The day started at 10:15am when Brad picked me up near my hotel and took me to FanFest (sponsored by DHL) at the Moscone Center. It was a 10-minute walk, and we stopped along the way at the St. Francis. Brad thought there might be some players in the lobby, so we wandered inside to take a peek. Jerry Rice was standing nearby. So was Brian McRae. And Harold Reynolds and Tony Gwynn. Ho-hum. Just another day in San Francisco.
I watched Gwynn for several minutes. He wasn’t signing for anyone, so I approached him politely with something else in mind.
“Excuse me, Mister Gwynn, can I–“
“No,” he said and turned away.
“–shake your hand?”
“Oh…yeah,” he said with a faint smile as he turned back and extended his right arm.
It was nice to feel the grip of a lifetime .338 hitter–not as nice as it would’ve been to get his autograph or go to a batting cage with him, but I was still excited.
After taking a few more pics, I headed back out to the street with Brad who assured me that we’d be able to check out FanFest (sponsored by DHL) and still get to AT&T Park with plenty of time to spare.
I wasn’t so sure.
The Home Run Derby was scheduled to begin at 5pm. The ballpark was going to open at 2pm. We wanted to get on line at least an hour early, and it was going to take a little while to get there. FanFest (sponsored by DHL) was a six-day event that I’d never attended. Clearly, there was a lot to see and do, and I didn’t want to have to cram it all into a 90-minute visit.
Brad, of course, was right. He’d been there a couple days earlier and knew exactly what to expect: long lines, interactive games, overpriced food ($1.25 for a banana), autograph signings, historical exhibits, and LOTS of merchandise. Everywhere we looked, there was something for sale–cards, jerseys, balls, bobbleheads–and everywhere we walked, someone tried to hand us a flier or coupon. That didn’t offend me. I’d realized when I first got there that FanFest (sponsored by DHL) was basically Disney World for baseball fans.
Brad and I kept wandering. We saw MLB.TV doing a live show and watched/listened to Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio…
There was a mini-home run derby, a Ripken fielding clinic, a SingStar Pop video game for 12-year-old girls, and a Dreamseat lounge…
FanFest (sponsored by DHL) was gimmicky to say the least, but it was pretty cool overall and I’d recommend going at least once. Just know what you’re getting into.
By the time Brad and I got to the ballpark, there were already dozens of kayaks in McCovey Cove, and by the time batting practice started at 2:30pm, my section was already full. The gates had opened an extra 20 minutes early to make up for the delay that would be caused by heightened security, so the hundreds of fans behind me had 50 minutes to get inside. I can’t describe how frustrating it was to run in and have an empty stadium go to waste.
At least I had time to properly introduce myself to Sarah and Jake, the mother and 12-year-old son, who were there, in effect, as my “Watch With Zack” clients. I gave them two copies of my new book (which Brad had bought), a 2007 All-Star Game ball (also from Brad), and two Futures Game balls which I’d snagged the day before.
The week before, when Sarah and I had been discussing our snagging strategies for the Home Run Derby, she said, “Just promise me after you get your load of balls, you’ll give one to my son if we haven’t gotten any.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Consider me your insurance policy against going home empty-handed.”
I had all the confidence in the world at that point, but by the time the National League started hitting, I wasn’t sure how well I’d do. The section was packed, and the competition was going to be fierce; not only were the two ballhawk bullies of section 144 lurking nearby, but rumor had it that the Home Run Derby balls were going to be used during BP. In addition, security informed all the fans that cup tricks and other ball-retrieving devices were not allowed, and on top of THAT, the evil usher told me that he wasn’t going to allow people to run for balls.
“I’ll give you half a section,” he had said when I first got there, pointing to an arbitrary spot in the aisle that I wasn’t supposed to cross.
As it turned out, he didn’t get to enforce his idiotic rule because the aisle was too crowded for anyone to move. I knew there wouldn’t be many home runs hit into my section, and I knew that the odds of catching one were nearly impossible, so I held my spot behind the wall and prayed that the little kids in the outfield were allowed to throw balls into the crowd.
