This was one of the biggest days of my life, and it started with a huge announcement by the Yankees:
Here’s a follow-up tweet that the Yankees posted moments later:
Both of those tweets were posted at 11:37am. That was actually 37 minutes after the Yankees had alerted the media, so as you can imagine, my phone was blowing up. Several newspaper reporters called to ask about my decision to give the ball to A-Rod, but because the Yankees had set up a press conference at the stadium at 5:30pm, I didn’t reveal much.
You may recall that on June 19th — the night I snagged A-Rod’s 3,000th hit — the Yankees offered me lots of stuff in exchange for the ball, including getting to have my own press conference. As exciting as that seemed, I declined because I wanted to keep the ball. THAT was the most valuable thing of all, but my stance softened when the Yankees offered to make a huge donation to Pitch In For Baseball — a non-profit charity that provides baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. Ultimately, when I decided to work with the Yankees, it took a little while for the deal to get done . . . and now here we were.
In the hours leading up to the press conference, I agreed to do a TV interview with ABC News because they were willing to meet me in my neighborhood, and they promised it wouldn’t air until later that evening. I trusted them because I knew that if they screwed me over and aired it ahead of time, they’d be screwing themselves forever with the Yankees (and let’s face it, you don’t want to mess with the Yankees).
Here I am with the two-person crew:
That’s Darla Miles on the left. She was very friendly, and when she finished interviewing me, we took a bunch of photos together — with the ball, of course:
Two weeks after having snagged that ball, I felt good about my decision to give it to A-Rod, but a painful reality was now setting in: these were my last few hours with it.
Soon after I finished with ABC News, a three-man film crew showed up at my apartment to get footage of me for a short documentary, and while they were there, I got a brief visit from a reporter with the Associated Press — and of course there seemed to be a zillion other last-minute details to sort out before heading to the stadium. At one point, while scrambling to get ready, I had a conference call with Yankees President Randy Levine and several others, including Jason Zillo, the Yankees Director of Public Relations, and David Rhode, the Executive Director of Pitch In For Baseball.
Wishing my father, Stu Hample, were alive to experience all of this, I took a photo of the ball beside a photo of him:
That was my way of making him a part of it. He would have been so thrilled and proud when I snagged the ball. He would’ve screamed for joy and made some hilariously crude gestures and invented a celebratory song and drawn me a cartoon and given me a chest-bump and taken me out for a whole bunch of fancy lunches and given me great advice throughout this whole crazy situation. I miss him so much. Damn.
At 3:30pm, I took a minivan taxi to Yankee Stadium with my mom (Naomi), my girlfriend (Hayley), and all three members of the crew, who interviewed and filmed me for the entire ride. Then they filmed me walking outside the stadium toward the VIP entrance at Gate 2:
On the way, I stopped to take this photo:
My friend Ben Weil had just arrived and was paranoid that someone would try to snatch the ball out of my hand, but I wasn’t too concerned. Should I have been? What would a potential thief have done with it? Pretended to be me so *he* could have given it to A-Rod?
Do you remember Eddie Fastook from my long blog entry about the game when I snagged the A-Rod ball? He’s the Executive Director of Team Security, so he’s the one who makes the rules at Yankee Stadium. Because the press conference was scheduled to take place during batting practice (and, you know, since I was being so nice about giving the ball to A-Rod), I had asked him if I could enter the stadium a bit early and head out to the right field seats for the start of Yankees BP.
The answer was yes! And in order to do that, I had to meet him and get a pair of credentials:
Eddie also handed me five complementary “Legends” tickets for the game. Those tickets were for me, Ben, my mom, my girlfriend, and Doug Drotman, the PR guy for Pitch In For Baseball. (David had received a separate batch of tickets for his family, and another Pitch In For Baseball employee named Meredith had received some tickets too.)
I stepped outside to hand Ben three of the tickets. He was there with Hayley, who can be seen photobombing him below:
My mom was out there too. Look closely and you should be able to spot her in the crowd.
As I headed back inside, Hayley photographed her ticket:
My name was spelled wrong, but the bar code worked, so whatever.
Back inside the Gate 2 lobby, I handed a ticket to Doug:
Eddie was waiting patiently for me . . .
. . . and roughly 25 minutes before the gates opened, we headed out together to the right field seats. (Sweeeet!!) As it turned out, there was a tour group out there, but they were sitting one section away from me, so there was minimal competition. Several balls that landed near me ricocheted over to them, and on a few occasions, someone scurried over and grabbed a ball before I could get there. But hey, I’m not complaining — just describing what it was like. Here’s a photo:
I gave away all seven of the balls I got while those people were there — all to the littlest kids — so everyone was happy. And yeah, I’m counting them toward my grand total. I consider it payback for the countless times that ushers and guards (and even a few players!) at various stadiums have gone out of their way to prevent me from getting baseballs, but let’s not dwell on negativity, huh? I was so distracted while the Yankees were hitting (phone calls, texts, emails, stressing, daydreaming, etc.) that I hardly remember how I snagged them all. I do know that they were all home runs by left-handed batters; I caught the second ball on the fly, and the sixth one was hit by Brett Gardner and landed in the back row.
Here’s something else that distracted me:
It was my final hour with the A-Rod ball — the last time in my life that I would ever get to see it and hold it — so I wanted to enjoy every moment.
The tour group left the seats several minutes before the gates opened. That’s when I photographed the A-Rod ball in the exact spot where I’d first grabbed it two weeks earlier:
And then? I snagged two more home run balls that landed near the foul pole. The first was hit by a lefty, and the second was muscled into the seats by a righty — possibly Chris Young, but I’m not sure. I decided I’d donate those two baseballs, along with many others, to Pitch In For Baseball.
