9/23/14 at PETCO Park

During a lull in batting practice on 9/22/14 at PETCO Park, a local friend asked if I had any pre-game plans the following day. “Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna go hang out at Heath Bell’s house.” That seemed to amuse him, so I played along as if it were a joke, but that WAS, in fact, my plan. Fast-forward to the morning of September 23rd. Here I am with Heath and his wife Nicole:

1_zack_nicole_heath

That photo was taken by their four-year-old son, Rhett, who had been placed by Heath on the dining room counter for that purpose. (I had to rotate it slightly and then crop it, but wow! Nice job, young man!)

I was really glad to be there. Not only was it my first visit to their home, but it was the first time that I got to have an actual conversation with Nicole, who’s super-friendly. She and I had crossed paths once or twice before, but only in the context of post-game mayhem at stadiums. Of course it was also great to catch up with Heath. We had hung out several times last year (lunch in St. Louis followed by a tour of the Argosy Book Store in New York City and a post-game trip to the MLB Fan Cave), but I’d barely seen him this season.

You know how some athletes are totally guarded and boring? Heath is the opposite. As always, he shared lots of personal stuff and told me interesting things about the baseball world. He also said I could take some photos of his memorabilia collection and post them on my blog, so here you go:

2_heath_bell_bats_and_balls

I’m not sure if that space qualifies as a living room or simply a den, but whatever you want to call it, it’s amazing. All the bats on the right side were autographed and given to him by various players, including an Ichiro Suzuki bat that Heath broke with one of his pitches. How cool is that?! Heath told me that players ask each other for autographs all the time, but there’s a certain way of going about it. With superstars on other teams, you often have to tiptoe around them and put in the request through a clubhouse attendant, but with most guys, you can ask them directly. Not surprisingly, Barry Bonds was the toughest. According to Heath, the Yankees run a profitable side business of selling brand-new Derek Jeter jerseys to visiting players, nearly all of whom send them over to the home clubhouse to get signed.

In the photo above, did you notice the extensive collection of Bobbleheads above the TV, the Heath Bell jerseys hanging on either side, and the four-foot-tall popcorn maker in the corner? All that stuff was cool, but my favorite thing in the room was probably the double-rack of balls along the ceiling. Those are the final outs of all of his career saves, except for one, which he gave to a friend. I forgot to ask him what happens if he saves a milestone win for a starting pitcher. Presumably both guys would want the ball, but how would they decide who gets to keep it?

Here’s a closeup of some baseball bats:

3_bats_closeup

I spotted several that Heath himself had signed, and I made fun of him for having his own autograph. His reason is a good one: all the bats are signed, and if he leaves the collection to his kids someday, he wants them to have their own father’s autograph.

In the photo above, most of the balls in the protective cases are signed, but some are just flat-out awesome and rare, like this one:

4_marlins_park_opening_night_ball

Here’s another special ball I found nearby:

5_gold_home_run_derby_ball

In the photo above, did you notice the lineup card? He had several of those displayed on various shelves, all from his milestone wins and saves.

Check out his All-Star Game shoes:

6_all_star_shoes

It might be tough for the haters out there to remember that from 2009 through 2011, he was one of the best relievers in Major League Baseball, averaged 44 saves per season, and was selected to three consecutive All-Star teams. Even with his recent struggles, he still has a solid lifetime ERA of 3.49 and has averaged more than a strikeout per inning for his career. That’s legit.

Everything in Heath’s place was special — even the pillows:

7_heath_bell_jersey_pillows

Those were made out of his jerseys, and as a pillow lover myself, I truly appreciated them.

After a couple of hours at the house, I joined Heath for a short ride in his truck. He told me about his time with the Rays this season and what it was like playing for Joe Maddon. He also mentioned some things about pitching in the minors for both the Orioles and Yankees. He said he’s been working out and throwing and that he’s hoping to make a comeback next year.

We went to the drive-through window of a restaurant I’m too embarrassed to name, brought the food back to the house, and ate with Nicole and Rhett.

And then?
Ping pong!

As I mentioned on Twitter, here I am getting my ass kicked:

8_zack_and_heath_playing_ping_pong

In my own defense, I used to be *really* good at ping pong — so good that I won my 4th-grade ping pong tournament (at an obnoxious all-boys school that was generally ultra-competitive). But now my skills are rusty as hell. Before losing 21-9 to Heath (who seemed to be taking it easy on me), I hadn’t played in years — maybe in decades. I won’t claim that the nine-year-old me could’ve beaten the 36-year-old Heath, but at the very least, it would’ve been close.

