I usually don’t arrive at 2pm for night games, but my friend Hannah had somewhere to be, so she dropped me off early. Just as well. This was my last game at PETCO, and it gave me one final chance to wander and be obnoxious with my camera.
After checking out the bleachers and giant sandbox, I headed back out to the street and around the corner to the players’ entrance. Maybe, just MAYBE, I’d catch Randy Winn coming in and finally get him to sign a ticket stub from his cycle.
The PETCO regulars were there, and they already recognized me. “How many balls did you end up with yesterday?” someone asked.
“Four?! How’d you get ’em?! We only saw you get that one early on from Ben Johnson.”
I told them about my glove trick, mentioned the Ray Durham slicer, described the cricket ball, and explained how I’d gotten one from Armando Benitez after the game. “Four is a bad day,” I added. They laughed. I was serious. After coming to San Diego with an average of 7.8 balls per game, I’d been limited to four balls on each of the first two days. That left me with a grand total of 2,892. Somehow, I was going to have to get EIGHT balls at this game in order to reach my milestone.
The Giants’ hotel was just a few blocks away, so the players kept trickling in. I got a few autographs–Matt Morris, Matt Cain, and Jason Schmidt–on those old cycle stubs, then decided I was wasting them and stuck to taking photos instead.
ABOVE: (clockwise from top left) Morris, Steve Kline, Vinnie Chulk, Eliezer Alfonzo
BELOW: Cain, Durham, Schmidt, Shea Hillenbrand
What’s the deal with the cell phones? I realize these guys are Major League baseball players, which automatically makes them busy and cool and important, but c’mon, is it THAT much of a burden to relate to the fans for an extra few minutes? Chulk was “on” the phone the whole time and never said a word. Hmm.
Winn was one of the last players in. He blew right past me and disappeared…and what a coincidence…he ended up going 0-for-5.
I did okay in the sandbox for the first hour of batting practice, and I owe it all to the Hoffman family. Two of Trevor’s sons were shagging balls in center, and one of them (whose name I later learned is Wyatt) tossed me a ball after Tye Waller, the Padres’ first base coach, gave him permission. Ten minutes later, I got another from Trevor himself. When I sat down to label it, a kid who’d heard me talking outside the players’ entrance walked over and said, “Hey, if you get two more balls, it’ll be a bad day.”
It actually was a bad day for the next hour. Not only did I misplay several balls in the sandbox, but when I ran into the left field seats at 5:30, I found a ball lying on the ground, grabbed it, sat down briefly, and watched in horror as some other guy ran in moments later and found TWO more balls lying on the ground within 15 feet of me. I wanted to cry and barf and shriek. If I’d really been on my game, I could’ve easily had six or seven balls instead of three.
It was time to make a choice:
1) Go to the corner spot down the third base line where there’d be fewer balls and fewer people or…
2) Stay in left field where there’d be more balls and much more competition.
I was desperate. I didn’t want one or two more balls. I still needed FIVE, so I stayed in left and went for it.
I snagged two quick balls with the glove trick and then got my man Vinnie to toss me another. The fans in my section started grumbling. Totally uncalled for. I was the only one who’d thought of making a contraption for picking up balls, and I was the only one who’d recognized Chulk. Not only had I seen him outside the ballpark three hours earlier, but I’d also taken the time to print the Giants’ roster along with some photos of the harder-to-recognize players and coaches. Hell, I even had pics of the trainers, equipment manager, and visiting clubhouse attendant. Was it my fault for being anaI and obsessive and prepared?
Was it my fault, five minutes later, when I darted through a row of seats and reached over some guy’s hands to catch an opposite-field bomb by Mark Sweeney? It was a clean play–TRUST ME–but the other guy was so mad that he tried to rip the ball out of my glove after I’d had it for a full second, and when he failed to pry it loose, he reached around my neck with his right arm and smacked me so hard in the face that I nearly lost my balance.
I’ve been to over 600 games, including a few hundred in the South Bronx, and I have never been hit that hard before. Not intentionally, anyway. This was no accident. The other guy is lucky that I went to a Quaker college.
The only time it’s wrong to reach in front of someone is when a player points at a specific fan before tossing the ball. But if a ball is hit, or randomly tossed from a distance, you can’t claim ownership until it’s nestled snugly in your hands. Earlier in the day, two different guys had cut in front of me in the sandbox and snatched balls that were inches from my glove. (Newsflash for the b*tch-slapper: Real men refer to this as “competition.”) Was I mad? Yeah. I was mad at myself for not being quicker and more alert.
