I brought a secret weapon for my third and final game at Disney, and to make myself stand out even more, I bought an obnoxious/eye-catching shirt on my way to Champion Stadium. Are you ready for this? Hang on tight. Here goes:
Yes, I had the biggest baseball glove that anyone had ever seen. Don’t ask me where I got it or how much it cost. I have no idea. All I can tell you is that a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous) sent it as a surprise house-warming gift when I moved last month.
There weren’t any other fans around when I pulled out the glove to take this pic, but several stadium employees ended up walking by and asking a bunch of questions: “Where’d you get that thing?” (I don’t know. A friend sent it to me.) “How much did it cost?” (Unlike you, I was polite enough not to ask.) “Is that Shaquille O’Neal’s glove?” (Actually it’s Verne Troyer’s chair.) “You wouldn’t happen to be compensating for something, would you?” (Ask my girlfriend.) “Is that real leather?” (I think so.) “Can you actually catch with that?” (Probably not.)
And so on. It was fun to get all that attention, and I was hoping that the players on the Rays and Blue Jays would notice me as well.
Shortly before the stadium opened, a 20-something-year-old guy walked over and introduced himself. His name was Brandon. He’d been reading this blog for a while and knew I was gonna be at this game. He’d written to me on MySpace a week earlier (here’s HIS profile) to say he’d be there too, but because I’m a slacker when it comes to that site, I hadn’t gotten the message…so he summarized it. Basically, he’s the photographer for a band called The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. They’re on tour. He’s traveling around with them. They were playing a few shows at Disney. He had an off day and was spending it here, and he offered to follow me around and take a ton of photos.
He didn’t miss a thing. He even got me going through the bag check:
Thankfully, unlike John Adams, the fan in Cleveland who brings a drum into the stadium, I didn’t have to buy an extra ticket for my oversized item.
The left field berm was dead as usual, and I don’t understand why. For the first 20 minutes, there was not ONE home run that landed there, and as I mentioned before, the slope of the hill and the height of the outfield wall made it impossible to see the warning track. At any regular major league stadium, fans would’ve been asking for the balls in the pic below, but here at Disney we were oblivious:
I didn’t use the big glove at first. I decided to snag like a normal person while the berm was still reasonably empty, and before long, I had a chance to catch one. Someone on the Rays hit a deep fly ball, and one of the pitchers (Edwin Jackson, I think) ran back and made the catch and disappeared from sight. In the four-part pic below, you can see exactly what happened next. Starting from the upper left and then going clockwise, we’re all reaching up with our gloves in anticipation of the ball being tossed over. Then, when the ball flies up in the air, we all jockey for position. On the lower left, I’m jumping and reaching unsuccessfully for the ball, and on the lower right, I’m landing and feeling both frustrated AND good about myself. Check out the pics, and then I’ll explain why…
Okay, see the little kid wearing blue who’s standing on my right? I knew he was standing there before the ball was tossed, so when it started sailing to my right…well, rather than moving in that direction and potentially bumping into him while getting under the ball, I sacrificed my own chance of catching it in order to prevent him from getting hurt. In other words, I didn’t move laterally. Instead I jumped straight up and reached to my right, and as it turned out, the ball missed my glove by six inches, but NO ONE GOT HURT. I can’t stress enough how important it is to respect the safety of the fans around you, especially when there are little kids involved. One of the reasons why I hate Yankee Stadium so much is that the “grown-ups” there are truly out of control. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been knocked down while reaching for balls just like this.
There still weren’t any homers being hit, and the berm was getting uncomfortably crowded, so I finally broke out the big glove:
I got a few laughs from the Blue Jays pitchers in the left field corner, but I realized this wasn’t the best time or place to harass them; they were just starting to throw (and therefore needed their baseballs), and the Rays were still hitting (so even if a ball had been hit to the Jays, it wouldn’t have been theirs to give away), so I ran around the stadium and found a spot in the right field corner. Dan Wheeler, a former Mets reliever who always used to talk to me at Shea Stadium, was out there and immediately recognized me.
