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.
The day got off to a great start, and it had nothing to do with baseball: I saw my very first girlfriend for the first time in 14 years, and it wasn’t awkward at all. We met in the lobby of my hotel, went out for a three-hour lunch, and pretty much just caught up and laughed about the past. I was in such a good mood after seeing her that nothing else mattered. Batting practice at Turner Field? Whatever. Baseball was the last thing on my mind — that is, until I walked over to the stadium and met up with my friend Matt Winters:
(In case you’re new to this blog, I’m the guy on the left.)
That helped get me back into snagging mode. My goal for the day was to get at least six baseballs. That’s what I needed to reach 4,500, and thanks to the dreamlike configuration of the left field stands…
…I knew it wouldn’t be hard. It was more a question of how than if.
My first two balls of the day were home runs hit by right-handed batters on the Braves. I’m not sure who. All I can tell you is that the first one landed near me in the seats, and I caught the second one on the fly.
That’s when I encountered my first challenge of the day. Another batter hit a homer that happened to land in the gap behind the outfield wall. I figured I’d be able to snag it with my glove trick, but before I could get there, some old guy snagged it with his own funky-looking device. Here he is holding it up:
It’s a gigantic roll of duct tape — with additional tape inside the center hole to make the ball stick. On the other side (where the guy is holding it), there was a big/clunky object attached to it, presumably to help weigh the whole thing down.
As it turned out, this guy was one of a dozen fans who’d brought devices into the stadium. There were devices everywhere. It was nuts. Some people even dangled them over the wall in anticipation.
Somehow, I managed to beat the competition and use my glove trick to snag my third ball of the day. I handed that one to the nearest kid, and two minutes later, I sprung into glove-trick action once again.
That’s when I encountered (or rather created) another challenge. In my haste to get down to the front row, I rolled my left ankle on the edge of a step, and let me tell you, it hurt like HELL. I felt a sharp twinge on the outside of my foot, and for a moment, I thought I wasn’t gonna be able to walk for the next two weeks. It was one of those “what did I just do to myself” injuries; I knew it was bad, but I wasn’t sure just how bad, so I decided that as long as I could still stand, I might as well proceed down to the front row and try to snag the ball — and yes, I did end up getting it.
My ankle really hurt after that…
…but the pain was bearable as long as I ran in straight lines and changed direction slowly.
My fifth ball of the day was another home run (not sure who hit it), and the catch itself was anything but routine. I was cutting through the second row to my right. The ball was heading toward a teenaged kid in the front row. It was going to be an easy chest-high catch for him, so I didn’t expect to have a chance. That said, I still stuck my glove out for a potential catch in case he missed it, and at the last second, I jerked my head to the side so that I wouldn’t get drilled in the face by a potential deflection. Well, wouldn’t you know it? The kid somehow managed to miss the ball. I mean, he completely whiffed — didn’t even get any leather on it — and I ended up making a no-look, thigh-high catch while running through the seats on a sprained ankle.
That was the 4,499th ball of my life. The next one was going to be a fairly significant milestone, so I wanted it to be special.
Another home run was hit toward the same kid. I was standing right behind him at the time, and while the ball was in mid-air, I could have easily climbed down into the front row and reached in front of him — but I didn’t want to interfere with his chance at redemption, so I hung back in the second row. This is how it played out:
The ball smacked the pocket of his glove and jerked his wrist back, but he hung onto it, and everyone cheered and congratulated him.
Toward the end of the Braves’ portion of BP, a ball cleared the wall and landed in front of the visitors’ bullpen down the left field line. It sat there for a minute, so I ran over to the seats in foul territory, thinking that I might be able to snag it with my glove trick. Once I got there, I realized that the ball was trapped underneath a bench. There was no way for me to reach it, and even if it had been sitting right below me, there wouldn’t have been time. A security guard was about to retrieve it. Here he is with the ball in his hand:
There were several other fans asking for it, so he decided to give it away in the fairest way possible: he asked when everyone’s birthday was. As soon as I said “September fourteenth,” he tossed me the ball.
“When’s your birthday?” I asked.
“September twelfth,” he replied.
“Cool, thanks so much,” I said, and then I asked, “Can I take a picture of the ball with you in the background?”
Either he didn’t hear me or he simply ignored me because he promptly exited the bullpen and began walking toward the infield. Meanwhile, I wanted to fully document my 4,500th ball, so I “chased” after him:
(It wasn’t exactly a high-speed chase.)