I should mention that my friend Brandon Sloter played a huge role in making this visit happen. When he picked me up at the airport the day before, he half-jokingly suggested that I contact Heath to see if he was free to hang out. In the back of my mind, I knew that Heath lived near San Diego, but it just hadn’t occurred to me to set something up ahead of time. I was here to attend three Padres games and snag some commemorative baseballs. I hadn’t thought about anything else. When Heath texted me back and invited me over, Brandon offered to drop me off at his place and pick me up at the end, so it all worked out perfectly.

I’m not sure when I’ll see Heath again — hopefully next season in various major league cities, especially New York so I can invite him over to see *my* baseball collection (and play Arkanoid, so I have a chance to beat him at something). But if nothing else, I’m just glad to have gotten to spend some time with him in San Diego. Obviously it’s cool to hang out with a major leaguer, but I don’t really think about that anymore with him. He’s just a cool dude who loves talking baseball and is fun to be around. I invited him to join me for the Padres game, but he said he had other stuff to do, and I believe him. The man has four kids and is currently enjoying his first “free” summer in 18 years.

Brandon and I took off and headed to the stadium together. On the way, we stopped here and played catch for about 15 minutes:

9_playing_catch_on_the_beach

Whenever I visit Brandon, his favorite thing to say is, “Yeah, San Diego sucks. You should stay in New York.”

It actually *did* suck when we got stuck in traffic for half an hour, forcing me to contact my friend Leigh Barratt and ask him to hold a spot for me in line.

We reached the stadium 10 minutes before it opened. Here’s Leigh (in the tan shorts) fighting off the crowd:

10_leigh_barratt_needlessly_holding_a_spot_for_me_in_line_outside_the_gates

He was the ONLY person waiting at that gate. Can you believe that?! Maybe San Diego doesn’t suck so much after all.

Other fans, of course, were waiting elsewhere, so when the stadium opened, there was actually somewhat of a crowd. Here I am on “the Beach,” watching helplessly as a ball was tossed to some little kids nearby:

12_ball_tossed_to_a_kid_09_23_14

Here I am watching another ball get tossed to a little girl:

13_ball_tossed_to_a_little_girl

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t get baseballs. In most cases, they absolutely should. It’s just frustrating to be stuck in a section 400 feet from home plate, watching a team that can’t hit, depending on toss-ups, and being 28 years too old.

Thankfully, after all the kids had gotten their share of baseballs, it was the grown-ups’ turn. Here I am catching a toss-up from Odrisamer Despaigne:

14_zack_catching_ball7773

That ball was commemorative:

15_zack_with_ball7773

Here’s an action shot that shows me out-jumping my friend Devin Trone for my second ball of the day:

16_zack_catching_ball7774

That one also happened to be tossed by Despaigne, and by the way, don’t feel bad for Devin. He robbed me several times over the course of this series and ended up with a bunch of balls at this game.

Here are my first two baseballs — the only ones I got during the Padres’ portion of BP:

17_balls7773_and_7774

Beautiful.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to sneak into the main part of the stadium with the season ticket holders, so I was trapped at the Beach for the first hour. And yes, it was awful. First I had to suffer through 20 minutes of dead time when the Padres cleared the field, and when the Rockies finally started hitting, I only got one more ball. It was a homer by a right-handed batter that barely cleared the wall, smacked off a tiny area of pavement, and bounced way up into the bleachers. Here I am running up the steps for it (after having thrown on a dark Rockies shirt):

18_zack_running_for_ball7775

As soon as I grabbed the ball, I looked at Brandon:

19_zack_holding_ball7775

Let me translate that facial expression: “If you didn’t get any photos of that, I’m going to kill you.”

I’m kind of joking. Brandon is one of my closest friends, but I’ve come to expect camera wizardry whenever we go to games. Not only is he a professional photographer/videographer, but that’s why we first met on 4/24/08 at Champion Stadium; he had gotten in touch before that series and offered to take some shots of me for my blog.

