The Mets and Yankees were both on the road, so I drove down to Philadelphia with a lofty goal: snag at least 13 or 14 baseballs at this game. Quite simply, I was 20 balls away from No. 8,000, and I wanted to reach the milestone during BP at my following game, when my girlfriend would be free to come and film me.
When I arrived at the left field gate, I was surprised (but not THAT surprised) to see a whole new row of permanent metal detectors:
Even though I knew at the start of the season that metal detectors would be used throughout Major League Baseball, it was still jarring when I saw them for the first time at Yankee Stadium and later at Citi Field. Citizens Bank Park is supposed to be laid-back in comparison, and I suppose it still is; at Yankee Stadium, the security personnel set up the detectors from scratch every day (because if they were left out overnight in the Bronx, they’d presumably get stolen or destroyed), but here in peaceful Philadelphia, where everyone is sooooooo respectful, the detectors are bolted into the pavement and, when not in use, covered with tarps.
Half an hour before the stadium opened, I was recognized by a young ballhawk named Montanna. Here we are:
She said she’d gotten lots of baseballs the day before — and I could see why. She was the perfect age, and she looked athletic, and she knew a lot about the sport. If you were a major league player, and Montanna asked you for a ball, you would basically HAVE to throw one to her. Right?
Check out the line of fans waiting to get inside:
For a weeknight in May at the home of a last-place team, this seemed like a lot of people, but compared to New York, it was nothing.
When I finally ran inside, I was miffed to see half a dozen ushers spread out in the left field seats. Phillies employees are allowed to snag baseballs before the gates open, which is great for them but bad for fans. It means you’ll never find a ball in the seats. But you know what really pissed me off? As I rushed down the steps toward the field, one of the ushers glanced over at me and then turned to his buddy and said, “Well, the party’s over.” Gosh, I’m so sorry that paying customers are ruining your fun.
This was my view at the start of BP:
I figured there’d be four groups of hitters — one final group of Phillies and then three groups of Pirates. I’d been doing the math in my head and was hoping to snag at least two baseballs per group. Finishing BP with fewer than eight balls, I decided, would leave me in a tough spot. Eight would be acceptable, though not great. Nine would be very good, and ten would be excellent. Then I could hopefully get one or two pre-game balls followed by one or two 3rd-out balls and one or two post-game balls.
The first 10 minutes of BP were dead. The closest I came to snagging one was when I climbed down over a row of seats and reached out for a home run. Unfortunately another guy was reaching for it too, our gloves bumped, and we both missed it. (These are the moments that make me wish I were 6-foot-10.)
As the Phillies portion of BP was winding down, I still didn’t have a ball, and I was getting antsy! I knew that if I had a big fat ZERO when the Pirates took the field, I’d be digging myself out of a hole all day. Thankfully, just before panic-mode kicked in, someone hit a deep fly ball that rolled onto the warning track, slightly to the left of the batter’s eye. I raced through the seats and got over there just as Odubel Herrera retrieved it. I asked him for the ball in Spanish, and when he flipped it up to me, a nearby fan said, “I shouldn’t have studied German in high school.”
Here’s a photo of the ball:
Two minutes later, a right-handed batter crushed a deep drive to left-center. I was shaded more toward straight-away left, but the seats were still fairly empty, so I took off. Rather than looking up at the ball, which would have slowed me down, I focused on rushing to the spot where it was probably going to land. At the last second, I saw the ball heading toward a totally empty row and assumed it would take a wild ricochet and plop into someone’s lap who wasn’t even paying attention. That’s the kind of luck I’ve been having so far this season, but whaddaya know . . . the ball smacked the seats and stayed where it landed, allowing me to run over and grab it.
The Phillies finished hitting soon after that, and while I certainly wasn’t thrilled with how things had gone, I was relieved.
