2015 Home Run Derby

If there’s one thing I don’t like about Cincinnati, it’s the weather — sunny one hour, rainy the next, and then sunny again? I wanted to look up at the sky and scream, “MAKE UP YOUR MIND!!!” but instead I kept an eye on the radar and got completely stressed out. This is what I was dealing with:

1b_if_im_so_lucky_then_why_was_this_happening

It WAS going to rain . . . hard. The only question was when. And how would that work — if it rained in the late afternoon, would there not be batting practice before the Home Run Derby? If it started raining after that, would the Derby itself be canceled? Every local news channel was giving nonstop weather updates, and I heard a rumor that MLB was considering a “doubleheader” the following day — doing the Derby in the afternoon and playing the All-Star Game at night — but it was supposed to rain the next too. Of course.

I decided to eat my sorrows away at one of my favorite restaurants:

2_driving_to_waffle_house

I’m not kidding. I truly love Waffle House, which doesn’t exist anywhere within 70 miles of my home in New York City, so whenever I see one on the road, I take advantage.

In the previous photo, the guy driving is a friend named Ryan whom I’d met on 9/12/11 at Great American Ball Park. Do you remember this four-part image of me from that day with various folks that I met for the first time? Ryan is on the lower left. We kept in touch after that, and he told me that if I ever came back, he could provide me with a place to stay.

Did you notice the young man riding shotgun in the previous photo? That’s Ryan’s 10-year-old son, Will. Here we are with our food:

3_will_ryan_zack_waffle_house

I had a double order of hash browns “smothered” (with sautéed onions) and “covered” (with double cheese). I also had two scrambled eggs, a biscuit and gravy, and a waffle. Yessir!! At a New York City diner, that would’ve set me back about $25, but here in the beautiful midwest, our entire meal cost less than that.

After breakfast we drove across a bridge from Kentucky into Cincinnati . . .

4_all_star_game_sign_on_bridge

. . . and got a nice view of the stadium:

5_stadium_from_bridge

Don’t be fooled by the clear, sunny sky. The rain was coming.

Ryan and Will had tickets to FanFest at a convention center half a mile from the stadium. I was semi-interested in joining them, but not for $35. Look at these crazy prices:

6_fanfest_2015_admission_sign

When I tweeted that photo at the time, a gentleman named Matthew Walthert replied, “$30 for a 2-year-old kid. Hahahahahaha—good one, @MLB! Way to target the next generation of fans.”

I couldn’t agree more. In my opinion, a fun and reasonable pricing system would be to charge people under 35 according to their age. A ticket for a two-year-old would cost two bucks, and my friend Ryan would have to pay $10 to get his 10-year-old son inside.

As it turned out, I only paid $10 because I found a scalper several blocks away with a stack of print-at-home tickets that he’d somehow gotten for free.

Here’s what it looked like outside the FanFest entrance:

7_fanfest_2015_entrance

Here’s a big sign on the inside:

8_fanfest_2015_welcome_sign

Here’s what it looked like just inside the main area:

9_people_entering_main_area

Pedro Martinez was posing for photos with fans nearby . . .

10_pedro_martinez_posing_with_fans

. . . but the line was endless, so I didn’t even bother. And that’s the story of FanFest. In my experience, anything worth doing requires a terribly long wait, and the rest of the stuff? Well, let’s just say that a lot of it didn’t really excite me:

11_baloon_twisters_upstairs

For most people, FanFest is a once-in-a-lifetime event, so naturally they’re psyched about it — and hey, good for them. If they want to wait on line for hours to meet a player or take their kids to get balloon twisters, that’s their choice, and I have no problem with it. Personally, it’s not really my thing. My main reason for going was to catch up with this guy:

12_david_rhode_and_zack_at_fanfest

(Yes, I changed into my “Homer” shirt for that photo.)

That’s David Rhode, the Executive Director of my favorite charity, Pitch In For Baseball — you know, the one that recently received $150,000 from the Yankees. David was at FanFest for two reasons: to collect baseball and softball equipment and to raise awareness for his charity.

He had several local volunteers helping at his table, so when things slowed down a bit, he took me upstairs to a secret storage room and gave me a Pitch In For Baseball t-shirt:

13_david_rhode_giving_me_a_t_shirt

In the previous photo, did you notice the wooden crates in the background? Here’s a closer look:

14_negro_leagues_mannequin_display

That looks like it could be the opening scene of a baseball horror movie.

Can you spot Todd Frazier in the following photo?

15_todd_frazier_with_fans

His head is practically touching the “T” in the word “FanFest” on the huge baseball. People in Cincinnati absolutely LOVE him — and why not?

Here’s another view from above:

16_fanfest_2015_main_area_from_above

I was killing time at that point because the weather had turned to crap. I had an umbrella, but it was small and flimsy — the kind that would be useful for a few minutes in light rain, not for walking half a mile in a torrential downpour. I waited near the exit for quite a while, hoping for the rain to ease up, and when it finally did, I made a run for it. Two minutes later, with my sneakers and pants on the verge of getting soaked, I spotted a taxi at a red light and jumped in:

17_taxi_in_the_rain_to_the_stadium

The ride cost less than $10 including the tip — money well spent — and by the time I got out, the rain had pretty much stopped:

18_wet_outside_great_american_ball_park

But now what? Was the sun going to come out in time for BP? Or was the dreariness going to continue through the afternoon?

I took the long route around the stadium toward the left field gate. There were lots of TV trucks on the right field side . . .

19_news_trucks_outside

. . . and there was a whole lot of nothing as I walked alongside the river:

20_route_around_the_stadium

It started raining again, so I picked up the pace and eventually reached my destination:

21_left_field_gate

In the photo above, do you see the guy in the yellow shirt? That’s a fellow ballhawk from Pittsburgh named Nick Pelescak. I can’t remember the last time I’d seen him. It had probably been a couple of years, so it was great to catch up. Here I am with him and a local ballhawk named Cole Adkins:

22_zack_with_nick_pelescak_and_cole_adkins

Moments later, Cole told he’d brought four copies of my books for me to sign. On several occasions in the past, someone had brought one copy of each of the three, but because Cole had taken it a step further, I decided we needed photographic evidence:

23_zack_and_cole_adkins_with_four_books

An hour later, all the ushers lined up to get inside . . .

24_ushers_waiting_to_get_in

. . . and an hour after that, there were hundreds of fans on line behind us:

25_fans_on_line_behind_me

It had finally gotten sunny, and I received some great news from Ryan, who was watching the MLB Network at a nearby restaurant. He said the tarp was coming off the field and both teams were going to take BP.

Hell.
Yes.

Just before the gates opened, my friend Jeff Siegel caught up with me.

26_jeff_siegal_filming_me

Does he look familiar? Check out the first photo from my blog entry about the game on 9/8/14 at Citizens Bank Park. See him standing there with the same camera? He’s been getting footage of me for a documentary, so when I headed inside Great American Ball Park . . .

27b_field_set_up_for_bp

. . . he stayed right behind me:

28_jeff_siegal_behind_me_in_the_seats

It didn’t take long for me to get on the board. One of Roberto Kelly’s sons threw me a ball after he finished playing catch in the outfield, but unfortunately it was a regular ball:

29_ball8219_thrown_by_roberto_kellys_son

Whatever. I was glad to have *a* ball, and the day was still young. I figured I’ve have plenty of chances to snag a commemorative Home Run Derby ball.

A little while later, I spotted two Hall of Famers in the walkway down below:

30_john_smoltz_and_pedro_martinez_down_below

That’s John Smoltz (shielding his eyes from the sun) and Pedro Martinez. Pedro signed a few autographs for the fans in my section. I probably could’ve gotten him to sign my ball, but instead I focused on snagging another. It took a while, but I did finally get a Home Run Derby ball from another player’s kid — not sure who. Check it out:

31_ball8220_double_logo

I don’t care for the main “Home Run Derby” logo — I think it’s bland and generic — but the stamping on the sweet spot is incredible! I’d never seen anything like that.

Ryan had asked if I could hook him up with a Home Run Derby ball if he and Will didn’t get one. The answer was yes, but I told him that if I only got one, I’d want to keep it for myself.

Look how crowded it was in right field . . .

32_crowd_in_right_field

. . . and look who was now standing below in the walkway:

33_jeff_siegal_filming_me_from_below

It was Jeff! He used his media credential to get down there.

Throughout BP there were various people standing on the warning track and passing back and forth through that walkway. Most of them kept the baseballs, but a few did get tossed up, including my third of the day — another Home Run Derby ball, which the fans on my right asked me for. I had to explain (and I’m sure they didn’t believe me) that I was saving it for a friend and his son who were letting me stay with them.

That was it for the National League’s portion of BP.

Soon after the American League started hitting, I got my fourth ball from Haven Fielder — Prince Fielder’s son. I was surprised and thoroughly delighted when I realized it was a Futures Game ball:

34_ball8222_from_haven_fielder

Most ballhawks count balls from the Futures Game, but I don’t because it’s an event played by minor leaguers. Whenever I say that, people are like, “Yeah, but the event is sanctioned by MLB, and they use official major league balls, and it takes place at a major league stadium,” to which I reply, “So, if MLB brought in busload of Little Leaguers and gave them official balls, you’d count those?” It just doesn’t make sense to me, but whatever, people can count what they want. As far as I’m concerned, balls snagged at the Futures Game don’t count, but if I happen to snag a Futures Game ball during BP before the Home Run Derby, then it *does* count. (That happened to me once before at the 2008 Home Run Derby.) (Similarly, I wouldn’t count balls from the World Baseball Classic, but when Heath Bell saved one for me and gave it to me on 7/23/09 at Citizens Bank Park, you bet your ass I counted it. I’ve also counted minor league balls that I snagged during BP at major league games, but I would not count a major league ball if I happened to snag one at a minor league stadium.)

