QUESTION: What is Camden Yards’ nickname when the Yankees are in town?
ANSWER: “Yankee Stadium South.”
I’d witnessed the takeover on TV, but I’d never experienced it in person. Why would I have? For me, the point of driving to Baltimore is to escape the mayhem of Yankee Stadium, not to follow it. But this day wasn’t about me. It was about my Watch With Zack clients–a family of four from New Jersey: Scott (age 14), his younger brother Adam (age 12), and their parents Jeff and Enid.
In the days leading up to this game, Scott (aka “yanksfan61293”) and I had been blog-commenting back and forth to figure out the plan. Basically, he and his brother were dying to get A-Rod’s autograph, and they wanted my help, even during batting practice.
This got me worrying about two things–first, that A-Rod’s unlikely decision to sign autographs was beyond my control, and second, that I wasn’t going to get to snag a single baseball.
Fast-forward to 4:45pm on the day of the game. Camden Yards was set to open in 20 minutes, and I was worrying about something else, namely one of the BIGGEST pregame crowds I had EVER seen at ANY ballpark. I literally could not believe my eyes, and I jogged to the end of the line with Adam to take a photograph. Back in July, the crowd outside AT&T Park for the Home Run Derby might’ve been as big, but as far as regular season games are concerned (excluding Beanie Baby Day at Comiskey Park in 1998 when people started showing up with lawn chairs at 7am), I’d never experienced anything close to this.
Quick reminder about the rules at Camden: the place opens two hours early, but for the first 30 minutes, fans have to stay in the right and center field seats unless they have season tickets. We didn’t have season tickets. We had regular box office tickets, so when we ran inside, we ended up being trapped with 1,000 other fans while the half-dozen season ticket holders who bothered to show up early got to run wild and snag like maniacs across the stadium.
To make matters worse, I got brutally outsnagged within the first five minutes by a young fan from New York. His name is Brian. (If you read the comments, you’ll know him as “puckcollector.”) He’s a regular at Yankee Stadium. I knew he was going to be there. He got two balls tossed to him pretty much right away and then beat me in a battle of glove tricks for a ball that some other fans had dropped into the gap behind the outfield wall. Ouch! He put me to shame in front of my clients–but the day was young, and at least I was getting a brief opportunity to even go for balls.
Scott (who didn’t bother bringing his glove) and Adam spread out in right-center field while I tried my best to make something happen down the line in the standing-room-only section. The place was so crowded that I couldn’t stand in my usual spot where I can see the batter. Instead, I had to hang out in the middle of the section and look for the little white speck emerging from the invisible field down below–not an easy way to judge and then catch a home run. After 20 minutes of solid stress, someone sent a ball flying high in my direction, and by the time I raced back as far as I could, I realized it was going to sail 10 feet over my head, so I moved forward a few feet and turned around for the carom (just like left fielders at Fenway play balls off the Green Monster). The ball smacked off a brick pillar and shot back at me so fast that I didn’t have time to get my glove in position, and the ball deflected off my left calf and shot back through my legs. After a split-second of severe frustration, I noticed that the ball had bounced back toward me because it hit the padding at the bottom of one of the flag poles, and I reached down and lunged for it and snatched it with my bare hand amidst a mad scramble with a dozen frenzied Yankees fans. Thank GOD. My streak was alive, and I had a ball to give away in case Scott and Adam didn’t get one on their own. I hurried over to the side edge of the section and looked down into the seats below, and way off in the distance, practically drowning in the sea of fans, I saw Adam looking in my direction. I held up the ball, and he pumped his fist.
That was it for the first half-hour, and if that wasn’t tough enough, we nearly got screwed when the rest of the stadium opened five minutes early. We’d been planning to make a beeline for the left field side, but by the time we ran over there, hundreds of fans had already flowed into the seats, and the entire first row along the foul line was practically full. As for the seats behind the Yankees’ dugout? Forget about it. There was a mob of fans 10 rows deep. Thankfully, Scott and Adam were able to slip into the front row behind third base, and since there wasn’t anyone signing autographs yet, they let me wander back out to left field. I was hoping to snag a second ball so I’d have one to give to each of them, but I had no chance. It was too damn crowded!
