This is one of those stories that requires context, so here it is:
1) I’ve become friendly with Padres closer Heath Bell.
2) Heath knows about my baseball collection and seems to enjoy adding to it.
3) When I saw Heath on 4/15/09 at Citi Field, he told me he had saved a ball for me from the World Baseball Classic–but he didn’t have it with him. The ball was in San Diego.
Ever since that game, Heath and I have been texting back and forth, trying to figure out when and where we could meet. Obviously, since the Padres’ travel schedule was set, it was up to me to make the effort.
Here’s some more context…
The week before the All-Star Game, Heath left me a voice-mail in which he asked if I was going to be there. “Unfortunately I don’t have a ticket for ya,” he said, “just ’cause I got a bunch of people coming, but hey, if you are, hit me up.” I called him back, got his voice-mail, and told him that I was not going to be attending the All-Star Game. Then I reminded him that I’d be in Philadelphia on July 23rd and said that if he happened to see an extra All-Star Game ball lying around, it’d be cool if he could grab it for me, but if not, no worries.
On July 21st (the day before the Padres were going to be leaving on an eight-game road trip), I texted Heath with a “friendly reminder” to bring the ball from the World Baseball Classic.
Yesterday was THE day: July 23rd at Citizens Bank Park. Was Heath really going to bring the ball? I wasn’t sure…and it ended up raining like hell during the drive down to Philly (see the photo on the right)…but I had to keep going. I had to be there. To hell with batting practice. There was no other way I’d ever get to count a ball from the World Baseball Classic in my collection. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t count Spring Training balls, and the only minor league balls I’ve counted were used by major league players at major league stadiums at actual major league games. (For the last few years, the uber-cheap Tigers have been using balls like this and this during BP.) Along these lines, I decided back in 2006 not to count balls from the Classic–it’s an exhibition that isn’t exclusively played by major leaguers–but if I somehow were to snag a Classic ball at a regular season game, that would be the one exception.
I reached the stadium at around 3:30pm, and even though it was really gray and windy, there was no sign of rain:
There was no sign of life either, and for a while I didn’t know what to think. Would there possibly be batting practice? Would there even be a game?
By the time the stadium opened at 4:35pm, there was a huge crowd waiting outside the gates, and when I ran inside, this is what I saw:
Of course the left field seats (where everyone is confined for the first hour) ended up getting unbearably crowded:
During that first hour, I managed to snag three balls. The first was thrown by Joe Blanton at the furthest edge of the seats in left-center field. The second came via the glove trick near the foul pole, and the third was a home run that I caught on the fly. I don’t know who hit it. There’s a slim chance that it was Jayson Werth, but whatever. Doesn’t matter.
I spotted Heath as soon as the Padres took the field:
I shouted his name and waved my cap (the one that he gave me on 8/31/08 at PETCO Park) and he looked up and spotted me in the crowd. As he started throwing, he told me to wait for him in foul territory. For some reason, though, the rest of the stadium still hadn’t opened by 5:40pm, so when Heath headed off to the clubhouse (presumably to get THE ball), I wasn’t able to keep pace with him by cutting through the seats toward the dugout. That sucked. It meant I had to wait with everyone else near the foul pole, where the wall was so high that I wasn’t going to be able to have a normal conversation with Heath or shake his hand. And then it started to rain. The Padres kept hitting, however, and eventually Heath came back out and started walking toward me:
It looked like he had something tucked inside his glove, and as he got closer and tossed it up, I still had no idea what it was:
I could tell that there was a ball inside…no wait…there were TWO balls inside. It was some sort of tube sock…dark green fabric…with knots tied around each ball to keep them separate. My mind couldn’t process it, but I snapped back to reality just in time to yell “Thank you!!” as Heath jogged off toward right-center. Two balls?! Seriously? Had he given me two balls from the World Baseball Classic? Or was one of them from the All-Star Game? Or maybe from some other All Star event? Since I now number my baseballs, how would I know which one I’d snagged first? I got them both at the same time. But why even number them if they were each one-of-a-kind?
I was dying to untie the knots and see what was inside the sock, but there was a ball that was sitting on the warning track in left-center. I decided that my surprise would have to wait for a couple minutes, so I ran over and leaned way out over the flower bed and used my glove trick to reel it in. When I pulled the ball out of my glove, this is what it looked like:
The rain, meanwhile, was great. It was light enough that the Padres kept hitting, but heavy enough that it chased half the fans out of the seats:
I took the sock out of my backpack…
…but just as I was about to start untying the knots, several righties starting taking their cuts, so I threw the sock back in my bag. AAHH!! It was killing me to keep waiting, but it would’ve killed me to miss any opportunities.
