The day began when I woke up in NYC at 7:45am with five and a half hours of sleep. On the way to the airport, my taxi driver blasted easy-listening music from a radio station in Connecticut with horrible reception. At the airport, security confiscated my toothpaste and deodorant. On the plane, I sat within three rows of a shrieking baby, a restless little boy, two whiny little girls, and the most annoying parents of all time. Then, after only an hour, my laptop battery died.
It got better from there.
The flight landed a few minutes early. The weather in St. Louis was great. I had a radio-free taxi ride to my hotel (which is within walking distance of Busch Stadium and The Arch). I got an Internet connection in my room. I gathered my stuff for the 7:10pm game and headed to the ballpark nearly five hours early.
While photographing the place from every angle, I found a restaurant that serves “toasted ravioli.” I’d been told to look for it. It’s a delicacy in this town, and after one bite I knew why. Of course I photographed that as well. (The ravioli was just my appetizer. I also had a grilled chicken sandwich with BBQ sauce, melted cheddar and fried onions. I wasn’t kidding when I said I wanted to overeat.)
For most of the afternoon, I couldn’t decide whether to go to right or left field for batting practice. From what I’d seen of Busch on TV, it appeared to be extremely segmented. There were too many railings. There wasn’t enough access from one section to the next. It seemed that it’d be easier to move around in right field bleachers, but thanks to my roster, I knew there’d be far more righties during BP. Of the 13 position players on the Cardinals, there were only three lefties (Adam Kennedy, Chris Duncan, and Jim Edmonds) and two switch-hitters (Aaron Miles and Scott Spiezio). Because Zach Duke–a lefty–would be making the start for the Pirates, I figured the switch-hitters would take most of their cuts from the right side. In addition, there was a huge crowd outside the right field gate, so I chose left field.
Another problem with left field (both fields, actually) is that the bullpen is positioned just beyond the outfield wall in the power alley. Most home runs would land there, so I had to choose between the crowded section down the line or the emptier section behind the bullpen, 425 feet from home plate. I chose the latter, mainly because Pujols was about to hit, and I figured he could reach me.
I figured right.
It took a few minutes, during which I second-guessed myself as fans in all other sections were catching balls, but Pujols finally cranked one in my direction. I mean RIGHT in my direction. It seemed to have
the proper height and trajectory, so I froze and worried that I was misjudging the distance. The ball kept coming. The guy in the green hat stood up at the last second and made a feeble attempt to barehand it. I reached out and caught it one-handed just over his hands.
“Ohh, we got a professional over there!” shouted a guy from the next section.
“This is my first game here!” I insisted while glowing over the fact that I’d now snagged at least one ball at every current major league stadium.
“Yeah right!” he said.
“It was a nice catch,” he admitted, “but it won’t happen again.”
One minute later, Juan Encarnacion blasted a deep fly ball in the same spot, and I caught that one too.
“Excuse me,” said a voice from behind. “Are you Zack Hample?”
It was a man who recognized me from this blog. His name is Wes Wagner. He’s caught about 400 balls in his life, including three homers during games. We chatted for a few minutes and kept running into each other for the rest of the night.
I had an easy chance to use the glove trick for a ball that was sitting in the bullpen, but a security guard stopped me. Meanwhile, it was nearly impossible to use the trick in the left field corner because of the thick metal ledge and the strip of half-dead grass on the other side of the railing. I couldn’t even lean out far enough to look directly down at the warning track.
“Have you been shut out yet?” asked another guy as I was running all over the place.
“Huh? Not since 1993.”
Turns out he recognized me from last year’s segment on CBS, during which I mentioned my streak of snagging at least one ball at every game.
When the Pirates started throwing in left field, I turned my attention toward them and got a ball–my third of the day–thrown to me by Tony Armas, Jr. Luckily, John Grabow hadn’t seen me catch it, so I got him to toss me another five minutes later. After that, I hit a long dry spell but held my ground along the LF foul line and eventually got Damaso Marte to flip me a ball.
I didn’t get a ball after BP at the Pirates’ dugout, but I did get recognized again. It was another “Are you Zack Hample,” this time from a kid named Darron who reads the blog. Earlier in the day, he had snagged his 8th lifetime ball which he didn’t think was very good compared to my total.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Guess what,” I said. “I didn’t catch my first ball until I was twelve, and I only got four balls that entire season, so you’re already ahead of my pace.”
He asked for my autograph (NOT on the ball), and we had our picture taken with both of our cameras.
I headed to the concourse, got a bottle of water, wandered aimlessly, took some photos, made my way back to the Pirates’ dugout after the national anthem, and got my 6th ball of the day from last year’s National League batting champion. He and Jack Wilson were playing catch. There wasn’t another fan in sight with a glove or Pirates gear. No matter which player ended up with the ball, I knew it was going to be mine.
I missed the first three innings, and I didn’t care. This day was all about the ballpark, not the ballgame. I wandered through every concourse…
…and eventually reached the upper deck…
…and caught a glimpse of the scoreboard. The Cardinals were winning, 3-1.
I wandered back down to the field level, stopping along the way to eat (a hamburger and soft-serve ice cream) and take more pictures…
…and when I finally decided to watch the game, it was the top of the 7th inning, and the Cardinals were ahead, 9-2. WHAT?! At least the score was so lopsided that a lot of fans had already left. I grabbed a seat in the 3rd row behind the Cardinals’ dugout, where I figured I’d have a good chance of getting a ball after the game.
With one out in the bottom of the 8th, Chris Duncan swung a little too soon at a pitch low and inside and sent it bouncing toward the dugout. I thought it might bounce into the dugout, so I stood up and took a step forward in case one of the players tossed it up, but instead, the ball skipped through the space in the railing and shot over the dugout roof. The guy in the white visor was wearing a glove, but he was caught off guard as the ball whizzed right past him and into my glove. I don’t know exactly how I managed to catch it because it was out of view until the last second. I think I must have been anticipating where it might bounce. I don’t know. It all happened so fast–and yet it seemed so easy. The man sitting a few seats over kept congratulating me and raving about how fast I’d moved my glove. He said he’d never seen anyone with such quick reflexes.
I also snagged a t-shirt during the t-shirt launch, which was so small (and covered with Cardinals players, ewww) that I couldn’t imagine ever wearing it again, so I gave it to a woman who’d been harassing me about stealing that foul ball from all the people in the section who actually had tickets there. Um, lady, if I hadn’t been sitting there, someone else would’ve been heading to the emergency room.
Kelvin Jimenez caught Ryan Doumit looking at strike three to end the game, and he tossed me the ball–my eighth of the day–on his way in. I gave it to a kid and took some more photos on my way out.
• 202 photos taken
• 70 balls in 8 games this season = 8.75 balls per game.
• 42 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 463 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 92 consecutive games outside of NYC with at least one ball
• 613 lifetime balls outside of NYC
• 17 lifetime game balls outside of NYC
• 101 total game balls
• 15 different stadiums with at least one game ball