The highlight of my day took place on the way to Rangers Ballpark. I was with Neal Stewart from BIGS Sunflower Seeds, and we stopped in Irving, Texas, for a private tour of the Panini America headquarters. Here’s a photo of the lobby:
Panini, for those who don’t know, specializes in trading cards. Remember Donruss? Panini bought them out in 2009, but that’s just one of their products. They’re the biggest collectibles company in the world, and they have licenses in all four major American sports, along with exclusive contracts with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Stephen Strasburg, and other athletes. I learned all of this from the guy pictured below in the snazzy “Rated Rookie” t-shirt:
His name is Scott Prusha. He’s the marketing manager for Panini. He’s been with the company for 13 years, and he’s the one who showed us around.
In the photo above, the woman on the right is named Bianca Cadloni. She’s in charge of social media for BIGS Sunflower Seeds, and if she looks familiar, it’s because I met her on 4/21/13 at Angel Stadium.
(For those who are new to this blog and might not recognize me, I’m standing on the left in the previous photo; the reason why I’m wearing all the BIGS gear is that they’re sponsoring me this season.)
Before the tour got underway, Neal filmed Scott talking about the company:
Scott told us about the cards in one of the nearby display cases . . .
. . . which included astronauts, presidents, and war heroes.
Then we headed down this hallway . . .
. . . and eventually ended up here:
That room, as you might expect, had boxes of sports cards (many of which were autographed) all over the place . . .
. . . but the coolest thing about it was the HUGE collection of game-worn and game-used memorabilia. Check out this collection of jerseys and hockey sticks:
Scott correctly assumed that I’d be most interested in the baseball items, so he pulled out two Barry Bonds jerseys:
I was also drawn to some the of basketball stuff. Here I am comparing my sneaker to Kobe Bryant’s . . .
. . . and here I am wearing a dress (aka a Shaquille O’Neal jersey).
Why does Panini have all of these game-worn jerseys?
Scott said, “We acquire them, cut them up, and put ’em on trading cards to bring the fan and collector closer to the experience of meeting the athlete.”
Here’s an example of a card with a piece of a jersey on it:
See the black circle? That’s the jersey. The cardboard is neatly cut out, and the actual fabric is inserted (or embedded or however you want to describe it) into the card. These cards are then randomly inserted into packs. I would’ve *loved* that as a kid, but back in the mid-1980s, when I started buying packs of Topps, the only “inserts” I got were stale, powdery pieces of bubble gum.
In the previous photo, did you notice the big plastic bins stacked on the shelves in the background? Here’s a photo of one of them:
I wonder why all those guys with first names beginning with the letter em were grouped together. I mean, why not store them alphabetically by last name? I would’ve asked Scott, but I didn’t notice the system until I went through the photos 24 hours later.
Here’s Scott with a putter that belonged to Ted Williams:
Good luck chopping THAT up and putting it on baseball cards.
Look at this game-used bat that I came across, along with all the others in the background:
Ever since I snagged his first major league home run ball on 4/18/13 at Yankee Stadium, Didi Gregorius has held a special place in my heart.
Scott let us play with all the memorabilia for about half an hour, and then we kept moving. Here’s the area of the office where the designers work:
Bianca loves Justin Bieber . . .
. . . or maybe she was just kidding? <3
There was so much stuff to see and photograph that I could’ve spent a week there, but Rangers Ballpark was going to open in two hours, so we had to keep moving.
Before we left, Scott gave us all some parting gifts. Not only did he hook me up with a t-shirt, but he handed me something that nearly made me gasp. Behold!
Ready for a closer look?
That baseball is signed by Willie Mays. (?!?!?!) I have no idea why Scott gave it to me — maybe because I gave him some sunflower seeds? I mean, what are you supposed to do or say when someone gives you something much nicer than what you deserve? (“Umm, thanks?”) I practically felt guilty for accepting the ball, but he insisted. And that wasn’t all he gave me. Here’s a photo of all the schwag I received:
Many thanks to Panini . . . and to Scott for the tour . . . and to Doug Drotman (who’s constantly working his magic behind the scenes) for setting it up in the first place.
Look what I saw when I headed outside to the parking lot:
It was the BIGS tour van! (Yes, that deserves an exclamation point.) This was the first time I saw it in person, and Neal filmed me talking about the Panini experience while standing in front of it:
(BTW, Neal wrote his own blog entry about Panini. Click here to read it.)
Here I am with the “Ladies Of The Van,” as I like to call them — Bianca on the left and Allison (who had joined us for the Panini tour) on the right:
Basically, they drive the van all over the place — mainly to sporting events — and hand out free samples of BIGS seeds. If you want to catch up with them, follow BIGS on twitter and use the “BIGSnation” hashtag.
