I get excited easily. I admit it. But this really WAS a special day. I had an interview scheduled for 6:15pm on the Phillies’ cable network, and the producer of my segment–a supernice guy named Brian–offered to show me some behind-the-scenes stuff if I got there early.
We met at the “staff and media entrance” at 3:45pm and headed inside. A security guard inspected my backpack and told me to check in with the young man sitting at a nearby table.
“What’s your name?” asked the man.
“Zack Hample. H-A-M-P-L-E.”
He looked at his list, found my name, and slid a clipboard toward me.
“Sign here,” he said before handing me a media credential.
Brian was already 30 feet down the hall, and when I caught up, he led me through an unmarked metal door that led to the main concourse behind home plate. How exactly is this “behind-the-scenes?” I wondered, but had a feeling that the tour was just getting started.
We walked through the concourse to the first base side, then turned left and headed down the steps through the empty field-level seats. It was drizzling. The tarp was covering the infield. No batting practice. Of course. Just my luck. Idiot, you’re not here to snag baseballs, said the voice inside my head. Batting practice is irrelevant.
“Make sure you wear this at all times,” said Brian, pointing to the media credential which was already dangling around my neck.
“I suppose I should put my camera away for now,” I said as we approached the field.
Brian nodded and swung open a little gate that was camouflaged by the padded railing at the front row. As I stepped onto the damp warning track in shallow right field, I half-expected an alarm to go off, but the stadium remained eerily quiet, and we walked toward the Phillies’ dugout.
“C’mon,” said Brian as he headed down the steps into it. We hadn’t been walking fast, but I still felt rushed. I wanted every step to last an hour.
A security guard at the home-plate end of the dugout peeked at my credential and had us both sign another clipboard. Then we headed down a few more steps and into the tunnel that connects the dugout to other key areas. We passed through another set of doors and walked through a hallway which was disappointingly generic–except for the stacks of boxes of Rawlings baseballs lining one of the walls. Finally, we rounded a corner, and before I even realized what was happening, I found myself standing INSIDE the Phillies’ clubhouse.
The place was buzzing. There were a dozen reporters waiting with notepads and tape recorders. There were two TV crews. Chase Utley walked past me. Ryan Howard was signing baseballs on the other side of a table. Antonio Alfonseca was yelling about a bad call in the Mets-Rockies game, which was playing on one of four TVs mounted high on the wall. Shane Victorino was in his underwear. Davey Lopes was in shorts and flip flops. Pat Burrell was startlingly huge. Jimmy Rollins was laughing. Aaron Rowand was reading a newspaper. Abraham Nunez sat quietly at his “locker.”
The lockers don’t have locks. They’re basically wide open closets, lined with jerseys and filled with other items such as bats, gloves, shoes, balls, and (speaking of balls) the occasional jock strap. The room itself must’ve been 80 feet long and 40 feet wide. It was carpeted, and there were half a dozen small red leather couches. The clubhouse was luxurious enough to double as a sports lounge in a fancy hotel, but it wasn’t intimate. There was nothing cozy about it. It seemed too spectacular and spacious and crowded to foster team unity, but what do I know? The players probably bond over the fact that they’re pampered, but regardless, it was obvious why guys do whatever it takes to make it to The Show.
At 4pm, Brian took me to the visitors’ clubhouse, which wasn’t nearly as big or nice as the Phillies’. Ahh, yes, part of the home-field advantage. We didn’t stay long, and that was fine. I felt awkward wearing my Phillies cap in front of the Nationals and worried that they’d recognize me later as a phony if I asked for balls.
We made it back onto the field via the 3rd base dugout and walked along the backstop to the Phillies’ side. Charlie Manuel was sitting in the dugout, giving generic answers to generic questions from a mob of reporters. (“Charlie, do you really think that a walk is as good as a hit?”) Brian made a phone call. I climbed the steps and stood on the warning track and watched Jamie Moyer play catch in shallow right field. When he finished and walked past me, I fought the urge to ask him for the ball. I just wanted one ball. I didn’t need 16. Just ONE to keep my streak alive. I didn’t know if I’d get any other chances. Not only had BP been rained out, but I’d soon have to leave the stadium and walk half a mile to the Wachovia Center for my interview.
Brian must’ve sensed that I was thinking about snagging. After his call ended, he told me it was fine to run around for balls as long as I waited for the gates to open at 4:30pm and didn’t use my media credential. He had to stick around the ballpark to film a few other things (including an interview with Ryan Madson) and offered to drive me to the Wachovia Center at 5:45pm. I figured that’d give me enough time…
Of course there wasn’t a single player in sight at 4:30pm, but 15 minutes later, Jerome Williams began throwing in center field with Nationals bullpen coach Rick Aponte. I headed to the furthest possible seat in left center field and asked Aponte for the ball when he was done. Five minutes later, I leaned over the railing and caught his low throw.
At around 5pm, the entire Nationals pitching staff began throwing in the left field corner. I saw Ray King messing around with a knuckleball as he was finishing, so I shouted, “Ray! Let’s see that knuckler!” He immediately turned and threw one to me, but it fell short and landed in a dead area, which would’ve been perfect for the glove trick if some other fan hadn’t climbed over a railing and jumped down there. King got another ball and made a perfect throw to me.
Two pitchers were still throwing, and I knew I wouldn’t get their ball by staying in the same spot, so I ran around to straight-away left field. I also knew I wouldn’t stand out if I positioned myself in the front row, so I stayed 10 rows back, and when the pitchers finished, I waved my arms like a madman and got the guy with the ball to toss it to me over everyone else.
