This was a Watch With Zack game, and my “client” was a 14-year-old named Joe. When we met outside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, I did a double-take when I saw the shirt he was wearing:
It was THE Homer Simpson shirt–the same shirt I’ve been wearing (on rare occasions) since 4/24/08 at Champion Stadium. Hilarious. Joe had just gotten it because the Pirates were in town; he didn’t have time to buy a Pirates shirt, but he wanted to color-coordinate.
Despite the fact that Joe and I had only met once before in person, it felt like we already knew each other. That’s because he’d been reading this blog regularly and leaving lots of comments (as “yankees5221”). Still, he asked a ton of questions, and I had a few of my own for him. One of the first things I asked was, “What exactly do you want to happen today? Is there anything specific that you want to accomplish or do you mainly just want to hang out?”
The answer wasn’t obvious. Did he want help getting autographs? Or baseballs? Did he want me to catch balls for him? Did he want to snag them on his own? Did he want me to explain the rules and nuances of the game? He told me had both of my books and that he had snagged 38 lifetime balls, including a one-game record of five. He seemed to be very athletic and knowledgeable about baseball, so I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to be able to help, but it all became clear. He said he really wanted a Citi Field commemorative ball–he still hadn’t snagged one–and he also wanted some help with the glove trick. For some reason, he just couldn’t get it to work consistently, so I took a look:
After a minute or two of playing with the rubber band and Sharpie, I realized why Joe was having trouble: the fold of his glove wasn’t quite right. He was forced to place the rubber band at a tricky angle over the fingertips, and it didn’t leave enough space for the ball to slip inside. It wasn’t his fault. Some gloves (like mine) are great for the trick and some (like his) aren’t. That’s just how it goes, but at least I knew I was going to be able to fulfill Joe’s final request, namely to run around with me all day and snag as many balls as possible. Hell, that’s my specialty, and what made it even easier was that his dad Bob let us do our thing and didn’t even insist that we stick together. If he had told me not to let his son out of my sight, then obviously I would have stayed with Joe throughout the day, but Bob was cool with it. When the stadium opened, he headed straight to his seat. He just wanted to relax and watch the game.
That left me free to roam with Joe, who said he didn’t want to get in my way at all. I told him I didn’t want to get in *his* way.
“This is YOUR day,” I said, but he insisted that he was as interested–if not more interested–in my ball total than his own.
Joe changed into a blue shirt before the stadium opened at 4:40pm, and then we raced to the left field seats. I quickly spotted a ball sitting on the warning track near the foul pole, and when I looked up after reeling it in with the glove trick, I saw Joe in straight-away left field. He was about to get his first ball of the day tossed by Daniel Murphy:
We were both on the board, and we’d only been inside the stadium for a couple minutes. I knew it was going to be a big day.
Soon after, Mike Pelfrey retrieved a ball near the warning track. Joe and a couple other kids called out for it. For a moment it looked like Big Pelf was going to fire it back toward the bucket, but then he inspected the ball and turned around to look up into the crowd. Who was the lucky fan that he picked out? Joe. Was there something special about the ball that had caught Pelfrey’s eye? See below for yourself:
I was thrilled for Joe, but I’m sure he was even more thrilled. It was a perfect commemorative ball, and it was rubbed up with mud, which meant it had probably been used briefly during an actual game.
All the pressure was off. He had his ball. Now it was just a matter of seeing how many more we could get.
I ran over to the left-center field end of the section (all the way out near the home run apple) when I saw Ryan Church walking over to retrieve two baseballs on the warning track in right-center. I figured it was unlikely that he’d throw a ball to me from so far away, but I had to give it a shot.
“Ryan!!” I yelled. “Let’s see the gun!!”
Church turned and chucked a ball to me. Then he fired the other one to Joe, who had followed me. (Joe plays 3rd base for his middle school team; he had NO trouble catching any of the balls that were thrown to him.)