Take a look at the following photo — it shows the Pirates playing catch in left field:
Did you notice the three balls on the warning track? See the one near the foul pole? As soon as I noticed that, I ran over there to determine if I’d be able to snag it with my glove trick. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was gone, but something good ended up happening. In the photo above, do you see the usher in the red jacket just to the left of the foul pole? That’s where I was standing when a coach on the Pirates (not sure who) tossed me my third ball of the day.
Montanna was standing beside me when I got that ball. She had already snagged a few, including a well-worn 2014 postseason ball. I’d heard that the Pirates had been using some random commemorative balls during BP, but wow! Seeing the one that Montanna got gave me some extra motivation.
Several minutes later, as I began setting up my glove trick in left-center field, a 10-ish-year-old kid on my left asked, “Are you the guy with six thousand balls?!”
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s me, but I’m almost up to eight thousand now.”
His jaw actually dropped. It was pretty cute. Then I lowered my glove onto the warning track and secured my fourth ball of the day. As I was carefully lifting it back up, Arquimedes Caminero walked over and pretended to interfere, but thought better of it.
My fifth ball was a towering home run hit by Corey Hart. I judged it perfectly, and at the last second, I climbed up on a seat to give myself some extra reach. (As a non-6-foot-10 person who was feeling boxed in by several other fans, that’s what I had to do in that situation.)
A little while later, Andrew McCutchen hit a homer 20 feet to my left. If not for a group of middle-aged men who happened to be standing right where the ball landed, I would’ve caught it on the fly. Somehow they managed to bobble it back into my row, and I grabbed it. That was my sixth ball, and there were two groups of BP remaining. I should mention that all these balls had regular logos along with Rob Manfred’s stamped signature.
Things continued going my way when Starling Marte cranked a DEEP home run to left-center field. There was one little kid chasing the ball up a staircase. I was several steps behind him and figured it was all his, especially when it ricocheted back in his direction. Unfortunately for him, he ended up overrunning it, and it bounced right to me — but before he had a chance to feel bad, I handed the ball to him.
After getting the Pirates’ bullpen catcher, Heberto Andrade, to throw me my eighth ball of the day, I ran over to right field for the final group. Here’s what it looked like out there:
I had all kinds of room to run for homers, but it was dead! There was NO action, and I couldn’t get anyone to throw me a ball, so when BP ended, I still had eight.
At that point, my first thought was, “Damn! I should’ve been behind the Pirates’ dugout to catch all the guys coming off the field.” My next thought was, “Maybe I should still hurry over in case they take a while to transfer the BP balls from the basket to the equipment bags,” and so I sprung into action. Starting in right-center field, I ran through the empty seats toward the foul pole and then through foul territory toward 1st base. When I reached the Diamond Club area, I had to go up the stairs into the concourse and then keep running around home plate toward the 3rd base side. Just as I was about to cut back down into the seats, I heard someone shouting, “Hey! HEY!!!” I got the sense that the person was shouting at me, but why? Had I done something wrong? Did the person recognize me and want to say hello? The Pirates’ equipment guy WAS indeed still dealing with the baseballs on the warning track in front of the dugout, so when I realized that a cameraman was trying to get my attention, I held up my index finger as if to say, “Hang on,” and I kept running down the steps and toward the dugout. This was the scene:
The guy reaching into the basket is named Scott Bonnett. He’s the Pirates’ clubhouse attendant. How do I know that? Because of someone else in the photo who told me. See the guy on the right, touching the green padded railing? That’s a friend of mine from Pittsburgh named Zac Weiss. He was once a ballhawk — check out his profile on MyGameBalls.com. Now he’s a writer covering the Pirates for the Pittsburgh Sporting News — check out some of his recent articles here, here, here, and here. How cool is that?!
