QUESTION: What do you do when you’re craving baseball, but you have a ton of work and a huge family dinner planned?
ANSWER: You go to batting practice and then leave.
That’s what I did yesterday at Citi Field (and yes, I still had to buy a ticket just like everybody else).
Here I am with some of the usual supects before the stadium opened:
In the photo above, you’re looking at:
1) Greg Barasch, who recently joined the 1,000-ball club.
2) Gary, who has some pretty impressive stats of his own.
3) Brian (aka “puck collector”) who’s not too far behind Gary.
6) Mike from Denver. I had just met him through a mutual friend: Robert Harmon of 762 fame.
7) Brian’s father Wayne (aka “father puck”) who’s holding up his copy of the new Sports Illustrated article about me.
When the gates opened at 4:40pm, Brian won the race to the left field seats and narrowly beat me out for the first ball of the day. It was a BP homer that landed in the 3rd row, and he was all over it.
Less than a minute later, I got Elmer Dessens to throw me a ball in left-center field, and moments after that, I got another tossed to me by Mike Pelfrey. That second ball was pretty special:
As you can see, it had a Citi Field commemorative logo from last year’s inaugural season of the stadium. It’s nice to see that these balls are still floating around. (Here’s what a good one looks like, and while we’re at it, here’s my entire collection of commemorative balls.)
After the seats had filled up a bit, I saw Chris Carter toss a ball to a little kid in straight-away left field — and wouldn’t you know it? The kid dropped it. I wandered closer as Carter jogged over to retrieve the ball, and when he gave it another toss, it happened to sail over the kid’s head and come right to me. I made the easy catch and immediately handed it to him. That was my third ball of the day. (I count balls even if I give them away.)
A bunch of lefties started hitting, so I headed over to the right field side. I wasn’t too optimistic because of the overhang of the second deck…
…but I gave it a shot anyway. As I headed down to the corner spot near the bullpen, a fan dressed in Rockies gear recognized me and introduced himself as Alex. He reads this blog. He was wearing a glove. And he pointed out a ball that was trapped nearby in a narrow gap behind the outfield wall. Check it out:
I asked Alex if he was gonna go for it, but he didn’t have a ball-retrieving device, so basically, it was all mine. All I had to do was a) use my glove trick to knock the ball closer and b) not get caught by stadium security.
While I was contemplating my next move, Hisanori Takahashi picked up a ball in right field. Once again, I asked Alex if he wanted to go for it — to call out to Takahashi and ask for it — but he was like, “Nah, that’s all you.”
So…I called out to Takahashi in Japanese, and he threw it to me.
Then I took another peek at the ball in the gap:
There was a gutter with a small metal flap jutting out at the bottom. I was going to have to be careful not to get my string tangled around it.
Long story short: I knocked the ball closer on the first try and reeled it in without incident.
I thanked Alex for being so generous, and before I took off, we got a photo together:
Alex is a fan of both the Rockies and Yankees, and he writes a blog called “Purple & Pinstripes.” Here’s the link. Check it out if you get a chance.
At around 5:30pm, I changed into some Rockies gear of my own. Remember when I got that free jersey on 8/26/09 at Coors Field? Well, it was time for the jersey to make its Citi Field debut:
The jersey didn’t draw as much attention as I’d hoped for, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Once the Rockies started hitting, Ubaldo Jimenez tossed me a ball in left-center, and I later got one in the same spot from Jorge De La Rosa. The latter wasn’t thrown specifically to me. It was tossed high in the air, and when I came down with it, I noticed that there was a really little kid standing nearby, so I handed him the ball.
At one point toward the end of BP, I had another chance to use my glove trick. This time the ball was sitting one foot out from the wall on the warning track in left field. I looked around, wondered if security was watching, and although I didn’t see a direct threat, I decided against going for it. Thirty seconds later, Gary hurried over with his cup trick and began lowering it over the railing. I got my camera out to take a photo of him reeling it in, but instead I ended up with a photo of this:
Stadium security (wearing maroon) appeared out of nowhere and confiscated the cup trick from Gary (wearing the black Rockies T-shirt). They didn’t give him a warning or anything. They just took it, leaving me to wonder what would have happened if they’d caught me instead. A cup is relatively easy to replace, but a well-worn baseball glove? Not so much.
