Look what I did last week:
I’d always wanted to go skydiving — I’d even dreamed about it as a little kid — but my parents were adamantly opposed. Whenever I brought it up with them, my mom got pale and my father told me to wait until he “croaked.” (Then he’d email me an hour later with links to various articles about skydiving fatalities.) I tried to hold out, but the man is now 83 and still going strong.
Several weeks before Jona’s birthday, she and I started looking into the whole skydiving thing. She researched a bunch of places online, and I invited a bunch of our friends. In the end, we picked a place called Skydive Jersey Shore and learned that most of our friends are lame; only one of them had both the courage and the cash to join us.
Do you remember my friend Andrew from 7/8/09 at Citi Field? He’s the one who came along, and he was rather mellow about the whole experience. Here he is with Jona, walking toward the skydiving registration area:
I had no idea what to expect, and the unknown was exciting. It was hard to believe that I could wake up in my bed in New York City with NO skydiving experience whatsoever and then end up jumping out of a plane in New Jersey just a few hours later. What kind of training would I have to go through? (I imagined myself being dangled over a large mat in the position in which I’d be falling from the sky.) Would they have to give me some kind of psychiatric evaluation to make sure I wasn’t going to cut a hole in the parachute?
As it turned out, the process was simple. First we checked in at the blue desk in the following photo…
…and then we were escorted to the video screening area…
…where the registration lady (for lack of a better term) made her best attempt to scare us off. She picked up a clipboard and monotonously read a short passage aloud. It began as follows:
“You are about to go skydiving. We do everything we can to make it as safe as possible, but you are jumping out of a plane. You can be seriously injured or killed as a result. You will be asked to sign a Release of Liability & Agreement Not To Sue. Please read it carefully as it is a legal document…”
I didn’t appreciate being reminded so matter-of-factly that I could die, but of course I knew deep down that it was a very real possibility. In fact, I had pondered death quite a bit in my own matter-of-fact way leading up to this adventure. On one hand, I knew that I simply HAD to go skydiving at some point in my life, and on the other hand, I decided that if I were going to die as a result, this would be a good time. No wife. No kids. Insanely stressful winter of book-writing ahead of me. Et cetera. So really, I felt pretty good about the whole thing, and while the thought of death never left my mind, it never bothered me. I was going to be making a tandem jump with a VERY experienced skydiving instructor. I figured that he’d want to live through it too and would therefore do his best to keep us both safe.
This was the front page of the Release of Liability:
Jona was too nervous to even look at it, so she flipped through it as fast as she could and scribbled her initials in all the necessary spaces. I took a little more time to see what it actually said. Here’s a summary: “You might get killed, and if you are, your family can’t sue us, ever, for any reason, ever, blah blah blah, ever.”
Then we were shown a short, amateur video in which some creepy guy with a crazy beard repeated the death warnings, and an ambulance was shown driving out into a field. This guy (pictured here on the right) happened to be the inventor of the tandem jump parachute.
After watching the video and wondering what the hell had just happened, we headed back to the registration area to get weighed. (On a tandem jump, you can’t weigh more than 220 unless you’re very fit. I weighed in — with all my clothes and a belly full of breakfast — at 179 pounds. Jona weighed in at…uh, yeah.) This was essentially our last chance to chicken out and NOT have to pay.
Jona and I each paid an additional $80 to have our jumps filmed.
The registration lady stamped our hands…
…and sent us back outside to the field house.
We were greeted by a Brazilian skydiving instructor who gave us a short speech on what to expect. After a few minutes, he climbed onto a blue wooden platform (which was a crude replica of the inside of the plane) and showed us how to maneuver once we reached our cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. Here’s he is, demonstrating how to climb out the door onto the step. Check out Jona’s reaction:
Finally, it was time to get ready for the jump. I had to put all my stuff in a locker, including my camera. That’s when my personal skydiving instructor showed up with his video camera. (The Brazilian guy didn’t go up in the plane with us. He only gave us the demo on the ground.) His name was Joe. He was very confident and energetic and friendly and Italian. I felt safe in his presence. Here are some screen shots from the five-minute video he filmed, starting with a shot of himself:
In the screen shot above, you can see me on the left (I’d changed into a black sweatshirt) and Jona in the background. She and I had to put on some silly pants, which you’ll see later. Mine were orange. Hers were purple. They both had a camouflage pattern. Then we got hooked up to our harnesses, which were promptly double-checked and triple-checked and quadruple-checked by our respective instructors.