Anyway, I only needed one more ball as batting practice was winding down, so I ran to the Giants’ dugout. The first few rows were full, so I hung back and spotted hitting coach Joe Lefebvre walking toward the bucket of balls.
“Joe!” I yelled. He looked up, and I waved my arms to make sure he’d see me. “Any chance for a ball?!”
He pulled one out of the bucket and lobbed it in my direction. Guess what happened. Some kid came flying out of nowhere, cut through the row in front of me, and grabbed the ball as I was reaching for it. Fortunately, Lefebvre picked up another ball and said, “I’m gonna give you one more chance.”
I pointed up with both hands as if to say, “Keep this one higher so I don’t get robbed again,” and he did. The ball thief (I say that lovingly) had backed off, and no one else was close enough to interfere. Easy catch. Number 2,900 was mine. It wasn’t the most exciting snag, but whatever. I can’t control that. I’d gotten my eight balls. I was psyched…and relieved not to have to run around during the game; Hannah, a baseball novice, was planning to return to the ballpark just in time for the first pitch, and I actually wanted to sit and WATCH the game with her.
Right before the national anthem, I got an autograph from Omar Vizquel and another cold shoulder from Winn. Then I met Hannah in the main aisle in straight-away right field. According to everything I’d read on HitTracker, that was the best place to be for Barry Bonds–and that’s where I’d been hanging out all series, thanks to the kind ushers who didn’t chase me away. I didn’t expect Bonds to go deep, and if he did, I knew there’d be a 1-in-1,000 chance that the ball would actually come my way, but I had to try. People are always asking if I’ve caught any historic balls, and I’ve never had a good answer. (The final ball from Mariano Rivera’s 313th career save?) Even the 95 balls I’d snagged during games are forgettable by everyone else’s standards; I usually stay behind home plate for foul tips, so a mere two of the 95 were home runs…one from Mike Stanley, the other off the bat of Mike Bordick. Ooh.
Hannah had just seen the starting lineups on the JumboTron.
“You know what I just learned?” she asked.
“Barry Bonds is black.”
She wasn’t kidding. This was her third game ever, and the other two were accidents. Bonds was the only active player she could name, so when he came to bat in the top of the second inning, I decided to take her picture with his scoreboard photo in the background.
First, I had to get my camera out of my backpack, which I did after Chan Ho Park delivered ball one. Then I noticed I was standing next to a really tall guy with a glove, so I moved 30 feet to the right. Ball two. I was now further from home plate–a bit too far, I feared–but the aisle was emptier. If Bonds happened to get a hold of one, I’d have a clear path. Meanwhile, the aging slugger swung through the next pitch to bring the count to 2-1. Excellent. If it’d gone to 3-0, Park probably would’ve walked him.
I had my camera in my right hand and my glove on my left. I was ready to take the pic, but Park was set to deliver, so we waited. Foul ball. Two balls, two strikes. Hannah scooted into the middle of the aisle, and I took the photo, just before Bonds took a pitch to work the count full.
“Three balls, two strikes,” I said as I handed the camera to Hannah. “Barry’s gonna do something here.”
It was a half-hearted prediction. I still wasn’t taking him seriously. I mean, c’mon, Barry Bonds is gonna hit ME a home run? I think not.
Park went into his windup, fired the ball, and Bonds jerked it in my direction. I figured it’d be another deep flyout, but that didn’t stop me from bolting to my right to get in line with it. I often run for balls that don’t come close. That’s just how it goes. I’m willing to look silly in order to get a head start on the competition–but there was nothing silly about this one.
The ball kept coming and coming, and I made it to the railing in front of the aisle with a moment to spare, wondering if this were really happening, if the ball would have the distance to clear the four rows of fans down below, if someone else in the aisle was going to reach in front of me at the last second and steal my lifelong dream.
The ball was falling short and tailing a bit to my right. The fans below reached up. I reached out, way out, right above their hands, and felt the ball hit the pocket of my glove.
I had it, but at the same time I couldn’t believe it. I threw up my arms to celebrate as a million thoughts raced through my mind. Was this a dream? Why me? How could it’ve been so easy? Was it really that easy after all? What if I’d dropped it? What if the ball had traveled one foot less?
The fans started chanting “Throw it back!!!” I ran toward the front of the aisle, took a crow hop, and cocked my arm as if I were going to launch it back toward the infield, then stopped abruptly and pointed at everyone with a big smile, drawing laughter and applause from the entire section. People congratulated me. People shook my hand. People gave me high fives. People wanted to see the ball. People wanted to touch the ball. People wanted to hold the ball. That made me nervous. But I let them.
