You’d think that a Thursday night game on a freezing day in April between two of the worst teams in baseball wouldn’t draw much of a crowd, right?
Look how many people were waiting outside Citi Field for the gates to open:
In the photo above, that’s me in the MLB cap with my arm around Mateo Fischer. He’s a fellow ballhawk and former Watch With Zack client — we attended a game together on 7/27/10 at Citi Field — and as you can see, he’d brought his copy of my new book. I signed it for him before the stadium opened, and then we raced out to the left field seats.
It was truly one of the worst batting practices of all time. During the 25 minutes that the Mets were hitting, there was exactly ONE home run. Not only was the temperature in the mid-40s, but a very strong wind was blowing in. Deep fly balls that normally would’ve landed several rows deep were dying and falling short of the warning track. I’d never seen anything like it.
My friend Jeremy showed up 10 minutes after Citi Field opened. He’s a serious baseball fan, but doesn’t try to catch baseballs in the stands. In fact, this was the first time (in roughly 100 games) that he’d ever arrived early enough for batting practice. He was content to just sit and drink beer and watch me do my thing, but unfortunately, as I’ve already mentioned, there wasn’t a whole lot of action. Shortly before the Mets cleared the field, I got one of the players to throw me a ball. I have no idea who it was because he was bundled up and had a blue hood covering the edges of his face. (Yes, it was THAT cold.) Here’s the ball with Jeremy in the background:
I snagged two more baseballs during the Astros’ portion of BP. The first (pictured below on the left) was a Hunter Pence homer that I caught on the fly. The second (pictured below on the right) was a so-called Easter egg; forty-five minutes after the stadium had opened, I found it tucked under a seat in the sixth row:
Interesting side note: Ever since I started attending games regularly in 1992, the Astros have been marking their practice balls with big H’s on the sweet spot, like this. The Hunter Pence homer was the first Astros ball I’ve ever snagged that was H-free.
Anyway, that was it for batting practice. Lame City. I actually apologized to Jeremy for the lack of action and for not putting on a better show. He didn’t care. He’d never caught a ball before, so the fact that I’d snagged three seemed impressive. Shortly before game time, I picked out a cute young kid with a glove (who was sitting on the 3rd base side with his father) and gave him a baseball. Naturally, they were both thrilled and didn’t quite know what to say. Whenever I give balls away, no one really understands why — at least not at first. I mean, why would a stranger just walk up and hand over a baseball?
“I got a few during batting practice,” I always say, “so I had one to spare.” In this case (and as I often do), I told the kid that the reason why I gave him a ball was that he was wearing a glove. “It showed me that you really want a ball,” I said, “but I still want you to try to catch another one during the game, okay?”
As for the game, there were two left-handed starters — Chris Capuano for the Mets and J.A. Happ for the Astros — so I decided to sit in straight-away left field. I’d warned Jeremy ahead of time about our seat location, and he was cool with it. This was our view:
At Citi Field, I normally don’t stay in the outfield during games because (a) the seats are 14 light years from home plate and (b) there’s no room to run. But since the majority of batters on this frigid night were going to be hitting from the right side, I decided to give it a shot.
In the first inning, Jeremy made a comment about how unlikely it’d be for any home runs to come our way, and I agreed. It was even colder now, and the wind was still blowing in, but I insisted that anything was possible. I told him a story about a kid on my college baseball team who blasted a BP homer over the scoreboard in left field on a cold/drizzly day with the wind blowing in and a bucket of old soggy baseballs. “I don’t care that he hit it with a metal bat,” I said. “If a teenaged Division III player can hit a ball that far under those conditions, then major league hitters can certainly reach us tonight.”
That said, I still didn’t like my chances. Most of the rows were full, and there simply wasn’t any room to run. In the second inning, we moved to the other side of the staircase, and in the middle of the third inning, I spotted some empty seats one section over. Jeremy was willing to head there, but I told him that I wanted to stay put. “Let’s just stay here for three more outs and see what happens,” I said.