Anyway, I ended up giving that Futures Game ball to the kid next to me because Haven tossed me another that happened to be mud-rubbed. And then he gave me a thumbs-up:

35_haven_fielder_thumbs_up

Haven is awesome. Earlier this season, while he was shagging baseballs on the field during BP at Yankee Stadium, he spotted me in the stands and came over to say hey because he recognized me from YouTube. Here at the Home Run Derby, he told me he’d look for me the following day and give me an All-Star Game ball *and* a gold ball from the Derby. (Wow!!) I asked what I could do for him, and when he shrugged, I asked if he’d seen my latest book, The Baseball. He said no, so I told him I’d send him a copy. I asked where I should send it. He told me to mail it to the Rangers’ stadium in care of his father. I asked if his father would actually see it or if it’d get buried with all the other fan mail. Haven said he’d get it, and he later caught up with his dad in shallow center field and pointed me out. I tipped my cap, and Prince gave me a little head-nod.

Look how crowded it was in the left field stands:

36_crowd_on_my_right

It was also damn-near impossible to see. Look at the long shadows behind the players standing on the field:

37_american_leaguers_on_the_field

Everyone was basically staring right at the sun.

At one point, when Mike Trout wandered within 100 feet of my spot, I gave him a shout, and sure enough he remembered me as the guy who caught and later gave him his first career home run ball. He waved and then told a few of his teammates about me, or at least I assume that’s what happened because they all turned around at the same time and looked at me.

After BP, there were more than half a dozen balls scattered on the warning track, but none near me in left-center, so I made my way over to the unoccupied camera well in straight-away left. A few minutes later, all the balls got tossed into the crowd by a random employee. I snagged one of them — another Futures Game ball.

As it turned out, Ryan and Will had not snagged a Home Run Derby ball. I told them I had them covered, and they were very appreciative.

Here’s where I hung out for half an hour before the Derby:

38_view_from_the_last_row

This was the view to my left:

39_view_from_the_last_row

There was a concert. And there was fire:

40_fire_during_pre_derby_concert

Yay.

This guy was *really* into the whole thing:

41_diehard_fan_with_bodypaint

Eventually the eight Home Run Derby participants were announced:

42_derby_participants_on_a_stage

From left to right (and yeah, I know it’s a lame photo taken from far away), you’re looking at Anthony Rizzo, Prince Fielder, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, Albert Pujols, Joc Pederson, Todd Frazier, and Josh Donaldson.

I wanted to hang out in right-center field for the Derby — it seemed like there’d be a decent amount of space there — but that area was heavily guarded and simply off-limits:

43_restricted_area_in_right_center_field

I was, however, able to stand in a tunnel in the second deck in straight-away left field. The view wasn’t great . . .

44_view_in_left_field

. . . but I figured I had a decent shot there with an open staircase on either side. And look who was there with me:

45_jeff_siegal_still_filming_me

Throughout the day, I was recognized by dozens of people outside and inside the stadium. After BP, I heard someone shout my name from above, and when I turned around and looked up, three guys yelled “Booo!!” and all gave me a thumbs-down, but aside from that, everyone was friendly. One man — a chef who owns a fancy restaurant in Columbus, Ohio — gave me his card and offered me a free dinner if I’m ever there. Another guy asked where I was going to be sitting for the Derby and offered to get me into his section in right field. I took him up on it in the later rounds and had a nice view for a few of the lefties:

46_view_from_right_field

Did you notice the guy wearing the American flag suit? He ended up catching a Joc Pederson homer, reaching high up and to his left, so I had no chance. On another occasion, a different fan directly on my left snagged a ball, which landed on *his* left and ricocheted right toward him. Once again I was very close, but missed out because of bad luck. And look! Jeff was still filming me:

47_jeff_filming_me_from_below_in_the_tunnel

Here’s what it looked like on my right:

48_crowd_in_right_field_on_my_right

I came within about 10 or 15 feet of several balls in left field, but it turned out that I was positioned too deep. The new format of the Derby is great (except for the lack of gold balls), but it messed me all up. I was expecting lots of balls to travel 450 to 500 feet. That’s how it used to be when players had 10 “outs” and could take pitches and have time to recover after swinging as hard as possible. But now that the players each have a five minute time-limit, it seemed that most home runs traveled 400 to 450 feet. I think the players were concerned about wearing themselves out, so they eased up a bit.

