Tagged: dan wheeler

9/14/09 at Camden Yards

I spent my birthday with one of my favorite people in one of my favorite places: with my girlfriend Jona at Camden Yards. The weather was perfect. The tickets were cheap. The crowd was small. I just knew it was going to be a great day.

When the stadium opened for batting practice at 5pm, I raced out to the left field seats, and by the time Jona made it out there with my camera several minutes later, I had already snagged two baseballs. I found the first one sitting in the second row all the way out near the bullpen in left-center field, and Chris Waters threw me the second.

Jona took the following photo as she approached the left field seats. I’m the guy wearing the black t-shirt and tan shorts:

1_zack_left_field_seats_09_14_09.jpg

Moments later, Chad Moeller ripped a deep line drive in my direction. I could tell right away that it had the potential to reach the seats, but I knew that it wasn’t going to reach my spot in the 7th row, so I scooted down the steps, and as the ball approached, I braced myself against the wall at the bottom. The red arrow in the following photo is pointing at the ball:

2_zack_about_to_catch_ball4241.jpg

I made the easy one-handed catch.

There was lots of room to run in the seats, and I took full advantage:

3_zack_running_and_climbing.jpg

Jona took a great sequence of photos as I ran for my fourth ball of the day. I’m not sure who hit it. All I know is that it was a righty on the Orioles, but anyway, the ball was launched half a section to my right, and from the moment it left the bat, I could tell that it was going to land well past the row where I was standing. I immediately turned around (so that my back was facing the field) and raced up the steps:

4_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

Take a look at the other fan (wearing the striped shirt) in the photo above. Do you notice where he’s looking? He’s keeping his eye on the ball. Do you notice where I’m looking? I’m NOT looking at the ball. The following photo shows more of this:

5_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

While the other guy was frozen in place, trapped by the railing and trying to figure out where the ball was going to land, I was focusing on my path to spot where I had already predicted it was going to land. That way I was able to reach the spot as quickly as possible.

Take a look at the guy in the next photo. He’s still looking at the ball, and I’m already cutting through the seats several rows behind him:

6_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

The ball ended up landing in the empty row directly behind me as I kept running through the seats…

7_zack_running_for_ball4242.jpg

…and I was able to snag it before the other fans got there. That one felt good because I’d done everything right and then got lucky when the ball didn’t ricochet away from me.

Moments later, another Orioles righty hit a home run that was heading toward the first few rows all the way out in left-center. I was more than a dozen rows back at that point, and I was three sections away, but I raced to my left anyway. There were several guys playing shallow in left-center. If the ball had stayed where it landed, they would’ve been all over it, but it ended up taking an unlucky bounce for them…which turned into the luckiest bounce ever for me. The ball hit the railing just inside the fence that separates the seats from the bullpens, and then it ricocheted all the way back into my row. The other guys started running up the steps and climbing over seats, but I was already closing in on it, and I snagged the ball well before they got there. That was my 5th ball of the day, and then I made a leaping catch for a line-drive homer in straight-away left field. In the following photo, I’m *just* about to squeeze my glove around it:

8_zack_catching_ball4244.jpg

The snagging gods were clearly helping me celebrate my birthday. Two minutes later, as I was walking back to my normal spot through an empty row in left-center, I heard everyone yell, “Heads up!!!” and before I knew it, I heard a ball smack a seat right near me. I never saw it coming, but when I looked down, the ball was sitting at my feet. This was my reaction after picking it up:

9_zack_shocked_after_ball4245.jpg

(The shirt I’m wearing was a birthday present from Jona. Jona’s birthday was the day before mine, and I’ll be blogging about it soon.)

My 8th ball of the day was another line-drive homer. No clue who hit it. I ran to my right as the ball was approaching, and as the fans just in front of me reached up for it, I pulled back (so that if they deflected it, it wouldn’t smack me in the face) and ended up making a very tentative back-handed catch as the ball sailed six inches over all their gloves. Then I ran to my left and caught a ground-rule double (hit by a lefty) that bounced high off the rubberized warning track into the second row. I got whacked in the face by some other guy’s glove as I made the catch. He apologized. It was all good.

dan_wheeler_2009.jpg
The Rays took the field, and I looked for Dan Wheeler. I hadn’t seen him all year, but I figured he’d still remember me, so when he walked out to left field, I shouted, “Is that my friend Dan Wheeler?!”