Anyway, here at PETCO, when the whole stadium opened at 5:30pm, I headed to left field:

20_zack_in_left_field_09_23_14

It was dead. I didn’t come close to any homers, and I couldn’t get anyone to throw me a ball. When I told Brandon that I was giving up on left field, he tried to convince me to go here with him . . .

21_padres_greeting_fans

. . . but I had no interest. If BP weren’t taking place, I would’ve joined him, but there were still baseballs to be caught!

This was my view for the next group of hitters:

23_my_view_in_right_field_09_23_14

At the time, I had no idea that Brandon was already back in the left field seats. Here’s a photo he took of Charlie Blackmon in the cage . . .

22_charlie_blackmon_taking_bp

. . . and here’s a shot of me reaching up for a Corey Dickerson homer:

24_zack_getting_ready_to_catch_ball7776

In case you can’t tell, in the photo above, I’m standing in the cross-aisle, casting a shadow on the wall behind me. And yeah, that’s the legendary T.C. covering his head 20 feet to the right. Ha!

That was one of the easiest home runs I’ve ever caught. There was no competition whatsoever, and the ball came right to me. The only skillful thing about it was having decided to stand there in the first place.

That was it for BP — only four baseballs — but my day was far from done. Back in left field, I noticed a ball sitting on the warning track near the foul pole:

25_ball7777_sitting_on_the_field

Did you notice me in the photo above? See the groundskeeper rolling the screen along the nonexistent foul line? I’m standing directly above him in the front row. Did you notice the person standing just to the right of the ball? You can barely see her poking out behind the foul pole. I thought she was a ballgirl, but found out later that she was part of the Pad Squad. When the groundskeeper approached the ball, she picked it up and handed it him, but he wanted no part of it and tossed it back to her, prompting several fans to ask for it. She clearly had no idea what to do, so she thought about it briefly and then started walking toward the infield. That’s what’s happening in the following photo:

26_ballgirl_with_ball7777

Here I am asking for the ball:

27_zack_asking_for_ball7777

Moments later, some other guy asked for it too. She responded by saying that she was going to put it over “there” and that he could try to reach it or wait and see what happened. The spot she chose was on the warning track, one foot out from the wall next to a little equipment bag where the wall started to slant up. As soon as she placed it there and walked away, the other guy started heading toward it, but I was closer, so I leaned over to grab it:

28_zack_reaching_for_ball7777_after_it_was_placed_on_the_field

Somehow, according to a friend of mine, I ended up getting bashed on Facebook for stealing a ball from the ballgirl’s bag, but obviously that’s not what happened.

That was my 7,777th lifetime baseball. I celebrated by devouring a slice of pizza:

29_zack_eating_pizza

Twenty minutes before game time, I noticed one of the groundskeepers sprinkling a mystery substance on the edge of the infield grass:

30_groundskeeper_sprinkling_mystery_substance

It just so happens that I’m friends with a guy who used to work as a minor league groundskeeper. (His name is Joe Kelly. Remember him? We worked together for the Boise Hawks in 1995 and saw each other most recently on 4/26/13 at Safeco Field.) I sent him that photo and asked what the deal was. He said it was “probably a divot repair mixture of sand and seed, likely pre-germinated seed, maybe dyed green.” Okay then.

This was my view in the bottom of the 1st inning:

31_view_in_the_1st_inning_09_23_14

Rather than playing both dugouts, which had gotten me into trouble with stadium security the night before, I decided to stay on the Rockies’ side until I got a 3rd-out ball.

Look who else was there:

32_zack_and_devin

That’s Devin, who was also dressed for the occasion. The night before, he had a front-row seat and snagged two game-used balls, so he was willing to let me take a shot at getting one now. He understood that even though I’d gotten six commemorative balls in two days, I wanted another. All the ones I’d snagged were practice balls; I wanted a gamer that had been rubbed with mud.

It didn’t take long. I ended up getting one after the 1st inning — a Rene Rivera groundout off Jorge De La Rosa, fielded by Rafael Ynoa at 3rd base and fired across the diamond to Justin Morneau . . . who tossed it to me on his way in. The ball was in great-but-not-perfect condition:

33_ball7778_from_justin_morneau

As you can see, the commemorative logo was flawless, but the “Official Major League Baseball” portion was partially worn. (Poor me. I know.)