We climbed into a van (aka “The Shaggin’ Wagon” because of its furry interior) and took a short ride to a small runway. Once we got out, we saw a REALLY small plane waiting for us:
The plane could only hold five people — the pilot and two pairs of
jumpers — so Andrew had to part ways with us and go up in a different
plane. We weren’t too happy about that, but we had no choice.
Another thing I wasn’t thrilled about was that my video was being filmed BY my instructor. No offense to him, but I was hoping that a third person would jump out of the plane with us and get a shot from 10 or 20 or 50 feet away…but no, my instructor simply had a camera attached to a sturdy velcro strip around his wrist. THAT’S how he was filming me. Bleh.
The inside of the plane was so small that I had to sit right next to the pilot with my back against the front of the cockpit:
The inside of the plane was about four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. (Kind of like my old studio apartment.) It was totally cramped and uncomfortable, but that was all part of the fun.
There was a bumper sticker inside the plane which pretty much summed up my day:
We were high in the sky at this point. Joe was wearing an altitude gauge on his arm and got a shot of it as we reached 5,000 feet.
We were above the clouds. This was the view:
I considered the possibility that our pilot could have a heart attack, or that our plane might run out of fuel and begin to nosedive, but it didn’t worry me because we had parachutes! Ha-HAAAA!!!
Jona, as brave as she was to go through with this, was still nervous:
Meanwhile, I was just chillin’ and checking out the view:
When we reached an altitude of roughly 10,000 feet, Joe told me to unbuckle my seatbelt and get ready. I struggled to remember what the Brazilian guy had told me half an hour earlier…about how I had to move slowly…and not bump the pilot…and try to stay calm. That last part was easy…
…because I was so READY for this experience. I can’t describe it any other way. What was there to be nervous
about? I’d been waiting my whole life to do it. Hundreds of thousands
of people had done it before me. What was the big deal? It was only gravity. It’s not like I was gonna have to do algebra while falling. All I had to do was…fall and enjoy it.
Joe had hooked himself onto me at that point, and he had checked and re-checked and re-re-checked the harness once again. Then he handed me my safety goggles, which had been tucked into a compartment behind my right shoulder.
It was showtime.
He opened the door of the airplane. The 90-mph wind whipped against my face. We were high above the clouds, and that’s when it hit me: HOLY SH*T!!! That’s when it felt most real. That’s when I felt most alive. Up until that moment, I’d been aware that my heart wasn’t beating any faster than normal, but then the adrenaline kicked in. (Same thing with Leno. Everyone assumed that I was crapping my pants, but I wasn’t nervous at all. Just pumped up.) I was SO looking forward to the sensation of free-fall…thirty seconds of it. Yes yes yes!
We leaned out the door…
…and I fought the wind while trying to stabilize myself by placing my right foot on the little step outside. I was truly stepping out of the plane. It went against every possible instinct, but I wanted to do it, and I knew it was going to be okay, and then…we were off:
Now…you might not believe what I’m about to say, but in all seriousness, I was disappointed by the free-falling. I thought it was boring. We were so high up that the view barely changed, so it didn’t even look like we were falling, and as for the physical sensation, it was a big letdown. I wanted to feel weightless, like I was floating or falling or cutting through the air, but it wasn’t like that at all. The air resistance was pushing fiercely against my face and chest and arms and legs, and as for my back…well, all I felt was the constraint of the harness, so it wasn’t a freeing sensation at all. And it was loud as hell. And the rapid change in pressure hurt my ears.
Still, it was pretty cool just to KNOW that I was falling. In the four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise), I’m 1) soaking in my first glimpse after leaving the plane, 2) yelling “Yeeeeeaaaaah!!!” 3) thinking happy thoughts, and 4) holding my nose and blowing out air to unclog my ears.
This was my reaction after the parachute deployed and we began floating earthward:
Don’t get me wrong. I loved it. It’s just not what I expected.
This was the view looking straight down:
The best part of it — better in my opinion than the free-falling — was when Joe had me hold the straps that controlled the parachute and then told me to pull down on one of them. The result was that we spun around REALLY fast. It felt like one of those amusement park rides that makes you dizzy, and best of all, we were still a couple thousand feet high. Here’s my critique:
A few minutes later, Joe was guiding us down for a gentle landing:
Then he handed me my certificate:
Here’s a look at the certificate. Kinda budget, but cute:
The certificate was pre-printed to say that we jumped at 10,000 feet, but we actually went 1,000 feet above that. I’m not sure why. I think it had something to do with the wind currents.
