Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico?
The Mets and Marlins moved a three-game series to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, and I made the trip from New York City to be there:
Yeah, I was a bit excited. It was my first time at this stadium, and as you might expect, I took a ton of photos. (For some reason, when the Expos played a bunch of games here in 2003 and 2004, I neglected to take advantage.)
Let’s start with the Hiram Bithorn statue:
Did you know that there was a guy named Hiram Bithorn? I wasn’t aware of that until I booked this trip and did a little research. Bithorn, born in 1916, was the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. Check out all the info about him on the statue’s plaque:
In 1943, the dude went 18-12 with seven shutouts and a 2.60 ERA. That’s pretty impressive, and THAT is how you get a stadium named after you.
It was only 3pm. The gates weren’t going to open for another two hours, so I had plenty of time to wander.
Here’s the area with all the media/TV trucks:
Look at the slanted light towers:
Here’s a close-up of the trucks:
Here’s my first glimpse of the scoreboard inside the stadium:
In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise), you can see 1) the area beyond the right field corner of the stadium, 2) lawnmowers parked in the parking lot and Roberto Clemente Stadium in the distance, 3) the edge of the grandstand on the first base side, and 4) the road that curves around from right field to left field:
While walking along that road, I saw an open gate:
It was some sort of employee entrance. This is what I saw through the bars:
It was the back of the right field bleachers. I had a bleacher ticket. I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to move back and forth from right to left field, but it looked promising. I also didn’t know if there’d be batting practice. It had just been pouring for 20 minutes, and there was still thunder and lightning in the area.
Here’s another four-part photo that shows 1) the road behind the right field edge of the stadium, 2) a Puerto Rican stop sign, 3) a view of the stadium from deeeeeeep center field, and 4) another gate of some sort:
I was so confused.
Nothing was marked, few people spoke English, and let me tell you, I was in heaven. It’s like I was discovering a new way to watch baseball.
Hiram Bithorn Stadium is the largest baseball stadium in Puerto Rico, and it only holds about 20,000 fans. There’s no upper deck. No club level. No standing-room sections. No cup holders. No flat-screen TVs. No waiter service. It’s incredibly simple, and yes, also dumpy and run-down, but that’s what makes it nice. It’s the opposite of the new Yankee Stadium. It’s unrefined, and I don’t mean that as an insult. I like unrefined. I like it when puddles don’t drain. I like it when garbage cans overflow. That’s real life. You know what I mean? Take Target Field, for example. That stadium is an architectural marvel, but it’s almost too perfect. When I was there last month, it kinda felt like I was in a modern art museum.
But let’s get back to Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Look at all this clutter sitting around just inside the random gate:
Is that a beautiful sight or what? I’m totally serious. It was great to experience Major League Baseball in a facility where every inch of space wasn’t being micromanaged.
Here’s another four-part photo that shows 1) the area outside the left field corner of the stadium, 2) police guarding an employee entrance along the left field foul line, 3) the view as I cut across toward the 3rd base line, and 4) the walkway that leads to the main entrance.
This is what the gates look like…
…and here’s a sneak-peek at the concourse inside:
The sun finally came out. I ran across the street to use a bathroom inside a gigantic mall and took this photo of the stadium on the way back:
The stadium was jumping at that point. There were food tents and vendors and DJ booths and promoters aggressively handing out thunder sticks. The whole place had a carnival-like atmosphere. Look how crowded it was:
Luckily, there was a special someone holding a spot for me near the front of the line:
I’m talking about my girlfriend Jona, pictured above in the white shirt and torn jeans. Unfortunately, we were in line at the wrong spot. We couldn’t enter the main part of the stadium with bleacher tickets, so at the last second, we had to get out of line and head halfway around the stadium, and by the time we got inside, we’d missed a few minutes of batting practice. But hey, at least there WAS batting practice. The Mets were on the field, and before I had a chance to blink, a right-handed batter crushed a home run to the back of the bleachers. I raced up the steps and grabbed the ball after lunging over a railing.
Mission accomplished! It was the 48th “major league” stadium at which I’d snagged at least one ball. I wouldn’t have counted Hiram Bithorn on my list if I’d snagged baseballs at a Puerto Rico Baseball League game or even at the World Baseball Classic, but this was different. I was here for an actual regular-season major league game. If the wins and losses and stats were gonna count for the teams and players, then it was only fair that the balls would count in my collection.
After getting that first ball, I took a few photos of the glorious bleacher configuration. Look at the cross-aisle in front…
…and check out the gap behind the outfield wall:
I got one of the Mets’ strength/conditioning coaches to toss me a ball near the left field foul pole, and then things slowed way down. The bleachers were general admission, so everyone showed up early to claim a good spot, and as a result, the whole section got crowded fast. There just wasn’t much room to run. Batting practice was a major struggle. The expression on my face tells the whole story:
(That’s me in the Mets gear.) Here’s a closer look:
Finally, after 20 minutes of frustration, I got my third ball of the day from Bobby Parnell. The fact that I spoke perfect, accent-free English probably helped convince him to hook me up. There were very few people from the States. I’d say 99 percent of the fans were Latino/Puerto Rican. Although there’s no telling what kind of effect that had on my ability to snag baseballs, it’s an interesting factor to consider.
Left field was dead, so I decided to see if I could move to the right field side. Naturally, I took some photos along the way.
First, here’s the staircase that leads up into the left field bleachers:
Here’s the view to the left:
See all those people walking toward the batter’s eye in center field?