Moments after I took that photo, the same usher who’d hassled me the day before appeared out of nowhere and asked to see my ticket. I showed him, and he was satisfied, but before heading back up the steps, he pointed toward the command center inside the batter’s eye and said, “They’re still watching you with their cameras, right above those hedges. You might as well smile.”

I’ll tell you what I did instead: I got the hell out of there, changed my outfit, and went to left field. I was planning to camp out in a tunnel in the second deck . . .

34_tc_in_the_second_deck_in_left_field

. . . until I noticed T.C. sitting right in front of me. In the photo above, that’s him in the white mesh cap. (As I mentioned in my previous entry, he’s one of the top ten ballhawks of all time according to a book called The Baseball.)

On my way down to the 100 Level, I paused for a moment to admire the glorious bullpen configuration:

35_bullpens_from_above

That’s just a bit nicer than the bullpens at Citi Field, don’tcha think?

For the next two hours, this was my view:

36_view_from_left_field_09_23_14

I wasn’t really trying to get another ball. I just wanted to watch the game and not be bothered. Leigh came and found me at one point, which was nice. After he moved back to his seat, Brandon caught up with me, which was also nice. I was glad to have company. I just didn’t feel like dealing with snarky ushers or exerting myself.

That changed fast when THIS happened:

Did you see me get robbed by Brandon Barnes? Here’s a screen shot of the most action-packed moment:

37_zack_nearly_catching_a_home_run

That’s me in the white shirt, reaching for the ball. If it had been hit one foot higher, I would’ve caught it, and for the record, no, this wasn’t an egregious case of (potential) fan interference. I’ll admit that my glove was several inches in front of the outfield wall, and for that I apologize, but I wasn’t reaching nearly as far into play as you might think. Check out this photo of me using the glove trick in 2008. See how wide the space between the stands and the outfield wall is? It’s about four feet, so I’m telling you — I really wasn’t doing anything terrible.

Here’s a photo of Barnes taken soon after his amazing catch:

38_brandon_barnes_in_left_field

In the 9th inning, I decided to head back to the 3rd base dugout and try to get a ball from the home plate umpire after the game. That seemed like the most reliable way to snag a mud-rubbed ball with a pristine commemorative logo.

This was my view in the top of the 9th:

39_third_base_side_09_23_14

Here’s a look at the scoreboard:

40_scoreboard_09_23_14

In the bottom of the 9th, Brandon took a photo from left field that captured me and Devin in the seats behind the Rockies’ dugout:

41_devin_corner_spot_zack_climbing_over_seats

In the photo above, the arrow on the left is pointing at Devin, who was in the perfect seat near the umps’ tunnel. The arrow on the right is pointing at me, climbing back over a row of seats in order to work my way down. Whenever I move around, I make sure not to block anyone’s view, and I try not to make people stand up.

After the final out of the Rockies’ 3-2 victory, Devin got a ball from umpire Hal Gibson III, and then I got one right after, which was in perfect condition! Then, less than a minute later, I got a ball tossed by someone on the Rockies. I’m not sure who. It might’ve been coach Eric Young, but anyway, here’s a photo of me lunging for it:

42_zack_snagging_ball7780

That was my eighth and final ball of the day. Here’s a photo of the two I’d just gotten:

43_balls7779_and_7780

In the photo above, did you notice all the people standing around on the infield? Those were fans and players putting the finishing touches on a “Shirts Off Their Backs” promotion.

Brandon had told me several innings earlier that his phone was about to die, so we made a plan to meet behind the Rockies’ dugout after the game. Easy, right? Well, five minutes later, there was no sign of him, so I started wandering around the seats on the 3rd base side. Mainly I was looking for him, but I was also scavenging for ticket stubs and keeping an eye out for kids to give baseballs to. Here’s a photo of the only kid I saw with a baseball glove:

44_wandering_postgame

Why were there so few kids? Because this was a weeknight game in September that hadn’t ended until 10:30pm — and now it was considerably later than that.

Brandon was nowhere to be found, and I was getting nervous. I didn’t have a car, and without him, I didn’t have a place to stay. We were crashing at his friend’s place, and I didn’t know the address, so if I couldn’t find him inside the stadium . . . then what?

Security started clearing out the seats, so I had no choice but to head up the steps toward the concourse. Then I began walking slowly toward an exit in the left field corner. Just as I was about to leave, I happened to see this:

45_padres_postgame_show

Security allowed me to stand there and watch. That’s when it occurred to me that I wasn’t facing such a dire situation after all. Brandon had a charger in his car, so if I had to exit the stadium, I could just wander around the neighborhood and wait for him to power up enough to call me.