Anyway, lots of stuff happened within the next few minutes. First, Scott Bonnett tossed me my ninth ball of the day. Then the Pirates’ TV guy (pictured above in the suit and tie) got my attention and asked what I’d been doing during BP, and I was like . . . “Uhhhh, what?” He explained that one of the cameramen had seen me running all over the place and had been filming me. He asked a few more questions, so I told him about my collection and mentioned that I’d been interviewed live during a Pirates broadcast at Wrigley Field in 2013, and that’s when something clicked, I guess. This TV guy (whose name, by the way, is Robby Incmikoski) seemed to know who I was, and he asked if he could interview me live during this game.
“Where are you going to be sitting?” he asked.
“My ticket is right here in section 130,” I said, pointing at the seats behind me, “but I might be running all over the place.”
“Can you make sure to be here around the 3rd or 4th inning?”
“Sure,” I said and then asked if we should try to meet at a certain place and time, or if he wanted my phone number.
“Nah, I’ll find you.”
Scott Bonnett had overheard this conversation and ended up chatting with me for a few minutes. Here’s a photo of us, taken by Zac, who had made his way up into the seats:
I mostly talked to Scott about commemorative baseballs. I told him that one of my friends had snagged a 2014 postseason ball and asked what the deal was. He said he has loads of commemorative balls in a storage room, which have been accumulating, and he decided recently to start using them in BP. I asked how he got them all. He said that whenever the Pirates are on the road, the home team provides two cases of balls per day. (This is standard practice throughout the major leagues, and by the way, one case has six dozen balls.) When those balls are commemorative, the Pirates often end up taking a bunch back to Pittsburgh. He also told me that when the Pirates got a bunch of pink balls for Mother’s Day, there were enough extras that he placed one in each player’s locker. Another interesting thing he said was that MLB instructed him not to use any Selig balls during the regular season — not even during BP — so he tried to use them up during Spring Training. He’s a really nice guy, and I greatly appreciated the opportunity to talk to him.
When I headed back up to the concourse, the cameraman waved me down and asked what my story was. He told me he couldn’t believe that I had “big-leagued” him by blowing him off earlier. I apologized but it was all good. He wasn’t pissed. If anything, he was amused, and we had a good laugh. In the course of telling him about myself and what I do at games, I asked why he happened to be filming me. I can’t remember his exact response, but it was something like, “I just noticed you running all over the place. You were easy to spot in that yellow shirt, and I don’t know — I’d never seen anything like that in my life.”
We chatted for a few minutes, and then we both had to get back to work. He had other more important things to film, and I needed to hurry out to the bullpens in right-center field. Zac was still with me, and when we reached the outfield concourse, we got someone to take our picture:
Look at that son-of-a-gun with his media credential. Outstanding!
As for me, I’m fully aware that the stripy Pirates hat looks ridiculous, but when it comes to getting the players’ and coaches’ attention, it works wonders.
After a minute or two, Zac took off, leaving me here at the bullpen to do my thing:
In the photo above, that’s Francisco Liriano warming up and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas not paying attention. I stayed there for 10 minutes and eventually got a toss-up from Rojas — my 10th ball of the day.
In the top of the 1st inning, I headed to the Phillies’ dugout. I figured I’d try to get a 3rd-out ball from Ryan Howard, who always tosses the first one to the same spot — right to the bottom of the staircase in front of him. Guess who was already in position at the bottom of the stairs? That’s right . . . Montanna . . . which meant I had no chance. Therefore I started rooting for the inning to end with a strikeout, and when Starling Marte was at bat with two outs and two strikes, I moved to the home-plate end of the dugout. This was my view:
Moments later, Montanna, also anticipating a strikeout, scooted through an empty row — MY empty row — and when she saw me sitting in the end seat, she was like, “Aww, you’re stealing all my tricks!”
“YOUR tricks, huh?” I said with a smile.
As it turned out, Marte put the ball in play, Howard ended up with it, and neither of us got it.
I moved to the 3rd base side after that . . .