(Oh yeah, baby…)
Not only was I free to roam between left and right field, but there was a TON of open space in between. Check it out:
Here’s one more photo to show you what I’m talking about. I took it behind the wall in center field.
I couldn’t decide where to go. The opportunities — the ball-snagging potential — was truly mind-boggling.
All of a sudden, I saw a ball fly over the wall in right-center and drop down into the gap in front of the bleachers. Was I allowed to chase after it? I had no idea what the rules were, so I raced over…and this is what I saw:
The photo above is blurry because I was running full speed when I took it, but anyway, yeah, I was totally allowed to run under the bleachers. The ball was just sitting there, waiting for me. My first three balls of the day were regular MLB balls; this one was a training ball. It was all muddy, so I kept it in my hand as I headed back into the left field bleachers. When I got there, a female security supervisor (who’d seen me get a ball earlier) asked me if I could spare the ball. She told me there was a kid who was crying because someone else had taken a ball from him.
“Where’s the kid?” I asked, expecting to see a five-year-old.
“Over there,” she said, pointing to a teenaged boy curled up with his face in his mother’s lap.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “He’s too big to be crying.” I was going to tell her that there’s no crying in baseball, but I didn’t know if she’d get it. Anyway, it was no laughing matter, so I handed her the ball so that she could be the one to give it to the boy.
Well, the kid was thrilled, his entire family was thrilled, and the supervisor loved me after that and took good care of me for the rest of the series.
That was it for batting practice. The Mets finished hitting at 5:50pm — half an hour earlier than I expected — and I was stuck in the bleachers. There wasn’t anything to do. There wasn’t anything to photograph. So I just sat there with Jona and waited for the game to start.
This was our terrible view…
…but it was worth it because I had lots of room to run through the aisle on either side.
Do you remember my previous blog entry? I said I was going to be wearing my “Where’s Waldo” shirt in order to make it easier for people to spot me on TV. (I brought four shirts to this game.) That’s all. just wanted to remind you of that fact.
Before the top of the 2nd inning got underway, Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan threw his warm-up ball into the bleachers. He hadn’t aimed for anyone in particular. It was just a random toss. It happened to come right to me, but it was several feet over my head, so I jumped as high as I could…
…and came down with it. (Jona’s camera could not contain me!)
With no outs in the top of the 5th inning, Jason Bay smoked a 1-1 pitch from Ricky Nolasco down the left field line. The ball hooked foul and rattled around in the corner, and by the time Coghlan jogged over to retrieve it, I had already bolted through the aisle so that I was standing right behind him. Once again, he randomly flipped the ball up into the crowd, and wouldn’t you know it, I was able to grab this one as well. But this wasn’t any ordinary ball. Have a look:
Oh yes, my friends, that’s right. MLB and Rawlings International had designed a special commemorative logo for this series. Here’s a closer look:
I had heard from one of my contacts at MLB that these special balls were only going to be used during games — not during BP. He actually offered to send one to me before I went on this trip, but I didn’t take him up on it.
“Let me see if I can snag one on my own first,” I said.
And…voila! Another mission had been accomplished. At that point, the only thing left for me to achieve was catching a game home run, and if ever there was a time to do it, this was it.
Of the 18 players in the game, 14 were batting from the right side, and yet the first four home runs of the night went to right field. It was tempting to run over there, but I decided to hold my ground in straight-away left.
With two outs in the bottom of the 8th, I pulled out my camera and took the following photo:
There were two runners on base, and Mike Stanton was batting, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Mainly, I just wanted a photo that captured the simplicity of the scoreboard. There was no pitch count. There were no stats other than his .203 batting average. It didn’t even say what he’d done earlier in the game.
The count was 1-1, and the next pitch was a strike.
No big deal.
I took another photo to capture all the room I had on my left:
“What a waste,” I thought, “that there haven’t been any homers hit to left field.”
On the very next pitch, Stanton cranked a deep fly ball in my direction.
“HOLD THIS!!! HOLD THIS!!! HOLD THIS!!!” I yelled at Jona, reaching to my right to hand the camera to her.
From the second the ball left Stanton’s bat, I knew it was coming to me. I mean right to me. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. And I also knew I was going to catch it. It was as simple as that.
Here are a few screen shots from the TV broadcast to show you how it played out. First, you can see Jason Bay running back toward the wall. Note the “Waldo” stripes directly behind him:
In the screen shot above, approximately five feet to the left of where I was standing, you can see a fan wearing a white shirt with red sleeves. He ended up drifting over, and he nearly cost me the ball. Look how close he was when I reached up for it:
Like I said, the ball was coming RIGHT toward me. I wasn’t going to have to jump or lean out over the railing. All I had to do was reach up for it, but this other guy (who was not wearing a glove) was reaching up, too. His hands were right in front of my face, and I knew that it was gonna be a battle to see who could reach the furthest.
Here’s a closer look at the screen shot above. I’ve drawn two little red dots over his hands, and I’ve drawn an arrow to show you the ball going into my glove:
That should illustrate just how close he came to getting a piece of the ball. I had tried to box him out (simply by holding my ground), but he managed to reach in front of me at the last second. Still, I think my effort to block him made a slight difference, and as a result, the ball cleared his left hand by about four inches.
I had the ball!!!
Here’s a closer look at my reaction:
(Unfortunately, you can’t see Jona in any of these screen shots, but she saw me. In fact, it was the first game home run that she’d ever seen me catch on the fly.)
