This was my last game in Puerto Rico, and my goal was simple: don’t get shut out. I’d snagged three balls the day before, but they were all kind of flukey, so basically, I just wanted to get on the board early and keep my streak alive.
The gates opened 15 minutes late because some workmen were using a gigantic cherry picker to change the bulbs on a light tower. (During this time, I kept hearing home run balls clanging off the metal bleacher benches.) As a result, I missed the Marlins’ portion of batting practice, and the Mets were already on the field when I ran in:
Two minutes later, a right-handed batter hit a line drive that rolled all the way to the wall. One of the team’s strength and conditioning coaches picked it up, and I convinced him to toss it to me. It was about as uneventful as it gets, but I felt a huge sense of relief. Check out the look on my face right after I got it:
In the photo above (which was taken by my girlfriend Jona), do you see the guy wearing sunglasses and a black Mets shirt? His name is Gustavo. He’s my newest friend. We’d met for the first time two days earlier, and you’ll see a better photo of him later in this entry.
When the bleachers started filling up, the security supervisor gave me (and only me) permission to go underneath the stands. Why? Because she loved me. Why? Because I’d given her a baseball the day before — and because she’d seen me give away several other balls to kids. Here I am standing in the gap behind the outfield wall:
If you look closely at the photo above, you can see a stadium employee walking underneath the bleachers. Like I said, I was the only fan that was allowed to go down there, and look, it paid off:
This ball landed in the middle of the bleachers and dropped down through one of the spaces between the steps. Here’s a photo that shows those spaces:
I was sure that I’d end up snagging a dozen balls down there, but there wasn’t any action. It was bizarre and extremely frustrating.
Toward the end of BP, an employee wandered over and asked me something in Spanish. I had no idea what he said, so I shrugged. This prompted him to pull a ball out of his back pocket and flip it to me. (He must have asked if I’d gotten a ball yet. Good thing I didn’t pay attention during my Spanish 101 course in college.) The ball had a beautiful smudge on it:
Have you ever seen a green smudge? I have no idea how that mark could have gotten there. Grass doesn’t stain like that. Could this ball have skipped off the artificial playing surface, or could it have been foul-tipped by a green bat?
Anyway, that was it for batting practice. Three balls. Not great. But better than zero.
Want to see what the bathrooms look like in the bleacher area?
Here you go:
In the photo above, you can see how gray the sky was, and sure enough, it ended up raining:
The rain didn’t last long.
Mike Pelfrey started warming up…
…and then it rained some more:
The rain delay lasted an hour and 20 minutes.
Eventually, I changed into a bright pink T-shirt and got Gustavo to take a photo of me and Jona:
The shirt is completely ridiculous. The only reason I wore it was was to make it easier for people to look for me on TV.
Then Jona took a pic of me and Gustavo:
The game itself was thoroughly entertaining, but unfortunately, there weren’t any home runs. Can you believe that? What a waste.
The lack of longballs didn’t stop these kids from having a great time:
But no, really, the game was fun. The Mets scored three times in the top of the first inning, and the Marlins answered with a pair of runs in the bottom of the frame. The score was tied at 4-4 after five innings. Overall, the Marlins committed four errors. It was a sloppy game and a sloppy night. It rained a bit more. It was hot and muggy. The game (not including the delay) lasted nearly four hours, so it turned out to be a loooooong night. You can see the final score in the following photo:
Jona was exhausted and sweaty and hungry. She really wanted to get back to the hotel, but I still had a few more things that I needed to do. First, I took photos of the nicest people I met at the stadium. In the double-photo below, the pic on the left shows a man named Nelson, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Puerto Rico. He and I sat together at all three games, along with his 14-year-old daughter, who’s standing just behind him. The photo on the right shows the three guards/ushers who gave me special privileges and basically looked out for me throughout the series:
As I mentioned in my previous entry, all the ushers were wearing those special “San Juan Series” T-shirts. I really wanted one, but they weren’t for sale, so I had to get creative. Long story short: I learned that the ushers had to report to a certain area inside the stadium after the game and that they had to wear their shirts until they came back out. I also learned from Gustavo how to ask, “Can I buy your shirt?” in Spanish. (It’s “Te puedo comprar la camisa” if you really want to know.)
Jona was ready to collapse. At that point, we’d been at the stadium for nearly nine hours. That’s a long time for anyone, especially someone who doesn’t particularly care for baseball, but I couldn’t just jump in a cab. I had this whole plan worked out for getting a shirt, and I had to see it through. When I explained to Jona that we needed to walk around the outside of the stadium and wait another 15 minutes for the ushers to exit, she wasn’t exactly thrilled. She was a good sport about it, though, and we were able to laugh about it. Before we exited the bleachers, I asked her to act out how she was feeling, both mentally and physically. This is what she did:
(In the photo above, that’s Gustavo in the background. Earlier in the night, he caught one of the outfielders’ warm-up balls. I forget who tossed it — either Jason Bay or Chris Coghlan. It was the first ball that Gustavo had ever snagged at a major league game, and he offered it to me. I didn’t accept it, but thanked him profusely, and he later gave it to his 11-year-old nephew.)
Jona and I headed over to the employee exit and waited. It actually didn’t take that long before they started trickling out.
“Te puedo comprar la camisa?!”
“Te puedo comprar la camisa?!”
“Te puedo comprar la camisa?!”
I shouted the phrase at everyone. Some people ignored me. Some gave me funny looks. Some mumbled a few words in Spanish and kept walking. Some responded in English and told me they were going to keep their shirts. And then, finally, a young, female usher (who was wearing another shirt underneath) stopped and asked, “For how much?”
“Twenty bucks?” I asked, afraid that I’d get laughed at for making such a low offer.
“Are you serious?” she asked excitedly.
“Yeah, I want one of those shirts, but they’re not for sale.”
“Okay!” she said and started taking it off.
“Wait, what size is it?” I asked.
“Large,” she said.
She handed me the shirt. I handed her a $20 bill. She was happy. I was ecstatic…
…and then Jona and I got our cab.
• 3 balls at this game (2 pictured on the right because I gave one to Nelson’s daughter)
• 182 balls in 19 games this season = 9.6 balls per game.
• 648 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 198 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 4,540 total balls
• 38 donors (click here to learn more)
• $5.56 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $16.68 raised at this game
• $1,011.92 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
Day 2 of the San Juan Series started with another long line outside the bleacher entrance:
See the guy in the gray All-Star Game shirt? His name is Mike. We’d met the day before, and we ended up sitting together at this game.
One minute after the gates opened, this was the scene:
In case you can’t tell, it’s a photo of the Marlins jogging off the field.
During that lone minute of batting practice, Anibal Sanchez threw two baseballs to me. I was the only one wearing Marlins gear, and at that point, I was the only fan wearing a glove and calling out to him, so he didn’t have many other options. He probably figured that I’d give away the second ball, and I did. In fact, I gave them both away to a pair of extremely friendly security guards.
Soon after the Mets started hitting, the bleachers got insanely crowded:
There wasn’t any room to run, so I headed underneath the bleachers and played the gap behind the outfield wall. Here’s what it looked like down there:
Several minutes later, a different security guard kicked me out (along with the few other fans who’d ventured down), so I had to find another spot.
Hmm, where to go…
I decided to stand behind the outfield wall in right-center. Surely, there’d be a few bombs hit that way, right?
This was my view straight head:
This was my view to the right…
…and to the left:
I had a ton of open space all around me, and there wasn’t anyone else who was even thinking of snagging a baseball.
How many balls do you think I got during the next half hour? Go ahead, take a guess. Three? Five? Ten? Twenty? Think big. It was warm. Fly balls were carrying. The players, undoubtedly, were pumped to be playing in Puerto Rico. Home runs galore, right?
Ready for the answer?
The Mets didn’t hit a single home run to center field — or anywhere near center field. They didn’t hit any ground-rule doubles either. It was so dead that for a moment I wondered if BP was still taking place. I peeked through a narrow gap in the center field wall:
Yup, the Mets were still hitting.
Meanwhile, half a dozen balls dropped into the gap behind the left field wall. I would’ve snagged all or most of them if I’d been allowed to stay there. It was just one of those days. And that was it for BP.
Now get this: I had three tickets for this game. Let me explain…
When tickets first went on sale, I wasn’t able to just buy one ticket for one game. I had to buy one ticket for all three. Does that make sense? It’s like they were being sold as a strip, or as a package, or whatever you want to call it. I knew that my girlfriend wasn’t going to attend all three games, but since she was going to attend at least one, I had to buy two tickets for each game. Anyway, this was the game that she chose to skip. (She decided she’d have more fun at the hotel, working out in the fitness room, getting woozy in the steam room, and lounging at the pool.) So, in addition to my own bleacher ticket, I also had hers.
What about the third ticket, you ask?
Well, once individual seats finally went on sale, I splurged and bought an extra, fancy-ish ticket on the first base side. Why? Because I’d learned that the bleachers were completely separate from the rest of the stadium. Buying that extra ticket was the only way I’d be able to wander all around and get the full experience.
This was the first thing I saw when I entered the main concourse behind home plate:
There was a band blasting music just outside the gates, and as you can see, there were people walking on stilts and dancing in crazy mascot costumes. It was a truly wild/festive scene, and the best thing about it (unlike all the hoopla I experienced at the 2007 All-Star Game) is that none of it felt contrived. There was a genuine vibe of joy and exuberance. People were just excited to be at a baseball game, plain and simple.
I walked through the concourse to the 3rd base side, then headed through a tunnel and into the seats. Check out this cross-aisle — a perfect place for chasing foul balls:
I walked up the steps toward the upper/outermost corner…
…and discovered that there was a secondary concourse at the very back:
Behold the puddles:
What’s up with that? Was the ice machine leaking?
This was the view of the field from that back corner of the ballpark:
I walked down the steps, and when I looked to my left, this is what I saw:
Gotta love the Roberto Clemente truck. It was parked in an employees-only area between the grandstand and the bleachers. See that thing with the black fence and tan roof? That was the Mets’ batting cage. Here’s a closer look at it:
This was as close as I could get to the field:
As you can see in the photo above, the four rows down in front were roped off.
There was no way to sneak down there; every single staircase around the entire stadium was guarded by an usher. Here’s one of the ushers behind the 1st base dugout:
See the shirt that he’s wearing? I really wanted one, but obviously they weren’t being sold. The ushers wore those shirts every day. If the fans had been able to buy and wear them, too, it would’ve caused all kinds of security issues. There were some “San Juan Series” shirts for sale at the main souvenir stand, but they weren’t nearly as nice.
Normally, when I visit a stadium for the first time, I make a point of going to the last row of the upper deck and taking a couple photos that I can later combine into a panorama. Hiram Bithorn Stadium has no upper deck, so here’s what I ended up with:
Here’s a look at the stadium from the back of the seats on the 1st base side:
Here’s one of two ramps that lead to the press box:
I suspect this would be a good place to get autographs, but I didn’t stick around. It was only 20 minutes ’til game time, so I made my way back down the steps and took a couple pics of the multi-colored seats:
Then I headed into the lower concourse and saw the best concession stand of all time:
That concluded my tour of the main part of the stadium.
I headed out through the gate…
…and stopped for a minute to watch the band:
It might not look like they were playing, but they were. The blurry guy right in front was jumping all over the place while performing a drum solo.
When I made it back to the bleachers, there happened to be a TV crew from some local station called El Nuevo Dia getting shots of the crowd. The host recognized me as the guy who’d caught Mike Stanton’s home run the day before, and he asked if he could interview me. (He was bilingual.) While he was introducing me, Mike grabbed my camera and took the following photo:
It was a quick interview. Probably less than 60 seconds. Standard stuff. The guy basically asked me where I’m from and what I was doing in Puerto Rico, and we talked baseball.
