Camden Yards is one of those stadiums that opens in stages. If you have a season ticket, you can go to left field as soon as the gates open. If you don’t, you’re stuck in right field with all the other suckers for the first 30 minutes of batting practice. Normally that’s my situation, but this time I was among the chosen ones.
My first ball was a simple slicer that landed in the seats along the left field foul line, but it was a special snag for two reasons. Not only was it my 200th ball of the season, but I had started running for it before it was hit. I’m not sure if I’d ever done that before. An Orioles lefty had just stepped into the cage for his first round of swings, and I knew he’d start by going to the opposite field–so I took off from my spot in straight-away left field and sprinted for at least three full seconds before the pitch was even thrown.
Jack Renaud from CBS was there with a camera–he’d also attended my previous game in Philadelphia–and when I returned to left field, he told me that he’d gotten footage of the whole thing. He did a great job all day of chasing me around and filming my every move.
My second ball was a home run by Miguel Tejada. It was pretty much hit right to me. I just had to scoot down a few steps, and as I made the one-handed catch, some guy twice my age came flying out of nowhere and slammed into me.
I got my third and fourth balls within 10 seconds of each other. They were both homers that landed in the seats. I don’t know who hit them. It was still early. There wasn’t much competition.
At around 5:30pm, when the Orioles’ portion of BP was winding down, I headed to the first base dugout to try to get a ball. Instead, I ended up getting a Ramon Hernandez bat.
Hernandez wasn’t the one who gave it to me. I’m not sure who did. It might’ve been Jeff Fiorentino. Whoever it was happened to walk toward the dugout with two bats in his hand. I didn’t notice that one was broken, and I wasn’t even going to say anything, but then he looked up.
“Any chance you can spare a bat?” I joked.
He took me seriously and slid one across the dugout roof. Just like that. Totally random. You can’t plan these things. The only bad thing about getting a bat is having to schlep it around all day. I didn’t want to hold it because of its jagged edge, and it was too big to fit in my backpack, so when the Twins took the field, I carried it back to left field and wedged it between two seats and hoped that no one would steal it.
I used my glove trick for ball No. 5 and got yelled at by an usher who charged down the steps and demanded that I hand it over. (Meanwhile, Jack was filming.)
“Really?” I asked innocently. “I can’t keep it? Did I do something wrong?”
“GIMME THE BALL RIGHT NOW AND IF YOU DO THAT AGAIN YOU’LL BE OUT OF HERE!!!”
There are times to argue, but when you’re dealing with someone whose veins are bulging out of his neck and head, it’s usually not a good idea. Thus, I reluctantly held out the ball. The usher promptly snatched it and flung it back onto the field in one motion. (Did I mention that Jack was filming?)
Another fan felt sorry for me and tossed me one of his baseballs.
“Thanks,” I said, “but you really don’t have to do that.”
“Take it,” he insisted.
Moments later, I heard an abrupt whistling noise come from the field, so I turned around and realized that Twins pitcher Willie Eyre was trying to get my attention. Evidently, he’d been watching as the whole situation played out and had walked over to get the ball, and as soon as I looked at him, he smiled and tossed it back to me. I then tossed the other ball back to the fan. Craziness.
My sixth ball was a homer that took a lucky bounce off some seats, and my seventh was thrown by Juan Rincon. The section was filling up, and the Twins weren’t hitting much my way, so I headed to the dugout 10 minutes early. Soon after, when I spotted Twins manager Ron Gardenhire walking toward me with a ball, I shouted, “Gardy!!!” and he tossed it to me. I was about to give a ball to the little kid on my right when I heard him tell his mommy that he didn’t want one; he’d spotted my broken bat and wanted that instead. (Sorry, kid.) An usher also spotted the bat and told me that it was dangerous and had to be checked at the Fan Assistance Center. Fortunately, he let me stay at the dugout until the end of BP, and I got two more balls in the next five minutes. One was thrown by Luis Castillo. The other came from hitting coach Joe Vavra, whom I never would’ve recognized if not for my cheat-sheet of faces. And just like that, I had 10 balls.
After I dropped off the bat, Jack treated me to a bottled water and pork sandwich at Boog’s Barbecue–and THERE was Boog, sitting on a stool and signing autographs at one end of the stand. Jack grabbed the camera before I got the autograph. There were two sexy women in line ahead of me, and Boog asked Jack if he was filming them.
“No,” admitted Jack while tilting his head toward me, “I’m actually here to film THIS guy.”
In Philly, there was a three-man crew, but it was just me and Jack at this game. We both got sandwiches and ate fast before rushing toward Foul Ball Central just in time for the first pitch. Jack filmed me bargaining with one of the ushers, then kept the camera rolling as I ran back and forth, inning after inning, from one side of home plate to the other, as righties and lefties kept swapping in and out of the batters boxes. Jack wanted to get some shots of me scrambling for balls during the game, and I’d promised that there was going to be plenty of action. The flame-throwing Daniel Cabrera was on the hill for the O’s, so I knew that the batters would be swinging late. And they were. And there WAS lots of action. And I kept missing balls by inches–literally. It may have been my most frustrating game of the season. One ball came right at me and fell one row short. Another skipped off a seat and bounced high in the air in my direction, but I was blocked by some people in the aisle. Another landed in the level of seats above me, and rather than bouncing back out to where I’d positioned myself to play the carom, it plopped straight down into the hands of an usher where I’d been standing three seconds earlier. Crap like that. All night. The highlight of the game was getting to see an old guy with a mohawk…and finally getting to meet a kid named Kevin (aka “kvrpmmh” in the comments section) who’s been reading this blog. He brought his copy of my first book, and I signed it for him. Oh…another highlight, if you want to call it that…I gave a ball to an usher–one that I’d brought for the purpose of giving away–and told him to give it to the kid of his choice.
Jack had to catch a train back to NYC, so he left after the fourth inning. Although I kept running back and forth all night, I was relieved that nothing else came my way. How sad would it’ve been if I’d caught a foul ball in the top of the fifth? Something like that actually happened in 1999 when CNN filmed me at Veterans Stadium. The camera crew only stuck around for a few innings, and as soon as they left, I caught TWO foul balls during the game. Sigh.
As for this game, the Orioles won, 7-3. The first five hitters in their lineup combined for 12 hits! Nick Markakis hit two doubles! Cabrera struck out eight batters in 6 2/3 innings! The Twins stole four bases! It was a very exciting night–so exciting that I nearly forgot to pick up my bat on the way out.
• Competition Factor = 210,510.
• 209 balls in 28 games this season = 7.46 balls per game.
• 455 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 63 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 89 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 582 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 68 lifetime balls at Camden Yards = the most at any ballpark outside of New York.
• 7 lifetime seasons with at least 200 balls
• 3 lifetime bats
• 2,961 total balls…ties me with Sam Crawford (2,961) for 28th place on the all-time hits list.