He looked up and said, “Hey, Zack!”

Very cool.

Then he asked me where my Rays cap was.

“Hang on,” I said. “I’m about to change into my Rays gear, but don’t tell your teammates. This needs to be our little secret, okay?”

“Okay,” he said with a smile on his face.

Then I ducked down so that I was blocked by the wall in the front row and put on my Rays cap and Rays shirt:

10_zack_changing_into_rays_gear.jpg

Then Wheeler came over and talked to me. He asked me how I’d been and what was up. I told him about the new book I’m working on and explained how I’m now snagging baseballs to raise money for charity. I gave him one of my contact cards, and we talked for a few minutes:

11_zack_talking_to_dan_wheeler.jpg

In the photo above, do you see the ball I’m holding? While we were talking, one of the Rays batters hit a deep line drive that bounced right to Wheeler. He grabbed it and said, “Here you go,” and tossed it to me in one motion.

“Thanks so much,” I said, “but you know you didn’t need to do that.”

“I know,” he said, “but I have to give you a ball every time I see you.”

“Well, I’ll be here tomorrow,” I said, “but one ball per series is enough.”

Then a couple homers were hit deep into the seats and Wheeler told me, “You better get back to work.”

I thanked him again and headed off to add to my total.

Now…if you look back at the photo of me talking to Wheeler, you can see that at the back of the left field seats, there’s a concrete wall with even more seats above it. Well…a home run ball ended up bouncing over that wall into the seats up above, and there was an all-out sprint between me and one other guy for it. We both got there at the same time, but then neither of us could find the ball. I scanned the seats like a madman, hoping to spot it, and then I saw it, tucked underneath a seat, and I pounced on it. I didn’t notice until 30 seconds later (when there was a brief lull in the action) that the ball had a huge gash on it. Check it out:

12_gash_on_ball_4249.jpg

I’ve snagged two other “gash balls” in the past. Here’s one, and here’s the other.

I got Grant Balfour to toss me my 12th ball of the day, and then I raced out to right-center field and used my glove trick to snag a home run ball that had landed in the gap:

13_zack_glove_trick_4251.jpg

While I was out there, I got Dioner Navarro to throw me a ball that rolled to the wall in center field. He threw it with curveball spin, and the sun was right in my eyes, but I stuck with it and made the catch. Then, back in left field, Wheeler tossed a ball to some fans who ALL went for it and somehow managed to bobble it back right into my row. It was incredible, and I was able to race to my left and grab it. Wheeler then got another ball and tossed it to the clumsy fans, so everyone was happy. Then I moved way back for a couple of power hitters, and while I was back there, I got Russ Springer to throw me a ball over everyone’s heads down in front. And finally, with just a couple minutes remaining in BP, I caught another home run on the fly.

WOW.

I raced over to the Rays’ dugout just before all the players and coaches cleared the field. Bullpen coach Bobby Ramos threw me my 18th ball of the day. In the following photo, the vertical arrow is pointing at Ramos, and the horizontal arrow is pointing at the ball:

14_zack_about_to_catch_ball4256.jpg

I *needed* to snag two more balls and reach 20 for the day. I’d already broken my Camden Yards record (17 balls on 9/6/05), but I simply HAD to keep adding to it.

