Huge crowd for Labor Day?
Nah. Only 42,428.
As soon as GATE C opened at 4:40pm, I sprinted to the right field Loge and quickly got a ball from Billy Wagner. I was in the aisle when I got his attention. He made a low throw. I didn’t bother lunging for it. I just stood back and watched the ball smack the seats and rattle around on the concrete. Then I walked down the steps and picked it up.
Three preppy high school kids eventually wandered into the section and settled down near the foul pole. None of them had gloves, and one kept shouting at Tom Glavine for a ball. Glavine was busy playing catch, and the kid wasn’t even saying please, but the future Hall of Famer
still threw it to him when he finished. But oh! Wait! The ball fell short and dropped into the gap behind the outfield wall. I hurried over to see where it had fallen, unsure that it would even be in view, but there it was, perched dangerously close to the edge of a small wooden platform at the top of the wall. The kids were actually talking about climbing down the pole (?!) when I started setting up my glove trick. I battled sporadic gusts of wind as I lowered the glove, then swung it VERY gently and tapped the ball further toward the middle of the platform. Thankfully, the ball rolled just a few inches to the left and stopped in the perfect spot. I raised the glove above the ball, waited about 30 seconds until I had it lined up, and then lowered my contraption. The kid who’d been yelling at Glavine told me that the ball was meant for him. (Yeah, it’s called karma.) The glove secured the ball, and I raised it slowly and steadily, hoping that the wind wouldn’t cause it to twirl so fast that my prize would slip out. It didn’t. I had it. Number two of the day. The kids were in awe. And kind of pissed.
Five minutes later, the three of them joined me at the railing overlooking the Mets’ bullpen. Oliver Perez had just finished his session with pitching coach Rick Peterson, and catcher Mike DiFelice ended up with the ball. I wasn’t in a good spot. Two of the kids (who may have even been in college) were higher up along the slanted railing, and the other was way too close to me on the opposite side. We all called out, and DiFelice looked up. He must’ve spotted my glove because he floated the ball right to me, inches past the kids’ obnoxious hands, and when I caught it, one of the boys glared at me and barked, “Are you SERIOUS, dude?! You already GOT one!!”
“DUDE,” I said, “I’m not here to start a fight. I’m just a baseball collector, and I happened to get lucky.”
He stormed off, and within a few minutes, he’d conned some other player into tossing him a ball.
Moments later, the usher walked over and told me that there’s a “one ball limit” and that I was going to have to leave. Fine by me. The Braves were just taking the field, so I ran downstairs and headed to the left field foul line where several pitchers were warming up. I found an open spot in the first row and squeezed in. (Don’t be fooled by the empty bleachers; the rest of the stadium was packed.) Chad Paronto was throwing nearby, and I put in my request right away: “Hey Chad, is there any chance you could toss the ball here when you’re done, please?”
He turned around to see who’d asked him. I gave a quick wave and tipped my Braves cap. He nodded and said, “As soon as I’m done…”
The fan standing next to me asked Bob Wickman for HIS ball when HE was done. Wickman shook his head without turning around.
I turned to the fan and said, “You know why he’s not gonna give you that ball?”
“Because he’s gonna eat it.”
Paronto finished throwing a few minutes later and tossed me my fourth ball of the day. Beautiful. Except not. It was one of those crappy, made-in-China training balls with the green logo. (I thought the Braves were supposed to be a classy organization.) I’d gotten six of them before, all from the Nationals, I think. But you know…whatever. If they’re good enough for a major league team, they’re good enough for my collection. And with that, I headed back up to the Loge and camped out in the left field corner.
John Smoltz was playing catch with Joey Devine. I’d never gotten a ball from Smoltz, so I was hoping that he’d end up with it. Once again, I made my request early, and sure enough, The Bearded One tossed it my way. (Real ball. Yay.) That felt great. I’d never gotten anything from him, not even an autograph or a simple “Hey, what’s up,” and yet I liked him. I admired his success and often rooted for him, even though I never had any reason to root for him. But now that his name is finally on my list, I can officially call myself a John Smoltz fan.
The rest of BP was a waste. The Loge was cramped, and the righties weren’t pulling their homers down the line. I had a bunch of conversations with various fans who recognized me from TV, or simply from other Mets games, but there were no more balls to be had.
