The playoffs arrived one day early in Atlanta — sort of.
This was the final game of the regular season, and the Braves were tied with the Cardinals for the National League wild-card. Of course, since the Cardinals were playing the Astros in Houston, there was a chance that things would still be tied at the end of the day.
Lots of fans showed up early…
…and none of them sounded confident when I asked them what they thought of their team’s chances.
“The way things’ve been going,” said one fan, “they’ll probably lose this game.”
“They might win tonight,” said his friend, “but they’re definitely not going deep into October.”
I was stunned by the extreme pessimism. Granted, the Braves had melted down in September, but still, anything is possible in baseball, right?
Things got off to a good start for me during batting practice. When I first ran inside, I saw a ball sitting in the gap behind the left-center field wall and snagged it with my glove trick. Just as I was recoiling my string, a home run landed half a dozen rows behind me and bounced back onto the field. I got Jason Heyward to toss it to me and then raced over to the seats in right-center. Less than five minutes later, George Sherrill threw me my 3rd ball of the day (I offered it to a little girl who refused), and I followed that up by reeling in another ball from the gap. This is what it looked like when I pulled it out of my glove:
Ew. But then again, it was only mud…I hope.
Seriously, though, the gap was wet and muddy in some places. Did you notice the water in the gap in the previous photo? I had actually decided that if a ball landed in that puddle, I was going to leave it there. Thankfully, that never happened because I probably would’ve changed my mind and gone for it. And that would’ve been messy.
I used my glove trick again to snag another ball from the gap in right-center. Then I moved to right field and got Cristhian Martinez to toss me my 6th ball. In the following photo, Martinez is the player on the left (with his arms folded) near the edge of the warning track:
When the Braves’ portion of BP ended, I was standing behind their dugout on the 1st base side. Hitting coach Larry Parrish tossed me my 7th ball of the day…
…and bench coach Carlos Tosca flipped one to me moments later:
In case you’re wondering, yes, I took those photos myself (and yes, my timing was a bit too quick with Parrish). My glove was on my left hand. My camera was in my right hand. Easy.
Incidentally, the ball from Tosca was the 2,500th that I’d ever snagged outside of New York — a nice little personal milestone, but whatever, let’s not dwell on that. Do you remember the two tape-measure homers by Hunter Pence that I snagged the day before during BP? Well, Pence was at it again, and I was back in position. This was my view from deep left field…
…and this was what it looked like on my right:
Long story short: I caught three of his homers on the fly. I reached over the railing for the first one, drifted a bit to my left for the second, and made the best play of all on the third.
Long story long: Pence’s final homer was somewhat of a line drive, and I determined fairly quickly that it was going to sail over the aisle. I had to run about 30 feet to my right, and there were two other (gloveless) guys who ran for it too — one who was right in front of me and another who came charging from the opposite direction. At the very last second, when the two guys converged at the spot where they thought the ball was heading, I scampered up the steps that led to the seats above the aisle. I didn’t make it far — just far enough to watch the ball clear their outstretched hands and smack into the pocket of my glove. The guys weren’t pissed. They knew they’d been beaten fair and square, and one of them congratulated me. One of the ushers (pictured above in the red shirts) came over and asked me if I played ball. When I told him that I briefly played college ball, he told me that it showed — that he could tell by the way I got good jumps on the ball and that he’d never seen anyone move like that in the stands. That was really nice to hear.
Two minutes later, when Carlos Ruiz stepped into the cage to take his last few cuts, I darted back down into the seats. I knew that he wasn’t going to reach the cross-aisle, and sure enough, he ended up hitting a home run that pretty much came right to me. I had to drift 10 feet to my left and make a leaping catch, and when I came back down with the ball, the whole section was buzzing. Soon after, I had a chance to catch a 5th homer on the fly, but because I took a bad route for it, I ended up one row too far back, and when I reached down as far as I could, the ball tipped off the end of my glove and deflected to another fan. So you see? I’m not perfect. And by the way, the first Hunter Pence homer was my 1,100th ball of the season.
My 13th ball of the day was tossed by Ryan Madson in right field. Here’s a photo of him that I took moments later:
Before Madson hooked me up, he’d been tossing balls left and right to little kids and attractive women. I knew that in order to be considered for a free souvenir, I was going to have to stand out in some way or say something clever.
“Hey, Ryan,” I eventually shouted, “I’m not cute, but can I please have a ball anyway?”
That’s all it took.
At one point, when Madson tossed a ball to a little boy, the kid’s mother asked for another for her other child.
“One baseball per family,” said Madson with the hint of a smile. He was really friendly to everyone, including me when he ultimately recognized me.
“How many shirts are you wearing?” he asked.
“Umm, well, I *do* have another shirt on underneath this,” I said, tugging at my Phillies gear.
“No!” I said with exaggerated denial, lifting it up to reveal my yellow Homer Simpson shirt.
Madson laughed and then jogged off to retrieve another ball. When he returned, I had to get his attention all over again, so I shouted, “Ryan, am I in trouble?!”
