7/30/16 at Citi Field

It was a soggy but festive day in Queens:

1_zack_and_fans_outside_07_30_16

In the image above, that’s my friend Ben Weil holding the Mike Piazza cutout. (Shout-out to Andrew in the black shirt and Ryan peeking over the back of my neck.) This was the day that Piazza, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, was going to have his uniform number retired by the Mets during a big pre-game ceremony. That’s the only reason I was here. I normally avoid Citi Field when it rains, but I wanted to pay my respects to one of the greatest catchers in MLB history, and I also hoped to snag a game-used commemorative baseball.

First, though, my challenge was simply to get *a* baseball and keep my streak alive. I knew it would be tough when I ran inside and saw the tarp on the field:

2_tarp_on_the_field_07_30_16

Rockies pitcher Jon Gray was throwing an early bullpen session, so I headed over to right-center. I would’ve gotten a ball there if not for my “friend” Greg Barasch who flat-out robbed me, but whatever, I’m over it (or at least I want him to think I am).

A little while later, Greg pointed out a ball sitting in a weird place. Can you spot it in the following photo?

3_ball_on_pipe

There was no chance to snag it, but it was fun to think about. I wonder how long it had been there.

Meanwhile it had started to rain again, and these guys didn’t seem to care:

4_fans_sitting_in_the_rain

That’s dedication. (Dedication? Is that the word? Sure, let’s go with that.)

Roughly 90 minutes before game time, I had a chance to snag a ball when several Rockies came out and played catch in shallow left field. I was dressed for success . . .

5_zack_left_field_side_rockies_gear

. . . but that didn’t help. No luck. No action. Nada. Zilch.

As it turned out, there were NO other opportunities to get a baseball before the ceremony. I tried my best to enjoy all the hoopla despite being stressed and paranoid. (FYI, it had been 23 years since I’d gotten shut out at a major league game.)

Here’s Piazza on the jumbotron:

6_mike_piazza_on_the_jumbotron

Here he is standing at (or near) home plate:

7_mike_piazza_on_the_field

Here’s his uniform number (31) being unveiled:

8_piazza_number_31_unveiled

Sorry for the poor quality of that image, but it’s a zoomed-in screen shot from my iPhone. In other words, I did a little filming, and yes, there’s a selfie-style video on my YouTube channel! Keep reading and you’ll find a link near the bottom.

After the ceremony (which really was amazing), I photographed Ben with his wife Jen, holding up their Piazza signs:

9_jen_and_ben_with_piazza_signs

Ben loves Piazza so much (and Jen is so chill and loves Ben so much) that at their wedding two years ago, all the groomsmen wore Piazza jerseys. Ben also has a new “31” tattoo, which you can see on his right shoulder in this photo. THAT is dedication.

Despite the bleak forecast, the rain held off enough for the grounds crew to take the tarp off the field. The game was delayed 38 minutes, but no one cared. Everyone was just thrilled that it was going to played at all. I was also glad to have one final opportunity before the game to get a toss-up in the right field corner. Here’s what it looked like out there:

10_pregame_throwing_in_right_field

It was an odd time for several pairs of Mets pitchers to be playing catch. Somehow I got Logan Verrett to throw me his ball when he finished. He nearly airmailed me, though, so I had to jump as high as possible in order to catch it. Then I handed it to the nearest/littlest kid.

It was 7:18pm.
Translation: Phew!

On the way to my seat, I saw some fans posing for photos with a life-size Mike Piazza cardboard cutout:

11_fans_posing_with_mike_piazza_cardboard_cutout

Speaking of my seat, check out the view:

12_view_from_3rd_base_dugout_07_30_16

I’m pretty sure this was the most expensive regular-season ticket I’ve ever bought. Don’t ask me how much it cost. I’m kind of ashamed, but it was nice to sit so close to the field for a change.

Look who was with me:

13_jen_and_zack_dugout

That’s Jen.

Ben, of course, was DYING to get a Piazza ball, but he didn’t care how he got it. He didn’t need to snag it himself. He just wanted to end up with one, so I told him that if I got two, he could have one. Therefore he decided to sit on his own near the Rockies’ on-deck circle (ballboys often toss balls there) and have Jen sit with me and try to help. It’s amazing how much attention a young, attractive woman will receive from the players. Seriously. It’s actually kind of scary, but in this case (because she’s so chill and loves Benny so much), she was willing to be used. How sweet.

Things didn’t go as planned. In the first three innings, DJ LeMahieu ended up with two of the 3rd-out balls and seemed to taunt me as he threw them to other fans, and Greg, that lucky son-of-a-bee, managed to get a Piazza ball from Mark Reynolds.

In the 4th inning, rookie phenom Trevor Story hurt himself diving for a ball. It looked awkward, and I felt bad to see him leave the game:

14_trevor_story_injured

At the time, I had no idea that it would turn out to be a season-ending injury — a huge loss for the Rockies, their fans, and all of Major League Baseball. Hopefully he’ll come back strong next year.

