Sixteen months ago, I had a Watch With Zack game at Shea Stadium with a seven-year-old kid named Cooper. Remember? It was Cooper’s first game ever, and even though there wasn’t batting practice that day, I managed to snag two commemorative baseballs for him.
Well, Cooper is now nine years old, and yesterday his family brought him back back to New York for another game with me. Here we are outside Citi Field:
In the photo above, the woman is Cooper’s mother Becky; the older gentleman is his grandfather Arthur.
As soon as the stadium opened, Cooper and I raced out to the left field seats. It was a day game, so I was glad to see that the Mets were taking batting practice. Meanwhile, Cooper was excited because it was the first time that he’d ever been to batting practice. Here he is, running down into the seats:
As soon as we reached the front row, Mets coach Razor Shines tossed a ball to another kid. That kid was older than Cooper (and wasn’t nearly as cute), so I called out to Shines and got him to look up at us, and then I asked him if he could possibly spare another ball. Shines said no and proceeded to mumble something about how we should stay where we were because there’d be some balls hit to us. (Gee, thanks!) But then he retrieved another ball that had rolled onto the warning track and, without much warning, tossed it up toward Cooper. Please don’t drop it, I thought. The ball was coming. I held my breath. It was falling a bit short, but Cooper wasn’t phased. He reached six inches over the railing and made a nice two-handed basket catch. I gave him a high-five and took his photo with the ball:
It was the first ball that he had ever snagged on his own.
The Mets didn’t throw many balls into the crowd after that, and the seats were still pretty empty, so I moved back a few rows and focused on snagging home run balls. I explained some basic strategies to Cooper, and he caught on quickly. Even though we were more than 375 feet from home plate, and even though he had never been to BP, and even though he was only nine years old, he was able to track the flight of the balls. He admitted that he wasn’t quite ready, however, to actually make an attempt at catching one, so when David Wright lifted a deep fly ball in our direction, I drifted down the steps and reached out over the wall for the easy one-handed catch. As soon as I took the ball out of my glove, I realized that I had reached in front of another kid who’d been camped out underneath it, so I handed him the ball. Then, two minutes later, I grabbed another Wright homer after it sailed over my head and ricocheted back to me.
That was it for the Mets’ portion of BP. The players were only on the field for 20 minutes, so Cooper and I headed to the 3rd base side. The Nationals were stretching in front of their dugout, but because the rules at Citi Field are so strict, we couldn’t get anywhere near them. Still, I was able to convince coach Marquis Grissom to throw us a ball from more than 100 feet away. In the following photo, the arrow is pointing at Grissom…
…and did you notice that Cooper was no longer wearing his Mets cap? Little things like that make a difference, but anyway, as the ball started sailing toward us, I was hoping that Cooper would be able to catch it. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t within his reach, so I had no choice but to lean out over the railing and snare it. (It was a training ball.) Cooper had said that he didn’t mind which one of us actually caught the balls, but I knew it would be more exciting for him if he was actually the one to get them.
When the Nationals started playing catch along the left field foul line, I positioned Cooper behind THE most generous ball-giver in baseball: Livan Hernandez. Cooper was now wearing a red Nationals cap. He was all set. This was our view:
As soon as Hernandez finished throwing, I called out to him and asked for the ball on Cooper’s behalf. Hernandez turned and tossed it to him. Here’s a photo of the ball in mid-air, and as you can see, the guy on my right tried to reach out and catch it:
It was no coincidence that I was standing between Cooper and this other guy. I could tell just by looking at him that he was going to try to catch the ball no matter what, so I used my body as a shield to prevent him from reaching all the way out…and Cooper was able to make the catch! I was actually hoping that Hernandez had been using a training ball — Cooper had never gotten one of those — but it was just a standard Selig ball. I told Cooper that if he didn’t snag a training ball, I’d give him mine.
We moved to the left field corner in foul territory. Ron Villone jogged past and picked up a ball. Cooper was in the front row. I was standing right behind him. I asked Villone if he could toss the ball “to the little guy” and he DID toss it, but it sailed five feet over Cooper’s head and came right to me. Once again, I had no choice but to make the catch. That was my fourth ball of the day, and then after moving with Cooper to the seats in left-center, the same thing happened with Logan Kensing. I asked for the ball FOR Cooper, but it was tossed to me instead. (Another training ball.) My theory is that the players were afraid that Cooper wasn’t big/athletic enough to make the catches. Finally, J.D. Martin showed some faith and tossed a ball to Cooper, who caught it easily. (Standard ball.)
When batting practice ended, I had five balls and Cooper had three, and there was a chance to get one more. Someone on the Nationals had hit a home run that landed on (and rolled to the bottom of) the batter’s eye:
I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to use my glove trick, so I took Cooper to the other side of the batter’s eye (where the side railing is much lower) and asked a security guard if he could get someone to walk out there and retrieve the ball. The four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise) shows what happened next:
Let me explain:
TOP LEFT: A police officer climbed over the railing.