In case you’ve lost count, I was now up to seven balls for the day. It would’ve been eight, but Gary had actually robbed me of a home run in right field during the Mets’ portion of BP. I’m not complaining — just reporting. He had a better angle on it and reached out right in front of my glove for the catch. You want to know how severely he robbed me? When I squeeze my glove to make the catch, I ended up squeezing his glove in the process. I basically caught his glove as he caught the ball. Lots of people teased me about it — Greg had seen the whole thing play out from right-center — but that’s just how it goes. You can’t win ’em all, and as I often say, what makes it fun is that it’s a competition.
I raced over to the Rockies’ dugout at the end of BP and got two baseballs within a 60-second span. The first was tossed by hitting coach Don Baylor, and the second came from bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter.
Of the seven balls that I kept, four looked pretty cool:
Did you notice that the ball on the upper left is lopsided? And that the ball on the bottom right has a crooked logo? I love that kind of stuff.
It was tempting to stay and go for double digits, but quite simply, I *had* to head home.
This was my view of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda on my way out:
It bothered me that just inside the entrance, Jackie Robinson’s name was covered by a bunch of dirty floor mats, but hey, that’s the Mets for you.
The area outside the stadium was bustling, and let me tell you, it felt weird to be out there right before game time.
I’m not really sure what to say about the following photo other than the fact that I took it before heading to the subway:
What was that dog looking at, you ask?
Poor dog. Dressed up in Mets gear. How humiliating.
The dog’s owner, it should be noted, was making a LOT of money. Just about everyone (including me) put a dollar in the jug.
I took one final photo of Citi Field from the platform of John Rocker’s favorite train:
And that was it.
• 9 balls at this game (7 pictured on the right because I gave two away)
• 220 balls in 24 games this season = 9.2 balls per game.
• 653 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 494 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball
• 355 consecutive Mets home games with at least one ball
• 17 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least two balls
• 4,578 total balls
• 45 donors (click here to learn more)
• $6.49 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $58.41 raised at this game
• $1,427.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
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.
ANSWER: I was there with my mom.
This game ended up being the Phillies’ 35th sellout of the season, and we hadn’t bought tickets in advance, so when we arrived at the ticket windows nearly four hours before game time, the best we could buy were obstructed-view seats behind the right field foul pole in the upper deck.
We never went up there.
By 3:45pm, we were waiting outside the Ashburn Alley gate in left field, and by four o’clock I got my first “Are you Zack Hample?” of the day.
It was a guy named Ethan who’d been reading this blog for years and leaving comments as “dodgerdude.” This was the first time we’d ever met in person. He was there with his friend Paul, and my mom took a picture of the three of us. (Ethan is on the right.)
The Phillies started hitting less than a minute later, and another ball ended up rolling to the same spot. By this point Taguchi wasn’t anywhere in sight. There weren’t any players nearby, for that matter, so once again I began the process of flinging my glove out and knocking the ball closer. Jeff also had a glove trick and asked if he could try to get the ball even though I had already started making my attempt.
“Sure,” I said, “we’ll just have a good ol’ fashioned battle for it.”
From the time that I knocked the ball closer to the time that I raised my glove back up to set up the rubber band and magic marker, Jeff had several opportunities to lower his glove right over the ball and snag it. But for whatever reason his trick failed. His rubber band was probably too tight or too loose, so I ended up getting the ball to stick inside my glove. As I was raising it back up for the final time, another ball flew out of nowhere and slammed the padded wall below. I looked up. Shane Victorino. Who else? Thankfully his aim was off, and he was still too far away to run over and grab my glove, so I was able to lift it the rest of the way and pull out my second ball of the day. (I’m not mad at Victorino. I think he was just being playful. Of course if he’d actually prevented me from getting that ball, I would’ve unleashed the Hample Jinx on his Hawaiian you-know-what.)
A little while later, I botched my chance at snagging ball No. 3, although it was a difficult chance that surely would NOT have been scored an error if there were an official scorer for snagging. Here’s what happened. Pat Burrell launched a home run over my head. The ball landed in an empty row, ricocheted back toward my row, clipped the back of a seat, popped up in the air but flew away from me on an angle as I was just arriving. In the split-second that the ball was in the air right in front of me, I took a swipe at it with my bare hand, but unfortunately the ball hit the tip of my fingers and deflected over the seats below and started trickling down the steps. I was trapped in the middle of the row, and I knew I was done. VERY frustrating.