He turned back and took a quick glance at me and shook his head.
“But how did you know who I am?!” I asked.
Madson responded by pointing at a coach/BP assistant named Ali Modami.
“HE told you?!” I asked.
Evidently, he was done using actual words to communicate because when I asked him how Modami knew, he just shrugged, and that was the end of it. Modami was too far away for me to try to engage him in conversation. Perhaps I’ll run into him someday and ask — or maybe I’ll avoid making eye contact so that he won’t remember me. How else will I be able to con him into tossing me another ball, mwahaha?
Thankfully, Michael Schwimer didn’t recognize me (despite having given me two baseballs earlier in the month) and threw me my 14th ball of the day.
At the every end of BP, I had another “I’m not perfect” moment when I jumped as high as I could for a home run and failed to catch it cleanly. I did, however, manage to get my glove on it and snag it after it landed near me. That ball was brand new so I gave it to the nearest fan. I mean, I would’ve given it away regardless, but I was glad that it was new. I prefer to keep the beat-up baseballs (like the one below) because they have character:
Those are two photos of the same ball — a beautiful ball that lived a happy life of major league use and fulfillment.
After BP, I wandered through the concourse in search of dinner. (I ended up getting a decent slice of pepperoni pizza.) On the way, I ran into this guy:
I didn’t know him. I just had to say hello and take his picture, and in case you’re wondering, the back of his jersey said, “RYAN 34.”
You remember what I said about the Astros at the beginning of this entry, right? They were going to be playing the Cardinals. The Braves and Cardinals were tied for the wild-card lead, so to put it simply, Braves fans were rooting hardcore for the Astros.
Ready for a little eye-candy? This was the scene after the national anthem:
During the game, or at least the first eight innings of the game, I sat in the front row behind the Phillies’ dugout. This was my view:
Not bad, eh?
The story of the game, at least for me, was (a) toss-ups and (b) scoreboard watching.
When Freddie Freeman grounded out to Chase Utley to end the 3rd inning, I didn’t have to move. All I did was stand up and wave my arms, and Ryan Howard tossed me the ball on his way back to the dugout. The ball was clearly intended for me, but there was a little kid standing nearby, so I handed him a ball — not THE actual game-used ball, but one of the balls that I’d gotten during BP. The kid, of course, didn’t know the difference, and his parents thanked me.
As for the scoreboard watching, the Braves jumped out to 3-1 lead…
…and that was a very very very good thing for the folks in Atlanta because the Cardinals put up a five-spot in the top of the 1st:
The Cardinals’ lead wasn’t particularly surprising; entering the final day of the regular season, the Astros’ won-lost record was 56-105.
In the top of the 6th inning, Hunter Pence swung a bit too soon and a bit too high at a 1-0 pitch from Tim Hudson. The result was a foul grounder that slammed off the protective fence in front of the Phillies’ dugout and ricocheted to Braves 3rd baseman Chipper Jones. Jones scooped up the ball and tossed it to Phillies 3rd base coach Juan Samuel. Samuel then under-handed it to me, and I promptly handed it to the nearest kid. I really wanted to keep that ball, but giving it away seemed like the appropriate thing to do, and since I didn’t have a BP ball handy, I turned over the actual game-used ball. Whatever. It was still fun to snag it, and I was glad to get to add Samuel’s name to my list. (Did you know that Samuel held the rookie stolen base record before Vince Coleman? True story. Check out Samuel’s stats. They were really impressive in the early years of his career. Sure, he struck out way too much, but I used to love to look at the back of his baseball cards. I loved how he achieved double digits in doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases in each of his first four full seasons. I loved that in his first full season, he amassed 701 at-bats. At the time, he was only the second player in major league history to do that; Willie Wilson held the record with 705. This is how I spent much of my childhood — marveling and obsessing over baseball statistics and hoping that one day I would amass some impressive stats of my own.)
With two outs in the bottom of the 6th inning, runners on first and second, and the Braves still holding a 3-1 lead, Jack Wilson ripped a line drive single to right field. Dan Uggla, the runner on second, attempted to score, but was thrown out at the plate by Hunter Pence. Carlos Ruiz made the tag and lobbed the ball to me on his way in. I wasn’t anywhere near the home-plate end of the dugout, so I was surprised that Ruiz saw me, but hey, very few of the nearby Phillies fans had gloves, so I received most of the snag-related attention. This was my 18th ball of the day, and as soon as I caught it, I handed one of my BP balls to another kid. Normally, if a grown man catches even one ball near a dugout, he’ll get booed, but because I kept giving balls away, no one was pissed off. In fact, everyone kept giving me thumbs-ups and acknowledging my generosity.
