I wasn’t planning to attend this game. I wasn’t even planning to visit
Nationals Park for a few months, but when I woke up on April
a) realized I was free all day
b) found out that my parents weren’t using their car
c) learned it was supposed to be warm and sunny in Washington, D.C.
d) saw that the previous night’s attendance was only 23,340
…I knew I had to be there. My girlfriend Jona was also free, so we went together–not exactly the most romantic getaway, but hey, we did end up spending a lot of quality time together in the car.
The gates opened five minutes late, and I was okay with that. It was still only 4:45pm–nearly two and a half hours until game time. I ran in ahead of Alex and Doug, and Jona followed me with her camera. I was so excited to be inside my 43rd major league stadium that I completely spaced out and forgot to look everywhere for potential easter eggs. Instead, I ran directly to the corner spot next to the left field bullpen, and sure enough, Alex ended up finding a ball in the flower bed between the wall and the first row of seats. Duh.
Thankfully, the people who designed this stadium never considered the fact that I’d be there someday with my glove trick. (Or maybe they DID consider it and decided to make it easy for me.) The front row behind the left field bullpen actually overhung the space down below. How perfect is that?! There was nothing (i.e., an extra flower bed or double railing) preventing me from lowering my glove, so when a Nationals righty hit a home run that landed there, I went to work. In the four-part pic below (going clockwise from the top left), you can see me lowering my glove, swinging it out to knock the ball a little closer, dropping the glove over the ball, and lifting it up:
Props to Jona for her excellent camera work, and check THIS out…Alex was able to dig up some photographs taken by a couple of construction cams mounted high inside the stadium. In the shot below, you can actually see me using the glove trick while Jona (wearing a pink jacket) leans over the railing with her camera:
“Didn’t you just get one?” he demanded.
“Yeah,” I said, “but I was really hoping to get another for my girlfriend.”
It was the only thing I could think of, and as soon as the words left my mouth, I cringed at how lame it must’ve sounded. But it worked. King nodded and flipped me the ball, and I ran over to Jona and pretended to give it to her. She didn’t care, and in fact, she was able to snag a ball on her own several minutes later. The construction cam, which according to Alex takes one photograph every ten minutes, had excellent timing. Check it out below. Jona is standing in the corner spot, holding up her arms to get the player’s attention while I’m watching proudly (and wishing I were a girl) from a few rows back:
I got my fourth ball of the day (another effin’ training ball) tossed by Luis Ayala near the left field foul pole, then quickly moved to straight-away left field when a righty started taking cuts. Less than a minute later, he launched a deep line drive right at me. I froze, then moved down one row as the ball was approaching, and reached up for the easy one-handed catch. I stuck the ball in one of my many cargo pants pockets and waited for a little break in the action so I could label it and drop it in my backpack. When I pulled it out for another look, I nearly did a double-take. It was a commemorative ball:
I wasn’t satisfied. The logo was worn. I needed another, and the snagging continued.
Another home run landed in the bullpen, and I was all over it. Another training ball. GAH!!! At least Jona was able to take more pics:
While I was coiling the string, John Lannan walked onto the warning to retrieve a couple balls. I didn’t expect anything from him because I’d just gotten one, and there was a kid with a glove right next to me (he got a ball soon after, don’t worry), and I wasn’t even wearing mine. But I still called out out to him (I was the ONLY fan who called out) and made a polite request, and he threw me the ball:
Did you see the ball? Here’s a close-up of the same pic. Note the string from my glove trick wrapped around my right hand:
Yup, another training ball. Six of my first seven were training balls. I didn’t like them, but they counted. As I mentioned in my Fenway entry after snagging four minor league balls…if they’re good enough for major league players to use, they’re good enough for my collection.
