My girlfriend Jona is a good sport. She had the day off from work and chose to spend 15 hours of it with me, driving down to Baltimore, waiting outside Camden Yards for the gates to open, following me around with her camera during batting practice, listening to me complain about every ball I didn’t catch, moving from seat to seat during the game, letting me wander off in pursuit of foul balls, straying from her healthy vegan diet, staying for extra innings, and pretending not to mind the oldies I was blasting in the car on the ride home. (In all fairness, I pretended not to mind the R&B she was blasting on the ride down.)
Jona had gone to a Mets game with me on June 18, so she knew what to expect, but still, I found myself explaining why we’d gotten there so early.
“Every ten or twenty games,” I said, “I’ll find a ball just lying on the ground when I run inside. It’s pretty rare, but still, that’s why I need to be the first one in.”
Sure enough, when we ran inside at 5:05pm, I found one (and since I had such a big head start on the next fan, I had time to pull out my camera and take a pic before snatching it).
A father and his young son had made their way into my section when a lefty on the Orioles hit a home run that got wedged in an empty seat. As I scurried over and grabbed the ball, the father pointed at his son and called, “Little kid! Little kid!” so I pointed at Jona and called, “Girlfriend! Girlfriend!”
The father laughed and let it go, and his kid got a ball tossed to him a few minutes later.
I ran all over the place during the first half-hour (Jona’s camera could not contain me!), but only got one other ball. Kurt Birkins was standing near the warning track. I was standing next to Jona in the aisle at the back of the right field seats. He tossed the ball over 20 empty rows.
Jona and I jogged to left field when the Devil Rays began taking BP. I was looking forward to seeing Dan Wheeler and wondering if he’d remember me from his days with the Mets. I spotted him in the outfield and headed down the steps, and before I reached the front row or even said a word, he looked up and pointed at me.
“Where ya been?” he yelled.
“What’s up!” I yelled back. “It’s good to see you. How ’bout a ball for old time’s sake?”
“How many are you up to?”
“Three thousand, one hundred, and forty-eight.”
“That’s pretty good,” he said.
“Don’t tell any of your teammates, okay?”
He nodded and asked what I’ve been up to and signed a few autographs for some kids in the front row. I told him I have a new baseball book.
“Where’s my autographed copy?” he asked.
“Where’s my ball?” I demanded, then quickly realized that this wasn’t the time to be stingy. He was asking for my autograph. A major league baseball player was asking for MY autograph. It had never happened before, and I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen again so I told him I’d send him a copy. I also told him I had to keep moving because there were balls to be snagged.
“Go do your thing,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll see you later.”
We shook hands and I ran into foul territory just in time to get Scott Kazmir to toss me my fourth ball of the day as he finished throwing. I could’ve asked any of the other pitchers for a ball, but I specifically wanted one from Kazmir. I know he’s young, and I know he could get hurt, but he has a legitimate chance to win 300 games or at least end up in the Hall of Fame, and I wanted to be able to add his name to my list.
Moments later, a left-handed hitter on the D’Rays sliced a line drive over the 3rd baseman’s head. The ball rolled all the way down the line and curved into foul territory. I didn’t have to move my feet. All I did was lean over the low wall and scoop it off the rubberized warning track.
I’ll admit it: the stadium was empty, and the competition was a joke. Whatever. I don’t need to apologize. For all the miserable batting practices I endure at Yankee Stadium where I don’t even have a single row to myself, I deserve a few easy games like this.
I caught two homers on a fly in the next ten minutes. The first was hit into my row, about 20 feet to my left, so all I had to do was scoot through the empty seats. The second was hit right at me, and I quickly determined that it was going to fall a few feet short, so I climbed over a row of seats and lunged over another row for the catch at the last second. I felt good about that one (in part because Jona was watching), but of course I misplayed a few other balls later on.