“What’s up!” I yelled, holding the big glove up in the air.
“Can you fit all your balls in there?” he asked.
“Not quite,” I told him as another player (not sure who) walked over and asked me to toss the glove down.
“Let me try out that glove,” said the other player, “and I’ll give you a ball.”
I didn’t have to think twice about it. I tossed the glove over the railing (and briefly got scolded by a security guard until I informed him that one of the players ASKED me to do it), and the player with the glove headed back to straight-away right field and started posing:
Wheeler ended up being the one to reward me with a baseball, and Brandon took a pic JUST as I was about to catch it:
The snagging was underway, and life was good. (If you look closely at the pic below, you can see the mark on my nose where I was hit with a ball two days earlier.)
The Rays player (can anyone tell who it is?) tried fielding a few batted balls and then flung the glove back up to me:
I reached out and made another clean catch:
Shortly before the Rays’ wrapped up their portion of batting practice, I told Wheeler that if he got another ball and put it on the warning track below me, I’d show his teammates the glove trick and then give the ball to a kid of his choice.
Less than 10 seconds later, there was ball in place, but unfortunately, as soon as I started setting up my glove, the players had to run off the field and make way for the Blue Jays.
“Make sure you give it to a kid!” shouted Wheeler as he ran off.
“Don’t worry, I will!” I yelled and we both waved goodbye.
For some reason, my string was more tangled than ever before, but the trick still worked, and I reeled in the ball with ease:
There were a few kids to my right who asked for the ball, but they weren’t wearing gloves so I kept scanning the section. (I never give balls to kids without gloves. When I was a kid, I ALWAYS brought my glove to games and I remember how badly I wanted a ball. Even when I was starving and got my first hot dog of the day, I’d wait until the third out to eat it, and in the meantime, I was often standing on my chair and holding my glove high over my head and shrieking, “Hit it heeeeeeeeere!!!” so whenever I see a kid without a glove, it tells me he [or she] doesn’t care THAT much about getting a ball, and when I see a kid who IS wearing a glove, it reminds me of myself.) The smallest kid around happened to be wearing a glove, and even though he was wearing a Braves cap, I called him over and started walking down the steps. The kid started climbing over the benches, and his father was smiling in the background. It was a pretty cute scene:
I put on my Blue Jays cap and ran back to the berm. Not only was it still dead out there, but now I had to battle the sun:
Eventually there was a little action, but it just wasn’t happening for me. Jason Frasor threw me a ball and missed. Then another ball was tossed over my head, and I raced up the hill for it…
It didn’t help that I was carrying my backpack and the big glove, so I put them both down just behind the outfield wall, but that didn’t help either as I lost another race:
It was time once again for some Big Glove Love:
All the Blue Jays pitchers immediately spotted me and started cracking up. B.J. Ryan tossed me a ball (my third of the day) which I managed to catch IN the glove. This was quite an accomplishment. The glove was so big and heavy that it was impossible to close all the way. It was also a bit stiff, as new gloves tend to be. How am I supposed to break it in? Rubber-band it around a basketball and stick it under my mattress?
Moments later, Jeremy Accardo called me over to the foul pole, and when I got there, he said he wanted to use the big glove for a few minutes, and he offered me a ball in exchange. I couldn’t believe it. He’d already thrown me a ball each of the last two days, and now here he was asking ME for something and handing me another ball. Incredible.
