This was my third Watch With Zack game with Clif, a 14-year-old Mets fan who’s been reading this blog since last year and leaving comments as “goislanders4.” Our first game together was on 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium. The second was on 7/28/08 at Yankee Stadium. His mother Gail couldn’t make it to this game, so I picked Clif up at home, then got a tour of his baseball collection…
…and drove him to Philadelphia. (I don’t know why Clif decided to wear a Padres hat for the photo above, but I can explain the shirt: the Phillies were going to be playing the Nationals. Clif’s favorite player is Nationals center fielder Lastings Milledge and the shirt said “MILLEDGE 44” on the back.) This was the 10th Watch With Zack game I’d done since starting the business last year, but it was the first time that I went with a kid and no one else. I was extra responsible for Clif’s well-being, and yet I felt more free than ever to run around for balls and help him do the same. He’d already proven (to both me and his mom) that he knew his way around a major league stadium. He didn’t need a babysitter. He just needed someone to GET him to Citizens Bank Park so he could do his thing. Of course, it didn’t hurt that that someone was me.
We arrived at the stadium at 3:15pm…
…and got cheesesteaks at McFadden’s:
We were the first ones to run inside the stadium when the Ashburn Alley gate opened at 4:35pm. Clif peeled off and headed to the corner spot in center field. I walked over to the foul pole and took a photo of the left field seats:
See the flower bed that separates the seats from the outfield wall? Once BP got underway, I leaned all the way across it (with my knees on the back railing and my elbows on the front) and used my glove trick to snag two balls off the warning track.
As the left field seats were getting more crowded, I caught a line drive homer on a fly and snagged another home run ball off the ground–a ball that had initially hit the heel of my glove when an aggressive Phillies fan bumped me from behind. The ball was lopsided. Check it out in the photo on the right. You don’t see that too often with “official major league baseballs.”
Toward the end of the Phillies’ portion of batting practice, Clif and I convened in left-center field, and I caught another home run on a fly. I was about six rows back, and the ball was hit high in the air. I judged it perfectly and drifted down the steps as it descended, and I reached up above half a dozen hands at the last second to make the catch. This was my record-breaking 322nd ball of the season (my previous record was set in 2005) and Clif was excited because he’d gotten a great view.
Clif and I ran out to the seats in right-center when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:35pm. Less than two minutes later, he got his second ball of the day from Nationals pitcher Garrett Mock, and I took a photo as the ball was flying his way. Check it out:
Clif is wearing the dark glove. The ball was thrown right to him. The kid on his left (with the light blond hair) nearly interfered. Good thing Clif was reaching out for the ball instead of standing back and waiting for it.
A little while later, Clif headed over to left-center and got ball No. 3 from Tim Redding. (I’ll let Clif share all the details about this and his other balls in a comment.)
The next ball I caught was my sixth of the the day and the 3,600th of my life. I wish I knew who hit it. It was another home run. It was hit by a right-handed batter on the Nationals. I bolted to my right through the empty second row, then realized the ball was tailing back so I darted back to my left and made a two-handed catch right where I’d been standing in the first place. Duh. And it was one of those crappy training balls:
The ball was so slick…it felt like it was made of wax. I really don’t understand why teams use these balls. I mean, okay, they’re trying to save money, but these balls feel nothing like game balls. If you were a concert pianist, would you practice on a Fisher Price keyboard? If you were a NASCAR driver, would you train by driving a ’98 Pontiac? Umm, no, probably not. Therefore, I demand to know: WHY ARE MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS USING CHEAP PLASTICKY BASEBALLS?!?! The only theory I can come up with is that if the players are forced to hit inferior balls, they might not try to hit home runs because they’ll know the balls won’t travel that far. This might make them focus on swinging level and hitting line drives, which ideally would improve their hitting. But it’s not. The Nationals are the worst team in baseball, and as of three days ago, they were mired in a losing streak that ended up lasting 12 games.
Collin Balester tossed me my seventh ball of the day–another stupid training ball–in straight away right field, and that was it for BP.
