My day started at the Sweets & Snacks Expo in downtown Chicago. In fact, that’s why I was in Chicago on this particular date; I could’ve visited U.S. Cellular (or Wrigley) Field anytime, but the folks at BIGS Sunflower Seeds had a booth at the expo and wanted me to be there.
Here’s a photo that I took as I approached the convention center:
Did you notice the two women carrying BIGS buckets? That’s Krista on the left and Jenny on the right. I’d just met them, and we headed inside together.
I was also there with Neal Stewart, the Director of Marketing for BIGS. Based on everything he’d learned about me during our travels (i.e. my sugar addiction), he knew that I was going to *love* this expo. While he went to the registration area to get my badge, I stood around and practically drooled at what I saw in the distance:
This expo was wasn’t just big . . . it was COLOSSAL. There were more than 2,000 candy/snack manufacturers in an area the size of four football fields, and according to Neal, most of them were gonna be giving out free samples! It was like Halloween for adults, or in other words, payback for all the Halloween candy that my health-conscious mother used to confiscate when I was little.
Here I am at the Jelly Belly booth:
“Booth” might not be the best word, but whatever, you get the idea.
As Neal lead me toward the BIGS booth, I stopped and took photos. I also took samples of every type of candy you can imagine. Some of it looked cheap and gimmicky . . .
. . . but there was plenty of good stuff to balance things out. Check out the Toblerone booth:
That guy was pouring melted chocolate onto strawberries. I ate two . . . along with several pieces of the chocolate that was sitting on those plates . . . and then I grabbed a few packaged chocolate bars from the bowl at the far end of the table.
Meanwhile, at a nearby booth, Lindt was doing a live show/demo:
Eventually, Neal and I reached the BIGS booth:
In the photo above, do you see the banners that say “Thanasi Foods”? Thanasi is the parent company that owns BIGS Sunflower Seeds. They also have a line of beef jerky (and other “small batch smoked meats”) called Duke’s:
I’m not really a jerky person, mainly because I avoid beef, but I tried a bunch of the different flavors, and it’s truly outstanding (and all natural). If you eat jerky, look for Duke’s and give it a shot. I’d actually be curious to hear what you think because, like I said, I’m not an expert on this stuff, and I wonder how it compares to other brands.
In the photo above, did you notice the guy’s face on the packaging? That’s Justin Havlick, the founder/CEO of Thanasi. Neal is the guy who came up with the idea of sponsoring me, but Justin is the man who approved it, and this was the first time I met him. Here’s a photo of him (sitting on a BIGS bucket) during a sales meeting:
In the photo above, the other guy sitting at the table is Justin’s brother, Erik. They are *great* guys. They thanked me for everything I’ve done for them, and they were extremely friendly and positive and encouraging.
I should mention that the Sweets & Snacks Expo isn’t open to the public. (I got to be there because of my connection to BIGS.) The purpose is for all these companies to connect with the sales people who choose the products that appear in stores. As a writer, I can relate to that challenge; you have no idea how frustrating it is to walk into a book store and look for my books and discover that they aren’t even sold there. The folks at BIGS obviously want consumers to purchase their seeds, but before that can even happen, they have to convince stores to carry the seeds in the first place. That’s why all these companies hand out free samples, but hey, I’m giving back to the NCA by blogging about it and spreading the love . . . right?
After spending some time at the booth and schmoozing it up with a bunch of industry insiders, I wandered the floor by myself. Did you notice the Herr’s booth in the previous photo? Here it is close up:
Some companies didn’t offer any samples. (Booo!!) Many companies had free stuff that I could eat on the spot (the Toblerone strawberries, for example), while others had packaged stuff that I could take with me. The best booths, from my moochy standpoint, were the ones with a huge amount of samples that weren’t being monitored. That’s how the Snyder’s-Lance folks did it:
In the photo above, that entire rack was filled with stuff that was meant to be taken. I only grabbed a couple things. Discipline.
Here’s an example of a booth with free samples that I had to eat right away:
I’d never heard of Sweet Retreat Naturals. Really good stuff.
I helped myself to a few Original Gourmet Lollipops over here . . .
. . . and grabbed a couple bags of Wonderful Pistachios . . .
. . . on the way to the Wild Garden booth . . .
. . . where I was given an entire “hummus dip” box. Nice! But I wasn’t really in the mood to be healthy. I was on vacation, or at least that’s how I thought of it, and when that’s the case, I eat whatever the hell I want. No limits. No regrets. So I looked for more stuff with sugar.
I was excited to find Big League Chew (which is probably my favorite gum) . . .
. . . but unfortunately it was trapped in a glass case. No sample. Did I miss it? (“Quick! Hide the product! Hample is coming to sample! He’s gonna wipe us out!”)
I got some free mini-packs of Mike and Ike . . .