In the photo above, he had stopped walking for a moment to shout something to another guard in the bullpen, and then moments later, he continued marching ahead. I pulled out my camera, and this was the only photo I got:
Meh. A little blurry. But at least it captured the “excitement” of the moment. (It’s fun to put “random” words in quotes. I should “do” this more often.)
Here’s a better photo of the ball itself:
Now that my milestone was out of the way, my goal was to snag four more balls and reach double digits.
When the Braves cleared the field, I headed over toward their dugout on the first base side, and I wasn’t allowed past this point:
If you look closely at the photo above, you can kinda see that the arrow is pointing to an extra chair in the front row — a little folding chair with slats on the back. That’s how stadium security marks its arbitrary cut-off line; if you don’t have a ticket for the seats beyond that point, you can’t go there, even during batting practice. Matt and I had tickets in the 3rd row behind the 3rd base dugout, and yet we weren’t allowed anywhere near the 1st base dugout. It’s such a bad policy — so thoroughly asinine and misguided and anti-fan — but what could I do? I had to stay there and SHOUT REALLY LOUD to get Terry Pendleton’s attention. He was standing all the way over near the home-plate end of the dugout. I didn’t think he’d even look up, but to my surprise, he finally turned and threw a ball all the way to me. (Take THAT, stadium security!!)
I headed over to the left field foul line when the Reds started throwing…
…and didn’t get a single ball there. What’s up with that? I was decked out in Reds gear and still got ignored by all the players. Good thing there were a few batters hitting bombs to left-center field — and get this, they were left-handed. Although I’m not sure who was in the cage, I’m pretty certain it was Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. (Maybe Laynce Nix, too?) My eighth and ninth balls of the day were homers that landed in the seats. Here I am scrambling for one of them:
This was my view straight ahead:
See that kid in the front row with the arrow pointing to him? He was standing there because I told him to. Two minutes earlier, he had asked me a for a ball, and I said, “Don’t ask ME. Ask the players. Stand in the front row, and when a ball rolls near you, ask them politely for it.”
This was the view to my right:
See the man with the arrow pointing to him? He overheard my exchange with the kid and asked me, “How many balls do you have?”
He seemed friendly — I’m usually pretty good at determining when someone is asking me just for the purpose of starting an argument — so I told him.
“Nine?!” he asked. “Do you think that’s fair?!”
“Well,” I said calmly, “considering that I give away a lot of balls to kids and also do this to raise money for charity, yeah, actually I do think it’s fair.”
The guy was speechless. He just nodded and walked back over to his spot…however…when I caught my 10th ball of the day less than a minute later — another homer by one of the Reds’ lefties — he was not too happy about it.
The kid in the front row turned around and started begging me all over again for a ball. I pointed at the field and told him, “You should be focusing on the players, not on me.” And guess what happened soon after? Arthur Rhodes tossed a ball to the kid, who was so excited that he ran back and showed me.
“Now see?” I asked. “Wasn’t that better than getting a ball from me?”
“YES!!!” he shouted with a huge smile on his face.
I looked over at the man who’d been giving me a hard time, and I shrugged. He was still stewing. And then, five minutes later, I used my glove trick to snag a ball from the gap and gave that one away to another kid. I don’t even think the man saw that, and I don’t care.
That was my 11th ball of the day, and batting practice was almost done, so I ran (gingerly) to the 3rd base dugout. None of the players or coaches gave me a ball, but some random equipment-manager-type-guy was dumping all the balls from the bucket into a zippered bag. I got his attention and convinced him to toss one to me, and man, it was a beauty. Here are two different photos of it:
Not only was there a big/diagonal/striped/green mark on it, and not only was the word “practice” stamped in a bizarre spot, but the logo was stamped too low. See how the word “commissioner” overlaps the stitch holes? I once snagged a ball with the logo stamped too high, and I also once snagged one with the logo stamped crookedly, but these are just a few examples out of thousands of balls, so you can see how rare it is.
I wandered for a bit after BP…
…and made it back to the dugout just in time for the national anthem:
Is that an amazing sight or what? I’ve never seen groundskeepers keep the hose on their shoulders during the playing of the song.