Joe kept filming…
…while I raced and got my camera and took a photo of Jona’s landing. (That harness looks comfy, no?) Here she is on the final approach…
…and here she is touching ground:
Check out the pants:
The best part of the day for me…was ALL of it. I loved the entire process, starting with waking up at 6am (on a Sunday) and racing to Penn Station to catch a New Jersey Transit train and riding it for two hours to some random town that I’ve already forgotten the name of, then calling a cab and telling the driver what we were about to do, then walking to the registration center, surviving the lady’s scare tactics, watching the ridiculous video with the creepy bearded guy, signing my life away on a waiver form, getting weighed on a scale that said “lie detector” on it, and so on. It was a glorious day, and yes, the video that my instructor filmed is on YouTube. CLICK HERE to watch it.
On the train back to New York City, Andrew called his mom and told her what he’d just done:
This blog entry is how I’m telling mine.
Talk about bad timing…
There was only half an hour of rain all day, and it came right around the time that the grounds crew would’ve been setting up the field for batting practice. When the gates opened, I was hoping to see various screens out on the field, but instead, THIS is what greeted me:
See that yellow chain?
Not only was the infield covered, but I wasn’t even allowed to run down into the seats along the foul line; whether or not there’s BP at Coors Field, fans have to stay in the left/center field bleachers for the first half-hour.
There was, however, something good that happened as a result of the limited access and lack of baseball-snagging opportunities: I ran into a guy named David — a friend of a friend — who works inside the manual scoreboard and invited me back to check it out. Remember when I first visited the scoreboard on 6/20/08 at Coors Field? Well, this second visit was special because I was with my friend (and personal photographer) Brandon and got to share the experience with him.
Here I am inside the scoreboard:
Here’s a photo of David, monitoring the scores on a laptop:
The TV in the background is new. It gets a special feed from the MLB Network and can display eight games at once.
I helped out a little by removing the previous day’s scores and placing the wooden panels back on their hooks…
…but mainly I was just there to goof around:
The lovely Ladies of the Scoreboard welcomed me and Brandon into their work space and seemed to appreciate our enthusiasm:
That’s Nora on the left and Liz on the right. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see that Nora has a small bandage on her right shin. Several days earlier, while working inside the scoreboard, she got nailed by a BP homer that sailed through one of the small openings.
Here’s a photo that shows how long and narrow the space is back there…
…and here’s a shot I took of some cobwebs:
Normally I get freaked out by cobwebs (I’m a city boy so I’m allowed to get freaked out by anything that even resembles nature or the wilderness; you get freaked out by riding the subway to the Bronx so we’re even), but it was oddly comforting to see them here. It showed that there can be neglected nooks and crannies even in a relatively new stadium.
I removed another panel and took a peek through the open space…
…and noticed that there was a ball sitting on the field:
Brandon and I left after that. I had to get back into the stands and make an attempt to snag it.
We headed down the steep steps…
…and walked with Dave back through the employees’ concourse:
He led us to the tunnel that connects to the center field bleachers, and we said our goodbyes.
It was several minutes past 5pm. The whole stadium was now open, which meant I was finally free to go to the right field seats. On my way out there, I ran into a friend and fellow ballhawk name Don (aka “Rockpile Ranter“), who was there with his son Hunter. The three of us barely had a chance to talk. I had to rush out to right field, and then I ended up getting pulled in a bunch of different directions, and they ended up leaving the game early because Don had to wake up for work the next day at 2:30am. Yeesh!
Anyway, right field…
I raced out there and grabbed the corner spot near the Rockies’ bullpen:
Juan Rincon had started playing catch, and as he backed up, he kept getting closer and closer to the ball:
Moments later, he was standing (and throwing) right behind it:
I called his name, and he looked up.
I pointed at the ball and flapped my glove.
He picked it up and paused to look at it:
(Was there something unusual that caught his attention?)
Then he turned to throw it to me, and I gave him a target:
His throw (probably in the neighborhood of 50mph) was right on the money. I caught the ball one-handed in front of my right shoulder and felt incredibly relieved; my consecutive games streak had survived a BP-less day.
As for the ball, there WAS something unusual about it:
Here’s a closer look at both the logo and the Dodgers’ stamp on the sweet spot.
I’d snagged two of these balls the day before, and as I mentioned then, “WIN” stands for a charity called “Women’s Initiatives Network.”
