Twenty years ago, I saw a fan make an unbelievable catch that I never forgot. The game was on TV at the Padres’ old stadium, and the batter blasted a deep home run to left. Sitting near the front of the section, the fan turned his back to the field and bolted up a whole bunch of steps. Then, when he reached what appeared to be an arbitrary row, he cut to his left and ran at least 20 feet. When the ball landed, this guy was right there. There weren’t any other fans around. He was alone in the seats. It was basically him versus the ball — and he won.
The reason why I’m telling this story is that I made a similar catch the other day at Nationals Park. Granted, mine happened during batting practice, and the “row” I picked was much wider, but it still felt great, and I kind of surprised myself. I was standing in the Red Porch seats in left-center field when someone on the Nationals (not sure who) cranked one to my left. At the time, there was another fan standing three rows behind me, but he didn’t realize that the ball was going to travel a LONG way, so when it was hit, he simply started moving through his row. I immediately turned my back to the field and bolted up the stairs, well past his row. When I reached the first platform of tables, I cut to my left, and when I reached the spot where I thought the ball might land, I stopped abruptly and looked up. The home run was a such a towering blast that I still had a second to spare, and when the ball finally descended, I reached out and caught it.
Now that I’ve made a catch similar to the one I saw all those years ago on TV, I can tell you that there was lots of luck involved — and here’s why. Whenever a batter connects with the ball, it’s easy to determine which direction it’s heading. Left? Right? Or maybe right at you? With rare exceptions when the ball tails or hooks or gets blown to the side by the wind, you pretty much always know whether you have to move laterally. The biggest challenge is predicting the distance. This is most difficult when the ball is hit right at you, but when it’s hit to one side, you have a better view of the arc. You can see if the ball rockets up toward the sky, or if it merely sails upward like a routine fly ball. The point is that when this ball first shot off the bat, it was heading to my left, so I could tell that it was going to land deep in my section. At that point, since I was already standing on the stairs, there was only one way to go: UP. Then, when I reached the first platform of tables, it was pretty obvious that I had to turn left at that point. Sure, I could’ve proceeded up a few more steps and turned left at the next platform, but that simply would’ve taken too long. Even if I knew that the ball was going to land all the way up there, I wouldn’t have gotten there in time, so it made sense to take the first left and get in line with it. And then? It was just a matter of luck. The ball happened to reach that first platform of tables. It could’ve easily fallen five feet short or sailed ten feet over my head, but instead it came right to me, which probably seemed impressive to the few people who might’ve noticed the route that I took to get there. And it was impressive to me — at first. Ultimately, though, I realized that it was the only place to be. The fan who made the catch in San Diego deserves more credit for several reasons, but if I had to guess, I’d say he picked his row because of the timing of the situation. In other words, he probably didn’t know the exact distance that the ball would travel. Instead (and this is a total assumption on my part) he cut to the left when he did because he sensed that the ball was going to be landing soon. He knew that if he ran up three or five more rows, he’d be too late.
No one is THAT good at judging fly balls, but anyone with a certain degree of skill can get THAT lucky. No disrespect intended, but the guy in San Diego probably misjudged a homer earlier that day during BP. I’ll admit that I misjudge them all the time. Watch any major league outfielder on a routine fly; chances are he’ll start by taking a step forward when he should be moving back — or vice versa. Then he’ll drift with the ball right up until the moment that he catches it.
Anyway, the fancy-schmancy catch that I made was my second of the day. The first one came moments earlier and was as easy as it gets (so I won’t write 800 more words about it). After I made those two catches, a kid walked over and told me that he recognized me and asked me to sign a ball. His name was Mike, and here he is with it:
Soon after, another kid recognized me and said hello. He didn’t have a ball for me to sign, so he asked if we could get a photo together. His name was Jared, and here we are:
As you can probably guess from the photo above, the Nationals were playing the Phillies, and let me tell you, there were a TON of Phillies fans. Remember how empty the section was the day before after the stadium had been open for 40 minutes? Well, compare that to the following photo, taken at the same time with Philly in the house:
There wasn’t nearly as much room to run, but even worse was the fact that there just weren’t many home runs being hit. I don’t know why. That’s just how it was, and as a result, I only got one more ball while the Nationals were on the field — a toss-up from Ross Detwiler. (Can you spot Jona in the photo above? Virtual chest-bump to the first person to point her out.)
This might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not: nine out of every ten fans were wearing Phillies gear. It’s like I was *at* a Phillies game in Washington, D.C. (Note to self: along with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs, try to avoid seeing the Phillies on the road. Or ever.)
The right field seats were also crowded, of course. The only ball I got there was an Easter egg when that section opened at 5:30pm. I did have another chance to snag one…
…but didn’t go for it because it was heading toward a kid in the front row. I was standing on a chair at the time and easily could’ve reached above the kid and picked it off. Instead, I held back and let him have it — just a little FYI for the haters out there who blindly accuse me of stealing baseballs from children.
In the photo above, do you see the guy standing to my right? He’s wearing a dark blue shirt with white letters on the back. That was an usher, and after he noticed how I was positioned, he said, “Hey, buddy, this isn’t a gym. Do me a favor and don’t climb all over the seats, okay?”
“Oh, sorry,” I said, and we went our separate ways. Two minutes later, I saw the usher leading a small group of fans down to their seats. “You know,” I told him, “you should really be thanking me for stepping on the seats because if I leave footprints all over them, then you’ll get more tips from people when you wipe them off.”
He smiled subtly.
“I mean REALLY,” I said, loud enough for the group of fans to hear me, “you should be asking me to leave footprints on as many seats as possible. If anything, I would be doing you a favor.”
The usher didn’t respond. He just wiped the seats for the people and then headed back up the stairs toward where I was standing.
“So, did you get a tip from them?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said with a huge grin. “Thanks.” And he shook my hand.
I headed to left field after that and accomplished nothing there. Look how crowded it was:
I didn’t snag a single ball during the entire Phillies’ portion of BP. The only other ball I got all day was tossed by this guy after BP:
In the photo above, you can see him standing in front of the dugout, looking right at me. (I’m standing to the right of the guy in the “HOWARD” shirt.) I didn’t know who he was. I figured it was bullpen catcher Jesus Tiamo, but later when I combed through the head shots of the Phillies’ coaching staff, I couldn’t find him. Tiamo looks middle-aged. The guy who tossed me the ball looked like he was young enough to be a player, although perhaps a bit too hefty. Can anyone help me identify him?
Here’s something worth pointing out: when the Phillies cleared the field after BP, all the Phillies fans in the stadium cheered and applauded. It was an incredible display of team loyalty and support. How did the Phillies players react? By walking off the field stone-faced and with their heads down. Not ONE player acknowledged the fans in any way. Several little kids near me were screaming at Ryan Madson for an autograph, and he completely ignored them. (Karma, anyone?)
The forecast called for rain, so when the game started and the sky looked like this…
…I sat with Jona in the handicapped row under the overhang of the second deck. (The row was partially empty, and the usher gave us permission to sit there, so relax.)
Ten minutes later, this was the scene:
When it started pouring, the people who were sitting down below got absolutely SOAKED because everyone tried to leave at once, and the stairs were completely jammed. Jona and I just sat there and watched.
It was obvious that the rain wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, and we had to drive back to New York City that night. As much as I wanted to see the game, it just didn’t make sense to stay, so we left. The concourse was SO crowded…
…that it took about 15 minutes to walk from the 3rd base dugout to the left field foul pole. On the way out, I gave one of my baseballs to a little kid with an empty glove, and on the way back to New York, I took Jona to Waffle House for the first time in her life. She enjoyed the overall “experience,” but wasn’t impressed with the food. Of course, she was a vegan for 20 years and still tries to eat raw/organic food whenever possible, so what the hell does SHE know?
When we got back to New York, I learned that (a) the rain delay had lasted two hours and 22 minutes and that (b) the Nationals won the game, 8-4, on a walk-off grand slam by Ryan Zimmerman in the bottom of the 9th. Guess who surrendered it? That’s right: Ryan Madson. It would’ve been nice to be there for it, but there’s no chance that I would’ve caught the ball.
• 805 balls in 94 games this season = 8.56 balls per game.
• 755 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 280 consecutive games with two or more balls
• 5,467 total balls
(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.)
• 56 donors
• $7.12 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $35.60 raised at this game
• $5,731.60 raised this season