I moved around to the home plate side of the dugout and waved my glove at George Hendrick, the Rays’ first base coach. The arrow in the following photo is pointing to him:

15_zack_waving_at_george_hendrick.jpg

I didn’t know if he even had a ball, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. Maybe there was a ball sitting around in the dugout and he could grab it for me? Well, to my surprise/delight, Hendrick HAD a ball and under-handed it to me. Here’s the ball in mid-air…

16_zack_about_to_catch_ball4257.jpg

…and here it is streaking into my glove:

17_zack_catching_ball_4257.jpg

Ten seconds later, it occurred to me that this was my 4,257th ball…which meant that I had just passed Pete Rose on the all-time hits list! For those who don’t know, I’ve been comparing my ball total to the all-time hits totals since 2005, so this was a big deal (on a random personal level). I had actually brought a Reds cap with me on this two-day trip to Baltimore. I thought it’d be cool to honor Rose by wearing the cap at the time that I passed him, but the cap was in my hotel. Camden Yards is great for snagging, but I didn’t think it was gonna be THIS great. I figured I’d snag 19 balls in two days combined (assuming there was no rain), but 19 in one day?!

Here I am with Ball No. 4,257:

18_zack_with_ball_4257.jpg

Here are the two balls that tied me with Rose and then moved me past him:

19_balls4256_and_4257.jpg

Once all the players and coaches were gone, I took the following photo…

20_nineteen_balls_after_BP.jpg

…and then gave two of the balls away to little kids with gloves who were just entering the stadium with their dads. Naturally, they were all thrilled, and I told the kids that even though they now had baseballs, I wanted them to keep wearing their gloves during the game and try to catch a foul ball. They said they would.

Right before the game started, I went back down to the Rays’ dugout to make an attempt at snagging my 20th ball of the day. Evan Longoria and Reid Brignac came out and started throwing. Longoria was on the home-plate end of the dugout, so I positioned myself near him. Usually, the more experienced player ends up with the ball, but in this case, Brignac was the one who took the ball back toward the dugout. He was 30 feet to my left, and there were a couple other fans standing just on MY left. It wasn’t looking good, but at least the other fans were grown men who did not have baseball gloves. “REID!!!” I shouted, prompting him to look up. I
reid_brignac_2009.jpgwaved my glove and made sure he could see my Rays gear, and then he threw the ball toward me. I nearly had a panic attack because the ball was heading too close to the other fans. I was sure they were going to reach out and rob me, which would have been their right, but they kept their hands at their sides and allowed me to catch it. I asked the guy right next to me why he didn’t go for it. He said that I had been the one to call out for it, and I was the one wearing a glove, so I was the one who deserved it. (I might have to move to Baltimore.) And just like that, I had snagged 20 balls at a single game for just the fifth time in my life.

That’s when my luck ran out. I had several close calls on foul balls during the game, and I also came within 10 feet of snagging Brignac’s 1st major league home run. But everything either went over my head or took an unfortunate ricochet or settled in the hands of a nearby fan. It was very frustrating, but obviously I wasn’t about to start complaining. One happy thought that popped into my head was that I had raised more than $500 for charity at this game alone!

While I was running all over the stadium, Jona split her time between sitting in one place and following me around…and when she DID follow me, she was kind enough to carry my very heavy backpack:

21_jona_holding_my_backpack.jpg

Don’t let Jona’s expression fool you. On the inside she was thrilled — just thrilled!! — to be carrying my bag.

The stadium, meanwhile, was like a ghost town. Excluding all the rain delays and blowouts that I’ve attended, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many empty seats:

22_empty_seats_late_in_game.jpg

It was tempting to go for third-out balls because that would’ve likely helped me pile up the numbers, but I resisted the urge and stuck to my standard Camden game plan. As a result of that plan combined with several bouts of bad luck, I was still stuck on 20 balls when the game ended.

Final score, by the way: Rays 8, Orioles 4. Brignac went 4-for-4 with a homer, two doubles, and three RBIs.

As soon as the final outs (double play) were recorded, I bolted down the steps behind home plate and positioned myself next to the tunnel where the umpires exit. Dale Scott, the home plate ump, handed balls to the few little kids near me and then placed one final ball in my open glove. Then I zig-zagged through the exiting crowd and worked my way into the front row behind the Rays’ dugout. After the first wave of players and coaches left the field, the guys from the bullpen walked in. I shouted at everyone for a ball (and said “happy birthday” to Chad Bradford, who was also born on September 14th), but the only person who even acknowledged my requests was Bobby Ramos. I had taken off my cap before asking him for a ball so he wouldn’t recognize me, and it seemed to work. He didn’t have any baseballs on him, but I saw him get someone’s attention in the dugout. That person tossed Ramos three balls. Ramos then threw the first one to me and gave the other balls to kids.