A few more players came out and started throwing. Check out this magazine-quality photo that Brandon took of Rafael Betancourt:
I was busy at that point, taking my own photos and stewing over the fact that it was sunny AND the tarp was still on the field:
One of the Rockies’ pitchers made a bad throw that rolled all the way out to the grass in front of the warning track in straight-away center field. His throwing partner didn’t bother to retrieve the ball. As soon as I saw that (and because there were so many other fans along the foul line), I headed toward the left field bleachers. My simple plan was to position myself as close to the ball as possible — all the way out in the corner spot of the front row in left-center. There were several Dodgers in the bullpen. I was thinking that when they finished their throwing session and headed out of the ‘pen, I might be able to convince one of them to take a slight detour and walk over to the ball and toss it to me. My plan, however, was foiled as I headed toward the bleachers. I was running through the open-air concourse at the back of the bleachers when I noticed that a groundskeeper was driving a lawnmower on the grass at the edge of the warning track. He was heading right for the ball, and when he got close to it, he stopped the mower, climbed down, picked up the ball, stuck it in his pocket, and then kept mowing. By the time I made it down to the front row, he was driving past me. It was too loud for me to shout at him. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there and watched him mow a few more lanes into the outfield grass. Then, rather abruptly, he drove off into a wide ramp near the foul pole — a ramp that evidently leads to a concourse where the groundskeepers store their equipment. I rushed over to the edge of the ramp and waited for a minute. All of a sudden, the groundskeeper reappeared without the lawnmower and ran past me out onto the field. I don’t know what he did out there. Maybe he was on his way somewhere and forgot something because he then ran back to the ramp and disappeared into the concourse. Then he reappeared, and as he began to run past me for a second time, I yelled, “Hey, did you happen to pick up that baseball in center field?” He looked up and nodded, so I shouted, “Any chance I could have it, please?” He never said a word. Instead, he held up his right index finger as if to say, “Hold on.” Then he ran back into the concourse. Ten seconds later, he came running back with the ball and tossed it to me. Then he disappeared once again. How random is THAT?
Brandon, unfortunately, was on the phone while this whole thing played out, so he wasn’t able to get an action shot. Here’s a photo of me posing with the ball next to the ramp:
Here’s a photo of the ball itself:
As you can see, it’s rubbed with mud, which means it was either used during a game or was intended for game use. I love how the mud is caked into the stitch holes above the logo.
Here I am with Brandon:
In case you’re wondering, Brandon was wearing a Padres cap because he’s from San Diego. (He hadn’t been home for 70 days because he’d been on the road with Warped Tour.) He WAS planning to sit with me during the game, but his family decided at the last minute to show up (they live 50 miles from Denver), so he spent the game with them on the 3rd base side.
Too bad for him. He missed the next round of action out in the bleachers…
My friends Robert Harmon (the bearded guy who nearly snagged Barry Bonds’ final home run ball) and Dan Sauvageau (the clean-shaven guy who has caught 41 game home runs on the fly) were engaged in a secret mission in one of the tunnels:
What were they doing?
Umm…blowing up a huge, inflatable baseball glove.
Here are a couple photos of the finished product:
As soon as Dan took those photos, I raced over to the seats along the left field foul line. I was hoping to get one of the Dodgers to throw me a pre-game warm-up ball, but instead I had to settle for getting Andre Ethier’s autograph on a ticket from the previous day:
Do you see that nice little smudge? Ethier did that. After he “wrote” his name (if that’s even what he “wrote”), he carelessly touched it while handing the ticket back to me.
Once the game started, Brandon took a photo of me from afar. I’m sitting right behind the last “R” in the “Frontier Airlines” advertisement:
If you look to the left of me, there’s a guy wearing a maroon baseball cap. That’s Dan. He always sits near the Frontier ad, and he always wears that cap, so you can look for him on future home run highlights. His five-year-old daughter Emily (blonde hair) is sitting beside him. I’m not sure who the two guys are to the left of Emily, but the two people next to them are Nettie (platinum blonde) and her husband Danny (black cap), my “host parents” for the week.
Speaking of hair, this was my view of Manny Ramirez, who was unable to stand still for more than two seconds at a time:
This was the best anti-Manny sign of the night:
Once again, the fans were really letting Manny have it. My favorite heckles included:
• “Hey, Manny! We’re having a pool: who’s gonna have kids first, you or your wife?!”
• “Manny, it’s okay, I like boobs on a guy!”
• “Did you and Big Papi share a needle?”
• “Back to ‘The View,’ Sister Act!”
• “I didn’t know ‘HGH’ stands for Hair Growth Hormone!”
• “Girl, you know it’s true: you suck!”
I used to be a HUGE Manny fan, and even *I* will admit that he sucks. He’s a lazy, arrogant, one-dimensional player (who cheats, no less), and I feel that he deserves everything negative that comes his way as a result.