Half the fans were really happy for me, and I got a few high fives:
The other half were p*ssed because it was the third ball I’d snagged during the game, and get this: three minutes later, before the top of the 9th started, I got another. Coghlan threw another warm-up ball into the crowd. It sailed about five feet over my head, but because all the fans reached for it at once, they all booted it, and the ball dropped right down to me. There was a huge crowd in the aisle, going for the rebound, but I managed to stick out my glove and catch it before it hit the ground.
I immediately handed the ball to the smallest kid with a glove, and then I reached into my backpack and pulled out another ball and gave that one away, too. Everyone started cheering and shaking my hand. A bunch of parents asked if they could take photos of me with their kids. It was nuts, Here I am with the two kids that received baseballs:
After the game (which the Marlins won, 10-3), I got more high-fives and handshakes. Several people asked me to sign autographs:
Did I mention that it was nuts? Everyone wanted to stop and talk. (One man said, “Everybody is famous for one day. Today is your day.”) It’s like I was their good luck charm — as if touching me or connecting with me was going to bring them fortune. I’ve never experienced fans reacting like that before. iViva Puerto Rico!
Everyone was energized, it seemed. Outside the stadium, the vendors were still selling food, the DJs were still blasting music, and people were dancing just about everywhere:
This was probably the most unusual major league game I’ve ever attended, and I’m not talking about the action on the field. There had been fans with air horns and vuvuzelas inside the stadium. There’d been people playing drums and singing and chanting. It was so happy and festive and joyous and just…I don’t know…raw…and stadium security didn’t really give a damn about anything.
Before Jona and I headed back to the hotel, I met up with two guys who’d been reading this blog and got in touch to tell me they’d be here. These guys didn’t know each other. One was from San Juan. The other was from Michigan. Here I am with them:
The guy on the left is named Gustavo. (Unlike this Gustavo, he’s incredibly friendly.) He had actually gotten in touch two years ago and sent me one of the longest/nicest emails I’ve ever received. You can read that email on this page on my web site. Just search for “Gustavo” or scroll down to September 14, 2008, and you’ll see it. The guy on the right is named Mike. He had contacted me a few weeks earlier, and he was really cool, too. He’s been to 46 major league stadiums.
One last thing…
There are lots of highlights of the Mike Stanton homer, but thanks to a friend in New York who taped the game, I got a hold of the best footage of all. It’s a one-minute clip from SNY, the Mets’ cable network. The file (.mov format) is 15MB, so you might need to give it a minute to load. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Mets’ announcers, the two guys talking about me at the end are Gary Cohen and former major leaguer Ron Darling. Enjoy…
• 8 balls at this game (5 pictured on the right because I gave three away)
• 176 balls in 17 games this season = 10.4 balls per game.
• 646 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 196 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 48 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 13 lifetime game home runs (not counting toss-ups); click here for the complete list.
• 6 different stadiums with a game home run (Old Yankee, PETCO, Shea, Camden, New Yankee, and Hiram Bithorn)
• 4,534 total balls
• 37 donors (click hereto learn more)
• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $43.28 raised at this game
• $952.16 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
UPDATE: My home run catch was written up on MyGameBalls.com. Click here to read the story.
I woke up in Cleveland at 5:15am with three hours of sleep. By the time I checked into my hotel in Minnesota, I was so tired that my eyes hurt. I should’ve taken a nap, especially considering that I was going to be on TV later that evening, but I was too excited about Target Field. To hell with sleep. I had to get over there and see it. This was my first look at it:
(Did you notice the HUGE Target logo on the walkway?)
I could tell from afar that the place was gorgeous, and once I got closer, I noticed that the Twins (unlike the Mets) did an amazing job of honoring their past. One of the first things I saw was a long, wall-like display featuring the team’s former stadiums:
Right nearby, there was a fence with pennant-shaped tributes to important players and executives in Twins history…
…and then I saw Gate 29:
That’s kind of a random number for a gate, right? Well, it was named after Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who wore uniform No. 29 for the Twins for 12 seasons. Target Field has five gates, all of which are named after Twins players who’ve had their numbers retired. Genius.
I walked clockwise around the outside of the stadium. Here’s the team store…
…and here are some of the many team-related banners:
FYI, there are service ramps behind those long wooden boards. If you look closely at them, you can see a door on the lower left that swings open.
Check out the view through Gate 14 (named after Kent Hrbek):
It was one o’clock. First pitch was scheduled for 7:10pm. That’s why there weren’t many people around.
This is what I saw when I walked past Gate 14 and turned the corner:
The fence on the left was lined with poster-sized replica Topps baseball cards of Twins players, past and present. Brilliant.
At the far end of the walkway, I passed a Light Rail station…
…and turned another corner:
Here’s another sneak peek inside the stadium through Gate 6 (named after Tony Oliva):
I felt very welcomed, indeed.
I kept walking. Here’s more of what I saw:
I passed some artwork (officially known as the “5th Street Panels at Target Field”) on the far end of the building:
This piece in particular is called “A History of Minnesota Baseball.”
I risked my life to take the following photo:
Okay, not really, but I *was* standing awfully close to the train tracks.
(Gate 3, which you can see in the photo above, is named after Harmon Killebrew. I later learned that on Opening Day, Killebrew stood just inside the gate and greeted fans as they entered. That’s how to run a major league organization.)