Hometown hero Todd Frazier ended up winning the Home Run Derby, and the place went nuts:

49_fireworks_for_todd_frazier

I was excited for him and all the fans, but on a personal level, I was bummed that I hadn’t snagged anything during the actual Derby. (Nick from Pittsburgh had a great spot in a wheelchair aisle closer to the left field foul pole and snagged two! Congrats to him.) Overall, though, it was still a fun day.

Here are the four commemorative balls I had in my possession at that point:

50_four_baseballs_from_bp

Here’s a collage of some Twitter action that had taken place throughout the day:

51_zack_and_fans_on_twitter

I met so many great people. Big thanks to (almost) everyone for being so kind. I’ve taken a lot of heat in New York this season, so it was great to get some love on the road.

As the stadium was clearing out, I caught up with Ryan and Will and gave them a Home Run Derby ball:

52_ryan_will_zack_after_the_derby

Then we headed out together and walked across this bridge to the Kentucky side of the river:

53_bridge_to_kentucky

And then? We hit up a Wendy’s drive-thru — something else I never do in New York. For the two full days of this trip, I decided to completely let myself go and not feel the least bit guilty.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

• 6 baseball at this game (and yes, for my own stat-keeping purposes, I do consider it a “game”)

• 418 balls in 56 games this season = 7.46 balls per game.

 93 lifetime balls in 7 games at Great American Ball Park = 13.29 balls per game.

• 1,109 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 72 different commemorative balls (click here to see my entire collection)

8,224 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

pitch_in_for_baseball(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.)

• 22 donors for my fundraiser

• $156.54 pledged per game home run ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $150,313.08 raised this season (including a $150,000 donation from the Yankees in exchange for my giving Alex Rodriguez the ball from his 3,000th career hit)

• $190,268.58 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009

11 comments

  1. baldball

    Zachary, Thanks for showing all your great All Star experiences. As I am now an old guy,you made me visit it from your point of view. It was super! Thanks for allowing us old guys a way to visit without being there.

    Play ball, Rick Sabo

    >

  2. everythingtwins

    Nice! This brings back memories from last year’s ASG and HR Derby from last year. I got to the gates 3 hours before they opened and was the first person in line both days. Unfortunately, ushers wouldn’t let anyone without a lower level ticket into the lower bowl OR outfield even for BP, so I was snubbed out of catching anything.

  3. jotaesethegeek

    It was awesome to get to meet you and hang out a bit during the derby. Next time either you’re in town (or when we happen to be in the same town to watch a game) I’d love to go grab a meal and just talk baseball.

  4. Zack Hample

    RICK-
    You’re welcome. I don’t write these entries with “old guys” in mind. I just want to share the experience with anyone who cares, but I’m glad to hear that it appeals to your demographic.

    EVERYTHING TWINS-
    Acchh, that’s so frustrating. Security does tend to be crazy at these events, but I would say that it was the least strict in Cincinnati of any stadium where I’ve been to the All-Star events.

    JOTAESETHEGEEK-
    Nice meeting you too, and I agree that it would be nice to catch up more. Sorry about the lack of balls in our area during the Derby. In previous years, I’m *sure* there would’ve been a lot of action there. Damn the new format! (Sort of.)

  5. David

    Wow, impressive showing again, especially when you consider how crowded it was. Did you also hang out with Haven in the Legends, 3rd Base Side? Cool guy! Next year the ASG comes to Petco, can’t wait to see it live and in person!

  6. Zack Hample

    Yes! Good memory. Haven and his brother Jadyn were indeed in the Legends area with me a couple of months ago. Perhaps I’ll see you at PETCO next year. Not sure yet.

  7. RyanC

    Gah! so close! My friend and I were there as well looking for you. We had copies of your book hoping to meet you. Turns out we missed you by a day at FanFest, as we ended up at the Futures Game. I know you don’t make it to the Midwest that often so I figured this was my best chance to meet up with you. I share your frustration about not getting much; I only ended up with one from the Futures Game, as security was more strict than I’d ever seen them at GAB, and I had a real issue trying to move around.

  8. Zack Hample

    RYAN C-
    Ohhh, man. Sorry I missed you. And sorry you had a tough time with security. I’ve never heard of the rules being so strict for the Futures Game.

    CAT LOVES THE DODGERS-
    Thanks!

    ROCCO SINISI-
    So *that’s* why the weather sucked in Cincinnati. You stole all the rays! :p

  9. Cole Adkins

    Hey Zack, great photos. Awesome hanging out with you at the HRD. Good luck to you the rest of the season.

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