Neal and I didn’t get a chance to drop off our stuff at the hotel. We had gone directly from the airport to Panini, and from there we headed straight to Rangers Ballpark. While Neal parked the car and dealt with some other work-related stuff, I caught up with some old friends outside the home plate gate:
In the photo above, that’s Trent Williams in the red jersey. He’s the dude that sits out in center field and catches all those home run balls on the grassy berm. He’s the best ballhawk at this stadium, and I’ve known him since 2009. The guy on the right is named Clyde, and the kid is his six-year-old son, Suede. I’d met the two of them on 4/25/11 at Rangers Ballpark. Remember this photo from that entry? Anyway . . .
When the stadium opened, the three of them headed to center field, and I made a beeline for left. As I was cutting through the front row, one of the Rangers’ many right-handed batters hit a home run right to me. I caught it on the fly and took a photo of it:
My next ball — another home run that landed in the seats — was the 100th that I’d ever snagged at this stadium . . . and then I grabbed three more homers. I don’t know who hit them. They all landed in the seats, and I’ll admit that there was very little competition at that point.
Eventually, when there was a brief lull in the action, I headed over toward left-center field to check out the newly-configured visitors’ bullpen:
(Here’s what it used to look like.)
I don’t like the fact that the bullpen replaced so many bleacher seats, but DAMN it looks nice. Also, on the positive side, because stadium security here is cool with ball-retrieving devices, there are now more glove trick opportunities for me. In fact, I used the trick to snag my 6th ball of the day from the back of the bullpen:
It’s a good thing I have lots of string because that ball must’ve been 20 feet below me.
That’s when Hunter Pence showed up and grabbed a seat near me in the left field stands:
I’m kidding. That’s not really Hunter Pence. It was a reporter named Eric Sheffield from The Dallas Morning News, and he was there to do a story on me. (Do you remember the phone interview I’d done the day before at Neal’s friend’s place in Kansas City? That interview aired in Dallas on the morning of this May 3rd game; Eric heard it, Googled me, got in touch, and bam! Here he was with me at the stadium hours later.)
With the seats packed with Red Sox fans, my 7th ball was tossed up from the gap behind the left field wall by a groundskeeper, and my 8th ball was thrown by Daniel Nava.
The final group of hitters were mostly left-handed, so I headed over to the right field seats. That’s when Torii Hunter showed up and stood around with me.
I’m kidding again. That’s not really Torii Hunter. It was a photographer named Vernon Bryant, and he was there to get some shots of me for Eric’s story.
In the photo above, did you notice the ball in my right hand? That was a homer that I’d just caught on the fly — pretty cool to do it in front of the media.
BP ended several minutes later, and I gave that ball to a kid. Then I realized that he was there with his younger sister, so to prevent sibling rivalry from ruining the game (and the rest of their lives), I gave her a ball too.
Eric and I sat down and continued talking:
In the photo above, that’s Trent on my left (talking to his friend Arnie). My buddy Frank was also hanging out nearby, and Neal was now with me as well. It was fun to have a whole group of guys that I could share the experience with.
Eric wasn’t able to stay for the game, but before he left, I got a photo with him and Vernon:
I’m hesitant to compare the physical similarities of black guys because there’s always gonna be someone who’ll say, “Oh, right, so ALL black guys look alike?!” but seriously — Hunter Pence and Torii Hunter. Am I crazy? Decide for yourself:
By the way, whenever someone tells me I look like Billy Corgan or James Carville or Lex Luthor or Moby or Tim Hudson, I’m like, “Oh, sure, so ALL white guys with shaved heads look alike?!” (It’s okay. We do.)
Just before the game, Vernon came with me when I headed here:
Two Red Sox were playing catch, and when they finished, I got Pedro Ciriaco to throw me the ball by asking for it in Spanish. That was my 10th of the day, and it had some cool streaks:
This was my view for the first pitch of the game:
Anything goes at Rangers Ballpark — such a nice change of pace from the prisons back home known as Citi Field and Yankee Stadium. Can you imagine anyone at either of those two ballparks sitting with their feet on top of the dugout roof? I’m not kidding when I say this: they’d probably be arrested for trespassing.
Meanwhile, Vernon was camped out in the photographers’ box on my right:
He was there to get a shot of me snagging a 3rd-out ball, and I’m sorry to say that I made him wait for an hour, but you know what? It was Felix Doubront’s fault. That’s how long it took him to end an inning with a strikeout — the 3rd inning, to be specific. A.J. Pierzynski went down swinging at a 3-2 pitch, and Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia tossed me the ball as he jogged off the field. There was no competition, and it felt GREAT — $500 more for Pitch In For Baseball, courtesy of BIGS Sunflower Seeds.