. . . and got the inning-ending ball from Pirates 1st baseman Sean Rodriguez. No kids. No competition. It was beautiful. Ryan Howard had grounded out to shortstop Jordy Mercer, and as the play was completed, I drifted down to the front row for the easy snag. That was my 11th ball of the day. I was in pretty good shape, but still wanted two or three more.
When the 2nd inning got underway, I headed back to the Phillies’ dugout and nearly caught a foul ball. It was one of those towering pop-ups that are impossible to judge. Somehow I picked the right spot, first by moving back up a few steps and then by drifting to my left through an empty row, but I got screwed at the last second by the railing that separates the regular seats from the Diamond Club. That railing is not quite waist-high, so with slightly quicker thinking/maneuvering, I could’ve stepped over it, but instead I got blocked and tried to make a fully-extended catch — and you know what? If not for a guy in the Diamond Club who stuck his hands out at the last second and bumped my glove (or, you know, if I were 6-foot-10), I’m pretty sure I would’ve had it. I don’t blame him, of course. Even though there was no way in hell that he was going to catch it, he had every right to make an attempt. It was just extremely frustrating when the ball deflected off my glove, plopped to the ground, and trickled under a seat. I lunged over the railing and tried to grab it, but it was just beyond my reach.
A few minutes later, when Phillies left fielder Darin Ruf caught the final out of the top of the 2nd inning, I drifted down the stairs to the front row. I thought I had a great shot at getting the ball until I noticed a teeny kid on my right. He was so little that he could barely see over the roof of the dugout. Not surprisingly, Ruf tried to hook him up with the ball by rolling it to him. The kid tried to glove it, but swatted at it clumsily, causing it to roll away from him toward the far edge of the roof. I stood there for a moment and watched, expecting the grown-up on the other side of the kid to corral the ball for him, but no one moved, so I reached out and picked up the ball with my glove and then handed it to the kid directly from my glove. This is a cheap way to have padded my total, but the fact is . . . I was the first fan to secure possession of that ball, so it counts.
That was my 12th ball of the day, and two minutes later, I got No. 13 at the Pirates’ dugout. It was pretty simple. I raced back over and got the infield warm-up ball from 3rd base coach Rick Sofield.
In the top of the 3rd inning, Robby (the Pirates’ TV guy) came and found me and led me down toward the field:
We entered a special handicapped seating area . . .
. . . which provided a nice peek into the end of the dugout:
Robby told me that the interview was going to begin during the next inning break. Here’s a photo of him that I took while we waited:
Ninety seconds before the bottom of the 3rd inning got underway, he told me we were going live in a moment, pointed out the camera on the 1st base side that was going to be filming us, and then started introducing me. Here’s the beginning of what he said on the air: “Well, every day at batting practice, you see a lot of fans running around trying to shag home run balls — maybe get a few thrown to them behind the dugout, but this is Zack Hample right here, and he takes it to a level that I promise no one else in the history of baseball has taken it.”
Thanks to a friend who was able to get me the footage, I can share a bunch of screen shots. While Robby was introducing me, I was shown running all over the place during BP. Here I am running to the right:
And to the left:
Here I am going up the stairs . . .
. . . and heading back down:
On the air, Robby said I snagged this ball . . .
. . . but I actually didn’t. Oh well.
I couldn’t believe how long the intro was. He kept talking about me, and the broadcast kept showing me. Here I am heading down to the Pirates’ dugout (after big-leaguing the camera man) . . .
. . . and here I am getting the ball from Scott Bonnett:
Look what else the broadcast showed:
That’s me taking off my Pirates shirt. I changed from a yellow shirt and black hat . . . to a black shirt and yellow hat. Can you spot me in the following screen shot?
I was hoping to change my appearance enough to trick Scott into tossing me another ball. On the air, Robby said it worked . . . but it didn’t. Whoops.