The highlight for me during the game was that I snagged another San Juan Series commemorative ball (I’d gotten two the day before), and it was embarrassingly easy. With one out in the bottom of the 2nd, Dan Uggla ripped a line drive down the left field line. The ball hooked foul. I raced to my right through the cross-aisle. Mets left fielder Jason Bay jogged over and retrieved it. I was the only person in the aisle, so when I shouted at him, he tossed it right to me.
This was my view of the field, at least for a few moments here and there:
(FYI: the woman in the photo above is a vendor.)
In the bottom of the 5th, Uggla smoked a line drive home run right at me. I was lined up with it. There wasn’t any competition in the stands. It was going to be the easiest catch ever, but the ball fell five feet short and dropped into the gap and trickled under the bleachers. Here’s a screen shot that shows me looking down at it:
If I could do it all over again, I would have climbed over the railing and jumped down into the gap. At the time, I was one-third concerned about getting in trouble, one-third worried about getting hurt, and one-third convinced that there was already someone down there (a cameraman or security guard or fan) who must’ve grabbed the ball, so I stood there like an idiot and watched and waited…and waited…and waited, and 15 seconds later, some little kid appeared out of nowhere and ran under the bleachers and grabbed the ball and ran back out holding it up triumphantly. Good for the kid. Bad for me. It really would’ve been great to get that ball, and as it turned out, someone else jumped over the fence later on — without any negative consequences — for a warm-up that dropped into the gap. I really feel like I wasted an opportunity. It was one of only two homers in the game. The other was a grand slam by Hanley Ramirez that barely cleared the wall in left-center, bounced back onto the field, and immediately got tossed back into the crowd by Mets center fielder Angel Pagan. I tried running over, but didn’t even come close.
Final score: Marlins 7, Mets 6.
As for that Uggla foul ball that got tossed up to me, I took a bunch of photos of it and ended up with two that I simply have to share. I’ll post one now and the other after the stats:
• 3 balls at this game (1 pictured above/below because I gave the other two away)
• 179 balls in 18 games this season = 9.9 balls per game.
• 647 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 197 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 4,537 total balls
• 37 donors (click hereto learn more)
• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $16.23 raised at this game
• $968.39 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
Major League Baseball in Puerto Rico?
The Mets and Marlins moved a three-game series to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, and I made the trip from New York City to be there:
Yeah, I was a bit excited. It was my first time at this stadium, and as you might expect, I took a ton of photos. (For some reason, when the Expos played a bunch of games here in 2003 and 2004, I neglected to take advantage.)
Let’s start with the Hiram Bithorn statue:
Did you know that there was a guy named Hiram Bithorn? I wasn’t aware of that until I booked this trip and did a little research. Bithorn, born in 1916, was the first Puerto Rican to play in the Major Leagues. Check out all the info about him on the statue’s plaque:
In 1943, the dude went 18-12 with seven shutouts and a 2.60 ERA. That’s pretty impressive, and THAT is how you get a stadium named after you.
It was only 3pm. The gates weren’t going to open for another two hours, so I had plenty of time to wander.
Here’s the area with all the media/TV trucks:
Look at the slanted light towers:
Here’s a close-up of the trucks:
Here’s my first glimpse of the scoreboard inside the stadium:
In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise), you can see 1) the area beyond the right field corner of the stadium, 2) lawnmowers parked in the parking lot and Roberto Clemente Stadium in the distance, 3) the edge of the grandstand on the first base side, and 4) the road that curves around from right field to left field:
While walking along that road, I saw an open gate:
It was some sort of employee entrance. This is what I saw through the bars:
It was the back of the right field bleachers. I had a bleacher ticket. I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to move back and forth from right to left field, but it looked promising. I also didn’t know if there’d be batting practice. It had just been pouring for 20 minutes, and there was still thunder and lightning in the area.
Here’s another four-part photo that shows 1) the road behind the right field edge of the stadium, 2) a Puerto Rican stop sign, 3) a view of the stadium from deeeeeeep center field, and 4) another gate of some sort:
I was so confused.
Nothing was marked, few people spoke English, and let me tell you, I was in heaven. It’s like I was discovering a new way to watch baseball.
Hiram Bithorn Stadium is the largest baseball stadium in Puerto Rico, and it only holds about 20,000 fans. There’s no upper deck. No club level. No standing-room sections. No cup holders. No flat-screen TVs. No waiter service. It’s incredibly simple, and yes, also dumpy and run-down, but that’s what makes it nice. It’s the opposite of the new Yankee Stadium. It’s unrefined, and I don’t mean that as an insult. I like unrefined. I like it when puddles don’t drain. I like it when garbage cans overflow. That’s real life. You know what I mean? Take Target Field, for example. That stadium is an architectural marvel, but it’s almost too perfect. When I was there last month, it kinda felt like I was in a modern art museum.
But let’s get back to Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Look at all this clutter sitting around just inside the random gate:
Is that a beautiful sight or what? I’m totally serious. It was great to experience Major League Baseball in a facility where every inch of space wasn’t being micromanaged.
Here’s another four-part photo that shows 1) the area outside the left field corner of the stadium, 2) police guarding an employee entrance along the left field foul line, 3) the view as I cut across toward the 3rd base line, and 4) the walkway that leads to the main entrance.
This is what the gates look like…
…and here’s a sneak-peek at the concourse inside:
The sun finally came out. I ran across the street to use a bathroom inside a gigantic mall and took this photo of the stadium on the way back:
The stadium was jumping at that point. There were food tents and vendors and DJ booths and promoters aggressively handing out thunder sticks. The whole place had a carnival-like atmosphere. Look how crowded it was:
Luckily, there was a special someone holding a spot for me near the front of the line:
I’m talking about my girlfriend Jona, pictured above in the white shirt and torn jeans. Unfortunately, we were in line at the wrong spot. We couldn’t enter the main part of the stadium with bleacher tickets, so at the last second, we had to get out of line and head halfway around the stadium, and by the time we got inside, we’d missed a few minutes of batting practice. But hey, at least there WAS batting practice. The Mets were on the field, and before I had a chance to blink, a right-handed batter crushed a home run to the back of the bleachers. I raced up the steps and grabbed the ball after lunging over a railing.
Mission accomplished! It was the 48th “major league” stadium at which I’d snagged at least one ball. I wouldn’t have counted Hiram Bithorn on my list if I’d snagged baseballs at a Puerto Rico Baseball League game or even at the World Baseball Classic, but this was different. I was here for an actual regular-season major league game. If the wins and losses and stats were gonna count for the teams and players, then it was only fair that the balls would count in my collection.
After getting that first ball, I took a few photos of the glorious bleacher configuration. Look at the cross-aisle in front…
…and check out the gap behind the outfield wall:
I got one of the Mets’ strength/conditioning coaches to toss me a ball near the left field foul pole, and then things slowed way down. The bleachers were general admission, so everyone showed up early to claim a good spot, and as a result, the whole section got crowded fast. There just wasn’t much room to run. Batting practice was a major struggle. The expression on my face tells the whole story:
(That’s me in the Mets gear.) Here’s a closer look:
Finally, after 20 minutes of frustration, I got my third ball of the day from Bobby Parnell. The fact that I spoke perfect, accent-free English probably helped convince him to hook me up. There were very few people from the States. I’d say 99 percent of the fans were Latino/Puerto Rican. Although there’s no telling what kind of effect that had on my ability to snag baseballs, it’s an interesting factor to consider.
Left field was dead, so I decided to see if I could move to the right field side. Naturally, I took some photos along the way.
First, here’s the staircase that leads up into the left field bleachers:
Here’s the view to the left:
See all those people walking toward the batter’s eye in center field?
(Oh yeah, baby…)
Not only was I free to roam between left and right field, but there was a TON of open space in between. Check it out:
Here’s one more photo to show you what I’m talking about. I took it behind the wall in center field.
I couldn’t decide where to go. The opportunities — the ball-snagging potential — was truly mind-boggling.
All of a sudden, I saw a ball fly over the wall in right-center and drop down into the gap in front of the bleachers. Was I allowed to chase after it? I had no idea what the rules were, so I raced over…and this is what I saw:
The photo above is blurry because I was running full speed when I took it, but anyway, yeah, I was totally allowed to run under the bleachers. The ball was just sitting there, waiting for me. My first three balls of the day were regular MLB balls; this one was a training ball. It was all muddy, so I kept it in my hand as I headed back into the left field bleachers. When I got there, a female security supervisor (who’d seen me get a ball earlier) asked me if I could spare the ball. She told me there was a kid who was crying because someone else had taken a ball from him.
“Where’s the kid?” I asked, expecting to see a five-year-old.
“Over there,” she said, pointing to a teenaged boy curled up with his face in his mother’s lap.
“Are you serious?” I asked. “He’s too big to be crying.” I was going to tell her that there’s no crying in baseball, but I didn’t know if she’d get it. Anyway, it was no laughing matter, so I handed her the ball so that she could be the one to give it to the boy.
Well, the kid was thrilled, his entire family was thrilled, and the supervisor loved me after that and took good care of me for the rest of the series.
That was it for batting practice. The Mets finished hitting at 5:50pm — half an hour earlier than I expected — and I was stuck in the bleachers. There wasn’t anything to do. There wasn’t anything to photograph. So I just sat there with Jona and waited for the game to start.
This was our terrible view…
…but it was worth it because I had lots of room to run through the aisle on either side.
Do you remember my previous blog entry? I said I was going to be wearing my “Where’s Waldo” shirt in order to make it easier for people to spot me on TV. (I brought four shirts to this game.) That’s all. just wanted to remind you of that fact.
Before the top of the 2nd inning got underway, Marlins left fielder Chris Coghlan threw his warm-up ball into the bleachers. He hadn’t aimed for anyone in particular. It was just a random toss. It happened to come right to me, but it was several feet over my head, so I jumped as high as I could…
…and came down with it. (Jona’s camera could not contain me!)
With no outs in the top of the 5th inning, Jason Bay smoked a 1-1 pitch from Ricky Nolasco down the left field line. The ball hooked foul and rattled around in the corner, and by the time Coghlan jogged over to retrieve it, I had already bolted through the aisle so that I was standing right behind him. Once again, he randomly flipped the ball up into the crowd, and wouldn’t you know it, I was able to grab this one as well. But this wasn’t any ordinary ball. Have a look:
Oh yes, my friends, that’s right. MLB and Rawlings International had designed a special commemorative logo for this series. Here’s a closer look:
I had heard from one of my contacts at MLB that these special balls were only going to be used during games — not during BP. He actually offered to send one to me before I went on this trip, but I didn’t take him up on it.
“Let me see if I can snag one on my own first,” I said.
And…voila! Another mission had been accomplished. At that point, the only thing left for me to achieve was catching a game home run, and if ever there was a time to do it, this was it.
Of the 18 players in the game, 14 were batting from the right side, and yet the first four home runs of the night went to right field. It was tempting to run over there, but I decided to hold my ground in straight-away left.
With two outs in the bottom of the 8th, I pulled out my camera and took the following photo:
There were two runners on base, and Mike Stanton was batting, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Mainly, I just wanted a photo that captured the simplicity of the scoreboard. There was no pitch count. There were no stats other than his .203 batting average. It didn’t even say what he’d done earlier in the game.
The count was 1-1, and the next pitch was a strike.
No big deal.
I took another photo to capture all the room I had on my left:
“What a waste,” I thought, “that there haven’t been any homers hit to left field.”
On the very next pitch, Stanton cranked a deep fly ball in my direction.
“HOLD THIS!!! HOLD THIS!!! HOLD THIS!!!” I yelled at Jona, reaching to my right to hand the camera to her.