Then I felt someone tap my shoulder. It was Brandon. OF COURSE. He has a tendency to drive me absolutely crazy and then somehow undo the damage in the most unexpected of ways. In this case, he made up for it by taking me to In-N-Out Burger (and hooking me up with a free place to stay for all three nights of the trip).

Finally, here are the seven balls I kept:

46_the_seven_balls_i_kept_09_23_14

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 8 baseballs at this game

• 604 balls in 83 games this season = 7.28 balls per game.

• 130 lifetime balls in 12 games at PETCO Park = 10.83 balls per game.

• 1,049 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 373 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 7,780 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

(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 about my fundraiser, and if you donate money, you’ll be eligible to win one of these prizes.)

• 24 donors for my fundraiser

• $2.05 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $16.40 raised at this game

• $1,238.20 raised this season

• $39,902.20 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009

11 comments

  1. Jared

    Reading all of these entries I completely forgot that regular MLB logo balls existed. Ending the year strong!
    -Jared
    Wheelhouseblog.mlblogs.com

  2. Liz Merry

    Wow!!! Heath’s collection is amazing! That was very generous of him to let you share those photos with us. And the fact that players get each other’s autographs. Who knew? Another great entry. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Liz Merry

    There was a ballgal at Petco when I was there who was playing on the first base side who played catch with the RFers of both teams during game breaks. Her arm was a cannon! She had a little blond ponytail and I saw her throw to the LFer from RF several times, too. Did you see her, by chance? She was very impressive. How do they get those jobs? Are there tryouts? Do you have to know someone?

  4. James Lee (@esigs)

    It’s always nice to hear stories about ball players being “normal.” I never met Heath but would like to someday. His collection looks great. I specially liked his two-tier bat rack. I’m assuming they were custom built; I would like to have one made once I get more bats. Question: does he mark his save balls in any way? Date? Save #? Opponent?

  5. TC

    Why be ashamed of Chik fil A they are havin a grand opening next wk camp out be first 100 guests get chik for a year free. KFC don’t do that get Brandon to be the photographer there padreleighGoin too

  6. Mike

    Once again, awesome. I know I’ve told you this before, but that Heath Bell autographed ball you got me remains a treasured memento. Thank you again

  7. Zack Hample

    DEMETRIUS-
    That’s pretty much the reaction that every baseball fan has, I think.

    JARED-
    Ha, thanks. But I’m not done yet. I still have three more game entries coming up.

    BOSTON BALLHAWK-
    A vegetarian could argue, I suppose, but let’s not get hung up on that. :-)

    LIZ MERRY-
    You’re welcome. Heath is the best. As for the ballgirls, I did see one who was *very* talented. I wanted to play catch with her. She was warming up along the right field foul line one day, though she might’ve been stationed on the other side of the field during the game. Not sure how they get those jobs.

    JAMES LEE-
    Yeah, that was custom-built. The entire house was beautiful and had lots of customized things. Good question about the save balls. I took a close-up photo of them but didn’t post it because . . . I don’t know. I just didn’t want to go crazy here on the blog and overdo everything, but anyway, to answer your question, he writes the save number on the ball, then the date below it, and then the opponent’s city abbreviation (such as ATL or HOU) below that along with the number of strikeouts that he had (“1-K” or “2-K”).

    TC-
    Why be ashamed? Because of hateful crap like this:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chick-fil-A_same-sex_marriage_controversy

    MIKE-
    You’re welcome again. I’m so glad to hear that it’s still bringing you joy.

  8. Ray Burton

    Was wondering how Heath had been going since his departure from the Rays and it looks like he`s bounced back OK. We all look forward to seeing him back in the Majors. Very unfortunate that he missed the tour to Oz for Opening Day. San Diego is a nice town – very Australian. Cool house with some classic memorabilia. Any man with 4 kids definitely has his hands full. That`s enough for an infield , now its time to start work on some outfielders , a catcher and a pitching rotation.

  9. Zack Hample

    He is definitely bouncing back — getting in shape and thinking many positive thoughts. What’s so “Australian” about San Diego? Hope I’ll get to see you guys in 2015.

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