I asked Joe how he felt about us splitting up for a bit, and he was totally fine with it. He decided to stay in left field and ended up making a nice jumping catch on a ball that was thrown by Fernando Tatis. Meanwhile, I headed out to the seats in deep right-center and got two balls tossed to me within five minutes. The first came from Sean Green, and the second came from Livan Hernandez.
“Hey, don’t be greedy,” said a middle-aged man who wasn’t wearing a glove and then proceeded to shout for balls without saying please or even calling the players by their names. (Putz.)
I spotted a ball sitting on the warning track along the right field foul line, so I ran around the concourse behind the right field seats…
…and ended up snagging it with the glove trick. Then I got another ball with the trick in straight away right field, underneath the overhang of the second deck.
Two minutes later, Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello walked over and picked up a ball near the warning track. (Racaniello has recognized me for years, and he’s always been really cool. Even though he knows about my collection, he still gives me baseballs. This was the first time I’d seen him this season.)
“Dave!” I shouted, prompting him to look up and walk toward me. “I have a question,” I continued, and before I said another word, he threw the ball to me. I caught it and said, “Okay, that wasn’t even going to be the question, but thanks.”
“I know,” he said with a shrug and asked what’s up.
I noticed that the ball had a semi-worn commemorative logo.
“Have you seen any balls floating around with the video game logo?”
“You mean the commemorative logo?” he asked.
“No, not the Citi Field logo,” I said. “I’m talking about those balls that’re like an advertisement for a video game. They say ‘2K Sports’ or something like that. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, “I’ve seen those.”
“Well, I’ve only HEARD about them, and I’m dying to get one. Any chance you could hook me up if you see one? I’ll give this ball back in exchange for one.”
He held up his glove, and I tossed the commemorative ball back to him. (I decided not to count it. I think it’s cheap if you give one ball away in order to get another and then count them both.) He then tossed it to another fan.
The Mets were almost done with BP, and they only hit one other ball near Racaniello. He went and got it, took a peek at it, looked up at me, shook his head, and jogged off the field with everyone else a minute later. I wasn’t concerned. It’s a long season. He’ll hook me up eventually, and anyway, it was good to show him that I’m not desperate to get my hands on every single ball. (Well, actually I am, but I gave the appearance that I’m not.)
I ran back to the left field seats and caught up with Joe. He had changed back into his yellow/Pirates outfit, and he told me he was going to hang out on the left field foul line and try to get a ball from the Pirates when they were done throwing. His plan worked. John Grabow tossed one his way, tying his single-game record of five balls. I then left Joe in left field again, ran back to right field, and got three balls thrown to me within a 10-minute span. The first came from Craig Hansen, the second came from the always-generous Craig Monroe, and the third was tossed up by Zach Duke. Joe had made his way over to my section at that point. (It was easy for him to spot me because of my bright yellow “CLEMENTE 21” shirt.) I felt bad because it occurred to me that I might have cost Joe a ball by getting the players to toss all three to me, but he insisted it was fine. If anything, he was excited that I was now only one ball away from double digits. I was excited because he was one ball away from setting a new personal record.
He asked me where he should go, and I thought about it for a moment. Left field was crowded. Right field…had been used up. Do you ever get that sense? You catch so many balls in one spot that you just kinda KNOW that the players are done tossing balls into the crowd. Right-center field was crowded, not to mention being 420 feet from home plate. It was tough. Batting practice was winding down anyway. There was another round or two remaining, but I could tell that the best opportunities were behind us.
“Left-center field,” I told him. “Next to the apple. See the kid in the corner spot? He’s not REALLY in the corner. I think you can squeeze in next to him, and you should be able to get a ball tossed to you there.”