My decision paid off. Someone on the Padres hit a home run that landed near me in a small cluster of fans. The ball got bobbled (not by me) and landed briefly on the top edge of the back of the seat right in front of me, at which point I snatched it. Nice! That was my seventh ball of the day, including the two that Heath had given me.
It was time to see what was in the sock…
If I’d gone to the All-Star Game, the flights and hotel and ticket would’ve cost more than $1,000, and what would I have hoped to get out of it? Umm, snagging the ball pictured up above on the right. Yay for Heath Bell. That’s all there is to it. (Oh…and if you want to see my entire collection of commemorative balls, click here.)
Anyway, a bunch of lefties started hitting so I ran over to right field and ended up catching a home run on the fly. See the guy below in the “HAMELS 35” jersey?
After I caught the ball by reaching in front of him, he threatened to throw me over the wall.
Stay classy, Philadelphia! Yeah!
My goal, at that point, was to snag two more balls and reach double digits. I didn’t snag anything else during BP, but I did get my ninth ball right before the game started. Drew Macias was playing catch with Will Venable…
…and Macias hooked me up when they finished. (I’m proud of myself–even though it’s indicative of other problems–for not getting distracted by the cheerleaders.)
Over the course of the day, several people recognized me from YouTube, including one guy who’s 6-foot-10, and since I have an obsession with height (obviously not my own), here we are:
If I’m remembering correctly, his name is Morgan. I asked him if he has ever tried to catch baseballs at games, and luckily for the rest of humanity, his answer was no. Can you imagine how much he would dominate? Who would ever stand next to him? He’d have a whole section to himself wherever he went. Is there anyone reading this who’s freakishly (and I mean that in a good way) tall? If so, I want to hear about your snagging experience. I wonder if there’s ever been a seven-footer who was serious about ballhawking. Yikes.
After the national anthem, Heath and I caught a glimpse of each other near the dugout. I mouthed the words “thank you” and put my palms together and make a little bowing gesture. He gave me a nod as he began walking across the field toward the bullpen, and that was the last I saw of him.
As for the game, I’d splurged and bought a Diamond Club ticket. Why, you ask? Because of all this room to run for foul balls:
The only problem was that there weren’t any foul balls to be caught. That area seems like it would be awesome, but it’s so close to home plate and so close to field level that most foul balls fly way overhead.
One good thing about the Diamond Club is that there’s a sweet view of the batting cages. Here’s Eric Bruntlett taking some mid-game hacks:
Another good thing is the food. Yes, it’s expensive, but the quality really is the best I’ve ever experienced at a stadium. Check out what I got for 11 bucks:
That’s a burger with grilled onions, swiss cheese, and bacon, along with a caesar salad and fresh pineapple. Yum! (I’d also eaten two hot dogs after BP, one with diced/raw onions and another with cheese sauce. So?)
After the game, I went to the Padres’ dugout (even though they lost) and saw a ballboy tossing out ball after ball. I got him to toss one to me, and for a second, I thought it was commemorative because there was a big dark spot on it, but it turned out just to be a smudge:
Still, the ball was clearly game-used, so that was cool.
As soon as I snagged it, I gave one of my BP balls to a little kid. It just so happened that an on-field security guard (who recognizes me, it should be noted, and is exceptionally rude) saw me hand it over. What was his response? Instead of a) praising my generosity or b) simply keeping his mouth shut, he c) started scolding the ballboy for giving a ball to me (“What’s the matter with you?!”) and demanding that I give away balls to all the other kids in the section.
Citizens Bank Park has officially become Yankee Stadium.
• 320 balls in 37 games this season = 8.6 balls per game.
• 606 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 168 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 109 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 48 lifetimes games outside of New York with at least 10 balls
• 4,140 total balls
• 114 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)
• $24.59 pledged per ball
• $245.90 raised at this game
• $7,868.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
I was stressed from the start.
Not only did I get a late start leaving my apartment but I didn’t have a ticket for the game. The subway was good to me, though, and got me there about 20 minutes early. Check out the view (including the last traces of Shea Stadium rubble) as the train was about to pull into the station:
I ran to the ticket window, asked for the cheapest seat, and was told that it was $42. This didn’t bother me until later when a) I saw a HUGE section of empty seats during the game way out in the left field upper deck and b) I read the box score and learned that this game was roughly 5,000 fans below capacity. Quite simply, the Mets are crooks and liars. They’ll SAY there aren’t any cheap seats available. They’ll TELL you that some cheap seats “might get released later,” but it’s a total scam. Clearly there were thousands of cheap seats available, yet they wouldn’t sell one to me. I hate them. I’m so angry about it that I’ve decided not to root for the Mets anymore. I’m officially done with them. They can’t treat fans like that and expect them to remain loyal. No way. (And for the record, the Yankees have been scamming fans for years. It’s disgusting.)