Now get THIS…when I ran over to check in with Jona at the corner spot for a moment, I happened to notice that there was a teeny gap between the flower bed and the outfield wall…and that there was a ball that had dropped into the wider space below. I ran back to the front row and leaned way out over the railing in the approximate spot where I thought the ball would be. I was five feet off and moved to my left. The gap was so thin that my glove wasn’t able to fit. This forced me to disassemble my contraption, lean out even farther, reach down past the flowers and into the gap itself, and THEN place the Sharpie inside the pocket. It wasn’t easy, and the metal railing was digging into my thighs, and I was afraid that stadium security would finally shut down my operation–but no one said a word. Alex was right next to me, cheering me on, and a few other fans were curious to see what I was up to. Getting the ball to stick inside the glove wasn’t any harder than usual. The challenge was getting it out. I had to reach even farther than before because the ball was in the tip of my glove, and I had to pull it out before removing the marker. It hurt. But I did it. And by the time the Marlins took the field for BP, I already had eight balls. I wasn’t sure how many I’d end up with, but I knew it was going to be a pretty good day. The idea of breaking double digits at my first game at a new stadium was pretty cool, and within a couple minutes, I was there.
Marlins pitcher Taylor Tankersley tossed me his ball (a genuine major league ball) when he finished throwing, and Burke Badenhop flipped me another that had rolled onto the warning track two sections to the left. Soon after that, I caught a home run on a fly (major league balls travel much farther than training balls), and before I had a chance to blink, I was racing to my left through an empty row and lunging for another home run ball. I was a split-second too late. The ball hit the end of my glove and bounced into the row below me. In New York, that would’ve been the last time I ever saw the ball. Other fans would’ve mugged me for it, but in our nation’s capital, the few other people nearby had no idea what was happening, and within a few seconds, I was clutching my 12th ball of the day.
Ball No. 13 was thrown by Marlins bullpen coordinator Pierre Arsenault (it helped that I was wearing a bright aqua-colored Marlins cap and had a cheat-sheet with faces and uniform numbers of the guys who were harder to recognize), and ball No. 14 was another homer that I caught on a fly. Nice running catch. I ranged one and a half sections to my left and made a thigh-high, one-handed grab with other fans reaching up in front of my face. In New York, that ball would’ve been deflected before it reached my glove, and in the Bay Area, it would’ve been caught by someone in the row below. There were a few other fans with gloves, but they didn’t know where to stand or how to judge fly balls. It was ball-snagging heaven, and I was seriously considering what it would take to break my one-day record of 21 balls. I’m not talking about simple arithmetic. I know how to add. I was considering all the remaining opportunities and limitations and the likelihood of actually making it happen. At the very least, I figured I had a chance to break a more random personal record: most balls at my first game at a new stadium. I had snagged 17 balls at my first and only game at Miller Park back in 2003, and I thought it’d be cool to surpass that total.
I got a major boost in my quest for THE record when two consecutive home runs landed in the bullpen and rolled to the perfect spot for my glove trick. Here I am about to reel in the first one:
That gave me sixteen balls for the day, and five minutes later, I tied my Miller Park total by getting Renyel Pinto to toss me a ball. (It helped that I asked him in Spanish.)
At this point, I knew I’d get at least one more ball. But five more? One after BP at the Marlins’ dugout? One during pre-game throwing? A third-out ball from each dugout during the game? And a ball from the umpire after the final out? It seemed possible. But where did the umps even exit the field? I had a lot of work to do.
BP was almost done, so I cut through the seats and headed to the third base dugout. Security didn’t stop me, and even if they had, I had every right to be there and that felt good. And there was no competition. A father and his teenage son were standing in the front row, just to my left, but they were holding Sharpies, not wearing gloves, so I knew they were only interested in autographs. It was too good to be true, and then it got better. The Marlins players and coaches gathered up all the balls, but all the guys didn’t walk back to the dugout at the same time. Paul Hoover, the back-up catcher, was one of the first to walk back, and he flipped me my 18th ball. First base coach Andy Fox hadn’t seen this, so when he returned to the dugout 30 seconds later, I got him to toss me No. 19. Less than a minute after that, third base coach Bo Porter headed my way with a ball in his back pocket, and Jona took a pic as he was just about to under-hand it to me. OH…MY…GOD. In the pic on the left, you can see several balls bulging through my pockets. I’d snagged so many in such a short amount of time that I didn’t have a chance to label them until the last Marlin was off the field.
