The highlight of my day took place more than seven hours before game time: meeting Heath Bell for lunch. Here he is across the table from me:
Heath and I first got to know each other when he came up with the Mets nearly a decade ago; because I went to so many games at Shea Stadium (and because the Mets had so few fans), he began to recognize me and often waved from afar. Eventually he came over to say hello, and one day late in the 2005 season, we played catch before the game. In 2008 he gave me one of his caps in San Diego. In 2009 he made a sizable donation to my charity fundraiser. In 2010, when I visited the Rawlings baseball factory in Costa Rica, Heath nearly joined me. And so on. He’s done so many other nice things for me over the years that I can’t even list them all. That’s why he’s my favorite player, and that why my answer to “What’s your favorite team?” is “Whatever team Heath Bell plays for.”
Anyway, six weeks ago, when I saw the Diamondbacks at AT&T Park, Heath told me to let him know when I was gonna see them again on the road — so when my plans to be in St. Louis solidified, I gave him a shout. To my surprise, he suggested that we grab lunch together, and so, after texting on and off for a couple of days, here we were, finally chillin’ together in a relaxed, one-on-one setting.
Obviously, I wanted to get a photo of him, but I didn’t want to be a pest about it. I do consider him a friend, and friends *are* allowed to photograph each other, but I felt weird about it — almost guilty, like I was about to taint an otherwise peaceful situation by whipping out my camera. I asked apologetically if I could take a pic, and he said he was fine with it. (That’s the photo above).
“Don’t feel like I’m picking on you,” I told him. “I’m obsessed with documenting things. I take photos of everyone and everything. If I were sitting here with one of my local ballhawk friends, I’d be taking a pic of him too.”
“Aren’t you gonna get one of the two of us?” he asked.
That was nice to hear — he clearly wasn’t annoyed at being photographed — so after we’d taken a few bites of our sandwiches, I got the waiter and handed over my camera. This was the result:
It’s not the best photo — you’ll notice that it’s a bit blurry — but it captured the moment. That’s the important thing. This was the first time that I’d ever hung out one-on-one with an active major leaguer, but you know what? It didn’t feel like I was with an Almighty Baseball Player, and that’s what I love about Heath. He’s just a fun, normal dude who’s outgoing and loves talking about my favorite sport.
We talked about all kinds of stuff during the hour and a half that we spent together — everything from his family to the Biogenesis steroid scandal to my writing group to his diet and exercise regimen to the game-used ball that he saw me snag the night before.
“You saw that from the bullpen?” I asked.
He told me that he sees everything from there — even the selection and location of every pitch of the game.
“Every single pitch?!” I asked.
“Well, at least 90 percent — definitely everything from the 5th inning on.”
I had no idea that relievers (or least Heath Bell) pay such close attention from so far away.
One of my favorite topics that we discussed had to do with haters/stalkers. He and his wife both deleted their Twitter accounts last year (she’s now back on it and following me, as a matter of fact) because of all the nasty people that were harassing them. On the flip side, he’s had a bunch of awkward encounters with female fans who liked him a bit too much and didn’t want to take “no” for an answer. I shared some of my own stories about meeting super-intense fans, and I have to say that it was nice to talk about it with someone who really gets it.
By the way, we had lunch at a place called the Local Harvest Cafe. I had suggested getting barbecue, but he insisted on going someplace healthy. That surprised me because, let’s face it, Heath Bell is a large man, so I figured he wasn’t the most conscientious eater. That wasn’t the case at all. He had a normal-sized sandwich with organic turkey, lettuce, pickles, and mustard on five-grain bread. It came with a small side of potato chips (as did my sandwich), and he drank an iced tea. He told me that he’s been heavy ever since he was a little kid. He just has a crappy metabolism, and he said that the one time in his adult life that he got down to about 215 pounds, he lost nearly 10 miles per hour on his fastball.
Heath and I wrapped things up a little after 1pm. He wanted to head to the stadium early enough to get “stretched out” by the trainers. “It’ll extend your career,” he said, recalling the advice he’d gotten long ago from a veteran player. Heath told me that he’d like to pitch for six more seasons. He’s 35 now and still topping out in the upper 90s “on good days,” so from my non-expert perspective, it seems like he has a shot.
I walked him halfway to Busch Stadium and then peeled off so he could make a phone call. The last thing we discussed was our plan to hang out again. He told me that the next time the D’backs come to New York, he’ll take me to the MLB Fan Cave.