Thirteen minutes after the gates opened, Ben found me in right field:
Why did it take so long? Because he, along with Hayley and my mom, stopped in the Legends restaurant for a bite to eat. All the food there was included with the tickets, so I don’t blame them.
Eddie had told me he was gonna come get me at around 5:15pm, which meant we only had a few more minutes. During that time, I snagged a Garrett Jones homer in the tunnel (my 10th ball of the day), and then we all posed with the A-Rod ball:
Eddie showed up right on time and led me into the concourse:
Ben and Hayley and my mom came with me. After a few turns and an elevator ride down to the lowest level of the stadium, we found ourselves in a hallway with retired numbers:
Here’s what it looked like at the end of the hallway:
The press conference was scheduled to begin in 10 minutes, and I was drenched in sweat — but hey, no problem! I’d brought a spare shirt for this very reason, and while I changed into it in a nearby bathroom, Hayley took the following photo:
She took most of the photos in this entry, so I owe her a huge thanks (along with several nice dinners).
Here’s another photo she took of the entrance to the Yankees clubhouse:
When I reappeared with my new shirt, Ben told me that several players had walked right past them, including Dellin Betances.
The press conference was five minutes away, which meant there was time for a little rough-housing in the concourse:
That’s me with David Rhode, the Executive Director of Pitch In For Baseball. We weren’t really getting physical — just getting pumped for the big moment. We’d been told that there would be four stools/chairs at the front of the room on a little stage. Two were for us. The others were for Alex Rodriguez and a man named Brian Smith, who happens to be standing in the doorway in the previous photo. Brian’s official title is “Senior Vice President, Corporate/Community Relations.” I’m not really sure what that means, but I can tell you that he was one of several people present when David and I met with team President Randy Levine on 6/22/15 at Yankee Stadium.
Three minutes before the press conference, I gathered up the key players for a group photo in the concourse:
From left to right, you’re looking at David Rhode, Brian Smith, me, Jason Zillo (the director of PR), and Eddie Fastook.
Moments after Hayley took that photo, she was escorted into the press conference room with Ben and my mom — and then she took a photo of the room itself:
Keep in mind that I hadn’t yet seen the room, so I had no idea what to expect. Two years earlier, I’d gotten to spend a few minutes in the press conference room at Chase Field. Take a look at it for yourself. Obviously New York is a bigger market than Phoenix, but somehow that fact escaped me here at Yankee Stadium, so I was envisioning something similar — a small room with a couple dozen chairs, a few TV cameras at the back, and a bunch of reporters with notepads and voice recorders.
Here’s what the front of the room looked like:
But hold on . . .
I need to tell you what happened out in the concourse two minutes before the press conference started. I was bending down for some reason — tying my shoelaces or maybe reaching into my backpack to make sure that my cell phone ringer was off. Who knows? But anyway, I heard David mumble, “You might want to look up,” so I did, and Alex Rodriguez was walking right toward me.
As he approached to say hello and shake my hand, the first thing I noticed was the nearly overpowering smell of Listerine mouthwash. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing — just noteworthy. I also noticed how big he was — not freakishly huge like an NBA player, but just thick and large and muscular. Normal people don’t look like that.
We chatted for a minute, and he was perfectly nice. There was no arrogance or attitude. I was delighted to meet him, and he seemed pleased to meet me as well. Of course, he kinda had to be nice because there were other people around, and I was giving him a VERY valuable gift for free, but the fact is, he seemed like a good dude. The first thing I told him was that I was sorry for the negative stuff I had posted on Twitter. I said something like, “I don’t know if you saw it or not, but regardless, I want to apologize for that. You’ll hear me say it during the press conference, but I wanted to tell you now before all the cameras are on us. I really am sorry.” He told me that I was forgiven, which was great to hear. Many Yankee fans are probably still pissed at me for my negative comments, but it was good to be forgiven by the man himself. We chatted a bit more, and before I knew it, we were being told to head inside. This was Hayley’s view as we entered the room:
I’d done a lot of thinking and planning and note-taking in the days leading up to this. I had a list of things I wanted to talk about and another list of things to avoid. I’d even written out a few specific lines that I wanted to say, but guess what? When I walked inside, I forgot every single bit of it.
The room was HUGE!!! There must’ve been ten TV cameras mounted on big tripods at the back, and there were dozens of photographers and reporters and other media people from all over, a few of whom I recognized (like Michael Kay), but many of whom I didn’t. It was shocking and overwhelming, but what could I do? Ask for a time-out?
The four of us took our seats, and Jason Zillo made some opening remarks the podium:
He began by saying, “I don’t know who could have honestly said that in the hours after Alex hit that home run, I think on June 19th, that we’d be sitting here for this press conference today. I think it was a little dicey at the time. Under the direction of Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ Managing General Partner — you know, he put Randy Levine, our team president, and Lonn Trost, our COO, to work, and they struck up a series of conversations with Zack over the last couple of weeks and brought this day to fruition.”