But enough of that…
If you’ve been reading this blog consistently since the beginning of this season, take a good look at the following photograph and see if you spot a familiar face somewhere in the crowd:
Here’s a close-up of the photo above. Any thoughts? Here’s a hint: it’s a legendary ballhawk who doesn’t normally attend games at Coors Field:
Okay, here’s one last chance to identify the mystery fan before I tell you the answer. He’s sitting halfway up the section just to the right of the steps. He’s wearing a black Rockies cap, a gray T-shirt, and black pants. He’s touching the right side of his face with his hand, and his elbow is resting on his right knee.
If you’re going to call yourself a ballhawk (or even a fan of ballhawks), you have to know the all-time greats.
Here I am with him:
It’s Rich Buhrke (pronounced “BRR-kee”) from Chicago. This man has snagged 178 game home runs (including five grand slams!) and more than 3,400 balls overall. Although Rich does count balls from Spring Training, it should be noted that more than 97 percent of his home runs are from actual regular-season or post-season major league games.
Halfway through the game, Robert was miked up for a segment on FSN that was going to air the next day. In the following photo, you can see the microphone’s battery pack sticking out of his pocket:
Robert attends EVERY game and always sits in the front row in left-center. If you ever visit Coors Field, go find him and buy him a beer, or at least tell him that Zack from New York says hello. Anyway, Robert told the FSN producer about me, so the producer came over and told me that he was gonna have Robert sit with me for half an inning and ask me some questions, and that we should just have a normal conversation about baseball. The producer also mentioned that everything I said would get picked up by Robert’s microphone and might end up getting used on the air. Robert came over after that, and we did our thing, which was kind of silly because we just ended up talking about stuff that we’d discussed a hundred times in the past (how many balls have you snagged, what do you think about the new stadiums in New York, etc.), but it was still fun. Just about all TV is staged theater. Even when things look like they’re random and spontaneous, they’re not.
During an inning break late in the game, the Rockies’ mascot came running out onto the field for the “jersey launch.” Yes, jerseys. The Rockies don’t give away cheap T-shirts with fugly corporate logos (ahem, Citi Field, cough, cough). You see, at Coors Field, they do things right and give away real, authentic, high-quality, Majestic jerseys that fans are proud to wear — jerseys that would normally cost about $100 in the team store. Why am I telling you this? Because the mascot came running out on the warning track in front of my section. He (She? It?) had one of these jerseys in his hand, and as he started running out toward left-center, I followed him by running through the not-too-crowded aisle. It seemed like an obvious move, and eventually, as I predicted, the mascot flung the jersey into the crowd, and whaddaya know? It came right to me, and I made a leaping grab. Apparently this was a **BIG** deal, but I didn’t know it until Robert ran over and basically tried to mug me for the jersey (in a friendly way). Indeed, when I thought about it, it occurred to me that the jerseys had not been launched anywhere near the bleachers over the previous two days. They got shot (and in some cases tossed) into the crowd sparingly, and always in different spots.
Here I am wearing the jersey:
Whose fingers are those behind my head? Robert’s, of course.
(See my glove sitting on the chair on the lower right? Thanks to Dan, my seat was a folding chair. I turned it around so that I’d be able to jump up and immediately start running for balls without having to maneuver around it.)
Here I am with Nettie and Danny:
(Danny forgot to take his earphones out for the photo. He and Nettie both listen to the radio broadcasts of the games.)
And finally, here I am with Emily and Dan. As you can see, I borrowed some of Emily’s hair for the photo:
I came really close to snagging Ryan Spilborghs’ solo homer in the bottom of the third inning. It sailed 10 feet over my head, landed on the staircase, and then ricocheted back toward me. Dan had raced up the steps ahead of me. I was right behind him. He got close enough to the ball that he ended up scrambling for it underneath a bench, but some lady (without a glove, of course) managed to reach down and grab it.
Andre Ethier hit two homers for the Dodgers, both of which landed in the bullpens in right-center field.
What a waste.
Still a fun day.
Final score: Dodgers 6, Rockies 1.
• 2 balls at this game
• 395 balls in 46 games this season = 8.59 balls per game.
• 615 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 174 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 4,215 total balls
• 120 donors (click here if you’re thinking about making a donation)
• $24.86 pledged per ball
• $49.72 raised at this game
• $9,819.70 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
Remember my blog entry from 6/17/09 at Kauffman Stadium? I talked about playing catch with Kyle Farnsworth, and I just put the video on YouTube. Check it out:
BTW, I finished reading the book “Miracle Ball” and loved it. Easy read. Very engaging and suspenseful. Consider this my official recommendation.