position myself in different places for different hitters.”
Then he complained that I’d injured his knee, and after that, he accused me of “taking all the fun out of it.”
Dude, it’s called competition. That’s what MAKES it fun. Move on.
I made it back to the corner spot just in time to see Roberto picking up a ball that had rolled onto the warning track. I figured he wouldn’t toss a second ball to the same spot, but I also figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. So I asked. And he tossed it. It was from the 2005 All-Star Game.
Pedro Martinez saw me catch it and shouted up, “You can put him in the book now!”
I moved back into the aisle, and Endy Chavez launched a deep fly in my direction. I had it lined up and was getting ready to make the catch when the other guy came charging out of nowhere and shoved me. Flagrant foul. The ball landed in an empty runway and disappeared into the concourse. I barely beat the guy down the ramp and snatched the ball–my fourth of the day–as it rolled past a stunned maintenance worker who was sweeping water into a rusty drain. Another All-Star ball.
Back in the seats, I saw a ball drop onto the sloped, grassy area down the right field line. I abandoned my corner spot and ran down a double ramp to the Field Level, where I had no trouble snagging it with my glove trick.
The Mets ended batting practice five minutes early, just as I was heading down the steps toward their dugout. The crowd was so thick that I didn’t bother trying to get to the front. Instead, I stopped five rows back and climbed up on the arm rests of a seat to make myself visible above the mob. Jerry Manuel, the team’s bench coach, was the last guy to make his way in. I wasn’t sure if he had a ball, but I asked him anyway, and sure enough, he pulled one out of his back pocket and lobbed it to me perfectly, right over everyone’s heads. Another crappy no-logo ball.
“Hey! It’s the ball guy!” shouted a nearby fan.
“Yeah! That’s the guy who was on SNY!”
“How many balls today?”
“Where’s the best place to go for Mike Piazza’s autograph?”
“Can you sign one of your balls for me?
“Yeah! Gimme one, too!”
“That guy knocks over little kids!!!”
“Do you have season tickets?”
Oh my god. Okay. Wow. Hi. Yes, that’s me. Six. Third base side. No, I’m sorry. Not true. I wish.
I don’t know what it was, but from that point on, people recognized me ALL night. Dozens of people. Possibly even hundreds of people. Most of them were nice. I shook a lot of hands.
The Padres took the field, so I threw on my ‘SD’ cap and headed to the first row down the left field foul line. Ten minutes later, I got my seventh ball of the day from pitcher Clay Hensley. As I reached for it, the woman next to me nearly knocked me over.
I headed up to the left field Loge even though it was absurdly crowded. Piazza was in the cage, drawing cheers from the crowd on each home run. A pitcher named Mike Thompson tossed a ball to some fans near the foul pole, but it fell short and plunked into the gap behind the outfield wall, 30 feet below. I ran over to get a look from above. Amidst all the garbage and clutter that was back there, the ball was hugging a forgotten hose, and I decided to go for it. I took out my old glove, uncoiled some string, set up the rubber band, stuck the Sharpie inside, wedged myself between a paint-chipped railing and a bird poop-covered concrete ledge, leaned over, and started to lower the glove. I needed to let out about 90 percent of my string to get the glove all the way to the bottom, and then I swung it gently from side to side to move the ball to a better spot. It took a couple minutes, and then I lowered the glove over the ball. It was so tough to see what was going on down below that I’d raised my glove several feet before I realized that the ball was in it. As I continued to lift it slowly, the wind picked up and blew my glove in tight circles.
“Be careful!” shouted a fan in the next section. “The ball is slipping!”
It wasn’t slipping. Some bozo was just heckling me, so I kept lifting the string, one steady arm length after another, until the ball was mine. I labeled it and stuck it in my backpack and immediately thought about reaching double digits. I hadn’t done it at Shea since May 1.
The rest of BP was impossible. The seats were packed, and the Padres weren’t hitting or throwing anything. I went to their dugout 10 minutes before the end of BP because there just wasn’t anything else worth doing. It turned out to be a good move because I was able to slip into the front row, and when all the guys came off the field, I got a ball tossed to me by one of the coaches. I’m not sure who. Mighta been Merv Rettenmund.