Here’s a photo that shows my mom taking a photo:
I’d been told that after Jason spoke, the four of us would each make an opening statement, and guess who was scheduled to go first? That’s right . . . me! And I was supposed to talk for two to three minutes! I had no idea what I was going to say, so when Jason concluded by saying, ” . . . with that, Zack, the floor is yours,” I just started rambling. Here’s what came out:
“I just want to start by saying thank you to Mister Levine, Mister Trost, Mister Fastook — the whole Yankees organization, really, for handling this whole thing so well. I’ve had people asking me, ‘Did they bully you? Did they pressure you? Were they mean? Did they try to take the ball away?’ and it wasn’t like that at all. I’ve even heard that other teams have treated fans in less than perfect ways in trying to get milestone home run balls back, but the Yankees were amazing. I almost wanted them to be rude because it would have justified my initial decision to keep the ball, which was really my intention from the start. I didn’t know if I was gonna sell it, give it to the Hall of Fame — maybe do something with charity, but really giving it back to the Yankees would probably have been pretty low down on my list. You know, I *am* a collector. I’ve been to more than 1,200 major league games at 51 different major league stadiums — a lot of parks that have closed down. When Major League Baseball opened the season last year in Australia, I was there — 2012 at the Tokyo Dome — so I’ve been all around and maybe gotten a bit jaded in the process. I really don’t consider myself to be a fan of any one team. I’m really a fan of the sport and of individual players, and actually Alex has long been a favorite player of mine — from before he even came up to the Major Leagues, I was following his career from Seattle through Texas and here with the Yankees, so to be connected to this amazing, historical moment is really more than I can imagine. I also owe a thank you to Alex for hitting the baseball to me, so thanks. I heard some of the stuff you said after that first game when you hit it where you said, ‘Where’s Jeet’s guy? I could’ve used him?’ and I thought, ‘Oh boy, yeah,’ but I guess given everything that’s happened in the last couple of weeks and how Pitch In For Baseball, my favorite children’s charity, is gonna be involved and benefit tremendously and kids all over the world are gonna be playing baseball, hopefully you’re happy now that I’m the one that got the ball. I’m sorry that the process took two weeks, but not that sorry. I mean, there were a lot of people that said, ‘You should give it back. You’re not respecting the game. He deserves the ball.’ But if I’d given it back, people would’ve said, ‘Well, you’re an idiot and you’re naive, and you should’ve gotten money,’ so I realize it’s one of those — in a way it’s a lose-lose situation because no matter what you do, people are going to say awful, negative things, but of course I would not un-snag the ball. I mean, to be in this situation today and to be able to do this for Pitch In For Baseball is just incredible.”
(It took two minutes and 50 seconds for me to say all of that, so while it might seem long and self-indulgent, I was actually right on target. The Yankees wanted me to talk about myself, and so did the media. That’s why they were there. They wanted to hear the story, and they needed quotes for their stories, so I did my best to deliver.)
Then I turned to David and said, “If you can hold the microphone for a moment, I have something special for Alex.”
Here I am reaching into my backpack for the ball (which, by the way, was re-authenticated by MLB before the press conference):
Here I am taking the ball out of a Ziploc bag:
Then I turned toward Alex and said, “I’d like to present to you your 3,000th hit baseball.”
Here I am handing it to him:
Then we held it up together for the cameras:
That wasn’t rehearsed. It just happened.
After holding that pose for five seconds, Alex and I shook hands, and then I said the following: “On a final note, I want to address this because I figure I’m gonna be asked about it anyway. I did regrettably say a couple of stupid things — negative things — on Twitter. I think everybody in this room probably, if people are honest, would admit to saying at least one or two or maybe a hundred really stupid things in their life that they wish they could take back, and for me, that was my moment. I won’t repeat what I said, but I was just trying to be funny and snarky back when I had, you know, eleven people looking at my tweets. I was trying to be bigger than the moment before the moment even happened, said some dumb stuff, and that’s really not me. I love the game so much. Catching baseballs is my way of connecting to the sport. Some people keep score. Some people play fantasy baseball. For me, moving around the stands and trying to position myself and think like the players — that’s MY version of fantasy baseball, and I really regret and I apologize for any negative thing that I said, and I know there have been some controversial moments with you, and I would certainly like to forgive anything that happened with that and move past it and hopefully you can forgive me for shooting off my mouth and saying some dumb stuff as well . . . I also want to thank all of you guys in the media for being here today. I know there are huge things happening in the world, and ultimately this is just a baseball, but I also realize the significance of this to Alex and the New York Yankees — New York City, Major League Baseball. It is a big deal. I realize that. But I just want to say thank you to all of you for being here. It’s really an honor to be in this moment and to share my story and to be a part of it all, so thank you.”
Alex responded by saying, “Well, thank you very much, Zack. First of all, you’re forgiven. I have a PhD in saying some dumb things over the years, so no problem — I can relate. Thanks, everyone, for being here today. It’s a very special day for me. I want to thank the Yankee organization — Hal Steinbrenner in particular for doing so much for getting me this ball. My daughters land tonight here in New York, so Natasha and Ella will get this. They can fight over whose room it goes in — should be a pretty good one. But I’m excited. Who woulda thunk that one swing of the bat — one home run — would create so much attention, but more importantly such a generous donation by the Steinbrenner family to benefit your wonderful organization. I can relate with that organization. I came up with the Boys & Girls Club. That’s where I formally learned how to play baseball at the age of nine, and I was one of those kids that needed equipment. My best friend back home — Pepe Gomez — his father bought me my first pair of Pumas, and to this day I can remember what a great day that was for me, so thank you for all that you do. Thank you, Zack, for being such a passionate fan. We want to recruit more fans like you — sometimes a little too passionate . . .
. . . but we need more fans in baseball, and you’re a good example of that, and I like the way you do your scouting reports. I heard some of your interviews — pretty fascinating. We can use you in some of our advanced meetings.”
Then Alex said, “Thanks again, everybody, and I’m very happy, not only for what happened here with 3,000 but obviously the big news of the day, which we all heard about. It’s been a good day. Thank you very much.”
What was the “big news” that he referred to? Check it out. He and the Yankees had finally settled a long-standing dispute over millions of dollars’ worth of bonus money that was once promised to him for reaching various home run milestones. One day earlier, when I heard that the Yankees were going to announce this news on the same day as my press conference, I wasn’t sure what to think. At first I was concerned that it would steal the thunder, but ultimately it seemed to have the opposite effect. I heard that more media members were there as a result, and I have to say that it was pretty damn cool to sit up on the stage next to Alex while he answered questions about it.