From the second the ball left Stanton’s bat, I knew it was coming to me. I mean right to me. I don’t know how I knew. I just knew. And I also knew I was going to catch it. It was as simple as that.
Here are a few screen shots from the TV broadcast to show you how it played out. First, you can see Jason Bay running back toward the wall. Note the “Waldo” stripes directly behind him:
In the screen shot above, approximately five feet to the left of where I was standing, you can see a fan wearing a white shirt with red sleeves. He ended up drifting over, and he nearly cost me the ball. Look how close he was when I reached up for it:
Like I said, the ball was coming RIGHT toward me. I wasn’t going to have to jump or lean out over the railing. All I had to do was reach up for it, but this other guy (who was not wearing a glove) was reaching up, too. His hands were right in front of my face, and I knew that it was gonna be a battle to see who could reach the furthest.
Here’s a closer look at the screen shot above. I’ve drawn two little red dots over his hands, and I’ve drawn an arrow to show you the ball going into my glove:
That should illustrate just how close he came to getting a piece of the ball. I had tried to box him out (simply by holding my ground), but he managed to reach in front of me at the last second. Still, I think my effort to block him made a slight difference, and as a result, the ball cleared his left hand by about four inches.
I had the ball!!!
Here’s a closer look at my reaction:
(Unfortunately, you can’t see Jona in any of these screen shots, but she saw me. In fact, it was the first game home run that she’d ever seen me catch on the fly.)
Half the fans were really happy for me, and I got a few high fives:
The other half were p*ssed because it was the third ball I’d snagged during the game, and get this: three minutes later, before the top of the 9th started, I got another. Coghlan threw another warm-up ball into the crowd. It sailed about five feet over my head, but because all the fans reached for it at once, they all booted it, and the ball dropped right down to me. There was a huge crowd in the aisle, going for the rebound, but I managed to stick out my glove and catch it before it hit the ground.
I immediately handed the ball to the smallest kid with a glove, and then I reached into my backpack and pulled out another ball and gave that one away, too. Everyone started cheering and shaking my hand. A bunch of parents asked if they could take photos of me with their kids. It was nuts, Here I am with the two kids that received baseballs:
After the game (which the Marlins won, 10-3), I got more high-fives and handshakes. Several people asked me to sign autographs:
Did I mention that it was nuts? Everyone wanted to stop and talk. (One man said, “Everybody is famous for one day. Today is your day.”) It’s like I was their good luck charm — as if touching me or connecting with me was going to bring them fortune. I’ve never experienced fans reacting like that before. iViva Puerto Rico!
Everyone was energized, it seemed. Outside the stadium, the vendors were still selling food, the DJs were still blasting music, and people were dancing just about everywhere:
This was probably the most unusual major league game I’ve ever attended, and I’m not talking about the action on the field. There had been fans with air horns and vuvuzelas inside the stadium. There’d been people playing drums and singing and chanting. It was so happy and festive and joyous and just…I don’t know…raw…and stadium security didn’t really give a damn about anything.
Before Jona and I headed back to the hotel, I met up with two guys who’d been reading this blog and got in touch to tell me they’d be here. These guys didn’t know each other. One was from San Juan. The other was from Michigan. Here I am with them:
The guy on the left is named Gustavo. (Unlike this Gustavo, he’s incredibly friendly.) He had actually gotten in touch two years ago and sent me one of the longest/nicest emails I’ve ever received. You can read that email on this page on my web site. Just search for “Gustavo” or scroll down to September 14, 2008, and you’ll see it. The guy on the right is named Mike. He had contacted me a few weeks earlier, and he was really cool, too. He’s been to 46 major league stadiums.
One last thing…
There are lots of highlights of the Mike Stanton homer, but thanks to a friend in New York who taped the game, I got a hold of the best footage of all. It’s a one-minute clip from SNY, the Mets’ cable network. The file (.mov format) is 15MB, so you might need to give it a minute to load. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Mets’ announcers, the two guys talking about me at the end are Gary Cohen and former major leaguer Ron Darling. Enjoy…
• 8 balls at this game (5 pictured on the right because I gave three away)
• 176 balls in 17 games this season = 10.4 balls per game.
• 646 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 196 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 48 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 13 lifetime game home runs (not counting toss-ups); click here for the complete list.
• 6 different stadiums with a game home run (Old Yankee, PETCO, Shea, Camden, New Yankee, and Hiram Bithorn)
• 4,534 total balls
• 37 donors (click hereto learn more)
• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $43.28 raised at this game
• $952.16 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
UPDATE: My home run catch was written up on MyGameBalls.com. Click here to read the story.
Technically, this was a Watch With Zack game, but for a change, my job didn’t involve teaching anything about baseball or helping anyone snag baseballs. That’s because my “client” — a very talented ballhawk named Joe Faraguna — didn’t need that kind of help. Joe is only 15 years old, and since he lives in New York, he mainly needed help getting down to Baltimore. Beyond that, he just wanted to hang out.
Joe and I left New York City at 11:30am, blasted music and talked baseball for the entire three-hour drive, and went to lunch at Hooters (his choice, though I didn’t complain). Then we walked to the stadium in the 98-degree heat. Here we are standing outside the Eutaw Street gate:
You might also know about Joe because:
1) He was featured in this blog entry in 2008. (Scroll down to #5.)
2) He regularly leaves comments on this blog as “yankees5221.”
3) He writes his own blog: baseballexperiences.mlblogs.com
4) He has a profile on MyGameBalls.com.
5) He has the second highest balls-per-game average of anyone in this year’s Ballhawk League.
Anyway, like I said, Joe didn’t need my help snagging baseballs. In fact, he told me that he wanted us to split up so that we could combine for as many balls as possible — but we both still raced out to left field as soon as the gates opened.
Thirty seconds after we got there, Jason Berken and David Hernandez walked out to the warning track, and one of them asked, “How many balls are you up to now?” I was so focused on the batter that it took a moment before I realized that they were talking to me.
“Wait…what?!” I asked. “How did you know who I am?”
“How many!” demanded Berken with a smile on his face.
“Four thousand, five hundred, and twenty. But how did you know?!”
“We saw you on CNN,” replied Hernandez.
“CNN? That was eleven years ago. Are you sure that’s what you saw?”
“It was the one with Katie Couric,” said Berken.
“Oh, you mean CBS,” I told them. “Yeah, that one aired in ’06.”
“You still got the streak?” asked Hernandez.
Before I had a chance to answer and confirm that my streak of consecutive games with at least one ball WAS, in fact, still going strong, a right-handed batter launched a deep fly ball in my direction. There were a few other ballhawks in the stands, but I managed to get underneath it and hold my ground and reach up for the one-handed catch.
The first thing I noticed was that the ball had a beautiful smudge on the logo. The second thing I noticed was that Berken and Hernandez were rather amused.
“Yes,” I told them, “my streak is still alive, and it just lived to see another day.”
“Oh, so you count batting practice?” asked Berken.
“Yeah, of course,” I said.
Hernandez asked to see the ball, so I tossed it to him.
“This one is all messed up,” he said. “You don’t really want it, right?”
“Are you kidding me?! I love baseballs that are beat up. Brand new balls are boring.”
Hernandez then tossed the ball back. He and Berken kept talking to me for a few minutes. I should have taken photos, but there were so many home runs flying into the seats that I truly didn’t have a chance to pull out my camera.
Joe already had three balls by that point, including a homer that he caught right in front of me. I had been cutting through the second row. He was camped out in the front row. A line drive was heading toward him. He stuck his glove up and nabbed it. Once he turned around and realized that I was standing behind him, he apologized profusely for robbing me, but there was no need for that. He made a nice catch. The end.
I caught two more homers in the next five minutes. The first was a line drive hit by Julio Lugo that barely cleared the outfield wall. I drifted down the steps. David Hernandez jumped up and reached for it. The ball sailed six inches over his glove. (I discovered later that this ball represented three personal milestones: the 4,200th ball during my consecutive games streak, my 1,600th ball outside of New York, and the 300th ball I’d ever snagged at Camden Yards. Coolness.) The second was a lazy, 375-foot fly ball that was hit half a section to my right. I jogged through an empty row of seats and made the easy back-handed catch.
It was only 5:10pm. I had three baseballs and Joe had five. We were both set for a monster day of snagging when this happened:
In case you can’t tell what’s taking place in the photo above, all the Orioles were jogging off the field. Their portion of batting practice ended 25 minutes early — POOF!!! — just like that.
Evidently, the team’s new/interim manager, Juan Samuel, changed the BP schedule. It now starts earlier and ends earlier, and as a result, it’s now like this almost every day.
Joe and I were in shock:
After a long wait, the Marlins finally came out and started throwing:
In the photo above, the three fans in the front row are regulars at Camden Yards. I know you can’t see their faces, but I still want to point them out. The kid wearing the backward O’s cap is named Zevi, the guy in the middle is Matt Hersl, and the man on the right is Ed. There were other regulars in attendance as well, along with other folks that I’d met before, or who recognized me and said hello. Let me see if I can remember everyone:
1) Avi Miller, who has an excellent web site about the Orioles
2) Casey from Milwaukee, who writes a blog about ballhawking
3) Wiley from Milwaukee, who also blogs about his games
4) Jon Herbstman from NYC, whom I last saw 11 months ago
5) Jon’s friend Bennett
6) Kevin, whom I last saw nearly four years earlier
7) Craig, who spotted me during BP and got really lucky later on…
Am I forgetting anyone? If so, I apologize. I talked to so many people at this game that my head is spinning. But let’s get back to the Marlins. This may be hard to believe, but they did not throw a single ball into the crowd during batting practice. I’ve never seen anything like it. Avi told me that the Marlins had thrown so many balls into the crowd the day before that the players actually got scolded by a coach.
The seats were fairly crowded. Yeah, there was room to run, but there were lots of guys with gloves. Basically, there was competition for every home run ball. You know what I mean? There was almost no chance to make an easy, uncontested catch. Keep in mind that the photo above was taken at 5:50pm — half an hour before BP ended, so it got a lot more crowded than that.
My fourth ball of the day was a homer that I caught on the fly. The easy part of it was that it was hit right to me. The tough part was that the guy standing directly behind me clobbered me from behind as I made the catch. (I’m pretty sure it was an accident, but still, that’s just uncalled for.)
Ten minutes later, I caught another home run, this time off the bat of Hanley Ramirez. It was a high fly ball. That made it tough. It gave everyone else time to drift underneath it, but I picked the right spot and reached up through a sea of hands at the last second.
Then something funny happened. Some guy (who was about 50 years old and not exactly in shape) started complaining about all the balls I’d caught. He told me he was going to “shut me down” and prevent me from getting any more.
“You’re gonna have a professional outfielder trailing you,” he warned.
“Sounds like fun,” I said.
The guy proceeded to stand directly in front of me on the staircase — and you can probably guess what happened next. The batter hit a deep fly ball to my right. I took off running through an empty row. The guy was blocked by a railing and watched helplessly as I made the catch. He was furious. I later gave the ball to a kid.
That was it for BP. I’d snagged six baseballs, and every single one was a homer that I’d caught on the fly. I found Joe behind the Marlins’ dugout. He was up to seven balls at that point, and he’s also gotten two batting gloves — one from Chris Coghlan and another from Brian Barden. Joe had actually gotten a third glove, which he generously gave to the kid who’d let him move into the crowded front row.
Despite the earlier stinginess, the Marlins did toss their pre-game warm-up balls into the seats behind the dugout. Joe got two of them (one from Gaby Sanchez, another from Dan Uggla), and a little kid on my left got the other (from Hanley Ramirez).
I spent the entire game in the outfield. I never went for a foul ball or a 3rd-out ball or even an umpire ball at the end of the night. I just focused on home runs, and I constantly ran back and forth from right field to left field, depending on the number of righties and lefties that were due to bat.
