It was a dreary day in Philadelphia . . .
. . . but that didn’t stop me from driving down from New York City. Wanna know why? Because the Astros were in town, and I wanted one of their commemorative baseballs.
As you might already know, six teams are using special baseballs this season — the Mets, Orioles, Dodgers, Marlins, Red Sox, and Astros — and my goal is to snag at least one of each. Last month, I checked the Mets and Orioles balls off my list . . . and now here I was in Philly, on a soggy day without batting practice, hoping for some love from the Astros. Of course, since I was seeing the Astros on the road, there was no guarantee that any of their baseballs would even be commemorative. But what the hell was I supposed to do? Wait for the Astros to visit Citi Field in late August? Spend $500 traveling to Minute Maid Park? No and no. I had to go for it HERE at Citizens Bank Park, even if it meant staring at this for the first hour of the day:
At around 5:15pm, a small group of Astros wandered out of the dugout:
In the photo above, pay no attention to the player grabbing his crotch. (Oops, too late.) Instead, take a look at the guy who’s wearing shorts. See the black thing that he’s carrying? That was the ball bag. I just *knew* (or at least suspected, or at least hoped) that the bag contained at least ONE commemorative baseball, and dammit, I was going to snag it.
This was the scene five minutes later:
In the photo above, do you see the players near the right field foul pole? Those were Phillies pitchers, and as far as I was concerned, they meant nothing. This day was all about the Astros, but unfortunately, I couldn’t get any closer to them until 5:35pm. Do you see the yellow chain in the photo above? It’s barely creeping in from the right edge. That chain extends all the way back to the concourse. It’s there to prevent fans from spilling prematurely into the rest of the seating bowl, and for a little while, I was concerned that the Astros would finish throwing while I was trapped in the left field corner.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case:
That made a huge difference because I was able to attempt to see the logos on the baseballs that were being used. Brandon Lyon and Brett Myers? It was hard to tell at first with them. Lyon was about 30 feet away, and every time he transferred the ball from his glove to his throwing hand, the logo was facing the wrong way — or he just did it too quickly and I couldn’t tell. Eventually, though, I was able to determine that they were *not* using a commemorative ball.
Then there was Wilton Lopez — the player wearing No. 59 in the photo above. I had a tough time seeing the logo on his baseball until he failed to catch an in-between hop. The ball scooted right between his legs and trickled near me on the warning track. IT WAS COMMEMORATIVE!!! There was a big “50” on it. That’s all I needed to see. My God. I had to have it. I mean, I seriously HAD to have that ball.
Before Lopez even had a chance to pick it up, I asked him (politely and in Spanish) if he’d give it to me when he finished. He didn’t say anything, and I had no idea what to think, but my mind was racing. Meanwhile, when Lyon and Myers finished throwing, I made sure *not* to ask for their ball because I knew what would happen. Lopez would see me catch it, and then he’d decide to give the commemorative ball to someone else. There’s no way that I was going to allow that to happen, so I just stood there quietly and waited to see which other fan Lyon was gonna toss it to. Wanna guess what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Lyon spotted me in my Astros gear and threw the damn ball to me! It was probably the only time in my life that I *didn’t* want to catch a baseball, but I had no choice. If I hadn’t caught it, it would’ve hit me. I quickly glanced at Lopez to see if he had seen me catch it, but he gave no indication. He was half-facing me at that point, still in the process of getting loose, so there was no telling if he’d noticed. DAMN!!!
Finally, after several excruciating minutes, he and his teammate finished playing catch. Lopez ended up with the ball, and at first it appeared that he wasn’t going to give it to anyone. He took a couple of steps toward the infield, but then when I called his name, he looked up. What did he do next? He scanned the crowd for a moment, presumably to see if there was anyone younger or cuter, and my heart sank. What if this was my only opportunity? What if I’d never see another one of these commemorative balls again? Would the Astros still have some of these balls next year? Should I book a flight to Houston instead of going to the Home Run Derby in Kansas City? My thoughts were becoming more negative by the nanosecond, and then it happened: Lopez turned and faced me and threw me the ball. Here it is:
And yeah, okay, fine, so the logo was a bit messed up, but whatever. I had my ball, and I could tell what it was supposed to say. If I could get a better one that wasn’t so scuffed . . . awesome. But if I never saw another one . . . to hell with flying to Houston. I was all set.