It was also pretty special when Alex handed me a signed jersey:
Here I am showing it to the media:
He had signed the “3” with a silver Sharpie: “Zack, All the best, Alex Rodriguez #13.” I’ll show a better photo of it later, but for now, look what else he gave me — not one but two bats:
I had requested two, and I had asked for one to be personalized. Once again, he had used a silver Sharpie to write, “Zack, nice catch! Alex Rodriguez #13,” and on the other bat, he simply wrote, “Alex Rodriguez #13” and added “3,000” below that.
Of course the media only saw me receive those three items in exchange for the ball, so that’s all they reported (and sure enough, as a result, lots of people think I’m an idiot), but there was lots more to the deal. One thing I asked for was a baseball signed by the entire team. Randy Levine told me he could get that for me, but it would take a little time. I’m also going to receive a dozen free Legends tickets, which I plan to use in pairs — three games per season over the next two years. In addition to that, as long as I keep buying my season ticket, I’ll be able to request a comp ticket in my section whenever I want — as long as the game isn’t sold out. That said, I told the Yankees that it won’t be an everyday thing. Based on the number of games I attend and the fact that I generally prefer going alone, I estimated that I’ll request comp tickets twice-ish per month. Another thing I’m going to receive is a personal tour with Eddie Fastook of the most behind-the-scenes areas of the stadium — the kinds of places that the public never gets to see. The clubhouse and press box, of course, will be part of it, but I requested to see stuff like the weight room, the video room, the laundry room, the players lounge, and so on. I also asked to see the Delta Suites (the club in the second deck behind home plate) because I’ve never been up there, and why not? And I requested that I be allowed to take a zillion photos for my blog. Eddie told me that some places can’t be photographed, but I can still go see them. Another thing I’ll get to do is write for Yankees Magazine — and get paid for it. That was actually Randy’s idea. And don’t forget that I got to meet A-Rod and experience the press conference. That was the coolest thing of all. And I was going to be interviewed live on the YES Network for half an inning, followed by another live, half-inning interview in the Yankees’ radio booth. There’s even more stuff in the works beyond all of this (you should see how great stadium security is suddenly treating me), but I’ll leave it at that for now. So yeah, call me an idiot if it makes you feel good.
A little more than 10 minutes into the press conference, Brian Smith took the microphone and said the following: “We’re extremely excited to partner with Pitch In For Baseball, and we view that partnership as a tool that can enable us to enhance outreach efforts related to ensuring area youth have access to positive recreational outlets, and we thank you for that, and we look forward to working with you today and moving forward, and with that being said, David, come on over . . . on behalf of the New York Yankees organization and in recognition of our commitment, I would like to present you with a check in the amount of $150,000.”
HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!?!?!
Then it was David’s turn to speak:
Here’s what he said: “First I wanted to thank Justin Verlander for missing his spot on the first pitch to Alex, and then I wanted to thank Alex for having the foresight to drive it to right-center to Section 103, where Zack has his season tickets, and I wanted to also recognize that only somebody like Zack can come up with a ball amongst a throng of people, so seriously, we are so grateful — I am so grateful to be here representing Pitch In For Baseball and the kids that we serve. The tagline of our organization is ‘let your equipment play extra innings,’ and that really tells the story of who we are and what we do. Pitch In For Baseball collects and redistributes equipment and makes sure that kids both here in the United States and around the world gain access to the game. So we are thankful to Zack for having the vision to try to do something so special with this historic ball. We are incredibly grateful to the New York Yankees and their generosity. To an organization like ours, this is a game-changer, and we want to encourage all Yankee fans and families — families all over the country with kids — to go to our website, which is pifb.org and figure out how to get involved with us anytime — the next time — they are going through their garage or closet and they see a gently used glove or bat or ball or something else, I would love them to consider making that a donation to us so that we can help kids in need play the game. We’ll make sure that those items get to play extra innings. So for us, this is an amazing day. We encourage Alex and any of the other 750 Major League Baseball players to get involved with Pitch In For Baseball. The mission of our organization is to give kids the equipment they need to play, and that’s got to resonate with many of them because of the game that has given them so many opportunities, so we welcome everyone to get involved. It’s a wonderful organization. I’ve had a front-row seat for the last ten years. This has exceeded my personal dreams of what Pitch In For Baseball could be all about, and we can not wait to get started to help more kids play, so thank you very much.”
Here’s what it looked like from the very back of the room:
By the time David finished speaking, the press conference had been going for 14 minutes. That meant there was time for some questions for the media. The first one came from a woman at the back of the room: “Zack, how did you hear about Pitch In For Baseball?” The next two questions were directed at Alex — first, how did he feel about getting the ball, and second, why did he chose to have his potential home run bonus money donated to charity? The fourth question was for me: “Zack, obviously after you caught the ball, you made it clear initially that you weren’t gonna give it back, and then as a few days passed, it seemed like your stance began to soften — I was just wondering at what point you sort of came to realize that some humanitarian benefit could come out of the event and what was the impetus for that?” The next two questions were for Alex again — first about his relationship with the Yankee organization, and second, he was asked in Spanish about his 3,000th hit. Did you know he can speak Spanish? I had no idea. Very impressive.
One of the final questions had to do with my strategy behind positioning myself in the stands. I talked about the “short porch” at Yankee Stadium and explained that it’s a good spot because righties often hit balls there. Then I turned to Alex and told him that according to ESPN Home Run Tracker, his 3,000th hit would not have been a homer in any other stadium — that it would’ve only come close in Philly, clipping the top of the right field wall. This was his reaction.