At about 6:10pm, I headed back down to the Field Level and pulled off another squeeze-job, barely wedging myself into a half-space between two fans in the front row. I was afraid they’d get annoyed, but then one of them perked up and said, “Hey, aren’t you the guy from SNY who collects all the balls?”
(I haven’t really been talking about my SportsNet NY appearance because that’s old news, but I will say this: Dozens of fans still recognize me at EVERY Mets game. Every section. Every moment of the day. Outside GATE C. In the bathrooms. On the #7 train. It’s fun. Usually.)
Batting practice ended 10 minutes later, and I didn’t get anything from the Braves as they left the field…BUT…one of the groundskeepers was standing on the dugout steps with a ball in his hand, and it happened to be the one guy on the crew that I’ve known for years. His name is Shawn, and we always talk briefly–or at least exchange glances–after BP. He always asks how many balls I got, and I always respond by holding up the appropriate number of fingers, at which point he shakes his head and smiles as if to say, “How the hell do you do it?” Naturally, I asked Shawn for this ball, and before I could finish my request, he pretended to wing it at me, then stopped mid-motion and said, “You got enough balls.” He briefly disappeared from sight before popping his head back out to a chorus of “Shawn!!! Shawn!!!” from all the fathers and sons lined up along the front row. He ignored them and flipped me the ball. Nice.
Right before the national anthem, I got my seventh ball from Braves infielder Willy Aybar (who’s six years younger than me). He was playing catch in shallow left field with Brayan Pena, and I’d made my clunky request in Spanish:
“¡Cuando termines, dame la bola, por favor!”
When you finish, give me the ball, please!
There were two rows of fans in front of me. One guy jumped up and reached for the ball, but it sailed over his hands by six inches–which just about matched his vertical leap. Like many others in the section, he recognized me from SNY and seemed to be humored by the fact that he’d lost out to The Pro.
I got Jeff Francoeur to sign my ticket stub before heading up to the Loge. It was crowded. There were no empty seats. That was fine. Security didn’t hassle me, so I ran back and forth all night in the concourse behind home plate, scurrying into various runways to position myself accordingly for righties and lefties. The pitching matchup, unfortunately, was about as bad as could be: Steve Trachsel versus Chuck James…two guys who basically throw changeups and call them fastballs. In other words, the batters weren’t exactly swinging late and underneath the ball. I did a lot of running for nothing.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, I was standing with two other guys in the runway on the third base side. One of them, a man in his 50s, saw my glove and said, “If a ball comes back this way, I’d say your chances aren’t very good here.”
“Why’s that?” I asked innocently.
“Have you ever met Anthony?” he asked, tilting his head toward a tough athletic guy in his 20s.
“Has Anthony ever met Zack?” I asked.
“Anthony’s the king of the foul ball. Tell him how many you got.”
“It’s a record,” said the man. “You could look it up.”
“You got all twenty-three during games?” I asked.
“That’s a lot,” I said.
“How many YOU got?” asked the man.
“I’ve gotten a few more than that.”
“Yeah right!” he snapped.
“Okay,” I said.
“Whaddaya mean ‘okay’? How many you GOT?! More than twenty-three?”
“Ninety-two foul balls, three home runs, and one ground-rule double.”
They seemed amused…that is, until several fans walked over to ask me if I was the guy from SNY that collects all the balls. And then, half an inning later, with hard-throwing Roberto Hernandez on the hill, Adam LaRoche tipped a 3-2 pitch right in my direction but a few feet too low. The “king of the foul ball” was still standing flat-footed in the runway by the time I’d darted up to the railing in front of the main aisle. The ball fell short, skipped off the hands of the people sitting in front of me (two rows below the “312 A TO B” sign), and popped back into my waiting glove in one motion.
Zack 97, Anthony (still) 23.
As for the game…
The Mets managed just ONE hit all night: a single by David Wright to lead off the bottom of the second, and Wright got hosed when he tried to stretch it into a double. James was mysteriously unhittable. He worked eight brilliant innings, then turned the ball over to Macay McBride who struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth. It was the first time this season that the Mets had been shut out at Shea. Final score: Braves 5.
• Competition Factor = 339,424.
• 166 balls in 23 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.
• 450 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 2,596 balls since the streak began
• 5.77 balls per game during the streak
• 78 game balls during the streak
• 97 total game balls
• 2,918 total balls…Craig Biggio (2,916 career hits) had recently retaken the lead, but I’ve reclaimed it to move back into 34th place on the all-time hits list. Al Simmons (2,927) remains my next hurdle…