TOP RIGHT: The officer walked around the Home Run Apple toward the baseball.
BOTTOM RIGHT: The officer returned with the ball.
BOTTOM LEFT: The usher bobbled the ball when the officer tossed it to him.
And then the usher handed it to Cooper. (Another standard ball. Aarrghh!)
Cooper and I headed over to Shake Shack, where his mother and grandfather were already on line. We saw them before they saw us, so I placed all four of Cooper’s balls in his glove and had him stand in just the right spot so that when the line snaked back around toward us, his mother and grandfather would see him. This was their reaction:
And THIS was my lunch:
Arthur was kind enough to treat me, and let me tell you…I didn’t need to eat again for seven hours.
The photo above was taken from our actual seats. As good as they were, I still wanted to be a bit closer so that Cooper would have a steady flow of chances to snag a 3rd-out ball. Since we were on the Mets’ side, Cooper changed back into his Mets cap. Here he is from behind, sitting on the end of the row, getting ready to race down the steps:
Most of the 3rd-out balls ended up in the hands of first baseman Daniel Murphy, who tossed them unpredictably all over the place. I really wanted Cooper to snag a Citi Field commemorative ball, or at least to snag one for him. In the middle innings, I nearly caught one of Murphy’s throws, and then late in the game, Cooper nearly got his glove on a toss from Carlos Beltran. Check out the photo below. You can see Beltran right above the security guard’s head. Cooper is in the front row (just to the right of the guard) and the ball is in mid-air (in front of the red advertisement on the left field wall):
Unfortunately, the kid to the right of Cooper got that ball, but not all hope was lost.
In the 9th inning, I worked my way down with Cooper into the seats on the 3rd base side. The home plate umpire was Rick Reed. He was our last shot at getting a Citi Field ball, but the final three outs seemed to last forever, and Cooper seriously HAD to get going. He and his mother had to catch a flight at 5:30pm, and the game (which had started at 1:10pm) was coming up on three hours. She and Cooper probably would’ve left in the 7th or 8th inning if not for me, but I convinced them to stay until the end. I told them there was a good chance at getting one more very special ball, so she and Arthur lingered patiently (though perhaps anxiously) in the concourse while Cooper and I did our thing. Brian Stokes was not cooperating. He retired Willie Harris on seven pitches, but then surrendered a single to Ian Desmond, an RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman, and an RBI single to Adam Dunn. Then pitching coach Dan Warthen held a tea party on the mound. Then Stokes struck out Josh Willingham and walked Elijah Dukes after getting ahead on him 0-2. It was ugly. Manager Jerry Manual had seen enough. Pitching change. (Oh my God! Hurry UP!!!) Francisco Rodriguez came in and fanned Christian Guzman to end the game. (Finally! Thank you!!!) I bolted down to the front row and tried to get Reed’s attention as he headed toward the tunnel. He blew right past me without looking up, but I saw him pause briefly to toss balls to some other fans, so I raced back up the steps and moved alongside him as he walked quickly through the tunnel down below. Just before he reached the end, he pulled out one final ball and tossed it up near me. There were some other fans reaching for it too, but I managed to grab it, and I immediately handed it to Cooper. Here he is with that ball:
But wait, there’s more!
The Nationals relievers were walking in from the bullpen, so I raced back over near the dugout and squeezed into the front row behind the photographers’ box. Someone wearing No. 55 was walking toward me with a ball, but I had no idea who it was, so I frantically pulled out my roster for a quick look. It was Marco Estrada. “MARCO!!!” I shouted when he was still 40 feet away. He spotted me and threw the ball right to me, but some HUGE guy on my right reached out in front of me. Our gloves bumped and the ball fell down into the photographers’ box. A security guard climbed down in there and got the ball and tossed it back to Estrada. I pointed at Cooper, and he threw the ball toward us for a second time. I wanted Cooper to be the one to catch it, but I knew that if I hung back and let him go for it, someone else was going to reach in and snatch it, so I reached out as far as I could and made the grab. It was a standard ball, and I handed that one to Cooper as well. Phew!
I really wanted to stay and take some photos, but Cooper and his mother ***HAD*** to go, so I walked outside with them and gave Cooper a training ball and said a very quick goodbye.
Final score: Zack 7, Mets 6, Cooper 4, Nationals 2.
• 472 balls in 53 games this season = 8.91 balls per game.
• 622 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 484 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 349 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball
• 20 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls (click here for more Watch With Zack stats; note that Cooper is now the youngest client to have snagged a ball)
• 4,292 total balls
• 126 donors (it’s not too late to become No. 127)
• $25.26 pledged per ball
• $176.82 raised at this game
• $11,922.72 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball