“All-Star Sunday” was my first full day in San Francisco, and I was exhausted from the start. Brad picked me up at 9:30am, and as we walked to the nearest BART station, we stopped to talk to one of his friends who was waiting for autographs outside the St. Francis Hotel. Two minutes later, Raul Ibanez and J.J. Putz rushed outside (the Mariners had a game that afternoon in Oakland) and I got Ibanez to sign as he jumped into a waiting cab.
The Futures Game was scheduled to begin at 1pm. Brad and I got to AT&T Park two and a half hours early and headed to the portwalk to snag some baseballs before the gates opened. I definitely wanted a ball, but I wasn’t taking it seriously, at least not at the start. Even though the game was at a major league stadium, it was being played by minor leaguers, and I’d already decided not to count the balls in my collection.
“Here it comes!” yelled a portwalk regular named Joe Dirt.
I looked up from my pizza just in time to see a ball clear the railing at the back of the arcade and fly right toward me. THWACK!!! It hit the pavement three feet from where I was standing and bounced into McCovey Cove. Brad and I looked at each other and then watched helplessly as Joe Dirt calmly scooped the ball out of the water with a net attached to a fishing pole.
“Take a look,” he said, holding out the wet ball.
I shielded my eyes and turned away. I knew it had a special “Futures Game” logo, and I didn’t want to see it until it was on a ball that I owned.
I scarfed the rest of my pizza, put on my glove, and marched to the outer wall of the ballpark to take a peek inside. I could see the field. I could see the batter. I could see the players. And before long, I got Emiliano Fruto to toss me a ball. Not only did it have the Futures logo, but it also said “Official Major League Baseball.” I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it made me think twice about whether or not to count the ball in my collection. I was glad to own it, but I stuck to my original decision and didn’t count it. (Was that the right thing to do? What do you think? Keep in mind that I’ve never counted balls from Spring Training or Minor League games.)
A little while later, one of the Futures hit a home run that landed in the right field seats, trickled back into the arcade, and got tossed down by a camera man. I grabbed that one as well and ended up getting in line at the gate with two balls already in my backpack. The line wasn’t THAT long, but it took forever to move. Security was inspecting every bag, and all the fans had to pass through metal detectors.
By the time I got inside and headed to my section in right-center field, BP was almost done. There were a few fans already out there, and we all gathered behind the outfield wall when Wladimir Balentien jogged over to retrieve a ball. I was the only fan who knew his first name, and when I shouted it, he flipped the ball high in the air right to me. I knew everyone else was going to reach for it, so I jumped straight up and snatched it with my bare hand.
“Oh, so it’s gonna be like THAT,” snapped the guy on my right, who then proceeded to talk trash for the next 30 seconds and tell me that if I wanted it to be a competition, then he’d show me some real competition, and that I’d better watch my back for the next two days, and blah blah. I’d been warned earlier about this guy, so in a way I wasn’t surprised, but at the same time…excuse me?!
I don’t remember actively wishing harm on this young man, so perhaps my subconscious was at work. Less than a minute later, he was writhing in pain in the aisle. Just like that. Out of nowhere. It’s like the God of ball-snagging saw what happened and struck him down with a Hample Jinx lightning bolt. Apparently, he had bad knees and one of them gave out. The ushers came running over, propped him up on a chair, and waited with him for Emergency Medical Services to arrive.
The most annoying thing about AT&T Park (other than its name and the handful of aggressive ballhawks) is that you can’t get behind the dugouts unless you have tickets for those sections. There’s a railing that cuts through the seats, 15 rows back, and that’s as close as I was able to get when both teams took infield/outfield practice.
It ended up not making a difference. The seats in front of me were so empty that when the US team came off the field, I was able to shout loud enough to get coach Todd Steverson‘s attention and convince him to throw me my fourth ball of the day.
When the World team took the field, one coach started hitting the normal fungos while a second coach stood on the foul line in shallow right field and hit fly balls to the outfielders. That coach was Hensley Meulens, and when he was done, he tossed me ball number five. Less than a minute later, Michael Saunders (who wasn’t even alive when the Mets won their last World Series) jogged by and tossed me another. The infielders were almost done taking fungos, so I hurried over to the dugout–15 rows back, that is–and got coach John Shoemaker to throw me a ball on his way in.
The one kid who happened to be walking through the seats at that moment stopped and asked, “Weren’t you on TV?”
For the next half-hour, dozens of players on both teams stood on the warning track in foul territory and signed autographs. If I’d been thinking, I would’ve gotten as many as possible to sign one of my baseballs, but the seats were packed by that point, and it took a real effort to get close to the players. I managed to get two guys to sign old ticket stubs that I’d been carrying everywhere, just in case. Collin Balester, a Washington Nationals prospect, signed a Mets-Nationals ticket from April, and Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees organization signed one from last month’s Subway Series.
Right before the game, I ran into Brad who introduced me to a guy named Tony Dobson who’s basically THE baseball collector at Chase Field. Every season, Tony attends all 81 of the Diamondbacks’ home games, plus minor league games, college games, Spring Training, and winter ball. In a few months, he’s going on a guided baseball tour in Japan…something like six games in six different cities in one week. He said fans in Japan aren’t allowed to keep balls during BP. He also said that he attended 219 games last year.
Brad and Tony (and many others) were eager to go for home run balls during the game. I had little interest in the balls–or in the game itself for that matter. In an alternate universe, I would’ve been content just to sit and watch the game and pat myself on the back whenever I recognized a name, but in reality I just wanted to wander and take pics and eat. I didn’t think I’d have much time to do that over the next two days, so I wanted to take advantage of my brief opportunity.
AT&T Park is similar to Camden Yards in its design and layout and overall gorgeousness. The main difference is that one has a 1,016-foot warehouse in right field, while the other has a brilliant view of the water.
I love the water. I’ve always been drawn to it. In that alternate universe, I’d spend months at a time out at sea.
I also love the hoopla surrounding All-Star Week–the greeters at the airport, the banners around town, the police escorts for the players, the metal detectors at the gates, the All-Star garbage cans, and even the All-Star napkin dispensers. Everything at AT&T Park was decked out for the Main Event, and it was a treat to see it firsthand. It’s a good thing those dispensers weren’t empty because I needed a bunch of napkins to clean up after eating one of Stormin’ Norman’s Frybreads. (He’s got a stand just below the right-field edge of the batter’s eye. If you go to AT&T Park, you need to get a Frybread. Tell Norman that Brad’s friend Zack sent you.) This one was topped with powdered sugar, strawberries, and whipped cream.
I finally made it down to my seat–not the greatest view, but that’s not really the point of sitting 415 feet from home plate in home run land. I didn’t expect anyone to hit a ball my way, but I still wore my glove for the hell of it and nearly ended up catching one. Jay Bruce smoked a line drive 20 feet to my left, and I took off through the aisle and got right in position to catch it, but it ended up hooking a bit and hitting the brick wall just above the “421” sign.
By the time Bruce had trotted into 3rd base, two regular ballhawks with seats just to my left walked over with their beers and informed me that I was in their section, that they’d been sitting there for years, and that there was no way that I could just show up out of nowhere for three days and expect to catch any balls, especially during the Home Run Derby. One guy said he was “going to play dirty” and go out of his way to prevent me from getting balls. The other guy said he was “going to do whatever it takes to get a ball” and that his friends sitting in the second row might clothesline me if I got up out of my seat.
These guys continued to harass me for a full inning, and even though I knew their juvenile threats were fueled by alcohol, I have to admit that I was nervous. I can get around strict security. I can deal with sellout crowds. I can outsmart fans who are half a foot taller. But there is no defense–at ballgames and in life–against crazy people. Were they really planning to assault me? Kick me in the knee? Elbow me in the temple? Knock me down? Get their friends to gang up? I really had no idea what to expect, and it bothered me for the rest of the day.
Thankfully, the game was only scheduled to last seven innings. The World team won, 7-2. Chin Lung Hu, a shortstop in the Dodgers organization, was the MVP. I should mention that center fielder Gorkys Hernandez caught the final out and lobbed the ball toward my section. Half a dozen fans mobbed each other for it. The ball bounced out of their hands, off a slanted railing, off the usher’s left shoulder, and into my glove. Yawn.
I was tired and sunburned and fed up with snagging balls that I wasn’t going to count, but I couldn’t leave. There was a celebrity softball game to be played, and I was determined to watch it. I’d never been able to force myself to watch the whole game on TV–and not surprisingly, it wasn’t any different in person. Perhaps I should’ve been more excited to see baseball greats like Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, Fred Lynn, Wade Boggs, Gary Carter, Dave Winfield, and Rollie Fingers, along with celebrities like Jerry Rice, Dane Cook, Bobby Flay, Alyssa Milano, Rob Schneider, Jimmy Kimmel, David Bryson, the mayor of San Francisco, and that correspondent from “EXTRA”…but no. The game was boring, and it always will be. Sorry.
There WAS a great moment before the game started. While the players were warming up and throwing behind the auxiliary wall in left field, Dane Cook was exposed as being completely unathletic. This prompted a fan behind me to yell, “Hey, Dane!!! Stick to comedy!!!”
Another fan shouted, “This IS comedy!!!” and the whole section erupted with laughter.
I tried to make the game more exciting by trying to catch a softball, but it just wasn’t happening, and I’m glad. Sour grapes, yeah, but seriously, what would I have done with a softball? It just would’ve been one more thing to carry home.
Finally–mercifully!–the game ended, and I took off with Brad and Tony. I had dinner with them and another ballhawk named Kevin Kruse (whom I’d met on 8/14/06 at PETCO Park), and the day was complete. I’d met the characters and key players. I’d gotten a feel for my section. Home Run Derby? Bring it on…