Tagged: dugout

5/19/10 at Turner Field

The day got off to a great start, and it had nothing to do with baseball: I saw my very first girlfriend for the first time in 14 years, and it wasn’t awkward at all. We met in the lobby of my hotel, went out for a three-hour lunch, and pretty much just caught up and laughed about the past. I was in such a good mood after seeing her that nothing else mattered. Batting practice at Turner Field? Whatever. Baseball was the last thing on my mind — that is, until I walked over to the stadium and met up with my friend Matt Winters:

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(In case you’re new to this blog, I’m the guy on the left.)

That helped get me back into snagging mode. My goal for the day was to get at least six baseballs. That’s what I needed to reach 4,500, and thanks to the dreamlike configuration of the left field stands…

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…I knew it wouldn’t be hard. It was more a question of how than if.

My first two balls of the day were home runs hit by right-handed batters on the Braves. I’m not sure who. All I can tell you is that the first one landed near me in the seats, and I caught the second one on the fly.

That’s when I encountered my first challenge of the day. Another batter hit a homer that happened to land in the gap behind the outfield wall. I figured I’d be able to snag it with my glove trick, but before I could get there, some old guy snagged it with his own funky-looking device. Here he is holding it up:

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It’s a gigantic roll of duct tape — with additional tape inside the center hole to make the ball stick. On the other side (where the guy is holding it), there was a big/clunky object attached to it, presumably to help weigh the whole thing down.

As it turned out, this guy was one of a dozen fans who’d brought devices into the stadium. There were devices everywhere. It was nuts. Some people even dangled them over the wall in anticipation.

Somehow, I managed to beat the competition and use my glove trick to snag my third ball of the day. I handed that one to the nearest kid, and two minutes later, I sprung into glove-trick action once again.

That’s when I encountered (or rather created) another challenge. In my haste to get down to the front row, I rolled my left ankle on the edge of a step, and let me tell you, it hurt like HELL. I felt a sharp twinge on the outside of my foot, and for a moment, I thought I wasn’t gonna be able to walk for the next two weeks. It was one of those “what did I just do to myself” injuries; I knew it was bad, but I wasn’t sure just how bad, so I decided that as long as I could still stand, I might as well proceed down to the front row and try to snag the ball — and yes, I did end up getting it.

My ankle really hurt after that…

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…but the pain was bearable as long as I ran in straight lines and changed direction slowly.

My fifth ball of the day was another home run (not sure who hit it), and the catch itself was anything but routine. I was cutting through the second row to my right. The ball was heading toward a teenaged kid in the front row. It was going to be an easy chest-high catch for him, so I didn’t expect to have a chance. That said, I still stuck my glove out for a potential catch in case he missed it, and at the last second, I jerked my head to the side so that I wouldn’t get drilled in the face by a potential deflection. Well, wouldn’t you know it? The kid somehow managed to miss the ball. I mean, he completely whiffed — didn’t even get any leather on it — and I ended up making a no-look, thigh-high catch while running through the seats on a sprained ankle.

That was the 4,499th ball of my life. The next one was going to be a fairly significant milestone, so I wanted it to be special.

Another home run was hit toward the same kid. I was standing right behind him at the time, and while the ball was in mid-air, I could have easily climbed down into the front row and reached in front of him — but I didn’t want to interfere with his chance at redemption, so I hung back in the second row. This is how it played out:

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The ball smacked the pocket of his glove and jerked his wrist back, but he hung onto it, and everyone cheered and congratulated him.

Toward the end of the Braves’ portion of BP, a ball cleared the wall and landed in front of the visitors’ bullpen down the left field line. It sat there for a minute, so I ran over to the seats in foul territory, thinking that I might be able to snag it with my glove trick. Once I got there, I realized that the ball was trapped underneath a bench. There was no way for me to reach it, and even if it had been sitting right below me, there wouldn’t have been time. A security guard was about to retrieve it. Here he is with the ball in his hand:

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There were several other fans asking for it, so he decided to give it away in the fairest way possible: he asked when everyone’s birthday was. As soon as I said “September fourteenth,” he tossed me the ball.

“When’s your birthday?” I asked.

“September twelfth,” he replied.

“Cool, thanks so much,” I said, and then I asked, “Can I take a picture of the ball with you in the background?”

Either he didn’t hear me or he simply ignored me because he promptly exited the bullpen and began walking toward the infield. Meanwhile, I wanted to fully document my 4,500th ball, so I “chased” after him:


(It wasn’t exactly a high-speed chase.)

In the photo above, he had stopped walking for a moment to shout something to another guard in the bullpen, and then moments later, he continued marching ahead. I pulled out my camera, and this was the only photo I got:

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Meh. A little blurry. But at least it captured the “excitement” of the moment. (It’s fun to put “random” words in quotes. I should “do” this more often.)

Here’s a better photo of the ball itself:

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Now that my milestone was out of the way, my goal was to snag four more balls and reach double digits.

When the Braves cleared the field, I headed over toward their dugout on the first base side, and I wasn’t allowed past this point:

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If you look closely at the photo above, you can kinda see that the arrow is pointing to an extra chair in the front row — a little folding chair with slats on the back. That’s how stadium security marks its arbitrary cut-off line; if you don’t have a ticket for the seats beyond that point, you can’t go there, even during batting practice. Matt and I had tickets in the 3rd row behind the 3rd base dugout, and yet we weren’t allowed anywhere near the 1st base dugout. It’s such a bad policy — so thoroughly asinine and misguided and anti-fan — but what could I do? I had to stay there and SHOUT REALLY LOUD to get Terry Pendleton’s attention. He was standing all the way over near the home-plate end of the dugout. I didn’t think he’d even look up, but to my surprise, he finally turned and threw a ball all the way to me. (Take THAT, stadium security!!)

I headed over to the left field foul line when the Reds started throwing…

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…and didn’t get a single ball there. What’s up with that? I was decked out in Reds gear and still got ignored by all the players. Good thing there were a few batters hitting bombs to left-center field — and get this, they were left-handed. Although I’m not sure who was in the cage, I’m pretty certain it was Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. (Maybe Laynce Nix, too?) My eighth and ninth balls of the day were homers that landed in the seats. Here I am scrambling for one of them:

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This was my view straight ahead:

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See that kid in the front row with the arrow pointing to him? He was standing there because I told him to. Two minutes earlier, he had asked me a for a ball, and I said, “Don’t ask ME. Ask the players. Stand in the front row, and when a ball rolls near you, ask them politely for it.”

This was the view to my right:

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See the man with the arrow pointing to him? He overheard my exchange with the kid and asked me, “How many balls do you have?”

He seemed friendly — I’m usually pretty good at determining when someone is asking me just for the purpose of starting an argument — so I told him.

“Nine?!” he asked. “Do you think that’s fair?!”

“Well,” I said calmly, “considering that I give away a lot of balls to kids and also do this to raise money for charity, yeah, actually I do think it’s fair.”

The guy was speechless. He just nodded and walked back over to his spot…however…when I caught my 10th ball of the day less than a minute later — another homer by one of the Reds’ lefties — he was not too happy about it.

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The kid in the front row turned around and started begging me all over again for a ball. I pointed at the field and told him, “You should be focusing on the players, not on me.” And guess what happened soon after? Arthur Rhodes tossed a ball to the kid, who was so excited that he ran back and showed me.

“Now see?” I asked. “Wasn’t that better than getting a ball from me?”

“YES!!!” he shouted with a huge smile on his face.