Joe stayed behind the plate and used his speed to snag a foul ball in the top of the first inning. The following photo shows where Joe was sitting and where the ball ended up. The amount of ground he covered was seriously impressive:
I immediately called and congratulated him. (It was his second lifetime game foul ball.)
“You saw that?!” he asked.
“Hell yeah!” I said. “Who else here would be streaking three full sections for a ball?”
A bit later on, this was my view for left-handed batters:
Joe was in the standing room section because Nick Markakis was at bat. Other than that, Joe pretty much stayed in foul territory. As for me, I normally play lefties farther to the left at Camden, but because the seats in straight-away right field were so empty, I stood behind that staircase and gave myself a chance to run down the steps.
In the bottom of the 2nd inning, Luke Scott hit a homer into the seats, but it was too far to my right. By the time it landed, I was still 20 feet away, and another fan immediately grabbed it.
There was even more action for me in left field.
In the top of the 3rd, Gaby Sanchez hit a bomb that was heading a full section to my right. I jumped up and raced through the seats. I knew that the ball was going to sail over my row, so while everyone else around me was frozen in place, I put my head down and focused on running toward the spot where I predicted the ball would land. Check out this screen shot from the Orioles’ broadcast:
A split-second later, I was heading up the steps:
See the guy in the white shirt reaching up with his bare hands? With my back to the field, I could tell from his body language that the ball was heading right for him, but I couldn’t quite get there in time. My only hope was that he’d drop the ball and cause it to bounce down to me.
Sure enough, the ball clanked off his hands. I could see it on the ground, and we both scrambled for it…
…and he grabbed it JUST as I was reaching for it.
That really sucked, but there was no time to mope. Jorge Cantu was due up two batters later, and he was sitting on 99 career home runs. I’d already been thinking of what to ask for if I caught No. 100. I had the whole thing worked out. I was visualizing everything. I was more prepared than ever. And then whaddaya know, Cantu blasted a drive toward the seats in left-center. This time the ball was heading a section to my left (AARRGHH!!) so I started running through my row…
…and I reached the staircase as the ball was descending.
Nooooooo!!! It was falling short!!!
I tried to work my way down the steps, but I just couldn’t get there in time:
But wait! The fans bobbled the ball and kicked it all over the place. It was still rattling around on the staircase two seconds later…
…and if not for the two fans who were blocking me, I would’ve dove on top of it.
The ball somehow rolled all the way down to the front row. In the screen shot above, do you see the guy in the white Orioles jersey at the front? That was Craig, the guy I’d talked to during BP. He’s the one who ended up grabbing it, so I gave him all kinds of advice on what to tell security when they came to get the ball from him. I told him he could get all kinds of goodies for it, and that he could meet Cantu, but in the end, all he got for it was a signed ball by Nick Markakis. I thought he really wasted an opportunity until I noticed the name of the back of his jersey: MARKAKIS. Still, he could’ve gotten a Markakis bat to go along with his Markakis ball, if he really wanted it…but oh well. He was happy, and Cantu was obviously thrilled, so in the end, it all worked out perfectly.
As for the game itself…whatever. Joe pretty much summed it up when we were driving down to Baltimore and naming all the reasons why the attendance would be low. “This is probably the least cared about game in the majors,” he said.
Final score: Joe 11, Marlins 7, Zack 6, Orioles 5. (My Ballhawk Winning Percentage is now .781 — 12.5 wins, 3.5 losses.)
You can read all about the balls that Joe snagged on his blog. The entry isn’t up yet, so keep checking back. I’m sure he’ll be posting it soon…
• 6 balls at this game (5 pictured on the right because I gave one away)
• 168 balls in 16 games this season = 10.5 balls per game.
• 645 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 4,204 balls during the consecutive games streak
• 195 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 1,604 lifetime balls outside of New York
• 304 lifetime balls at Camden Yards
• 4,526 total balls
• 37 donors (click here to learn more; Jason Berken and David Hernandez now know about it)
• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $32.46 raised at this game
• $908.88 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
WATCH WITH ZACK STATS:
Did you know that I have a whole page of Watch With Zack stats on my web site? Click here to check it out. Joe became the first client to snag a foul ball during a game, and he also broke two records: most balls by a client at one game and most balls by a client overall. Congrats, Joe. Snagging 11 balls (including a foul ball) and two batting gloves is about as good a day as anyone could hope for.
This was my first game of the season. Don’t let my facial expression in the photo below fool you. I was indeed happy to be there:
Mainly, I was (and still am) shocked that the season had arrived — that I was actually standing outside Citi Field. The off-season flew by. I never had a break from baseball. I was (and still am) working full-time on my book.
(If you’re not familiar with Citi Field, the Home Run Apple wasn’t there last year. It was hidden behind the bullpens. And FYI, this is the old Apple from Shea Stadium, which I miss very much.)
Now, onto another important topic…
As I mentioned recently on Twitter, I’ve gained 11 pounds in the last six months. I went from a light-on-my-feet weight of 167 pounds to a sluggish-and-constantly-feeling-bloated 178. I basically haven’t gotten any exercise since Game 5 of the 2009 World Series, so it was good to be back at a stadium where I’d be “forced” to run around. It was also good that my friend Greg was there with an old ball. He and I and another friend named Matt tossed it around for 20 minutes before the gates opened, and thankfully, I hadn’t forgotten how to catch. Here’s Matt getting ready to fire the ball to Greg:
There was a fairly big crowd waiting to get in:
In the photo above, you can see Greg waving. He started the day with a lifetime total of 875 balls, and because Citi Field is Citi Field, I got stuck in a bad line, and he got a major head start on the dash to left field — and surprise-surprise, he had two baseballs by the time I got there.
I was completely out of breath. It was pathetic. I mean, it’s a long run from street level behind home plate to the elevated concourse in the outfield, but still, that’s just lame. I have some serious work to do.
It didn’t take long for me to snag my first ball of the season. Mets reliever Ryota Igarashi threw it to me after I asked him for it in Japanese. Here it is:
Oh yeah, baby, a Citi Field inaugural season commemorative ball. As it turned out, every single one of the Mets balls were commemorative. They obviously have a lot left over from last year.
Moments later, I snagged a Fernando Tatis home run that landed in the seats in left-center, and then I caught another one of his homers. That one came right to me. There was nothing to it. The real challenge came five minutes later when David Wright smoked a deep line drive in my direction. For some reason, I was standing in the middle of the third row when I determined that the ball was going to fall a bit short, so I quickly climbed over the seats into the second row, then climbed over THAT row of seats so that I was standing in the front row. I got there just as the ball was about to land, and I reached over the railing and made the catch.
“How did that feel?!” asked a man on my right, who probably thought it was the first ball I’d ever caught.
I shrugged and said, “Great.”
What else was I supposed to say? That those few seconds from the time the ball jumped off Wright’s bat until it smacked the pocket of my Mizuno glove showed me that I still had it?
When I finally looked at the ball, I noticed that it had a beautifully smudged logo:
Matt’s goal for the day was to snag one ball. As soon as he got it, he came over and grabbed my camera and took a few action shots of me. Here’s one that shows me climbing over some more seats as a home run flew into the second deck. I was trying to get in position in case it bounced back down into the front row (it didn’t). The red arrow is pointing at Greg:
Here I am scrambling unsuccessfully for a home run ball:
The guy in the black jersey ended up grabbing it. I suspect that the man in the gray jersey was bending over in case the ball trickled down the steps. (He looks kinda funny, no?)
Angel Pagan then tossed up a ball that sailed over the first few rows and was about to sail over my head, too…
…but I managed to climb up on a seat at the last second and catch it.
Matt told me to hold up the ball so he could take a photo, but I didn’t want to take my eye off the batter. In the two-part photo below, the pic on the left shows me saying, “Hold on,” and the pic on the right is the actual pose that Matt had requested:
Toward the end of the Mets’ portion of BP, I caught two Luis Castillo homers on the fly in straight-away left field, then happened to catch another homer out in left-center. I wasn’t looking at the batter. I was trying to get someone to toss me a ball from down below, when all of a sudden, I heard people shouting at something else, so I looked up and saw a HIGH fly ball coming toward me. At first, I didn’t think it was going to reach the seats, but it carried, and I reached far over the railing and made the catch. It was either hit by Jeff Francoeur or Jason Bay. Not sure.
Before the stadium had opened, Matt predicted that I’d snag 12 balls. I thought his guess was too high, but by the time the Marlins took the field, I was two-thirds of the way there. Hmm…
My ninth ball of the day was thrown by Burke Badenhop. It helped that I had changed into a Marlins cap and shirt, but my outfit didn’t do me any good for the rest of BP. I’m happy to report, though, that I caught three more home runs on the fly. (That’s a total of eight home runs that I caught on the fly, in case you lost count.) The first was hit by Dan Uggla, and I have no idea who hit the next two. I gave one of them to the nearest kid.
With a few minutes remaining in BP, I made my way toward the dugout and didn’t get anything there — except a photo of my Marlins crew:
From right to left, you’re looking at Greg (who ended up with nine balls), Matt (three), Ben (only one because he missed most of BP), me (keep reading), Ryan (six), and Ryan’s friend T.J. (three). Not one of us is actually a Marlins fan. We just had the gear to try to get extra baseballs.
Matt had bought a ticket in the front row behind the Marlins’ dugout. (Don’t ask how much it cost. He’s from California. This was his one and only game here, and the rest of his trip was paid for by his job, so he splurged.) I could’ve stayed down there with him, but I felt like wandering and playing for home runs. The left field seats were basically packed…
…so I headed toward the newly named “Shea Bridge”…
…and went up to the second deck in right field so I could take a photo of the bullpens. This is how the ‘pens looked last year. (If you’re too lazy to click that link, just know that they ran parallel to the outfield wall. The Mets’ bullpen was closer to the field; the visitors’ bullpen was tucked out of view below the overhang — stadium design at its worst.) This is the new bullpen configuration:
Weird but better. (Does anyone know anyone who works for the architectural firm that designs all these stadiums? It used to be called HOK. Now it’s named Populous. With all due respect, they could really use my help.)
By the way, when I first tried to photograph the bullpens from the field level seats in right field, the security-guard-usher-type-person stopped me. He wouldn’t let me down the steps from the concourse — and this was 20 minutes after batting practice had ended. He told me that I needed to have a ticket to go down there. I told him that I’d heard about the new improvements to Citi Field, and that I was excited to see them and take some photos so I could blog about it, but he was like, “Sorry, you’re not allowed. You need a ticket. That’s what I’ve been told.” How sad that some teams are so un-fan-friendly.
There really wasn’t anywhere for me to go. Mike Jacobs was sitting on 99 career home runs, so I found my way into the seats in deep right-center for each of his at-bats. This was my lousy view:
I don’t enjoy sitting 3.2 miles from home plate, but I’m willing to do it on special occasions. Of course, Jacobs ended up going 1-for-5 with a single and two strikeouts. I have nothing against the guy, but he doesn’t look good. He’s batting .111 so far this season, and it’s no surprise. He always seems to be behind in the count 0-2, and his swing looks awfully long.
Eventually, I went and sat with Matt behind the Marlins’ dugout. The view there was much better…
…and thanks to his generosity, I got a third-out ball from Gaby Sanchez after the fifth inning. I was going to let Matt go for it, but he insisted.
“It’s for the charity,” he said.
When the Marlins made a double-switch with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, I was back in right-center. Emilio Bonifacio took over in center field, so Tim Wood came out of the bullpen to play catch with him. I quickly changed into my Marlins gear and heard a few grumbles (about my lack of team loyalty) from the fans sitting nearby. I hurried over to the side railing and got Wood’s attention as he was walking back toward the bullpen. He threw me the ball, and when I turned around, all the fans were smiling. They knew what was up, so once I was out of Wood’s view, I made a big production of taking off the Marlins gear and revealing my Mets shirt underneath. It was classic. The whole section burst into laughter, and then, for added comedic effect, I pretended to wipe myself with the teal-colored clothing.
