I left New York City at 10:30am, blasted my iPod in the car the whole
way up, got stuck in traffic half a dozen times, and finally parked in
the garage behind the Green Monster at around 3pm. As soon as I walked
down the garage ramp onto Lansdowne Street, a college-aged Red Sox fan
walked up to me and asked if I was Zack Hample.
In my previous entry,
I had mentioned that I was going to be there, and sure enough, this
guy had seen it. His name is Garo. He’s a semi-regular at Fenway Park. And
the first thing he did was show me how to get a sneak peek inside the stadium. Check it out:
Fenway wasn’t going to open until 5pm, so when the Red Sox started taking batting practice at 4:30, Garo (wearing the red shirt in the photo on the right) and I went to the roof of the garage and camped out for home run balls. Of course nothing came over, so at 4:55 I left empty-handed and ran over to Gate A.
This was another Watch With Zack game–my second of the week and fourth of the season–and my clients still had not arrived at that point. They were from Tallahassee and included two 13-year-olds named Lars and Cody, as well as Lars’ grandmother Jean who had gotten in touch last year after hearing me on NPR. Even though we’d planned this game months in advance, they waited until the last minute to make an appearance. Lars and Cody had the basics–baseball gloves and Red Sox caps–but we didn’t have time to discuss any specific strategies for BP. All I could do was give them each a sheet with the rosters of both the Sox and A’s and tell them to follow me as soon as everyone was allowed in. With 30 seconds to spare, I asked them how many games they’d been to. Lars said he’d been to “one or two” major league games, and as for Cody…this was his first professional game! What a way to start. (Jean said she’d been to about 50 games, going back to the days of the Milwaukee Braves. And by the way, if there’s anyone from Tallahassee who’s reading this, or
even anyone who’d just like to talk baseball in general, Jean would
love to hear from you. Leave a comment and let me know, or email
me and I’ll put you in touch.)
When the stadium opened, several dozen fans got in ahead of us, but we were still the first ones to reach the seats along the left field foul line. Sweeeet!!! I grabbed the corner spot and positioned Lars and Cody about 20 feet apart against the wall in the middle of the section. You can kinda/almost see them leaning out with their gloves in the following photo:
Here’s a close-up. Cody is the one wearing blue, and Lars is in black:
Once the A’s took the field, I told Lars and Cody to turn their hats backward so the players wouldn’t see the logo. (I think Cody turned the logo toward me just for the photo and then quickly switched it back.) This simple form of trickery worked for Lars; he used the roster to identify pitcher Lenny DiNardo and then got him to toss up a ball. Cody, on the other hand, wasn’t as lucky. He had a few close calls during BP but didn’t end up with anything to show for it.
As for me…
Two minutes after the stadium had opened, Justin Masterson tossed a ball to a kid ten feet away, but his aim was off and the ball sailed high and landed in a patch of empty seats. There was a mini-scramble for the souvenir, which I ended up snagging as it trickled down the steps…and yes, I felt a bit guilty. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve handed this ball to the kid for whom it was intended. But this day was special. I had my own “kids” to take care of, so I held onto it, and as it turned out Masterson went and got another ball and hooked up the original kid. Everyone was happy.
Before the Sox finished hitting, I got a second ball by using what I refer to as the “half-glove trick.” I didn’t need the rubber band and magic marker. I only needed the string because the ball was just a few feet out from the wall…in a spot where the wall was nice and low…so I let
out a bit of string and swung my glove out and knocked the ball closer and then leaned over the wall and grabbed it. Easy.
Despite the fact that I had a green and yellow A’s shirt to match my green and yellow cap, I couldn’t get a single player or coach to toss me a ball. I partially blame myself for not being able to recognize anyone, but seriously…Joey Devine? Dallas Braden? Sean Gallagher? Jerry Blevins? Who the hell ARE these guys?!
I managed to get one more ball during BP. It was a rocket-shot, pulled on one hop a few feet to my left. I wish the fan behind me had been holding a radar gun. I’d say it had to be traveling 80 to 90mph. Maybe even more. According to Hit Tracker, some balls fly off the bat in excess of 120mph, so there’s no telling how fast this one was traveling. I was about 200 feet from home plate, and it couldn’t have taken more than a second to reach me. Anyway, I half-dove and half-lunged over the wall and reached way out and half-snared the ball between my upper palm and the pocket of my glove. Yes…ouch. But I had it and that’s all that mattered. Between the ball that Lars snagged and the three that I got, there was exactly one ball for each of us.