Reds third base coach Mark Berry tossed me a ball after the second inning, and in the bottom of the third, I headed up the steps to meet a 13-year-old kid from Atlanta named Evan. He’d been reading this blog for years, but we’d never met in person, and now finally, for the first time, we were at the same game together. I was planning to head over to the tunnels behind the plate and play for foul balls, but because he and his dad met me in the cross-aisle behind the dugout, I lingered there for a couple minutes to chat. Well, as luck would have it, while were were all standing around, Brian McCann fouled off a pitch from Aaron Harang and sent the ball flying 20 feet to my left. I took off after it (what sprained ankle?) and watched helplessly as it landed in a staircase just behind me. Thankfully, there was no one there, and the ball didn’t take a crazy bounce. Instead, it trickled down into the aisle, where I was able to grab it. Ha-HAAAA!!! The whole thing never would’ve happened if not for Evan, so he gets the unofficial assist. Here we are together:
Evan has snagged approximately 300 balls. (He doesn’t have an exact count, but he owns 295 and has given a few away.) That’s an impressive number at any age, let alone 13. When I turned 13, I had a lifetime total of four baseballs. He and I hung out after that, first behind the plate, then with Matt behind the dugout, but there were no more balls to be snagged.
The game itself was very entertaining. Braves starter Kenshin Kawakami, who began the night with an 0-6 record and a 5.79 ERA, pitched six scoreless innings and left with a 4-0 lead. Unfortunately for him, his countryman, Takashi Saito, gave up three runs in the top of the eighth, and then Billy Wagner surrendered a solo shot in the ninth to pinch hitter Chris Heisey. With the score tied, 4-4, in the the bottom of the ninth, Martin Prado hit a two-out single, and Jason Heyward plated him with a line-drive double into the right-field corner.
Game over. Final score: Braves 5, Reds 4.
Heyward finished 3-for-5 with two doubles, a triple, and two runs scored. This guy is the real deal. He has unbelievably quick bat speed and a beautiful swing. He’s 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and he’s 20 years old! He has blazing speed, too, and he seems pretty solid in the field. I won’t pronounce him a future Hall of Famer just yet, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t end up having a very good/long major league career. Wagner, by the way, two months shy of his 39th birthday, was consistently hitting 98mph on the gun. (I’ve never felt so athletically inadequate, but damn, these guys were fun to watch.)
After the game, I said goodbye to Evan (who got the lineup cards), then met a guy named Glenn Dunlap (who runs a company called Big League Tours), and caught up with another friend named Matt (who you might remember from 5/17/10 at Turner Field).
On my way out of the stadium, I took a photo of the empty seats…
…and walked past the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame…
…which was now closed.
I’m not a museum person anyway. (I’m more of a doer than a looker.)
Five minutes later, this is what I was doing just outside Turner Field:
No, I wasn’t bowing down to my baseballs as part of a religious ritual; I had my camera in my hands, and I was trying to angle it just right in order to take one last photo. Keep reading past the stats to see how it turned out…
• 14 balls at this game (12 pictured below because I gave two away)
• 150 balls in 14 games this season = 10.7 balls per game.
• 643 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 194 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 138 lifetime game balls (125 foul balls, 12 home runs, and one ground-rule double; this does NOT include game-used balls that get tossed into the crowd)
• 126 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 60 lifetime games outside of New York with at least 10 balls
• 4,508 total balls
• 34 donors (click here and scroll down to see the complete list)
• $5.20 pledged per ball (if you add up all 34 pledges)
• $72.80 raised at this game
• $780.00 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
Bye, Turner Field. Thanks for being so awesome. I’m gonna miss you…
The best thing that happened on my birthday this year was NOT snagging 22 balls at Camden Yards. Not even close. The highlight was receiving the following email from my friend Erik Jabs:
I remember you writing that one day you’d like to take BP on a major league field.
PNC Park is having a season ticket holder batting practice on Tuesday,
Oct 6. It’s a regular BP with the cages and screens and everything.
They also use MLB balls, and you can elect to use players’ game bats.
I’d you’d like to, you’re welcome to be my guest and take BP on that day.
I wrote a little about it last year when my blog was beginning:
Let me know,
Three weeks after I received this email, I flew to Pittsburgh with my mom (who came along just to watch) and my friend Brandon (who took all the photos you’re about to see)…
Here I am walking into PNC Park with Erik and a few of his friends:
This was my reaction after stepping onto the field:
It was nine o’clock in the morning. The sun was bright, but the grass was still wet, and it was only 49 degrees — not ideal conditions to jack one over the fence, but I was hopeful.
There were only about 100 people in our 9am-11am group, and we all gathered in the stands for the welcome speech:
The speaker thanked us for supporting the Pirates in 2009 (You’re welcome!) and explained a few basic things about how our three-group session on the field was going to be run:
Group One would be hitting first…
Group Two would be free to roam anywhere on the field and shag baseballs…
Group Three would start by lining up on the warning track in right field and catching fly balls that were going to be fired from a pitching machine…
I was in Group Three, which meant that all the balls were going to be soggy by the time I stepped into the cage. It also meant that I had to break the rules for a couple minutes and play catch at shortstop:
The rules, it should be noted, were not strictly enforced. Some people from Group Two made a beeline for the right field warning track, while others in Group Three (like me and Erik) wandered all over the place.
