I drove alone from NYC, reached a top speed of 92mph, and had the iPod blasting: Dave McCullen, New Order, Three Dog Night, Ram Jam, Cheers, Led Zeppelin, Soundgarden, Los Bravos, Santana, Michael Jackson, Alannah Myles, Beatles, Eydie Gorme, Brooklyn Bridge, Violent Femmes, Bob Dylan, Eiffel 65, Linda Ronstadt, Marcels, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Hootie & The Blowfish, Marcie Blane, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Manu Chao, Stevie Wonder, Monotones, Ottomix, Outhere Brothers, Shaggy, DJ Sneak, and Madonna…so “Borderline” was in my head all day. (All the songs began with “B” in case you want to guess.)
I arrived so early that the parking lot wasn’t open–until I mentioned that I was there to meet a TV crew with the CBS Evening News. Funny how that works. The truth is that I first had to meet my friend Mike and his wife Alex for cheese steaks at McFadden’s and THEN meet the crew by the ticket windows at 3:15pm, by which time Alex had already taken off for NYC.
The three-man crew included a camera man named Bob Caccamise, a producer named Jack Renaud, and a reporter named Steve Hartman. Jack helped set up my microphone–a tiny device that clipped to the neck of my t-shirt with a cable that ran down the inside of the shirt and connected to a transmitter on the back of my belt–and looked on as Steve inspected my glove trick. Their plan was to attach a small camera in order to capture a unique view of the trick in action, and when it was ready, I tested it on the ball from Monday’s game that I’d brought to give away.
Mike was nice enough to head over to the Ashburn Alley Gate and save me a spot at the front of the line. Bob filmed me as I bought my ticket, while Steve stood next to me and asked questions. A pack of teenaged kids started yelling at us and asking what the camera was for. It nearly ruined the shot.
The crew and I headed to the gate at 4:10pm, and Mike was still the only one there. Bob kept filming, and Steve asked more questions. Other fans started showing up and staring at me. (Who IS that guy?) I have to admit that it was fun.
By the time the ballpark opened at 4:35, there were dozens of fans waiting behind me. Bob was already inside and got a shot of me running in. (Twenty-five minutes earlier, as we walked from the ticket window to the gate, I’d asked the guys if I needed to run slowly or let them know ahead of time where I’d be going. “You’re thinking too much about our job,” said Jack. “Just do your thing, and we’ll follow you.”)
I’d been filmed at games several times before, and I never seemed to snag that many balls for the cameras. Even my seven-ball performance for SportsNet NY was a disappointment. How lame would it be to come up short for Ms. Couric. I needed to have a monster day; anything less than double digits would simply be unacceptable.
Thirty seconds after I ran inside, I found my first ball in the strip of bushes that separates the outfield wall from the left field seats. Moments later, Cole Hamels tossed me another in the LF corner. He got a bit annoyed because I said “please” twice within five seconds. I used the glove trick for ball #3, thanks to Geoff Geary who kindly left the ball alone once he saw the camera. This one was tough to get because the glove cam had a cable that ran along my string, so I had to lower my contraption inch by inch so as not to mess up the expensive equipment. My next ball was a home run. I had a whole row to myself, scooted 20 feet to my left, and made the easy one-handed catch. Beautiful. I had no idea who hit it, and I didn’t care. It was only 4:50pm, and I was on my way.
Every few minutes, Steve had been asking me questions, and some of them were pretty tough, like, for example, he kept trying to get me to admit that I steal balls from little kids–which I don’t–by rephrasing his question in tricky ways and inventing hypothetical scenarios to go along with it. Whatever. I don’t blame him for digging into me a bit. The whole day was nothing but fun, and if he’d only lobbed softball questions at me, he wouldn’t’ve been doing his job.
I had to take off mid-question to go for ball #5, which started as a deep fly ball toward Randy Wolf. As the ball was descending, I yelled “Let it bounce!” but it was too late. Wolf made the catch, but then, because of what I’d said, he turned around and spiked the ball off the warning track, bouncing it right to me.