Here’s where it gets weird. I’d been walking around the stadium without any problems. Everything was beautiful and clean and simple. But when I passed Gate 3, this is what I saw:
Where was I supposed to walk? Into the tunnel? Was it even possible to walk all the way around the outside of the stadium? I crossed the street on the left side and headed onto a narrow walkway. I had no idea where I was going. There were no signs. There was nothing but a pair of unmarked glass doors:
Just when I was was preparing to retrace my steps and head back toward Gate 3, two guys walked by and gave me directions. They said I had to enter the doors and walk through a long hallway and follow the signs and head upstairs…and…what? I was so confused, but they seemed convincing, so I did what they said.
This is what it looked like just inside the doors:
Was this a trick or a scam? Perhaps a hidden-camera TV show? Should I have been concerned for my safety?
I walked quite a ways down the hallway and eventually saw this:
What was the Target Plaza? Was that connected to Target Field? Ohmygod, what was going on? I hadn’t researched the stadium beforehand. I intentionally showed up knowing as little as possible so I could explore and discover things.
There were escalators at the far end of the hallway:
I headed up to the second level and saw this:
Uh…was I supposed to go up to the 3rd level?
It looked like there was a little sign on the door, so I walked over for a closer look. This is what it said:
Hooray! Thank you! Finally, there were clear directions that applied to what *I* hoped to find. Target Field, through the doors. Right?
Umm, not so fast…
This is what I saw when I opened the door:
WHAT THE HELL?!?!?!
I figured the sign had to be right, so I walked across the garage and encountered another set of doors. This is what I saw on the other side:
I walked past the Kirby Puckett statue. This is what was on the right:
Now we’re talking.
Gate 34…the right field gate…just behind the standing room area. I hurried over for a peek inside:
The giant “gold” glove was sitting nearby on the right:
Just how big is it? Here’s my backpack:
I still had a little more exploring to do, so I continued heading around the stadium:
Is that a slick design or what?
In the photo above, do you see the fan wearing red sleeves? More on him in a bit, but first, I have to show you even more Twins history that was on display. Check this out:
You know what those things on the fence are?
There was a roster from every single season since the franchise moved to Minneapolis.
Even the team store was exquisite:
Back outside, I walked right past Justin Verlander and two of his teammates:
One fan approached Verlander and asked for an autograph.
“Not today,” said the Tigers ace.
(Ballplayers are so friendly nowadays.)
Okay, remember the guy wearing red? His name is Greg Dryden, but he’s known simply as “Waldo.” He’s the No. 1 ballhawk in Minnesota. He used to sit in the front row in left-center at the Metrodome, and he always wore a helmet. That was his thing. I’d been hearing stories about him for years — some good, some bad. Everyone I knew who visited the Dome had something to say about the guy, and here he was. I knew it was him because the back of his jersey said “WALDO 13,” so I walked over and introduced myself, and as it turned out, he had heard lots of stories about me, too. Here we are:
I knew that we were only going to have a few minutes to chat, so I asked him the basic questions about how many baseballs he’d snagged over the years. He told me that he only kept count one season and ended up with 352. (He was a season ticket holder and attended all 81 of the Twins’ home games.) He said that was probably a typical season for him and that he’d been ballhawking regularly since 1999.
“So you’ve probably gotten over 3,000 balls?” I asked.
He shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess.”
“How many game home runs?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “probably 40 or 50…and I’ve gotten about 20 ground-rule doubles.”
Not too shabby.
At 2pm, two attractive women (who looked to be in their mid-20s) started walking right toward us. Waldo’s jaw literally dropped, and when they got closer, one of them asked me, “Are you Zack?”
“Catherine?” I asked.
She welcomed me to Minnesota and introduced me to her twin sister, Laura-Leigh. Then, as the three of us headed off together, I turned toward Waldo and shouted, “I’ll see you back here in an hour!” The look on his face was priceless.
The ladies led me to a nearby mall called Butler Square. Here’s the main entrance:
See the arrow in the photo above? There’s a restaurant in the mall called Smalley’s 87 Club:
That’s where we went. It’s named after former major league All-Star Roy Smalley, who played nine of his 13 seasons with the Twins. Now get this…
1) Roy Smalley just happens to be their father.
2) Roy Smalley is the president of Pitch In For Baseball.
3) Roy Smalley is a commentator on FSN North.
See where I’m going with this? In case you’re new to this blog, I’ve been raising money for the last two two seasons for Pitch In For Baseball — a charity that provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. Roy was planning to interview me live on the Twins’ pre-game show about it, and he was at the restaurant. Here I am with him and his daughters:
(Catherine is on the left, just above my red-and-white Pitch In For Baseball cap, and by the way, I should mention that both plates of food were mine: chicken strips and a caesar salad. The food there is great.)
We all hung out for a couple hours, during which time Roy let me play with his 1987 World Series ring:
Here’s the ring with Roy in the background…
…and here are two close-up shots of it:
(His championship ring is slightly cooler than mine.)
My lack of sleep was killing me, but I was so happy that it didn’t even matter.
By the time I made it back to the Target Field Plaza (that’s the official name of the area outside Gate 34), there were quite a few people milling about:
At 5pm (half an hour before the stadium opened), look who showed up and found me:
It was my girlfriend, Jona.
As I’d mentioned the day before on Twitter, there was a chance that she wasn’t gonna be able to make it to Minnesota, but everything ended up working out, and here she was.