Here I am with Erik:
(Erik is 6-foot-4.)
The fly ball machine was positioned on the infield dirt behind first base:
It wasn’t THAT exciting to catch routine 200-foot fly balls fired from a machine, especially when I had to wait in line for five minutes between each one. What WAS exciting was simply being on the field:
Quite simply, it was a dream come true.
Finally, after more than an hour, Group Three was called in to hit. I raced to the front of the line and grabbed an aluminum bat that belonged to one of Erik’s friends. I could’ve used wood — there were more than a dozen players’ bats lying around — but I decided I’d go with metal until I put one out.
Unfortunately, that never happened (and here’s where I make tons of excuses)…
In addition to the balls being damp, I had to hit off a pitching machine that was firing most of the balls shoulder-high. Also, the late-morning sun was shining right in my eyes from straight-away center field. In addition, I only got eight pitches, which included my bunt to start the round as well as another pitch that I took moments later because it was head-high. There were so many people waiting to hit, and the guys feeding the machine were in such a rush to get me out of the cage that they only gave me three seconds between each swing to get ready for the next one. It was like, “Hurry up and have your fun and get the hell out.” (But don’t get me wrong: it WAS fun.)
Here I am taking a mighty cut at one of the only belt-high pitches I saw:
Although, as I mentioned above, I didn’t hit a ball out of the park, I did manage to hit a line drive that bounced onto the warning track. If the ball weren’t damp and heavy, it might’ve gone out, and if I’d swung about an eighth of an inch lower, it definitely would’ve gone out.
After everyone in Group Three got their eight-pitches (no one in any group even came close to hitting one out), we each got to jump back in the cage for a four-pitch lightning round. Brandon wandered out behind the mound and took the following photo of me at the plate:
It was exhilarating to get to take BP on a major league field, and
while it certainly went down as I expected, it wasn’t anything like
what I’d dreamt of so many times. In my own personal FantasyLand, I
have a stadium all to myself. The grass is dry. It’s 82
degrees. Leon Feingold is pitching BP fastballs to me with pearls, and of course I’m hitting the crap out of them.
Former big league pitcher Rick Reuschel was hanging around near the batting cage. He and I talked for a minute and then had our picture taken.
(In my next life, I’m going to be 6-foot-7.)
1) a friend of Erik’s
2) a Pirates season ticket holder
3) the owner of the metal bat I’d used
4) a member of the Ballhawk League
5) a good ballplayer
6) a great guy
As you can see in the photo above, Nick brought his copy of Watching Baseball Smarter for me to sign…which I did…with an extra big smile because it was the most worn-out/well-appreciated copy of the book that I’d ever seen. Nick told me he’d read it several times and underlined his favorite parts, which turned out to be half the stuff in it. Check out this two-page spread in the “Umpires” chapter:
The whole book looked like that.
It was lunchtime. Our two-hour session on the field had ended.
We entertained ourselves at the speed-pitch booth:
In the photo above, that’s me on the left, Nick on the right, and Nick’s younger brother Bryan in the middle. Bryan (who’s just 16 years old) threw the fastest pitch of the day at 73mph.
Then it was time to eat:
And then we wandered back down to the field:
Thanks to a not-so-secret loophole in the system, we all got to head back onto the field. Here I am, waiting for my turn to hit:
See the batting glove I’m wearing in the photo above? On this fine day in Pittsburgh, I decided to use Jeromy Burnitz’s batting gloves — the ones he tossed to me in 2004 at Shea Stadium. (Here’s my whole collection of batting gloves, in case you care.)
There were a dozen helmets lying around next to the cage…
…and none of them fit.
These were some of the bats:
I took my eight swings with Nick’s metal bat…
…and finished up with Jose Bautista’s wood bat. No homers. But I hit some deep fly balls and got a compliment from former Pirate John Wehner. Here I am with him:
Wehner said that even HE wouldn’t have been able to hit a home run with such bad balls. (I wish I had a photo of the balls, but since I don’t, let me just say this: the worst ball that you could possibly catch during BP at a major league game would be better than any ball I was invited to hit at PNC Park.) He might’ve just been saying that to make me feel better…but then again, he did only hit four career homers in the big leagues…but no, it was nice to hear.
Brandon and I wandered out to the bullpens. Here I am on the mound:
Here I am on the bench:
Here’s a sign that was on the wall out there:
Here I am clowning around on the warning track (robbing a…double?) with Bryan looking on:
Brandon and my mom and I were going to have to leave for the airport soon, so I spent my remaining time catching fly balls from the pitching machine.
