I was supposed to be filmed during batting practice by Comcast SportsNet, the Phillies’ cable network, but it didn’t happen. I made the mistake of not bringing the producer’s phone number, and when it was time to meet up, he made the mistake of calling my home phone instead of my cell.
Then things got worse.
The road leading to the left field gate–the only gate that opens two and a half hours early–was completely blocked off. Why? According to stadium personnel, the equipment for the following night’s fireworks was already being set up and the right field gate would be opening early instead. Fine. I headed there with my friend Ben, who’d joined me for the drive from New York City, and we waited. We were the first ones there, and by the time the gate was almost set to open, there was still a very small crowd. Ha! Everyone else was probably confused about where to enter, and I was looking forward to having the ballpark to myself for the first 15 minutes.
A few fans asked me which gate was opening first.
“This one,” I said. “At least that’s what I was told.”
They were satisfied, and I felt great, right up until 4:30pm or so when it hit me: the turnstiles were still covered, and there weren’t any ticket takers in sight. I got a sick feeling in my gut and called out to the few employees who were walking past on the inside. The one guy who was nice enough to walk over was a vendor who didn’t know anything. Moments later, fans started running through the concourse and heading to the seats. NOOOOOOOO!!!!!
By the time I found my way inside, the stadium clock said 4:45pm, the left field seats were packed, and I was seething. There was no chance for me to use the glove trick, and the players were only throwing balls to little kids and pretty young women (without gloves).
I knew I was going to have to catch a home run, and after five minutes of stewing in my own sweaty rage, I got my chance when a righty on the Phillies crushed a line drive in my direction. The ball was going to fall short so I scampered down the steps and made a backhand lunge as I reached the front row. The ball barely cleared the railing and nicked the tip of my glove, but it dropped straight down and bounced right up to me off the concrete step.
I moved back to my spot just in time to see another ball hit higher and deeper in my direction. I could tell from the moment it left the bat that it was going to sail over my head, so I darted up the steps to the spot where I thought it was going to land. Everyone else on the steps thought it was going to fall short so they ran forward. They were wrong, I was right, and I ended up in perfect position to make the catch. At the last second, a couple guys who happened to be standing in the right row cut across and reach in front of me, but I reached through them and made the one-handed catch, nearly 400 feet from home plate. That one felt good.
The rest of the ballpark opened at 5:35pm, and I spotted a ball sitting in the Phillies’ bullpen–the type of ball that was MADE for the glove trick. The only problem was that it was partially wedged into the soft grass, so it took a few minutes to knock it loose and get it to stick inside my glove. While I was going for it, another ball landed in the bullpen, and as I was just starting to go for that one, a groundskeeper walked over and tossed it up to me. That was my fourth ball of the day.
I managed to get one more during the final 40 minutes of BP–a homer that bounced off someone’s bare hands in left-center field–and I got a sixth ball from Chad Moeller at the Reds’ dugout after the national anthem.
Ben and I had paid $27 each for seats in straight-away left field. The odds of catching a Ken Griffey Jr. home run were remote, but the game itself was awesome. In the bottom of the fifth, Ryan Howard put the Phillies on top, 3-0, with a 466-foot bomb over the batter’s eye. (According to Hit Tracker, it was the fifth longest homer in the majors this season.) Meanwhile, 44-year-old Jamie Moyer was mowing down the Reds with his 82mph fastball, and he took a no-hitter into the sixth. One inning later, the Reds knocked him out of the game and put up a six-spot, but the Phillies answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame to tie the score at 6-6. The Reds took a 7-6 lead in the eighth, and then the rain came:
By the time play resumed 42 minutes later, 90 percent of the fans had left, and I went to right field for Griffey’s at-bat in the top of the ninth. Man, if ever there was a time for him to hit a ball my way, this would’ve been it. No one around me was even wearing a glove, and I had a LONG row of empty seats to myself. Of course, all Griffey could do was pull a sharp grounder to first base. Two batters later, Adam Dunn hit a two-run homer that landed in the section where Ben and I had been sitting.
Reds closer (closer?!) David Weathers retired the Philles in order in the bottom of the ninth. Final score: Reds 9, Phillies 6.
While the Reds all walked out onto the field to congratulate each other, I slipped into the front row behind the dugout and got my seventh ball from home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg. Thirty seconds later, I got Weathers to toss me the game-ending ball, and a minute after that, Reds reliever Victor Santos walked in from the bullpen and threw me another. Wow! In the blink of an eye, I’d gone from six balls to nine. Poor Ben didn’t get any balls and saw his favorite team lose.
On the way out, I ran into a guy named Jon (aka “joneli” for those of you who read the comments) who’s been reading this blog for years. He’s a semi-regular at Shea Stadium, but somehow our paths had never crossed. We hung out for a bit and took a few photos. I signed his copy of my book, and he told me he’d just achieved a first as a baseball collector. I’ll let him be the one to share the story here…
• 132 balls in 18 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.
• 473 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 20 consecutive games with at least four balls
• 95 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 65 lifetime balls in 7 games at Citizens Bank Park = 9.3 balls per game.
• 634 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 3,093 total balls
• 11 days until I’ll be at the Home Run Derby (and 12 ’til the All-Star Game)…