The game was rather entertaining — and unusual. Not only did the Mets tie it up after trailing 6-1, but all six of their runs scored without a hit. In the bottom of the first, there was a sacrifice fly. In the bottom of the seventh, there was another sac fly and a bases-loaded walk. One inning later, they plated three more runs on a throwing error, another bases-loaded walk, and a balk.
In the top of the 10th, I was sitting several rows behind the Marlins dugout with Matt, Greg, Ben, and Ryan. Wes Helms led off the inning, and on a 2-1 pitch, he dribbled a foul grounder toward Joey Espada, the third base coach. Ryan reacted quickly and made a beeline for the front row. Espada scooped up the ball and tossed it into the seats. It wasn’t thrown to anyone in particular. It was just one of those up-for-grabs lobs, and Ryan gloved it. There was some talk about whether or not he’d “stolen” the ball from a kid, but I don’t think he did. Check out this screen shot from the game (sent by a friend in Florida):
See the little red numbers?
1 = Ryan
2 = me
3 = Greg
4 = Ben
From where I was standing, it appeared that the ball sailed above the kid’s left/bare hand. (I’m talking about the kid wearing the white striped shirt.) To some people, it may have appeared that Ryan reached in front of him, but in fact Ryan respectfully stayed behind the kid and simply reached above him. It’s hard to tell. There’s so much gray area with these things, but really, it looked like a clean play as far as I could tell.
Here’s another screen shot:
5 = Matt
The Marlins ended up taking a 7-6 lead, and guess who came in and notched his first major league save in the bottom of the 10th. That’s right: my boy Tim Wood.
After the final out, I got a ball from Laz Diaz, the home plate umpire, as he walked off the field. It was my 15th ball of the day — a new Citi Field record. My previous high for this stadium was 14 balls, which I accomplished on 8/4/09.
On my way out of the stadium, I gave another ball away to a kid and then posed with my eight Citi Field balls:
• 15 balls at this game (13 pictured on the right because I gave two away)
• 131 balls in 14 lifetime games at Citi Field = 9.36 balls per game.
• 630 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 488 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 121 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 4,373 total balls
• 13 donors (click here to see what this is all about)
• $1.37 pledged per ball
• $17.81 raised at this game
• $17.81 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball.
This was a very special day…
Not only was it my parents’ 35th anniversary, but it was the first time that I walked all the way around the outside of Citi Field since that snowy day in February of 2008.
Naturally, I took photos of everything, starting with the view from the subway exit:
I headed past the Brooklyn Dodgers Rotunda…
…and walked the length of the stadium toward the left field gate:
I rounded the corner and walked to the outermost edge of the parking lot. Here’s what the stadium looked like from afar — from about a quarter of a mile from home plate in straight-away left field:
I didn’t like what I saw. It didn’t look like a baseball stadium. It looked like a jumbled mess of generic modern architecture.
I walked closer…
On the right side of this edge of the stadium, there was some type of employee entrance:
In the middle, there was a chain-link fence blocking off a huge area of loading docks:
On the left side, there was a security guard and a “DO NOT ENTER” sign:
Do you see all those cork-shaped objects poking out of the ground every four feet? Do you know what those are for? Here in New York City, they’ve been popping up on sidewalks outside of new and important buildings. They’re there to prevent extremists (i.e. Al-Qaeda, Hamas, disgruntled Mets fans, etc.) from driving too close with explosive-laden vehicles.
Several policemen eyed me suspiciously as I walked around taking photos. I eyed them right back and rounded another corner…
…and peeked through one of Citi Field’s many glass doors. This is what I saw:
In case it’s not clear, this construction zone is inside Citi Field — basically at the deepest part of center field. Can anyone explain why the stadium is still under construction six months after it opened? Do we have Bernie Madoff to thank for this? What was/is this area supposed to end up being? I thought this new stadium was supposed to be “intimate.”
I approached the bullpen gate in right-center field:
In the photo above, did you notice all the cars and signs on the left side of the road? You know what’s over there, RIGHT across from the stadium? If you were to stand with your back facing the bullpen gate and walk across the street, this is what you’d see:
Instead of paying Oliver Perez $36 million to “pitch” for three years, the Mets should’ve bought out all the auto repair centers and replaced them with a public park…with some orange and blue flowers…and a few restaurants…and fountains…and a small baseball field where people could play catch…and statues of players who actually played for the Mets.
I rounded yet another corner and headed past the right field gate:
The following photo shows where the Mets players walk in from their parking lot:
Normally (as you might recall from my entry on 8/4/09 when I got Livan Hernandez to sign my 4,000th ball), this area is gated off in order to keep the fans as far away from the players as possible. The reason why it wasn’t blocked when I passed by is that it was already 4:15pm. All the Mets players were safely inside.
I made it all the way back around to the Rotunda:
(GOSH I love barricades!)
As I was looking for the best spot to wait in line, I ran into a new-ish friend (and aspiring ballhawk) named Ryan. He was there with his friend Keith. You’ll see a photo of them at the end of this entry.
Citi Field opened at 4:40pm, and I raced out to the left field seats. For a few minutes, I pretty much had the place to myself…
…but of course almost every batter was swinging from the left side of the plate. As a result, a ball ended up rolling onto the warning track in right-center field, so I ran over there. Ryan and Keith were standing nearby in the seats. They knew that I was there to snag that ball with my glove trick, but they didn’t mind. In fact, they even strategized with me about how I could get it without being seen by security. It was then that another ball rolled onto the track. Josh Thole jogged over to retrieve it, then tossed it to me (after I asked him politely for it) and left the other ball sitting there. Very strange. Moments later, a home run landed on the slanted area in front of the batter’s eye. Perfect! The security supervisor standing at the back of our section walked down a few rows and then climbed over the side railing to go get it. Ryan pulled out his camera and took a few photos while Keith stood next to me and used his tall frame as a shield. Here’s a pic of me getting the ball to stick inside the glove…
…and here’s another shot of the glove trick in action. You can see that I’m lifting up the ball while the yellow-shirted supervisor is wandering off in the background:
Some people consider this to be theft. My response: It’s not 1915 anymore. Fans are allowed to keep baseballs nowadays. Players and coaches (and ballboys and groundskeepers and ushers and photographers and announcers and mascots and vendors and security guards and other stadium personnel) actually GIVE balls to fans. Welcome to 2009.
And by the way, the ball that I snagged with my glove trick was a 2008 Yankee Stadium commemorative ball. The Mets are cool like that. They often use old/random commemorative balls during BP.
I headed back to left field, and once again, there was very little action. Brian Stokes walked by. He didn’t have a ball in his hand, and even if he did, I wouldn’t have asked him for it. Two days earlier, he had recognized me as That Guy who snags lots of baseballs. Normally, when players recognize me, it’s a bad thing. It means they’re not going to give me any more balls…ever. There’ve been exceptions — Josias Manzanillo, Pedro Martinez, and Heath Bell to name a few — but it’s rare. Anyway, when Stokes walked by, I shouted, “Hey, Brian, what’s up?!” He looked over and spotted me and waved, and it sounded like he yelled, “Hey, Zack!” I could be wrong. There’s a chance that he didn’t actually say my name. I might just have been hearing what I wanted to hear, but in any case, it was nice that he remembered me.
Thirty seconds later, while I was standing in the middle of the left field seats, minding my own business, watching the batter and hoping for a home run, I heard/saw someone trying to get my attention down below on the field. It was Stokes! He now had a ball in his hand, and he was making a gesture to indicate that he was going to throw it to me. I held up my glove…and…whooooosh!!! He fired a strike right to me.
“Thanks!” I shouted. “Is that for the charity?”
“I haven’t checked out your site yet!” he shouted back.
“But you still have my card?!”
“Yeah I got it!”
“Cool!” I said. “Thanks again!”
Then he waved and headed toward the foul pole, and I took a photo of the ball he’d thrown to me:
Yup, another Yankee Stadium commemorative. Brian Stokes is my new favorite player. With my luck, the Mets will trade him next year, and with the Mets’ luck (as was the case with Heath Bell), he’ll develop into an All-Star closer.
Halfway though the Mets’ portion of BP, a ball rolled onto the warning track down the left field foul line:
I waited for a minute to see if a player or security guard noticed that it was there, and when nobody went for it, I made my move. I raced over to the seats in foul territory and got as close as possible to the ball. Then I used my “half-glove trick.” That’s what I call it when I don’t actually use the rubber band or Sharpie, when all I do is fling the glove out and then yank it back in order to knock the ball closer. That’s all I had to do here because the wall was so low. Once I had the ball in my hand, I was thrilled to discover that it was a 2008 All-Star Game ball.
I headed back to left field and caught three home runs on the fly. The first — another Yankee Stadium commemorative — was hit by Jeff Francoeur, and I gloved it after running a section and a half to my left. The second was hit by Cody Ross (the Marlins had taken the field by this point) and it came right to me. The third homer? I have no idea who hit it because I was looking somewhere else and didn’t even see the ball coming until the very last second, at which point I darted to my right and made a lunging, back-handed catch.
The three homers gave me seven balls on the day. That might sound great, but I was pissed that I didn’t have a dozen. I misjudged one homer that ended up sailing five feet over my head. (I was in the middle of a section — in other words, NOT on a staircase — so I would’ve had to climb over two rows of seats while the ball was descending. It was a tough chance, but I feel like I should’ve had it.) Another home run tipped off the very end of my glove after another running/lunging attempt. Two more home runs were heading RIGHT toward me but fell five feet short. The Marlins players didn’t toss me a single ball despite the fact that I was decked out in
hideously ugly aqua-colored Marlins gear. Another home run sailed ten feet over my head and landed in a totally empty patch of seats. All it had to do was stay there and I would’ve been able to walk over and pick it up, but it ricocheted about a mile away. It was just one of those days when very little seemed to be going my way. The fact that I *did* have seven balls at that point was amazing and lucky. It shows how good Citi Field can potentially be (even though it’s nearly impossible to catch batted balls in right field). Someday…SOME day…mark my words: I’m going to snag 20 balls in a single game there. It might take a few more years of the Mets winning 45 percent of their games in order for the crowds to shrink sufficiently, but it *will* happen.
Another lame thing that happened during batting practice was that I had to deal with a hater. I was standing in the front row, getting ready to call out to a Marlins player, when I heard a man’s voice coming from the right, saying something about “running around like an idiot.” The voice was rather faint, and there wasn’t anyone standing nearby, so it didn’t occur to me that the words were aimed my way. Still I wanted to see who was talking so I looked over and saw an averaged-sized, 40-something-year-old man, sitting 15 feet to my right. He was wearing a glove and glaring at me.
“Are you talking to ME?” I asked. I wasn’t trying to start a fight. (Remember, I went to Quaker schools for eight years.) I was just taken by surprise by the whole situation, which seemed to be arising from nothing, and I genuinely wanted to know if, in fact, he WAS talking to me. It didn’t make any sense.
“Yeah, I’m talking to you!” he snapped.
I was already so annoyed by all the balls I’d missed that I was ready to explode, but I thought better of it and just shrugged it off and went about my business. Ten minutes later, when there was a lull between rounds of BP, I was still bothered by the whole thing. Why did the guy have a problem with me? I didn’t know him. I’d never talked to him. He obviously didn’t know me, so what the hell was his problem? I decided to confront him — but in a nice way. I walked over to his section. He was facing the field. I approached him from behind (since the front of the section was packed) and climbed over several rows of seats. As I sat down right behind him, he turned around quickly and noticed me and flinched, ever so slightly. That amused me. He obviously wasn’t expecting to see me again, and I swear, I just wanted to have a conversation with him and get to the bottom of his mysterious hostility.
“How’re you doing,” I said warmly but firmly. (This wasn’t a question. It was a statement.) “I was just wondering what exactly it is about me that you find idiotic.”
The guy was reasonably nice — as nice as he could be while telling me why he thought I sucked. He gave two reasons. First, he accused me of bumping into a kid, but then he admitted that he hadn’t really seen it, and that he HAD seen me pat the kid on the back after the kid got a ball. (In truth, the kid was a bit out of control and had bumped into me, but having once been an out-of-control kid myself, I let it slide.) Second, the guy accused me catching too many balls and therefore preventing other kids from getting them.
“Did you know,” I asked him, “that I give away balls to kids every time I go to a game?”
“I’ve never seen you give one away here,” he said.
“That’s because I usually wait until after the game to give balls away.”
“Well, that’s nice of you,” admitted the guy.
“And did you know,” I continued, “that I’ve been raising money for a kids’ charity this season with all the balls I catch at games?”
“I did not know that,” he said, now softening up.
I proceeded to tell him all about Pitch In For Baseball, and how I’ve gotten 123 people to make pledges for each ball that I snag, and how I’ve raised over $10,000 which will be used to ship baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world.
By the time we were done talking, the guy apologized to me and shook my hand. I also apologized to him for doing anything that might have given him the wrong impression. And that was that.
Right before the game started, several Marlins played catch in front of the 3rd base dugout:
In the photo above, the player on the left is Hanley Ramirez, and the player on the right (wearing No. 12) is Cody Ross. Ramirez finished first and tossed his ball to another fan one section to my left. Ross wrapped it up soon after, walked toward the dugout, scanned the seats for a cute little kid, and when he couldn’t find one (school is back in session, heh heh) he settled for tossing his ball to me.
I had a GREAT time during the game because I’d gone on StubHub earlier in the day and splurged for a ticket in the fancy “Sterling Level” seats behind home plate. At the beginning of the season, those seats were selling for hundreds of dollars apiece, but now, with the Mets embarrassing themselves, I was able to find one in the $70 range. That’s much more than I usually spend on tickets, but every now and then, I like to treat myself, and besides, I’d never been to that part of Citi Field, so I figured it was worth it to experience it once.
I headed out through a door on the field level concourse and then walked down a set of stairs. I don’t often get to go below field level, so this was quite a treat. This is what it looked like as I headed down. The red arrow is pointing to the Sterling Level entrance:
(Can we get some artwork on the walls? Maybe a big Mets mural? Or some old photographs? Maybe a trophy case? Something? ANYthing? Who the hell designed this place, and why wasn’t I consulted?)
Once I got through the doors, I felt incredibly out of place. I was wearing sneakers, cargo shorts, a T-shirt, a Mets cap, and a baseball glove. (And socks and underwear, in case you were wondering.) Everyone else there looked like…wait…was I even in a baseball stadium? This was the view to my right…
…and this was the view to my left:
A well-dressed employee approached me and said, “You look lost.”
It took an effort to explain (without losing my patience) that I was intentionally lost…that it was all part of my plan…that it was my first time down there…that I just wanted to be left the hell alone to wander and take photos and soak it all in.
I got some funny looks as I hurried through the club toward the seats. The game (there WAS a game, right?) was about to start…and…what? There were people sitting at a bar:
I was excited to be in the fancy club, but I didn’t like it at all. “Sterling Club” should be renamed “Sterile Club.” It was clean and spacious and luxurious, I suppose, if that’s your idea of luxury, but there was no charm or character or purpose. Not to me, at least. Why would anyone want to go to a baseball game and then sit at an air-conditioned bar watching it on TV? Am I missing something? Were all these other people there for the first time, too? It was like an airport lounge.
I was about to lose my mind. I had to get to the seats. This is how I got there:
My view for the game — or rather “for left-handed batters” — was outstanding. Check it out:
My actual seat was in the middle of a row somewhere, but since the section was half-empty, the friendly usher told me I could grab a seat at the end of a row.
After the top of the first inning, I recognized a security guard at the bottom of the section — a guy who was always really nice to me at Shea Stadium — so I got permission to go down there and talk to him. I couldn’t go ALL the way down to the protective screen. The seats there are separated by a “moat” (which you’ll see a bit later) and are reserved for people like Mrs. Beltran (yes, she was actually there). So, I went down to the first row behind the moat. I talked to the guard. We were glad to see each other. Last year at Shea, he had told me that Citi Field was going to be “a separation of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.'” I didn’t believe him at the time, or at least I didn’t think that the separation was going to be all that noticeable, but he was absolutely right. Citi Field is an elitist club that was built for millionaires (as opposed to the new Yankee Stadium, which was built for multi-millionaires); the average die-hard fan is an afterthought. This night confirmed it. Once the bottom of the first got underway, I sat down and kept talking to the guard. Angel Pagan, batting leadoff for the Mets, lifted a high foul pop-up that was heading 10 rows back and a full section to my left. I jumped out of my padded seat
and raced up the steps and cut through an empty row and came much closer to snagging the ball than I should’ve. There weren’t ANY other fans wearing gloves. I settled back down near the guard at the bottom of the section just as Pagan hit another foul ball. This time, it was heading into my section. I raced up the stairs and came within five feet of it as it landed. The ball then bounced back toward me and sailed one foot over my glove as I jumped and reached for it. I turned around and noticed that the ball had come to a rest against the bottom of a seat several rows below me. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a shot at it, but here in Moneyville, everyone else reacted in slow-motion. I bolted back down the steps, squeezed past an old man wearing moccasins, and dove on top of the ball. I was very careful not to bump into anyone; the only person who got banged up was me. I scraped my knuckles and slammed my right knee on the ground. There was a little blood. Nothing serious. But most importantly, and as I already said, NO ONE was hurt except me. I can’t stress that enough. It was a controlled dive on my part, if that makes sense. There was another fan approaching from the opposite direction, and I knew that he was going to reach the ball first unless I laid out. So I did. And I got it. And then he dove on top of me! I wasn’t expecting that. I don’t know what he was thinking. He actually tried to grab the ball out of my hand after I clearly had sole possession of it. I mean, it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t like a “held ball” in basketball where two guys grab it at the same time. No way. I had the ball in my bare hand when his hand was at least six inches away. I used all my strength (as I lay sprawled out on the concrete) to grip the ball and prevent him from prying it out of my hand. This was my first foul ball at Citi Field, so there was no way I was going to have it taken from me. I won the battle and finally got up — my camera had gotten banged up too — and returned to my aisle seat at the back of the section. I made eye contact with the guard at the bottom. He didn’t know whether or not I’d gotten the ball, so I held it up and he shook his head in disbelief. Moments later, my phone rang. It was Clif (a former Watch With Zack apprentice; aka “goislanders4” in the comments section) who was sitting behind the Marlins’ dugout. He’d seen the whole thing.
I caught my breath, tested my camera (it still loved me!), and inspected the ball. It had a beautiful patterned marking on one part of the cowhide. I can’t describe it or explain it. I can only show it:
The area with the marking was slightly — almost negligibly — rougher than the rest. How could this have happened? Is it possible that the pattern was imprinted when the ball first landed on the concrete steps in the stands? That’s my best guess. One thing I learned last month in Philadelphia when I got a lesson on how to rub mud on game balls is that the subtle patterns and abnormalities in the cowhide will be accentuated when the mud is rubbed on. Still, I can’t imagine that this pattern could’ve found its way onto the ball through mere rubbing alone. (BTW, if you want to see photos of other weird markings and defects, click here.)
When right-handed batters came up after that, I moved to the other side of home plate. There was lots of room to run…
…but nothing came my way.
During inning breaks and pitching changes, I explored the rest of the club. Here’s what the concession area looks like. I took this photo from the edge of the concourse that runs between the Rotunda and home plate…
…and here’s the concourse itself, if it can even be called that:
It’s really more of an entrance, although it DOES connect the left and right sides of the Sterling Level clubs.
At some random point in the middle innings, I felt a stinging sensation on the outer edge of my right wrist. I took a look at it. There was a small scrape. It took me a moment to realize that it must’ve happened while I was scrambling for that foul ball. This made me happy. It was the sign of a good injury; I was having so much fun and the adrenaline had been so high that I didn’t even know where I’d been hurt. Two days have passed since this game, and I *just* noticed that I have a larger scrape on my left shin. After careful review and analysis, I have determined that it’s the result of having lunged across the concrete ledge for the half-glove trick.
Anyway, on with the tour…
Here’s the Sterling Level patio seating:
That’s a good foul ball spot for righties, although there’s very little room to run.
Are you wondering about the bathrooms? I sure was, and since there weren’t any signs pointing to them, I had to ask a restaurant staff member to point me to them. I didn’t whip out my camera in the men’s room. (I was tempted to photograph all the marble and fancy appliances, but that just would’ve been creepy.) Instead, I took a photo just outside the men’s room, which shows where I had to walk to get there:
(WHY ISN’T THERE ANY METS STUFF ON THE WALLS?!?!)
Speaking of the restaurant, here it is:
At the far end, there were a couple tables near a window:
Those tables overlook the visiting team’s batting cage…
…but don’t get too excited. This type of “sneak peek” exists in a number of other new stadiums, including Citizens Bank Park, which is better than Citi Field in every conceivable way (except for all the Phillies fans) and opened five years earlier.
Way way WAY over, on the far end of the Sterling Level (on the 1st base side of home plate), there’s a window overlooking the Mets’ batting cage:
That crazy pitching machine was filled with tennis balls, each with small colored numbers printed in several places. The Mets (and perhaps other teams as well) run a hitting drill in which these balls are fired at the batters, who try to identify the numbers on them. I tried to take a close-up photo of the balls, but my camera wasn’t good enough. (Or maybe *I* wasn’t good enough.) You can see the photo here on the right. I apologize for the blurriness, but it’s the best I could do. And let me further explain something about the balls, since it might be impossible to see it for yourself: there aren’t different numbers on each ball. Instead, each ball has the same number in several places. Does that make sense? Good. Here’s a photo of another bar, taken from the corner near the batting cage window:
The TVs over the bar were showing both the Mets and Yankee games as well as a live match from the U.S. Open.
Here’s a photo that shows the enormity of the club. This is only about one-fifth of it:
I went back to the seats and stayed there. Here’s that moat I was talking about:
Late in the game, I ran into SportsNet New York reporter Kevin Burkhardt. He and I had met briefly last season, and he already knew about me then. This time, we got to talk for a full inning. I told him some details about my baseball collection, filled him in on the charity, and gave him a glove trick demo. While we were talking, I had chances to snag two more foul balls, but I came up short. I took a bad route on one and misjudged another because of the crazy backspin (long story) but Kevin was impressed just by the way I raced after them. He gave me his email address and told me to drop him a line next time I’m going to be at Citi Field, and he said he’d interview me during the game and plug my web site and mention the charity. The Mets only have 10 more home games, and I’ll only be free/motivated to attend a couple of them, so we’ll see…
After the game (which the Mets lost), I got a ball from Scott Barry, the home plate umpire, and then I raced over to the Marlins’ dugout where I got Fredi Gonzalez to give me his lineup cards. Unfortunately, when he tossed them to me, the wind separated them, so I was only able to grab one of the two. BUT…I’m happy to report that the one I grabbed happened to be the Mets’ card.
A few minutes later, I met up with Ryan and Keith:
Ryan (wearing the Marlins gear) had snagged four balls, which was quite an accomplishment considering that his lifetime total entering the day was just two! (Hey, you have to start somewhere. I remember when I only had two baseballs. It was 1990. I was in 7th grade. I hated it. That was probably the worst year of my life. But I digress.)