After BP, Cody and Lars and I each got an autograph from Greg Smith…
Then Jean joined us and we posed with our loot:
This game was Jason Bay’s first as a member of the Red Sox–or the “Bayston Red Sox” as one fan’s T-shirt read–and the ovation he received during his first at-bat gave me goose bumps and
almost made my eyes a little misty. It was THAT thunderous and heart-warming. I didn’t get the sense that anyone at Fenway missed Manny. He’s behaved so poorly that even I (a longtime Manny supporter with a personal connection to him) have a tough time rooting for him now. On the other hand, Jason Bay is one of those quiet/professional types who consistently puts up solid numbers but gets no respect because he plays in Pittsburgh. I felt so happy for him. After five years of rotting in baseball hell, he was rescued and thrust into a pennant race in front of 37,832 fans who were truly thrilled to have him. With all due respect to the four million-plus fans who’ve been filling up Yankee Stadium each of the past few years, I have to say that the people in New England are without a doubt more passionate about their team than ANY fan base I’ve EVER encountered. There’s no comparison. It’s not even close.
Bay ended up drawing a five-pitch walk in the bottom of the second (you’ve never heard such loud cheers for a walk), moving to third on a J.D. Drew double, and scoring the game’s first run on a sacrifice fly by Jed Lowrie. Tim Wakefield and Justin Duchscherer matched zeros after that, and it looked like the Sox were going to hang on for 1-0 win until Jack Cust (who’s on pace to strike out 205 times this season) hit an opposite field bomb off Hideki Okajima to tie the game at 1-1 in the eighth.
Jean knew a lot about baseball, and in fact, so did Lars and Cody because they’d read my book. I don’t know if they tried to memorize it or what, but I was blown away with the amount of facts and details they remembered. We all wore our gloves, but since there wasn’t much action in the foul ball department, we focused on watching the game. They asked dozens of questions and I explained everything…from the stats on the scoreboard to the Pesky Pole (which was less than 20 feet to our right) to double-play depth…and on and on and on. I had lots of fun, and I’m pretty sure they did as well.
As the game headed into the 10th inning, I was surprised when hardly any fans left the stadium. Six outs later, however, a few seats opened up so I led Jean and Cody and Lars toward home plate…and this is where we settled down:
With two outs in the bottom of the 11th, I took Lars and Cody to the third base dugout and explained exactly how to get a third-out ball. We were all set to charge toward the front row and yell at whichever A’s player ended up with the ball…when Kevin Youkilis took a called third strike and the catcher rolled it back to the mound.
Five outs later we were back in position, but we didn’t get another shot. Bay hit a towering fly ball high off the Monster for a triple, Drew drew an intentional walk, and Lowrie punched a weak grounder past the left side of the mound that allowed Bay to score the winning run. Final score: Zack 3, Red Sox 2, Athletics 1.
Lars and Cody and I still went down to the dugout (even though I knew the A’s would be in a foul mood), and it paid off…sort of. We got some gum and seeds from one of the bat boys. He was carrying a few boxes of it, and after I called out and asked him if we could have some, he walked over and held it out and let us grab whatever we wanted. The photo on the right shows what I took. Cody and Lars each got their own stash.
We all lingered inside the stadium as long as possible, then headed outside and I told them where they might be able to get a few more autographs. I didn’t stick around for that, however, and they understood why. It was already well past 11pm, I’d been up since 8:45am, and I had a 211-mile drive ahead of me. Before we parted ways, Jean told me she might send me to a game at Citi Field next season with her son who was born on the day that the Mets won their first World Series…
? 3 balls at this game
? 273 balls in 39 games this season = 7 balls per game.
? 535 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 128 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
? 9 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls
? 3,550 total balls
Since September of 1993, I’ve managed to snag at least one ball at EVERY game I’ve attended. One reason I’ve been able to keep the streak going so long (other than the fact that I have mad skills) is that I choose my games wisely. I generally avoid day games, especially those that follow night games, because the players often sleep late and skip batting practice. I also avoid games with big crowds, especially when lots of fans are likely to show up early.
There’s no way I would’ve attended this game had it not been an official Watch With Zack outing. As gorgeous as Fenway Park is, it’s also expensive and crowded and cramped and lousy for snagging baseballs. This game in particular was the Red Sox home opener, and everyone on the team was going to be receiving their 2007 World Series championship rings during a huge ceremony starting at 1pm. Batting practice was scheduled to end early. Fans were advised to show up extra early, and not only that, my three clients (who had no interest in snagging baseballs) had originally planned to meet me outside the stadium half an hour after the gates opened. As far as my 498-game streak was concerned, it was a nightmare waiting to happen, and yet I was okay with it all. After all, I was there on business, and this day was all about them.