. . . and loaded up on some taffy samples, courtesy of Taffy Town:
Are you beginning to understand the enormity of this expo, and how happy I was to be there? In addition to all of my favorite candy, there was stuff I hadn’t heard off — fig cookies from a company in Saudi Arabia, chocolate makers from Central America, and so on.
I’m telling you: it was Halloween for adults. And it’s not like I was doing anything wrong. (Well, I was definitely doing something wrong to my body, but that’s another story.) Thanasi had paid lots of money to be at the expo, and in doing so, they were granted a certain number of visitor badges. I was fortunate enough to receive one, and get this: on my way in, I was directed to a check-in booth where I was handed a fancy/empty shopping bag, the purpose of which was to hold all the free samples that I’d be getting.
The Concord Confections booth . . .
. . . had a bin of Dubble Bubble. I could’ve taken 100 pieces if I wanted, but that would’ve used up precious space in my bag.
I promise there’s some baseball stuff coming, but hold on. I need to show you the gigantic Hershey’s area:
I can’t even describe all the free stuff they were giving away, so here’s a photo of some of what I got:
That cup contained soft-serve vanilla ice cream with caramel syrup, Reese’s Pieces, and Heath Bar crunch. I could’ve gone back ten times and gotten ten more cups (there were many other toppings available), but jeez, enough is enough.
Kit Kat had sponsored the lounge area:
At a nearby booth, there were cardboard cutouts of Matt Kemp and Cole Hamels:
(See? Baseball stuff! More to come . . . )
At around 4:15pm, I headed out with Neal, Krista, and Jenny:
Take a look at the stuff I’d gotten:
The photo above was taken inside the BIGS van. Here’s what it looked like in the back:
Jenny (pictured above) and Krista have been driving the van all over the place lately and giving out free samples. Remember this photo of me with Bianca and Allison from 5/3/13 at Rangers Ballpark? That’s a different van. The folks at BIGS are spending lots of time and money to get their product out there, and it isn’t easy. When we drove the van to U.S. Cellular Field, we weren’t allowed to park because of the logos/branding on the vehicle. Krista and Jenny were planning to join me and Neal at the game, but because of the parking issue, they decided to take off. Here’s a photo of the van that I took before they left . . .
. . . and no, they weren’t planning on leaving it there. They went to pay to park in an actual lot near the stadium, and they were denied.
U.S. Cellular Field didn’t open until 5:40pm, which meant that when I ran inside for batting practice, the White Sox were already gone. (I think it’s inexcusable that certain stadiums open so late that fans can’t watch the home team warm up. If I were a fan of any team that did that, I’d organize a petition, and if that didn’t work, I’d stop being a fan. I’m serious. It really sucks.) Thankfully, though, there *was* batting practice. For days, I’d been monitoring the weather, and I was convinced that it was going to rain.
When I reached the right field seats, I met up with a journalist named Riley Blevins, who was there to interview me for a local newspaper called The RedEye. He’d gotten inside the stadium early and had already snagged a ball. Moments later, I got Red Sox pitcher Clayton Mortensen to throw one to me near the foul pole, and a couple of minutes after that, I got a toss-up from Clay Buchholz in right-center.
Here’s what it looked like out there:
Here’s a photo of Riley . . .
. . . who followed me to left field for the next group of hitters. I was hoping to put on a good show for him, but there wasn’t much home-run action. The best I could do was get Ryan Lavarnway to throw me a ball in left-center and use my glove trick to snag this ball from the bullpen:
I gave that ball to the nearest kid.
I headed back to right-center for the remainder of BP and snagged a Mike Carp homer. I should’ve caught it on the fly, but misplayed it and had to settle for grabbing it in an empty row.
As the players and coaches jogged toward the dugout at the very end of BP, I shouted loud enough to get one of them to throw me a ball from shallow right field. I’m not sure who it was. It would’ve been nice to know, but I was just glad to have snagged my 6th ball of the day.
Look who I caught up with after that:
That’s Dave Davison (who has snagged thousands of baseballs) on the left and Rick Crowe (another ballhawk) on the right.
Before the game, Riley took a few photos of me for his story . . .
. . . and then the real challenge began.
One good thing about U.S. Cellular Field is that you can pretty much go wherever you want. You do need a 100 Level ticket in order to enter the 100 Level (even during BP), but once you’re in, the ushers and guards leave you alone. Therefore, I sat here in the top of the 1st inning . . .
. . . and moved here (near my actual seat) in the bottom of the frame:
As you might already know, BIGS Sunflower Seeds is donating $500 to Pitch In For Baseball for every stadium at which I snag a game-used ball this season, so I stayed near the dugouts and kept moving back and forth. Luck was not on my side. White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers rolled every 3rd-out/strikeout ball back to the mound, and first baseman Paul Konerko only seemed to toss baseballs to little kids and attractive women. Over on the Red Sox side, there were a ton of kids, and they got all the toss-ups. Fair enough. Can’t argue with that. But it sure made things tough for me.