“Please,” I begged, “just five more seconds. I’ll be out of your way, and you’ll never see me again.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t let you do it. They’re watching you right now, and we’ll both get in trouble.”
I was beyond frustrated. Why did this have to happen now?! After having been allowed to lower my glove into the bullpen while the Marlins’ players and coaches were standing 20 feet away, why was I being stopped from snagging a ball in such a harmless location? It didn’t make any sense, but hey, that’s stadium security for you. I suspected the rules at Nationals Park were being invented on the spot, but I couldn’t argue.
Several Marlins began throwing in shallow left field, so I ran over. Hoover was one of them. He ended up with the ball. I didn’t bother asking for it. I knew he would’ve remembered me from the dugout.
I ran around to the other side of the stadium and worked my way down to the front row behind the Nationals’ dugout. Nick Johnson was on the top step, standing next to a bag of balls. I asked him if he could toss one to me. He turned around, spotted my glove and Nationals cap, and held up an index finger as if to say, “Hold on.” Then, as he jogged onto the field to play catch, an usher walked down the steps and told everyone in the front row that we had to return to our seats. I stepped aside and let the other fans out, then walked over to the usher and said, “Listen, I know I have to leave this section, but I think Nick Johnson just promised me a ball. Is there any ch–”
“I saw that too,” he said. “You just wait right here until he’s done and get your ball. Good luck.”
Was I dreaming?! I’ve been in that situation a hundred times, and the ushers never budge. If anything, they’ll act snotty and claim that the players don’t give away balls and threaten to call their supervisors. Major kudos to the Nationals front office for hiring friendly employees and encouraging them not to be so strict. (Shame on the Mets and Yankees for doing just the opposite.)
Anyway, I waited in the front row, and as Johnson was finishing his throwing, he made sure he ended up with the ball, and he threw it to me on the way in. That was my 21st ball of the day. Just one more to break my record. It all seemed so easy. I wondered why I didn’t snag 20 balls at every game. (Oh yeah, Shea and Yankee Stadiums are the worst.)
Several Marlins began throwing in front of the third base dugout, and I raced over. I had the hat. I knew their names. I asked politely. There wasn’t any competition. It couldn’t have been any easier, and Jeremy Hermida tossed me my record-breaking 22nd ball of the day. Jona was in her actual seat two rows behind me (how convenient) and took another pic.
The game was underway, and I said goodbye to Jona…only temporarily. The Nationals were on the field first so it wasn’t gonna do me much good to wait behind the Marlins’ dugout. Back I ran to the first base side. At this point, the ushers were checking tickets at the top of the stairs so I waited for a large group to head down to their seats and slipped in behind them. I picked an empty seat on the end of a row behind the outfield end of the dugout. No point in going to the home plate side with Odalis Perez–not exactly a strikeout pitcher–on the mound. The odds of catcher Paul Lo Duca ending up with the inning-ending ball were slim. The odds that one of the Marlins would put it in play were much better, and I was hoping for a ground ball. First base was directly in front of me, as was a gap in the protective netting/railing in front of the dugout where Johnson would surely run off the field. Would he recognize me after having just tossed me a ball 10 minutes earlier? I didn’t think so, and I was right. With two outs, Josh Willingham hit a weak grounder to shortstop Christian Guzman who fired it over to first base. Johnson took the ball back to the dugout and flipped it right to me. HA!! I had my 23rd ball, and it was commemorative…still not as nice as I’d hoped…Johnson must’ve switched balls and tossed up the infield warm-up ball instead…but whatever. I’d just have to snag another and add to my record.
I ran back to the Marlins’ dugout and found Jona in the 3rd row. I showed her the ball. She just laughed.
