I can’t believe I almost skipped this game. Wow. What a mistake that would’ve been. I’d gone to Angel Stadium the night before and PETCO Park the night before that.
Over the course of those two days, I’d snagged a total of 32 balls and
ended up with a comparable number of bruises and blisters. I needed to
sleep. I needed some painkillers. I wanted to blog. I wanted to go to
the beach. And to top it all off, this was a dreaded
day-game-after-a-night-game; I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be
I arrived at PETCO at 9:30am, and two good things happened within the
next 15 minutes. First I ran into my friend Leigh (aka “padreleigh” if
you read the comments) who’d been given an extra $50 ticket and passed
it along to me for free. Then I saw Brad Hawpe entering the ballpark
and learned that the Rockies WERE planning to take BP. Hot damn!
Of course the Padres were nowhere to be found when the stadium opened
at 10:30am, but the protective screens–minus the batting cage–for BP
were indeed ready to go. This was the view from behind “the beach” in
deep right-center field:
Did you notice the sand sculpture in the photo above? Here’s a closer look…
…and here’s the other side:
Finally, the batting cage was on its way toward home plate…
…but when the rest of the stadium opened at 11am, this was the only action:
In case you can’t tell from the photo above, Rockies bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter was playing
catch in front of the dugout with bullpen coach Rick Mathews. If this
were New York, there would’ve been about 50 people screaming at them by
the time they finished, but here in San Diego only two other fans had
made it down to the dugout. One was Leigh, who had a glove but no
Rockies gear, and the other was a man with Rockies gear and no glove.
It almost goes without saying that I was the guy who ended up getting a
ball from Mathews, and what a ball it was. He had dug around in the
basket for at least 10 seconds before pulling one out and tossing it to
me. I think he was trying to find the dirtiest, most beat up ball, and
that was fine by me. Brand new balls, while fun to snag because I feel
like I’m getting away with robbery, are not nearly as interesting.
As soon as I snagged that first ball, two Padres began playing catch in right field:
How convenient. And best of all, there was NO competition. A father and
son wandered down to the front row at the last second, but neither of
them had a glove or even bothered to ask for
the ball. The player who ended up with it was a pitcher named Josh Geer
who had made his major league debut the night before and gone five
innings for the win. When I asked him to throw me the ball, he said,
“Are you gonna throw it back?”
“Absolutely!” I said. “I’d love to play catch. I really need to warm up my arm.”
Geer then threw me the ball and held up his glove to indicate that he
wanted it back. I threw a perfect chest-high strike and was excited to
be playing catch with a major leaguer, even someone who’d been one for
less than 24 hours, but he then threw the ball back and told me to keep
it. So much for that.
The Rockies started taking BP soon after, and I raced out to the left
field seats. As I got there, Troy Tulowitzki lined a ball that landed
20 feet to my right and one row below me. There was another fan in that
row, cutting through the seats from the opposite direction, and I was
sure he was going to end up with the ball, but he didn’t because I got
one of the luckiest bounces of all time. Basically, the ball rattled
around, as if trapped briefly in a three-dimensional pinball machine,
and bounced up into my row. It was fantastic and I grabbed it, fully
aware that it was my third ball of the day and No. 399 on the season.
I’d never reached 400 before. The next ball was going to be historic–at
least for me–and I started paying extra close attention so I’d be able
to identify the source.
“Excuse me,” said another fan who was standing in the front row, “are you Zack?”
“Here,” he said, holding out his cell phone, “Heath Bell wants to talk to you.”
“Excuse me?!” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “he’s been looking for someone named Zack for the last two days.”
I did recognize the guy with the phone–I’d seen him two days earlier
and remembered him from the three games I attended at PETCO in 2006–but
how the hell would he have had Heath Bell’s number? I was sure one of
my friends was playing a trick on me. Leigh? Brandon? Someone in the
ballpark knew that *I* knew Heath and was messing around. They had to
be. So I decided to play along.
I picked up the phone and said, “Yeah, hello?”
“Zack!!” said the voice on the other end.
“Who is this?”
“Okay, really, who is this?”
“I see you in left field,” said the voice. “Look across the stadium. I’m waving in front of the dugout.”
I looked up…and oh my God…Heath WAS waving at me from across the field and holding a phone next to his ear.
“Wow, it really IS you,” I said.
“What are you up to right now? You trying to get some baseballs out in left field?”
“Well, yeah…why, what’s up?”
“I have a ball here for you,” he said. “I think it might be something
you haven’t seen. I don’t know, maybe you already have one, but do you
want to come over and take a look? Or do you want to wait ’til after
On the one hand, I *did* want to wait until BP was over so I wouldn’t
lose any snagging opportunities, but on the other hand…could there
have possibly been a better way to snag (or in this case “receive”)
ball No. 400?
“I’ll head over right now,” I told him, “but it’s gonna take me at least three minutes to get there.”
“Perfect,” said Heath, “the ball’s in my locker so it’ll take me a few minutes to get it.”
“I’ll even take off my Rockies gear for the occasion.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it.” he said. “Leave it on. Just meet me right here.”