After five minutes of begging, I got one of them to toss a ball my way, and it had the Derby logo! Yessssss!!! The kids ended up chucking almost every ball into the crowd, and after 10 more minutes, I got Billy Wagner’s kid to throw me another by putting on my Mets cap and yelling, “Look at my hat!”
I had five caps with me, including one with a generic MLB logo. I’d picked the others based on which teams had the most outfielders and pitchers on the All-Star rosters. I figured those would be the players shagging in the outfield, so in addition to the Mets, I also had caps of the Padres, Angels, and Red Sox.
I got a third Derby ball tossed to me on a bounce by an unidentifiable kid, and I got a fourth from one of Trevor Hoffman’s sons. Thankfully, the bullies hadn’t been a factor during BP. One of them spent most of his time chasing homers in the left field seats, while the other kept his distance and focused on the kids.
I squeezed away from the wall when the National League finished, knowing I could get back in with my front row ticket, and I checked in with Sarah and Jake in the next section. They hadn’t gotten anything except several shoves from a 6-foot-5 monster who was reaching in front of everyone.
“Don’t worry,” I told them. “I got you covered.”
The American League’s batting practice was a disaster. Not only had stingy adolescent ballboys replaced the generous little kids, but the balls didn’t have the Derby logo. Regular balls were being used instead, and I didn’t realize it until I got Magglio Ordonez to throw me one from 100 feet away. GAH!!! I’d never been so disappointed after getting a ball.
Two minutes after regular BP ended, there was a brief bonus round for the eight guys who were about to participate in the Derby. Most fans didn’t realize it and headed back to their seats, so when one of the balls landed in the gap (aka “The Pit”) behind the center field wall, there wasn’t much competition and I got a groundskeeper to throw it to me. Damn those regular balls. I felt cheated.
I’d started the day with 3,093 lifetime balls and ended up snagging six during BP. My next ball was going to be No. 3,100, and the mere thought of getting it during the Derby made me giddy. I figured I’d have a decent chance because the evil usher vowed to keep people in their seats. He probably meant it as a threat, but it turned out to be a favor since my seat was actually IN the aisle.
I caught up with Sarah and Jake, hoping that they’d done better during the second half of BP, but things just hadn’t gone their way so I pulled out my Derby balls and let them choose which one they wanted to keep. Meanwhile, my obnoxious shirt was already proving its effectiveness, drawing weird looks and wise cracks and “Waldo!” chants from the crowd. (Three days earlier, in case you missed it, I’d posted an entry telling everyone where I’d be sitting and what I’d be wearing so they could look for me on TV.)
Shortly after 5pm, Justin Morneau stepped up to the plate and kicked off the Derby with three quick outs. My biggest concern at that moment was the sun. It was right in my eyes, and I knew it was going to get worse with every passing minute. Brad had warned me weeks earlier about the sun, and I’d bought a cheap pair of sunglasses the night before, but they only made it tougher to see. The entire infield was in the shade and got impossibly dark when I put on the glasses. Luckily, I’d experimented with them at the end of BP so I knew not to wear them at the start of the Derby.
Another concern was that the bullies were surrounding me. One of them (who got preferential treatment from ALL the ushers) was hanging out in the tunnel on my right, and the other was standing behind his front-row seat, just a few feet to my left. I knew they’d have a head start if a ball were hit on either side, and if one happened to be hit right to me, they’d have plenty of time to run over and interfere.
By the time I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t going to catch anything, Morneau launched a deep line drive to my left. I had no idea if it had the distance, but that was beyond my control. All I could do was MOVE and hope to get in line with it before it landed, so I darted through the narrow aisle, looking down for a moment to dodge the people and plastic chairs, and when I looked back up, all I saw was the sun. It was such a helpless feeling to know I’d be close to the ball and not be able to see it, but I kept running to the spot where I thought it was going to land, and at the last second, I saw a dark speck shoot out of the brightness. The ball was approaching fast. I lunged and jumped as high as I could and felt something hit my glove amidst the mob of fans reaching skyward. Was it another glove that hit mine? No! IT WAS THE BALL!!! Ohmygod, I’d caught the first home run of the Derby, and I could not be-LIEVE it. I threw my arms up and jumped up and down–click here to watch the footage (.MPG = 6.7MB)–and got high-fives from everyone in the section…except the bullies who’d gotten there a second too late. The guy in the tunnel had started too far away to get there in time, and the guy on my left never saw it. He lost it in the sun. Ha-haaa!! He never even saw the bat hit the ball, so he was still standing behind his seat when I wiggled past his spot.