Vernon wanted to get a shot of me with some baseballs in the upper deck, so we headed upstairs. On the way, I gave one of my BP balls to a random kid and then photographed the ball that I’d just received from Saltalamacchia:
Neal (who had a seat in the upper deck) met us up top and documented Vernon’s photo shoot:
Then I did a brief audio interview with Vernon on the concourse:
He took off after that, and I headed downstairs with Neal. On the way, we saw/heard THE best vendor of all time. He was selling beer, and you simply must watch this video. It’s only six seconds, so you have no excuse. Make sure your volume is on.
Now, you know everything is supposedly bigger in Texas? Well, that was certainly true for this two-foot-long hot dog:
This so-called boomstick — a new concession item at Rangers Ballpark — weighs three pounds and costs $26, and you know what? I kind of regret not getting one. It would’ve been a fun challenge to finished it all by myself, but instead I had two slices of pepperoni pizza and some overrated Blue Bell ice cream:
It wasn’t bad or anything. It was perfectly fine/normal/tasty ice cream. It just wasn’t worthy of all the comments I’d been getting such as, “Ohmygod, dude, you haaaaaaave to get Blue Bell. It’s the best!” The best ice cream I ever had was Godiva, and now I can’t find it anywhere. My new favorite isn’t technically ice cream. It’s gelato, and it’s made by a company called Talenti. (Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll sponsor me next year?) Eat some Blue Bell. Then try some Talenti — I recommend the “sea salt & caramel” flavor — and you’ll see what I mean. There’s no comparison.
I think it was the 6th inning by the time I finished my food and made it to the outfield. As much as I wanted to head to the seats beside the berm and show Trent how it’s done, I needed to take a moment to photograph this:
What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, do you see the red line on the ground? That’s where the stands used to end. If you wanted to move from left field to left-center, you had to go inside a doorway/tunnel-thing and take a really annoying detour. Now there’s a direct path, and I love it!
As for the berm, I was allowed to stand here for a little while:
This was view to my right:
(That whole section used to be bleachers, and there was no cross-aisle.)
This was the view to my left:
I can’t even imagine having THAT much room to run for home run balls. Without a doubt, it’s the best ballhawking spot in the majors, and it kills me that I can’t be there regularly to take advantage.
As the game entered the 8th inning, I photographed the Red Sox bullpen . . .
. . . and found an empty seat beside the berm. This was my view:
Did you notice the kid sitting in front of me in the previous photo? See the baseball in his right hand? I gave that to him, and he was thrilled. His father told me that it was his first game and that he’d been hoping to get a ball all night.
Neal, evidently, had worked his way into the seats on the 3rd base side. Here’s a photo that I grabbed from his camera later that night. The red arrow is pointing at me:
It would’ve been SO nice if one (or eight) of the Red Sox or Rangers had hit a home run onto the berm. But no. There wasn’t a single longball all night. But hey, look, there were fireworks:
After the fireworks, I got a photo with Trent . . .
. . . and with Frank:
After heading outside, Neal suggested that Trent and I do a little video together. Click here to see Neal’s blog entry about it. There are actually a couple of videos there worth watching (including a clip of Trent catching a recent game home run and robbing the Mariners’ center fielder in the process).
Finally, click here to see the article that Eric wrote about me in the Dallas Morning News. It’s supposed to appear in the print version today (May 5th), so look for it if you’re in Texas.
• 123 balls in 17 games this season = 7.24 balls per game.
• 109 balls in 11 lifetime games at Rangers Ballpark = 9.9 balls per game.
• 889 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 11 stadiums with at least 100 lifetime balls: Shea Stadium (2,173), Citi Field (562), Old Yankee Stadium (560), Camden Yards (510), New Yankee Stadium (422), Citizens Bank Park (282), Nationals Park (248), Turner Field (186), Kauffman Stadium (116), PETCO Park (110), and Rangers Ballpark (109)
• 9 stadiums this season with a game-used ball: Citi Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Angel Stadium, PETCO Park, AT&T Park, Safeco Field, Kauffman Stadium, and Rangers Ballpark
• 6,582 total balls
(For every stadium this season at which I snag a game-used ball, BIGS Sunflower Seeds will donate $500 to Pitch In For Baseball, a non-profit charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. In addition to that, I’m doing my own fundraiser again this season for Pitch In For Baseball.)
• 25 donors for my fundraiser
• $1.61 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $17.71 raised at this game
• $198.03 raised this season through my fundraiser
• $4,500 from BIGS Sunflower Seeds for my game-used baseballs
• $26,104.03 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009
One more thing . . . I’m guessing you didn’t bother clicking the photo of those seven baseballs, so let me show you a closeup of one of them:
Multicolored streaks? Never seen that before. Have you?