I bought two tickets to this game the day Ken Griffey Jr. was traded to the White Sox, and it just so happened that he entered this game with 609 career home runs–tied with Sammy Sosa for fifth all time. Jim Thome, meanwhile, with 535 career jacks of his own, also happened to be on the verge of home run history; his next blast would tie him with Mickey Mantle.
When I first bought the tickets, I didn’t know who, if anyone, I would take to this game. I’d paid less than their $13 face value on StubHub, so if one of them ended up being unused, it wasn’t going to break my heart.
The first person I invited was my dad. We hadn’t been to a game together since he saw me snag my 3,000th ball on 5/7/07 at Yankee Stadium, but he couldn’t go. He and my mom were planning to be upstate with their car…so I invited my girlfriend Jona, and we rented a Mini Cooper:
If there weren’t so many people from New Jersey who read this blog, I might be tempted to make a wise-crack about the license plate, but instead I’ll just say that the car was great and added an extra dimension of goodness to the trip.
Jona and I were the fifth and sixth people, respectively, on line outside the Eutaw Street gate. The seventh was a fellow baseball-snagger named Gary (aka “gjk2212” if you read the comments) who’d told me he was going to be there.
Gary and his family didn’t have season tickets for this game, so he was trapped in right field for the first half-hour of batting practice. Jona and I *did* have season tickets, and since I was the only fan who ran out to the left field seats, I pretty much had the place to myself for the first three minutes.
I should mention that I didn’t take a single photograph during BP. Jona had her camera and did all the documenting for me, starting with the following shot that shows me (in a black T-shirt and tan shorts) standing all by myself, way off in the distance, in the seats in straight-away left field:
Of course there weren’t any home runs until half a dozen other grown men had made their way out there, but that didn’t stop me from getting off to a good start.
As soon as Jona settled into a seat several rows behind me, she saw me make a leaping catch on a Melvin Mora home run, then grab another Mora homer off the ground soon after.
Several minutes later, I raced down to the wall and leaned way over…
…for a ball that didn’t bounce up high enough. Chris Waters, the player in the photo above who’s running toward me, retrieved the ball, walked over to the wall, and held it out for me. I thought he was messing around. Hadn’t he seen me snag those first two balls? Was he planning to pull his hand back as soon as I reached for this one?
“Are you serious?” I asked, and when he kept standing there without saying a word, I reached out slowly, as if the ball were going to bite me, and lifted it out of his hand.
“Thanks!” I shouted, and he jogged back into shallow left field, again without saying a word.
The good thing about letting my girlfriend take all the photos is that I ended up with some cool shots of myself. The bad thing is that she occasionally pointed her camera elsewhere:
My fourth ball was another home run that I caught on a fly after drifting through my row and jumping. My fifth was a home run that nearly killed Jona and landed on her purse in the seat next to her. (Thankfully, she had the presence of mind not to grab the ball, thus enabling ME to scurry over and grab it and count it in my collection.) My sixth ball was yet another home run (I have no idea who hit these balls). Jona took the following photo just before I caught it:
See the guy wearing the backpack? More on him in a bit…
Just as the White Sox were taking the field at 5:30pm, I changed into my White Sox cap and shirt, and dozens of fans (including Gary) flowed into the left field seats. That’s when things slowed way down for me. There were just as many balls being hit and thrown into the stands, but I wasn’t on my game, and I wasn’t getting any lucky bounces. I kept being one or two steps too late, if not out of position altogether. It was really frustrating because I easily could’ve ended up with 15 or 20 balls if luck had gone the other way. I still did okay, though. My goal, aside from catching home runs during the game from both Griffey and Thome, was to reach double digits, and it appeared I was on my way.
I used my glove trick to pluck ball No. 7 off the rubberized warning track in left-center and then got another from Octavio Dotel after
he finished playing catch near the foul pole. Gary was ten feet to my left and probably would’ve gotten it if not for me, but I out-wardrobed him. All he had was a cheap, light gray White Sox cap, whereas I had a black cap along with an eye-catching shirt (that you’ll see in the next full-screen photo).
At one point, Nick Swisher walked over toward the wall to retrieve a ball, and when I asked him for it, he shouted, “You’re a grown MAN!!! You can get balls on your OWN!!!”
Then he tossed it to a little kid. Good for the kid. Bad for me. I knew I had to be creative, so when he chased down another ball five minutes later, I ran down to the wall and yelled, “Nick, I know I’m big and mean and old, but it would mean a lot to get a ball from YOU specifically.”
I actually meant it. I’d read all about him in Moneyball and admired him ever since. (Also, it’s hard not to like a guy who, as the story goes, was once particularly taken with a hot girl he saw while flipping through the pages of Maxim–or was it FHM?–and told his agent to track her down and then ended up dating her.) Swisher must’ve appreciated my attempt at being funny and/or sensed my sincerity (or maybe he just felt sorry for me), but whatever it was, what I said to him worked because he flipped me the ball.
“Thanks!” I shouted, “I really appreciate it!”
He turned back, pointed his glove at me, and gave a friendly wink before jogging off.
I must admit that I did experience SOME good luck. Right before the end of BP, I began jogging from my spot in left field toward the 3rd base dugout. I wanted to get there before the White Sox came off the field because I was pretty sure I’d be able to get one more ball there and break double digits. Well, as I was cutting through the seats about 10 rows back along the left field foul line, a right-handed batter swung too soon and hooked a line drive right–and I mean RIGHT–to me. I had to bend down a little and make a thigh-high back-handed catch over the row below me, but still. Wow. And that was it…my 10th ball of the day. Then, as it turned out, I didn’t get anything at the dugout.
Remember the guy with the backpack from one of the photos up above? His name is Tobey Rowland, and not only is he a fellow member of the National Scrabble Association–it was my Scrabble shirt that initially caught his eye–but he’s a fellow baseball snagger (from the Bay Area) who had tracked me down in 2006 after catching two foul balls on two consecutive pitches. At the time, he wanted to know if that had ever been done and who he could contact to get his story out. I put him in touch with my friend Mark Newman at MLB.com, and this was the result. Anyway, the funny thing is that when Tobey first approached me during BP and started talking about Scrabble, neither of us knew who the other person was.
After BP, Tobey caught up with me behind the 3rd base dugout, and we talked while I labeled my last few baseballs and scribbled down some notes. Here we are (with Gary wearing the yellow shirt in the background):
Four of my 10 balls had distinctive markings and smudges. Check it out:
During the game, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of competition for Griffey:
Only 15,736 tickets had been sold. Among those who bought them and then actually bothered to show up, there was only one person who appeared in the right field standing-room-only section for all of Griffey’s (and Thome’s) plate appearances. It wasn’t Gary, and it wasn’t Tobey. It wasn’t Jona, nor was it Mrs. Griffey. It was me:
The conditions were perfect for catching a home run, and there WERE five homers in the game, but unfortunately four of them were hit to left field field by righties, and the other was hit to right-center by Aubrey Huff. Griffey ended up going 0-for-1 with three walks, while Thome finished 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. His one hit, however, did get my heart racing. It was a deep line drive EXACTLY in my direction that hit the outfield wall; Thome foolishly tried to stretch it into a double, and future Hall of Famer Nick Markakis (who already had 14 outfield assists before the play) gunned him down at second base.
? 11 balls at this game
? 364 balls in 51 games this season = 7.14 balls per game.
? 547 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 133 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
? 31 lifetime games outside NYC with 10 or more balls
? 3,641 total balls
And by the way, I wrote the first half of this entry on an airplane and the second half at a friend’s place in San Diego. I’ll be at PETCO Park later today…