But really, he took it well and was amused by the whole thing. Here’s a funny moment that we shared right after:
Here’s a closeup of the ball in his hands:
Here’s another shot of us smiling:
When the Yankees tweeted about the press conference, they happened to use a photo that was taken at a more serious moment, so of course the haters jumped on that:
I saw another comment somewhere suggesting I should’ve given A-Rod the ball quietly. The person basically said, “Zack Hample had to make it all about himself and force the Yankees to hold a press conference.”
I could share 1,000 other comments that ranged from harmlessly clueless to downright menacing, but again, let’s not dwell on negativity. I’d rather show you what it looked like when David, Alex, Brian, and I gathered for a group photo with the oversize check:
None of the photos I’ve posted show how crazy it was at the press conference. When I say it was a “media frenzy,” I’m not kidding. Look at all these photographers jostling for position:
Somehow I never felt nervous after that very first moment when I walked into the room and saw everyone. I don’t know how to explain it. I just felt very . . . at ease. As I mentioned earlier, I forgot everything I was planning to say, but shrugged it off and figured I’d just wing it. I’d been interviewed many times before about my baseball collection, and I’d been talking about the whole A-Rod thing nonstop for the past two weeks, so the press conference was just an extension of that. It was fun. That’s how I saw it. It was an opportunity to tell my story to a wider audience. How is that a bad thing?
Anyway, how about some video? I don’t think the entire press conference is online, so here’s a four-minute segment on MLB.com:
After the press conference, David was interviewed by CBS News . . .
. . . and then I was too:
I wished I had taken a photo from the stage with all the media in place — it was truly a sight to behold — but obviously that wouldn’t have been appropriate. Instead the best I could do was take a photo after it was all done:
But wait! It wasn’t done. (And by the way, have you noticed the “NY” patterns all over the floor?) Before heading out, I was asked to do a follow-up interview with the three-man film crew:
I was *starving* at that point, and by the time I dealt with some other things (including giving my bats to Eddie so he could store them in a safe place during the game), it was only 25 minutes until the first pitch.
Eddie escorted us to the Legends entrance . . .
. . . and walked us down to the restaurant on the lower level:
By the time we got a table and gathered our food, it was only 14 minutes until game time! Here I am photographing my dinner plate . . .
. . . and here’s a closer look at what I ate:
I know it looks silly with a huge bite missing from the cornbread, but I couldn’t help myself. I was so hungry that my stomach actually hurt.
I’d been told that I needed to be in my seat in the middle of the 2nd inning. That’s when someone was going to come get me for my TV and radio interviews, but until then, I could do whatever I wanted, so I took a few more minutes for dessert:
By the time I took that photo, the Yankees had already taken the field. It was killing me not to be out there, but wanted to cram as many (delicious!) calories in my face as possible to avoid getting hungry for at least another hour. In case you’re wondering, that’s banana pudding on the right and cheesecake at the bottom. Mmmm-mmmm!!
I ate my desserts like a maniac and then raced out to the seats:
The Rays had a runner on 2nd with no outs, so I’d missed a teeny bit of action. Not a big deal. I think I did pretty well overall.
Here’s a photo (taken by Hayley) of Evan Longoria at bat:
Our seats were right behind 1st base in the 5th row. You’ll see more photos from that spot later on, but for now, here’s what happened in the bottom of the 2nd inning:
That’s me with Michael Margolis, the Assistant Director of PR. We were on our way through a club and toward an elevator that took us up to the press level. Hayley, thankfully, was allowed to join me, but we were asked not to take any photos out in the hallway. As I was rushed into the YES Network booth before the top of the 3rd inning, I knew what was going to happen. Masahiro Tanaka and his stupid split-finger fastball were going to shut down the Rays, and my big moment on the Yankees broadcast was going to be done in a flash. Why couldn’t someone else have been pitching? Why couldn’t the Rays be facing a real chump who would let them bat around . . . twice? Frickin’ Tanaka. Unreal.
As short as the interview was going to be, I was still thrilled, of course, to have this opportunity, and I was glad to finally meet Michael Kay. And David Cone! The two of them were doing the game together, so that was a real treat. Before the 3rd inning got underway, Michael told me that he remembered my back-to-back home run catches on consecutive nights in 2008. That was nice to hear, but rather than talking more about that, I asked an important question about the interview: “At what point should I stop talking — as soon as they put a ball in play?”
“If you’re making a salient point,” he said, “you could go through it because it’s TV, so obviously they’ll see the pitch, but if you see something’s driven, and I’ve gotta call it, you can stop right in the middle of a sentence and then pick it up.”
To clarify, I said, “So if they’re taking a pitch or swinging through it–”
“You can go,” he replied.
“You don’t need to announce individual pitches?”
“No, but when you go on with Sterling,” he said, “you’ve got to stop every time the pitch is delivered.”
“Alright, because he’ll kick your butt if you don’t.”
After that, the three of us talked about foul balls and home runs for a bit, and when the between-inning countdown clock reached 35 seconds, Michael said, “Stand by.” Then I heard someone else’s voice in my headset counting down from ten . . . and then we were live on the air!
“Alright, we go to the top of the third inning here at the stadium, and the Rays lead the Yankees, two-nothing. Tanaka settled down in the second — retired the Rays one, two, three. Now top of the order starting with Grady Sizemore, who started the game with a double to right. And Tanaka deals.”
It was SO COOL to be sitting next to Michael Kay while he was announcing the game, and it was even cooler when he started talking about me. After the first pitch of the inning, he said, “Well, when Alex Rodriguez hit his 3,000th hit, which happened to be a home run, a young man by the name of Zack Hample caught the baseball, and at the time, he said that he was not going to give it up, but there was a press conference today at 5:30 in the big room at Yankee Stadium, and Zack presented that baseball to Alex, and Alex was overjoyed to get it. He’s gonna give it to his two daughters who land in town today, and Zack joins us here in the booth. Zack, why the change of heart from not giving it to him to having a press conference and doing a nice thing?”