Competition can be fun, but there was nothing fun about this. (The fun part was being at a baseball game and getting to hang out with a great family, including two baseball-obsessed kids.)
It was a lost cause in left field, so I wandered back to the foul line, and to my surprise, A-Rod actually started signing autographs for the people in our row, about 50 feet closer to home plate. I didn’t think he’d sign for more than a minute, so I ran over with Scott, and of course we couldn’t get near him. Then, when Scott returned to his original spot in the front row, someone else had taken it. The good news was that A-Rod was still signing, making his way along the front row in Adam’s direction. Meanwhile, a few other Yankees were playfully trying to distract A-Rod by throwing/rolling balls at him from the bucket in shallow center field. These balls rolled right up against the low wall in the front row, and there wasn’t a single fan who bothered to reach down and scoop them up. If I could’ve somehow squeezed in and then moved three feet to either side, I would’ve had five balls within a minute, but the wall of people was impenetrable. The only thing I could do was to climb up on a seat as Edwar Ramirez walked over, and when he picked up the first ball, I asked him for it in Spanish. Because I was so high up, he pretended he was a basketball player and that my glove was the hoop, and he flipped me the ball by way of a perfect jump shot.
A-Rod was approaching fast, and there was no way to get back into the front row. Adam was in the perfect spot. Scott and I were completely boxed out, and we watched helplessly as A-Rod walked right up to Adam…and then moved right past without signing for him. (In the pic on the right, you can see Adam in the green hat, reaching out and getting ignored by A-Rod.)
I turned to Scott and asked, “What would you most like to get signed by him?”
“My ticket,” he replied.
“Give it to me,” I said. “I’m gonna go further down the line and try to squeeze in, and hopefully he’ll make his way out there.”
Scott handed me a Sharpie and an old ticket from May 5th and seemed depressed to have missed A-Rod but amazed that I was still scheming of a way to possibly get him.
I bolted through the seats (which were so crowded that it was impossible to run straight across) and then cut back down a crowded staircase to a spot in foul territory in shallow left field. A-Rod was STILL signing, and though I wasn’t able to find a spot directly along the wall, I was able to climb over a row of chairs and stand IN the front row, directly behind the people at the wall. I tucked my backpack between my legs and braced myself for the crushing wave of humanity. A-Rod was only 15 feet away, and there was a mountain of people right in front of him, clawing and climbing on top of each other to get closer to the front. Everyone was frantic and out-of-control, and I was a bit concerned for the safety of the small woman standing directly in front of me.
“I just want to say,” I told her, “that I’m not going to push you, but I’m probably going to get pushed into you, so I apologize in advance.”
She appreciated what I said, and we waited together as The Man kept coming closer and closer, and finally, the moment arrived. I stuffed my camera into my pocket, pulled out Scott’s ticket, and uncapped the Sharpie. I was afraid that A-Rod was going to ignore ME as well, so I engaged him in conversation.
“A-Rod,” I said, “I should’ve caught your 48th home run this year, but you hit it too hard and I misjudged it.”
He looked up and mouthed one word at me. It was either “when” or “where” so I told him it was the second homer he hit during that one big inning at Yankee Stadium. He nodded and reached out for the ticket I was holding and signed it with his black Sharpie. SUCCESS!!!
I’d once gotten A-Rod to sign three autographs in one day at Yankee Stadium, way back in 1995, so it didn’t bother me to get this one on Scott’s behalf. Still, I couldn’t let it go THAT easily, not without messing with him for a bit, so I walked slowly back through the seats and pretended to be all bummed out.
“What happened?” asked Scott.
“Yeah,” he interrupted, “I figured you wouldn’t be able to get him.”
“–I was only able to get you A-Rod’s autograph once.”
I held up the signed ticket, and Scott looked like he was about to faint. I was stunned that A-Rod had signed for such a long time. Everyone was stunned, really, and we all showed our appreciation by applauding as he jogged back to the infield. The rest of batting practice was predictably frustrating. I was standing within 10 feet of two homers that normally would’ve been easy catches, but with the seats so crowded, I didn’t get to move more than five feet for either one.