I looked over at the man who’d been giving me a hard time, and I shrugged. He was still stewing. And then, five minutes later, I used my glove trick to snag a ball from the gap and gave that one away to another kid. I don’t even think the man saw that, and I don’t care.

That was my 11th ball of the day, and batting practice was almost done, so I ran (gingerly) to the 3rd base dugout. None of the players or coaches gave me a ball, but some random equipment-manager-type-guy was dumping all the balls from the bucket into a zippered bag. I got his attention and convinced him to toss one to me, and man, it was a beauty. Here are two different photos of it:

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Not only was there a big/diagonal/striped/green mark on it, and not only was the word “practice” stamped in a bizarre spot, but the logo was stamped too low. See how the word “commissioner” overlaps the stitch holes? I once snagged a ball with the logo stamped too high, and I also once snagged one with the logo stamped crookedly, but these are just a few examples out of thousands of balls, so you can see how rare it is.

I wandered for a bit after BP…

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…and made it back to the dugout just in time for the national anthem:

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Is that an amazing sight or what? I’ve never seen groundskeepers keep the hose on their shoulders during the playing of the song.

Reds third base coach Mark Berry tossed me a ball after the second inning, and in the bottom of the third, I headed up the steps to meet a 13-year-old kid from Atlanta named Evan. He’d been reading this blog for years, but we’d never met in person, and now finally, for the first time, we were at the same game together. I was planning to head over to the tunnels behind the plate and play for foul balls, but because he and his dad met me in the cross-aisle behind the dugout, I lingered there for a couple minutes to chat. Well, as luck would have it, while were were all standing around, Brian McCann fouled off a pitch from Aaron Harang and sent the ball flying 20 feet to my left. I took off after it (what sprained ankle?) and watched helplessly as it landed in a staircase just behind me. Thankfully, there was no one there, and the ball didn’t take a crazy bounce. Instead, it trickled down into the aisle, where I was able to grab it. Ha-HAAAA!!! The whole thing never would’ve happened if not for Evan, so he gets the unofficial assist. Here we are together:


Evan has snagged approximately 300 balls. (He doesn’t have an exact count, but he owns 295 and has given a few away.) That’s an impressive number at any age, let alone 13. When I turned 13, I had a lifetime total of four baseballs. He and I hung out after that, first behind the plate, then with Matt behind the dugout, but there were no more balls to be snagged.

The game itself was very entertaining. Braves starter Kenshin Kawakami, who began the night with an 0-6 record and a 5.79 ERA, pitched six scoreless innings and left with a 4-0 lead. Unfortunately for him, his countryman, Takashi Saito, gave up three runs in the top of the eighth, and then Billy Wagner surrendered a solo shot in the ninth to pinch hitter Chris Heisey. With the score tied, 4-4, in the the bottom of the ninth, Martin Prado hit a two-out single, and Jason Heyward plated him with a line-drive double into the right-field corner.

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Game over. Final score: Braves 5, Reds 4.

Heyward finished 3-for-5 with two doubles, a triple, and two runs scored. This guy is the real deal. He has unbelievably quick bat speed and a beautiful swing. He’s 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and he’s 20 years old! He has blazing speed, too, and he seems pretty solid in the field. I won’t pronounce him a future Hall of Famer just yet, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t end up having a very good/long major league career. Wagner, by the way, two months shy of his 39th birthday, was consistently hitting 98mph on the gun. (I’ve never felt so athletically inadequate, but damn, these guys were fun to watch.)

After the game, I said goodbye to Evan (who got the lineup cards), then met a guy named Glenn Dunlap (who runs a company called Big League Tours), and caught up with another friend named Matt (who you might remember from 5/17/10 at Turner Field).

On my way out of the stadium, I took a photo of the empty seats…

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…and walked past the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame…

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…which was now closed.

Oh well.

I’m not a museum person anyway. (I’m more of a doer than a looker.)

Five minutes later, this is what I was doing just outside Turner Field:

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No, I wasn’t bowing down to my baseballs as part of a religious ritual; I had my camera in my hands, and I was trying to angle it just right in order to take one last photo. Keep reading past the stats to see how it turned out…

SNAGGING STATS:

• 14 balls at this game (12 pictured below because I gave two away)

• 150 balls in 14 games this season = 10.7 balls per game.

• 643 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 138 lifetime game balls (125 foul balls, 12 home runs, and one ground-rule double; this does NOT include game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)

• 126 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 60 lifetime games outside of New York with at least 10 balls

• 4,508 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 34 donors (click here and scroll down to see the complete list)

• $5.20 pledged per ball (if you add up all 34 pledges)

• $72.80 raised at this game

• $780.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Bye, Turner Field. Thanks for being so awesome. I’m gonna miss you…

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5/2/10 at Progressive Field

Sunny days without batting practice are the worst. This is what I saw when I arrived at the stadium and peeked through the left field gate:

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I took my time walking over to Gate C (on the right field side). There were a couple dozen fans when I got there. Normally, I try to make sure that I’m the first one to enter, but in this case it didn’t matter, so I waited patiently as everyone filed into the stadium ahead of me:

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This was my first look at the field:

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Yawn.

Moments after I made it down to the front row, I heard a voice from behind say my name. I turned around and saw a familiar face. It was a guy from Akron, Ohio named Dan Cox. He and I had met once before on 6/17/08 at Coors Field. (That was the day that a reporter and photographer from the Associated Press were following me around, and Dan actually ended up with his picture in the article. If you click here, you can see him in the top photo standing just over my left shoulder with a red shirt.) We kept in touch, and he recently told me that he was going to attend this game. Here we are:

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Oh yeah, I should probably mention that I snagged two baseballs. Several Twins pitchers had come out to play catch, and when they were finishing, I convinced Jesse Crain to hook me up by telling him that I had a good knuckleball and wanted to show him. He threw me

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a mediocre knuckler and then waved toward himself with his glove as if to say, “C’mon, let’s see what you got.” I threw him my best knuckler, which turned out to be as bad as his (oops), and it kept going from there. We played catch for about 30 seconds, throwing nothing but so-so knuckleballs. Unfortunately, it all happened so fast that by the time I thought about handing my camera to Dan, it was too late. Then, two minutes later, Crain saw one of his teammates — I’m not sure who — toss me another ball. Before Crain could protest, I told him that I would give it to a kid, and I kept my promise.

Gate C had opened at 11:30am. The rest of the stadium opened at noon, and when it did, Dan and I moved to the left field foul line. I positioned myself in the front row while Kevin Slowey (pictured below with his leg up) played catch with Scott Baker:

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Dan stayed a couple rows back, and at one point, I turned around to look at him. This is what I saw:

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Yeah, there was a ball just sitting there. There were even a few other fans nearby, but no one saw it. I moved toward it slowly and picked it up. No one noticed. I showed Dan, and we both shrugged.

Once the players cleared the field, it was time to wander and take pics. I started by walking through the cross-aisle toward the left field corner:

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The aisle isn’t great for foul balls because, as you can see, it’s tucked slightly under the overhang of the second deck. That said, foul balls do shoot back there behind the plate.

I headed to the upper deck…

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…and walked through the concourse…

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…and then went down to the front row. Check out the third base dugout:

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See that red area right behind it? No, it’s not a carpet. It’s just painted concrete, but it’s still pretty cool and functions like a cross-aisle. The seats behind it are very exclusive. It’s the “Mercedes Benz Front Row,” and you can’t go there without a ticket.