Well, wouldn’t you know it? With one out in the bottom of the third, Mets rookie catcher Mike Nickeas blasted a deep drive that appeared to be heading right at me. I jumped out of my seat and froze for a split-second to figure out exactly where the ball was heading; the last thing I wanted to do was maneuver myself out of position. As it turned out, it WAS coming right to me, but I got the sense that it was going to carry just a bit beyond my row and hook slightly to the right, so while the ball was in mid-air, I backed up a couple steps and scooted through the two empty seats in the row directly behind me. The ball was coming…coming…COMING…and a whole bunch of hands reached up for it directly in front of me, but those hands didn’t reach quite high enough, and I jumped at the last second and felt something smack the pocket of my glove. I’d caught it!!
Here’s a screen shot that was taken at the instant before the ball went into my glove. You can see just how crowded it was. The guy in the sky-blue shirt reached up and missed the ball by three inches:
Here’s another screen shot that shows my reaction after catching it:
Here’s one more screen shot after the camera zoomed back out. It’s kind of hard to see, but I’m still holding up both arms. The ball is in my right hand (a little white speck against a black background) and my glove is on my left hand:
Moments after I caught the ball, I began to wonder if Nickeas had hit any other home runs in the major leagues. I remembered his name from last year — he’d been up briefly with the Mets — but I really didn’t know anything about him. Before Jeremy had a chance to pull up any stats on his iPhone, I heard another fan shouting that it was Nickeas’s first major league homer.
How cool! For the first time in my life, I’d managed to catch a home run ball that a player was actually going to want back for himself. I’d heard about these situations so many times. I’d interviewed other ballhawks about their experiences and written a whole section about it in The Baseball. The section is called “Nice Catch! Now What?” (see pages 257-263) and basically educates fans on what to do after catching an important home run. Now it was time to follow my own advice.
Two batters later, a pair of 6-foot-6 security guards marched down the steps.
“Who caught the ball?!” asked one of them.
“I did,” I said, holding it up.
“Come with us,” he said.
“HAHA!!! He’s getting ejected!!!” shouted a fan as I made my way up the steps.
“No I’m not,” I said when I reached that fan’s row. “It’s the guy’s first major league home run, and he wants it back.” I didn’t get heckled after that.
Jeremy had followed me up the steps. I wanted to make sure that he got the full experience, and I also wanted him to take photos. Here I am right after I reached the concourse:
As you can see, I was rather excited. (It was so cold that I was wearing black gloves on both hands. I was also wearing long underwear. Just thought you should know.)
Within a minute, I was surrounded by security guards and supervisors. Fans were high-fiving me, and some of the guards recognized me and shook my hand. It was a truly awesome moment, but I knew that things could quickly turn ugly if I didn’t handle it properly. Meanwhile, the cameras had found me again. Here’s another screen shot that shows me posing with the ball:
“What’s it gonna take?” asked one of the supervisors.
“Well,” I began, “at the very least, I want to be the one to give the ball to Nickeas and shake his hand.”
“THAT’S not gonna happen,” he said with the hint of a sarcastic chuckle.
“Okay,” I said, “then I’ll just keep the ball.”
“WHOA-WHOA-WHOA-WHOA!!!” he said. “Whaddaya mean y–”
“The way I see it,” I explained, “if I’m gonna give a guy his first major league home run ball and he’s not gonna meet me for a minute, then it’s obviously not worth that much to him, so I’ll just keep it.”
There was a frenzy of walkie-talkie chatter after that, and 20 seconds later, the supervisor said, “Okay, if that’s what you want, you can give the ball to him yourself.” (Thank you.)
I suggested to the guards that if the Mets wanted to work a positive media angle, they could mention on the air that the fan who caught the ball is KNOWN for catching balls…and that he wasn’t asking for anything in return…and that he simply wants people to know that he’s raising money for a children’s baseball charity by catching balls at games. I thought about demanding that the charity be mentioned — if the Mets had said no, would that have made me or them look bad? — but ultimately decided to be chill about the whole thing. I really just wanted to meet Nickeas and make sure that he got his ball back. I suppose I could’ve demanded a signed David Wright jersey and/or a Jose Reyes jock strap, but what was the point? I was more interested in the experience than in the potential goodies that I could take home.
In any case, the plan was for me to meet up with a supervisor named Kim near the “Shea Bridge” at the start of the 9th inning. Kim has been working for the Mets for years. She was out in the bleachers with me on September 28, 2008 when I caught the last Mets home run ever hit at Shea Stadium, and she knows all about my baseball collection. She’s always been very friendly, and we get along great, so it was comforting to have her be the one in charge.
