The story of the day was Ken Griffey Jr.’s 600th career home run. He hit it. I didn’t catch it. I was five feet away from it. It hurts. A lot.
After missing out on SUCH an important ball, I literally didn’t know what to do with myself. It felt pointless to go back to chasing foul balls, and right now I’d rather not be spending any mental energy writing about it, but life goes on and I suppose the story ought to be told so I guess I’ll start from the beginning…
I arrived at Gate H at 4:40pm, nearly an hour before Dolphin Stadium was scheduled to open, and I wasn’t the first person there. There was one other guy, and it turned out to be someone who reads this blog. His name is Andy (aka “munkittr” for those of you who read the comments). He lives in Tampa, has season tickets at Tropicana Field, and when he found out I was going to be at this game, he hopped in his car and made the four-hour drive. (Perhaps the fact that Griffey was still at 599 had something to do with his decision to come.)
This was the first time we’d met in person, and we talked nonstop for the next 50 minutes. At one point when Andy was discussing all the games he attends, another man who had joined our conversation said, “I bet you’re single.”
“Actually I’m married,” said Andy. “Very happily married.”
I was happy to see The Stereotype shot down once again–and even happier when I ran inside the stadium and saw that batting practice was already in progress. I headed to the furthest section in right-center field where the orange seats meet the blue tarp. The security guard who was stationed there had seen me snag eight balls over the previous three days, but that didn’t stop him from tossing me another.
“You weren’t saving this for a little kid?” I asked.
“You were the first one here,” he said.
Do balls from security guards count in my collection? Absolutely. Over the years, countless guards at Shea and Yankee Stadium have gone out of their way to prevent me from getting balls. I’ve been ejected from games for breaking rules that security supervisors made up on the spot, just for me, just because I was “catching too many balls,” so on the rare occasions that a guard actually shows me some love…yeah, you bet it counts. As for this guard at Dolphin Stadium, several other balls landed on the tarp and he gave them to whoever was smart (or lucky) enough to be standing nearby. Simple as that. Sometimes it was a kid. Sometimes it was an adult. There was no favoritism or attitude, and I appreciated it.
My second ball of the day was tossed by Marlins pitcher Logan Kensing. He had thrown one to me the day before and I thought for sure that he’d recognize me and give this one to someone else. Luckily, though, when it had rolled to the wall, I was the first one to ask him for it and he flipped it up without hesitating.
Ten minutes later, the Reds replaced the Marlins and I caught a Jay Bruce home run. Totally easy. I was on the stairs and had empty seats on both sides. Bruce lifted a deep drive to my left, and I drifted through the seats and reached up for an uncontested one-handed catch.
Ball No. 4 was a ground-rule double that was hit by a righty. It might’ve been Brandon Phillips. I’m not sure, and it doesn’t matter. The ball bounced off the rubberized warning track, barely cleared the outfield wall, skimmed over half a dozen empty rows, and nestled into my waiting glove.
Ball No. 5 was tossed by pitcher Gary Majewski toward a couple little kids, but his aim was off and the ball sailed three inches over their helplessly outstretched gloves. The ball rolled right to me through the empty second row, and I immediately handed it over to one of the kids (whose father thanked me profusely).
Ball No. 6 was thrown by outfielder Corey Patterson, and then with about 10 minutes remaining in BP, I ran around the stadium to the left field side. Look how empty it was:
Of course I didn’t get a ball out there because every Reds player ignored me, and then when I ran to the dugout at the very end of BP, Billy Hatcher tossed me a ball and missed.
Andy and I met up five minutes later (he snagged a few balls in straight-away right field and I’ll let him share the details) and headed to the right field foul line. After we failed to get Mike Rabelo to throw us his warm-up ball, we decided to get someone to take our picture, and THAT, my friends, is when my camera died. I’m not talking about a dead battery. I’m talking about a message on the LCD screen that said, “Lens error, restart camera.” I knew the camera wasn’t going to last much longer. It was missing a few teeny screws, and the whole frame was a bit loose. The screen had a tiny crack in it. The “zoom” lever was slightly jammed…and the fact that I wasn’t allowed to bring my backpack into the stadium didn’t help. It meant I had to keep my camera in that flimsy (and overpriced) drawstring bag that I was forced to buy on the first day. It meant that the camera was in the same pouch as all my baseballs, my markers, pens, cell phone, wallet, glove, and hats. It got smacked around much more than it should’ve, and it died as a result. No doubt about it.