I walked up to the last row directly behind home plate…

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…and then took a couple photos, which I later combined to make a panorama:

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On my way back down to the Home Run Porch in left field, I poked my head into the suite level. Check it out:

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There was so much room to run during the game. I was in heaven. For left-handed batters, I alternated between the seats on the third base side…

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…and in right-center:

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For all righties, I stood toward the back of the Home Run Porch. This was my view:

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(That’s Dan standing in front of me with the glove.)

The view was not as bad as you might think. I could actually see the batters in between the people standing at the front. Here’s a close-up of the previous photo. It’ll show you what I mean:

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In the top of the 5th inning, Jim Thome connected on his 569th career home run, tying him with Rafael Palmeiro (BOO!!!) for 11th place all time. The ball landed in a gap directly behind the wall in dead center. Here’s a photo of that area from above:

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If the ball had traveled five feet farther, it would have landed in the trees, and I might have been able to reach under the fence for it on the lower level of Heritage Park. But no, Chris Perez walked over from the Indians’ bullpen and picked it up, and that was the end of it.

Here’s a photo of the Home Run Porch from above:

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Is that beautiful or what? It doesn’t matter if your ticketed seat is in the last row of the upper deck. If you want to hang out on the Porch, you’re welcome to do so. Bravo, Indians, for making the fan experience so laid-back and positive. (As for the quality of the team, that’s another story.)

Have you heard about the Indians fan who sits in the last row of the bleachers and bangs a drum? (That sounds like the opening line of a joke, but I’m being serious.) He’s been going to games forever, and he’s done lots of interviews of the years. The reason why I’m mentioning him is that I went up there to say hello. Here he is focusing on the game…

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…and here I am with him:

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His name is John Adams, and he’s a legend. This was his 2,917th game. He has missed just 37 games in 36 years. I asked if the Indians still make him buy an extra seat for his drum. He said it’s not an issue because he has four season tickets. I asked if the Indians ever told him not to bang the drum when the ball is in play or if that’s his own decision. He said he decided on his own out of respect for the game. I asked if he ever snagged a home run ball that landed on a staircase and bounced all the way to the back row. The answer is no. Anyway, go say hi to him if you’re ever at Progressive Field. He’s incredibly friendly and chatty, and he told me that he enjoys the opportunity to talk to so many people.

I was back on the Porch in the bottom of the 7th, when Asdrubal Cabrera lifted a deep fly ball down the line. I drifted forward to the railing at the front. The ball was coming…coming…and I had it lined up perfectly. It was going to be the easiest catch ever, but dammit, it ended up falling about ten feet short and bouncing high off the wall for a double. Here’s a screen shot that shows the action:

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The UP arrow is pointing at me, the LEFT arrow is pointing at Dan, and the DOWN arrow is pointing to a fan who’s really, really, really into the game. I love it. It’s like a full-body maneuver to peek around the wall from that little nook.

The Twins won the game, 8-3, behind a solid, seven-inning performance by Francisco Liriano. Catcher Wilson Ramos, filling in for the injured Joe Mauer, went 4-for-5 in his major league debut. Delmon Young also went 4-for-5 (with a homer) as Minnesota combined for 20 hits.

I ended up getting one more ball after the game behind the Twins’ dugout. I don’t know who provided it. It was flipped up randomly from under the roof. So…I ended the day with four balls — fewer balls than the winning team had runs — which means I took my first “loss” of the season. At 3-1, my Ballhawk Winning Percentage is now .750.

SNAGGING STATS:

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• 4 balls at this game (3 pictured on the right because I gave one away)

• 38 balls in 4 games this season = 9.5 balls per game.

• 633 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 4,396 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 25 donors (click here and scroll down to see who has pledged)

• $2.91 pledged per ball (if you add up all 25 pledges)

• $11.64 raised at this game

• $110.58 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Taking batting practice at PNC Park

The best thing that happened on my birthday this year was NOT snagging 22 balls at Camden Yards. Not even close. The highlight was receiving the following email from my friend Erik Jabs:

Zack,
I remember you writing that one day you’d like to take BP on a major league field.

PNC Park is having a season ticket holder batting practice on Tuesday,
Oct 6. It’s a regular BP with the cages and screens and everything.
They also use MLB balls, and you can elect to use players’ game bats.

I’d you’d like to, you’re welcome to be my guest and take BP on that day.

I wrote a little about it last year when my blog was beginning:
http://countingbaseballs.mlblogs.com/archives/2008/09/92408_pnc_park_season_ticket_h.html

Let me know,
Erik

Three weeks after I received this email, I flew to Pittsburgh with my mom (who came along just to watch) and my friend Brandon (who took all the photos you’re about to see)…

Here I am walking into PNC Park with Erik and a few of his friends:

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This was my reaction after stepping onto the field:

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It was nine o’clock in the morning. The sun was bright, but the grass was still wet, and it was only 49 degrees — not ideal conditions to jack one over the fence, but I was hopeful.

There were only about 100 people in our 9am-11am group, and we all gathered in the stands for the welcome speech:

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The speaker thanked us for supporting the Pirates in 2009 (You’re welcome!) and explained a few basic things about how our three-group session on the field was going to be run:

Group One would be hitting first…

Group Two would be free to roam anywhere on the field and shag baseballs…

Group Three would start by lining up on the warning track in right field and catching fly balls that were going to be fired from a pitching machine…

I was in Group Three, which meant that all the balls were going to be soggy by the time I stepped into the cage. It also meant that I had to break the rules for a couple minutes and play catch at shortstop:

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The rules, it should be noted, were not strictly enforced. Some people from Group Two made a beeline for the right field warning track, while others in Group Three (like me and Erik) wandered all over the place.

Here I am with Erik:

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(Erik is 6-foot-4.)

The fly ball machine was positioned on the infield dirt behind first base:

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It wasn’t THAT exciting to catch routine 200-foot fly balls fired from a machine, especially when I had to wait in line for five minutes between each one. What WAS exciting was simply being on the field:

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Quite simply, it was a dream come true.

Finally, after more than an hour, Group Three was called in to hit. I raced to the front of the line and grabbed an aluminum bat that belonged to one of Erik’s friends. I could’ve used wood — there were more than a dozen players’ bats lying around — but I decided I’d go with metal until I put one out.

Unfortunately, that never happened (and here’s where I make tons of excuses)…

In addition to the balls being damp, I had to hit off a pitching machine that was firing most of the balls shoulder-high. Also, the late-morning sun was shining right in my eyes from straight-away center field. In addition, I only got eight pitches, which included my bunt to start the round as well as another pitch that I took moments later because it was head-high. There were so many people waiting to hit, and the guys feeding the machine were in such a rush to get me out of the cage that they only gave me three seconds between each swing to get ready for the next one. It was like, “Hurry up and have your fun and get the hell out.” (But don’t get me wrong: it WAS fun.)

Here I am taking a mighty cut at one of the only belt-high pitches I saw:

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Although, as I mentioned above, I didn’t hit a ball out of the park, I did manage to hit a line drive that bounced onto the warning track. If the ball weren’t damp and heavy, it might’ve gone out, and if I’d swung about an eighth of an inch lower, it definitely would’ve gone out.

After everyone in Group Three got their eight-pitches (no one in any group even came close to hitting one out), we each got to jump back in the cage for a four-pitch lightning round. Brandon wandered out behind the mound and took the following photo of me at the plate:

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Same result:
Damp balls.
Too high.
Good swings.
Totally rushed.
Decent contact.
No homers.
Major frustration.

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It was exhilarating to get to take BP on a major league field, and
while it certainly went down as I expected, it wasn’t anything like
what I’d dreamt of so many times. In my own personal FantasyLand, I
have a stadium all to myself. The grass is dry. It’s 82
degrees. Leon Feingold is pitching BP fastballs to me with pearls, and of course I’m hitting the crap out of them.