“It’s not open to the public, though, right?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ll just tell them that you’re coming with me, and if they have a problem with that, then I won’t go.” He said that when he was scheduled to be interviewed at a media session before the 2010 All-Star Game, he insisted that his father (who was battling lung cancer at the time) be allowed to sit beside him. MLB refused, so Heath offered to give his chair to his dad and stand behind him. Chairs, evidently, were limited at this special event, so when MLB said no, Heath said he wasn’t going to do the interview. Well, whaddaya know, an extra chair magically became available, and Heath was able to share the moment with his father.
In addition to the Fan Cave, we also talked about doing something else together in New York: visiting my family’s book store. Heath told me that if the whole baseball thing didn’t work out, he would’ve been a history teacher. (“But I knew it was gonna work out,” he said.) Given that fact, I know he’d love the store, which occupies an entire building in midtown and has a whole floor of autographed items and historical documents.
Before we parted ways, we made a loose plan to meet up at the book store and then head downtown to the Fan Cave. I asked when the D’backs were gonna be in New York, but he didn’t know, so when I got back to my hotel room, I looked up their schedule. Please don’t come to New York when I have other plans, I thought, but when I saw the dates, I actually shouted, “NOOOOOOO!!!” The Diamondbacks were going to be in New York when I was going to be traveling to Miami, Tampa, and Atlanta as part of the BIGS Baseball Adventure. Or was I? Neal Stewart from BIGS Sunflower Seeds hasn’t yet booked this trip. Hmm.
Several minutes later, Neal texted me and told me to come find him in the lobby. Here’s why:
Those lovely ladies are part of “BIGS Nation.” Working in pairs, they drive around the country in BIGS vans and hand out free samples of seeds at sporting events. In the photo above, the woman on the right is named Allison; I’d met her on May 3rd at the Panini headquarters in Texas. The women sitting between us is named Krista; I’d met her and Jenny — the woman on the far left — on May 21st at the Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago. I had not, however, previously met the women pictured above on my right. Her name is Betsy.
I hung out with the ladies for a while (see why I’m always behind on my blog?) and eventually headed over to the stadium. Look who I ran into outside Gate 4:
No, not the yawning kid. See the three guys to the right? Those are my friends from Kansas City: Tom and his two sons Connor (age 8) and Zachary (age 10). Remember when I met them for the first time on 9/17/11 at Kauffman Stadium? Well, we’ve kept in touch ever since, and it was great to catch up.
When the stadium finally opened for batting practice, I got a kick out of seeing Heath Bell in the outfield:
Over the course of the day, he gave me a few glances, a couple of nods, and a thumbs-up, but that was it. We didn’t talk, and we didn’t need to. We’d already had our special time together, and it was weird/awesome to think about it while seeing him out there on the field.
As for the ballhawking (which seems like such an insignificant part of the day), my 1st ball was thrown by Gerardo Parra in left-center field.
Here’s a pretty cool photo that Neal took several minutes later:
That’s me in the red shirt, standing at the bottom of the stairs — and that’s pretty much all I did during the pathetic half-hour that BP took place: standing around and waiting.
After getting the ball from Parra, I used my glove trick to snag one from the left field bullpen. Neal didn’t get a photo of that, but he was ready with his camera when I snagged FOUR MORE from the ‘pen at the very end of BP. Here I am reeling in the first one . . .
. . . and here I am swinging my glove out to knock the third ball closer:
I was prepared to stop and apologize as soon as security approached me, but they never did. Amazing.
The only little kid in sight happened to be the son of Neal’s friend, so I gave him one of the balls and kept the rest.
During BP, it had drizzled a bit, and by 6:20pm, with heavier rain falling, the tarp was out:
There ended up being a 46-minute rain delay, which didn’t bother me at all. In fact, it was a good thing because I got to (a) leisurely eat some chicken tenders and fries, followed by my first of two soft-serve vanilla ice cream cones and (b) spend more time with the BIGS Nation ladies:
They had entered the stadium with a bunch of sample packs of seeds, and I was ready with my camera when they started chucking them into the crowd:
I headed down to the Diamondbacks’ dugout for pre-game throwing . . .
. . . but didn’t get the ball.
Then I headed to left field . . .
. . . and stayed there for the next three hours.
This was the view to my left:
Did you notice all the important people in the photo above? Not only was Heath Bell sitting 2nd from the end of the bench closest to me, but Tom and Zachary and Connor were sitting in the front row of bleacher seats on the far left.
During the middle innings, I caught up with a young fan named Peter who had recognized me earlier in the day. Here we are:
It’s kind of hard to see, but did you notice the little white thing in the pocket of his glove? That was a 3rd-out ball that he’d just snagged behind the dugout.