Ten minutes later, I hurried back to the LF corner to use my glove trick (glove-cam had been removed) for a ball that was sitting five feet out from the wall. Just after I’d swung my glove out and knocked it closer, Cubs pitcher Will Ohman raced over and snatched it and ran away.
“Don’t make me put the Hample Jinx on you!” I shouted.
Ryan Dempster was throwing nearby and looked up. “Please don’t put a jinx on us,” he said. “We’re jinxed enough as it is.”
“Well PLEASE tell your teammate not to steal balls from fans,” I said, and just at that moment, the batter whacked one in my direction that fell a bit short, hit the top edge of the outfield wall, and skipped up to my right. I made a lunging stab and caught the ball in the tip of my glove. It all happened so fast that Bob wasn’t sure if he’d swung his camera around in time to get my snag on film. (Soon after, Steve walked over to slip a new battery into my transmitter.)
“What’s up, Zack?” said a voice from behind.
I turned around and saw a big guy named Josh that I’d met on 9/26/05 at Citizens Bank Park. “Oh my god, what’s up!”
Josh asked how many balls I’d snagged, and as soon as I said “six,” a woman next to me started begging me to give one to her son who had cancer AND had recently undergone open-heart surgery.
“I’d be delighted to give him one,” I said as I reached into my backpack, pulled out my extra ball, handed it over, and offered a few words of encouragement.
It was time to go to the right field side, but rather than heading straight up the stairs to the concourse, I decided to cut through the seats toward center field in case something happened to come my way, and wouldn’t you know it, some Cubs player randomly tossed a ball 10 rows deep in straight-away center JUST as I happened to be walking by. Amazing.
Five minutes after I got to right field, Carlos Marmol tossed me my eighth ball of the day, and soon after that, I got number nine with the glove trick. (You can see the outline of the microphone’s transmitter through the back of my shirt.) Roberto Novoa and Ryan O’Malley were standing nearby, and just as Geary had done in left field, they stepped aside and let me get it when they realized that I was being filmed. David Aardsma walked over as I was reeling in the ball and asked how I’d done it.
“Put another ball down there and I’ll show you,” I said.
O’Malley got another ball, put it on the warning track, turned to Aardsma as I began to lower my glove again and said, “You gotta see this.” The strong wind was blowing my glove from side to side, so it took a minute to complete what should’ve been a 10-second operation. O’Malley then suggested that I give the ball to the little kid on my right–which I did.
Mike had been following me from section to section and taking pics throughout the day. (Mike, I love you. I can’t deny it any longer.) He’d also been keeping an eye on my backpack while I ran all over the place.
As batting practice was winding down, I ran to the third base dugout and asked Cubs manager Dusty Baker for a ball. He looked up at me and shrugged, so I informed him that there was a ball just on the other side of the protective fence between the two ball bags at the top of the steps. He turned around and spotted it, then walked up the steps and reached over the padded railing, and when he failed to reach it, he bent down and grabbed it through the fence and lifted it a few inches. Then he reached through with his other hand and moved it up a bit more. Then he reached through with his right hand again. Then his left. Little by little, with just a few fingers poking through, he worked the ball a third of the way up the fence until he could reach it. Finally, he turned back toward me and flipped it up. NICE!!! I had reached double digits, and when batting practice ended two minutes later, third base coach Chris Speier tossed me another.
When the game started, Steve and I grabbed seats in the fourth row. He asked another round of questions while Bob crouched behind his tripod and filmed us from the first row. Jack was sitting just across the stairs. Mike had picked a seat in the middle of the row and ended up staying there all night.
