This was one of the most fun/hectic days I’ve ever experienced at a major league stadium.
For starters, it was a Watch With Zack game; my client was a 23-year-old from Indiana named Justin. We were joined by Phil Taylor, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who’s working on a big story about ballhawking. And that’s not all. There was also a two-person film crew following my every move and getting footage for a separate documentary about collectors. (I blogged about the filmmakers two months ago when they first interviewed me.)
See what I mean?
Fun. And hectic.
Let me point out that Justin didn’t mind the media being there. In fact, he was looking forward to getting a behind-the-scenes look at how it would all go down. He had booked this game a month in advance, so when the media contacted me and asked if they could tag along with me at a game, I ran it by Justin first to make sure it was okay. If he had said no, then I would’ve picked a different game to do the interviews.
Anyway, let’s get to the first photo of the day. It shows some friends, acquaintances, and “key players” outside the gate:
From left to right, you’re looking at:
1) Phil Taylor from Sports Illustrated.
3) Justin, my Watch With Zack client.
4) An aspiring ballhawk named Andrew. He and I have now run into each other three times since last season, all at different stadiums.
5) Avi Miller (check out those orange socks) who writes an outstanding Orioles blog.
6) Rick Gold, a fellow ballhawk, who began the day with 937 lifetime balls.
7) My good friend Ben Hill, who writes a blog about minor league baseball’s wackiest promotions. He lives in NYC and traveled to Baltimore with me for the day. He’s gone to several games with me in the past, including this one three years ago in Philly.
I saw some other familiar faces outside the gate and made a couple new friends during the hour that we were all standing around. By the time the stadium opened, there were a ton of people. Everyone was really friendly, we had a lot of laughs, and I remember thinking, “Phil picked a good day to join me.” I mean…most of the people I see/meet at games are friendly, but it just felt like love was in the air a bit more than usual. During the five hours that Phil spent with me, several fans asked for my autograph, one guy asked to have his six-year-old son’s picture taken with me, and two female ushers greeted me with hugs. Bottom line: ballhawking has gotten some bad press in recent seasons, so I’m hopeful that Phil got a positive impression of it based on our time together.
Five minutes before the stadium opened, the filmmakers showed up. I didn’t take a photo of them at that point because I was distracted. I was being interviewed by Phil, and I was giving Justin a few pointers, and I was focused on being the first one in so I could try to beat everyone else to the left field seats. Moments after I got there, I took the following photo:
Justin, wearing the orange Orioles shirt that he’d received on the way in, was already in position 13 rows back. Rick, wearing the black shirt, was walking through my row.
BP was dead at the start. An usher had already combed through the seats to pick up the loose baseballs, and the Orioles weren’t hitting many home runs. It’s too bad there wasn’t more action because the media was officially on the scene:
That’s Paul with the big camera and Meredith with the smaller one (and of course that’s Phil from Sports Illustrated sitting between them).
After ten minutes or so, I raced one full section to my left and snagged a home run ball that landed in the seats, and on the very next pitch, I sprinted back to my original spot and caught a homer on the fly. That felt good. I was on the board. I’d even used a bit of athleticism. Phil had gotten a good view. Paul and Meredith had gotten good footage.
What about Justin, you ask?
Two days earlier, when I had spoken to him on the phone, he told me that he wanted ME to break double digits. He also told me that he didn’t want any of the balls that I caught, and that he mainly wanted to learn by watching me in action. But still, he wanted to snag some baseballs on his own, and I did my best to help him.
Unfortunately, the Orioles stopped hitting at 5:16pm — roughly 15 minutes ahead of schedule — so that took a major chunk of opportunities away from us. It did, however, give us a chance to wander into foul territory and focus on getting balls from the Angels.
Justin threw on a maroon Angels T-shirt and headed to the corner spot near the 3rd base camera well:
When the Angels started throwing, Justin moved down the foul line into shallow left field, and as a result, I happened to get the next two balls. Mike Napoli tossed me one. The other was a random overthrow that skipped off the rubberized warning track and bounced into the empty front row.
Paul and Meredith followed me everywhere and kept the cameras rolling:
I helped Justin pick the best possible spot along the foul line…
…and played a role in getting Jered Weaver to toss him a ball. This was only the third ball that he’d ever snagged at a major league game, and it was the first one that had been given to him by a player.