Peter and I actually had somewhat of a history. Although we’d never met in person, he interviewed me last year for his high school newspaper.
The game was tied, 1-1, until the 6th inning, and the Diamondbacks turned it into a laugher after that. Unfortunately, there was only one home run all night — a grand slam by Paul Goldschmidt that landed several rows deep in the bleachers, just to the left of the grassy berm in dead center.
I wasn’t planning on going to the dugout, but when there were two outs in the bottom of the 9th, I realized that the next three batters were non-power-hitting lefties, so I decided to run over. This was my glorious view along the way:
Not only is there a wide cross-aisle at Busch Stadium, but fans are allowed to stand there; yellow rectangles are painted onto the concrete to designate the standing-room areas. Citi Field and Yankee Stadium? Yeah right. You can’t stand anywhere with a decent view or a chance of catching a ball, and you sure as hell can’t spontaneously move from section to section. You have no idea how much the two New York stadiums suck — and how much I love attending games *anywhere* else. Busch Stadium is a tough place to ballhawk. There’s no doubt about it. It’s crowded and segmented, and the bullpens are in the absolute worst spots. I always complain about Busch when I’m there, but I’d take it in a flash over either stadium in my hometown. Any by the way, given the lopsided score (Diamondbacks 10, Cardinals 3) and the steady drizzle that fell throughout the game, it’s no surprise that the stadium was rather empty by the 7th-inning stretch. To my surprise (although I shouldn’t have been surprised because I wasn’t in New York), the friendly usher in my section told me that I could move up to an open row. I hadn’t asked him for permission; he approached me when I was sitting farther back and told me I could do it. (Did you see my tweet about it at the time?) Here’s a photo that Tom took that shows me talking to two ushers after I’d moved up; note his older son sitting in front of me.
Look what happened when the Diamondbacks relievers walked across the field from the bullpen after the game:
You probably didn’t notice what I’m talking about, so let me quickly explain. See the player on the warning track beyond the outfield-end of the dugout? That’s Heath Bell, the nicest man ever to play the game of baseball. While his teammates headed straight to their post-game meal in the clubhouse, Heath took a detour to go over and say hello to some fans/friends along the left field foul line. Say what you want about his pitching — even HE admits that he was terrible last year in Miami — but you have to respect him as a human being.
I walked over and waited for him to finish talking to the other fans. Then, as he headed off toward the dugout, I shook his hand and said goodbye. I would love to see him in New York, and I mentioned all of this to Neal, who’s fine with changing my travel dates. I know there are some people who’ve been looking forward to seeing me on the road, especially in Atlanta on July 2nd (which is when BIGS had been planning to send me there), but given the special opportunity to visit the Fan Cave with Heath and hang out with him in my hometown, I’m probably going to reschedule. Sorry about that, but I hope you understand. The Diamondbacks will be at Citi Field from July 1-4, and I’d really like to be in New York during that time.
When all the players were gone, I wandered over to the home-plate end of the dugout to look for Tom and his boys. There were still a bunch of fans, mostly kids, crowding the front row, shouting at every conceivable employee for baseballs — ushers, TV people, security guards, groundskeepers, you name it. I would’ve given away a few of my baseballs, but I didn’t have nearly enough to go around. (By the way, Tom and his boys were gone; they’d combined to snag six balls over the course of the day.) In any case, after a minute or so, some equipment-manager-type-of-guy poked his head out of the dugout and scanned the crowd. All the kids went nuts, thinking that he had a ball in his hand. I figured he had one too, and just for the hell of it, I waved and got his attention and made a little ball/throwing gesture. He looked at me and shook his head. All the kids must’ve seen his reaction because they stopped shouting and turned their attention elsewhere. Just then, I caught a glimpse of something reddish in the equipment guy’s hand, which appeared to be a batting glove. I really wasn’t sure, but just in case that’s what it was, I shouted “Batting gloves!!” at him and held up my hands as a target.
Now, to set the scene, there was a wall of little kids in the front row, just to the right of the dugout, like, you know, behind that little area where the TV people hang out. I, too, was standing in the front row, but I was behind the kids, and yes, there was room. As it turned out, the equipment guy was indeed holding a pair of batting gloves, and because the kids were no longer paying attention to him (and because none of them were wearing D’backs gear), he tossed them in my direction. Unfortunately, they fell a bit short, and given the fact that there were kids in front of me, I couldn’t lunge for them. I carefully reached out above the kids (who never saw them coming) and tried to catch them with my bare/left hand. I managed to snag one in my fingertips, but the other fell short and dropped into a large metallic bin, which was inaccessible. Not only couldn’t I reach down (it was about seven feet below me), but the ushers and guards refused to help. In fact, the guard standing right in front of me on the warning track began shouting at me to “forget about it” and to “let it go.” Obviously, I could do no such thing, and as I continued to lean over the railing and look at the other batting glove, he issued a threat.