It took forever to make our way around the outfield because the concourse behind the batter’s eye was packed, but when we made it, the corner spot was indeed open. We did a lot of shouting at the players after that. Everyone was shouting. It was kind of insane, but eventually, after about five minutes, we got Nate McClouth to toss up a ball. The angle was tough. McCouth was on the right, and there were some other kids on OUR right, which meant that they’d have a chance to reach out for the ball, but the throw sailed just far enough that they couldn’t reach it…but it was falling short. Super-Joe made a clutch play, reaching far down over the railing and catching the ball in the tip of his glove. I was impressed. I didn’t think there was any chance he’d reach it, so I give him a lot of credit. It was a true Web Gem. Here’s Joe with his record-breaking sixth ball of the day:
Joe absolutely wanted to get to the dugout by the end of BP, so he headed over toward the foul line with about 10 minutes to spare. I told him he had more time to hang out in the outfield, but he didn’t want to take any chances. I ran out to right field and used my glove trick one final time to snag my 10th ball of the day. The ball was a bit too far out from the wall, so Sean Burnett moved it closer for me…and some Mets photographer walked out onto the warning track and started taking pictures of both me and the contraption. I have no idea if/where these pics will be used, so keep a lookout for me. Maybe in the Mets magazine or yearbook? Don’t forget that I was wearing yellow at the time.
The worst thing about Citi Field is that you can’t get down to the dugout during BP unless you have a ticket for that section. As a result, Joe and I were trapped along the 3rd base line when all the players and coaches walked off the field. Still, we each managed to get a ball from some Pirates equipment guy who was in the process of transferring the balls from the basket into a zippered bag. We were standing on the outfield side of that glassy tunnel, and the guy spotted us all the way from the dugout and threw the balls to us. Here we are with those final two BP balls. You can see the tunnel right behind us, and you can see how far it is from there to the dugout:
Our mutual friend Clif (aka “goislanders4”) was also at this game, and after we de-yellowed ourselves, we got him to take a couple photos of us with our baseballs. Here’s my favorite shot:
For some reason, the Citi Field ushers are militant about keeping people away from the dugouts during BP, but after that it’s not hard to get down there, so that’s where Joe and I hung out for the next few hours.
Just before the game started, Joe was standing behind the home-plate end of the Pirates’ dugout, waiting for the players to come out and throw. Clif (who had snagged several balls as well) was also at the home-plate end, so I called Joe over to the outfield end. There were two reasons why I did this. First, I didn’t want Clif and Joe to compete in the same spot, and secondly, Freddy Sanchez ended up being the guy playing catch on the outfield side. I’ve seen the Pirates a bunch of times over the past few seasons, so I knew that he’s usually the guy who ends up with the ball after the pre-game throwing. Joe hurried through the seats, and when he reached me (I was carrying both of our backpacks), I lent him my Pirates shirt and then pointed out a spot in the front row where he could squeeze in. Less than a minute later, Sanchez finished throwing (with rookie Brian Bixler; the more experienced player usually ends up with the ball), took a couple steps toward the dugout, looked up and spotted Joe and lobbed the ball in his direction. I was afraid that someone would reach in front of Joe, but he reached way out for it and caught it just a few inches in front of the nearest hand. (I had my camera ready and tried to get an action shot, but my timing was off.) The young man had EIGHT balls. We talked about the possibility of double digits. He needed to snag a third-out ball and then get a ball from the umpire after the game.
Could it be done?
We were sitting in the perfect spot:
In the photo above, you can see Joe in the yellow shirt, getting ready to make his move. Whenever the Pirates were on the field with two outs, he moved down a few rows so he’d be closer to the dugout. The rest of the time, he sat next to me. We’d made a deal: he let me sit on the end of the row so I could jump up and run for foul balls (there were a few close calls), and I let him go for all the third-out balls. Clif got the first one, and then for a few innings after that, the balls were being tossed to other sections.
I kept telling Joe that I wanted to give him one of my balls. He told me that he wouldn’t count it in his collection.
“I know,” I said, “but I still feel like you should own an official Zack Hample baseball.”
“I’m having the best time of my life right now,” he said. “I don’t need a ball.”
