Another day at PETCO, another precious hour of life wasted in the giant sandbox. There wasn’t a single ball hit there during batting practice, and if it weren’t for Ben Johnson, I would’ve been freaking out when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:30pm.
I had spotted Johnson from 100 feet away, noticed that he was walking toward a ball, and happened to be the only fan who recognized him. I shouted his name. He looked up. I waved my arms and and yelled for the ball. He tossed it my way. It was a perfect throw, heading right for my chest, but I didn’t wait for it. Instead, I ran forward so I could jump and catch it as high as possible, thus preventing anyone else from cutting me off and snatching it. (Useless fact of the day: Ben is the seventh ‘Johnson’ to have thrown me a ball, the others being Brian, Howard, Jason, Jonathan, Mark P., and Russ.)
In addition to the ball, I got Jake Peavy to sign a Mets-Padres ticket stub from one week earlier, but still, I couldn’t wait for the rest of the ballpark to open, and in a way, I couldn’t wait to get out of San Diego and just go home. There was no chance I was going to reach 2,900 balls on this trip. PETCO wasn’t just challenging; it was flat-out kicking my ***.
That said, I wasn’t about to hide in a bathroom stall, so at 5:30, I went to left field and managed to get a ball with my glove trick. It wasn’t easy. There’s a double wall in front of the seats with a fence-covered gap in the middle. I had to lie across it and stretch way out just to see the ball down below.
Batting practice was almost over–yeah, THAT fast–and the seats were packed. I hadn’t yet tried my luck in the corner spot down the third base line, so I ran over there and snagged my third ball of the day. Ray Durham sliced it into the seats, sparking a mad scramble. Luckily, the ball trickled into my row, and I grabbed it off the concrete steps.
It was 6:15pm before I knew it. Batting practice was done, and the stingy Giants failed to give me a ball at their dugout. Five minutes later, a whole bunch of guys, all dressed in white, started playing an exhibition cricket match in shallow center field. (I’m sure the grounds crew loved that.) I’d done all my wandering and photo-taking the day before, so I had nothing better to do than head to the left field seats for a closer look. One of the players actually hit the ball into the seats. I totally wasn’t expecting it. At that point–the lull between BP and the game–my glove was tucked away in my backpack, but that didn’t stop me from jumping up and bolting after it. I almost got it, but the damn thing took an unlucky bounce to some other unsuspecting fan. The match stopped. Everyone in the stadium was staring at our section. Turns out it was the ONLY cricket ball these guys had, so one of the players had to run over and ask the fan to return it.
“Wait wait wait!!!” I shouted. “Let me get a look at it!!!”
I’d never seen a cricket ball, not even in a photograph, but it was too late. The fan tossed the red ball back onto the field, and play resumed until the P.A. announcer interrupted several minutes later: “Let’s give another round of applause to the San Diego Cricket Club.”
The club made one more play, and ball was hit to the left field wall. The fielder who ran after it didn’t bother firing it back in. Instead, he scooped it up and underhanded it to some fans in the first row, but it fell short and hit the top of the wall. Ha! I knew the guy was going to run over and give it another toss, so I climbed over a few rows of seats and squeezed in amongst the crowd. Sure enough, he jogged over and grabbed the ball and flung it right to me. And just like that, my newest collection was underway.
The ball was HARD. Baseballs have a bit of give–you can dig your fingernail into the surface and make ridges–but this thing didn’t. It felt like polished wood. Weird weird weird. And cool.
Randy Winn dissed me once again. Does anyone know this guy? What’s his problem? Is he trying to get jinxed?
Just before the game started, Brian Giles tossed his warmup ball into the right field seats. (I was already out there for Barry Bonds purposes.) Everyone reached for it. No one caught it. The ball bounced back over the wall and landed on a small fenced platform just out of reach. I was about to set up my glove trick when an usher scurried down the steps with a special device used for retrieving such balls.
“Is there any chance I could have it?” I asked politely.
“Well,” he replied, “I usually try to give it to a guy in a wheelchair. Besides, you already have 2,000 of ’em.”
“What?! Wait! How do you know?!”
“How do I know?” he said with a grin. “You’re famous. You got almost 2,900.”
I was speechless.
He disappeared with the ball.
Barry was worthless. He grounded into the shift in top of the second, drew an intentional walk in the third, struck out in the fifth, and flied out to center in the eighth. 0-for-everything. Thanks. I appreciate it.
I’d already worked my way down behind the dugout by the time Armando Benitez fanned Dave Roberts to end the game. (Final score: Giants 3, Padres 2.) Felipe Alou ignored my request for the lineup cards, but Benitez tossed me the ball on his way in. He had briefly scanned the seats for a younger/cuter recipient, but when I repeated my request in Spanish, his eyes returned to me. I wasted no time in writing “2892” on the ball so I’d always remember that it was the one he used to earn his 15th save of the season and 278th of his career. Nifty.
On the way out, I found a dozen ticket stubs and took a few pics of the empty, trash-strewn seats. Then I headed to the nearby 7-11 for a much needed bottle of water. After I paid, a college-aged kid (wearing the ‘R’ hat) approached and said, “Excuse me, are you Zack?”
He’d read my book. That’s how he recognized me. He was with his father and brother. They’re from New Jersey, and they were on a ballpark tour–and for a moment, we all shared that special baseball bond, knowing that we were on the best kind of vacation in the world.
• Competition Factor = 126,404.
• 140 balls this season in 19 games = 7.37 balls per game.
• 446 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 72 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 85 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 543 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 2,892 total balls. Ugh. Eight balls away and only one game to go…