We made the trade…
…and he took the glove into left field:
I was wearing my regular glove when he ran over and threw the big one back to me:
I made two jumping catches in the next ten minutes. The first was a ball that landed in the fenced-off gap next to the berm and was tossed up by a random employee. The second was a ball that rolled onto the warning track along the left field foul line and was thrown by Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos. Then I snagged two more balls from the bullpen with my glove trick, and I want to thank Jim from St. Louis (the guy wearing the Cardinals cap in the pics below) for pointing out the first one. It was about eight feet out from the wall, so before I rigged the glove with the Sharpie, I flung it out and tried to knock the ball back toward me:
It took longer than it should have…
…and I was almost certain that stadium security would appear and force me to stop, but they didn’t, and before long, I’d moved the ball close enough to lower the glove straight down over it:
The second bullpen ball (number eight on the day) was much easier. It was already sitting right next to the wall, and I had it in my glove within seconds:
Everyone stared as I headed to the dugout toward the end of BP…
…and as soon as I got there, the on-field photographer swung his camera around and started taking pics of me instead of the players:
My one complaint about Brandon is that he didn’t tell me that the tag was sticking out of my hat, but I suppose he was just doing his job. As a photographer, he’s probably just supposed to document history, not change it.
I ended up getting my ninth ball tossed at the dugout by some random kid who happened to be standing on the warning track. (Hey, it counts.)
I didn’t have any luck during pre-game throwing along the left field foul line…
…so I hurried over to the Rays’ dugout:
Did you notice the Rays smiling at me? Here’s a close-up of the pic above:
I didn’t think I was going to get a ball there because Carlos Pena, the Rays 1st baseman, was one of the last two guys throwing. First basemen rarely toss their pre-game warm-up balls into the crowd because they use them again when they actually take the field…but Pena couldn’t resist. If you look closely at the pic below, you can see him smiling too as he walked toward the dugout:
Look closely again at the following two pics and you can see the ball in mid-air. Here it is in front of the police officer’s right elbow…
…and here it is about to enter my glove. There are four holes in the pocket, and you can see the bottom half of the ball through the upper right hole:
I should’ve used two hands to squeeze the glove shut, but I didn’t and the ball popped out, so I had to grab it with my bare hand. Jonny Gomes (the player standing on the left, watching intently) was disappointed when I bobbled it and made me give the ball back to him so he could toss it again. He probably thought I was a complete klutz, and I don’t blame him because I *did* look shaky with the big glove, but I doubt he had any idea just how hard it was to use. Anyway, he’s not even a good fielder with a normal glove, so whatever, and for the record, I got the ball to stay in the glove when he tossed it back to me.
I ran into the Rays’ cheerleaders and let them be in a photo with me…
…and then I walked with Brandon to the open-air concourse along the right field foul line. I’d snagged a foul ball there during each of the previous two games, but it was dead for Game Three. It was so dead that I went outside the stadium for half-an inning, hoping that the hard-throwing Dustin McGowan would induce a few monstrous foul balls, but no. Still, I have two things to say about being out there:
1) Big thanks to Andrew (who also reads this blog) for letting me go out there. He was about to head outside as well but then generously changed his ball-snagging plan and let me go outside by myself.
2) Since I couldn’t see the batters or hear the PA announcer, and since the game wasn’t on the radio, I had no way of following the action, so Brandon stayed on the inside and called my cell phone and gave me the play-by-play. (“Here’s the pitch…NOW.”) Even though nothing came over, it was fun just to have an accomplice and make an attempt. And by the way, this was my view as I stood outside the stadium, looking up at the sky:
The game itself was fine. Nothing spectacular. (The highlight was hanging out with Brandon.) The Rays won, 5-3, to sweep the series and improve to 6-0 all time at Champion Stadium. McGowan took the loss. Andy Sonnanstine made a quality start to pick up the win. Carl Crawford went 3-for-5 with two stolen bases. Evan Longoria was 2-for-2 with a double and a triple. Troy Percival worked a scoreless ninth to earn his 328th career save, and that was pretty much it.