Remember the small crowd waiting outside the gate on 5/1/10 at Progressive Field? If not, click here to see what I’m talking about. Here’s the difference between Cleveland and Minneapolis. Ready? Take a deep breath and brace yourself:
Holy mother of GOD!!! And don’t forget that this was just one of five gates. My biggest gripe about the stadium is that it doesn’t open earlier. I think it’s a real slap in the face to the fans that they can’t even get inside early enough to watch the Twins take batting practice. Every team should open its stadium two and a half hours early. Not just for season ticket holders. Not just on weekends. Always. For everyone. Forever. And especially when it’s the first season of a new stadium and the crowds are extra large. Seriously, Twins: duh.
Shortly before the stadium opened, I learned that FSN’s cameras were going to be filming me from afar during BP. I wasn’t going to be miked up. They didn’t need any audio. They just wanted some B-roll footage that they could later use during my interview with Roy. Catherine (who helped set up the interview) told me to call the producer as soon as I ran into the stadium. She said I needed to let him know where I was so he’d be able to make sure that the cameras were following me — and if I ran to another section, I was supposed to give him another call.
You know what I did instead? I handed my phone to Jona, who offered to make the phone calls for me.
I was so stressed and tired, and at 5:30pm it was time to roll. I raced inside and peeked at the right field seats and quickly decided to head for the left field bleachers. Jona chased after me and called the producer.
“Where do I tell him we are?!” she shouted.
“Ohboy,” I mumbled loud enough for her to hear me, then yelled, “Tell him I’m running behind the batter’s eye!”
It was nuts, and yet Jona somehow managed to take photos while all of this was happening. Here I am in the bleachers:
The bleachers were awful. Too steep. Too crowded. Too many railings. Tucked underneath an overhang. And because of the flower bed down in front, there was absolutely no chance to use the glove trick:
If someone asked me to design a miserable section for catching home run balls, I probably would’ve come up with this. Oh…and the sun was in everyone’s eyes, too.
The bleachers got crowded pretty fast:
Things were NOT looking good.
At one point, I had a chance to catch a home run ball:
(In case you can’t tell, I’m wearing the dark blue jacket with a Tigers shirt.)
Here’s that same moment captured by an FSN camera:
Want to see how it ended?
Yeah, the short guy in the front row jumped up and caught the ball two feet in front of my glove. Then, five minutes, later, I got robbed once again by a guy who reached out and made a bare-handed grab as I was cutting through the second row:
My overall assessment:
My friend Bob (aka “Big Glove Bob” in the comments section) made an appearance in the bleachers:
He had kindly picked me up at the airport that morning, and he’d given me lots of tips on Target Field and Minneapolis in the previous weeks. It was great hanging out with him — this was the first day that we had ever met in person — and I foolishly neglected to get a photo with him. (Random coincidence: he was interviewed on TV that day, too.)
I was getting desperate. I still didn’t have a ball. I was worried about my streak. And I was embarrassed to be putting on such a lousy ballhawking display for the cameras, which were evidently capturing my every move.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally got Tigers reliever Brad Thomas to throw me a ball. He was in left-center field. I was standing near the slanted railing next to the bullpens. His throw fell short. I nearly had a panic attack. I reached way out — full extension — and caught the ball in the tip of my glove. It was a true snow-cone. Here’s an FSN screen shot…
…and here I am pointing at Thomas as if to say, “You’re the man. Thank you.”
I was so relieved at that point. My streak was alive, and I had snagged a ball in my 47th different major league stadium. Here I am with the ball:
I wasn’t sure what type of balls the Tigers were going to be using during BP; in 2008 they used Pacific Coast League balls and in 2009 they used International League balls. As you can see in the photo above, the ball that Thomas threw me was an official major league ball, but check out the logo:
The Tigers had marked it. Many other teams have done the same thing over the years, but never on the logo itself.
My phone rang. Jona handed it to me. I answered it. It was Roy. He asked me to swing by the FSN set down the left field line, and since BP was such a colossal waste of time, I didn’t mind sacrificing a few minutes of it to go check in with him:
He asked me to be back there by 6:25pm. The pre-game show was going to start at 6:30. I was going to be interviewed during the second segment, and I needed to get miked up…so for the time being, I was free to run around a bit more and try to snag a few additional baseballs. Unfortunately, there weren’t any more to be snagged — at least not during BP. The bleachers were dead, and when I ran over to the Tigers’ dugout at the end of BP, I didn’t get anything there. The look on my face tells the whole story:
I had snagged ONE pathetic baseball during batting practice. I was sweaty and exhausted…
…and I wanted to go back to Cleveland.
It was time to head over to the FSN set, so I cut through the seats with Jona. I stopped along the way to photograph a fugitive hot dog:
Here’s what it looked like from my perspective:
Remember the random sausage I photographed on 4/27/09 at Miller Park? Yeah, I don’t know what to say. It’s just one of those things that needs to be documented.
I made it to the FSN area as Roy and his fellow commentators were finishing up the first segment:
He and I caught up for a moment during the commercial break…
…and headed into the left field bleachers:
(Roy is adjusting his ear piece in the photo above, and if you look closely, you can see The Ring on his right hand.)
See those two women sitting behind us? When we walked into the bleachers, the blonde one said to Roy, “You look like you’re famous.”
“Umm, that’s because he IS famous,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, half-excited and half-embarrassed, “should I know your name?”
