Well, I met a “cool mom” named Gail at Shea, and not surprisingly, her 13-year-old son named Clif (short for Clifton) was awesome. They were my Watch With Zack clients for the day, and the fun started even before the stadium opened.
I’d brought a ball so Clif and I could play catch, and from the moment he reached out and gloved my first throw, I could tell he was athletic. I mean really athletic–the kind of athleticism where it didn’t take him a shred of effort to catch anything I fired his way. I knew he’d have no problem snagging baseballs during batting practice.
When we finished throwing, Gail had a surprise for me. Not only did she give me one of her three season tickets, but she also handed over a ticket for the left field bleachers!
The bleachers are part of the picnic area, which is closed to the rest of the stadium and normally reserved for groups of 100 or more. There HAVE been games when the section opened to the general public, but there was always one issue or another that kept me away. A few years ago, when the section was called the “Pepsi Picnic Area,” the first 800 fans who showed up with an empty Pepsi can or bottle could get in for free–on Wednesdays only. Of course there was a mob every week and the section didn’t open as early as the rest of the stadium. This season, there’d been a few opportunities to buy individual tickets for the picnic area, but the Mets found a way to make it difficult. You had to join some web site and get a password and register for the tickets and then pick them up in person on the day of the game at the same time that the gates would be opening and blah blah. The point is…I’d NEVER been in the picnic area before so this was a dream come true. Just look at this glorious section:
By the time I ran into the bleachers and took this photo, I’d already snagged my first ball. There’d been a Shea employee standing around behind the bleachers with a ball in his hand, and before I ran up the steps, I asked him if I could have it and he tossed it to me. Did Clif want the ball? No.
To say the least, he’s a big fan of my baseball collection. While he wanted to snag as many balls as possible and try to break his one-day record of three, he didn’t want to do anything that would interfere with my snagging. In fact, he wanted me to have a huge day. He wanted to see me in action, and he wanted to witness a milestone. I started the day with 290 balls for the season. He was hoping I’d snag 10 more to reach 300.
“I’ve only snagged three hundred in a season twice before,” I told him. “I did it–“
“I know,” he interrupted. “You did it in 2004 when you got exactly 300 at your last game of the season, and then you did it again in 2005.”
He said he’d read every one of my blog entries “at least three times” as well as everything on my web site. At one point, when his mom asked me where I grew up, Clif shouted “Manhattan” and quickly apologized (unnecessarily) for answering for me. Later on, when I told him I’d gotten the lineup cards the previous night and made a comment about how tough it is to get them in New York, he reminded me that I’d gotten the lineup cards at Yankee Stadium on the day I snagged my 3,000th ball. And then, just for the hell of it, he told me that I’d also gotten the lineup cards in 2005 in Cincinnati from Felipe Alou on the day that Randy Winn hit for the cycle…and that I got them two days later in Houston from Dusty Baker…and that my record-breaking 20th ball of the day at Chase Field was tossed by Tony Clark…and that when I got No. 21 soon after, the home plate umpire rolled it to me without looking up.
I didn’t feel stalked. I wasn’t scared. I didn’t think it was weird or creepy that he’d memorized so much stuff about me. I can only say that I was flattered.
I quickly snagged my second ball by getting Mike Pelfrey to toss one up, and moments later, Clif (aka “goislanders” to those who read the comments on this blog) found a ball sitting in the aisle of the center-field end of the bleachers. For the first 10 minutes, we had the picnic area to ourselves, so when a homer ended up flying down the staircase and bouncing all the way across the picnic area to the edge of the Citi Field construction site, I was able to chase it and pick it up without any competition. Was I dreaming? This wasn’t just better than anything I’d experienced at Shea; it was better than anything I’d experienced anywhere.
Gail was still hanging out in the main portion of the stadium, capturing our every move with her digital camera. CLICK HERE to watch a 10-second video in which we’re both going for balls. You’ll hear her reaction as Clif gets his second ball tossed by Willie Collazo, and at the very end, you’ll see me on the right side using my glove trick to knock (what ended up being) my fourth ball closer to the outfield wall.
After several fans had made their way into the bleachers, Clif spotted a ball in the gap behind the outfield wall, and I stood beside him as he set up his glove trick. The ball was half-buried in the weeds, and it was almost too far out for him to reach, but he managed to knock it a couple inches closer, and when he did, we were both disappointed to discover that it was a fake ball. Clif only saw a fraction of the logo, but he instantly recognized it from an entry I’d written two years earlier and knew that it said “Donated by The New York Mets Foundation.” I’d found a few of those balls at Shea and decided not to count them, so Clif didn’t even bother going for it. He just reeled in his glove, and we kept running around.
Aaron Sele tossed me my fifth ball, and Clif tied his record by getting #3 from a cameraman. I ran over and gave him a high five. Gail, by that point, had made her way into the bleachers, but she’d just missed getting a picture of the celebratory moment so we reenacted it.
Clif deserved the next ball, but in a bizarre (and split-second) turn of events, I ended up being the one who snagged it. We were standing on opposite sides of a fenced-off railing when Clif happened to spot a ball sitting in the front row on my side.