Former big league pitcher Rick Reuschel was hanging around near the batting cage. He and I talked for a minute and then had our picture taken.

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(In my next life, I’m going to be 6-foot-7.)

Here I am with a gentleman named Nick Pelescak: 

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Nick is:

1) a friend of Erik’s
2) a Pirates season ticket holder
3) the owner of the metal bat I’d used
4) a member of the Ballhawk League
5) a good ballplayer
6) a great guy

As you can see in the photo above, Nick brought his copy of Watching Baseball Smarter for me to sign…which I did…with an extra big smile because it was the most worn-out/well-appreciated copy of the book that I’d ever seen. Nick told me he’d read it several times and underlined his favorite parts, which turned out to be half the stuff in it. Check out this two-page spread in the “Umpires” chapter:

13_book_underlined.jpg

The whole book looked like that.

It was lunchtime. Our two-hour session on the field had ended.

We entertained ourselves at the speed-pitch booth:

14_group_speed_pitch.jpg

In the photo above, that’s me on the left, Nick on the right, and Nick’s younger brother Bryan in the middle. Bryan (who’s just 16 years old) threw the fastest pitch of the day at 73mph.

Then it was time to eat:

15_lunch_at_pnc_park.jpg

And then we wandered back down to the field:

16_heading_back_to_the_field.jpg

Thanks to a not-so-secret loophole in the system, we all got to head back onto the field. Here I am, waiting for my turn to hit:

17_zack_waiting_to_hit.jpg

See the batting glove I’m wearing in the photo above? On this fine day in Pittsburgh, I decided to use Jeromy Burnitz’s batting gloves — the ones he tossed to me in 2004 at Shea Stadium. (Here’s my whole collection of batting gloves, in case you care.)

There were a dozen helmets lying around next to the cage…

18_helmets_at_pnc_park.jpg

…and none of them fit.

These were some of the bats:

19_bats_at_pnc_park.jpg

I took my eight swings with Nick’s metal bat…

20_zack_hitting_at_pnc_park.jpg

…and finished up with Jose Bautista’s wood bat. No homers. But I hit some deep fly balls and got a compliment from former Pirate John Wehner. Here I am with him:

21_zack_and_john_wehner.jpg

Wehner said that even HE wouldn’t have been able to hit a home run with such bad balls. (I wish I had a photo of the balls, but since I don’t, let me just say this: the worst ball that you could possibly catch during BP at a major league game would be better than any ball I was invited to hit at PNC Park.) He might’ve just been saying that to make me feel better…but then again, he did only hit four career homers in the big leagues…but no, it was nice to hear.

Brandon and I wandered out to the bullpens. Here I am on the mound:

22_zack_bullpen_mound.jpg

Here I am on the bench:

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Here’s a sign that was on the wall out there:

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Here I am clowning around on the warning track (robbing a…double?) with Bryan looking on:

25_zack_jumping_at_wall.jpg

Brandon and my mom and I were going to have to leave for the airport soon, so I spent my remaining time catching fly balls from the pitching machine.

Here I am getting ready to catch one:

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Here I am losing my footing on another:

27_zack_slipping_on_grass.jpg

(We were not allowed to wear spikes or cleats.)

I failed to catch that particular ball and ended up like this:

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Good times!

Here’s one final photo of me and mom before we headed out:

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are awesome for letting their season ticket holders take over the field for a day. By comparison, the New York Mets “rewarded” their season ticket holders by letting
them run the bases (for 20 seconds) after the final game of the season.

I have to end this entry with a BIG thank you to Erik for giving me the opportunity to do this. Check out his blog. He should have an entry up about it soon. Also…thanks to Brandon for taking all the photos.

10/4/09 at Citi Field

This was the final game of the regular season, and I was there for one reason only: to snag a piece of equipment after the game at the winning team’s dugout. There was no guarantee that this would happen, but since it WAS the last day, I knew that the players would be extra generous.

Unfortunately, since it was a day game and both teams were mailing it in, there was no batting practice…BUT…the lack of action did give me a chance to hang out with half a dozen of my fellow ballhawks:

1_zack_and_fellow_snaggers

Pictured from left to right: Conner (whom I met on 4/18/09 at Yankee Stadium), Joe (a former Watch With Zack client who combined to snag 22 balls with me on 5/8/09 at Citi Field), Alex (whom I met at Game 4 of the 2008 World Series), me, another Alex (who you might remember from 8/17/09 at Citi Field), Ross (another Watch With Zack client who snagged four different types of balls on 9/23/09 at Citi Field), and Clif (who first attended a game with me on 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium). I knew all these guys pretty well, so it was good to catch up with them.

We were all so frustrated at the lack of BP that we posed for a second photo in which we pretended to punch each other…

2_zack_and_fellow_snaggers

…except for Clif (in the red hat). Somehow he escaped unscathed.

There was NO action on the field for the first hour, so we all wandered into the area behind the center field scoreboard and took some swings in the batting cage. Here’s a two-part photo of me in which I’m a) settling into my stance and b) unleashing a furious swing (at a 30mph pitch):

3_zack_citi_field_batting_cage.jpg

I hadn’t swung a bat for quite some time, and since I had plans to take BP on the field at PNC Park two days later, this was a valuable tune-up.

Yes, you read that right: I’m going to be taking BP on a major league field on Tuesday, October 6th, and I owe it all to Erik Jabs. I’ll be sharing the details/photos after it happens. I think that’ll be my next blog entry, but there’s so much stuff going on right now that I’m not even sure what to write about next. But anyway…

A few Mets pitchers finally came out and started playing catch in right field. The front row along the foul line got so crowded that I headed up to the second deck…

4_mets_throwing_from_second_deck.jpg

…but no one tossed any balls to me.

Half an hour later, ONE Astros player came out to play catch (with some random strength coach guy) on the left field side. It was a relief pitcher named Samuel Gervacio, and as soon as he finished, he began walking toward me with the ball in his hand:

5_zack_before_snagging_ball4344.jpg

At that point, I was concerned about getting shut out, and there weren’t any other players in sight, so my heart sank when he ended up tossing the ball to someone else.

BUT…

He then pulled another ball out of his back pocket and kept walking toward the stands and eventually tossed it right to me.

Here are two photos of the ball:

6_ball4344_logo_and_sweet_spot.jpg

Some teams have tried marking their baseballs so their employees won’t steal them and get them signed; the Astros have been marking their balls with an “H” for as long as I can remember.

I was already wearing my Astros gear by the time I got the ball from Gervacio, and so were most of my snagging companions. In the photo below, not one person is an actual Astros fan:

7_astros_crew.jpg

Sorry, Houston.
Nothing personal.

A few minutes later, someone asked me how many balls I’d snagged this season, and when I said, “Five hundred and twenty-four,” Brandon took a photo that captured a nearby woman’s reaction.

8_lady_shocked_at_my_ball_total.jpg

Right before the game started, Chris Johnson (wearing No. 23 in the photo below) and several other Astros played catch in shallow left field:

9_chris_johnson_throwing.jpg

I got Johnson to throw me the ball when they were done.

Ready for a totally random/worthless statistic? This was the 11th guy named Johnson to have thrown me a ball. The other 10 are: Ben, Brian, Howard, Jason, Jonathan, Kelly, Mark P., Nick, Reed, and Russ. What’s YOUR record for the most players/coaches with the same last name to have given you a ball? (For the complete list of everyone who’s ever thrown me a ball, click here.)