At the start of the day, I’d decided that when the game ended, I wanted to be behind the winning team’s dugout, so when Craig Kimbrel came in to protect the Braves’ 3-2 lead in the top of the 9th, I headed to the 1st base side. This was my view:
As you can see in the photo above, there were a couple of runners on base. For the Braves, the inning was a disaster. All they needed to do was NOT allow a run, and they would’ve at least been guaranteed to play a 163rd game the next day in St. Louis. By this point, the Cardinals had jumped out to an 8-0 lead over the Astros, so the Braves HAD to win this game or their season would be over. Kimbrel, however, cracked under pressure. After allowing a leadoff single to Placido Polanco, he issued back-to-back, one-out walks to Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins. That loaded the bases for Chase Utley, who delivered a game-tying sacrifice fly. Kimbrel then walked the next batter and got yanked by manager Fredi Gonzalez. Kris Medlen entered the game and got Michael Martinez to hit an inning-ending pop-up, but the damage was done. The Braves had lost their momentum, and the game was tied, 3-3.
Meanwhile, an equally tense showdown was playing out in the American League. The Red Sox (on the verge of a historic collapse) and Rays (on the verge of an equally historic comeback) were also tied for the wild-card. As you can see below, the Sox were clinging to a 3-2 lead in Baltimore…
…and the Rays were getting blown out at home against the Yankees:
I don’t have a favorite team, so I tend to pull for underdogs, and in this case the Rays clearly qualified. It wasn’t looking good for them, though, but I remember thinking about how awesome it would be if they came back to tie the game. I don’t know why I even thought it was possible, but I did. That’s baseball. Anything IS possible.
As the Braves game moved to the bottom of the 10th inning…
…the Cardinals game went final:
Now it was official: the Braves truly HAD to win this game.
Twenty minutes later, I nearly did a double-take when I glanced up at the American League scores. Never mind the fact that the Red Sox were in a rain delay. Look at the Rays score on the upper right:
OH MY GOD!!!
And then, against all odds, the Rays tied the game in the bottom of the 9th!
Sorry for the lousy photo quality, but my puny camera isn’t really designed to zoom that far in.
Unfortunately for the Braves, they ran out of quality pitchers in the 13th inning. That’s what my friend (and diehard Braves fan) Katie implied when Scott Linebrink entered the game. At that point, she predicted that the Braves were going to blow it, and she was right. Brian Schneider drew a one-out walk, and Chase Utley and Hunter Pence hit back-to-back singles to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead. Pence’s bat, it should be noted, traveled about as far as the ball did; it shattered into a zillion pieces, but did its job. The ball found somewhat of a hole on the right side of the infield and sucked the energy right out of the stadium.
In the bottom of the 13th, I moved back to the Phillies’ side. The ushers weren’t checking tickets — they were too busy watching the game — so I waltzed down the staircase at the home-plate end of the dugout. Everyone on my right was standing. Everyone on my left was sitting:
I didn’t care who won. I just wanted the game to be as exciting as possible, so if anything, I was rooting for Chipper Jones (at bat in the photo above) to go yard.
That’s not what happened. He struck out swinging on a foul tip.
Dan Uggla, the following batter, had hit a two-run homer on an 0-2 count off Cole Hamels in the 3rd inning. This time up, with two outs in the bottom of the 13th, he fell behind in the count 1-2, but ended up drawing a walk off David Herndon. Excellent plate appearance. The Braves had life. But then Freddie Freeman grounded into a 3-6-3 double play to end the season.
I managed to get one more ball from home plate umpire Dale Scott. That was my 19th of the day and 1,110th of the regular season. Here’s a look at it:
I was surprised to see a dirt/scuff mark on a ball that came from the umpire. Normally, balls that get scuffed are tossed out of play, but for whatever reason, Scott decided to stick this one back in his pouch. I’m not complaining, of course. I think it’s pretty damn special to have snagged four game-used balls in one game.
The stadium cleared out pretty fast:
Did you notice the out-of-town scoreboard in the photo above?
What scoreboard, you ask?
As soon as the final outs were recorded, the scores were replaced by the words “DRIVE HOME SAFELY.”
In my case, it should’ve said, “WALK BACK TO YOUR HOTEL SAFELY.”
On the way there, I stopped at a sports bar/restaurant called The Bullpen. There were more TVs in the place than I could count, and most of them were tuned to two different games — the Red Sox and Rays. The Sox players were walking off the field completely dejected.
“Did this just happen?!” I asked a group of guys sitting nearby.
Yes. It happened. After an 86-minute rain delay, Jonathan Papelbon had *just* blown a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the 9th. Final score: Orioles 4, Red Sox 3.
Minutes later, the MLB Network showed Evan Longoria hitting a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 12th. At first, I didn’t get THAT excited because I figured it was a replay; the MLB Network has so many “live look-ins” combined with five-minute-old highlights that it’s hard to tell what’s what. But then it hit me. The Rays had won and were going to the playoffs!!!
It was truly an unbelievable night of baseball, and I was thrilled to have seen (and snagged) some of it in person.
• 1,110 balls in 125 games this season = 8.88 balls per game.
• 143 balls in 10 lifetime games at Turner Field = 14.3 balls per game.
• 786 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 311 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 180 lifetime games with ten or more balls
• 5,772 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.)
• 60 donors
• $7.46 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $141.74 raised at this game
• $8,280.60 raised this season