Willingham ended up catching the final out of the inning–a fly ball to left field by Ryan Zimmerman–and he tossed it to the fans behind the outfield end of the dugout. Blah. I ran back to the Nationals’ side and snuck down the steps behind the middle of the dugout. The usher on the outfield side had scolded me when I caught the ball after the top of the first…gave me some B.S. about how I wasn’t allowed to be in the first row…and I didn’t want her seeing me again. Also, if Johnson ended up with another inning-ending ball, I knew he wouldn’t throw it to the same spot. Mike Jacobs led off the 2nd inning with a groundout to Johnson and Jorge Cantu followed by striking out. Good. The whiff was out of the way. Cody Ross then took a called first strike and jumped on the second pitch, sending a fairly deep fly ball to Lastings Milledge in center field. By the time Milledge caught the ball, I was standing in the front row, and by the time he crossed the foul line, I was waving my arms and shouting his name. No one else was standing or waving or shouting. He had no choice but to throw it to me. The ball sailed high. I jumped and made a backhand catch. Wooo! Ball number twenty-four! I didn’t even look at it until I reached the concourse. It was commemorative, of course, but still not perfect. The logo wasn’t worn, but the ball was particularly dirty.
I ran back and found Jona and waited for the next three outs. Johnson led off the bottom of the second with a single, and Austin Kearns bounced into a double play. Lo Duca then flied out to Ross in center…and the ball was once again thrown into the crowd at the far end of the dugout. I knew I’d get one there eventually, but it was frustrating to wait. I also knew I wasn’t exactly going to be welcomed back to the seats behind the Nats’ dugout, so I tried something else. Remember the ball in the gap that I tried to get with my glove trick after batting practice? Yeah. I back ran out there. Just in case it was somehow still there, in case there was a different security guard, in case…I don’t even know. I just had to take a look. By the third inning, however, the ushers in that section were checking tickets, so I asked one of them if he’d let me walk down between innings and take a picture.
“Between innings,” he said firmly and told me to wait in the concourse. (It’s a good thing he didn’t ask to see my camera; I’d left it in my backpack with Jona at our seats.) The top of the third seemed to last forever. There was an error, a stolen base, 22 pitches thrown…and I was really getting antsy. Finally, the third out was recorded. Showtime. I walked back to the usher, and he gave me a nod. I headed all the way down to the front row and asked a couple fans if I could squeeze past them.
“Still trying to get it?” asked one of them.
“Trying is not the word,” I said.
The rubber band was already on my glove. I wedged the Sharpie into place. I knew I only had one shot. There WAS a different security guard manning the section about a dozen rows back, but I knew he’d be all over me in no time. Phew. Deep breath. I lowered the glove quickly but carefully, dropped it right over the ball, jiggled it a couple times to make sure the rubber band had stretched around my prize, and began lifting it back up. The ball was in the glove…then in my right hand…then in my right pants pocket…and then I was being scolded bigtime by the usher who seemed offended that I had lied to him, and he gave me this whole rant about how I couldn’t be trusted, and if he ever saw me again, he wasn’t going to let me back down into his precious section (which was located eight miles from home plate). I waited for him to finish and then flew back to Jona with a loving death-grip (if there IS such a thing) on my 25th ball of the day. It was great to share the excitement with her, and to have such a nice seat waiting for me where I could catch my breath.
Like I said before, it all seemed so easy, yet I knew I was in the process of doing something VERY special. On the one hand, I half-expected to snag another 20-something balls at my next game, but at the same time, I was constantly reminding myself that I might never have another game like this in my life. Basically, I forced myself not to take it for granted so I’d stop and think about each moment and let it all sink in.