For the first few innings, while I was making unsuccessful attempts to snag a 3rd-out ball behind the Astros’ dugout, Brandon was taking action shots (like the one below) of the game itself:

10_josh_thole_swinging.jpg

The batter in the photo above is Mets rookie catcher Josh Thole. He entered the game batting .286 (14-for-49) and went 3-for-4 to finish the season at .321. Nicely done.

Mets left fielder Angel Pagan had an even better day, going 4-for-4 with two doubles and a triple, but the best performance belonged to starting pitcher (and super-nice guy) Nelson Figueroa. Entering the final day with a hard-luck record of 2-8 and an ERA of 4.70, he pitched the first complete game of his career — a four-hit shutout with no walks — as the Mets beat the Astros, 4-0.

Lots of fans had homemade signs. This was the best one:

11_funny_sign_10_04_09.jpg

As for me…

It took a major effort just to make it down into the front row behind the Mets’ dugout, and once I got there, I wasn’t too hopeful. I was trapped in the middle of the section, in between the two entrances to the dugout, which meant I wasn’t going to be standing directly in front of the players as they walked off the field. Still, I stayed alert and kept looking out in front of me to pick up on any possible opportunity. Several players flung their caps into the crowd 20 feet to my right. Then I saw a few balls get tossed as well as some batting gloves, but I wasn’t close to any of it, and it was killing me. Ten seconds later, I noticed that Angel Pagan was veering toward my end of the dugout and looking up into the crowd, so I took off my cap and made a frisbee-throwing gesture with it. I was trying to indicate that I wanted him to throw HIS cap to me…and it worked! But he flung it way over my head. When the cap first left his hand, it looked like it was going to reach the sixth row, but then, somehow, thankfully, just like a frisbee that gets thrown up at an angle, it started slicing back down toward me, and I jumped for it:

12_zack_catching_angel_pagan_cap.jpg

It’s easy to spot me in the photo above because I’m the only person who appears blurry. While everyone else was simply reaching (and pushing) for the cap, I was the only person who actually jumped for it. (What a concept!) As you can see, I was wearing my glove on my left hand and holding my own cap in my right hand. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to catch Pagan’s twirling cap in my glove and then be able to hold onto it, but I had no other choice. I *had* to try to catch it that way…and it worked! I caught the damn cap IN my glove and then immediately brought it down to my chest and hugged it tightly. One second later, after I had transferred Pagan’s cap to my right hand, the guy standing next to me tried to snatch it, but I had a death-grip on it. There was no way anyone was going to steal it, and I offered the guy a few choice words.

Here’s a look at the cap:

13_angel_pagan_cap.jpg

As you can see, the Citi Field commemorative logo is on the outside, and Pagan’s uniform number is written on the inside. Coolness. It was the fourth cap I’d ever gotten and the first with a commemorative logo. You can see the other caps here.

Here’s one final photo that shows me with everything I snagged at this game:

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Ooh yeah, that’s right, I also got a little sumpin’-sumpin’ during the 5th-inning T-shirt launch. I haven’t kept track of all the T-shirts I’ve snagged, but I’m pretty sure that number is in the double digits.

SNAGGING STATS:

• 2 balls at this game

• 525 balls in 58 games this season = 9.05 balls per game.

• 627 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 487 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 351 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 4,345 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 126 donors

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $50.52 raised at this game

• $13,261.50 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

One thing about the charity (since people have been asking)…

It’s not too late to make a pledge. There’s a good chance that I’ll be snagging a few more balls this post-season, so hold onto your donations until the end of the World Series, and then I’ll email you with some very easy instructions about how to pay. You’ll have the option of using a credit card on the Pitch In For Baseball web site OR mailing them a check. Either way, your money will never be in my possession.

Stay tuned for some BIG stuff over the next week. PNC Park is just the beginning…

Ball No. 4,200

Remember when I snagged 11 balls on 8/17/09 at Citi Field?

My final ball that day happened to be the 4,200th ball I’d ever snagged. It was tossed to me after the game by some random guy in the Giants’ dugout. I had no idea who he was, so I took two photos of him (see below), hoping that someone might be able to identify him:

ball4200_provider.jpg

The day after I posted these photos, someone left a comment and said that the mystery man looked like Bill Belichick. Other people said he looked like Scott Boras and Andy Richter, and there were other names jokingly tossed out there as well, but the best theory was that the guy was Mario Alioto, the Giants’ Senior Vice President of Corporate Marketing.

I was nearly convinced that that’s who it was until a friend of mine in San Francisco (who knows almost everything about the Giants) insisted that it wasn’t Alioto. He didn’t know who it was, though, and it seemed that my quest had hit a dead end.

Fast-forward two weeks…

The date was September 2nd, and I received the following email:

From: someone@aol.com
To: Zack Hample
Sent: Wed, Sep 02, 2009 4:33 am
Subject: Re: Here’s who gave you your 4200 baseball

>Hello Zack-
>
> Saw your blog page and picture related to your attempt to identify the individual from the SF Giants who gave you ball # 4200. If you are still in need of the info, he is Jim Moorehead, Senior Director of Media Relations with the SF Giants.
>
> Take care.

It just so happened that I’d been in touch with Moorehead earlier in the season (I’d contacted him to request a couple interviews for my book) so I fired off the following email:

From: Zack Hample
To: Moorehead, Jim
Sent: Wed, Sep 02, 2009 10:01 pm
Subject: random baseball mystery

Hey, Jim-

We were in touch a few months ago. I’m the guy who’s writing a book about baseballs, and I’m also a baseball collector.

This is going to seem totally random and bizarre, but I have to ask…

On August 17th, shortly after the final out of the Giants game at Citi Field, I happened to get a ball tossed to me by someone in the Giants’ dugout. The person who gave it to me wasn’t in uniform, so I had no idea who it was. He lingered on the top step for a minute, so I pulled out my camera and took a picture of him, which I later posted on my blog.

Long story short: I just got an email from a diehard Giants fan who saw the photo and insists that it’s you.

Could this coincidence be true?
Would you like to see the photo?

Thanks for your time (and, perhaps, for the ball as well).

-Zack

Hours later, I got this response:

From: Moorehead, Jim
To:
Zack Hample

Sent: Thu, Sep 03, 2009 2:50 am
Subject: Re: random baseball mystery

That was me. :)

Ha-HAAAAA!!!
Mystery solved.
Case closed
The End.

(Thanks to everyone who helped out with this.)

8/17/09 at Citi Field

Jona hadn’t yet been to Citi Field, so she came with me.

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(We’re such dorks.)

Right before the gates opened at 4:40pm, I explained where I planned to enter, which staircase I was going to run up, which direction I was going to turn, and where I was planning to go after that. It all made perfect sense to her, but then we got separated because a) security had to pat her down and b) I ended up running all over the place. Sometimes these things happen.

My first ball of the day was tossed by Mike Pelfrey in left field. Other than the fact that it was a brand new commemorative ball from the final season of Shea Stadium, there wasn’t anything special about it. I was the first one there, so he had no choice but to throw it to me. (I suppose he could’ve just ignored my polite request, but he’s too nice for that.)

Soon after, Jona got a photo of me running for my second ball of the day — a home run hit by Omir Santos that landed in the empty seats in left-center:

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The younger fan trailing behind me is named Alex. I met him once before at Citi Field. He has snagged quite a few balls and he writes a blog about it…and…just so you don’t feel bad for him, you should know that yesterday he beat me out for a loose ball on two separate occasions.