When we had still been in the planning stage, I mentioned my streak and asked them to meet me half an hour earlier at 11:30am. More balls for me, I explained, would mean more balls for them. Even though they weren’t planning to bring their gloves and run around with me, they were hoping I’d snag a few for them.
I reached Fenway at around 10:30am and sweet-talked my way up onto the garage roof behind the Green Monster. BP started at around 11am, giving me half an hour to get one ball. Because I’d been out there for Game 1 and Game 2 of last year’s World Series, I knew exactly where to stand and what to do…and before long I got my chance. Without warning, a home run ball came flying over the Monster and landed with a loud thud on the roof of the gray van parked at the front edge of the lot. By the time the ball dropped out of sight on the right side of the van, I was already sprinting forward and weaving between the vehicles. I knew there were other fans standing nearby and hoped that they hadn’t seen it coming. Turns out they hadn’t, but the ball was bouncing and rolling slowly toward a ledge where they would’ve been able to reach it. That’s when I swooped in and gloved the ball, shin-high, right off the concrete, and I kept running. Wooooooo!!! Of course, one of the garage attendants then swooped in and told me I had to leave, but that was fine. I had my ball for the day, and life was good.
Two of my three clients, a couple named Ann and Ben, showed up right on time, and they were easy to spot amongst the hundreds of fans on Lansdowne Street. Several days earlier, Ann had told me on the phone that she would have her gray hair up in a bun and that Ben had a white beard like Santa Claus. We said quick hellos. (She’s a pediatrician and knew a lot about baseball. He’s an orthopedic
surgeon and had only been to a few games in his entire life.) They handed me a ticket. I handed them the ball. We fought our way through the crowd and headed around the corner toward Yawkey Way.
Last year, on 9/29/07 at Camden Yards, I experienced the largest pre-game crowd of my life. Guess what. That was NOTHING compared to the sea of people waiting to get into Fenway. Ready to see what I’m talking out? You might want to get a glass of cold water and find a comfy chair because the following photograph is likely to make you sick and/or light-headed. Okay, THIS was going to be my competition during batting practice:
Good thing I got that ball on the garage roof, huh? At least that’s what I was thinking, but then batting practice turned out to be pretty easy. Ann went straight to her seat and had a beer. Ben followed me down to the front row along the third base line, and amazingly I was able to squeeze into the corner spot…you know, where the wall is really low and juts out close to the foul line. It was a great spot to catch grounders, except none came my way, so I focused on getting balls thrown to me by the players.
My first victim was Tigers outfielder Curtis Granderson (standing with his back facing me in the pic on the right). He walked past me while the Sox were still hitting. I didn’t think he had a ball, so I said, “Curtis, is there any chance you could toss me a ball if they hit one your way?” He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t need to. He had a ball tucked in his glove, and he flipped it to me. It was a minor league ball from the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, and at first I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or excited. Last year, Mets pitcher Aaron Sele tossed me an Arizona Fall League ball during batting practice at Shea Stadium. It was the first minor league ball I’d ever snagged at a major league game, and I decided to count it. The way I saw it, if the ball was good enough for major leaguers to use, even during BP, then it was good enough for me to count it in my collection. Same deal with those cheap, made-in-China, green and blue training balls that the Nationals have been using for the last two seasons. I hate them, but they count.
Ben eventually went to find Ann at the seats and told me to stay and enjoy batting practice and get as many balls as I could. Meanwhile, I was wondering if the Pacific Coast League ball was a random/fluky ball that somehow got mixed in with the others, and within a few minutes, I had my answer. Justin Verlander was manning the bucket in shallow center field, and I shouted really loud and got his attention and waved my arms and got him to roll me a ball from more than 150 feet away. I leaned way out, hooked my feet inside the wall, used my arms to walk my upper body out on the warning track, and scooped up the ball in front of several other outstretched arms. Same ball as before: Pacific Coast League. Bleh. A little girl got a ball soon after. I asked to take a look. Pacific Coast League. Jason Grilli rolled me a ball 10 minutes after that. I reached out and caught it despite the effort of the gloveless man on my left who tried to tug my arm out of the way. Pacific Coast League. Jeremy Bonderman rolled me my fifth ball of the day. Pacific Coast League. AARRGHH!!! I’d snagged more than enough PCL balls when I got a behind-the-scenes tour of Cheney Stadium (home of the Tacoma Rainiers) in 2002. I didn’t need more of them in Boston. Why were the Tigers using them? And why were the players rolling them instead of throwing them like real men? No wonder they haven’t won a game yet this season.