Here’s a look at the lineup card:
Notice how the switch-hitters have an “S” drawn next to their names? And how the lefties have an “L”? And how there’s a pitcher on the Mets named “Stoner”?
(If you want to see my complete collection of lineup cards, click here.)
Just before I headed up the steps, I pulled a ball out of a special compartment of my backpack. It was the ball that had been tossed to me by Josh Thole. I’d decided when it first came into my possession that it was going to be my give-away ball. Now the time had come for me to find a worthy recipient. I noticed a young kid with a glove heading up the steps with his dad. I caught up with them. The kid’s glove was empty. I handed the ball to him and told him how I’d gotten it. He was thrilled. His father shook my hand. They both thanked me and then disappeared into the night.
• 418 balls in 50 games this season = 8.36 balls per game.
• 619 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 483 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 348 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball
• 133 lifetime game balls (not counting game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)
• 18 different stadiums with at least one game ball
• 4,238 total balls
• 123 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)
• $25.03 pledged per ball
• $250.30 raised at this game
• $10,462.54 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
Last game EVER at Shea Stadium?
When I got off the No. 7 train and saw the tarp covering the infield . . .
. . . I had no idea if I’d ever be back at this ballpark.
The Mets entered this day–the last day of the regular season–tied for the Wild Card with
the Brewers, who were scheduled to play the first-place Cubs at 2:05pm at Miller Park. If both the Mets and Brewers won, or if they both lost, they’d face each other the next day in a one-game playoff at Shea to determine who’d be moving on to the post-season.
I’d never been to a game with more history and uncertainty, and yet because of the gray sky and thick damp air, there was an eerie calmness surrounding Shea as I made my way
toward Gate C:
I already had a ticket–not a very good one, but at least I was guaranteed to get inside the ballpark. The seat was way up in the top corner of the upper deck. I’d bought it on StubHub two weeks earlier (for $100 plus shipping and handling) when my plans to spend the last weekend of the season at Camden Yards fell through. At that time, the Mets were cruising toward a first-place finish. I didn’t expect this game to be THE final game, so I wasn’t too concerned about my seat location.
I was, however, deeply concerned about the snagging situation. I wasn’t thinking about catching 10 balls. I just wanted one. One lousy ball. Even a training ball. Anything. I was desperate. I just wanted to keep my streak alive. I didn’t think there was going to be batting practice, and I figured there’d be a ton of fans showing up early, and I assumed that security would be extra strict. Would I even be able to get into the Field Level to try to get a player to toss me a ball? I had no idea.
Then there was the issue of the final home run at Shea. The two starting pitchers were left-handed–Scott Olsen for the Marlins and Oliver Perez for the Mets–which meant there’d be more right-handed batters, which meant that if anyone DID hit a home run, it would likely be pulled to left field, which meant it would likely land in the bleachers. But how the hell was I possibly going to get in there? The
bleachers at Shea, as I’ve mentioned before, are part of the larger
“picnic area.” To get in there you specifically need a “picnic” ticket, and
those are normally only sold to groups of 100 or more.
I had a trick up my sleeve, but it was risky, so I was pretty nervous about the whole thing . . . and yet I *had* to get in there. The LAST home run at Shea was at stake. I couldn’t bear the thought of being trapped in the main part of the stadium and not even giving myself a chance to catch it.
Well, as fate would have it, I was waiting outside Gate C (which was about to open) when my friend Eric walked over. He’d been standing in line at the ticket windows and was finally rewarded when the Mets released a few seats. He’d bought one for $47. I asked him where it was. He said it was in the picnic area. My jaw dropped and I asked him if he would be willing to trade.
“You want to sit out THERE?!” he asked. (Not everyone collects baseballs.)
“Umm, YEAH!!!” I said.
So we traded. I was in shock. This was my new ticket . . .
. . . and I used it to get into the bleachers at the start of batting practice. Yes, the Mets were actually hitting. I couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t just drizzling–it was raining. Look how wet the railings were at the front of the bleachers:
Everything was wet. Mike Pelfrey threw me a wet ball within the first five minutes, and Brandon Knight tossed me another soon after. The ball from Knight was commemorative. Here it is:
These were the only two balls I snagged during the Mets’ portion of BP. I should’ve had a third but I misjudged a home run that ended up sailing a few feet over my glove. I’d misjudged one the day before as well. That one fell short. I blamed the weather. The air was heavy and damp, and the ball just didn’t carry. Why, then, under identical circumstances one day later, did this one sail too far? I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe it was me and not the weather. Maybe I was losing my touch. It wasn’t a good sign.
The Mets finished BP early, and the Marlins were nowhere in sight, so I headed back into the main part of the stadium. This is what I saw as I approached the 3rd base dugout. Very frustrating:
Eventually a few Marlins came out and started playing catch, and when they finished, I called out to coach Bo Porter and got him to throw me the following ball:
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Marlins had just played a series in Washington, D.C. That’s why they had one (and probably more) of the Nationals’ baseballs.
The Marlins started hitting, so I raced back out to the bleachers. My fourth ball of the day was tossed by a pitcher that I couldn’t identify, and my fifth was a ground-rule double that bounced right to me off the warning track in left-center.
I would’ve had a sixth ball if Matt Treanor were as athletic as his wife. I got him to throw one to me from a couple hundred feet away, but his aim was off and he didn’t put quite enough velocity on it, and it never reached me. Then the rain got more intense, and the grounds crew quickly covered the field:
I gave one of my balls to a security guard who wanted one for his nephew and then I headed back into the main part of the stadium. This is what I unexpectedly saw when I entered the street-level concourse:
I had no idea what was going on, and of course I couldn’t see a damn thing, so I asked around and learned that a few dozen former Mets were entering the stadium.
I headed up the ramps and emerged in the Field Level seats. The tarp was on the field, and all the players were gone . . .
. . . so I headed up to the right field corner of the upper deck and took a few photos of Citi Field. Here’s a look at the whole stadium:
This was the view slightly to the left:
The following photo shows some of the construction clutter on the open-air concourse of the upper deck . . .
. . . and this last shot provides a peek inside the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Notice how the escalators are covered in plastic:
I headed back down to the Field Level and got a final reminder of why Shea is such a dump. As you can see below, there was a huge puddle in one of the tunnels that wouldn’t drain:
The rain finally stopped. The grounds crew started getting the field ready. The first pitch was pushed back to 2pm. I used the extra time to wander and take photos of some of the many signs that fans had brought. I’m not sure what all the names on the sign below have in common (other than all being former Mets) but it was still cool:
These guys were intense:
This dude nailed it:
This was one of several signs that made a play on the word “Shea”:
This fan needed a thicker marker and some extra glue:
This woman (for those unfamiliar with Mets history) was talking about Mike Piazza. Notice how the actual retired numbers can be seen in the background:
Marc Anthony sang the national anthem, and the bleachers looked more crowded than ever:
Several Marlins started playing catch in front of the dugout, and I was tempted to run over because I *knew* I would’ve gotten at least one ball. I was one of the only fans in the stadium with Marlins gear (and believe me, I felt icky and embarrassed whenever I wore it), but I decided to forget the Fish and head to the bleachers instead. That section is normally general admission, but during this final weekend of the regular season, Mets management decided that assigned seating was the way to go. My actual seat was in the second row behind the yellow “WISE” advertisement, but there was no way I was gonna sit there. Second row?! Are you kidding me?! That’s no way to catch a home run ball, and anyway, I didn’t want to sit all the way out in left-center. I didn’t know where I was going to sit, but I figured it was best to head out there ASAP and start looking for a spot. On the
way, I took a photo (from behind) of some fans holding up big orange-and-blue letters that spelled “GOODBYE SHEA”:
Then I ran into Elvis . . .
. . . and made my way to the bleachers. Amazingly, I found ONE empty space on a two-person bench at the front of the cross-aisle.
If I’d had a choice, I would’ve picked a spot in straight-away left field. This empty seat was closer to left-center than I wanted to be, but hey, it was still great compared to where I was supposed to be sitting. Anyway, once I was there, I realized that I probably wasn’t
going to have to move. As you can see in the photo above, there were little wheelchair logos embedded into the metal flooring next to the small benches–but there weren’t any fans in wheelchairs. If there had been, they obviously would’ve had the right to sit there, but as things stood, those little benches were up for grabs so I sat there guilt-free.
Everyone kept their eyes on the out-of-town scores throughout the day, and because of the rain delay, our game basically started at the same time as the Brewers game. This was my view of the giant scoreboard . . .
. . . and here’s a closer look at the Cubs-Brewers game:
I hadn’t been looking when the Cubs’ score changed from “0” to “1” so when the whole stadium cheered wildly for no apparent reason, I took a quick peek at the scoreboard and then joined the celebration.
This was my view straight ahead . . .
. . . and this was the view to my right:
I knew I was in a good spot to jump up and run for any ball that might fly my way, but at the same time I knew it was going to be a mob scene, and I wasn’t THAT optimistic.
Meanwhile, there was quite a pitchers’ duel in progress:
The Mets went down one-two-three in the bottom of the fifth, and the Marlins quickly got on the board in the sixth. Cameron Maybin led off with a ground-rule double and scored on a single by John Baker. Jorge Cantu followed with a single of his own, and then both runners tagged up and moved into scoring position on a deep fly out to left-center by Mike Jacobs. Perez intentionally walked Dan Uggla to load the bases and was promptly taken out of the game. What did reliever Joe Smith do? He walked Josh Willingham to force in a run. Cody Ross then popped up to third and Alfredo Amezaga ended the inning
with a soft come-backer, but the damage had been done. The Marlins were ahead, 2-0.
In the bottom of the sixth, pinch hitter Robinson Cancel got things started with a leadoff walk, and Jose Reyes followed with a routine fly out to right. That brought up Carlos Beltran, a switch-hitter who was batting from the right side. The first pitch missed the zone. The second pitch was an 88-mph fastball, belt-high over the outside corner, and Beltran crushed it in my direction.
It was clearly going to travel a long way, but at the instant that it left the bat, I wasn’t sure if it would be a fly out to the warning track or a home run that traveled 50 feet over my head. The only thing I could do was jump up and start moving. The ball was heading about 20 feet to my right, so I darted through the aisle in that direction. No
one else reacted as quickly as I had so the aisle was still fairly empty for the first 10 feet. Then, as I realized that the ball WAS going to leave the yard and that it WAS at least going to land somewhere near the aisle, I had to weave in and out of a few fans. The ball was coming. I kept moving. I kept my eye on it and sensed all the moving bodies around me. The aisle got extremely crowded. Everyone was standing. There were no kids. Everyone was tall. I was in a forest. I had to elevate above the tallest trees, and I had to pick the right spot and time it perfectly. The ball kept coming . . . coming . . . coming . . . and I couldn’t believe I was even going to be close enough to be able to make an attempt to catch it, but it descended right toward me, and I jumped up at the last second and WILLED myself through the sea of hands and bodies that were fighting to invade my air space. The ball came all the way down, and I went up and caught it. Bam. Just like that. There was such a frenzy in the bleachers at that point that my hat got knocked off. I was as stunned and excited as ever. You know that Barry Bonds home run I caught a few
years ago? That was nothing in comparison. Check out this screen shot of my initial reaction. It was a moment of utter disbelief before I really started celebrating:
Then I moved on to the “Oh my God” phase:
Then there was a bit of “I think I’m the Man but this might not really be happening so I’ll just keep my arms up in case”:
Then people started mobbing me, not to try to steal the ball (which I probably shouldn’t have even taken out of my glove in the first place except I had to see it to believe it) but just to celebrate with me. It’s like I was part of the play. Everyone had to touch me. I felt
someone bear-hugging me from behind while another hand started rubbing my shaved head:
The celebration just wouldn’t end:
Then, after I tucked the ball back inside my glove, there were some high-fives . . .
