It was Friday. The weather was perfect. The Angels were in town, and I didn’t care. I wanted no part of Yankee Stadium. I knew it’d be packed, and I’d been planning to spend the evening with a professional masseuse named Jona.
So much for that.
Let me explain…
Four days earlier, I received the following email:
New York magazine is putting together an “Everything Guide to Baseball” at Yankee Stadium and Shea and we would love to get your input. I’m hoping we can talk on the phone for a few minutes about your strategies for getting balls at these two parks — as well any other expert advice you might like to offer. Please give me a call at your earliest convenience, or send along a phone number where you can be reached. Hopefully we can speak early this week.
My earliest convenience wasn’t all that convenient, or at least not all that relaxing. It was the half-hour before boarding my flight to St. Louis, so instead of reading the previous day’s box scores and eating a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, I was answering a rapid succession of questions about the best places to snag baseballs. I told the writer everything he needed to know–except for the actual section and box numbers. I didn’t know them all. When I run into Yankee Stadium, for example, I head for the seats in straight-away right field and constantly adjust my positioning based on several factors. I don’t stop and read the little signs on the railings and look for the one that says “BOX 331.”
The writer asked if I could go online when I got to my hotel and look at the stadiums’ seating charts and give him the section numbers based on those. I tried but it was no use. The charts didn’t provide enough detail for me to be able to give specific advice. I told him I’d be at Shea on May 29 and that I could make a note of all the section numbers if he could wait that long. He said he could wait–but not much longer than that, and he asked if I was planning to be at Yankee Stadium anytime soon.
Long story short: By the time I returned from St. Louis, the Yankees had three home games remaining before going on an 11-day road trip. I had to attend one of those games, and it had to be on Friday night. I was totally booked up for the rest of the weekend, so I called Jona and explained the situation and reluctantly headed to the Bronx for some in-person research.
Of course I put the research on hold until game-time and tried to make the most of batting practice, but unfortunately, in addition to the right field seats being absurdly crowded, there was a 12-year-old kid named Brian that I knew from this blog. I say “unfortunately” because he was going for balls, too, which meant we had to compete with each other. That’s the crappy nature of both NYC stadiums; there aren’t many seats in fair territory so everyone has to cram into a few small sections.
Less than a minute after the gates opened, a lefty on the Yankees hit a home run into the seats, and the ball bounced back onto the field. Ron Villone tossed it to me. And less than a minute after that, Brian got a ball from Matt DeSalvo. Excellent. The threat of being shut out had quickly been eliminated for both of us.
Brian had a glove trick of his own, so we competed for balls on the warning track as well. Luckily for me, he didn’t notice that one had rolled right up to the wall near the foul pole. I darted through the main aisle, got into position, lowered my glove, and snagged it with ease.
A home run landed in the gap between the box seats and the bleachers and rolled to the bottom. Brian and I raced for the one spot up against the side wall where we’d have the best chance of getting it. I barely beat him there, and as it turned out, he wasn’t quite tall enough to see over the wall anyway, so he let me have it.
Within the next five minutes, I caught two homers–on a fly–off the bat of Robinson Cano. I’d positioned myself perfectly and didn’t have to move much, but there were people all around, reaching up in front of my face for both of them. Brian was close to the first one and right underneath the second. If I hadn’t been there, he probably would’ve caught it.
I felt guilty.
But he got his revenge.
During the Angels’ portion of batting practice, several balls rolled onto the warning track and were promptly gobbled up by other fans with cup tricks. To my delight, three of these fans ended up competing for one ball and getting their strings tangled, so I tried to swoop in and snag it with my glove trick. I messed up. The rubber band was too tight, and the ball wouldn’t go inside the glove.
“The glove won’t work!” shouted someone on my left.
“Get it out of the way!” yelled one of the guys with a dangling cup.
“The glove DOES work!” said a voice from behind. It was Brian, and before I knew it, he was squeezing through the crowd and lowering his glove. I made a final attempt to lower mine over the ball, but it just wasn’t happening, so I lifted it back up and gave him a shot at it.
He nailed it.
Naturally, I was frustrated that my trick had failed, but I was happy for Brian, and I considered it a victory for both of us. The glove guys had defeated the cup guys.
I managed to get one more ball–my sixth of the day–by asking for it in a way that made me stand out. Steve Soliz, the Angels bullpen catcher, was shagging in right field and ignoring all the fans. It’s not just that he wasn’t giving balls away, but that he wasn’t even acknowledging anyone. I didn’t know if he was shy or being snotty or simply doing his job, so I waited until he came closer to field a ball.
“Steve,” I said, “What would it POSSIBLY take to get a ball from you? Is there ANY possible way to make that happen?”
He looked up at me and said he’d give me one at the end of batting practice. Yeah right, I thought, but then he took the next ball he fielded and stuck it in his back pocket. Sure enough, when BP wrapped up ten minutes later, he walked over to me and flipped up the ball (which I gave to a 13-year-old kid from Alaska with Crohn’s Disease).
Right before the game, I tried unsuccessfully to get a ball from the Angels on the 3rd base side, but I did get a smile from Casey Kotchman who saw my Boise Hawks t-shirt. Casey’s father, Tom, managed the Hawks when I interned there in 1995. Casey, who was 12 at the time, would sometimes take BP on the field after games. While everyone was raving about his sweet swing, I was like, “Umm, that’s great. When I was 12, I had no problem hitting the ball out of the infield.” And that’s why I’m not a scout.
I wandered all over the place during the game, getting cursed at by Yankee fans for wearing my Angels hat and getting funny looks from security for taking notes. I felt like I was on some secret spy mission, and I kept hoping the guards would demand to see what I was writing so I could be confrontational: “Yeah, it says ‘righty fouls behind plate (off facade) = in front of 223, behind 19.’ You fools gotta problem with that?!”
FYI, the last row of the upper deck behind the left field foul pole is not a good spot for balls. But it IS a good spot to get a look at the construction of the new Yankee Stadium:
I spent the first three innings taking notes. I spent the next three innings looking for a decent place to sit, but the stadium was so crowded (50,363 fans) that it was a lost cause. I spent the final three innings riding home on the subway. Jona came over late. We heard that the Yankees lost.
• 83 balls in 10 games this season = 8.3 balls per game.
• 465 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 3,044 total balls
• 39 days until San Francisco…