The Santos homer also had the Shea Stadium commemorative logo, but it was special for another reason: it was my 4,191st ball. That’s how many hits Ty Cobb collected in his career. Way back in July 2005, I half-jokingly started comparing my ball total to various players’ career hit totals. Here’s my original blog entry about it. I know it’s much-much-MUCH harder to get a hit in the major leagues than it is to snag a ball in the stands. Like I said, it was mainly a joke. It was just a way for me to have even more fun with numbers and stats and to give myself something tangible to shoot for. At the time, I had a grand total of 2,548 balls, which put me in 76th place on the hits list between George Van Haltren (2,532) and Willie Davis (2,561). I’ve been creeping up the leaderboard ever since, taking aim at the game’s all-time greats, and getting more and more into the whole thing. Yesterday, after snagging the Santos homer, I was finally in a position to pass Ty Cobb and move into second place behind Pete Rose (4,256).

fernando_tatis.jpgEnter Fernando Tatis, the only player in major league history with two grand slams in one inning.

The seats were still fairly empty, so I had plenty of room to run when Tatis lofted a high, deep fly ball toward left-center field. It was heading about 20 or 30 feet to my left, so I bolted through my row, then kept drifting with the ball as it began to descend. I knew I was in the perfect spot — I knew it was going to come right to me — but I sensed that there was another fan moving toward me from the opposite direction who was going to 3_bye_bye_ty.jpgmake an attempt of his own. I wasn’t sure who it was. I was too focused on the ball, so I braced myself and leaned forward at the last second and reached up as high as I could to prevent the other fan from interfering. SMACK!!! The ball landed right in the pocket of my glove. I looked down to see who the other fan was…and it was Alex. Our gloves had bumped gently as we both reached up to make the catch. It played out as if we were infielders who failed to call each other off on a pop-up. In situations like that, it’s usually the taller guy who ends up making the catch. That was the case here, and although it came at Alex’s expense, I was still really happy to have achieved a personal milestone.

The Tatis home run?
Another Shea Stadium commemorative ball.

Moments later, Tatis smoked a deep line drive to my right — a full section to my right. I ran as fast as I could and reached the next staircase, and while I was still on the run, I reached down and across my body with my glove hand and made a back-handed catch over the row of seats in front of me. If I hadn’t caught that ball on the fly, I wouldn’t have gotten it because there were other fans standing nearby. That ball was also commemorative, and so was the next one. I used my glove trick to pluck it off the warning track in straight-away left field. Pelfrey walked over to retrieve the ball as I started lowering my glove, but he was nice enough to stand off to the side and let me get it. Once I started lifting the glove with the ball tucked inside, he moved closer and pretended to hit the glove to make the ball fall out, but like I said, he’s a good guy. He would never pull a Gustavo Chacin.

Here I am with the five balls I’d snagged…

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…but back to the glove trick for a moment. There were two funny things that happened while I was using it. First, when I was about to lower the glove onto the ball, a fan standing 10 feet to my left shouted in a thick New York accent, “Sorry, buddy, dat ain’t gonna work!” and then two seconds later when I started lifting the glove with the ball inside, the same guy said (almost as if it were part of the same sentence), “Okay, nevermind!” It was classic. Moments later, the fan on my right was focusing intently on what I was doing. “That’s just like that guy Zack Hample!” he said, to which I responded matter-of-factly, “I am Zack Hample.”

The Mets finished batting practice 15 minutes early. The field was empty. It was lame. The Giants came out and stretched. There was nothing for me to do except wander over to their dugout:

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I was wearing a white Giants T-shirt at that point, along with a standard black-and-orange Giants cap. It must’ve helped because a Giants ballboy ended up rolling a ball to me across the dugout roof. I ended up giving that ball away to a kid after the game.

Once the Giants started hitting, I ran back to the left field seats and contemplated my next move. Tim Lincecum was standing in left field, more than 100 feet from the outfield wall. I was slowly walking through the half-empty second row. He looked up in my general direction, and I tim_lincecum_2009.jpg
noticed that he was holding a ball, so I jumped up and down and waved my arms to get his attention. For some reason, he then threw the ball right to me…or maybe he wasn’t aiming for me. Who knows? The ball sailed 10 feet over my head and landed in the empty seats several rows behind me. Fans started racing over from both sides as I began climbing directly over the seats. I simply HAD to get that ball. I’d been dying to get one from Lincecum for two years, and this was finally my chance. I was so determined to snag it, and I chased after it so aggressively, that I banged the absolute crap out of my left knee. But…I’m happy to report that I ended up getting the ball, and of course I didn’t injure anyone in the process except myself. I watched Lincecum closely after that and was in awe of his gracefulness. The way he chased fly balls, and even the way he caught throws from the warning track and relayed them toward the bucket — it was a thing of beauty, and I’ll be rooting for him even more than before.

Eventually, after things had slowed way down for me, I moved to the front row, just to take a peek at the warning track in case there was a loose ball sitting there that I hadn’t seen. There were no balls, so I should’ve walked back up the steps and assumed my normal position. But it was so tempting to stay in the front row. The field looked so nice. But I knew it was stupid to stay there. The only way to catch a ball there would’ve been to catch a home run on the fly, and it would’ve had to be hit RIGHT to me because the front row was packed, and the stairs behind me were crowded. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Aaron Rowand ended up hitting a ball RIGHT to me. It would’ve hit me in the head if I hadn’t caught it. That’s how “right to me” it citi_field_sucks.jpgwas. Truly incredible. And then, three minutes later, I caught a home run hit by Juan Uribe in left-center. I was several rows back at that point, and no one else had even seen it coming because there was a man in the front row who was trying to reel in a ball with his cup trick. Everyone was crowding around him to see if it would work…and it did…but unfortunately for the guy (who had his young son with him), he struggled with it for a minute or two, which exposed him to Citi Field’s goons (aka security). There were so many security guards who descended upon our section, you’d’ve thought there was a bomb scare, and half of them easily weighed more than 300 pounds. The biggest, meanest-looking men in New York had deliberately been hired and then sent to intimidate this guy (and, consequently, to leave his young son in tears). It was completely uncalled for. Not only did they confiscate the man’s device, but they wouldn’t even give him a claim check for it, so in other words, he was not even allowed to retrieve it after the game. It was gone. Forever. Just like that. Without a warning. There’s not even any mention of ball-retrieving devices in Citi Field’s rules. Some stadiums allow fans to use such devices. Others don’t but at least have a policy. The Mets (in case it wasn’t already obvious) are doing everything wrong.

Anyway, toward the end of BP, I snagged one more home run ball that landed in the semi-crowded seats in left-center. That was my 10th ball of the day. My lifetime total, at that point, was 4,199. My next ball would bring another mini-milestone.

Alex and I both tried to get Pablo Sandoval to toss up a ball before the game…

6_zack_alex_going_for_ball.jpg

…but Sandoval chose to throw it to three gloveless college-aged women who weren’t even asking for it.

During the game, Jona and I not only sat in a great place to watch the action, but in a perfect spot for me to get a third-out ball. This was our view:

7_view_during_game_08_17_09.jpg

There were no third-out balls to be had. The Giants players were tossing them every which way. Bengie Molina threw two third-out/strikeout balls toward some Giants’ family members who were sitting about 30 rows back. I’d never seen anything like that.