Did you notice Zac Weiss in the previous screen shot? He’s on the warning track up above, and in the next two images, you can see him near me in the stands. Here I am putting my Pirates gear away:
At this point, having been told by Robby that I was being filmed, I decided to play it up, so here I am showing my Phillies hat and making a shushing gesture:
After a 40-second intro, Robby said, “And here’s Zack Hample. We’ve been able to track him down for a second . . . and this was earlier. Hey, Zack, ya fumbled it, man. What happened on that foul ball?”
Meanwhile, here’s what the broadcast was showing:
FYI, they didn’t draw that red circle around my glove. They just played regular footage of the foul ball; I took a screen shot and photoshopped the circle. As you can see, the other guy reaching for it affected my ability to make a clean catch.
Here I am lunging for the ball on the ground . . .
. . . and here I am with my feet up in the air:
Other fans tried to help me up. The ushers were concerned that I had gotten hurt. What a pain in the ass. I was totally fine — just pissed off that I hadn’t caught the ball.
Finally, I was shown on camera replying to his question:
I said, “The railing got in my way, and I think that as I reached out for it, a guy was reaching from the opposite direction, and his hand bumped my glove, and AAAHHH, so close!”
After that, Robby asked how many baseballs I had caught in my life. (At that moment, the answer was 7,993.) Then he asked about the various hats and shirts that I wear. His next question was about the balls I’d snagged at this particular game, so I showed him the contents of my backpack:
Here we are holding up some baseballs:
He was kind enough to ask about my charity fundraiser, so I got to talk about Pitch In For Baseball. (Very briefly, for those who don’t know, I’ve been working with this charity since 2009. They provide baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world; I’ve been getting people to pledge money for the balls that I snag, and with everyone’s help, I’ve raised more than $40,000. Click here for more info.)
Toward the end of the interview, Robby showed my hats . . .
. . . and said, “He has the vintage ’79 World Series Pirates hat and a Phillies hat and this one right here, and he’s got another shirt on under this and I don’t — it’s a lot to take in, believe me, and he burns a lot of calories during a game.”
“Yes, I do!” I said. “I can eat whatever I want during the season, and I still lose weight.”
Then the announcers talked about me for a bit. On my way out of the handicapped area, I talked to another fan, completely unaware that the camera was still on me:
The camera followed me as I headed up the stairs . . .
. . . and at the end of the inning, it showed me getting into position for a 3rd-out ball:
I didn’t snag that one, but hey, whatever. As I mentioned earlier, I already had 13 balls, so even if I didn’t get any more here in Philly, I figured I’d kinda maybe probably be okay. Would I be able to catch seven balls during BP at Citi Field on Friday and reach my milestone of 8,000? Eh . . . actually, I wasn’t sure. The Brewers were gonna be there, and while they *are* a good BP team with lots of right-handed hitters, who knows? Ever since Citi Field started opening two hours early (it opened 2.5 hours early every day in 2009 and 2010), I’ve been averaging about seven balls per game there — but that includes balls from pre-game throwing, 3rd-out balls during the game, foul balls, home runs, umpire balls, and other post-game snags. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that getting seven balls during BP would be a challenge. That’s what I would have to do in order to have it filmed; my girlfriend had other plans in the evening, so she was going to have to leave the stadium right after BP.
In the 4th inning, I noticed that every time a foul ball hit the protective screen behind home plate, the ballboy on the Pirates’ side retrieved it and tossed it into the crowd near the on-deck circle — and let me tell you, with Francisco Liriano and Cole Hamels pitching, there were LOTS of foul balls. Therefore, I moved down to the 2nd row in the 5th inning:
At many stadiums, I would never have gotten away with that. Guards and ushers often protect the first few rows, but here at Philly, it was wide open.
Not surprisingly, there were a bunch of foul balls during the 5th inning, but the stupid ballboy kept them all! Every time he retrieved one, he hurried back into the dugout without looking up. Even though all (and I do mean ALL) the kids in the front row already had one or two baseball apiece, they still nagged him for more.