I had a very close call in the 2nd inning when Alexei Ramirez ended up with the 3rd-out ball and looked right at me as he jogged toward the dugout. At the last second, he spotted a little girl standing right behind me on the stairs, and in one motion, he pointed at her and flipped the ball in our direction. Because of how we were positioned, I knew that my body was likely blocking her view of the ball. I wanted to let her catch it, but (a) I would’ve had to lean out of the way and (b) it might’ve ended up hitting her, so I caught it and immediately handed it over. Ramirez gave me a nod. The girl was thrilled. Several people applauded. And I wasn’t sure what it all meant. Did that count for the BIGS charity challenge? What about my own personal ball-snagging stats? Neal was sitting nearby and had witnessed it. He said I did the right thing but because (a) the ball wasn’t intended for me and (b) I didn’t end up with it in my possession for the end-of-the-year charity auction, it would *not* count. Meanwhile, I decided to count the ball in my own stats. It felt weird, but I stand behind everything that Neal and I decided. Officially, it was my 7th ball of the day.
I continued playing both dugouts for the rest of the game. From the 2nd through 7th innings, I’m certain that I would’ve gotten a 3rd-out ball from Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia if any inning had ended with a strikeout. There was one little girl in my section who got a ball from Salty after the 1st inning, but other than her, it was all me — NO kids. Of course, there were numerous two-out/two-strike counts on White Sox batters, but they all managed to put the ball in play.
By the 8th inning, it was raining, and 90 percent of the fans had left. I was sitting in the 2nd row behind Boston’s dugout when Adam Dunn came to bat with two outs. I really thought that I was finally gonna get my gamer — that Dunn would strike out (as he does so often) and that Salty would hook me up. Well, wouldn’t you know it . . . Dunn DID indeed strike out, but at the last second, a 30-something-year-old guy who had *just* moved into the front row stood up and hoisted his toddler (who was too young to know what was going on) and got the ball. That was very frustrating because when I give balls to kids, I always make sure that they’re old enough to appreciate it. And by the way, I had given away another ball to a kid in the concourse during the middle innings.
My last shot was to get a foul ball in the top of the 9th, and you know what? I really thought I was going to. The rain was coming down HARD, and the non-covered portion of the 100 Level seats was practically empty. If a foul ball had landed anywhere near me, I probably would’ve gotten it. As it turned out, there was only one foul ball in the 9th — a towering pop-up that flew back exactly in my direction . . . but sailed 50 feet over my head and reached the upper deck. I was amazed that the game was still being played. It was practically pouring, but obviously the umps wanted to wrap things up.
After the final out of Chicago’s 3-1 victory, I hurried through the empty rows to the umpire tunnel directly behind home plate. I was the *only* fan in the seats, and home plate ump Chris Conroy hooked me up — easiest umpire ball in the history of ballhawking. It was a nice end to an otherwise frustrating day.
During the final inning, Riley and Neal had been hanging out in the concourse with my backpack. I was totally soaked when I caught up with them — and that’s when I took this photo:
Look closely and you’ll see several Red Sox walking in from the right field bullpen. Also, check out the puddles in the infield and on the warning track. What a wonderful mess.
That’s when two kids approached me and said hello. They had recognized me during the top of the 9th, and I’d told them to find me in the concourse after the game. Their names were Bair and Jacob. Cool guys. I gotta give them props for sticking it out ’til the end. We chatted for a few minutes. Then I got a photo with Riley . . .
. . . who ended up writing a terrific story, which appeared online the next day. Here’s a screen shot of the first part of it:
If you want to read the whole thing, click here, and if you want to see what else Riley is up to, check him out on Twitter. He did an amazing job of sticking with me all day and capturing so many details in his story.
On our way out, we took a peek inside the White Sox’s new social media lounge. Have a look:
It’s located in the concourse behind Section 154 down the left field foul line — and it’s free/open to fans. You can charge your phone there and use the WiFi and keep tabs on the White Sox and interact with other fans on various social media platforms. It’s a great idea, and evidently it’s the first of its kind in the major leagues.
Oh, and by the way, because of the Sweets & Snacks Expo, I was scheduled to stay in Chicago for an extra day, which meant I’d have one more shot to snag a gamer at The Cell . . .
• 226 balls in 29 games this season = 7.79 balls per game.
• 63 balls in 9 lifetime games at U.S. Cellular Field = 7 balls per game.
• 901 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 14 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, Rangers Ballpark, Minute Maid Park, Great American Ball Park, Progressive Field, PNC Park, and Camden Yards
• 6,685 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.)
• 26 donors for my fundraiser
• $1.63 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $13.04 raised at this game
• $367.38 raised this season through my fundraiser
• $7,000 from BIGS Sunflower Seeds for my game-used baseballs
• $28,773.38 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009