I got an incredibly lucky bounce several minutes later on a long home run. I was a bit too far back in the left field seats so the ball landed half a dozen rows in front of me and skipped directly up in the air as fans were closing in on it from both sides. As the ball hung up in the air for split-second, I was hoping against all odds that it would land on the concrete between the rows and that the extreme backspin from the deflection would cause it to bounce back in my direction…and by golly it did. I leaned far forward and caught the ball in the tip of my glove just before the other fans got there.
Wheeler saw me make the catch and called me down to the front with a wave of his arm.
“How many have you gotten today?” he asked.
“Eight, but shhhhh,” I said quietly.
With just a few minutes remaining in BP, I cut through the seats and headed toward the 3rd base dugout, stopping briefly along the way to get ball No. 9 from Juan Salas. Soon after I reached the dugout, I got my 10th ball rather unexpectedly. Someone on the Devil Rays–might’ve been Jon Switzer–jogged in out of nowhere, and without my asking or getting a look at his face, he flipped me a ball. I have no idea why. Could Wheeler have had something to do with it?
I got Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon to sign my ticket stub after BP. Then I talked to three kids who recognized me from YouTube, and I gave them contact cards. Finally I got to sit down with Jona and label the last four balls I’d snagged.
Five minutes before the national anthem, Josh Wilson tossed me his warmup ball after playing catch in shallow left field. (For those of you keeping score at home, that was my 11th ball of the day and 100th lifetime ball at Camden Yards.) Moments later, Wheeler and a few relievers walked past my section on their way to the bullpen in left-center.
“Dan!” I shouted.
He looked up.
“Eleven,” I said.
He knew exactly what I meant.
I don’t want to incriminate anyone by mentioning names or section numbers, so let’s just say there’s a certain usher at Camden Yards who takes good care of me. As fate would have it, he got sick and wasn’t there the other night. Not hospital sick. Just sick enough to miss the one game I happened to attend, so I had to find another spot. If I’d been there by myself, I would’ve run around all night for foul balls. Or maybe I would’ve camped out in the standing room only section for home runs. But Jona was with me, and this was only the second game of her life, and I didn’t want to make her run around any more, and I wanted her to have a good view, so we walked down the steps to the Devil Rays’ dugout and sat in the third row. The ushers didn’t say a word, and no one came for the seats.
I picked that spot, not for the foul balls, but for the third-out balls that were going to be tossed up after every inning. Second batter of the game? Carl Crawford. 2-1 pitch from Steve Trachsel? Popped up into foul territory 30 feet behind me. I was sitting on the end of the row, so I jumped up and raced up the steps while keeping my eye on the ball as best I could. I was a bit too slow and the ball landed just out of my reach, but the other fans dropped it, and it rolled onto the steps where I grabbed it. Crazy! You may recall that I snagged a foul ball in almost the exact same way on August 7 (at 7:09pm) in Philadelphia.
I really wanted another foul ball. I mean, I always want foul balls, but now I had a chance to extend one of my lesser-known streaks. In every season since 1999, I’d had at least one game in which I snagged at least two game balls–and by “game balls,” I’m not simply talking about game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd. I’m talking about balls that are hit directly into the seats.
Miguel Tejada struck out to end the first inning; Devil Rays catcher Dioner Navarro rolled the ball back to the mound. Melvin Mora grounded out to end the second; first baseman Carlos Pena tossed the ball to a well-endowed blonde. Nick Markakis grounded into a double play to end the third; Pena tossed the ball to a little kid.