A reporter from the Oakland Tribune approached me for a quick interview. I spelled my name, said I was from New York City, showed him a tattered copy of my first book, and told him that this was my 3,100th ball. The crowd started chanting, “Waldo!!! Waldo!!! Waldo!!! Waldo!!!” My phone started ringing like crazy, and I let the calls go to my voice-mail. The messages ranged from, “Hey, Zack, it’s John. Nice catch. Saw you on TV,” to “Zack, it’s Ryan out in Tacoma, Washington. Hey, uh, nice work. First ball of the Home Run Derby? You know, we uh…me and my buddy here were reading your page right before the Home Run Derby started. He didn’t think you had a ******’ chance to catch a ball and the very first ball, we’re like, ‘Oh **** there he i–ohhhhhhhhhhh!!!’ So congratulations, uh, but right now you’re probably hard at work because there’s still a lot of Derby left. Alright man, bye.”
The rest of the Derby was AWFUL. All three lefties–Morneau, Prince Fielder, and Ryan Howard–failed to reach the second round so I ended up being stuck in right-center field, 415 feet from home plate, as a bunch of pull-happy righties took aim at the giant Coke bottle. Alex Rios did hit a ball to the section on my right, and there were a couple other semi-close calls, but things were so slow that I had to entertain myself with a giant order of garlic fries (and chicken strips). I didn’t bother limiting my eating to the interminable commercial breaks. I just kept stuffing my face through the Derby itself. My day-of-a-lifetime had prematurely turned into a complete waste, and I had to eat my sorrows away. I also felt bad for Brad who was trapped on the right field arcade and even worse for the kayakers. Only two balls had reached the cove during the Derby and both of them had passed the wrong side of the foul pole.
Things weren’t much better in my section as the second round came to a close. The sun was brutal, hovering just above of the top of the upper deck and making it impossible to track any fly ball. It’s just as well that the lefties had been eliminated because I wouldn’t have been able to catch anything. Of course, most of the other fans were also struggling to shield their eyes from the intense glare, and as if that weren’t bad enough, we had to deal with the nearby water canons which blasted a million shimmering droplets after every home run.
The sun dipped out of sight during the final round, and I felt energized. I got up and stood behind my chair and assumed a slight crouch so I wouldn’t block anyone’s view. I didn’t think anything of it. Fans had been standing on and off throughout the day. Bully #1 had even gotten away with camping out in the runway, yet for some reason the evil usher marched over and pulled me aside.
“Can I see your ticket?” he asked.
Um, no. Actually you can’t. You’ve already seen it. You’re a power-hungry jerk who needs to get laid, and if I hand you my precious ticket, you’re gonna tear off a corner or mark it up as you sick security people tend to do whenever a fan causes a quote-unquote problem.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“Actually, yeah, there is,” he snapped. “You can’t be crouching like that in the aisle. You’re not the center fielder. I can’t have you playing center field in my section.”
“I’m really sorry,” I said, “but I was only crouching so I wouldn’t block the view of the people sitting behi–“
“What did I tell you about running for balls?!” he demanded.
I tried to explain myself again, and I offered a second apology, but it was no use. The man was determined to argue. He said he was issuing an “official warning” to me and that he was going to let his supervisor know in case he wasn’t there the next day.
“If she has a problem with you tomorrow,” he said, “you will be removed from the game.”
Way to go, Giants management.
And way to go, Vladimir Guerrero, for winning the Derby. A total of 74 home runs were hit, so I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad about only catching one of them.
• 139 balls in 19 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.
• 474 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 21 consecutive games with at least four balls
• 96 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 641 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 3,100 total balls
NOTE: I’m counting the Home Run Derby as a “game,” just as I’ve counted numerous rainouts over the years as “games,” but I can’t decide whether to count the Morneau homer as a “game ball.” What does everyone think I should do? I feel strongly that the balls should count toward my grand total since they were used by major league players inside a major league stadium, but I’m struggling to make decisions beyond that.