Here I am getting ready to catch one:
Here I am losing my footing on another:
(We were not allowed to wear spikes or cleats.)
I failed to catch that particular ball and ended up like this:
Here’s one final photo of me and mom before we headed out:
The Pittsburgh Pirates are awesome for letting their season ticket holders take over the field for a day. By comparison, the New York Mets “rewarded” their season ticket holders by letting
them run the bases (for 20 seconds) after the final game of the season.
I have to end this entry with a BIG thank you to Erik for giving me the opportunity to do this. Check out his blog. He should have an entry up about it soon. Also…thanks to Brandon for taking all the photos.
Last month I visited the Office of the Commissioner of Major League Baseball and took a bunch of photos for this blog. Remember? Well, after my meeting there, I was invited to visit the MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey — and once again I was allowed to bring my camera.
Here what the outside of the building looks like:
Here’s the view from just inside the glass doors:
(FYI: The MLB Network is not open to the public. You can’t just show up and ask to have a look around. That said, the security guard at the front desk told me that random people drop by every day and try to talk their way inside. But anyway…)
As soon as I arrived, I was escorted down a hallway and through the following doors:
As soon as the doors closed behind me, I ran into two guys who had each played in the Major Leagues for more than a decade: Harold Reynolds and Tony Clark. They just happened to be heading into a meeting and were walking toward me from the opposite direction. They stopped and said hello to the MLB representative who was showing me around, and then I was introduced to them.
“This is Zack Hample.” Pause. “Zack is…” Another pause.
I wasn’t sure if the gentleman from MLB was searching for the right words or if he was simply waiting for me to take the lead, so I jumped in and said, “Basically, I’m the guy who’s caught more baseballs in the stands at major league games than anyone.”
“How many?” asked the 6-foot-7 Clark.
“Well,” I said, “including all the balls I’ve snagged during batting practice, over 4,300.”
Reynolds and Clark were shocked. I thought there was a chance that they didn’t even believe me so I pulled out my wallet and showed them the bathtub photo and told them that this was only one-fifth of my collection.
“You’re a sick man,” said Reynolds with a grin.
“Thank you,” I replied. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” Then I turned to Clark and said, “Now, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way — I don’t want you to feel used or anything — but you actually contributed to my collection by tossing me a ball a few years ago.”
“Where was that?” he asked, so I told him that he’d flipped me a 3rd-out ball while jogging off the field late in a game at Chase Field in 2007. “I got 21 balls that day,” I said. Clark just shook his head and laughed.
He and Reynolds had to make it to their meeting, so we all shook hands and parted ways, and my tour continued in THE main studio:
It was silent in the studio. Most of the lights were off. There were no other people. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe that I was standing there — twenty minutes earlier I’d been riding a dingy bus from the NJ Transit station — and now all of a sudden here I was, getting another behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world of Major League Baseball. I was so excited…so energized…I just wanted to run and around and shriek…but I held it all together and settled for taking a few more photos.
Here’s the side desk:
In the photo above, do you see the staircase in the background? Here’s what it looks like at the top:
Here’s another look at the darkened studio:
Do you see the big MLB logo into the background?
That’s actually the entrance to the studio.
Here I am inside the logo:
This is where most of the video editing takes place:
Here’s another area where that work is also done:
Do you remember the autographed walls in my behind-the-scenes entry from my recent appearance on “The Tonight Show”? The MLB Network also has an area of autographs, except it’s waaay cooler because all the autographs were written by baseball players. Here’s a photo of the walls:
How many of the autographs can you identify?
Here’s another photo…
Here’s my favorite:
In my opinion, one of the best things about the MLB Network is that there’s a huge studio called MLB Park. Basically, it’s a small replica of a field where the analysts are often filmed recreating plays and teaching fundamentals. Check it out:
Look how realistic the dugouts are:
Here’s a view of the outfield wall and the scoreboard and the bleachers:
While I was wandering around with my camera, most of the lights in MLB Park were abruptly shut off, and a very large camera was wheeled across the infield, just in front off the mound. The network was getting ready to tape a segment in there, so I had to head out, but first I crouched down behind the plate (outside pitch to Albert Pujols) and took one final photo:
And there you have it.
I’ll admit that I was a bit slow to tune in when the MLB Network first launched on January 1st — I didn’t even know that I had it as part of my Time Warner cable package — but I’ve been watching it religiously since the All-Star break. If you’re not sure if you have the network in your home, click here and type your zip code into the “channel locator.”