It wasn’t happening. Jona and I were hungry. We headed to the concourse. She got on line for food. I used the bathroom. She bought a pretzel and a bag of peanuts. I held the food (and took an obnoxiously large bite of her pretzel) while she used the bathroom. There were two outs in the bottom of the fourth. I raced back to the dugout. She waited in a tunnel. Mora walked on seven pitches. I felt bad about leaving her on her own. Ramon Hernandez flied out to end the inning. Right fielder Delmon Young tossed the ball two sections over. I hurried back to Jona. We headed back into the concourse. I got some pepperoni pizza. We walked back into the seats as the fifth inning started. I wanted to sit in the empty row below the press box, but two ushers were standing nearby. Jona and I crept up the steps behind the aisle. We cut through the back of the section toward home plate and stood next to the press box. The pizza box was in my hand; my glove was in my backpack. I was waiting for both ushers to look the other way. Akinori Iwamura slapped a one-out single to left field. Crawford stepped up to the plate, and I said, “I’m gonna drop my pizza and go for the ball, if need be,” and on the very next pitch, a laser of a foul ball came flying right in my direction. I dropped the pizza without thinking and heard the box smack the concrete half a second before I made the bare-handed catch. Jona was in shock. The fans around me applauded. The ushers looked up. I sat down in the nearest seat and pretended I’d been there all along. An old woman asked me if my hands hurt. “Nah, not at all,” I told her. Then I looked at my hands and saw that the base of my left thumb was bright pink. “Actually, yeah, it hurts,” I said and she laughed. It was a good hurt. A Big Hurt. A hurt of joy and satisfaction. A hurt of knowing instantly that what had just happened was insanely cool and that I’d be telling this story for decades. The pizza was still in the box.
Two foul balls and it was only the top of the fifth! The first thing I thought was: “I need to get two more.” I’d snagged three foul balls in a single game on two occasions. But never four. I explained all of this to Jona (and also explained that it was okay to throw her peanut shells on the ground) and asked her if she minded if I headed over to the first base side for the right-handed hitters. She didn’t mind, and my official pursuit of foul balls was underway.
Of course nothing came anywhere near me for the next few innings, but it was still fun to run around. It was fun just to have a chance. The game itself was meaningless in the standings, but every pitch carried serious weight for me.
The Devil Rays scored two runs in the eighth to cut the Orioles’ lead to 4-3. One inning later, I was positioned behind the Orioles’ dugout and hoping that the game would end…when Brendan Harris muscled a two-out line drive into left field to plate B.J. Upton with the tying run.
The bad news: It was going to be a very late night.
The good news: More chances for foul balls.
Navarro put the Devil Rays on top, 5-4, with an RBI single in the top of the 12th, and in the bottom of the frame, Corey Patterson hit a towering foul pop-up in my direction. The stadium was so empty at this point that I was standing in the middle of the main aisle, and no one cared. Not the ushers. Not their supervisors. Not the Baltimore police. It was truly beautiful, and the wind nearly screwed me. I moved 10 feet to my right while keeping my eye on the white speck against the black sky. That speck ended up drifting 15 feet to my left, and I recovered by drifting back with it and making a last-second lunge over my head. As empty as the stadium was, I wouldn’t have gotten that ball if I hadn’t gotten leather on it because it would’ve bounced a long way off the concrete.
Getting those three foul balls seemed oddly easy, and after the final out, I found myself wondering why I didn’t get more, and why I don’t get three at every game. There were several other close calls that could’ve gone my way. One foul ball that was heading for me didn’t quite make it over the protective screen, and another could’ve easily been dropped by the fans sitting directly above me in the club level. There’s so much luck involved. Sometimes I try to play it off like it’s all skill, but it’s really not. How much skill? It’s impossible to say. If a ball comes right to me, is that luck? What if I skillfully chose that spot? Am I lucky to have been born with good hand-eye coordination? Was it luck that the paid attendance was only 16,944? Was I lucky to be the only fan who was dorky/obsessive enough to be going for foul balls in the 12th inning? I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. It’s hard to make sense of it all, but I can tell you that I’m still buzzing.
• 198 balls in 28 games this season = 7.1 balls per game.
• 483 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 100 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 68 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 9 lifetime games with exactly 14 balls
• 3 lifetime games with three game balls
• 12 lifetime games with two or more game balls
• 9 consecutive seasons with at least one game in which I snagged two game balls
• 103 lifetime balls at Camden Yards
• 3 stadiums with at least 100 balls (Shea = 2,018, Yankee = 464)
• 107 lifetime game balls
• 21 lifetime game balls outside of New York (pizza foul = 20th)