The Nationals went back into their dugout, leaving the field empty once again. I had half an hour to kill before meeting Brian, so I ate my first cheesesteak of the day and then used my media credential to get into the heavily guarded Diamond Club. It was fancy and glitzy and fun to check out for a few minutes, but why would anyone want to watch a baseball game there? I’d rather sit in the last row of the upper deck and eat a cheesesteak on a stale roll than be glued to a TV in a club that serves “Pan Seared Cod Filet.” Yes, that was actually on the menu. The full listing went like this:
Lightly seasoned cod, pan
seared and served over warm
bean ragout and grilled baby
bok choy and then drizzled
with a lemongrass flavored
I will say this in defense of the Diamond Club: It provided a view of something that I’d never seen inside a major league baseball stadium. At the far end of the dining area, there was a little alcove of angled windows that overlooked the Phillies’ underground batting cage. The cage on the left was for the pitchers, who practiced bunting as a coach fed one ball after another into a pitching machine. The cage on the right was for the position players, who produced shotgun-like cracks with each powerful swing.
I looked at my watch. 5:43pm. Ohmygod I hurried to the back of the club and walked up the stairs, found my way into the main concourse, and ran back to the first base side. Section 112. That’s where I was supposed to meet Brian, and there he was. Phew! He led me out of the stadium and to his car, and off we went to the Comcast SportsNet headquarters in the Wachovia Center. I changed into a nicer shirt in the bathroom and hung out with another producer who showed me some baseball memorabilia in his office and played a segment he’d filmed in Spring Training. He was about to play another when Brian returned and led me into the studio. The show was already in progress. Panel discussion. Two cameras. I could show the three balls that I’d gotten earlier in the day. I could demonstrate the glove trick. The host would plug my book at the beginning and end. There’d be some old footage used from my appearance last year on the Mets’ cable network. I had a bunch of questions. “This segment is almost done,” said Brian as we stood off on the side in semi-darkness. “Then there’s a two-minute commercial break, and you’re on.” And he left.
The segment finished. I walked to the set. I said hello to Neil Hartman (the host of the show) and the two sportswriters who’d be joining us. Some other guy told me sit down and “stay centered in front of the light” that was beaming up at me through a grate on the desk. He had me run a tiny microphone under my shirt, and he clipped it to my collar. The host asked me a couple quick questions: What’s your current ball total? Are you heading back to Citizens Bank Park after this? And so on. I didn’t even have a chance to ask which camera I should look into.
“Ten seconds!” shouted a voice. Then “Five, four three…” and we were on. Live. In 3 million homes across Pennsylvania. Just like that. I wasn’t nervous…just a bit perplexed over the lack of preparation I’d been given, but it all worked out fine…I think. I got to talk briefly about my book. I was mostly asked about my baseball collection. It was fun. The 10-minute segment flew by. Neil said, “Thanks for joining us,” and two minutes later, Brian was driving me back to the ballpark.
It was 6:40pm. I was on my own for the rest of the night. The tarp was coming off the field, and the Nationals had begun their pre-game stretching/running/throwing along the left field foul line. Robert Fick tossed me my fourth ball of the day, some random infielder threw me another moments later, and Felipe Lopez provided ball #6 right before the game at the dugout. Not bad for having missed an hour on a day without batting practice.
My media credential was good for “pre-game” access to pretty much anywhere in the ballpark. During the game? I had a feeling the answer was no, but I had to try, so I took the elevator up to the club level and found the entrance to the press box. Yeah, so much for that.
I returned to the field level seats and picked a great spot for foul balls. Within 10 minutes, someone hit one right at me which I easily would’ve caught on a fly, but get this…the ball nicked the thin steel cable that holds up the protective screen and deflected five feet to the left. Unreal.
I was so annoyed. No press box. It was drizzling and windy and cold. Stupid steel cable. I kept wandering and ate my sorrows away. I’d been eating all day. First, on my way to the garage at 1pm, I stopped at Subway and got a 12-inch barbecue rib patty with extra cheese. Then, at the ballpark, I decided I could eat whatever I wanted because it was a special day, so I got a soft-serve chocolate and vanilla ice cream cone at around 4:30pm. I wasn’t even hungry when I got my first cheesesteak 45 minutes later, but I figured I might get hungry soon, and that it wouldn’t be good for my stomach to growl during a live TV interview. Around the fifth inning, I got a hot dog from a concession stand behind the plate and took it up to the register. The cashier told me it was $7.50, and I was like, “Excuse me?!” She apologized and said she thought it was a cheesesteak–an honest mistake as all the items WERE wrapped in tin foil. Anyway, I was like, “Oh man, you have cheesesteaks here?!” and she was like, “Yeah, baby, you wanna put that back and get one instead?” and I was like, “Nah, I’ll just eat this and then get a cheesesteak.” Still feeling more annoyed than hungry, I ate my hot dog (which was overcooked and dry) while walking through the concourse to left field, then got my second cheesesteak of the day. And then of course I had to end with something sweet so I got another ice cream cone. Yum.
I wandered back toward home plate and saw the Phillies’ dance squad preparing for their seventh-inning-stretch routine. I wandered back to left field and found an empty patch of seats. I walked back to the first base side in the 9th inning and headed down to the second row behind the Phillies’ dugout. I didn’t even care about getting another ball. I just wanted to be close to the action and try to get the lineup cards, or a batting glove, or something. But no, after the final out, I ended up getting my seventh ball of the day instead. I don’t know who tossed it. It just flew out of the cluster of players and landed on the dugout roof in front of me, so I grabbed it. Final score: Phillies 9, Nationals 3. Chase Utley went 5-for-5 with his National League-leading 12th and 13th doubles.
• 35 balls in 4 games this season = 8.75 balls per game.
• 459 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 605 lifetime balls outside of New York (The Ray King ball was #600.)
• 2,996 total balls
• 24 days until St. Louis