Jona and I got a photo together on our way out. The ball I’m holding is my 22nd of the day:

23_zack_jona_postgame_09_14_09.jpg

Happy birthday to ME.

SNAGGING STATS:

24_the_twenty_i_kept.jpg• 22 balls at this game (20 pictured here because I gave two away)

• 440 balls in 51 games this season = 8.63 balls per game.

• 620 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 116 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 5 lifetime games with at least 20 balls

• 4,260 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 126 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $555.72 raised at this game

• $11,114.40 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

One last thing…

People often ask me how I remember the details of each ball, especially when I snag so many balls in one game. It’s easy: I take notes. Nothing fancy. Just a few words for each ball to trigger my memory later on. Usually I write the notes on the back of my rosters. That’s what I did at this game. Check it out:

25_rosters_and_notes.jpg

2008 World Series — Game 4

This was my fourth World Series game ever and only the second at which I was actually going to be inside the stadium. (I spent Games 1 and 2 of last year’s World Series behind the Green Monster.)

I wouldn’t have gotten to attend this game if not for my friends Clif and Gail. Gail has a friend at ESPN. The friend was able to get tickets. Gail had a couple extras and invited me and my girlfriend Jona to come along.

Here we are heading down to Philadelphia on the New Jersey Turnpike:

tickets_driving.jpg

The parking situation was a nightmare. There were about a million fans (including tailgaters) at Lincoln Financial Field right next door for the Eagles game, and that evening there was going to be a concert by The Who at the neighboring Wachovia Center. Somehow we managed to find a spot amidst the sea of RVs, and as we headed over to McFadden’s for a pre-BP meal, I made everyone wait while I recreated a photo of myself that was taken 15 years earlier. Check it out below. The photo on the left was taken outside Veterans Stadium before Game 5 of the ’93 Series, and the photo on the right was taken yesterday:

zack_world_series_photos.jpg

There was quite a line for tickets:

people_looking_for_tickets1.jpg

Other people had their own methods:

people_looking_for_tickets2.jpg

I can only describe the scene surrounding the stadium as one of general hoopla:

general_hoopla1.jpg

I’d been to this stadium 18 times before for regular season games; it was strange (and more stressful than exciting) to be there for all this madness. There was even a mechanical bull in  the middle of a big inflatable ring:

general_hoopla2.jpg

I’ll admit that I was part of the madness. Not only did I bring my Big Glove, but I had a big ball to go with it:

zack_big_glove_outside_10_26_08.jpg

Here are the four of us…Jona, me (wearing a ’93 World Series cap), Clif (wearing an Eagles jersey), and Gail:

jona_zack_clif_gail.jpg

Clif and I wandered around with the Big Glove, and I made sure he was the one carrying it so he’d be the center of attention. It worked. Not only did a dozen people approach us and ask to take photos with him, but he was interviewed by a TV crew from Florida. I should’ve taken a photo of Clif with the microphone in his face, but I spaced out. This was my first game in more than four weeks, and there were other moments when I just wasn’t on MY game.

The stadium opened at 5:30pm (roughly three hours before game time), and we received a few giveaways as we headed inside. The first was toilet paper (aka a Phillies “rally towel”)…

rally_towel1.jpg

…and even THAT had an authentication sticker:

rally_towel2_authentication_sticker.jpg

(The sticker on my Beltran ball is cooler.) The second item was a coin commemorating the Hank Aaron Award, and it came in a nifty little decorative cardboard case (which also had a sticker):

giveaway1a.jpg

Here’s a look at both sides of the coin:

game_4_coin.jpg

As for BP…

Since every section was going to be open at the start of the day (to accommodate the huge crowd), I raced out to the seats in right-center and had the whole place to myself for the first minute.

Well, almost all to myself.

As I was racing to pick up a home run ball that landed in the empty seats, an usher came charging down the steps and slammed into me and started scrambling for it.