Jona and I invented our own little game-within-the-game involving the players’ head shots on the Jumbotron. We’d look at each photo and then try to come up with a hypothetical/humorous situation that would’ve prompted the facial expression. Luis Castillo, for example, had a photo in which he looked very serious — almost angry, in which he was glaring at the camera with piercing eyes. I decided that the reason he looked that way must’ve been as follows: He got fed up with all his teammates patting him on the butt whenever he did something good, so he asked them not to do it anymore. He requested high-fives and fist-bumps instead, but they kept touching his heinie, and then one day, after it happened yet again, he just snapped. “Who did that?!” he demanded to know (in Spanish, of course). “I will kill the man who did that!” And then his photo was taken.

Jona came up with a good scenario for the Giants’ starting pitcher, Joe Martinez:

8_joe_martinez_jumbotron.jpg

I didn’t have anything original for him and suggested something that had to do with flatulence. Jona, on the other hand, suggest that Martinez was in a bar and some random guy who didn’t recognize him insisted that he could throw a baseball faster than him. Brilliant.

The Mets lost the game, 10-1, and allowed 18 hits. They only had one extra-base hit of their own, a meaningless eighth-inning double by Daniel Murphy. Giants left fielder Eugenio (pronounced “ay-yoo-HAY-nee-oh”) Velez might be the fastest player in baseball. He hit a gapper to right-center and was sliding into third base before I could blink. I was really into the game and noticed the bold strategic move by Giants manager Bruce Bochy in the top of the sixth inning. The Giants were winning, 3-1, and had runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out. Martinez was on deck, so the Mets intentionally walked Edgar Renteria to get to him. Even though Martinez had only thrown 67 pitches, Bochy chose to pinch hit for him, hoping to put the game out of reach. Nate Schierholtz was called upon and responded by crushing a 380-foot line drive to right-center — a shot that would’ve been a grand slam in most ballparks, but at cavernous Citi Field, it was just a two-run double. Still, that gave the Giants a four-run lead, and then Velez plated Renteria with a sharp ground out to shortstop. It was beautiful baseball.

After the game, I squeezed into the front row behind the Giants’ dugout…

9_zack_after_ball4200.jpg

…and unexcitingly got my 4,200nd lifetime ball tossed by this guy:

10_ball4200_provider.jpg

Does anyone know who this is? Here’s a closer look at him…

11_ball4200_provider.jpg

…and here’s a shot of me with the milestone ball:

12_zack_ball4200.jpg

Yes, it was another Shea Stadium commemorative ball. I heard (although I didn’t see it) that someone snagged a 2008 World Series ball during the Mets’ portion of BP, and of course there are some Citi Field balls and 2008 Yankee Stadium balls floating around as well. So, if you can stand seeing the Mets play in an overrated/overpriced new stadium with unreasonably strict security guards, you might come out of it with a few special baseballs.

SNAGGING STATS:

13_the_ten_i_kept_08_17_09.jpg• 11 balls at this game (10 pictured here because I gave one away; the ball at the top is No. 4,200)

• 380 balls in 43 games this season = 8.84 balls per game.

• 612 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 481 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 346 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 8 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least nine balls

• 114 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 4,200 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 118 donors (click here to learn more and make a pledge)

• $24.75 pledged per ball

• $272.25 raised at this game

• $9,405.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Newark Bears — June 30, 2009

As I mentioned at the end of my previous entry, my good friend Leon Feingold was invited to try out for the Newark Bears, and he invited me to tag along. It was a tough decision at first because I’d been planning to go to Yankee Stadium (and really looking forward to it) but I 1_zack_leon_new_jersey_transit.jpgrealized quickly that the potential for once-in-a-lifetime baseball awesomeness was much greater with him. Remember when I got to sneak into Citi Field with him on April 15, 2009? Yeah, good things happen when Leon is around so I scrapped my Yankee plans and took New Jersey Transit with him to the stadium in Newark. (The photo on the right shows us on the train, and in case you’re new to this blog, Leon is the one wearing black.) It was an easy ride. Seven bucks for a round trip from Penn Station. Two stops. Twenty-five minutes. Short walk from the station to the stadium.

A little background on Leon…

He’s 36 years old, 6-foot-6 (if you round up), and 240 pounds.
He pitched in the minor leagues (in the Indians organization) in the 1990s.
He recently pitched professionally in the Israel Baseball League.
He once ranked 12th in the world in competitive eating.
He’s the vice-president of the New York chapter of Mensa.

…and I love him. As a friend, thank you. Perhaps even like a brother.

The Bears were scheduled to play a game at 6:05pm. We arrived at the stadium about five hours early and walked right inside the front gate:

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There was no security. No one ever hassled us. It was the most laid-back atmosphere you could imagine–minor league baseball (or in this case independent league baseball) at its best.

This was the view to the right as we crossed the concourse behind the plate:

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We headed to the left, and of course I took a photo of the incredible open-air concourse down the foul line:

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I don’t count minor league (or independent league) balls in my collection, but still, I appreciated the heavenly set-up for foul-ball catching.

This was my first time at the ballpark, officially known as “Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium.” Leon had been here before and knew his way around so he led me inside though an official-looking reception area and into the media room:

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Did you notice the backdrop on the right? We still had lots of time to kill, so Leon posed for a few pics against it:

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That’s not trick photography. He’s not holding a miniature ball. Leon’s hands really ARE that big, and as a result, he can throw a nasty split-finger fastball which basically moves like an 82-mph knuckleball. Every time we play catch and he throws it, I fear for my teeth, nuts, and life.

We wandered down some stairs and ended up here:

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Down the hall to our left, there were Gatorade coolers and BP screens and other random pieces of equipment lying around:

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Even though it wasn’t a major league stadium, I was still thrilled to be there and just soaking it all in. In fact, I think it’s better that it wasn’t a major league stadium because if it were, there would’ve been security guards crawling all over the place. Instead, I was treated to a pure, uninterrupted, behind-the-scenes look.

Leon needed to change into his uniform, and since he didn’t have a locker in the clubhouse, he changed in a storage room down the hall:

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Look what was in that storage room:

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There weren’t any security cameras in there. I could’ve stuffed 20 balls into my backpack and no one would’ve known the difference. But I didn’t do that. I had opportunities throughout the day to take balls, but I didn’t pocket a single one. I just wanted to inspect them and photograph them.

I was surprised to find three different types of balls in the basket, one of which appeared to be autographed:

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Any theories about whose signature that might be?

Leon and I were both invited into the clubhouse. Here’s what it looked like:

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At one point, there were about 15 players milling about, blasting salsa and later rap, playing cards, eating, swinging bats, and getting dressed. Armando Benitez walked by. Then Tim Raines, the manager. Then Shane Komine. And Willie Banks. And Keith Foulke. And Ryan Bukvich. And Alberto Castillo. And Tike Redman. These were ALL guys who had played in the major leagues. Some (like Komine) only had a cup of coffee while others (like Foulke) were World Series heroes. One guy (Leon thinks it was Charlton Jimerson) started changing right in front of us, without warning, and when he took off his shirt, I thought I was at a bodybuilding competition. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such big arms up close, and it made me realize how tough it is to make it in baseball. You have to compete against guys like that just to REACH the major leagues. I suddenly felt a strong connection to David Eckstein.

I went and used the bathroom, not so much because I was dying to pee, but mainly just to check out the facilities. Pretty simple. Looked like a college gymnasium bathroom. There was half a sunflower seed shell atop my urinal. On my way back to the main room (where Leon was waiting for me), I passed the training room (where several players were sprawled out on tables) and a modest assortment of snacks: peanut butter crackers, Hostess cake-type sweets, etc. There were a few dozen boxes of balls that several players had already signed. The whole place was noisy and cluttered and somewhat shabby in spots–nothing as glamorous as the few major league clubhouses I’ve been lucky enough to set foot in, but far better than any locker room I ever got to use as an aspiring college player a decade earlier.