I gave the first ball that I’d gotten to a little kid, and then I got another ball thrown to me by a player that I couldn’t identify. I had no idea what to expect in terms of the logo, so as soon as I caught it, I frantically looked inside my glove . . . and had to turn the ball around . . . and it was commemorative! But it was only slightly better than the other ball. Acchhh!! I mean, I was thrilled to now have two of these precious baseballs, but it was a shame that neither one was pristine. Anyway, here’s a photo of the player heading back to the dugout:
Can anyone identify him for me?
I headed to the home-plate end of the dugout to say hello to a friendly usher. When I got there, a man (who I think had been standing near me when I caught the previous ball or two) asked, “What’s your count up to?”
I figured he recognized me, and I don’t mean that in a cocky way. What I mean is . . . I get that question a lot from random people who seem to know who I am, so when I told him, “Five thousand nine hundred and twenty-four,” I was surprised when HE was surprised.
“Wait!” he said and then thought for a moment. “Are you Zack . . . Hample?!”
“That’s me,” I said.
He then told me that he had a copy my latest book, The Baseball, in his car and that if he’d known I was going to be here, he would’ve brought it for me to sign. I told him (and this goes for everyone reading this) that if he mails it to me at the Argosy Book Store, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, that I’d be happy to sign it and mail it back. Then he asked if we could get a photo together. The answer, of course, was yes, so he handed his camera to the friendly usher, who was standing atop the dugout roof. Then I handed my camera to the usher, and this was the result:
The man’s name is Chad, and he was really friendly, so I’m happy to report that he ended up getting a perfect, mud-rubbed commemorative ball five minutes later from Astros coach Dave Clark, who was chillin’ on the top step of the dugout. Seeing Chad with that flawless ball fueled my desire to snag one of my own. Rather than pestering Clark for one, I raced out to the seats in right-center when the Astros’ starting pitcher (Lucas Harrell) and catcher and coaches began their pre-game throwing routine. Once I got out there, this was my view:
In the photo above, there’s a red arrow pointing at bullpen catcher Javier Bracamonte because he ended up throwing me this:
I was starving at that point, but there was no time to eat; several of the Astros’ position players were warming up in shallow left field, so I hurried back to that side of the stadium. This is what it looked like as I made my way down into foul territory:
In the photo above, do you see the “STAFF” member on the steps in front of me? When I approached him, he turned around and asked to see my ticket. I responded by (a) admitting that I didn’t belong in that section and (b) asking if I could wander down a little closer to take a few photos. (Never admit to stadium security that you’re trying to catch baseballs. Always claim that you want to use your camera. It sounds much more innocent.) What did the guy say? He told me that I could go all the way down to the front row, but that I had to leave before the game started. Wow! I’ve been attending so many games lately in New York City that I’d forgotten how NICE it is at stadiums everywhere else. The Mets and Yankees should seriously take a lesson from the Phillies. This is how fans should be treated at baseball games.
Anyway, I got two baseballs thrown to me within a five-minute span. The first came from Chris Johnson, and the second came from Jordan Schafer. Neither one of the balls was commemorative, so I gave the second one (my 6th overall of the day) to the nearest kid.
This was my view in the bottom of the first inning:
By the time I took that photo, I’d already snagged my 7th ball of the day. It was the infield warm-up ball that the Astros had used when they first took the field. Bobby Meacham, the team’s first base coach, tossed it to me just before the bottom of the first inning got underway. It was a regular ball, but I was still glad to have it.