Ten minutes before the game started, two Nationals players began throwing in front of the third base dugout. I asked Clif which end of the dugout he wanted, and he chose the outfield end. It was a good choice because Ronnie Belliard, the older of the two players, was on that end. (The more experienced player usually ends up with the ball.) Sure enough, several minutes later, Belliard flipped the ball to Clif on his way in. I got another action photo:
Did you see the ball? Here’s a closer look:
Moments later, two more Nationals came out and started throwing. Clif stayed on his end. I stayed on mine. Ryan Zimmerman, the more experienced player, was closer to me and ended up tossing me the ball.
The ball he’d gotten from Belliard was a training ball.
The ball I got from Zimmerman was…
…a thing of beauty. But don’t feel too bad for Clif. He’d already gotten one of these balls earlier this season at Nationals Park, and when I offered to give him this one, he wouldn’t accept it.
Another reason not to feel bad for Clif is that he got Lastings Milledge to sign his T-shirt. Here’s Milledge tossing the shirt back to Clif:
Here’s Clif wearing the shirt backwards to show off the signature…
…and here’s a closeup of the signature:
As for the game…
Gail had hooked us up by going on StubHub and getting two Diamond Club tickets. The club itself is pretty lame. It’s just a big, over-fancy restaurant tucked underneath the concourse behind home plate, but the seats themselves were IDEAL for chasing foul balls. Seriously, just look at this view from the first-base side of home plate:
It’s truly impossible to sneak down to this section without a ticket. When you first arrive, there’s a pair of ushers (at the bottom of each of the two staircases) who make SURE you belong. The first guy checks your ticket and punches a hole in it, and the second guy gives you a wristband that you have to wear for the rest of the night. There’s no way to take off the wristband and give it to so
meone else. The only way to take it off is to rip it off, and get this…the color of the band changes from game to game, and the date of the game is printed right on it:
I’m telling you, the ushers guard this section as if their lives depend on it. On 4/25/07 at Citizens Bank Park, I got to explore the Diamond Club before the game because I had media credentials for a TV segment I was being filmed for, but once the game started, I got kicked out. I was stunned. This was my 15th game ever at Citizens Bank Park, and it was the first time I’d ever been in this section during the game, but of course, since I’m jinxed, there wasn’t a single foul ball hit anywhere near me all night. Amazing. But it was still fun to roam and hope.
Clif spent the first few innings going for third-out balls behind the Nationals’ dugout, and it paid off in a BIG way. Phillies catcher Chris Coste flied out to center field to
end the bottom of the second. Who was playing center field for the Nationals? That’s right: Lastings Milledge. From my spot behind home plate, I could see Clif work his way down to the front row as soon as the catch was made, and eventually I saw Milledge flip the ball in Clif’s direction. But there were a bunch of other kids, and I couldn’t tell who had gotten it. I immediately called Clif on his cell phone. His voice-mail picked up. He was trying to call me. I answered and asked if he’d gotten the ball. He had! WOOO!!! Go Clif!!! How awesome is that?! Getting a game-used ball tossed to you by your favorite player?! Damn. I wish I could take credit and say that Clif couldn’t have done it without me–and perhaps he wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gone to this game with him–but he deserves all the credit. He knew what to do, and he made it happen. I was proud of him and very excited.
Clif and I were rooting for the Nationals all the way, but they blew a 4-1 lead and ended up losing, 5-4. I figured the best shot of getting a post-game ball was from the home plate umpire on the Nationals’ side, so I let Clif go for that. I went to the Phillies’ dugout and didn’t expect to get anything because it was so crowded and noisy, but as it turned out, Clif wasn’t able to make it all the way down to the front row to even ask the umpire for a ball, and I happened to get Brad Lidge to toss me the game-ending ball. Sweet! It was THE ball he had used to record his 31st save of the season and the 154th of his career (not to mention his 631st career strikeout). It felt good.
Once again, I offered to give that ball (and others) to Clif, but he wouldn’t take it. He had his collection. He knew I had mine. And that was that.
? 9 balls at this game
? 326 balls in 45 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.
? 541 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 132 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
? 10 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls
? 3,603 total balls
…and played some Arkanoid:
Then we went over to my parents’ place where I keep most of my baseballs. You could say Clif was in awe:
You could also say Clif had fun:
There are exactly 1,200 balls (three barrels’ worth) in the photo above. Clif stayed buried for about 20 minutes until Gail showed up. You could say she had fun too.