In the top of the 6th inning the ballboy continued to ignore everyone, and I assumed I’d missed my chance, but after the 3rd out, something amazing happened. He poked his head out of the dugout and started tossing baseballs to everyone behind the front row. (Sorry, ballboy, you’re not so stupid after all.) He must’ve thrown six or eight into the crowd. The first one went to me (my 14th of the day), and a few moments later, he tried to zip one right past my ear. He threw it underhand, but with some real oomph — no arc at all. Out of instinct, I reached out and caught it (my 15th ball of the day), but it’s not like I blatantly robbed anyone. It was seriously only a foot or two to the right of my head. Of course, as soon as I caught that one, I turned around to see whom he might have been throwing it to. There was a woman directly behind me with a little girl, so I handed them the ball and said I was sorry for having snared it in front of them. It turned out that my apology wasn’t necessary. The way the woman saw it, I had saved them from getting hit, and I think that might have been true. The ballboy should have been more careful.
Just before the bottom of the 7th inning got underway, Rick Sofield tossed me another infield warm-up ball, perhaps because I had changed my appearance since the last one. I immediately handed it to a little kid with a glove who had wandered down the steps. That was my 16th ball of the day!
Look who ended up sitting directly across the stairs from me in the 8th inning:
That’s Montanna, and as you can see, she had asked me to sign one of her baseballs.
This was my view late in the game:
That kid in the red hat kept looking back at me and talking, and if you think he looks like a little wise guy, you’re absolutely right. He told me that he was going to play in the major leagues someday, so I asked him if he’d throw a baseball to me. He said no, and when I asked why not, he said, “Because you’ll be dead!”
I’ve concluded that everyone in Philadelphia is obnoxious — even newborn babies and fetuses.
Let me take a moment to talk about the game itself. First, it’s a good thing I didn’t waste my time in the outfield, because the only extra-base hit was a 5th-inning double by Carlos Ruiz. Second, the 9th inning had some major drama. The Pirates were trailing, 3-2, with one out and a runner on 3rd base, so when Jordy Mercer lifted a shallow-ish fly ball down the right field line, I wondered what they were gonna do. Play it safe and hold the runner? Or send him and test the cannon-like arm of Jeff Francoeur? Click this link to see what happened. (Seriously, click it. You’ll be glad you did. It’s a high-quality video with no advertisement at the start.)
Wow, right? Don’t mess with Frenchy! His incredible throw not only won the game, but gave Jonathan Papelbon his 113th save as a member of the Phillies — the most in franchise history. (Jose Mesa had 112.)
After the final out, the stadium was so loud and crazy that I couldn’t get the umpire’s attention, and not surprisingly, all the Pirates walking in from the bullpen were in a lousy mood:
Therefore my night ended with 16 baseballs. Here are the 12 that I kept:
As I always do when I come home from a game, I inspect my baseballs in black light. Check out the image below — four of the 12 have invisible ink stamps:
Finally, here’s a screen shot from the MLB app, sent by my friend Garrett Meyer in Kansas City:
Thanks, Garrett! But hey, do me a favor and charge your phone, okay? That red battery icon is distressing.
And that’s basically it. I had a GREAT day skipping work in favor of attending a game in a stadium that doesn’t suck. Best of all, I snagged so many baseballs that I set myself up to have No. 8,000 filmed during BP at my next game. Stay tuned. That blog entry will be coming soon.
I just found my TV interview on MLB.com. I wish I’d seen it sooner because I could’ve avoided posting all those screen shots, but anyway, here it is:
• 16 baseballs at this game
• 190 balls in 24 games this season = 7.92 balls per game.
• 351 lifetime balls in 37 games at Citizens Bank Park = 9.49 balls per game.
• 1,077 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 376 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 7,996 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 about my fundraiser, and if you donate money, you’ll be eligible to win one of these prizes.)
• 15 donors for my fundraiser
• $118.40 pledged per game home run ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $118.40 raised this season
• $40,073.90 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009