“What the HELL are you doing?!” I shouted.

“The same thing as YOU!” he snapped. “Trying to get a ball.”

“Yeah but you WORK here!”

“They haven’t even opened UP yet!” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

“Um, actually the stadium HAS opened,” I said, and the usher was like, “Uhhh…sorry.”

Unbelievable.

Anyway, I got that ball (along with a nice bruise on my left biceps) and snagged another homer that landed in the seats two minutes later. Neither of these balls had the World Series logo on them. No surprise there. They were just regular balls.

The seats in right-center stayed pretty empty for the first 10 minutes or so…

zack_BP1_10_26_08.jpg

…but nothing else was hit within my reach. I could have easily gotten Scott Eyre to toss me a ball, but instead of asking for it, I asked if he might be able to toss me one with a World Series logo instead. He said he hadn’t seen any, and that they weren’t being used in BP, and that he hadn’t even seen those balls in the bullpen.

Clif (aka “goislanders4” if you read the comments on this blog) started off in the corner spot in left-center:

clif_during_BP1_game_4.jpg

Here’s a closer look at him:

clif_during_BP2_game_4.jpg

He didn’t get anything there, but he didn’t go home empty-handed. I’ll let him be the one to tell you about it.

I’d made/brought a sign to help me get balls, and Jona took a pic of me waving it around in the front row:

zack_BP2_10_26_08.jpg

It didn’t work. Here’s what it said:

zack_BP3_10_26_08.jpg

When the Rays pitchers came out and started playing catch along the left field foul line, I changed into my Rays gear and positioned myself near Dan Wheeler, who was all the way out near the outfield wall. I didn’t shout his name. I didn’t wave my arms. I just stood there, and within FIVE seconds, he looked up (on his own) and spotted me in the crowd.

“ZACK!!!” he shouted. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you!”

“What’s up!” I shouted back.

dan_wheeler_2008.jpg

“Was that you who caught the two home runs at Yankee Stadium and–”

“–and did that stupid dance?”

“Yeah!”

“Yeah, that was me!” I yelled, “and I also caught the last Mets homer at Shea!”

“Unbelievable!” he said as he continued throwing.

“Dan!” I shouted a few moments later, and when he looked up, I told him I was dying to get a World Series ball and asked if he could help. He pretty much said the same thing as Eyre. I asked if I could meet him out by the bullpen or at the dugout after the game, and he said he didn’t think he’d be able to get one. “Well then, how am *I* supposed to get one?” I asked.

“Catch a B.J. Upton homer during the game,” he said.

“Yeah, that’d be nice,” I replied, and that was pretty much the end of our conversation.

(I should probably point out, for those who might be new to this blog, that I got to know Wheeler back in the days when he pitched for the Mets, and he’s remembered me ever since; last year, when I saw him at Camden Yards, he asked for a signed copy of my book.)

I started working my way down the foul line (can you spot me in the pic below?)…

zack_BP4_10_26_08.jpg

…and set up my operation behind the Rays’ dugout:

zack_BP5_10_26_08.jpg

I stayed there for the entire portion of the Rays’ batting practice. I knew I was missing opportunities to catch (or at least chase) home run balls in the outfield, but I figured my best chance of getting a World Series ball was to get someone’s attention–Joe Maddon, perhaps?–and work the personal touch. It didn’t happen. I got acknowledged by plenty of people, but NO ONE had a World Series ball or even knew where to find one.

I did, however, get a regular ball (not sure who tossed it…might’ve been Fernando Perez) and got filmed/photographed/interviewed by at least 20 different members of the media who were milling about on the warning track. In the photo above, in case you missed it, there’s a guy pointing a camera at me. Apparently there was a brief shot of me that was used during the FOX pre-game show, and I also got a couple mentions online. The following photo appeared on a blog on the St. Petersburg Times web site

zack_tampa_bay_blog.jpg

…(did you notice Jona in that pic?) and the following text appeared in this article in the Times itself:

zack_st_petersberg_times.jpg

So it wasn’t a complete loss.