After BP, the whole family convened in deep left field, and we discussed our next move. I was starving. Jeff and Enid also wanted to grab a bite, and we were all ready to head up to the seats–but I noticed that Joba Chamberlain was signing in the left field corner and working his way along the front row toward the infield. The mob of autograph seekers was nearly as intense for him as it was for A-Rod. I didn’t think there was much of a chance to get him, but hell, there wasn’t anything else to do (except not starve to death) so I zigzagged through the seats with Scott and Adam and used the same plan as before. Don’t try to penetrate the mob. Go past it, find some space, and hope he keeps signing.
Once again, I wasn’t able to make it to the very front, but I was able to stand in the front row, just behind the fans at the wall. I had to think fast…would it be better to give my spot to Adam and have his use his youth to get Joba’s attention?…or would it be better for me to stay there and use my longer arms to reach further out?
Adam wanted his glove signed on the outside of the fingers, next to a couple other pitchers’ autographs. Time was running out. I grabbed the glove and his Sharpie and reached it out as far as I could as Joba approached. Joba reached out and took it. I told him where I wanted it signed, and he did it! Of course it would’ve been better if Adam had just gotten A-Rod in the first place, but still, this wasn’t a terrible consolation prize. Scott, unfortunately, wasn’t able to get Joba, but that’s how these things go. Everyone was happy. Everyone was even (for the most part) and I still had a baseball in my backpack for each of them.
We got food. Enid treated me to a bottled water and an order of chicken tenders and fries. Adam drowned his hot dog in ketchup. I thought I was gonna puke. We all headed up to the upper deck.
The seats were–how can I put a positive spin on this–really close to the action…if you’re an astronomer. Seriously though, you know what? It was actually kinda fun to leave my glove in my bag and just focus on my food and the game and the company. One of the things that I’ve gotten to love about taking people to games is that it truly IS a new experience every time. I mean, how else would I get to watch an inning from the left field upper deck at Camden Yards? Okay, so I couldn’t see the on-deck hitters putting pine tar on their bats, but so what? The bird’s eye view was actually pretty cool.
The view from the eighth row behind the Yankees’ dugout was also pretty cool, and that’s where I sat with Scott and Adam starting in the third inning.
Tike Redman grounded out to end the third, and I was already down in the front row by the time Shelley Duncan caught Robinson Cano’s throw at first base. Duncan tossed me the ball on his way into the dugout, and in reverse Hample Jinx fashion, he ended up hitting a single and a homer, both in the top of the fourth, as the Yankees batted around and scored TEN runs.
One inning later, it was Redman’s offensive futility that once again led to our gain. This time, he grounded out to Duncan, Andy Pettitte took the throw at first base, and I stayed in “my” seat. Scott and Adam raced down to the front row. Pettitte paced off the field slowly, and just before he disappeared below the dugout roof, he flipped up the ball. There was a scramble for it between my two guys and a couple other kids, and I was thrilled to see Scott turn around with his glasses in one hand and the ball in the other. (Before I got contacts, my glasses used to get knocked off all the time, and it always annoyed me, but not as much when I ended up with the ball.)
That was Pettitte’s last batter. He left the game with an 11-9 lead, and I told Scott that if the Yankees held onto that lead, the ball he got would be the ball that made it an official game and qualified Pettitte for the win.
Scott and Adam ran down to the dugout after every inning, but the rest of the third-out balls got tossed to other sections. The Orioles scored a run in the bottom of the eighth to make it 11-10, and that’s how it ended. Pettitte picked up his 201st career win. Jose Veras notched his third career save. And even though my girlfriend has some bizarre crush on Duncan and would’ve loved to own a baseball that contained a molecule of his DNA, I gave it to Adam. That way, both he and Scott went home with a game-used ball.
• 306 balls in 38 games this season = 8.05 balls per game.
• 493 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 105 consecutive games outside New York with at least one ball
• 5 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls
• 3,267 total balls