I’ll leave you with a few more pics that might be of interest. First, here’s a shot that Brandon took mid-game from the first base side…just a nice look at the stadium:
Here’s a pic I took of a table in the concourse that was loaded with free stuff, including magnetic schedules (on the far left) and vouchers for free tickets at Tropicana Field (on the right). If there’s anyone reading this who wants some vouchers, leave a comment or send me an email. I took a whole bunch of them to give away. (Do they give these out AT the Trop?) It’s nice of the Rays to give them out, but it’s also sad that a major league team literally can’t give away free tickets. FYI, you have to redeem them at the Rays’ box office, and they’re only good for weekend games in May and June.
Here’s a pic of the nine balls I kept:
I didn’t get anything after the game except a pack of sunflower seeds at the Blue Jays’
dugout and a free ride back to my hotel from a father/son snagging duo named Paul and Michael. So…another thanks to them. I can’t believe how many people I met on this trip who read this blog…Leigh from San Diego (aka “padreleigh”), Paul and Michael, Andrew, Jim from St. Louis, and Brandon. Am I forgetting anyone? Hope not.
I’m not sure when my next game will be. I might go to Shea on Monday. (Anyone else planning to be there?) I’ll probably (unfortunately) be going to Yankee Stadium Tuesday through Friday as long as the weather’s nice. I might head up to Boston for Manny’s 500th home run. I might go to Shea for Griffey’s 600th. I’m now officially planning to go to Coors Field this season (I have a few friends out there now, and there’s also a Denver-based writer who wants to do a story on me). I’ve also been offered a free trip to Wrigley Field. And has anyone heard about the Mets and Marlins playing in Puerto Rico later this season? Details, please! I might need to go and raise my stadium total to 45. Oh, and another random thing…I haven’t had time to answer comments for the last few days, but I’m planning to catch up very soon, so if you’re waiting for a response, keep an eye on my recent entries.
Last thing, I promise…
? 10 balls at this game
? 78 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
? 87 balls in 8 games this season = 10.875 balls per game.
? 504 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 112 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
? 801 lifetime balls outside of New York (The ball from the kid at the dugout was No. 800.)
? 3,364 total balls
Major League Baseball at a Spring Training ballpark…really, does it get any better than that?
In case you haven’t heard (or if you’re reading this ten years from now and don’t remember), the Tampa Bay Rays moved three of their regular season home games from ugly/indoor Tropicana Field to beautiful/outdoor Champion Stadium, located in Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. The stadium holds about 9,500 people. It normally functions as the Spring Training home of the Atlanta Braves. I don’t count Spring Training balls in my collection, but I decided that if the games and stats count in the Major Leagues, then the balls should count for me.
This was my first of the three games. The first pitch was scheduled for 7:10pm, so naturally I arrived at the complex shortly after 12pm:
…and when I walked up the stairs way in the background in the photo above, I noticed that one of the gates was wide open. What to do…hmm. I figured that since I already had a ticket for the game, I couldn’t be arrested for sneaking in. Yes…I’d just play dumb and say I was from New York…no, bad idea…I don’t know. I just had to wander inside and take a peek…just a little peek at the concourse:
and decided it wouldn’t cause any harm if I took a little peek at that as well:
That’s when a group of stadium employees walked over…and smiled at me…and asked if I wanted them to take my picture. Seriously?! I felt pretty safe after that, so I kept wandering and I inspected the grassy area (aka the “berm”) from several angles:
I couldn’t WAIT for batting practice to start, but I was also afraid that it’d get pretty crowded out there. Anyway, there was still more wandering to do, so I checked out the upper deck…
…and the view from the inner concourse on the lower level…
…and the drool-inducing, open-air concourse along the right field foul line:
I didn’t know where else to go at that point. I considered running onto the field and making naked snow-angels at shortstop (I guess those would’ve been “dirt-angels”) but thought that might be pushing it, so I just grabbed some bench and watched the b
atting cage get towed into place:
Then the groundskeepers started watering the infield dirt and players started walking in. Can you identify the two guys in the pic below?