“Watch what’s gonna happen,” I told Andy. “I’m gonna catch Griffey’s 600th homer and get to meet him in the clubhouse after the game, and I won’t be able to have my picture taken.”
I just KNEW something big was going to happen. I felt it. I was sure of it. That’s my luck. That’s my life.
Andy and I parted ways. He headed to the right field seats to get in position for Griffey, and I went to the Marlins’ dugout. Hanley Ramirez finished his pre-game throwing by flipping the ball to a little kid in the front row. One minute later, Dan Uggla finished playing catch with Cody Ross and tossed the ball toward two gloveless, middle-aged men who were sitting 10 feet to my left in the row behind me. They both stood up and reached for it and bobbled it–no wait…that’s too kind…they butchered it–and it dropped into the row in front of them…MY row, which just so happened to be empty. Before they had a chance to lean over their fancy seats, I darted through the row and gloved the ball.
It was 7:08pm. The game was going to be starting in two minutes, so I raced up the steps and sprinted through the concourse (apologies to the beer vendor I nearly took out) and made it to the right field seats with less than a minute to spare. I’d purchased a ticket in (what I felt was) the perfect spot–the same spot I’d picked for each of the previous three days, and on each of those days, there’d been at least one security guard checking tickets in every tunnel. But on THIS day? No security in sight. I can’t explain it, but perhaps if the penny-pinching Marlins had hired a little extra security, they wouldn’t be facing this mess. Meanwhile, the seats were still pretty empty, but I was concerned that there might be a few extra opportunists in my way.
Jerry Hairston led off the game with an infield single.
Most of the fans in the section were crammed into the first 10 or 12 rows. The half dozen rows behind them were partially empty, but I need more than “partial” room to maneuver. I picked a seat in the 21st row–kind of far back, yes, but still within range (as I showed in my previous entry with diagrams from Hit Tracker).
A few fans moved into the row on my left, so I moved down two rows as Jay Bruce stepped into the box. I needed a whole row to myself. The odds that The Ball would be hit with the proper distance were far greater than the odds that it would be hit in the perfect direction. In other words, I was on the end of my row so I could run up or (more likely) down the steps, but that option was soon ruined when two fat men with gloves stood up and moved RIGHT into the middle of the steps five feet in front of me.
Jay Bruce took a called strike three, and Griffey walked toward the plate.
That’s when I noticed that a tallish man with a glove had moved into the far end of the row on my left. All the seats between us were empty, and I remember thinking, “If the ball is hit to my left, that guy is gonna get in my way.”
Mark Hendrickson, the Marlins’ starter, quickly fell behind Griffey 3-0. Everyone in the section was booing. No one wanted to see Griffey walk again, and I was more relieved than anyone when he swung and missed at the next pitch.
The count was 3-1, and I was thinking that he was going to get a great pitch to hit, and that THIS might be it…and then…WHOOSH!!! Griffey unleashed a beautiful, effortless swing and sent the ball flying EXACTLY in my direction. At least that’s how it appeared at the instant it left the bat. But line drives tend to hook, and this was certainly more of a line drive than a fly ball. I paused for a split second, half-expecting that this was going to happen, but also half-disbelieving it. COULD IT REALLY BE THIS EASY?!?! I drifted through the empty row and never took my eye off the ball. I moved with it, just I had moved with hundreds of BP home runs in the past, and as the ball began its final descent, I realized that I was blocked by a couple fans who had somehow slipped into my row. NOOOOO!!!!! I knew I was boxed out as the ball kept hooking, and at the last second, when it was about 30 feet above the seats, it barely nicked the bottom of a support cable, causing its trajectory to fall off slightly. I was too stunned to react, and like I said, I somehow got boxed out and beat to the spot, and the ball disappeared into a pile of people at my feet…or so it seemed. I heard one guy at the bottom of the pile screaming, “I GOT IT!!! I GOT IT!!! I GOT IT!!!” and security surrounded us. Then another guy–THE guy with the glove who’d been standing at the end of my row–said calmly, “I have the ball. I have it…I have the ball,” and a whole new group of security guards surrounded HIM. He was clutching his glove against his chest. I assumed he had The Ball tucked inside, but I never saw it. He was also saying that his bag had gotten caught on a seat and was buried at the bottom of the pile. Security told him to stay put, and while several of the guards stayed with him, a few others worked slowly to get people off of each other, at which point, I just wanted to get the hell out of there, so I climbed over the middle of the rows and got myself out of the section as quickly as possible. I was still stunned and at this point too devastated to even think, and for most of the next hour, I didn’t know how I could even go on living. I’m telling you, it was THAT bad.