One inning later, Placido Polanco (who, by the way, was sitting on 1,999 career hits), hit three foul balls off his foot in a span of four pitches. Every one of these balls rolled out into the infield. It was bizarre (and quite painful, I’d imagine). The final foul ball rolled all the way to Astros third baseman Chris Johnson. Johnson scooped it up and tossed it toward the dugout, at which point I stood up and walked down the steps to the front row. Some random trainer-type guy (wearing a striped, black-and-white polo shirt) popped out of the dugout and picked up the ball. I asked him for it, and he tossed it to me. Just like that. Soooooooooooo easy. There was absolutely no competition (which was a very nice change of pace from the typical mob of ballhawks in New York).
Later in the game, a bunch of kids caught onto the whole “snagging baseballs” thing and crowded the dugout between innings:
Despite having absolutely no clue (staring off into space and not knowing who or when to ask), nearly all of those kids received baseballs before the game was through — and the ones who didn’t? They got hooked up by a ballboy at the very end of the night. I’m telling you, there were plenty of baseballs to go around.
There was a steady drizzle throughout the game, so when I went to get food in the middle innings (a chicken cheesesteak with onions, if you must know), I lingered for a while in the concourse. This was the view:
Call me a wimp if you want, but I’d been getting soaked, so it was nice to be covered for a bit.
Something kinda neat happened in the bottom of the sixth inning . . .
With two outs and runners on 2nd and 3rd, Freddy Galvis ripped a single to left field. Placido Polanco, the lead runner, scored on the play, but John Mayberry was thrown out at the plate by Travis Buck. Astros catcher Chris Snyder made the tag, and when he returned to the dugout, he tossed me the ball.
Where were all the kids, you ask? I have no idea. They were nowhere in sight. They only seemed to go down to the dugout when their parents told them to, and that seemed to happen only when Carlos Lee — the first baseman — ended up with the third-out balls, or when the Astros were warming up between innings.
Late in the game, when a bunch of fans took off, I moved down to the second row:
If I’d moved a bit quicker, I could’ve sat in the very front, but the guy pictured above with the helmet and beard beat me to it. No one cared. There weren’t any security guards micro-managing the movements of the fans. It was a beautiful, relaxed environment — the way baseball should be. Sneaking down to better seats is part of the game. It’s part of our culture. Who the hell stays in the last row when the seats closer to the field open up? My dad used to sneak closer with me when I was little, so the way I see it, every time I sneak around a major league stadium nowadays . . . I’m doing it in his honor.
In the top of the eighth inning, Marwin Gonzalez, a switch hitter who was pinch hitting for Fernando Abad, hit his first major league home run. It was kind of depressing not to be in the outfield when it happened, but I wasn’t too hung up about it because I wouldn’t have caught it anyway. I would’ve been sitting several rows back in straight-away right field, and the ball landed in the front row, one full section toward the foul pole. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Placido Polanco, who hadn’t homered since last season, ended up going yard for his 2,000th hit. If I’d been trying to catch that ball (which I suppose I should’ve been), I would’ve been sitting several rows back in straight-away left field, but the ball barely cleared the wall in left-center. No harm done, but still, it served as an semi-painful reminder than I need to focus more on catching homers.
After Jonathan Papelbon struck out the side in the top of the ninth inning to secure the Phillies’ 5-1 win, I got my 10th ball of the day from home plate umpire Jerry Layne. Then I got No. 11 from that ballboy I mentioned earlier. He had unexpectedly poked his head out of the dugout, and then he tossed half a dozen balls into the crowd. I gave away another ball before leaving the stadium and drove back to New York in near-record time.
• 113 balls in 16 games this season = 7.06 balls per game.
• 808 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 333 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 294 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 186 lifetime games with ten or more balls (only three of which have happened on days without BP)
• 46 different commemorative baseballs snagged; click here to see my entire collection
• 5,932 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 about my fundraiser, and click here to see the prizes that I’ll be giving away to donors.)
• 28 donors
• $1.66 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $18.26 raised at this game
• $187.58 raised this season
• $19,344.58 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009