To make matters worse, the left field seats were as crowded as I’d ever seen them. (You can see my mom in the photo on the right. She’s wearing sunglasses and looking at me.) Granted, it wasn’t nearly as packed as the short porch gets at Yankee Stadium, but by this ballpark’s standards, it was highly unpleasant. Finally, toward the end of the Phillies’ portion of BP, a right-handed batter (no idea who) hit a home run in my direction. I was standing on a crowded staircase. I judged the ball perfectly. I shuffled down a couple steps as the ball began its descent, and at the last second I reached up and made the catch above half a dozen other hands. My mom was sitting a few feet away and had a great view. That felt good.
I took her out to right-center field when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:35pm, and as soon as we got there, I saw a ball roll to the wall in left-center so I raced back. I snagged that one with the glove trick, then got Ke
vin Gregg to toss me another in straight-away left field, then got Arthur Rhodes to toss me my sixth ball of the day in left-center. I was wearing
an aqua-colored Marlins T-shirt to go with my aqua-colored Marlins cap, and it was definitely paying off.
Back in right-center field, I crossed paths with Jeff (here we are in the pic on the left) and caught another home run in front of my mom. (Might’ve been hit by Mike Jacobs. Might’ve been Jeremy Hermida. Whatever.) Then I got Alfredo Amezaga to throw me a ball by asking in Spanish, and when Renyel Pinto ended up with a ball in his glove several minutes later, I shouted, “Para mi madre!” which means “for my mother” and got him to toss that one as well. I made sure to be the one to make the catch–I couldn’t have counted it in my collection if my mom had caught it–and then made a big production of handing the ball to her because I could see both Pinto and Amezaga staring at me.
Toward the end of BP, I tried to use my glove trick for a ball that was several feet out from the wall in the bullpen, but before I had chance to reel it in, a security guard marched down the steps and made me stop. I told him I was trying to get it for a little kid (which was true), and he still wouldn’t let me get it. Not only that…he cut the string off my glove and then marched back up the steps as if he was proud of himself for accomplishing something. Normally I keep extra string with me, but I didn’t have any this time. I just forgot it. No big deal. Batting practice ended several minutes later, and before I left the seats, I reached into my backpack and pulled out a ball for the kid. He had a glove. He’d been trying unsuccessfully for the previous 45 minutes to get a ball. I thought he deserved one. It’s as simple as that.
Right before the game, I snuck down to the Marlins’ dugout and got my 10th ball of the day tossed by Hanley Ramirez. Sweet!! I’d been hoping to get to add him to my list for years.
My mom and I grabbed a couple empty seats on the third base side. Nice view. (The stairs were on my left.) And as you can see in the photo below, the Phillies “fans” were really into the game:
When the Marlins took a 4-0 lead in the 7th inning, lots of “fans” left the stadium and my mom and I moved two sections to the right. This was the view:
When Rhodes fanned pinch hitter Greg Dobbs to end the 8th inning, catcher John Baker
forgot how many outs there were and jumped up in preparation to throw the ball around the horn. Rhodes got his attention, but Baker still appeared confused, so Rhodes got the ball from him, and since I was already in the front row at this point, I got him to toss it to me on his way in. It was the second ball of the day that he’d given to me.
“Did anybody get that one?” asked my mom when I returned to our seats.
I opened my glove and showed her the ball, and she couldn’t believe it. (Believe it, lady!)
We both had a great time at the game. Obviously it was nice to spend 12 hours together (including our time in the car), but it was more than that. She got to see me in action and get a real glimpse into my world. I got to teach her a few things about baseball and share my passion. The weather was perfect. We ate hot dogs and peanuts while secretly rooting against the Phillies, who ended up losing, 8-2. It was just perfect.
After the game, I bolted back down to the dugout and got a ball from Marlins 1st base/infield coach Andy Fox. I think it was the infield warm-up ball. How else could it have gotten so beat up. Check it out. Is this NOT a thing of beauty?
? 12 balls at this game
? 140 balls in 14 lifetime games at Citizen Bank Park = 10 balls per game.
? 85 lifetime games with 10 or more balls
? 30 lifetime games outside NYC with 10 or more balls
? 536 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 129 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
? 3,562 total balls