“Hey, there’s a ball there,” he said, and without thinking, I looked down and picked it up.
“Did you drop one of your balls?” I asked.
He checked his backpack and counted all three of the ones he’d snagged.
“No,” he said. “Did you drop one of YOURS?”
I looked inside my bag. I had all five.
Turns out it was just a random ball that had been sitting there all along, and no one had seen it. We then had a long discussion about who deserved it. Each one of us wanted the other person to have it, but Clif insisted, and Gail took his side.
“He wants you to have the ball,” she said.
I numbered it and stuck it in my bag and felt completely guilty, but Clif seemed to be excited that I was now just four balls away from 300. Thankfully, the day was still young, and when the Nationals took the field, he broke his record by getting a ball tossed to him by Winston Abreu. Then, within a matter of minutes, he added to the record when the 6-foot-11 Jon Rauch saw his Nationals cap and threw him ball #5.
That’s when I went on a tear, kicked off with a “ridiculous catch” according to fellow author and MLBlogger Zoë Rice, who posted a pic of us and described a little more of the action in this entry on her blog. Basically, what happened is that a right-handed hitter on the Nationals–no idea who–pulled a long fly ball that was clearly going to fall short of the bleachers. I knew it had a chance to hit the warning track and bounce in, so I raced to my right through the wide aisle, and sure enough, the ball skipped up over the wall. As the ball was about to land in the benches, my path got blocked by a slanted railing, so I stopped short and reached out as far as I possibly could and made the backhand catch. I reached so far (and hadn’t quite stopped my momentum) that I began to topple over the railing headfirst. I braced my fall with my glove and dangled over the railing for a good two seconds before I felt someone grab my feet and help me back up.
Five minutes later, I raced to the far end of the bleachers and asked Nook Logan for a ball as he was about to toss it to another fan. That other fan happened to be Gail, and after Nook gave it to her, he noticed that I was wearing a Nationals cap, so he said, “I got you, Dawg,” and quickly got another ball for me. (The Nationals were using those awful/cheap training balls.) Nook ended up tossing one to Clif as well, and just like that, my snagging accomplice had doubled his one-game record.
After I got my ninth ball of the day–and 299th ball of the season–thrown by Joel Hanrahan, Clif and I saw another ball land in the gap. He knew it was going to be #300 so he wanted me to go for it. Even the security guards wanted me to go for it, if you can believe it, because a few of them had heard about my glove trick but hadn’t yet gotten to see it in action. Down the steps I went. I set up the rubber band and then the Sharpie. I let out some string to make sure it wasn’t tangled and lowered my glove for the easy snag. Then I used the trick again to grab the “Foundation” ball, and I gave it to the security supervisor so she could give it to a kid. Just before I was about to head up the steps, I happened to notice that there was ANOTHER ball, sitting in the aisle right next to me, tucked slightly behind a large plastic garbage can. So I picked it up. And that was my 11th ball of the day. Crazy stuff.
The whole section was buzzing about me. The security guards were in awe. The fans recognized me from TV. No one was annoyed that I’d snagged so many balls. There had been plenty of others to go around. The few kids out there had all gotten balls on their own, and some of the grown-ups had caught balls as well. Everyone was happy. It was a snagging love-fest.
Toward the end of BP, Gail and I were standing next to each other in the aisle when another Nationals righty connected on a deeeeeeep fly ball. The ball was heading about 50 feet to my right, and I knew it had enough distance. All I had to do was start running and make sure that I didn’t bump into the few gloveless fans standing in my way. I kept running and looked up at the ball. I kept running and looked <back down to make sure my path was clear. I kept running and looked back up, and before I knew it, I’d reached the end of the aisle and ball was coming in fast. I reached over my head and felt the ball smack the pocket of my glove, and I when I looked back down again, Clif was standing five feet in front of me.
“Whoa!” he yelled. “I didn’t even see it coming!”
Throughout the day, Clif hadn’t accepted a single baseball from me and even backed off at times so I could snag a few extra. When I offered him the home run ball, he just said, “You keep it.”
“C’mon,” I said, “You NEED to have an official Zack Hample snagged ball in your collection. Take it.”
Finally, he accepted the ball and it felt great–for both of us, I’m sure–when I handed it over. (Gail ended up snagging a second ball and joked that she let me have the home run. At least I hope she was joking.)
After BP, we wandered out behind the bleachers and took a bunch of pics. Here’s Clif with the six balls he snagged on his own:
(Damn I’m sweaty.) Here he is with all the balls:
Here are a few shots of the area behind and underneath the bleachers:
Here are a few photos of the construction of Citi Field:
Here’s a sneak peek through a fence behind the batter’s eye:
And here’s a shot of the visitors’ bullpen that I took by reaching over an eight-foot wall:
Most of the newer ballparks have been designed to let fans watch the pitchers warning up. For example, there’s a concourse right above the double-decked bullpens in Philadelphia, a screened viewing area just behind the bullpens in Seattle, and bleacher seats surrounding the bullpens in St. Louis. At AT&T Park and several other venues, the bullpens are nothing more than benches on the field down the foul lines. Does it cause any harm to have the players and fans sitting so close together? Did I cause any harm by reaching over that stupid fence with my camera? Umm, no, but because it was Shea Stadium, I got scolded by a security guard.