As I began talking, a camera mounted just above my head showed me:
It will always bother me when the word “caught” is used for a baseball I picked up off the ground, but anyway, here’s what I said: “I had a meeting late in the game with Randy Levine and in just telling him about myself, he was asking questions. I mentioned my involvement with a children’s baseball charity called Pitch In For Baseball that provides baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world, and Mister Levine said that the Yankees would consider making a sizable donation to the charity if it would help me decide what to do with the ball.”
As Michael asked his next question about what it was like for me to negotiate with the Yankees, Sizemore struck out swinging on the fourth pitch of the at-bat. STUPID TANAKA!! Why was he doing this to me?!
In my answer, I talked about how kind the Yankees had been from the moment I had first snagged the ball. Then I added, “I would just like to apologize to Yankee fans for taking two weeks to make up my mind, as far as what to do with the ball. I just knew that I needed to leave the stadium with it that night — take it home, slow the precess down. There were a million people getting in touch, making offers, saying good things, saying bad things, and I just had to think about it, and it took two weeks for the process to play out.”
As Joey Butler got ready for an 0-1 delivery from my least favorite pitcher of all time, Michael mentioned that the Yankees had donated $150,000 to Pitch In For Baseball and asked me why the charity is so important to me. My answer lasted two pitches, and when the count was at 2-1, Michael mentioned that I’d written a book and snagged more than 8,000 balls and asked about my strategy for positioning myself in the stands. Just as I began to answer him, Tanaka (aka “The Worst Guy Ever”) got Butler to hit a lazy one-hopper to Chase Headley at 3rd base.
As Evan Longoria stepped into the batter’s box, Michael asked me about my season tickets and how often I go to games. Then, after Tanaka had the decency to throw the first pitch out of the strike zone, I was asked how I traveled home with the ball on the night that I snagged it. Two pitches later, with the count at 2-1, Michael asked me what I got from the Yankees for the ball.
“The Yankees offered me a bunch of tickets,” I said, “and some perks as well at the stadium. I was never looking to get rich from this. I’ve never sold a ball in my life. I give away a lot of balls to kids, and I’ve donated some to the charity.”
Then, remembering how disappointed I was about not getting to address this during the press conference (and hoping that Longoria could somehow keep the inning alive a bit longer), I said, “There’ve been a lot of false accusations out there that I knock kids down and that I’m aggressive. I welcome anybody to come out and watch me during BP. You’ll see that that’s just not my style. Talk to the security guards. They’re out there every day. They wouldn’t tolerate any shenanigans, so yeah, I try to keep the peace out there.”
And wouldn’t you know it? Longoria fouled off a 94mph fastball to give me a little extra time.
“This must be pretty cool for you,” said Michael. “I mean, it’s not even your fifteen minutes of celebrity — it’s almost a half hour.”
“It’s kind of embarrassing,” I replied. “No, I acknowledge that I’ve gotten way more attention for my dweeby little hobby of chasing baseballs than anybody deserves. People accused me of holding onto the baseball for two weeks to generate more fame for myself. I just needed time to think about it and if I can use this so-called fame to bring some awareness to Pitch In For Baseball, that’s really what I’m happiest about here — making something positive happen in the world.”
Meanwhile, MY MAN Evan Longoria fouled off two more pitches, so Michael asked how I dealt with the press conference taking place right in the middle of batting practice. I admitted that the Yankees had let me in the stadium a bit early so I could get a head start on the competition and keep my streak alive. “I’ve gotten at least one ball at every game going back to 1993 — more than 1,100 consecutive games for me — and I didn’t want it to end on this day. Can you imagine? I get the 3,000th hit but then I can’t even get one in BP? That would’ve been terrible.”
On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Longoria hit a shallow, broken-bat fly ball to right field, and as Garrett Jones came running in, all I could think was, “DROP!! DROP!!” but he made the play to end the inning.
“Zack, congratulations — and congratulations for the charity as well. A hundred and fifty thousand dollars — that’s great.”
“Much appreciated,” I said. “It’s great to be on here with you guys.”
“You got it. Be well. We go to the bottom of the third. Two-nothing.”
Here’s the full interview, in case you want to watch it:
Here’s a photo of me after the interview with David Cone and Michael Kay:
I would have liked to tell David that I was at Veterans Stadium when he struck out 19 batters on the final day of the 1991 season, or that we had our picture taken together at Shea Stadium in 2003, but there was no time to schmooze. I had to rush out and head just down the hallway to the WFAN booth, where radio announcers John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman were waiting for me. I barely got to say hello to them before we went live on the air.
“We go to the bottom of the 3rd inning,” said John. “We have a special guest in the booth as Chris Young leads off for the Yankees — and the fastball high from Archer. Our guest is Zack Hample. Now, you know him. He’s the fella who caught the A-Rod home run — his 3,000th hit — and here’s the 1-0. Pitch is low, and I’m very happy that you and the Yankees and Alex have all gotten together and done everything about right. You’re giving the ball back. Money is going to charity, so it’s kind of win-win, huh?”
“Absolutely,” I said before he cut me off to say, “Pitch is a strike to Young.”
“When I first got the baseball,” I continued, “I had no intention of giving it back, and, uh, said a few things that I regret, but after working with the Yankees for a while, we worked it out.”
“Pitch is low to Young — three and one. Well, how’d you work it out?
“Randy Levine met with me the night that I snagged the baseball, and in getting to know me and asking about what I do and what interested me, I mentioned my involvement with a particular charity . . . ”
“There’s a breaking ball strike — three and two.”
” . . . The charity is called Pitch In For Baseball, and they provide equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. And I’ve been fundraising for them on my own since 2009.”
“Payoff is cut on and missed on a breaking ball — well, that’s a great charity.”