Steve finished interviewing me after the first inning, so we all headed up to the concourse to figure out the next move. I told the guys that my best shot at getting another ball would be to work the dugouts at the end of every half-inning and try to get one tossed to me as the players came off the field. It was too late to make it to the Phillies’ side, so Bob set up the camera to get a shot of me at the Cubs’ dugout. Pat Burrell led off the bottom of the second with a walk, Mike Lieberthal grounded out to third, and I slipped past the usher at the top of the stairs and found an empty seat halfway down the section. It was a big crowd–35,269 to be exact–so there weren’t many openings. I would’ve preferred to be just a few rows behind the dugout, but at least this way, Bob would get a good action shot of me bolting down the stairs after the third out. Abraham Nunez drew a four-pitch walk, and Brett Myers bunted foul with two strikes for the second out. I moved to the edge of my seat, and when Jimmy Rollins swung through Les Walrond’s 2-2 pitch, I raced toward the front row. Cubs catcher Henry Blanco held onto the ball and started walking right toward me. When he was 40 feet away, I shouted his name and waved my arms, and when he got a bit closer, he underhanded it to me and disappeared from sight. Sweeeet!!! I bolted up the steps to check in with the crew. The first thing Bob said was that he missed the shot. WHAT?! He had to change tapes at the last second. Was he joking?! Please be joking. He wasn’t joking. It was just a case of bad timing and bad luck. I was pretty bummed, but if anything, it just made me more determined to get another ball.
Bob moved the camera to the concourse on the first base side, and I responded by coming up empty at the Phillies’ dugout. Basically, I’d picked the wrong staircase. I was at the outfield end of the dugout, hoping for a grounder or fly out, but Lieberthal ended up with the ball (thanks to Juan Pierre’s inability to make contact) and tossed it into the seats near home plate. Bob decided to stay put and simply zoom in–from across the field–on my attempts at the Cubs’ dugout. I just had to let him know exactly where I was so he’d be able to pick me out in the crowd–so as I started walking through the concourse back to the third base side, I gave a play-by-play into my microphone: “Okay, so I’m now approaching section 129…I’m now standing right at the top of the stairs, and as soon as this at-bat is over, I’m gonna make my way down…okay ground ball, here I go…see the fat guy in the yellow jacket? I’m about 20 feet behind him. I’m gonna wave now. Wave back if you see me…” Then I looked over toward Bob and saw him wave from 200 feet away. It was like I was a spy on some stealth operation, and it continued for another hour and a half. It was LOTS of fun, but I wasn’t getting anything.
When John Mabry struck out to end the top of the seventh, Lieberthal again ended up with the ball and tossed it over the other side of the dugout. Just as I was about to head back up the steps, I sensed that the people around me were squirming for position, so I looked up and saw a ball sailing to my left. Without a second to think, I dove forward and made the catch and then raced up to the concourse.
“I have bad news,” said Bob. “I missed it.”
“WHAT?!?! HOW DID YOU MI-“
“I’m just kidding,” he said, and the whole crew burst into laughter.
“I’ll kill you!” I shouted, lunging for his neck and laughing with them.
I hadn’t even seen the ball coming, so I asked if they knew who threw it.
“Ryan Howard,” said Bob.
Cool. It must’ve been his warmup ball for the next inning, and for whatever reason, he decided to give it away.
Steve had to leave. Bob and Jack stayed for another inning to get a few more shots. I found Mike behind the Cubs’ dugout, and we watched the last three outs together. (Another relaxing day at the ballpark with Zack.) The Phillies won, 6-2, behind a 12-strikeout, complete-game performance by Myers. I’d been running around so much that I hardly saw any of it, and that was fine; to put it lightly, I’m not too fond of him.
After the game, Scott Eyre tossed me my 14th ball of the day, and Dusty gave me the lineup cards. Here’s a look at the front of them…
…and here’s the back:
• Competition Factor = 493,766.
• 199 balls in 27 games this season = 7.37 balls per game.
• 454 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 62 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 88 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 572 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 14 balls = new one-day record at Citizens Bank Park.
• 49 total balls in 5 games at Citizens Bank Park = 9.8 balls per game.
• 9.8 balls per game = highest average at any stadium at which I’ve attended at least two games.