Andy had been sitting a couple sections over and caught up with me in the concourse. He bought me a chocolate ice cream cone and walked me toward the seats behind home plate before he headed back to the outfield. I ate the cone and made some phone calls and didn’t bother putting on my glove. I was a mess (and for the record, no, I wasn’t crying). I just wanted to go back to New York City, but my flight wasn’t until the following afternoon. There really wasn’t anything else to do but sit there and sulk. It was better, I figured, to sulk at a major league baseball game than to sulk in my hotel room. So I sat there. And finished the ice cream. And cursed way too loud when Griffey came up again and hit a foul ball RIGHT to the spot where I’d been standing for lefties the day before. They say luck has a way of evening things out, but it didn’t work like that yesterday. It felt like the universe was against me.
I suppose I could feel proud to have picked the spot where the home run would land, and to have been so close to it, but I don’t feel that way. That just makes it hurt even more. I wish Griffey had just hit the damn thing to right-center field instead (or better yet onto the tarp where security could’ve retrieved it and given it back to him). If it had landed four sections away, I wouldn’t have anything to be upset about. All I could say would be, “Oh well, there was nothing I could do. At least I was in the building and got to witness it.” But as things stand, I keep replaying the scene in my mind and thinking about what I could’ve done differently. What if I raced to the spot where the ball was going to land as SOON as it left the bat? Would I have been able to box out the other fans? I just didn’t react with enough urgency. I drifted with the ball too slowly. Or did I? Maybe I really did move fast, and it only feels slow because I didn’t get it, or because I’m a perfectionist and always feel like I could do better. I don’t know. I felt awful, and I still feel awful, and I will always feel awful. That’s just how it is. Unless you’re from the future and know for certain that I’m going to catch A-Rod’s 800th homer, there’s nothing anyone can say to make me feel better. I have to live with this for the rest of my life. It could be worse, though. It’s not like I let the ball clang off the heel of my glove. THAT would be awful. But still, I don’t feel like I took full advantage of the situation. I wonder what would happen if I could relive that moment dozens of times, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” and take different routes to the ball. I guess that’d be too easy, but I can’t help thinking like that.
Well, I finally started going for foul balls again around the third inning, and it paid off (big whoop) because I got one that Bruce hit in the top of the fifth. It was a high pop-up that the fans in the first row of the club level dropped into my tunnel. Another guy standing next to me was closer to the ball when it fell, but somehow he failed to snatch it and he kicked it around, and the second it rolled toward me, I grabbed it. Why couldn’t that have happened with No. 600? Why couldn’t Griffey have swung a tenth of a second later? There are 600 ‘why’s, and they’re all eating at me right now.
Paul Bako hit two homers and knocked in five runs. Brandon Phillips also went deep for the Reds who cruised to a 9-4 victory. Oh, and I got an autograph during the game. There was a former player sitting in my section, and he signed a day-old ticket for me on his way out. That’s your only clue. Take a look and try to guess who it is:
The first person who leaves a comment (not an email) with the correct answer will get a prize: a ticket from the “Griffey 600” game.
After the final out, I made it down to the front row behind the Reds’ dugout and got two balls tossed to me within 30 seconds. The first came from Mark Berry, the third base coach, as a direct result of my wearing a Reds cap (he said so) and the second came from Hatcher after I told him that he’d missed me before. Then, as I walked up the steps to head to the concourse, a friendly security guard who’d seen me chasing foul balls throughout the series (and apparently hadn’t seen me get the one from Bruce) pulled a “practice” ball out of his pocket and handed it to me. Does it count in my collection? I guess so. Is it cheap? Definitely. But whatever. I was entitled to a little charity after what I’d just gone through.
• 11 balls at this game
• 172 balls in 22 games this season = 7.8 balls per game.
• 82 lifetime games with 10 or more balls
• 27 lifetime games outside NYC with 10 or more balls
• 17 different stadiums with at least one game with 10 or more balls
• 518 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 121 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
• 867 lifetime balls outside NYC
• 24 lifetime game balls outside NYC
• 3,449 total balls
• 32 ticket stubs collected at this game (one of which will be mailed to the winner of the Mystery Autograph Contest)