At least the left field seats stayed nice and empty for the first 10 minutes or so:
During that time, there was exactly ONE ball that reached the seats. It was a line drive homer by Gary Sheffield that hit a nearby seat and ricocheted back onto the field. Did Mike Pelfrey toss it back my way? Of course not. Fabulous start to the day.
The second group of hitters was better. They put a few balls in the seats, and I snagged two of them. I don’t know who hit them. I didn’t catch them on the fly. They weren’t commemorative. Just regular. But at least I was on the board.
The next BP group had a whole bunch of lefties (including Carlos Delgado), so I moved to “Death Valley” in right-center field. At one point, Mets reliever Sean Green jogged over to scoop up a ball, and just as I started to ask for it, a kid (who looked to be about 14) slid into a spot in the front row, just to my right. Green was off to the left, so I had the better angle. Green tossed the ball toward us. It was heading for the kid, and even though Green didn’t point at him to indicate that it was meant for him, I stepped back and let him catch it. Two minutes later, I got
Livan Hernandez to throw me a ball, and as it was sailing toward me, the kid tried to reach in front of me and snag it. I don’t blame him because I used to do the same thing at that age. I still managed to snag the ball and then said, “Hey, c’mon, I let you catch the last ball, so don’t try to steal one from me.” Turns out the kid reads this blog and just created his own blog. His name is Alex. His mom was there, and she told me that he’s a big fan of what I do, so it’s a good thing I didn’t rob him on the Green ball (and that the whole thing remained civil and peaceful).
Now, as for Mister Green, he ended up walking back over near the wall to pick up another ball, just as I was lowering my glove trick to pluck it off the warning track. I thought he was going to grab the ball and fire it toward the bucket, but instead he stepped back and looked up at me incredulously.
“How does that thing work?” he asked.
The ball was about six feet away from the wall so I said, “Move it a little closer for me and I’ll show you.”
Green walked over to the ball and gave it a little nudge with his foot. I kept lowering the glove, and as it was about to drop over the ball, Green moved so he could get a good view. Once I began to lift the glove with the ball inside of it, Green congratulated me and I thanked him. Turns out it was a 2008 All-Star Game ball:
I’d snagged six of these balls in 2008 when the Mets were using them during BP, but it was still great to get another. (If you want to see what a non-worn version of this ball looks like, click here.)
Okay, so it’s easy to use the glove trick to snag balls off the warning track at Citi Field, but getting balls from the bullpens is impossible. Check out the ‘pens in the following photo:
The first challenge is that there are two large white canopies blocking both ends, and the other challenge is that the seats directly above the bullpens are heavily guarded. There are some picnic tables up there. I don’t know what the deal is with that section. All I can tell you is that it’s totally off limits.
I had four baseballs at that point, and then I went on a glove trick rampage and snagged four more. When the Padres first came out and started throwing, no one was shagging in left field, so every ball that was hit deep rolled to the wall and sat there. One of the four was a regular ball (which I gave to a little girl who was standing nearby with her father) and the other three were Citi Field commemorative balls. The Padres, for whatever reason, were using them in BP, just as they’d done the day before.
While I was using the glove trick, the wind was blowing hard (from the foul pole toward center) and since it was such a long way down to the field, my dangling glove was being blown all over the place. It made things really tough, and on one occasion, my glove was twirling around so fast as I was lifting it up that the ball slipped out, but I did end up getting it on a subsequent attempt.
One more thing about using the glove trick at Citi Field…
So far, security has not said anything to me about it, but I’m pretty sure this will change. It’s just like Nationals Park. Remember when I set my one-game record in D.C. by snagging twenty-eight balls on April 10, 2008? At that point, there’d only been a handful of games there, so security was still pretty clueless and didn’t yet have a policy about ball-retrieving devices. As a result, I was able to reel in a bunch of balls from the left field bullpen, but I’ve heard that security doesn’t allow devices there anymore. I expect a similar change to take place at Citi, so if you’re going to use a device there, be smart about it. Don’t use it if there’s a guard standing nearby, and don’t fling your glove 20 feet out onto the field to knock a ball closer. Wait until the ball is right below you and then make your move with precision.
Late in BP, I met a really cool guy named Ben who’s been reading this blog regularly and leaving comments as “idemento28.” He is to jerseys what I am to baseballs. He doesn’t actually get them from players at games; he buys them but I was still astonished when he started throwing numbers at me. I’ll let Ben tell you about it himself in a comment.
I made it to the Padres’ dugout just before BP ended…
…but didn’t get anything there. I really wanted to hit double digits, but since I was still two baseballs short, it was going to be tough.
