Major League Baseball at a Spring Training ballpark…really, does it get any better than that?
In case you haven’t heard (or if you’re reading this ten years from now and don’t remember), the Tampa Bay Rays moved three of their regular season home games from ugly/indoor Tropicana Field to beautiful/outdoor Champion Stadium, located in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. The stadium holds about 9,500 people. It normally functions as the Spring Training home of the Atlanta Braves. I don’t count Spring Training balls in my collection, but I decided that if the games and stats count in the Major Leagues, then the balls should count for me.
This was my first of the three games. The first pitch was scheduled for 7:10pm, so naturally I arrived at the complex shortly after 12pm:
…and when I walked up the stairs way in the background in the photo above, I noticed that one of the gates was wide open. What to do…hmm. I figured that since I already had a ticket for the game, I couldn’t be arrested for sneaking in. Yes…I’d just play dumb and say I was from New York…no, bad idea…I don’t know. I just had to wander inside and take a peek…just a little peek at the concourse:
and decided it wouldn’t cause any harm if I took a little peek at that as well:
That’s when a group of stadium employees walked over…and smiled at me…and asked if I wanted them to take my picture. Seriously?! I felt pretty safe after that, so I kept wandering and I inspected the grassy area (aka the “berm”) from several angles:
I couldn’t WAIT for batting practice to start, but I was also afraid that it’d get pretty crowded out there. Anyway, there was still more wandering to do, so I checked out the upper deck…
…and the view from the inner concourse on the lower level…
…and the drool-inducing, open-air concourse along the right field foul line:
I didn’t know where else to go at that point. I considered running onto the field and making naked snow-angels at shortstop (I guess those would’ve been “dirt-angels”) but thought that might be pushing it, so I just grabbed some bench and watched the b
atting cage get towed into place:
Then the groundskeepers started watering the infield dirt and players started walking in. Can you identify the two guys in the pic below?
I could’ve easily run down to the front row and asked them to sign, but it didn’t seem right. I wasn’t even supposed to be there, and since I’m more interested in getting baseballs than autographs, I decided it wasn’t worth it. I was just thrilled to BE there:
I voluntarily walked out of the stadium at around 2pm, and soon after that, I ran into a guy from San Diego named Leigh (aka “padreleigh” for those of you who read the comments) who had told me he was gonna be there. We’d been emailing for months. He was actually the one who first informed me that the tickets for this series were on sale…and this was the first time we’d ever met in person. Very cool guy. It was great to have an instant new friend.
The stadium didn’t open until 5pm (ugh!), by which time there was a disappointingly long line of fans waiting to get in:
At least I was one of the first fans to run inside and THE first fan to reach the berm. Look what was waiting for me:
Less than ten seconds later, B.J. Upton smoked a line drive over the left field wall and I picked up that ball too. Not a bad way to start, but then the berm started filling up.
Before long the berm was packed, and to make matters worse, the Rays and Jays weren’t hitting much over the wall, so I had to use other methods…like the glove trick. I used it to pluck a ball out of the bullpen near the foul pole, and as soon as I held it up to show Leigh (who was at the far end of the berm), a security guard marched down the hill and said, “Give me the ball.”
I had no choice but to hand it over.
“Thank you,” he said condescendingly before flinging it back into the bullpen.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to count this ball in my collection, so I consulted Leigh (who’s snagged about 700 lifetime balls). He felt I should absolutely count it. “You had it in your hand,” he said, then added that when you go fishing and catch a fish and throw it back, it still counts. So I counted it.
Back in my early days of ball-snagging, I only counted balls that I actually brought home, but once I started giving away balls on a regular basis, I decided that the number of “balls snagged” was more important than “balls owned.”
I got my fourth ball of the day when some pitcher lobbed one high into the air toward a bunch of us on the berm. We all jostled and jumped and booted it. The ball plopped onto the grass beside me and I snatched it. Pretty simple. I have no idea who the pitcher was because the left field wall was a foot too high. This was my view when I stood directly behind it:
Not only was it a challenge to identify the players, but it was just as hard to get their attention when they walked onto the warning track. I got my fifth ball thrown from a distance by Scott Downs–that was easy–but then when Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg walked over to retrieve a loose ball, I had to jump up and put my right arm on the top of the wall and support all my weight with it while keeping my head above the top of the wall and reaching out with my glove hand. The padding sagged and the tips of the chain-link fence dug into my forearm. Not fun. But at least I got the ball, and thankfully security didn’t confiscate it although a different guard walked down the hill and told me not to climb up there. (Well then don’t build a seven-foot wall that fans are obviously gonna want to see over, geniuses.)
I was getting baseballs…that was good…but I still hadn’t caught a home run. It was tough. The berm was steep and the
grass was slick, and there were fans all over the place, including a bunch of guys my age/size with gloves. At one point, when a homer was coming right toward me and I tried to take a step back, someone pushed me forward. And whenever a ball was heading for the berm 20 or 30 or 50 feet away, there were already people right there. It was not a good situation and things took a sudden turn for the worse toward the end of BP. Another home run was coming right toward me, and as I reached up to make what should’ve been an easy catch, some jerk cut in front of me and stuck up his glove at the last second and deflected the ball right into my nose. CRACK!!! I heard the scary sound of the ball meeting my face, and I nearly fell over from the sheer surprise of getting hit. Blood started dripping out of my right nostril, and everyone gathered around. My first thought was, “[Expletive deleted], I hope it’s not broken.” My second thought was, “This is really [expletive deleted] embarrassing. People are going to think that *I* missed the [expletive deleted] ball and let it hit me. My third thought was, “[Expletive deleted] this, I don’t want to miss any BP,” so when the same guard who’d scolded me walked back down the hill and asked me if I wanted to go to the first aid room, I wiped the blood away and said I’d wait until the end of batting practice.
Jeremy Accardo saw what had happened and got my attention and threw me a ball (my 7th of the day), and as soon as I caught it, some guy behind me started claiming that the ball had been intended for a little girl with a glove directly behind me (soooooo not true) but whatever. She hadn’t yet gotten a ball, so I gave it to her.
BP ended moments later. Leigh caught up with me as I was escorted to the first-aid room and told me my nose was already looking bad. (Thanks.) I got some gauze and held it against my nose until the bleeding stopped, then got a cold pack and held it there for the next 20 minutes, during which I probably cursed about 813 times. I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and my nose did indeed look bad. (I had been told that in addition to possibly having a broken nose, I might wake up the next day with two black eyes. Thankfully that didn’t happen; the dark circles I now have under my eyes are merely the result of exhaustion.)
I got a buffalo chicken sandwich (with ranch dressing). My nose hurt when I chewed. I stopped eating and realized it still hurt, so I kept eating.
I finished the sandwich just before the singing of the national anthems and went down to the Rays’ dugout on the 1st base side. A few guys were playing catch. Jason Bartlett ended up with the ball just in front of me, and when I asked him for it, he scanned the entire front row for someone younger/cuter to toss it to, then reluctantly flipped it to me after he failed to spot a more deserving recipient. Meanwhile, the competition for a warm-up ball on the other side of the stadium was truly insane:
Okay, so there were only 8,269 fans at this game, but since the stadium only holds 9,500…well, let’s do the math. It means the stadium was 87 percent full. If Shea Stadium were 87 percent full, there’d be about 48,000 fans, and that’s what this felt like. The point is…it wasn’t nearly as easy to snag at Champion Stadium as I’d hoped. In fact, it was harder to snag here than at most major league stadiums which are huge and have nooks and crannies and which provide a variety of opportunities. This place? As far as BP was concerned, it was boring and crowded and challenging.
The game, however, was much better. I went back to the concourse on the right field side:
David Eckstein was first batter of the game, and on the fifth pitch from Rays starter James Shields, the little man sliced a foul ball about 30 feet to my left. I raced over, got right behind it, watched it skip off the bare hands of a man just in front of me, and bounce into my waiting glove. Mwahaha. I suddenly felt a whole lot better about life, although I was bummed that the ball was not commemorative. Wouldn’t it have been cool if there was a little Mickey Mouse in place of the standard MLB logo? Oh well.
It might’ve happened in the bottom of the first inning, or maybe it was the top of the second, but regardless, some right-handed batter hit a foul ball that cleared the grandstand behind the plate and flew out of the stadium. As soon as I saw this, I headed out there myself (thumbs-up to Disney and the Rays for having a re-entry policy) and tried going for foul balls, but it wasn’t meant to be. First of all, the game wasn’t on the radio so I couldn’t follow the action on the walkman (yes, a walkman, don’t laugh too hard) that I’d borrowed from someone who shall remain nameless, and on top of that, I couldn’t even hear the public address announcer saying the hitters’ names, so I didn’t know if there were righties or lefties up at bat. I got bored really fast and headed back inside to the right field concourse.
Leigh wandered over (from his spot on the berm) and hung out with me for an inning, and we re-enacted my injury:
That, unfortunately, was the extent of the action for the rest of the game. I couldn’t believe how few foul balls were hit to the right side, but at least I broke double digits by getting a ball at the Rays’ dugout after the game. (Oh yeah, the Rays won, 6-4.) I think it was tossed by J.P. Howell but I’m not sure.
I’ll be heading back to Champion Stadium in about an hour…
• 10 balls at this game
• 77 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 70 balls in 6 games this season = 11.7 balls per game.
• 502 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 110 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 784 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 22 lifetime game balls outside of New York (not counting game-used balls that are thrown into the seats)
• 113 lifetime game balls
• 4 lifetime trips to the First Aid room
• 44 major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 17 stadiums with at least one game ball
• 3,347 total balls