What he meant was that he didn’t need a ball from ME. When Daniel Murphy ended the bottom of the 6th inning by flying out to right fielder Brandon Moss, Joe was all over it. He beat the other kids down there and and got himself into a perfect spot. Moss tossed the ball right to him, but a grown-up reached in from the side and I thought “Oh no…”
…but my man made the catch! Out-STANDING!!! He out-snagged someone who was half a foot taller than him, and he got himself a real game-used ball (which of course was commemorative, and by the way, in the photo above, the ball is already inside Joe’s glove).
After that, the usher told Joe not to run down to the dugout again so that the other kids could have a chance. Fair enough…I suppose. I never like it when stadium employees try to regulate how many baseballs people can catch, but it WAS nice of the usher not to kick us out of the section. It was an usher who’d given me a hard time way back in the day at Shea Stadium, so he probably knew that I didn’t belong in the fancy seats, but for some reason he was really laid-back. No complaints. I’m actually starting to like Citi Field a whole lot. Easy dugout access. No hassles with the glove trick. The gates open two and a half hours early. It could be a LOT worse (and hey, it IS a lot worse right across town).
Joe wanted to wander for a bit after that, so we took a lap around the entire stadium via the field level concourse. (He got a slice of pizza that made him sick. I got a stromboli which was good by ballpark standards but awful by NYC-pizza-place standards.) The area behind the big scoreboard in center field is really nice. I hadn’t yet been back there. There’s a batting cage, lots of concession stands, some video games, and tables where people can stand and eat/drink. And…on the back of the scoreboard, there’s a decent-sized screen that shows the game, along with a mini-scoreboard underneath it so people can follow all the action. I could do without all the advertisements–it’d be nice if there was more nostalgic Mets stuff on display–but overall, it was a great place to be. Check it out:
(That’s Joe with the big black backpack–an item that would be prohibited inside Yankee Stadium, and for all you Yankee fans out there, don’t get on me for bashing your brand new ballpark. I’m just telling it like it is. If you want to complain, write a letter to the Steinbrenners and tell them to chill the **** out and stop running the place like a prison. Or just be like me and go there as little as possible. It’s no coincidence that of the 20 games I’ve attended this season, only one has been in the Bronx.)
We followed the concourse out to right-center field, headed down some steps, and found ourselves behind the bullpens:
Pretty nice, huh? (That’s the original home run apple.)
I still think the Mets made some questionable architectural decisions, but overall I’m liking this stadium more and more.
The game was tied, 2-2, after seven innings. Then the Mets put up a five-spot in the bottom of the eighth. There were only three outs remaining so Joe and I got into position for the umps.
The Pirates scored one run in the top of the ninth, but their rally was snuffed out soon after. Game over. Final score: Mets 7, Pirates 3. The umps started walking off the field, and I gave Joe some advice at the last second about where to stand and what to say. This is what happened moments later. It’s a photo of home plate ump Jerry Layne placing a (commemorative) ball into Joe’s glove:
Double digits had been achieved!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(That’s one exclamation point for every ball that Joe and I ended up snagging.)
I got ball No. 12 at the dugout from Matt Capps when he and a few other relievers walked in from the bullpen. As soon as I caught it, I noticed a little kid on my right who was wearing a glove. Before the usher had a chance to nag me, I asked the kid if he’d gotten a ball, and when he said no, I handed it to him. The usher was stunned. The kid was ecstatic, and his father thanked me. What mattered was that I gave the ball away on my own terms, not because a fan asked for it or because an employee insisted. But let’s not get started on a whole discussion about that. It was a perfect day with a perfect ending.
• 12 balls at this game (11 pictured here because I gave one away)
• 159 balls in 20 games this season = 7.95 balls per game.
• 589 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 471 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 341 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball
• 3 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least nine balls
• 15 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls
• 10 balls snagged by Joe is a new Watch With Zack record
• 22 balls combined is also a new Watch With Zack record
• 3,979 total balls
• 103 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)
• $20.38 pledged per ball
• $244.56 raised at this game
• $3,240.42 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball