I won’t claim that this was my best birthday ever — nothing will ever top the shenanigans that went down on Shelter Island in 2003 — but from a baseball standpoint, this was as good as it gets.
It started with the “batting practice tour” at 4:30pm. Here’s the ticket for it that I bought at the Reds Hall of Fame:
As I mentioned two entries ago, Great American Ball Park opens in three stages:
1) Right field opens for the BP tour at 4:30pm.
2) The entire right side of the stadium opens for season ticket holders at 5:10pm.
3) All the gates open to the general public at 5:40pm.
Two entries ago, I also mentioned that there wasn’t exactly a huge crowd for the tour. The Reds limit the number of people to 50, but there were only about 20 of us that day. Remember? Well, at the September 14th game, there were only six fans who entered the stadium for the tour.
DID YOU HEAR ME?!?!?!
This was my view from right field…
…and for the first 40 minutes, this was what it looked like on my left…
…and on my right:
For 40 solid minutes, it never got more crowded than that, and for the record, here’s what it looked like behind me:
To say that it was ball-snagging heaven is an understatement. Of the six fans who were in the stadium, there was a father with his very young son. They hung back several rows and got a bunch of toss-ups from the players. There were also three adult men, one of whom had a glove — and there was me.
Happy birthday, indeed.
Before I tell you how many baseballs I ended up snagging, you need to know this: I began the day with a season total of 971 balls, which meant I was 29 short of reaching my goal of 1,000.
My 1st ball was a ground-rule double by Dontrelle Willis that bounced into the seats in right-center field. The stadium had just opened, so the section was totally empty, but it was still a challenge to snag it because I had to race one of the other guys there.
My 2nd ball was a Todd Frazier homer that I caught on the fly. I was in the middle of the front row when I realized that the ball was going to sail over my head, so I climbed back into the second row and then back again to the third before making the grab. That one felt good.
My 3rd ball was tossed by a security guard on the fake-grassy slope in front of the batter’s eye. There were several balls up there, and he tossed them all into the “crowd.” As soon as I caught it, some random stadium employee who was sitting near the guard shouted, “That’s his third ball!” The guard responded by demanding that I give it back to him. I thought he was kidding at first, but he was dead serious. (Picture the guard standing there with one hand on his hip and the other making a patronizing “come here” gesture.) I pleaded my case, which included telling him that (a) it was my birthday and that (b) I’d promised to give a ball to the little kid if he didn’t get one on his own. The guard made a big fuss about it at first, but eventually relented and let me keep the ball. I then informed the random employee that I’d paid $15 to be there, and when he started arguing with me, I politely suggested that he mind his [expletive deleted] business.
At around 5pm, a right-handed batter on the Reds sliced a foul ball into the empty seats along the right field foul line. At the time, I wasn’t allowed to go there, so I stayed in straight-away right and snagged two baseballs that were hit by Yonder Alonso. The first was a ground-rule double that I caught by leaning *way* over the outfield wall, and the second was a homer that landed behind me in the seats.
When the stadium clock said 5:10pm and a handful of season holders filed into the stadium, I ran over to the seats in foul territory and found this:
That was my 6th ball of the day.
Bill Bray tossed me my 7th ball, and I got No. 8 with my “half-glove trick.” (That’s what I call it when I simply swing my glove out to knock a ball closer.) That one was sitting on the grassy slope in front of the batter’s eye. It was roughly 10 feet out from the corner spot in right-center, so it took quite an effort to snag it. I kept expecting stadium security to shut me down, but no one said a word.
A little while later, I used my glove trick to snag a ball off the warning track in straight-away right field. Reds pitcher Jose Arredondo saw me doing it and, evidently, was so intrigued that he got another ball and rolled it to the wall below me. Here he is waiting for me to snag it…
…and here’s the ball itself:
It only took a matter of seconds to reel it in, and just like that, I’d reached double digits. Soon after, I gave that ball to a kid.
It was only 5:20pm, so I still had 20 more minutes before heading to left field. During that time, I caught a Brandon Phillips ground-rule double in right-center and then had a chance to snag a homer that landed several rows behind me. One of the gloveless guys from the tour was right near me, so we both scrambled for it. When I tried to reach around him to pick up the ball, he yanked my left arm away to prevent me from getting it.
“WHOA WHOA WHOA!!!” I yelled as I reached around with my right arm and grabbed the ball. “DON’T TOUCH ME!!!”
“Don’t climb on my back!” he snapped. “The next time you do that, I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Long story short: the guy ended up apologizing and admitting that he got carried away in the heat of the moment.
At around 5:35pm, I had a chance to use my glove trick for a ball in right-center, but just as I was about to make my move, a left-handed batter on the Cubs sent a deep line drive my way. At the time, my glove was sitting on the pavement in the front row, and my string was partially uncoiled, so I shifted over and prepared to make a bare-handed catch. The ball ended up landing on the warning track and skipping up to me with a ton of topspin. I stuck out my right hand and caught it cleanly. That was my 13th ball of the day, and less than two minutes later, I snagged a Carlos Pena homer that landed near me in an empty row.
The stadium had been open for 70 minutes, and I’d snagged 14 balls. My goal was to snag six more and reach the 20-ball plateau for the second straight day. I was hoping to find a ball or two when the left field seats opened at 5:40pm. Instead, I ended up finding FIVE. I wish I had photos of all the balls sitting there, but there were other fans (all adults, FYI) running right behind me, so I didn’t even have one second to spare. I did take a photo of the five balls after I grabbed them all:
There’s a reason why I put all those balls there, and no, I didn’t do it for the purpose of taking a photo. I put ’em there because I needed to take off my backpack and unzip it and toss them all in.
Anyway, it was only 5:41pm, and I already had 19 balls. On each of the previous two days, the Cubs’ portion of BP had lasted until 6:30pm, so I figured I had 50 more minutes to…I didn’t even know what. Snag 10 more and reach 1,000 for the season? If I got 29 balls, then I’d have to go for 30, and if I got 30, then I’d have to try to break my record of 32, which I set on 6/18/09 at Kauffman Stadium. But then it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t snag 10 more balls — that if I got seven or eight, perhaps I should stop. My friend Brandon, a professional photographer/videographer, was planning to take some epic action shots of the milestone ball, but he wasn’t with me. He was with his girlfriend at a Blink 182 concert in Cleveland, and they were planning to return the next day. They’d both be with me at Target Field for my next game, so I was thinking that if I got close to snagging my 1,000th ball, that I should hold off in order to ensure that it’d be properly documented. AAAHHH!!! I was driving myself crazy. Too much thinking. Too much planning. I just wanted to have fun and be in the moment and try to snag as many balls as possible.
This was my view from left field:
Less than a minute after I took that photo, I got my 20th ball of the day from Rodrigo Lopez, and then I got Tyler Colvin to throw me another. That’s when I noticed a couple of kids in the front row — a boy and a girl who had gloves and were standing next to their parents. I told the kids that if they didn’t get baseballs by 6pm, I’d give them each one — but I insisted that they try.
“Don’t just stand there and watch the minutes tick by,” I told them. “I want you to focus on the players and really try to catch some baseballs on your own, okay?”
The kids nodded, and their parents thanked me, and I got back to business.
My 22nd ball of the day was a homer that landed in the mostly-empty seats — not sure who hit it, but I can tell you that I handed it to the nearest kid. Then John Gaub tossed a ball that sailed over the head of the boy that I’d been talking to and landed at my feet. I picked it up and handed it to him. My 24th ball was a Reed Johnson homer that I caught on the fly. I had to climb down a couple rows for that one, and I gave it to the man who’d jumped and barely missed it.
By 6pm, the girl that I’d talked to was still empty-handed, so I kept my promise and gave her one of my baseballs.
By this point, I really thought I had a chance to put up some ridiculous numbers. I was only five balls away from 1,000 — and things kept going.
Ball No. 25? A home run by Alfonso Soriano that I caught on the fly after running one full section to my left and leaping. Ball No. 26? Another Soriano homer that landed in the seats in straight-away left. I gave both of those balls away as soon as I snagged them. It was like…catch a ball, give it to the nearest kid, catch another, give it to another kid, and so on. Although I knew exactly how many balls I was catching, I lost track of how many I’d given away.
This was the view on my left…
…and this was the view on my right:
That was as crowded as it got.
I’m glad he was there to witness all of this because I almost couldn’t believe it myself.
I told him that I was only three balls away from snagging 1,000 for the season, and we counted down together. Ball No. 27 was another homer that I caught on the fly. Same deal with Ball No. 28. I don’t remember the details, and I can’t tell you who hit them other than right-handed white guys on the Cubs. Koyie Hill? Jeff Baker? DJ LeMahieu? Bryan LaHair? I seriously had no idea. If I’m remembering correctly, I drifted down a few steps for one of these catches, and the other ball pretty much came right to me. Everyone in the section was amazed. They couldn’t believe how many balls I was catching, and they were all thrilled because I kept handing them off to various kids. My season total had reached 999, and then it happened: one of the batters sent a deep fly ball in my direction, and I *knew* that I was going to catch it.
“Here it is!” I yelled at no one in particular, but mostly for Kyle’s benefit.
The ball was carrying a bit, so I drifted back about three or four steps, then shifted to my right, and settled under the ball for what turned out to be a very easy catch.
Number one thousand. I handed my camera to Kyle and posed with the ball:
Here’s a two-part photo of the ball itself:
I was kind of in a state of shock because it all happened so fast, and then when it DID happen, it was rather anti-climactic. Brandon wasn’t there to take photos, and I didn’t even know the name of the player who’d hit it. And yet…there it was in my hand…my 1,000th baseball of the season. I barely had time to appreciate it or reflect, so I’ll do it now. When Opening Day rolled around, I wasn’t even thinking about catching 1,000 balls. My goal was to break Erik Jabs‘ single-season record of 544 balls, but then I thought, “Hell, if I’m gonna go for 545, I might as well go for 600.” That was my initial goal. I figured I could average 100 balls per month, but then I got off to a blistering pace. I ended up snagging 184 balls in April, so I thought, “Hell, instead of averaging 100 per month, why not aim for 150?” And then I thought, “Hell, if I’m gonna aim for 900 balls, I might as well aim for 1,000.” I truly didn’t think it was possible, though. It was more of a fantasy than a goal. I’d crunched the numbers and figured that I needed to attend 125 games and average eight balls per game. (That’s a lot of games and a lot of balls.) Somehow I was still on pace in early June — that is, until I sprained the crap out of my ankle on 6/3/11 at Citi Field. That was such a bad injury that I thought my chances of snagging 1,000 balls were gone. And then, you know, blah blah, I came back with a vengeance. I don’t need to give you a play-by-play rundown of the entire season. The point is that I’d been aiming for this number for a while, so it felt *amazing* to finally get there.
After snagging my 29th ball of the day, I sensed that BP was about to end, so I hurried into foul territory and made my way toward the Cubs’ dugout on the 3rd base side. I barely made it before the players and coaches cleared the field. When I reached the outfield end of the dugout, I got a coach (no idea who) to toss me my 30th ball of the day. I had my camera on at the time, and as the ball sailed toward me, I took the following photo of it:
Then, when the second/final wave of guys began heading toward the home-plate end of the dugout, I hurried over there and got another coach to throw me a ball. I didn’t know who it was, but I took a photo of him just before he let it fly. Have a look:
Does anyone know who that is?
At that point, I’d snagged 31 baseballs. Here are four photos of the more interesting ones…
…and here’s the coolest ball of all:
Do you see that mark in the middle of the ball? That’s a bat imprint, and I’m quite certain that it says “CINCINNATI” — backwards and reversed, of course. Pretty nifty, eh?
Anyway, I simply *had* to find a way to snag two more baseballs and break my record. That record, you may recall, had an asterisk because of some shady tactics that I’d used to snag a whole bunch of balls after the game. Here’s the link to my entry about it, in case you’ve never seen it or want to take another look.
I had a little time to kill, and I spent it with a guy named Brandon (no, not THE Brandon) who’d recognized me during BP and asked me to sign his ticket. At the time that he first introduced himself, I had about a dozen balls, and I knew that I was in the midst of doing something special, so I didn’t want to lose any opportunities. I asked him if he could wait until after BP, and when he said yes, I told him to meet me behind the 3rd base dugout. After BP, Brandon was nice enough to wander out to left field with me to the exact spot where I’d snagged my 1,000th ball of the season. I figured that’d be a good place to take my “stadium number sign” photo, and we got right to it. Here I am:
Great American Ball Park is the 25th major league stadium that I’ve visited this season. I wasn’t too happy about being there the first day, but I held off on taking my stadium number sign photo because I could tell that things were going to get better.
Here’s a collage of my first 24 stadium photos:
Two photos above, did you notice that there were people walking around the warning track? There was some type of “bring your dog to the park” promotion, which was cute and all, but more importantly, Ramon Hernandez was playing catching catch with bullpen coach Juan Lopez. When I saw that, I bolted for the corner spot in left-center. There were a bunch of kids nearby, but they weren’t there to get the ball. They were just interested in the dogs, so there was literally NO competition, and when the guys finished throwing, I got Lopez to hook me up. That was my 32nd ball of the day. Here’s a photo that I took 10 seconds after catching it:
After that, I signed Brandon’s ticket and then upgraded my own. I actually took my left field ticket to a ticket window inside the stadium and paid the difference for a new ticket behind the Cubs’ dugout. It was a lot more money than I wanted to spend, but I felt like I had to do it. My best chance to break my record was going to happen there in the form of 3rd-out balls. The previous day, I’d gotten kicked out of that section by a grouchy usher, and I knew he’d give me the boot if he saw me again. Therefore, I had to buy my way down to where I wanted to be — something I normally wouldn’t do — but this was a special occasion. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have another game like this, so I wanted to maximize my opportunities, even if it meant feeling like a schmuck for spending an extra fifty bucks.
Brandon came with me when I upgraded my ticket. On the way there and back, I grabbed a slice of pizza, which I ate while running through the concourse. Every second was crucial. I knew that the Cubs might start their pre-game throwing at any moment, and that it wouldn’t last long.
As I predicted, it wasn’t long before the Cubs started throwing. In the following photo, Darwin Barney is the player on the right:
In the photo above, you can see that none of the fans were standing up in the front row. In New York, there would’ve been half a dozen kids screaming for the ball and waving their arms, but here in Cincinnati, there was zero competition. As a result, when Barney finished, I got him to throw me the ball — my 33rd of the day and a new record. Here I am with it:
I truly didn’t know how to pose or what to think.
Here’s a two-part photo of the record-breaking ball:
Did you notice the screwy “practice” stamp on the right? Someone needs practice stamping “practice.”
Once the game started, my plan was simple: run back and forth from dugout to dugout and try to snag as many 3rd-out balls as possible. If I played things right, I figured I could get one ball from each team — and maybe more.
I won’t give you an inning-by-inning account of the entire game. Instead, I’ll just say this: after Brandon Phillips struck out to end the bottom of the 2nd, I got Cubs catcher Geovany Soto to throw me the ball on the 3rd base side.
This was my view from the 1st base dugout:
As you can see, I was in the perfect spot for the catcher, and when Carlos Pena struck out to end of the top of the 8th, I got Ramon Hernandez to throw me the ball.
“You mean it’s THAT easy?” asked a nearby fan after I got the ball from Hernandez.
“Sometimes,” I said with a shrug.
It wasn’t easy in the bottom of the 3rd when Pena caught the final out and tossed it to me several rows back. Like an idiot, I hung back and waited for his perfect throw to come to me, and at the last second, a gloveless, college-aged kid sitting one row below me jumped up and deflected the ball just before I was about to catch it. If I’d moved down one step and forced myself to jump for the ball, no one else would’ve been able to interfere. That’s a maneuver that I often use in New York and other places where people are aggressive, but here in Cincinnati, I waited passively because I assumed that everyone around me was going to stay seated. This ball from Pena was, as they say, “the one that got away,” but what can I do? These things happen, and it was still a magical day.
Here’s a photo of the two 3rd-out balls that I snagged — numbers 34 and 35 of the day.
As the game approached the 9th inning, I had to make an important decision: where to be for the final out. The Reds were winning, 7-2, but the umpires were going to exit on the Cubs’ side. Ultimately, I chose the Cubs’ side and sat here for the final two outs:
I was situated on the perfect staircase for the umps, and after the game ended, BAM!!!
I got my 36th and final ball of the day from home plate umpire Gary Darling. Here’s a closeup of the ball:
I don’t know how else to describe it, and my friend Brad (the guy who got the huge shout-out on page 325 of The Baseball) called it. He knew it was my 34th birthday, so when I talked to him before heading off to this game, he said, “Snag your age.”
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a rare accomplishment to outsnag one’s age. Think about it. How many five-year-olds are capable of snagging six balls at a major league game? How many 10-year-olds can snag 11 balls? How many people of any age can snag 20 balls? After a certain point, the older you get, the harder it becomes. I was 31 years old when I snagged 32 balls in Kansas City; now I’ve outsnagged my age again, possibly for the final time ever. Have you ever outsnagged your age? I’d be curious to know if I’m the only one who’s done this.
On my way out of the stadium, I met up with Rocco and his wife Jill. As I mentioned two entries ago, Rocco is a regular ballhawk at this stadium and had taken really good care of me during my few games here. The first time I met him, he was treating me like a brother. As a token of my gratitude (and because my backpack was still way too heavy), I gave them each a baseball. Here they are in the concourse behind home plate:
It was then that I realized just how many balls I’d given away over the course of the day. I’d given away ten — also a record.
Once I made it outside, I used my 26 balls to create some “balligraphy.” Check it out:
The balligraphy drew a small crowd of onlookers:
In the photo above, there are eight pairs of feet. Those belong to me, Rocco, Jill, three random boys, and two parents. It turned out that the parents knew all about me and had heard of The Baseball. I think they told me that they own a copy of it. Yes…that has to be what they said because I remember telling them that if they mail it to me, I’ll sign it and mail it back. All three of the boys already had baseballs (which they asked me to sign), and we got a photo together:
In the photo above, that’s Nick on the left, Steve next to him, and Grant on the right. Cool kids. We all hung out for 10 to 20 minutes, and that was pretty much it. It started raining, so I hopped in a cab back to my hotel and prepared for the next leg of my road trip…
• 1,007 balls in 116 games this season = 8.68 balls per game.
• 777 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 302 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 174 lifetime games with ten or more balls
• 14 lifetime games with twenty or more balls
• 2 lifetime games with thirty or more balls
• 5,669 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.)
• 59 donors
• $7.36 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $264.96 raised at this game
• $7,411.52 raised this season
Hold on. We’re not done quite yet. I thought it’d be fun to see what 36 balls look like, so I grabbed 10 from the day before (to replace the 10 I’d given away) and spread them all out:
Damn, that’s a LOT of baseballs! It’s hard to believe that I snagged that many at one game.
Here’s another look.
Here’s one final photo of 36 balls:
I nearly posted it on Twitter (@zack_hample) the next day, but then I figured, “Hell, I’ll just make everyone wait to read about it on my blog.”