Cliff Floyd was talking to some people he knew down the left field foul line so I wandered over…
…and got him to sign my ticket:
Shortly before game time, several Padres came out and played catch in shallow left field, but because Citi Field was designed to keep real baseball fans out of the good seats, this was the closest I could get:
Not surprisingly, I failed to get David Eckstein’s attention, and he tossed the ball into the next section.
Once the game started, I decided to stay behind the Padres’ dugout until I got a third-out ball. It didn’t take long. When Ramon Castro popped out to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to end the bottom of the first inning, I scooted down the steps and got Gonzalez to throw me a ball (pictured on the right) on his way in. Unfortunately, because of how the ball was scuffed and grass-stained, I could tell that it wasn’t the actual game used ball. You know how the first baseman always catches a ball as he jogs in toward the dugout each inning? The ball he catches is the infield warm-up ball. It gets tossed from the dugout by the team’s first base coach. Gonzalez, as he tends to do, switched balls and kept the gamer for himself–kind of a letdown but I’m glad to say that the ball he tossed me did have a commemorative logo.
Okay, so…I had nine balls at that point and decided to head upstairs and go for foul balls. A few came close, but not close enough. Very frustrating. I took out my frustration on a nearby concession stand by paying $8.75 for a cheeseburger…
…which was painfully well-done and didn’t come with chips or fries or pickles or anything. Where’s all the great food that people keep talking about?
In the sixth inning I headed back down to the seats behind the Padres’ dugout. Even though there were lots of fans now running up to the front row every inning, I figured my best chance of reaching double digits was in that section.
With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Beltran grounded the ball toward Eckstein at second. I could’ve easily bolted down to the front row as soon as the ball left the bat, but there were a lot of kids with gloves, sitting on the edges of their seats, so I decided to hang back and let them all race up to the front. If Gonzalez wanted to roll the ball to them across the dugout roof, fine, they could have it. But if he decided to toss it a few rows deep, then I was gonna go for it.
Well, sure enough, Gonzalez under-handed the ball HIGH in the air as he approached the warning track. I was standing on the staircase about five rows back at the time. I could tell that the ball was going to fall a bit short, so while dozens of fans all around me were jockeying for position, I moved down a couple steps and got as close as possible to where it was going to land. I wasn’t able to get directly under it, so I had to jump and reach to my glove side. The ball hit my glove, and I would’ve caught it, but someone bumped my arm and caused me to bobble it. The ball popped up about a foot, and before anyone else had a chance to react, I snatched it in mid-air with my bare hand, and let me tell you it felt great. Double digits! Citi Field pwnage! The ball (pictured here on the right) was clearly not THE ball that Beltran had hit, but once again, it had the commemorative logo, so no complaints.
In the bottom of the eighth, as I was casually sitting in foul territory on the third base side, I heard an announcement that Gary Sheffield was pinch hitting. What happened next? I had one of those ohmygod moments, jumped out of my seat, raced up the steps, sprinted through the concourse, and barely reached the left field seats in time. This was my view as Sheff was stepping into the batter’s box:
Did anyone else in the section have a baseball glove? No. Did Sheffield hit his 500th career home run to my staircase? That would also be no. He worked the count full and then walked.
The night ended well because I got to see Heath Bell in action. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Padres were clinging to a 6-5 lead. When Bell’s name was announced, the entire stadium booed him mightily and several fans near me screamed insults and obscenities that I can’t repeat here. I was wearing the cap that he’d given me on 8/31/08 at PETCO Park, and I cheered like hell. (Sorry, Mets fans. He’s my guy. I gotta root for him.)
Daniel Murphy led off by grounding out to shortstop Everth Cabrera on an 0-1 pitch.
That brought up David Wright.
Heath leaned in toward the plate, dangled his right arm, and looked for the sign:
Did you notice all the empty seats behind home plate? It’s really sad. The best seats in the stadium were practically empty because a) most people can’t afford them and b) the people who CAN afford them don’t care enough about baseball to stick around and see the suspenseful end of a three-hour game. (Do you understand why I don’t like Citi Field? Is it making sense now?)
Wright worked the count to 3-1 and then launched a deep fly ball to an even deeper center field. Jody Gerut tracked it down and made the catch. Two outs.
Carlos Delgado came up as the Mets’ final hope. He took the first two pitches for strikes, then took the next two to even the count. Heath kept pumping in fastballs after that, and Delgado kept fouling them off. He fouled off four in a row, then took a ball to work the count full, then fouled off ANOTHER pitch, and finally took a called third strike on the 11th pitch of the at-bat. Classic duel. Heath got him. Game over.
• 10 balls at this game (9 pictured here because I gave one away)
• 50 balls in 6 games this season = 8.3 balls per game.
• 575 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 100 consecutive games with at least two balls