My lifetime ball total was now 3,299. I really wanted one more ball so I could reach the mini-milestone at Fenway, but it wasn’t meant to be. I did have one more chance to snag a ball with the glove trick, but it meant giving up my corner spot. I ended up keeping the spot, NOT snagging another ball there, and losing my chance at No. 3,300. Great.
Batting practice ended so early that I was taken by surprise and didn’t have a chance to make it to the Tigers’ dugout before the players and coaches left the field. I was, however, able to get Grilli’s autograph on my ticket stub, which was cool because I had interviewed him several years ago for a story on MiLB.com, and he had called me back several days later, on his own, to discuss a business venture that had nothing to do with baseball. We ended up talking a few times on the phone throughout the off-season, and this was the first time I’d seen him since then. I’m not sure if he remembered me, or if he was just being polite, but either way, we got to talk for a minute, and I gave him a contact card with my web site on it, so who knows, he might end up reading this someday.
It took about half an hour to get from the Tigers’ dugout on the 3rd base side to the concourse behind the plate (bathroom) and back up into the grandstand seats on the 1st base side where I found
Ann and Ben and met her practice partner named John. He was closer to my age and had four young kids at home. One of them was too young to appreciate owning a baseball, so I gave him three of my Pacific Coast League balls and kept one of them (the Verlander ball, pictured above) for myself. I was fine with that. He was fine with that. Everyone was happy. It was freezing. We didn’t care. And before long, the ring ceremony was underway.
It was QUITE an extravaganza. The entire Boston Pops Orchestra was playing in center field as huge, Monster-sized banners were revealed and flags were hoisted. There were video highlights. Touching tributes. Deafening cheers. Appearances from members of the Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots. It was an all-out spectacle, and I was thrilled to be there.
This was our view during the game. Yeah, there was a support beam partially blocking the field (and yeah, my tiny seat had a few wooden slats missing), but hey, it’s all part of Fenway’s charm, or something like that.
Both teams were introduced. The orchestra played the national anthem. Three fighter jets did a fly-over. Bill Buckner threw the ceremonial first pitch (a perfect strike to Dwight Evans). Johnny Pesky stepped to a microphone and said, “Let’s play ball!”
The game was finally set to start, and I found myself sitting between John, who knew a lot about baseball, and Ben who asked me to explain everything. It was a bit of a challenge because he said he’d read Ann’s copy of my book (which I signed for her later in the day), so I wasn’t sure what he already understood and what he might’ve forgotten. So I just started giving a running commentary, pointing out everything I noticed, like…for example…Mike Lowell was playing even with 3rd base in anticipation of a bunt, but moved back with two strikes because of the foul-bunt rule. Kevin Youkilis was standing on 1st base to keep the runner close, and as soon as he knew that the pitcher (Daisuke Matsuzaka) wasn’t going to throw over, he scooted a few steps off the base to get into position to field a potential grounder. The batter was digging in at the back of the box instead of the front to give himself an extra fraction of a second to react to the pitch. The umpire was resting a hand on the catcher’s back. The catcher handed him the ball whenever a pitch hit the dirt. The ball boy kept running out with new balls. The batter would always run down to first base in a curved path if he hit a single into the outfield. And so on. I showed him the grips for different pitches. I explained more rules and strategies. It was lots of fun to help teach him about the game, and it forced me to pay closer attention, so I got more out of it too.
As for the game, Dice-K was dealing. He ended up working 6 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing four hits and four walks while striking out seven and improving to 2-0. Kenny Rogers (booooo!!!) took the loss for Detroit, and the Red Sox won, 5-0. Youk was the offensive player of the day, going 3-for-3 with a walk, a double, two RBIs and a run scored. The game lasted three and a half hours. We could see our breath the whole time. Lots of “fans” left early. But not us. We stayed and watched baseball like it was meant to be watched.
Ann and Ben were nice enough to let me make a final attempt to get a ball at the dugout. I waited until there were two outs in the ninth, then snuck down to the third row with John and got into a perfect position as soon as Jacque Jones struck out swinging to end it…but Hideki Okajima took his ball with him into the dugout, and that was that.
• 5 balls at this game
• 22 balls in 3 games this season = 7.3 balls per game.
• 499 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 6 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least one ball
• 746 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 108 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 27 balls in 6 lifetimes games at Fenway Park = 4.5 balls per game.
• 3,299 total balls
• 13 days until I’ll be snagging baseballs at Disney World…