Here’s a photo of me surrounded by security personnel. Kim is the one with the long blonde hair:
“Can we have the ball authenticated?” I asked. “I don’t want you guys to accuse me after the game of pawning off a phony ball.”
“You’re fine,” said Kim. “I know you.”
“Or,” said the security guy pictured above with the glasses and gray hair, “you can give the ball to me now, and I’ll hold it for you.”
“I think I’ll just hang onto it myself,” I said, and we all laughed. It was a big game of cat-and-mouse, and for the moment, I had the upper hand.
Finally, after about 10 minutes, Jeremy and I returned to our seats. Here we are with the ball:
Here’s a closeup of the ball, and yes, I removed my gloves for this photo:
Other fans wanted to know what the security guards had said, and several people asked to take my photo. It felt SO good to sit there and watch the game and have the home run ball in my pocket and know that I was going to get to meet the guy who had hit it. It also felt good to see The Home Run on the JumboTron:
When the 9th inning got underway, the Mets were leading, 9-1. Jeremy and I made our way to the Shea Bridge in deeeeeeeeep center field. (I made sure that he’d be able to come with me.) Here’s a photo of what it looked like back there:
Nickeas caught a Matt Downs pop-up to end the game — how fitting — and Kim rushed me down some stairs:
We walked through the area behind the bullpens (this area is open to the public) and headed toward the “Modell’s Clubhouse” sign:
Here I am posing in front of the sign…
…and this is what it looked like when we passed through the doors and turned left:
As you can see, there were lots of barricades and security guards. Kim told the guy in green that Jeremy and I were with her, so he allowed us to proceed down a long tunnel to the left. Here’s what it looked like:
After a solid minute of brisk walking, Kim and I rounded a corner…
…and walked some more. There were players and coaches walking alongside us, and after another minute, we reached the area just outside the Mets clubhouse:
How awesome is that?
The clubhouse doors closed after all the players had made it inside, and I posed for a photo with the home run ball:
Nickeas had entered the clubhouse through another door, so I still hadn’t seen him. That was fine. It only added to the suspense. I wondered if he was showering and changing into street clothes or if he was going to come out in his full uniform. Was it going to take five minutes? Or half an hour? The longer the better. I was so happy to stand there and soak it all in. I thought about asking Nickeas for something/anything when it was time to give him the ball. I wasn’t going to make any sudden demands — I really WAS fine with giving the ball back for free — but I thought that if he was cool and if I got to talk to him for a minute, that…I don’t know…I might mention that I was a collector and tell him that if he were willing to part with any piece of his equipment, that I’d really appreciate it. But again, that was just a passing thought. I really didn’t want to taint the experience (for either of us) by asking for stuff and appearing greedy. I was so happy to be in this situation that it almost didn’t matter what happened at this point.
“So, you caught the ball?” asked a man standing nearby. Turns out it was a writer with the Daily News. We had a couple minutes to kill, so we ended up talking…
…and it turned into a mini-interview.
Then the clubhouse doors swung back open, and Nickeas made his way out:
I didn’t realize it at first, but he was carrying a bat. Was it for me?!
He walked over to me.
“Mike Nickeas,” he said, extending his right hand. “Great to meet you.”
“Zack Hample,” I said, giving a firm handshake. “Great to meet you too. Congrats on your first home run. I got the ball right here.”
I held it out for him:
He was so happy. I could see the huge grin on his face, and that felt great.
“Well, I have a bat for you,” he said, holding it out for me:
The bat was already signed: “Great hands! Best Wishes, Mike Nickeas.”
He asked if I wanted him to write my name on it. I said yes and he asked how to spell it.
“Z-A-C-K,” I said, and he wrote it above the inscription:
He was incredibly friendly. At first I wasn’t sure if he was just being nice because I’d given him the ball, but it became clear pretty fast that he was a genuinely awesome person.
“Thanks so much for the bat,” I said. “I really wasn’t expecting anything in return, so this is a great surprise.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“I really just wanted to make sure you got the ball back,” I continued. “There’ve been plenty of incidents where a fan catches an important home run and makes a bunch of unreasonable demands, and then no one ends up getting what they want. I didn’t want that to happen here. It’s obviously much more impressive to hit a home run in the major leagues than it is to catch a home run in the stands, so, you know, you’re the one who needs to have this ball, not me.”