I could’ve easily run down to the front row and asked them to sign, but it didn’t seem right. I wasn’t even supposed to be there, and since I’m more interested in getting baseballs than autographs, I decided it wasn’t worth it. I was just thrilled to BE there:
I voluntarily walked out of the stadium at around 2pm, and soon after that, I ran into a guy from San Diego named Leigh (aka “padreleigh” for those of you who read the comments) who had told me he was gonna be there. We’d been emailing for months. He was actually the one who first informed me that the tickets for this series were on sale…and this was the first time we’d ever met in person. Very cool guy. It was great to have an instant new friend.
The stadium didn’t open until 5pm (ugh!), by which time there was a disappointingly long line of fans waiting to get in:
At least I was one of the first fans to run inside and THE first fan to reach the berm. Look what was waiting for me:
Less than ten seconds later, B.J. Upton smoked a line drive over the left field wall and I picked up that ball too. Not a bad way to start, but then the berm started filling up.
Before long the berm was packed, and to make matters worse, the Rays and Jays weren’t hitting much over the wall, so I had to use other methods…like the glove trick. I used it to pluck a ball out of the bullpen near the foul pole, and as soon as I held it up to show Leigh (who was at the far end of the berm), a security guard marched down the hill and said, “Give me the ball.”
I had no choice but to hand it over.
“Thank you,” he said condescendingly before flinging it back into the bullpen.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to count this ball in my collection, so I consulted Leigh (who’s snagged about 700 lifetime balls). He felt I should absolutely count it. “You had it in your hand,” he said, then added that when you go fishing and catch a fish and throw it back, it still counts. So I counted it.
Back in my early days of ball-snagging, I only counted balls that I actually brought home, but once I started giving away balls on a regular basis, I decided that the number of “balls snagged” was more important than “balls owned.”
I got my fourth ball of the day when some pitcher lobbed one high into the air toward a bunch of us on the berm. We all jostled and jumped and booted it. The ball plopped onto the grass beside me and I snatched it. Pretty simple. I have no idea who the pitcher was because the left field wall was a foot too high. This was my view when I stood directly behind it:
Not only was it a challenge to identify the players, but it was just as hard to get their attention when they walked onto the warning track. I got my fifth ball thrown from a distance by Scott Downs–that was easy–but then when Blue Jays pitching coach Brad Arnsberg walked over to retrieve a loose ball, I had to jump up and put my right arm on the top of the wall and support all my weight with it while keeping my head above the top of the wall and reaching out with my glove hand. The padding sagged and the tips of the chain-link fence dug into my forearm. Not fun. But at least I got the ball, and thankfully security didn’t confiscate it although a different guard walked down the hill and told me not to climb up there. (Well then don’t build a seven-foot wall that fans are obviously gonna want to see over, geniuses.)
I was getting baseballs…that was good…but I still hadn’t caught a home run. It was tough. The berm was steep and the
grass was slick, and there were fans all over the place, including a bunch of guys my age/size with gloves. At one point, when a homer was coming right toward me and I tried to take a step back, someone pushed me forward. And whenever a ball was heading for the berm 20 or 30 or 50 feet away, there were already people right there. It was not a good situation and things took a sudden turn for the worse toward the end of BP. Another home run was coming right toward me, and as I reached up to make what should’ve been an easy catch, some jerk cut in front of me and stuck up his glove at the last second and deflected the ball right into my nose. CRACK!!! I heard the scary sound of the ball meeting my face, and I nearly fell over from the sheer surprise of getting hit. Blood started dripping out of my right nostril, and everyone gathered around. My first thought was, “[Expletive deleted], I hope it’s not broken.” My second thought was, “This is really [expletive deleted] embarrassing. People are going to think that *I* missed the [expletive deleted] ball and let it hit me. My third thought was, “[Expletive deleted] this, I don’t want to miss any BP,” so when the same guard who’d scolded me walked back down the hill and asked me if I wanted to go to the first aid room, I wiped the blood away and said I’d wait until the end of batting practice.