I handed the phone back to the guy and sprinted around the
stadium. PETCO is one of those segmented ballparks–the shortest
distance between two sections is never a straight line–so it really did
take several minutes to reach the dugout, and when I got there, a
security guard standing on the warning track looked up and said, “Heath
“Wait here,” said the guard. “He’ll be right out.”
Thirty seconds later, Heath popped out of the dugout and tossed me a Padres cap:
He was wearing an identical cap, so it’s not like he took this one
right off his head and gave it to me–but clearly it was HIS cap because
his uniform number was written on the inside.
I had no idea what to expect. I’d been assuming (or at least hoping)
that the ball would have some type of commemorative logo, and when I
got my first look at it, my jaw literally dropped. This is what I was
“Oh my GOD!!!” I shouted. “Thank you SO much!!!”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Heath.
“No really,” I replied, “I can not thank you enough.”
I told him that I’d once gotten an Opening Day ball during BP that was
so worn that I could barely read the logo. And of course I loved the
cap as well. I actually needed a Padres cap (the plastic, adjustable
strap on my old one broke two days earlier), and I’d been making
late-nite trips with Brandon to various Walmarts in search of a
I asked Heath if I could actually give the cap and ball back to him for
a moment so I could get a photograph of him holding them. He suggested
that we get a photo together instead, so security let me down into the
camera-well next to the dugout, and the guard on the field took our pic:
The guard handed the camera back to me as I was asking him to take
another pic, so Heath grabbed the camera and held it out at arm’s
length and took the pic himself. It didn’t come out well, only because
I wasn’t ready and was looking off to the side, but whatever. I was
still in shock over the whole thing.
I thanked Heath again. He asked how long I was gonna be in town. I told
him I’d be seeing him the next two days in L.A. and then flying back to
New York City. We then shook hands, and I ran back out to left field to
The fan who’d lent me his phone was still there:
His name is Ismael. He has season tickets. He knows people. Incredible.
I snagged four more balls in left field during the next half-hour. The
first was a deep drive by Matt Holliday that Ubaldo Jimenez caught near
the warning track and tossed to me. The second was a home run to
left-center that got snared by the netting that separates the stands
from the Padres’ bullpen. The third (which I later gave away) came via
the glove trick, and the fourth was thrown by Scott Podsednik.
I headed over to right field when a bunch of lefties started taking
cuts, and I snagged my ninth ball of the day behind the foul pole. One
of the batters hooked a deep line drive that landed in a totally empty
section, so I had all the time in the world to walk over and pick up
the ball. (I love the Padres for being in last place. I wish every team
could be in last place.)
I didn’t snag anything else during BP. I had to wait until closer to
game time to reach double digits. Two pairs of Rockies started playing
catch along the left field foul line, and I got Clint Barmes to throw
me his ball when he finished. Simple. Easy. No competition once again.
I was in heaven.
I caught up briefly with Leigh and met another PETCO Park
regular/ballhawk named Rob (aka “juveasts”). We all chatted for a bit
until the Padres started throwing in right field. I ran out there and
ended up getting Nick Hundley to toss me my 11th ball of the day just
after the national anthem.
My actual/assigned seat was behind the Padres’ dugout, so I stayed
there for the whole game and waited for a chance to snag a third-out
ball. I was still banged up from Anaheim, and the blisters on the
bottom of my right toes were now on fire. Jake Peavy was on the hill. I
knew it was going to be a good game, and although this might come as a
surprise to many people reading this, I actually wanted to sit in one
spot and watch it. Peavy, meanwhile, kept making things difficult for
me by ending each inning with a strikeout. I was behind the outfield
end of the dugout, hoping that first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would end
up with the inning-ending balls, but catcher Josh Bard kept getting
them and tossing them to little kids behind the home-plate end of the
dugout. Thus, the only ball I snagged for the first eight innings was
made of nerf and thrown by the mascot:
I later gave this ball to Brandon’s roommate.
Peavy ended up fanning 13 batters in eight innings and handing a 1-0
lead to Trevor Hoffman. What did Hoffman do? He gave up a run…which
was a shame…but it gave me an extra chance to snag a ball. I knew
there’d be a bottom of the ninth…which meant there’d be another
third-out ball tossed into the crowd after the top of the ninth
(instead of an on-field celebration), and wouldn’t you know
it…Tulowitzki ended up grounding out to third baseman Kevin
Kouzmanoff to end the frame. Gonzalez took the throw at first. All the
kids were waiting behind the home-plate end of the dugout. I had no
competition at the outfield end. Gonzalez jogged in and tossed me the
But wait, it wasn’t THE ball. It was too scuffed to be THE ball, and I
realized he must’ve switched balls. You know how the first baseman
always catches a ball on his way into the dugout after each inning?
That’s the infield warm-up ball. Gonzalez, for whatever reason (maybe
he’s a baseball collector too?), had tossed me that one and kept the
gamer for himself. Here’s the ball he tossed to me:
The Padres ended up scoring in the bottom of the ninth on three
singles. Game over. Thank God. I needed to rest. I’d be running into
Dodger Stadium less than 24 hours later…
? 12 balls at this game
? 550 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 136 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
? 89 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
? 34 lifetime games outside NYC with at least 10 balls
? 3,685 total balls