“I might need you in left field for all my at-bats,” he joked.
He was very appreciative, and it didn’t seem like he was in any rush to leave, so we kept chatting:
I told him that my only request was to give the ball back to him myself, and I described how the security guards weren’t initially going to allow that.
“I figured that YOU weren’t the one saying no to that request,” I said, “and that it was their own dumb security policy.”
“No, of course not,” Nickeas replied.
I told him that I’d caught a lot of baseballs, including several historic home runs, but this was the first time that a player had actually wanted one of them back, and that this was a very special moment for me. He said that the ball was very meaningful to him and that he was going to put it in a box and mail it to his father. Having lost my own father last year, that was especially touching for me to hear.
I was so focused on talking to Nickeas that I didn’t even realize when Mets manager Terry Collins walked by. But hey, here’s photographic proof, courtesy of Jeremy:
I was concerned that I was taking up too much of Nickeas’s time, so I asked him, “Are you okay to talk for another minute? I don’t want to hold you up.”
“I’m fine,” he said, and we kept talking:
We then posed for a photograph…
…and kept talking:
It’s a special feeling to spend time one-on-one with a celebrity (even a rookie ballplayer that most people haven’t heard of) and really have the person’s attention.
I did make one final request before we parted ways: I asked Nickeas if he’d toss me a ball someday if I get his attention from the stands. Of course he said yes.
Then, after Nickeas was gone, I got congratulated by a very friendly security guard named Joe:
Joe has been working for the Mets for as long as I can remember. We always used to see each other when I was running around the Loge Level for foul balls at Shea Stadium, so it was cool to run into him here after a really big moment.
All the security guards were great. I especially appreciate that they didn’t rush me. They all just stood off to the side while Nickeas and I were talking, and they let me do my thing.
Before heading out, I stared lovingly at my new bat…
…and then Jeremy posed with it once we got outside:
(Another interesting side note: Jeremy recently had a short baseball-related story called “Lovers’ Balk” published by Spitball — the same magazine that published this review of The Baseball. Here’s the link to Jeremy’s story in case you want to check it out.)
The ride back to Times Square on the No. 7 train was rather entertaining. I mean, you can’t carry a bat out of a stadium and not be noticed, and in this case, there was a whole group of middle school and high school baseball players who surrounded me and asked questions and took photos:
In the photo above, you can only see one camera, so here’s another angle:
Here’s another look at me and the kids:
The kids then took turns posing with the bat and photographing each other:
What a day.
When I finally made it home, I photographed the bat up close. Here’s a pic of the whole thing:
Here’s Nickeas’s name, along with the model number:
Here’s what he wrote for me:
Here are two logos on the other side of the bat:
Here’s one end of the bat (with Nickeas’s uniform No. 13 written on)…
…and here’s the other end:
I’d never seen a bat knob like this before. I’d only seen the numbers written on with magic marker. Orange and blue, of course, are the Mets colors, so this is extra special. If you want to see all the other bats (and random pieces of equipment) that I’ve gotten at games, click here.
Now, here are my stats. Make sure you keep reading because I have one more thing to show you at the very end…
• 106 balls in 15 games this season = 7.07 balls per game.
• 676 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 202 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 506 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 362 consecutive Mets home games with at least one ball
• 4,768 total balls
(As I’ve mentioned several times in this entry, I’m raising money again this season for Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. Click here to learn more.)
• 37 donors
• $5.99 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $23.96 raised at this game
• $634.94 raised this season
Okay, remember that Daily News reporter? My name didn’t make it into the hard copy of the paper itself, but I was mentioned online. Here’s the link. The article is basically a collection of newsworthy Mets tidbits. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page (the article is split up into two pages), you’ll see the blurb about me.
Meanwhile, my name somehow found its way into the New York Post. Here’s the cover of the paper…
…and here’s the article itself. Check out the blurb next to the red arrow:
Oh yeah, baby!
Oh, and one final thing…
The section in my book that I mentioned earlier (“Nice Catch! Now What?”) begins as follows:
“On average, roughly one of every 15 home runs is so important that the player or team will try to get the ball back. There’s not an official stat for this. It just seems to work out that way…”
Would you believe that the Nickeas home run was **THE** 15th homer that I’d ever snagged during a game? Click here for the complete list.