. . . followed by more hugging and head-rubbing:
And some more high-fives. Check it out . . . two at once:
It was THE . . . CRAZIEST . . . HAPPIEST…MOMENT…EVER. I’m not sure if anything will ever top it.
(Click here to watch the highlight on SNY.)
As soon as the minute-long love-fest concluded, the potential magnitude of the situation sunk in even more: I was holding, at least at that point, the LAST home run hit at Shea Stadium.
“I need an authenticator!!!” I started shouting at every security guard in sight.
They were all like . . . huh? So I kept shouting and rambling about how Major League Baseball has authenticators at every game and that I needed to see one right away.
One of the guards told me to talk to the supervisor–a very friendly woman named Kim–who knew what I was talking about (thank god) and had me wait in my seat for a few minutes. So I did . . . and I kept getting mobbed (in a good way) by people who wanted to take pictures of/with me and the ball, which I never let out of my hands. One guy was like, “C’mon, what’m I gonna do with it?”
“I don’t know,” I told him, “and that’s why it’s not leaving my hand. You can hold the ball WITH me if you want.”
He was willing to accept that…so while I had my death-grip on 90 percent of the ball, he touched as much of the remaining part of the ball as he could and his friend took a pic.
I made an exception about letting go of the ball for the authenticator. I figured he wasn’t going to try to steal it. Kim came and got me and led me down the steps to the area behind the bleachers. The authenticator, pictured below . . .
. . . emerged from the gated area behind the batter’s eye. I’m not even sure what he said. The whole thing was a blur. I think he congratulated me, or maybe I’m just hoping he did. I wanted to ask a million questions, but he clearly didn’t have too much time to spare. I asked what his name was, and two seconds after he told me, I’d already forgotten. All I know is that he had a pad-like clipboard thing and a roll of stickers, each with a different serial number. He peeled one off and stuck it on the ball and then made some notations. I’m not even sure if he had a corresponding sticker. Like I said, it was all a blur. This was the first ball I’d ever gotten authenticated, and my mind was racing like you wouldn’t believe.
He was very calm about the whole thing. I was kinda happy…
. . . and when I got back to the seats, the death-grip returned:
Here’s a look at the sticker:
Here’s another look at it. I took this pic when I got home to show how it changes colors in the light:
Here’s the commemorative logo:
Here’s the whole thing:
People kept coming up to me for the rest of the game. They wanted to see the ball, touch the ball, shake my hand, ask me questions, etc. Several people recognized me as THAT GUY who’d recently caught the home runs on back-to-back nights at Yankee Stadium, and a few others recognized me from various articles and interviews. One guy came over to talk to me and blocked everyone’s view behind him, so security told him he had to return to his seat. What did he do next? He crouched down next to me on my right, which meant he was completely blocking my path into the aisle. When I told him not to block me, he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll get out of the way if one comes.”
“Sir,” I wanted to say, “in the time it would take you to turn your big head 45 degrees to watch the initial flight of the ball, I’d be 10 steps down the aisle. Now please, get the **** out of my way.”
But instead I asked him nicely to move, and he did.
A woman returned to her seat with a mini-helmet filled with cookies-n-cream Dippin’ Dots.
“Can I buy that from you?” I asked.
“I’ll give it to you,” she said, “in exchange for that ball you caught.”
I had nine new voice-mails on my cell phone by that point. I hadn’t heard my phone ring, and I couldn’t listen to the messages, because there was no reception. (Thanks, T-Mobile.)
Who was I supposed to root for at that point? It was hard for me to root against the Mets, but I realized that if they lost and the Brewers (who were now leading the Cubs, 3-1, in the eighth) held on and won, there wouldn’t be another game at Shea…ever…and I might end up being the fan who got the last home run there. I just needed the Mets and Marlins
NOT to hit another longball…and they obliged in the seventh inning.
Wow, 12 more outs to go . . .
In the top of the eighth, with the score still tied at 2-2, Jerry Manuel brought in the left-handed Scott Schoeneweis to face the left-handed hitting Jacobs. Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez answered by pinch hitting with the right-handed Wes Helms. Three pitches into the at-bat, Helms crushed a line drive into the bleachers. Noooooooooooooo!!! I almost caught it and surely would have if it’d just traveled an additional 10 feet.
“Your ball is now worthless,” said an annoying fan behind me.
“Not really,” I said. “It’s still the last METS homer at Shea.”
Uggla, a righty, was due to bat next, so Manuel replaced Blow-eneweis with the right-handed Luis Ayala. Uggla worked a full count, and then BOOM!!! Another home run . . . again into the bleachers but too far over toward straight-away left field for me to even get near it.
“Your ball is now REALLY worthless,” said Mr. Annoying.
“Okay,” I told him, “then don’t buy it.”
I didn’t have any intention of selling it–I’ve never sold a ball–but it was still fun to think about how much it would potentially be worth.
Ayala retired the next three batters.
The Mets got the tying runs on base with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, but couldn’t bring them home. The Brewers game went final. They beat the Cubs, 3-1. The Mets HAD to score at least two runs in the bottom of the ninth or their season was done.
The Marlins didn’t score in the top of the ninth. I looked at the batters that the Mets would be sending up in the bottom of the inning: David Wright followed by 1) a lefty, 2) a pinch hitter who was probably going to be a lefty since the right-handed Matt Lindstrom was coming into the game, and 3) more lefties. I decided to stay in the bleachers for Wright and then bolt toward the Marlins’ dugout.
Wright worked a full count and forced Lindstrom to throw eight pitches, but on that final pitch, he popped up to Uggla at second base.
I took off for the main part of the stadium and used one final trick (which I can not reveal) to get myself back into the Field Level. Before I made it to the seats behind the dugout, Endy Chavez hit a come-backer. Two outs. Time for a pinch hitter. Who would it be? Damion Easley?! A righty?! Crap. Well, it was too late now. All I could do was wander on down toward the dugout and wait. The count went full . . .
. . . and then he walked. Tying run to the plate. Ryan Church. I put on my Marlins cap and Marlins shirt and got some mean looks from everyone around me, which I definitely deserved, but hey, business is business.
Church took the first pitch for a ball and then launched the next one 380 feet. Unfortunately for the Mets, he happened to hit it to the deepest part of the ballpark. Maybin caught the ball just shy of the warning track in right-center, and just like that, Shea Stadium was history.
The Marlins players and coaches formed a line near the mound and started shaking hands and patting each other on the butts. Nothing unusual about that, right? Well, just about every fan in the stadium started chanting, “OFF THE FIELD!!! OFF THE FIELD!!!”
It was really sad and embarrassing. I was sorry not only that this would be one of my lasting memories of Shea, but that I was even there to be a part of it. I wasn’t participating in the chant, but still, I was part of the crowd, and it hurt. That said, I couldn’t blame the fans who were chanting. Everyone was so upset about the Mets’ second straight collapse, and everyone had to find some way to express themselves. As for me? I capitalized on the loss by turning it into an additional collecting opportunity. If the Marlins had lost, they might’ve all disappeared into the clubhouse and gotten right on their bus, but since they won and spilled out onto the field, I knew there was a chance to get stuff from them, and sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.
I got a batting glove from Helms as soon as he popped out of the dugout (he tossed his other glove to a fan 10 feet away) and got Cantu’s cap as everyone headed back in.
I quickly got the hell away from the dugout and ran into my friend Clif (aka “goislanders4” if you read the comments on this blog) and changed out of my Marlins gear. The “bonus items” I’d received were nice, but still . . . Marlins = yuck:
Here’s a look at the (smelly) cap . . .
. . . and here’s the batting glove which, as you can see below, has Helms’ uniform number stitched onto the wrist:
THAT was cool. I’ve gotten a bunch of batting gloves over the years, and I’ve never seen a player’s number on any of them.
Clif’s mom Gail caught up with us, and we all headed up to the Mezzanine (third deck) to watch the closing ceremony. What did we see on our way up the ramps? Another example of Mets fans having expressed themselves:
The ceremony was fine, I guess, but I had NO interest in being there. I’d experienced my best day ever as a collector. What more did I need? I mean, it was nice, I suppose, to see Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry and other Mets heroes from my childhood walk back out onto the field one last time . . .
. . . but it was bittersweet. Everyone in the stadium was upset. I just didn’t want to be there. Neither did Gail. Clif kinda wanted to stay–he commemorated his final minutes
inside the stadium by photographing the inside of his favorite bathroom–but even he knew it was time.
I took a final pic of the Beltran ball as I walked through the parking lot . . .
. . . and was sent on my way with a few fireworks:
“Oh look,” said Gail, “they’re already blowing up the stadium.”
When I got home, I was finally able to listen to my voice-mails. Here are the top three:
1) From my friend Justen: “Zack, did you just do it again? Did you catch Beltran’s ball? I got friends callin’ me talking about you because they just saw you at the Mets game . . . dude, you are a f*ckin’ superstar.”
2) From Clif: “You’re ridiculously amazing. I seriously can’t believe it. I didn’t even see you catch it, but like, I looked up on the JumboTron and I saw you and your hat fall off and whatever . . . and you jumped up and down and you held your three fingers up. That was ridiculous, and like, Marco called me and he was like, ‘Oh did you see Zack Hample catch Carlos Beltran’s home run?’ That was ridiculous. This is Clif by the way, but um, yeah, okay, bye. Oh, and I saw you getting escorted or whatever, like, they took you out of the picnic area. They took someone off. But you probably caught the last home run at Shea, so congratulations. Bye.”
3) From my friend Mike: “Zack Hample, it is Mike Marshall, former vendor at Shea and the old Yankee Stadium. Alright, so I had a really emotional day and I’m pretty upset in the general scheme of things and extremely exhausted, and I’m sitting on my computer chair, looking at my plasma TV, and I swear to God I saw you catch Carlos Beltran’s homer, and if that’s true, holy sh*t, man, you are the American Dream. You’re my hero. F*ck the bleacher creatures and all the people who don’t get it. But uh, I think that was you. I haven’t had time to check your blog, and they didn’t, uh, feature you on ESPN, but
tell me that was you. Gimme a call. On a very miserable, long homestand, I jumped out of my chair and went, ‘No waaay, that can’t be!!!’ and my woman doesn’t understand, but you might’ve made my night if you caught that ball. Take it easy. About a hundred and fifty days until pitchers and catchers report. Later. Happy New Year! Shanah Tovah.”
Anyway, yeah. That pretty much sums it up.
It took a few days for me to find the time to write this monster blog entry, and it took the same amount of time for the media to realize that I, Zack Hample, am the guy who caught the Beltran homer. Carl Bialik, who writes a blog on the Wall Street Journal’s web site, posted this entry about it, and the story has been taking off ever since. It’s now 12:32am ET on Wednesday, October 1st. Just a few hours ago, I started getting blog comments and emails from people telling me I was on the front page of Yahoo, and they weren’t joking. Here’s a screen shot . . .
. . . and here’s the story.
This game at Shea might end up being my final game of 2008. I have no idea, but regardless, here are the stats . . .
* 6 balls at this game
* 539 balls in 72 games this season = 7.5 balls per game.
* 568 consecutive games with at least one ball
* 338 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball
* 13 game balls this season (not counting game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)
* 5 game home run balls this season (all of which were caught on a fly
at games in New York at which the attendance was at least 52,000)
* 124 lifetime game balls (115 foul balls, 8 home runs, 1 ground-rule double)
* 99 lifetime game balls in New York
* 78 lifetime game balls at Shea Stadium
* 3,816 total balls