I kept waiting for a Padres or Giants official to walk up and say, “Come with me,” but it never happened. Apparently, the ball isn’t THAT important, so it wasn’t marked by Major League Baseball. But still, as another friend later pointed out, I’m one of two people in America who have a 724th career home run…and mine is the one that tied Bonds with his godfather, Willie Mays, for ninth on the all-time RBI list.
It was only 10:30pm on the east coast, so I called my parents.
“You will NOT believe what just happened!!!” I told my mom.
“Are you okay?! Is it something bad?!”
My dad joined the frantic conversation, and the three of us talked for 19 minutes. Then I called my ex-girlfriend (who remains one of my best friends) and told her what I told my parents: “Watch SportsCenter. Watch Baseball Tonight. Watch ESPNEWS. Copy it. Record it. Get footage…CRAP!! You DON’T have cable! Call people. Do what you can do. Ohmygod, I neeeeed footage of this!”
Remember Kevin, the guy in the orange shirt from 8/14/06 at PETCO Park? He was also in right field, and he’d overheard bits of my conversation as I paced back and forth with Hannah’s cell phone. (Poor Hannah hardly got to sit down all night.) Before I knew it, he was handing me HIS phone and telling me to talk to his friend, Brad, a fellow baseball collector who lives in San Francisco and tapes every game. Brad offered to make several clips of various lengths and stick ’em on a DVD and mail it to me. I gave him my address, thanked him at least a dozen times, and handed the phone back to Kevin, who’d actually left briefly to run to the sandbox to get in position for a certain hitter. It might’ve even been Bonds’ second at-bat. Or his third. I have no idea. The rest of the game was a blur. If Hannah hadn’t grabbed my camera and snapped a bunch of shots, I wouldn’t have remembered much. (In this one, I’m reenacting the Sweeney snag for some fans who asked how I’d gotten eight balls earlier in the day. Kevin is the burly dude in the gray t-shirt.)
After Todd Linden replaced Bonds in the bottom of the sixth, Hannah and I went to the second deck so I could get a good look at the section from above.
Like I said, the whole thing was a blur. I couldn’t remember where I’d been standing or how far I’d moved to make the catch. Turns out that I didn’t have to move far at all…and that makes sense. That’s why I got to the railing with several seconds to spare.
I’m still in shock. Brad spent $14.40 to send the DVD overnight (wow), and I’ve already watched the footage dozens of times. (CLICK HERE to watch it for yourself.) I’m truly amazed that someone else didn’t knock me over or hit my glove or reach in front of me. The catch seemed pretty easy at the time, but on the replays, it looks almost impossible. I didn’t realize how close the people down below had come to reaching the ball.
I didn’t want the night to end, and I nearly got my wish as the game lasted 13 innings. Toward the end, a friendly usher (whom I’d unintentionally charmed over the previous two days) let me and Hannah sit in her section, five rows behind the plate…one row behind Trevor Hoffman’s family. During the bottom of the 10th, one of his boys kept waving to him. Trevor acknowledged him with subtle nods and winks from the top step of the dugout. In addition to wondering what it’d be like to have Trevor Hoffman as my father, I kept thinking about how I was now in a lousy spot to catch a foul ball–and I kept not caring. I had a slightly more important ball, now wrapped carefully in a paper towel, resting safely in the zipped left pocket of my cargo pants. I decided not to mark it with a ‘2901.’ I can always do that later, but for now, I want to keep it in its original condition. Marked or not, will I be able to prove that it’s THE ball? Doesn’t matter. It’s not for sale.
The nicest guy on the Giants–that would be Eliezer Alfonzo–knocked in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the top of the 13th, and two batters later, Pedro Feliz drew a bases-loaded walk to force in another. I left Hannah in the fancy seats with one out in the bottom of the 13th, went to the Giants’ dugout, and got two balls after the game. One was given to me by home plate ump Dana DeMuth. The other was tossed by first base coach Luis Pujols.
Eleven balls. WHO’S your Padre!
• Competition Factor = 373,318.
• 151 balls in 20 games this season = 7.55 balls per game.
• 447 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 73 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 86 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 554 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 7 game balls this season
• 96 lifetime game balls
• 15 lifetime game balls outside of New York
• 14 different stadiums with at least one game ball
• 2,903 total balls