I turned toward Roy and said, “Would you like me to to be your spokesperson?”
“Smalley,” he said to the women. “I used to play for the Twins.”
The women were like, “Smalley…Smalley…oh! Yeah!” but they had no idea who he was.
The interview itself went pretty well…I think. Here’s a photo that Jona took while it was in progress:
We were being filmed by the camera behind home plate in the upper deck.
The interview flew by — they always do — but I got to talk about Pitch In For Baseball. That was the most important thing, and I ended up getting a few new pledges as a result.
I still have yet to see the interview itself, but I did manage to get a screen shot. Here’s what it looked like to the folks watching on TV, and for the record, I did NOT write the text that appeared below my name:
The interview ended just in time for me to make it down to the front row along the left field foul line for pre-game throwing:
I ended up getting a ball from Scott Sizemore, and then less than 60 seconds later, because there wasn’t anyone else competing with me, I got another from Adam Everett. That made me feel a little better, but of course the FSN cameras weren’t on me anymore, so as far as the general public in Minnesota was concerned, I was just some random putz who happened to catch ONE ball during batting practice and then talked about some charity thing.
I spent most of the game in the standing room area down the right field line. Here’s that section from above. The red “X” marks the spot where I was standing:
Here’s what my view from that spot looked like:
Yeah, it was rainy and nasty and cold — about what I expected.
Here’s a photo from the back of the standing room area, with my back against the inside of Gate 34:
(I can’t explain that random box, so don’t ask.)
Waldo was on the outside looking in:
He’s “protesting” Twins management because he feels he got screwed over on his season tickets. Long story. Go to Target Field and ask him about it. But anyway, as part of his protest, he’s refusing to enter Target Field this year. He also wants to catch the first home run that either flies or (more likely) bounces out of Target Field, so in that sense, his spot just outside Gate 34 is actually ideal. Personally, I would go crazy if I had to spend even one game outside a stadium with such slim odds at snagging a homer, but he seems content (relatively speaking) out there, and he doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone, so I say hey, why not?
Jona and I sat in a few different places throughout the game. Here’s one…
…and here’s another:
I thought it was going to be really tough to move around, but a) there were empty seats to be found and b) the ushers were really laid-back.
After the bottom of the 8th inning, I got Miguel Cabrera to throw me a ball as he jogged off the field:
Although it had a commemorative Target Field logo, I knew it wasn’t the actual third-out ball that’d been used in the game because it was kinda beat up.
In the photo above, do you see the kid on my right, reaching up with both hands? It was a girl who was probably about 10 years old. Even though she didn’t have a glove, I just felt that giving her a ball was the right thing to do, so I pulled out a regular/non-marked/non-commemorative ball from my backpack and handed it over. I ended up sitting next to her and her father for the last half-inning, and they thanked me about a dozen times.
The Twins won the game, 4-3, on a run-scoring wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth. That made a winner of starter Nick Blackburn, who went the distance. It also meant that I notched a rare “tie” in the Ballhawk Winning Percentage category. My record moved to 4.5 wins and 1.5 losses, so my percentage is .750, second only to the Rays, who lead all of baseball with a .759 mark.
Jona was freezing her you-know-what off, but I was not in any rush to leave. (Sorry, baby.) I took more photos of basically everything around me, including the beautiful MLB logo atop the visitors’ dugout:
And then I had to stick around and watch the FSN crew do their on-field analysis of the game-ending wild pitch:
1 = Tim Laudner
2 = Bert Blyleven
3 = Roy Smalley
Very cool to see former players using the field itself as a teaching instrument. That’s how it should be.
• 66 balls in 6 games this season = 11 balls per game.
• 635 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 186 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 47 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 4,424 total balls
• 29 donors
• $3.85 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $15.40 raised at this game
• $254.10 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
One last thing…
I just discovered that someone with Minnesota Public Radio wrote a short article about me — and about this actual blog entry. Here’s the link to it, and here’s a screen shot of the piece:
On a personal level, the best thing about Game 5 of the 2009 World Series was getting a free ticket. The worst thing was that I had to watch the Phillies and Yankees. To put it lightly, I don’t care for either team. I thought about wearing all Mets gear (as a way of staging my own mini-protest), but ultimately I decided to dress like this:
It was my way of messing with fans of both teams without getting laughed at. As I made my way around the stadium, I noticed people staring and pointing. One guy asked if he could get a photo with me. His friend asked if I was bipolar.
It was only 2:30pm — more than five hours before the first pitch — so I had time to get food (don’t order pasta or the turkey burger at McFadden’s) and take a bunch of photos…
Here’s a look at the street that runs from the 3rd base gate to the Ashburn Alley gate in left field:
One word: HOOPLA.
The whole place had a carnival-like atmosphere…
…and yet as I walked around, I noticed that I wasn’t really feeling it. It didn’t feel like the World Series. It just felt like any other game, except colder. I was hoping to snag at least eight balls in order to maintain an average of nine balls per game for the entire season, and of course I wanted to get my hands on a commemorative game-used ball with the 2009 World Series logo, but I felt no sense of urgency. I don’t know why — maybe because it’d been so long since my last game that I’d fallen out of SnagMode — but I felt rather Zen about the whole thing. Ultimately, I just wanted to snag one ball and see a good game.
The TV crews were out in full force…
“I gotta talk to you for a minute,” she said, reaching for a microphone.
Sure enough, she asked me about the clothes I was wearing.