At some point during the interview, Doug Drotman took this photo of me from his Legends seat below:
(Reminder: Doug is the PR guy for Pitch In For Baseball, and by the way, he happens to have gone to the same small college as me in North Carolina — Guilford College. Look at my awkward graduation photo. Yeesh.)
A little while later, as Didi Gregorius stepped up to the plate, Suzyn said, “You know, I’d really like to ask you — ’cause this all turned out great, and we’re gonna give the website and everything to help and [show] where other people can donate — I really need to know why you were so mean at the beginning.”
I didn’t mind being asked that, and in fact I was glad to get to address it on the air for however many tens of thousands of people were listening.
“Ohhh, man,” I said, “I posted something on Twitter that I DEEPLY, deeply regret.”
“Pitch a strike to Didi,” said John.
“You know, we all have a moment in our lives,” I continued, “where we say something really dumb that we wish we could take back, and that was my moment. It was just me firing off my big mouth, trying to be snarky. I won’t repeat what I said, but yeah.”
As you can see, my answers here were much shorter than they were at the press conference. Not only was time much more limited, but I was also making sure to speak in one- or two-sentence chunks that conveyed quick points that could easily be wrapped up before each pitch.
“The oh-one fastball high,” said John. “You know, one thing you did say that really is true, people — athletes, especially — go on Twitter and say the dumbest things. Why they want people to know their feelings I don’t know.”
“Put me in that category, but uhh . . . ”
“One-one is fouled down the left field line. One-and-two on Didi.”
” . . . I actually had a nice moment with Alex at the press conference where I apologized publicly to him — and I actually said it when the cameras weren’t rolling before the press conference — that I was very sorry for what I said on Twitter, and I knew that there were some controversial moments with him, and I asked for his forgiveness and said I forgive him, and we agreed on it.”
“One-two lined . . . base hit right-center field! Now it’s toward the gap. It is cut off by Kiermaier. The ball gets away! And Didi goes to second with a double. Kiermaier, I don’t think would have had a chance to get Didi who runs very well, but as he tried to cut it off on the run, the ball rolled off his glove.”
John proceeded to list a bunch of stats, but the only one that mattered to me was the hit. I was SO HAPPY that Didi got on base and extended my time in the booth by an extra minute or two.
“You don’t see Kiermaier do that much,” said Suzyn. “That should probably be a single and an error, not a double . . . ”
“Pitch,” said John, “there is a strike to Drew.”
” . . . but they did score it a double,” she said. “You never see Kiermaier boot a ball like that.”
After a brief lull in which neither of them were talking, I said, “I booted a ball once that Kiermaier hit. He hit one right to the last row in that section next to the bullpen, and it took a crazy ricochet so fast back in my direction that it deflected off my chest, and someone else got it — a game home run. I’m still upset.”
“Now here is the oh-one to Drew — he takes high,” said John. “We’re visiting with Zack Hample, who caught A-Rod’s 3,000th hit and has worked out I think a marvelous thing with the Yankees where everyone donates to charity and A-Rod gets the ball back, and as I said before, it’s kinda win-win. It’ll be a one-one to Drew. And there’s a strike.”
“And the charity,” said Suzyn, “is called Pitch In For Baseball. I want to get this right, Zack. That’s why I’m reading it. If you want to help — and everybody should — this [charity] donates used equipment . . . to kids all over the world who don’t have the money to do that, and it’s a great, great organization.”
Then she spelled out the website and John suddenly had more action to describe: “Drew lines one to deep center field. Back goes Kiermaier — a-WAY back — Kiermaier leaps and MADE A CATCH. Oh what a catch!! And Didi — he didn’t tag; he wanted to score — comes back. It was just to the right-field side of Monument Park. My, what a catch by Kiermaier! Two away.”
STUPID KIERMAIER!! Why was everyone teaming up to get me off the air as fast as possible?
Suzyn continued by saying, “Well, I think, actually — and you just mentioned it — Didi’s gotta tag up there. He’s gotta know who’s out in center field. This is as good an outfielder as we’ve seen. Isn’t that right, Zack?”
Ha, nice! I got to give a little baseball analysis on the air. I said, “I would think that Didi could wait up to tag, and if the ball gets over Kiermaier’s head, Didi would probably score anyway.”
“I think you’re right,” said John.
“But I don’t want to hate on Didi too much,” I added. “I snagged his first career home run when he was with the Diamondbacks in 2013.”
“Wow!” said Suzyn.
“I gave that one back to him after the game, no questions asked.”
“Zack, how do you get all these home runs?” asked John. “Or balls being hit in the stands? Here’s Gardner with two outs, and that pitch low.”
“I just try to make sure that I have some room to maneuver,” I said. “I mean, if you get trapped in the middle of a long row of fans, you’re dead, so I always try to sit on the end of a row so I have the stairs next to me, and if the row itself is empty, or even partially empty, that gives me some room to wander left or right. Some stadiums have a standing-room-only section or a cross-aisle, so I look for those spots whenever I travel around.”
“Here’s the one-oh to Gardner — there’s a strike.”
“Now, are you in broadcasting?” Suzyn asked me. “John, have you noticed that he stops talking before the pitches? We didn’t even have to tell him.”
“Listen, guys,” I said, “I am here for YOU. I understand we have a game to talk about. I just did TV for half an inning. Michael Kay told me you can talk right through the pitches if they take ’em or swing and miss, but with the radio, you know, I gotta give you your chance to explain what’s happening, so GO for it.”
I finished saying that JUST as the next pitch was being delivered, setting up John to say, “The one-one, swung on. A little fly ball to shallow left. Cabrera out to make the catch and end the inning. Well, Zack, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m glad you did what you did, and I’m glad it all worked out.”
“Thanks so much, you guys, for having me on. This was really fun.”