Moments later, another errant throw bounced off the warning track and ended up in the seats, this time ten rows back, so I scampered up the steps and grabbed it.
The Angels had started hitting by that point, and I noticed that a ball had rolled onto the warning track in straight-away left field. I hurried over, used my glove trick to reel it in, and immediately handed the ball to the smallest kid with a glove.
That was my sixth ball of the day, and I got Scott Kazmir to throw me No. 7 in left-center. I was about eight rows back when I got his attention. He lobbed it perfectly, right over everyone and into my glove. (After batting practice, I gave that ball away, too.)
That’s when things slowed way down. The stands got really crowded, and I ran into some bad luck. For example, I was standing in one spot for about ten minutes, and there was NO action there. Eventually, I ran down to the front row to chase a ball that ended up falling short, and while I was there, Howie Kendrick hit a home run that landed right where I’d been. But hey, that’s just how it goes. I realize that I’d gotten lucky earlier with the two overthrows that bounced near me in the seats.
Justin was in a good spot, or at least a spot that’s normally good, but the balls just weren’t flying our way, and the Angels abruptly stopped hitting at 6:08pm. The visiting team’s batting practice normally goes until 6:20-ish, so that sucked. On the plus side, though, the shortened session of BP gave us extra time to eat and talk to Phil. (Justin got interviewed, too.) Paul and Meredith suggested eating at one of the tables near the concession stand. That certainly would have been easier because they had to deal with their equipment in addition to their food and beverages, but I insisted on heading back to the seats — and it’s a good thing. Halfway through the meal/interview, I noticed that Orlando Mercado and Mike Napoli were getting close to finishing playing catch down the left field line.
“Run over there,” I told Justin with a mouthful of pepperoni pizza. “You’ll probably get that ball, but you have to hurry.”
He looked over in the direction where I was pointing, shrugged, and took another bite of his chicken strips.
“Fine,” I said, “I’ll go over there.”
I threw my pizza back in the box, wiped my hand on my shirt, grabbed my glove…and returned 90 seconds later with the ball. Mercado, thankfully, had been the one who ended up with it. I’m pretty sure that Napoli would’ve recognized me and thrown it to someone else.
Shortly before game time, I got Torii Hunter’s autograph on my ticket:
(I tried to get him to use my blue Sharpie, but he was moving quickly with his own black marker.)
Justin and Phil and I spent most of the game in the standing-room-only section in right field:
There were lots of lefties in the lineup, so it was a good spot, but of course there wasn’t any action. The closest we came was when Luke Scott blasted a home run to right-center field, which, according to Hit Tracker, traveled 447 feet. The ball cleared the seats and landed in the narrow walkway at the very back of the section. I ran in that direction from the standing room…
…but got trapped behind a couple other fans approximately 15 feet from the spot where it landed.
Paul and Meredith had already taken off by that point, and Phil left soon after. He felt like he’d gotten enough info/material, and he told me he’d get in touch if he had any follow-up questions. His article, by the way, will either run this season as the pennant races are heating up or it’ll run next spring in the “baseball preview” issue. Phil told me that he had interviewed some other ballhawks (he wouldn’t say who) and that they all told him that he had to talk to me. (That was nice to hear.) I mentioned a lot of names to him, so there’s really no telling who else he’ll end up interviewing.
Anyway, late in the game, Justin and I went for foul balls. This was our view for several left-handed batters:
Then, in the top of the ninth, I helped him sneak down to the umpires’ tunnel behind the plate. He took the right side of the tunnel, and I hung back a few rows on the left. In the following photo, the red arrow is pointing to him:
After the final out, home plate ump Jerry Layne placed a ball in Justin’s glove…
…and then he handed me a ball, too, just before he disappeared.
That was it. Justin doubled his lifetime total by snagging two baseballs, and I finished with nine — not terrible considering that the teams skipped half an hour’s worth of batting practice.
Final score: Orioles 6, Angels 3. (Nice debut for Buck Showalter as the Birds’ new skipper.)
In case you were wondering, my friend Ben Hill was nowhere near me during the game. He met up with his own friend, and they sat together behind the Orioles’ dugout. Ben has finally achieved full-time status at MLBAM (Major League Baseball Advanced Media), so he now has a pass that gets him into any non-sold-out major league game for free, and once he’s inside, he can sit wherever he wants. Pretty cool, huh? If only he had more free time to take advantage.