Jeremy Accardo saw what had happened and got my attention and threw me a ball (my 7th of the day), and as soon as I caught it, some guy behind me started claiming that the ball had been intended for a little girl with a glove directly behind me (soooooo not true) but whatever. She hadn’t yet gotten a ball, so I gave it to her.
BP ended moments later. Leigh caught up with me as I was escorted to the first-aid room and told me my nose was already looking bad. (Thanks.) I got some gauze and held it against my nose until the bleeding stopped, then got a cold pack and held it there for the next 20 minutes, during which I probably cursed about 813 times. I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and my nose did indeed look bad. (I had been told that in addition to possibly having a broken nose, I might wake up the next day with two black eyes. Thankfully that didn’t happen; the dark circles I now have under my eyes are merely the result of exhaustion.)
I got a buffalo chicken sandwich (with ranch dressing). My nose hurt when I chewed. I stopped eating and realized it still hurt, so I kept eating.
I finished the sandwich just before the singing of the national anthems and went down to the Rays’ dugout on the 1st base side. A few guys were playing catch. Jason Bartlett ended up with the ball just in front of me, and when I asked him for it, he scanned the entire front row for someone younger/cuter to toss it to, then reluctantly flipped it to me after he failed to spot a more deserving recipient. Meanwhile, the competition for a warm-up ball on the other side of the stadium was truly insane:
Okay, so there were only 8,269 fans at this game, but since the stadium only holds 9,500…well, let’s do the math. It means the stadium was 87 percent full. If Shea Stadium were 87 percent full, there’d be about 48,000 fans, and that’s what this felt like. The point is…it wasn’t nearly as easy to snag at Champion Stadium as I’d hoped. In fact, it was harder to snag here than at most major league stadiums which are huge and have nooks and crannies and which provide a variety of opportunities. This place? As far as BP was concerned, it was boring and crowded and challenging.
The game, however, was much better. I went back to the concourse on the right field side:
David Eckstein was first batter of the game, and on the fifth pitch from Rays starter James Shields, the little man sliced a foul ball about 30 feet to my left. I raced over, got right behind it, watched it skip off the bare hands of a man just in front of me, and bounce into my waiting glove. Mwahaha. I suddenly felt a whole lot better about life, although I was bummed that the ball was not commemorative. Wouldn’t it have been cool if there was a little Mickey Mouse in place of the standard MLB logo? Oh well.
It might’ve happened in the bottom of the first inning, or maybe it was the top of the second, but regardless, some right-handed batter hit a foul ball that cleared the grandstand behind the plate and flew out of the stadium. As soon as I saw this, I headed out there myself (thumbs-up to Disney and the Rays for having a re-entry policy) and tried going for foul balls, but it wasn’t meant to be. First of all, the game wasn’t on the radio so I couldn’t follow the action on the walkman (yes, a walkman, don’t laugh too hard) that I’d borrowed from someone who shall remain nameless, and on top of that, I couldn’t even hear the public address announcer saying the hitters’ names, so I didn’t know if there were righties or lefties up at bat. I got bored really fast and headed back inside to the right field concourse.
Leigh wandered over (from his spot on the berm) and hung out with me for an inning, and we re-enacted my injury:
That, unfortunately, was the extent of the action for the rest of the game. I couldn’t believe how few foul balls were hit to the right side, but at least I broke double digits by getting a ball at the Rays’ dugout after the game. (Oh yeah, the Rays won, 6-4.) I think it was tossed by J.P. Howell but I’m not sure.
I’ll be heading back to Champion Stadium in about an hour…
• 10 balls at this game
• 77 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 70 balls in 6 games this season = 11.7 balls per game.
• 502 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 110 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 784 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 22 lifetime game balls outside of New York (not counting game-used balls that are thrown into the seats)
• 113 lifetime game balls
• 4 lifetime trips to the First Aid room
• 44 major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 17 stadiums with at least one game ball
• 3,347 total balls