At around 2:30pm, half an hour after Leon had been told to arrive, no one had come for him. The clubhouse was clearing out, so we headed out too. We walked down the carpeted hallway, out through a tunnel behind home plate, and onto the warning track:

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(Leon, if you’re reading this, do us all a favor and get a haircut. I know I shouldn’t be talking smack about your [or anyone’s] hair, given the fact that I’m losing mine, but seriously, that bushy mess is starting to look like a mullet.)

There were a few guys playing catch in right field. I had my glove with me, just in case, and Leon asked if I wanted to throw. I was about to say yes when I noticed a couple batters starting to take early BP:

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There was only ONE person shagging balls in the entire outfield, and it was a teenaged kid–one of the players’ sons, I think–so I asked a few people if it’d be okay if I went out there and “helped” by shagging. They were delighted that I offered (less running for them) and of course I couldn’t have been happier to be out there.

Leon surprised me by going in my bag and grabbing my camera and taking a few pics. Here I am out there:

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After 20 minutes or so, the hitting stopped and the throwing started, so I headed back to the foul line and took some photos. Here’s one that shows three former major leaguers (plus Leon):

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Here’s another shot from high up in the stands, just short of the foul pole…

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…and here’s one that shows Bukvich pitching to Castillo, with someone (not sure who) standing in like a batter:

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Benitez wore headphones onto the field:

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I guess you can do whatever you want in Newark when you have 289 big league saves.

After the throwing ended, several of the pitchers gathered near the foul line. You can see Leon on the right, and do you know who’s standing with his hands on his hips?

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Keith Foulke.

I shagged some more during regular BP (that must’ve lasted an hour) and I really felt like I was a player. I mean, I was standing in the outfield, surrounded by players, doing what all the players were doing: catching fly balls and scooping up grounders and firing them back in toward the bucket. At one point, I made a really nice running/leaping/over-the-shoulder catch and immediately looked around to make eye contact with everyone. I was all like, “Yeah! Who saw that?! Who saw that?!” but the answer was: nobody. In my world, it was a great catch. In their world, it’s just…a catch.

This was the view from deep right field:

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Did you notice those clouds? The visiting team (the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs) had started taking BP, but the sky got darker and the grounds crew began removing equipment from the field, and that was the end of that. I’m totally jinxed by the weather. I can’t even get a full BP in the Atlantic League. (I should mention that when the visitors were taking BP, I didn’t feel right about running all over the field with them, so I grabbed a seat in the front row down the right field foul line. During the next 10 minutes or so, three balls landed in the seats near me — all of which were sliced by righties — and I tossed them all back onto the field. I’m telling you, I didn’t keep a single ball. Leon even walked over at one point and tried to hand one to me, but I wouldn’t take it.)

Leon had disappeared for a while toward the end of BP, and I figured he was pitching in the bullpen. I could’ve walked out there (the ‘pens are located behind the left field wall) and watched him, but I didn’t want to intrude on his big moment. I’d brought a book. I was happy to just sit and read and look at the field. There’s something about baseball fields — any baseball fields — that make me feel like I’m meant to be there. I’m most at peace with myself and with the world when I’m standing on a baseball field. I feel like I’m home, like I’ve reached the promised land, like I’m in a place that I’ve always dreamed of being. In my mind I’ve always been and always will be a major leaguer. There’s no other way to describe it.

Eventually I caught up with Leon and a few older gentlemen near the 1st base dugout:

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See that guy in the light gray T-shirt? That’s Butch Hobson, who once hit 30 homers in a season in the major leagues. And the guy in the tan pants? Art Shamsky, who batted .300 for the ’69 Mets.

It was right around that time that fans were being let into the ballpark. Any autograph collectors reading this? If so, I would suggest that you invest in a $7 train ride, go see the Newark Bears, and make yourself happy. All the Bears players seem to file out onto the field through that tunnel right behind the plate, and of course there’s no security to stop anyone from going down into the seats alongside that tunnel. Seriously, go get some autographs. Carl Everett is even on the team. Who doesn’t want Carl Everett’s autograph? (Yesterday I never saw him up close, although I think I caught one of his fly balls during BP.)

While Leon was schmoozing it up, I wandered down into the dugout and inspected every inch of it. I peeked into the bat rack and noticed a pink slip of paper at the bottom of one of the vertical cubby holes. I bent down and grabbed it and had a look:

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Yeah, I took it. Whatever. It had the previous day’s date on it. It wasn’t even the original–just a carbon copy. If the Bears wanted it, they would’ve kept it. I figured it would have a happier home with me than in some random landfill.

Then it started raining, and as I ducked inside the tunnel with Leon, I could see the grounds crew racing to cover the field:

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What happened next?

A rain delay.

Ryan Bukvich passed the time by trying to putt golf balls into a plastic cup in the hallway outside the clubhouse:

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Leon and I got to talk to him for quite a while, and what can I say? The guy is supercool. I told him about my baseball collection, and he told me that when he makes it back to the major leagues, he’s going to look for me and hook me up with a ball. I told him about the list of players and coaches who’ve thrown me balls. Leon even pulled it up on his phone, and we all looked at it together for a minute. I gave Bukvich my card, and he gave me his email address, so hopefully we’ll stay in touch.

Tim Raines walked by while we were out in the hallway. So did Ron Karkovice, who’s also a coach on the team. There were players and coaches all over the place, and there I was, just hanging out with them and shootin’ the sh*t like it was no big deal. In a way it wasn’t a big deal. They’re just guys. Most of them are in their 30s, just like me, and they all love baseball, just like me, so why should it be a big deal to hang out with them? I don’t know, it just IS. I’ve been a huge baseball fan for such a long time, and as a fan, you’re always kept on the outside. When there’s a rain delay, you’re either hiding in the concourse at the stadium or watching reruns of “Seinfeld” at home. You’re never killing time WITH the actual players, so yeah, it was a big deal. Some of the players even recognized me after Bukvich told them that I was the guy who’d caught those home runs last year at Yankee Stadium and been on Leno, so in a way, I was famous to them, which was cool as hell, but mainly, *I* was the one who was honored to be in their presence.

Leon had to get back to New York City. I suppose I could’ve stayed and kept hanging out at the ballpark, but he was really my link to all the behind-the-scenes stuff, so I left with him and got one last look at the field on the way out:

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I could’ve stayed and just sat in the stands and watched the game and tried to catch foul balls, but that would’ve felt like a major letdown after everything I’d experienced. I just wanted to go home, and of course I wanted to ask Leon all about his tryout.

As we rode NJ Transit back to the city, he told me that Alberto Castillo had caught for him with Tim Raines and pitching coach Mike Torrez looking on. (No pressure.) They didn’t have a radar gun on him, but Leon thinks he was throwing in the mid-80s and *could* get back up to 90 with the right workouts and guidance. Speaking of guidance…the Bears did not offer him a contract, but they DID tell him that he can come back and work out with the team anytime, and that they’ll continue to work with him and get him back into shape…which means they saw his potential, but he’s not yet ready for game action. That was no surprise to Leon. He knew he wasn’t ready. His pitches had sick movement, but his velocity was a bit down and he had no command.

That’s pretty much it. Leon had some meeting to go to at 6pm, so as soon as our train pulled into Penn Station, we went our separate ways. I headed home and heated up some day-old General Tso’s chicken (and pork fried rice) and watched the Yankee game. (There’s really no point in watching the Mets anymore.) Good thing I didn’t go. I heard that it had rained in the Bronx, too, and that BP was canceled early on.