I explained that I didn’t like either team.
“You hate everybody!” she joked, and then she asked me why I was even AT the game.
“Because I got a free ticket,” I said.
“How’d you manage that?” she asked.
I told her about my books and my baseball collection and mentioned that there’s a ticket company called First Hand Tickets that recently “sponsored” me…and that I got the ticket from them. She was pretty intrigued by the whole story and kept asking me questions. I couldn’t believe how long the interview was lasting, but once it was over, she told me that it was being taped and that her editor was going to trim it down and air part of it later. Oh well. Still cool.
Before I headed off, she got one of her assistants to take the following photo of us:
First Hand Tickets, you can actually call up and speak to real human beings who can help you get what you need. They even help put together flight and hotel packages, so check out their site and give them a call. The head of the company — a really nice guy named Warren — said he’ll offer discounts to people who ask for him and mention my name. So yeah. Keep these guys in mind.
Anyway, by the time the gates were getting ready to open, the sun was setting…
…and by the time I ran inside and snagged the first November ball of my life, it was already dark:
It was thrown by Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick, and as you can see, it was a regular MLB ball. It’d be really cool if teams used World Series balls during BP before World Series games. I don’t see what the big deal is. I suppose MLB figures they’ll end up selling more World Series balls (at thirty bucks a pop) if they’re harder to get a hold of, but if that’s their logic, then I must respectfully disagree. If there were even a few World Series balls floating around during BP, fans would go nuts to try to catch every single ball. More people would show up early (which would lead to extra concession sales for the home team), and for every fan who managed to catch a World Series ball, there’d be 20 other fans standing right nearby, asking to have a look at it. Those people would be more inclined to buy the balls if they actually saw them being used — and if they felt like they were THIS close to actually catching one. Plus…Home Run Derby balls are used during BP prior to the Derby itself, so obviously it can be done.
At one point, during the first few minutes of BP, Phillies fans were ganging up on the few Yankee fans. One guy who was decked out in Yankee gear got (intentionally) slammed from behind while reaching up to catch a home run. This caused him to drop the ball, and when he tried to scramble for it in between two rows of seats, the Phillies fan (who was absolutely huge) dove on top of him with crushing force. It was perhaps the most blatant case of aggression and violence that I’d *ever* seen at a game. But you know what? Any non-Yankee fan in the Bronx is likely to be treated just as badly, if not worse. I’ve seen Yankee fans rip opposing teams’ caps off fans’ heads and light them on fire. In conclusion: “Yankee and Philly fans, I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Now…did you notice how empty the stands were in the photo above? It didn’t stay that way for long. By the time the Yankees took the field, I still only had one ball, and the seats were packed:
I just wasn’t on my game. In addition to the TWO tossed balls that had tipped off my glove (longer arms would’ve helped), I wasn’t judging home runs well, and I think it was partly due to the fact that the balls weren’t carrying. Everything was falling short — no surprise there — and I was slow to make the adjustment. Once I turned my attention to the glove trick, however, things started picking up. There was a ball that rolled onto the warning track near the left field
foul pole, and as I was trying to reel it in, Alfredo Aceves walked over and stuffed it in my glove. Then, in straight-away left field, I had a chance to use the trick to reel in another — and get this: even though I was wearing my Yankee gear at that point, there was a female Yankee fan in the front row who was incredibly rude to me. Basically, she was taking up two spots against the railing, and she refused to let me in because she wanted the ball for herself. (She was about 25 years old, looked like she was 45, needed a meal more than she needed a ball, and wasn’t wearing a glove.) She made such a big fuss about not letting me into the front row that the two Phillies fans to her right moved over to make some space for me. (Thank you, Philadelphia. You’re not so bad after all.) Once I climbed into the front row, the woman told me that if I got the ball, I had to give it to her since she’d let me in. (I ignored her at that point.) Moments later, as I was starting to lower my glove over the wall, she said, “Ohmygod, you are so embarrassing. Can you go away?” My response went as follows: “Lady, there are 45,000 other seats in this stadium. If you have a problem with me, you can move to any one of them.” While everyone else was cheering for me, the woman was talking trash and cursing. I just tuned it out, went about my business, snagged the ball, and headed back up the steps.
Five minutes later, while still wearing my Yankee gear, a Phillies fan was kind enough to hold my legs while I reached way out and across the flower bed to reel in another ball with the glove trick — my fourth ball overall. Granted, this fan recognized me from YouTube and then proceeded to ask for the ball (I gave him my rally towel instead — estimated eBay value: $20), but it was still a nice gesture on his part.
Batting practice ended two minutes later, and on my way out of the section, I found a ticket lying on the ground. Half an hour later, while walking through the field level concourse, I found another. Check this out:
See the ticket for Section 130? Do you know where that is?! Take a look at the Citizens Bank Park seating chart below:
That’s right…the game hadn’t even started, and for the rest of the night, I was guaranteed to have full access to the seats behind the Yankee dugout. This was a big deal because my actual seat was up here:
I was officially supposed to be in the “right field bleacher deck,” or some kind of nonsense like that, but there was no way that I was going up there. I didn’t know where I’d end up — I was expecting to have a standing-room-only ticket — but I knew I wasn’t going to any section where it was physically impossible to catch a ball. If I had to, I’d stand in the concourse all night and wait until a foul ball or home run started flying in my direction and then bolt down the steps. The problem with sneaking anywhere was that there simply weren’t empty seats.