Here’s some general weirdness…

world_series_weirdness.jpg

…and here’s what the pre-game festivities looked like from my spot behind the Phillies’ dugout:

pregame_hoopla.jpg

NOTE: I said “spot” and not “seat” for a reason. My actual seat was in the upper deck on the third base side. I never went up there. Gail and Jona did (and I believe Clif even went up there too for a bit), and this was their view during the game:

view_from_426.jpg

Not bad, I suppose, but MY view was better:

view_behind_dugout_game_4.jpg

That was only my view for about two minutes. It was incredibly easy to get down into the seats behind the dugouts. The only problem was that there weren’t any EMPTY seats, so I was constantly jockeying for position and trying to avoid getting caught. I had to crouch on the steps a couple times while I waited for the third outs to be recorded. And I was only down in the seats when there were two outs. The rest of the time? I was hiding in the field level concourse, trying not to go crazy from having a view like this:

view_during_game_4.jpg

Yup, that’s how I watched most of Game 4 of the World Series. Sad but true. Sometimes I climbed up and tried to look over everyone’s heads…

zack_trying_to_see.jpg

…but it never ceased to be annoying. Anyway, if I was willing to spend an entire World Series game (two games, in fact) last year outside the stadium without seeing a single pitch, you can be sure I was willing to do it here in Philly for the chance to remain on the field level and get a game-used ball with the Series logo.

Sadly, though, I kept getting blocked/dissed. The competition on the Phillies’ side was in-SANE. At one point, as I was reaching high up and leaning to my backhand side to catch a third-out ball tossed by Ryan Howard, someone grabbed my arm and yanked it down, causing me to fall over onto the people sitting next to me. (Maybe THAT’S when I bruised my arm.) I can’t even begin to describe how pissed off I was. The fact is, I would have caught that ball if I weren’t…violated. Yes, that’s the word.

The competition behind the home-plate end of the Rays’ dugout was nonexistent. There were a few times when I was the ONLY fan standing and shouting for the ball as Carlos Pena jogged in with it, and he ignored me each of those times and kept the ball for himself as he disappeared from sight. It was depressing.

One good thing that happened is that I found a couple of ticket stubs, including one in section 117 which was exactly where I needed to be for third-out balls on the Phillies’ side…

tickets_i_found_game_4.jpg

…but it didn’t make a difference. No luck. No love.

I was obviously rooting for the Phillies to lose, and yet if I were given the choice between a) the Rays winning by a small margin or b) the Phillies winning a laugher, I probably would’ve picked the latter. Even at the World Series, I’ve learned, fans WILL leave early, and I was in desperate need of empty seats.

Well, I got my seats in the bottom of the 8th when the Phillies scored four runs to open up a 10-2 lead. It wasn’t the way I envisioned it, but it gave me all the space I needed to maneuver down to the front row behind the Rays’ dugout to try to get a ball from home plate umpire Tom Hallion after the final out. Unfortunately, Hallion ignored me on his way in, and just like that…POOF!!!…my night ended without a World Series ball. On a lifetime list of disappointing moments at baseball games, that one ranks just behind my near miss of Ken Griffey Jr.’s 600th career home run. And then, to make matters worse, I ran into a kid who’d been competing with me for third-out balls all night…and he’d gotten one…THE final third-out ball…the ball that J.C. Romero used to strike out Rocco Baldelli to end the game. Carlos Ruiz had tossed it to him on the Phillies’ side. He was thoroughly excited, as he should’ve been, but I just wasn’t feeling it.

“I learned from the best,” he said, referring to me (and my blog), which was nice, but I was feeling so defeated at that point that I could only offer a weak “congrats.” I just wanted to go home. I wanted the season to end. A couple minutes earlier, I’d gotten my fourth ball of the day from Rays bullpen coach Bobby Ramos, but so what? It was another regular ball. All four of my balls at this game were regular. How sad…

four_balls_game_4.jpg

What a lousy way for a magical season to end.

STATS:

• 4 balls at this game

• 543 balls in 73 games this season = 7.4 balls per game.

• 569 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 4 consecutive World Series games with at least one ball

• 3,820 total balls