Ronnie Belliard led off the bottom of the third with a homer to left field, and I didn’t even see it because I was busy racing back to the dugout through the concourse. Felipe Lopez then reached on an infield single to second, and I think I missed that too. I don’t know. I can’t remember, and I don’t care. Perez followed by bunting into a fielder’s choice, Guzman popped out to Uggla, and Milledge struck out swinging to end the inning. Marlins catcher Matt Treanor took the ball back toward the dugout. I shouted my brains out and got him to toss it to me. Unreal. Another commemorative ball…essentially flawless…my 26th ball of the day. And that’s when things slowed way down for me. I went back to the Nationals’ dugout the next inning, and I got kicked out by the ushers. No surprise there, and no harm done, really, but it meant I couldn’t go back for the rest of the game. I felt like I still might’ve been able to get an inning-ending strikeout ball from Lo Duca (if he ever stopped rolling them back to the mound), but I couldn’t take a chance by showing my face there again.
I stayed with Jona and watched the next five innings with her, rooting for the Marlins all the way. If the Nationals won the game, I wouldn’t have been able to go to their dugout, and although I never did find out where the umps were going to exit the field, I suspected they’d be doing so at the home plate end of the third base dugout. Except for the placement of the bullpens, Nationals Park was a near clone of Citizens Bank Park, and in Philly, that’s where the umps exited. Nationals Park had a little tunnel there, blocked by a small gate that was clearly designed to swing open. It had to be. And if the Marlins won the game, I knew I’d have a chance to snag two more balls: one from the home plate ump as he walked off the field and another from the Marlins themselves as they walked back to the dugout.
Finally, in the top of the sixth, the Marlins scored two runs to take a 2-1 lead. They added an insurance run in the eighth, and by the time they made the third out, I was sneaking down the steps toward their bullpen. Taylor Tankersley stepped out of the ‘pen and played catch with Willingham in left, and when he returned with the ball, I asked him for it. “Y’already got one!” he shouted, and that was that.
The Nationals scored once in the bottom of the eighth to make it 3-2, and the Marlins regained their two-run cushion in the ninth. Once again, I tried to get a ball between innings at the bullpen, and I was denied, this time by Matt Lindstrom who recognized me and tossed the ball to someone else.
The bottom of the ninth had arrived. Marlins closer Kevin Gregg came in (with his lifetime 4.12 ERA) to hold the lead, and I made my way back to the third base dugout and somehow managed not to bite my nails. Milledge led off with a double, Zimmerman flied out, and Johnson hit a double of his own to trim the Marlins’ lead to 4-3. Kearns was then hit by a pitch and I nearly had a heart attack. Runners on first and second…TYING RUN on second…one out…not good. And then Lo Duca, bless his soul, grounded into a game-ending double play. I bolted down the steps and worked my way to the far right side of the dugout and shouted at “Mister Welke” (Tim, not Bill) as he walked in my direction. He reached into his pouch, grabbed a ball, and tossed it to me from about five feet away before disappearing under the seats. Moments later, the entire Marlins team was out on the field, exchanging high-fives (and undoubtedly patting each other on the buttocks):
Who had the game-ending ball? It had to be in someone’s glove. Did Wes Helms have it? He’d taken over for Mike Jacobs at first base. No, probably not. The guy who catches the final out almost always hands it to the pitcher. I had to look for Gregg, and I had to spot him fast. Pretty soon, there’d be 15 cookie-cutter white guys all walking toward me at once. Thankfully, I knew that Gregg is 6-foot-6 so I paid close attention to the taller guys and spotted him just in time. I shouted his name. He looked up and tossed me the ball…my 28th of the day!
• 60 balls in 5 games this season = 12 balls per game.
• 501 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 3,015 balls since the streak began (the ball from Arsenault was No. 3,000)
• 109 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 774 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 2 lifetime games with at least 20 balls
• 43 major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 3,337 total balls…moves me ahead of Eddie Collins (3,315) and Paul Molitor (3,319) and into 9th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Honus Wagner (3,415). (If you’re wondering why I’m comparing balls to hits, click here.)
• 5,795 words in this blog entry
• 8 days until I’ll be at Champion Stadium
• 1 more pic of my 28 balls…