“Thanks a lot, Zack,” said Suzyn. “Good luck.”
Then John finished by saying, “No runs, one hit for the Yanks — they do not score — and at the end of three innings of play, it’s two-nothing Tampa on the WFAN New York Yankees radio network, driven by Jeep.”
I don’t think the radio broadcast is available anywhere online, so that’s why I typed up so much of it. There was no other way to share it.
Before heading out, I got a photo with John and Suzyn:
And then it was back to reality. Here I am in the seats with Ben:
Here’s a funky play that happened at 1st base in the top of the 4th inning:
Just before the bottom of the 4th got underway, I got Rocco Baldelli, the Rays’ 1st base coach, to toss me the infield warm-up ball behind the 3rd base dugout. I was planning to keep it until I noticed a little kid sitting nearby, at which I walked over and handed it to him. That was my 11th ball of the day, and I’d given away eight of them.
Here’s A-Rod at bat in the 4th inning:
He drew a walk and then advanced to 2nd base on a wild pitch:
A little while later, Hayley took a great photo of everyone clapping for a kid who got a baseball. Look closely and you’ll see his tiny hand holding it up:
Nobody clapped for Ben when he snagged a 3rd-out ball after the top of the 5th inning, but he was probably just as excited:
Moments after Hayley photographed her beer . . .
. . . I took a photo of the 3rd-out ball that Rays catcher Rene Rivera tossed to me after the 5th inning:
During every game at Yankee Stadium, the grounds crew drags the infield after the 6th inning and dances to “Y.M.C.A.” I don’t know how long it’s been going on — probably for a decade, at least. It’s one of those things that’s cute if you’ve only seen it a few times, so of course Hayley took a photo:
In the top of the 7th inning, Ben got an ice cream bar because . . . why not?
Reminder: all of the food was free. We could even order it right to our seats, as Hayley did in the bottom of the 7th. She got nachos (loaded up with more stuff than I’ve ever seen), sweet potato fries, and a chocolate milk shake:
Here’s something else the Yankees gave me in exchange for the ball:
As you can see, those are tickets to the 2015 Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, which were scheduled to take place a week and a half later in Cincinnati.
In the bottom of the 8th, with the Rays leading, 3-0, Mark Teixeira slugged a three-run homer to tie the game. As he rounded the bases, I wandered down behind the dugout and snapped a photo of a very excited A-Rod, who had scored on the play:
In the top of the 9th, the Rays challenged a call at 2nd base, and during the brief delay, I headed back down to the front row. Several Yankee fielders had assumed that the call was going to be upheld and that the inning would be over, so they were standing nearby:
Did you notice Didi Gregorius in the previous photo? He was stretching his back on the dugout railing.
Throughout the night, dozens of people — mostly in the seats just behind the Legends area — recognized me and called me over to talk:
Every encounter I had was positive, except for one — and it took me by surprise. An hour earlier, while I was walking through the aisle toward home plate, a tall, well-dressed, middle-aged man said, “Douche!” as he passed by in the opposite direction.
People are weird.
Here’s a cute photo of me and Ben laughing about something:
It was the 10th or 11th inning at that point, and in the 12th, my mom fell asleep:
Poor mama. It had been a long day. But I was still going strong! Here I am on the 3rd base side, hoping for a foul ball from one of the many left-handed batters:
No luck. Nothing even came close.
Check out the scoreboard in the bottom of the 12th inning:
The Rays had taken a 5-3 lead, but the Yankees had something cookin’. After a leadoff walk by Brett Gardner and a pair of one-out singles by A-Rod and Teixeira, the score was 5-4. Two pitches later, Brian McCann blasted a three-run, walk-off homer (which, thankfully, landed nowhere near my regular spot in right field). Here he is touching home plate:
Final score: Yankees 7, Rays 5.
A minute or two later, when the Rays were walking in from the bullpen, I threw on my Rays cap and headed over to the dugout:
Who do you think got the only ball that ended up being tossed into the crowd — me or the little kid decked out in Yankees gear who was already holding a ball?
Here’s a hint: it wasn’t me. And that was fine.
Back on the 1st base side, Ben told me that Eddie was in the dugout with my bats:
Sure enough, after waiting several minutes for all the other fans to leave, Eddie walked out and handed them to me:
What a great feeling!
He told me “congrats,” and I thanked him for everything, and after chatting for a couple of minutes, we shook hands:
Then, figuring I’d enjoy my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not to be rushed out of the stadium, I photographed the bats:
Here’s a closer look:
For an even better photo that shows the entire bats, click here.
Here’s another photo of me with the bats:
The stadium was basically empty at that point:
To put it lightly, my mom was ready to go:
But I wasn’t done yet! (Sorry not sorry.) I needed Hayley to take a couple of photos of me with the A-Rod jersey:
For a better photo of the jersey with a closer look at the inscription, click here.
Given the fact that Ben is a jersey connoisseur (who once owned as many as 1,900 of them!), I let him do the folding:
If it were up to me, I would’ve stayed in the seats for another hour, watched the grounds crew work on the field, and reflected on a truly magical day, but security was finally ready for us to leave.
They walked us out through the Legends restaurant . . .
. . . and escorted us to the exit . . .
. . . and before I knew it, we were outside, and it was all over:
Or was it? I have a feeling that Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit will be the gift that keeps on giving . . .
• 12 baseball at this game
• 389 balls in 51 games this season = 7.63 balls per game.
• 978 lifetime balls in 143 games at Yankee Stadium = 6.84 balls per game.
• 1,104 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 768 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 271 consecutive Yankees home games with at least one ball
• 8,195 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.)
• 21 donors for my fundraiser
• $150.54 pledged per game home run ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $150,301.08 raised this season (including the huge donation from the Yankees)
• $190,256.58 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009