One more ball to go…
The grounds crew was doing its thing, so I grabbed a seat on the third base side, re-inked some of the numbers I’d written on the balls, got some water, ran into some friends, chatted with my favorite cotton candy vendor, took a few photos, and headed to the left field corner as Piazza was finishing his pregame throwing. Nothing. I was about to head up to the Loge when a few Padres came out and started playing catch in front of the dugout. The seats were full, but there weren’t any kids. (Yay, corporate America!) In fact, I was the only one with a glove, so Geoff Blum had no choice but to throw me the ball when he was done. Double digits had been reached.
I didn’t sit down once during the entire game. Stadium security was willing to let me do my thing, so I took advantage by running back and forth all night, playing righties and lefties differently by shifting from the first and third base sides of home plate. It was exhausting. The concourse was crowded. It was a three-hour obstacle course. I was careful, as always. I didn’t knock over any children–or adults.
Piazza led off the top of the second to a chill-inducing standing ovation. Several pitches later, he foul tipped a Steve Trachsel offering, sending the ball whizzing back in my direction. It was way too high, though. It was like 20 feet over my head, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I scooted past several other fans in the runway, made it to the aisle, turned my back to the field, and looked up as the ball smacked the ridged concrete facade of the Mezzanine Level and shot back down at an awkward angle. I lunged for the ball, reaching over a railing far to the left and practically behind myself through a thick cluster of fans who were still standing. I felt something hit my glove. I thought it was someone’s hand. I opened the glove as little kids do after making an error, inspecting it to see what went wrong. And there was the ball. WHAT?! No time to celebrate. Two pitches later, Piazza struck out, and Adrian Gonzalez–a lefty–was striding to the plate. I ran down the runway, through the concourse, and back up the runway on the third base side. Several pitches later, Gonzalez swung under a fastball and floated it back my way. I took two steps forward, reached up through a sea of hands, and made the catch. Two batters, two foul balls. I got high fives. I got congratulations. People wanted to touch the balls. People wanted to know how I did it. People wanted me to give advice to their kids. People wanted me to cure the sick. People wanted to ask me a million questions, but Josh Barfield was coming up, so I took off for the first base side.
It all seemed too easy. My mind was racing. I was thinking about breaking my record of three foul balls in one game. I’d done it twice, once in 1993 and again in 1999. Forget about tying it. It was only the top of the second. The night was young! I had it all planned out. I’d get one more ball by the end of the sixth, leaving me the final third of the game to make history. I was on a mission like never before–and that’s when my luck ran out. There were several close calls, close only because the stadium was too crowded for me to move at top speed. If the Mets were in last place, and if Piazza weren’t in town, and if there were 16,167 fans instead of 46,167, I would have ended my night with five foul balls. Seriously. But it wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t break my record. I didn’t even tie it. But I’m not complaining.
David Wright put the Mets on top, 3-2, in the bottom of the fifth with his second RBI single of the game, and that was your final score. He and Beltran each finished 3-for-4. Jose Reyes stole his major league-leading 46th and 47th bases. Trachsel picked up his 11th win. Billy Wagner notched his 25th save. Piazza went 1-for-4 with a line drive single that made everyone feel warm and Cuzzi. I mean fuzzy. No wait, I do mean Cuzzi. Phil Cuzzi, the home plate umpire, tossed me a ball after the game. Hoo-haaaa!
• Competition Factor = a new record: 600,171.
• 132 balls in 17 games this season = 7.8 balls per game.
• 6 game balls this season
• 1 game ball every 2.8 games
• 95 lifetime game balls
• 11 lifetime games with at least two game balls
• 8 consecutive seasons with at least one game in which I got two game balls
• 444 consecutive games with at least one ball of any kind
• 70 consecutive games with at least two balls
GUSTAVO WATCH, PART 2
The Hample Jinx has struck again. Even though Gustavo Chacin pitched well today in his latest rehab start (two earned runs in five innings), he still suffered the loss. In four games with the Triple-A Syracuse SkyChiefs, he’s 0-3 with a 10.13 ERA. Heh.