Clif and Gail and I got some bottled water, then some ice cream, and finally headed up to their regular seats in the Mezzanine. Nice view. And here’s my Watching Baseball Smarter tip of the day. If you click the pic to make it bigger, you’ll notice that neither base coach is standing in his respective coaching box. In theory, there should be some type of penalty for that, but the rule is never enforced. The first base coach is standing on the outfield side of the box to give himself extra time to get out of the way of a line drive. The third base coach is literally risking his life by standing on the home-plate side of the box so that he’ll be in a better position to give signs if the runner on second ends up rounding third on a potential run-scoring base hit.
After the first inning, Clif wanted to go for foul balls one level down in the Loge, and Gail had no problem with that. She stayed in her seat while Clif and I ran around and did our thing.
The bad news for Clif is that I ended up being the one who got the foul ball. The good news for Clif is that he got a great view of my snag because he was standing right next to me. I swear I had no intention of catching it. I’d been planning to step aside and let him go for any foul ball that came our way, but here’s what happened. It was the bottom of the second inning, Shawn Green was at bat, and we were camped out in a tunnel on the third-base side of home plate. Green worked the count full, and I told Clif to pay extra close attention because three balls/two strikes is a good foul ball count. Green ended up hitting seven consecutive foul balls, and the third one shot back straight over our heads. The tricky part about playing foul balls in the Loge is that when a ball goes over your head, you have to make a split-second decision. Move forward and look for the ricochet off the facade of the press level up above? Or move back for the catch in case it barely falls short of the facade and continues on its path? I’ve been up in the Loge for hundreds of games, and I still make mistakes, especially on high pop-ups that may or may not clip the facade on their way down. Those are tough. If Shea were going to be around for another 40-something years (God forbid), I still don’t think I’d ever master those. But I’ve gotten pretty good at judging the balls that fly straight back. Clif thought the ball was going to fall short so he moved back, and when he did, I knew he’d just cost himself a chance to catch it so I took a couple quick steps forward to the top of the tunnel, then turned around and looked up as the ball smacked the facade and bounced five feet over Clif’s head and into my glove. Everyone oohed and ahhed and gave me high fives for the “great catch” that I’d made. Clif and I secretly made fun of them because we both knew it was about as easy as it gets. The only tough thing about it, as I mentioned, was judging the ball off the bat. I offered the ball to Clif. He didn’t take it. Instead he texted his parents and told them what had happened.
After the sixth inning, Clif and I went back up to the Mezzanine and got his mom. Then we all headed downstairs, snuck into the Field Level, and watched the rest of the game from the seats right behind the Nationals’ dugout. (Take THAT, Shea Stadium security.)
The Nationals, already winning, 8-3, after seven innings, scored a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to open a seven-run lead. The Mets sent 10 men to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and scored six runs and got Endy Chavez over to third base–but the rally fell 90 feet short.
Final score: Nationals 10, Mets 9.
Most of the fans had left before the ninth inning, but the few thousand that remained made enough noise to fill the cavernous-yet-cramped stadium. At one point, when the scoreboard indicated that the Braves had beaten the second-place Phillies, everyone started doing the Tomahawk Chop. That was pretty cool, and I briefly took off my Nationals cap to join the celebration. Anyway, the Mets’ comeback wasn’t meant to be, but it turned out for the best. Since I’d gotten the lineup cards the night before and knew exactly when and where and how and who to ask for them, I was able to position Clif at just the right staircase so he’d have the best shot at getting them. Once the final out was made, we rushed down to the front row, and I told him to yell at manager Manny Acta.
“Manny!!” shouted Clif, waiting for a reply. “Manny!!”
Manny didn’t look up, and I wasn’t surprised. Everyone was yelling his name for different reasons. Some people wanted a ball. Some people wanted photos. Some people wanted autographs. Some people probably wanted his phone number. Simply shouting his name wasn’t specific enough to make him look up. I knew he could hear us, and I knew he needed to hear the entire request all at once. My only fear was that he’d remember me from the previous day, but I had to go for it before he disappeared back into the dugout.
“Manny!” I yelled. “Can we get the lineup cards for this kid right here?!”
Manny looked up and saw that we were both wearing Nationals caps, so he pulled the cards out of his back pocket and slid them across the dugout roof. I grabbed them before any other fans had a chance to reach in, and I handed them to Clif.
Oh, and by the way, Clif also got the ball that had been used to make the final out of the game. Austin Kearns, who had caught Paul Lo Duca’s fly ball in right field, tossed it to him on the way in.
What an outstanding day. I’ve always wished I had a little brother, and for a few hours, it felt as if I did.
• 303 balls in 37 games this season = 8.19 balls per game.
• 492 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 320 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball
• 111 lifetime game balls (107 foul balls, 3 home runs, 1 ground-rule double)
• 17th time snagging a game ball in back-to-back games
• 73 lifetime games with at least 10 balls.