But wait…hang on…I’m getting ahead of myself. Just after Alanis Morissette sang the national anthem, Derek Jeter came out and started playing catch in front of the dugout (probably to show off for her and/or to ask for her phone number). I used my “Section 130” ticket to get past the ushers, and then I waltzed right down to the front row. Almost every seat was full at that point, but there was one opening in the middle of the section right behind the dugout. It just so happened that this open space was at the outfield end of the dugout, where Jeter was likely to return with the ball. Another happy coincidence: my Yankee shirt said “JETER 2” on the back, so I slipped my arms out through the sleeves and turned the shirt around so that I was wearing his name on my chest. I poked my arms back out, grabbed my camera, positioned my backpack in just the right spot so that it wouldn’t get trampled…and before I knew it, Jeter was finishing up. I didn’t have time to take a photo. All I could do was wave my glove and shout his name and try to make sure that he could see my shirt. He was walking right to me with the ball in his hand. Could it be?! I’d never gotten a ball from him and always wanted one. Even though he played for the Yankees, he was one of my all-time favorite players — one of only two guys (Mariano Rivera being the other) who can actually make me root FOR the Yankees. He kept walking closer. I shouted my head off. He looked to the left, then to the right. Was there a more worthy recipient? A pretty young woman or a cute little kid? No! Jeter took another step and then flipped the ball right to me. The fans on either side reached for it, but they had no chance. I dove forward and caught the ball (pictured on the left) in my glove with full extension, and I belly flopped on the dugout roof. Oh. My. God. DEREK JETER!!! And as a bonus, this ball broke my own personal single-game World Series record of four balls, which I achieved last year at Game 4.
That made my night, week, month, and…I don’t want to say year, because there were quite a few highlights, but man, I was so excited after that. I almost couldn’t tell if it had really happened. I’d been having a lot of snagging dreams lately, and they all felt so real at the time.
As for the game, fun fun fun. Cliff Lee gave up a run in the top of the first, but the Phillies answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame and three more in the third. Chase Utley hit two homers, tying Reggie Jackson’s record for the most home runs hit by one player in a World Series. Unfortunately, I was halfway across the stadium for both of those homers, just chillin’ in foul territory. If I felt like I had a chance to catch a homer, then I would’ve been in the outfield seats, but there’s no cross-aisle at Citizens Bank Park. There’s no way to run left or right. There were no empty seats out there. I wouldn’t have been allowed to stand on any of the staircases, and even if I were, and even if a ball came right to me, there’s no guarantee that I would’ve caught it because the crowd was in a snagging frenzy, even with foul balls. People were pushing and shoving like mad.
In the top of the ninth inning, with the Phillies clinging to an 8-5 lead, this was my view from the back of Section 130:
Then, after Jeter bounced into a run-scoring double play, this was my new spot:
There was a pocket of empty seats down at the front.
I couldn’t sneak all the way down while the game was in progress, but I had my post-game route planned out: down the steps, through the second row, into front row, all the way to the right. That was as close as I could get to the spot where the umpires would be walking off the field. Home plate ump Dana DeMuth had tossed me two post-game balls in the past — both at PETCO Park, incidentally — but those came during the regular season. Would his generosity possibly extend into the World Series?!
The answer had to wait as Johnny Damon smoked a single to center. Mark Teixiera came up next and promptly fell behind in the count, 0-2. I was ready to pounce. I wasn’t sure if any other fans were thinking what I was thinking, so I need to move fast. Teixiera took a ball to bring the count to 1-2. My heart was pounding. I was afraid he’d hit a two-run homer and tie the game. I didn’t want extra innings. I wanted the Phillies to win, and I wanted them to win NOW. Next pitch? Strike three! Ballgame over. Final score: Phillies 8, Yankees 6. I raced down the steps, did some fancy footwork, and reached the corner spot JUST in front of another guy who’d been rushing there too. The rest was up to Mister DeMuth. As he began walking toward me, it was so noisy that I could barely hear myself screaming his name. Somehow, though, he must have heard me because this was the result:
It’s hard to tell in the photo above, but the ball was actually quite rubbed up with mud. The photo below (which shows all six balls that I snagged) will give you a better idea of what the ball really looks like. And here’s the best look of all.
• 6 balls at this game (the Jeter ball is in the middle of the bottom row)
• 538 balls in 60 games this season = 8.97 balls per game.
• 629 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 182 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 12 consecutive post-season games with at least one ball
• 5 consecutive World Series games with at least one ball
• 4,358 total balls
• 129 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)
• $25.45 pledged per ball
• $152.70 raised at this game
• $13,692.10 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
The charity has already received thousands of dollars’ worth of donations. (Click here and look at the scrolling box on the upper right to see who has officially contributed.) If you’ve made a pledge but haven’t yet sent in the funds, now’s a great time to do it. I’m not free to attend Game 6, and I’m not even going to try to attend Game 7, so this effectively concludes my season. For instructions on how to pay, click here.
1:21pm — Whaaat?! Edgar Renteria is on the Tigers?! Man, I really HAVE slipped far out of baseball mode.
7:21pm — Mets win, 7-2. Switching to ESPN2. Los Angeles of Anaheim in Minnesota. Bottom of the first. Torii Hunter looks funny in an Angels uniform.
1:21pm — Whaaat?! Edgar Renteria is on the Tigers?! Man, I really HAVE slipped far out of baseball mode.