The 4th inning ended with a strikeout, which got tossed right over my head. I had no luck in the 5th inning either and was really starting to worry that I wouldn’t get one of the special balls. There was, however, one thing that gave me hope. Early in the game, I noticed that Rockies 1st base coach Eric Young was inspecting the infield warm-up ball each inning. He threw most of these balls into the crowd, but before he did, he let people know whether or not there was a special logo. Most of these balls were regular, so I didn’t ask for one. I figured I’d save my request in case he actually indicated that he had what I was hoping for. During the 6th inning, when he walked past me down below in the dugout, I called out and said, “E.Y., I’m dying to get one of those special balls.” I didn’t think he had one at that moment; I just wanted him to be on the lookout for me, so you can imagine how stunned I was when he pulled a ball out of his back pocket and flipped it up onto the dugout roof. Was it commemorative? Take a look for yourself:

15_mike_piazza_commemorative_ball

That.
Felt.
Incredible.

Obviously I don’t love Mike Piazza as much as Ben does (I don’t think Mrs. Piazza even loves him like that), but I’ve been a huge fan since meeting him at Bucky Dent’s Baseball School in the early 1990s. I was also excited to snag this ball because it would complement the one I’d gotten on 9/29/13 at Citi Field when the Mets inducted Piazza into their own Hall of Fame. Check it out:

15b_mike_piazza_commemorative_balls

By the 7th inning, there were lots of empty seats, as you can see in the background of this photo:

16_zack_borrowing_hair_from_jen_buffa

It had been raining the whole night, and the Mets were losing, and of course all the Mike Piazza stuff was done. Many people had actually left right after the pre-game ceremony.

Ben’s enthusiasm never wavered, and at one point, Jen and I spotted him on the jumbotron:

17_ben_on_jumbotron

She reacted by excitedly yelling, “THAT’S MY HUSBAND!!! THAT’S MY HUSBAND!!!” That probably confused everyone sitting around us. Heh.

Here’s a panorama from my seat behind the dugout:

18_panorama_behind_3rd_base_dugout

Toward the end of the game, DJ LeMahieu looked up at me from the dugout and said, “How many baseballs today?”

I was like, “Wait, what? You know who I am?”

“Yeah, how many?” he asked without even a hint of a smile.

Some players who recognize me think my collection is cool, and they’re glad to add to it. Other guys just seem put off by the whole thing. That was the vibe I got from LeMahieu, which would explain why he’d taunted me earlier. Guess I won’t be rooting for him anymore.

After the game, which the Rockies won by the score of 7-2, I filmed a closing scene by the dugout:

19_zack_closing_scene_07_30_16

I had failed to get an extra Piazza ball for Ben, but that didn’t end up mattering because Greg came through!

20_greg_and_balls

Check out Ben’s reaction after receiving one of these baseballs from Greg:

21_ben_weil_loving_his_mike_piazza_ball_that_he_got_from_greg

He wasn’t acting or posing. He was truly overjoyed, and I was glad to share this special night with him.

Here’s the last photo I took before heading home:

22_citi_field_from_afar_at_night

That feels super-lonely, no? Anyway, thanks for reading, and if you still want more, here’s the video.

BALLHAWKING STATS:

 2 baseballs at this game

 517 balls in 66 games this season = 7.83 balls per game.

1,315 balls in 180 lifetime games at PETCO Park = 7.31 balls per game.

1,232 consecutive games with at least one ball

 86 different commemorative balls

 9,150 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

My fundraiser for Pitch In For Baseball is now in its eighth season. Once again, people are pledging money for every home run ball that I snag during games. Here’s some info about the fundraiser, and if you donate, you’ll be eligible to win one of these prizes.

• 14 donors for my fundraiser

• $133.77 pledged per game home run ball (if you add up all the pledges)

• $668.85 raised this season

• $191,172.51 raised since I started my fundraiser in 2009

10 comments

  1. RyanC

    Did you end up telling LeMahieu your actual number? Or did you hold your hands up and tell him you got nothing and was just enjoying the game? I know you are an honest guy, but if a player is gonna throw you shade like that I guess you can try and make him feel less of a smarta** that way. Glad you got your commemorative; I finally snagged a Cubs 100 ball earlier this month (big Cubs fan) and it’s amazing the happiness the ball can bring.

  2. BartoloTheAgelessWonder

    Ben really needs to get to know Piazza the way you know Heath Bell. The level of dedication to him is unreal. I mean seriously, you gotta really like someone to wear their jersey at your wedding. I definitely think that some players just don’t understand how ballhawkers operate.

  3. Zack Hample

    RYAN C-
    I told him I had gotten two baseballs . . . and I left it at that. But yeah, shade was definitely thrown. Congrats on the Cubs ball. I finally got a few of those last week at Wrigley.

    BARTOLO THE AGELESS WONDER-
    Ben and Jen have gotten to know Piazza a bit over the years, but a Heath-level friendship seems unlikely. Maybe, though! I hope so for their sake. Piazza follows Jen on Instagram, so there’s that.

    BIG GLOVE BOB-
    Yep.

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