“You will go to JAIL before you get that!” he said.
That’s when I took the following photo:
The rude guard was the one wearing the light blue shirt.
The batting glove, by the way, was severely torn across the palm, and there was no name or number on it.
“Does anyone know whose this was?” I asked.
“I think it was Nieves,” said a man standing on my left.
There’s no way to be certain, but if he’s right, that would be journeyman catcher Wil Nieves.
Anyway, the other batting glove was still sitting down below, tormenting me. Several kids and fathers begged the security guard to get it for them, but he didn’t budge. That’s understandable, but his rude attitude was not. All he had to say was, “I’m sorry, guys, I’d love to help, but I’m not allowed to move from this spot, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to reach it,” but instead, he continued to be combative and shout at us, especially me. After a minute of this, he didn’t merely ask us to leave the section; he ordered us to exit and shouted at the last few remaining ushers to escort us from the stands. There were only a handful of fans at that point, and let me tell you, I was NOT happy to be treated this way. But fine. Whatever. I had a plan, and in order to execute it, I had to give the appearance that I was obeying. Quite simply, I decided to lurk in the concourse until he and all the other employees left. Then I was going to walk back down into the seats and ask a groundskeeper to retrieve it for me. I’d used this if-you-can’t-beat-’em-outlast-’em technique once before on 6/18/09 at Kauffman Stadium. That was the day I snagged a then-record 32 balls, including eleven long after the final out from the gap behind the center field wall.
As the last few remaining ushers exited the section and walked toward me, I half-pretended to be busy, which is to say . . . I actually *was* busy. I was in the process of changing out of my Diamondbacks gear and into a Cardinals hat. I figured it was a good idea to change my appearance and, in case anyone was watching from afar, to look like I belonged. I noticed several seat cleaners entering the section, and they were all dressed randomly, so maybe it didn’t really matter what I was wearing. Maybe I should’ve stayed in my D’backs gear? Then, if I got busted, I could play up the whole sorry-I’m-from-out-of-town angle, but really, what could I have possibly gotten busted for? I wasn’t planning to sneaking into an illegal area. All I was doing was lingering in the stadium. Is that so bad? Anyway, I finally walked back down into the seats, and sure enough the schmucky security guard was gone. There was absolutely no one around except the grounds crew and seat cleaners. I headed all the way down to the front row and thankfully didn’t have to wait long for one of the groundskeepers to walk toward the dugout. When he approached the warning track, I said, “Quick favor!” He stopped and looked up, so I continued: “Someone threw me a pair of batting gloves. I caught one, but the other dropped down there. Any chance you might be able to reach it for me, please? Perhaps with your rake?”
He said sure and walked over to the random metal bin and began trying to scrape out the batting glove. That’s when I grabbed my camera and took this photo:
The arrow is pointing at the glove, but keep in mind that when it first dropped down in there, it was directly below me.
Less than ten seconds after he went to work with that rake, he had the batting glove in his hand, and he tossed it to me. It was soaking wet and covered in random debris, but I didn’t care. I was just thrilled to have it, and of course the conquest itself felt great. (Take THAT, stadium security!) I had some paper towels in my backpack, and everything around me was still wet from all the rain, so I swiped the towels on the back of a seat and then used the moisture to clean all the debris from my newest memento. Here’s a photo of the TWO batting gloves:
Thank you. Thank you very much.
Groundskeepers are the best. I know because I *was* one for a summer with a minor league team called the Boise Hawks — and look what I got out of it.
When I made it back to my hotel, I photographed the batting gloves atop the illuminated bathroom counter:
Then I photographed my five baseballs on the carpet:
And then I went to bed.
• 6 balls at this game (five pictured above because I gave one away)
• 281 balls in 37 games this season = 7.59 balls per game.
• 43 balls in 6 lifetime games at Busch Stadium = 7.17 balls per game.
• 909 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 434 consecutive games with at least two balls
• 19 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, Camden Yards, U.S. Cellular Field, Comerica Park, Rogers Centre, Miller Park, and Busch Stadium
• 6,740 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.)
• 28 donors for my fundraiser
• $1.83 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $10.98 raised at this game
• $514.23 raised this season through my fundraiser
• $9,500 from BIGS Sunflower Seeds for my game-used baseballs
• $31,420.23 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009