Ben took one final photo of me and Justin after the game:
Justin and I then said our goodbyes. Ben and I then made the three-hour drive back to New York City.
• 9 balls at this game (7 pictured on the right because I gave two away)
• 211 balls in 23 games this season = 9.2 balls per game.
• 652 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 199 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 24 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls
• 4,569 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
• $1,369.39 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
Day 2 of the San Juan Series started with another long line outside the bleacher entrance:
See the guy in the gray All-Star Game shirt? His name is Mike. We’d met the day before, and we ended up sitting together at this game.
One minute after the gates opened, this was the scene:
In case you can’t tell, it’s a photo of the Marlins jogging off the field.
During that lone minute of batting practice, Anibal Sanchez threw two baseballs to me. I was the only one wearing Marlins gear, and at that point, I was the only fan wearing a glove and calling out to him, so he didn’t have many other options. He probably figured that I’d give away the second ball, and I did. In fact, I gave them both away to a pair of extremely friendly security guards.
Soon after the Mets started hitting, the bleachers got insanely crowded:
There wasn’t any room to run, so I headed underneath the bleachers and played the gap behind the outfield wall. Here’s what it looked like down there:
Several minutes later, a different security guard kicked me out (along with the few other fans who’d ventured down), so I had to find another spot.
Hmm, where to go…
I decided to stand behind the outfield wall in right-center. Surely, there’d be a few bombs hit that way, right?
This was my view straight head:
This was my view to the right…
…and to the left:
I had a ton of open space all around me, and there wasn’t anyone else who was even thinking of snagging a baseball.
How many balls do you think I got during the next half hour? Go ahead, take a guess. Three? Five? Ten? Twenty? Think big. It was warm. Fly balls were carrying. The players, undoubtedly, were pumped to be playing in Puerto Rico. Home runs galore, right?
Ready for the answer?
The Mets didn’t hit a single home run to center field — or anywhere near center field. They didn’t hit any ground-rule doubles either. It was so dead that for a moment I wondered if BP was still taking place. I peeked through a narrow gap in the center field wall:
Yup, the Mets were still hitting.
Meanwhile, half a dozen balls dropped into the gap behind the left field wall. I would’ve snagged all or most of them if I’d been allowed to stay there. It was just one of those days. And that was it for BP.
Now get this: I had three tickets for this game. Let me explain…
When tickets first went on sale, I wasn’t able to just buy one ticket for one game. I had to buy one ticket for all three. Does that make sense? It’s like they were being sold as a strip, or as a package, or whatever you want to call it. I knew that my girlfriend wasn’t going to attend all three games, but since she was going to attend at least one, I had to buy two tickets for each game. Anyway, this was the game that she chose to skip. (She decided she’d have more fun at the hotel, working out in the fitness room, getting woozy in the steam room, and lounging at the pool.) So, in addition to my own bleacher ticket, I also had hers.
What about the third ticket, you ask?
Well, once individual seats finally went on sale, I splurged and bought an extra, fancy-ish ticket on the first base side. Why? Because I’d learned that the bleachers were completely separate from the rest of the stadium. Buying that extra ticket was the only way I’d be able to wander all around and get the full experience.
This was the first thing I saw when I entered the main concourse behind home plate:
There was a band blasting music just outside the gates, and as you can see, there were people walking on stilts and dancing in crazy mascot costumes. It was a truly wild/festive scene, and the best thing about it (unlike all the hoopla I experienced at the 2007 All-Star Game) is that none of it felt contrived. There was a genuine vibe of joy and exuberance. People were just excited to be at a baseball game, plain and simple.
I walked through the concourse to the 3rd base side, then headed through a tunnel and into the seats. Check out this cross-aisle — a perfect place for chasing foul balls:
I walked up the steps toward the upper/outermost corner…
…and discovered that there was a secondary concourse at the very back:
Behold the puddles:
What’s up with that? Was the ice machine leaking?
This was the view of the field from that back corner of the ballpark:
I walked down the steps, and when I looked to my left, this is what I saw:
Gotta love the Roberto Clemente truck. It was parked in an employees-only area between the grandstand and the bleachers. See that thing with the black fence and tan roof? That was the Mets’ batting cage. Here’s a closer look at it:
This was as close as I could get to the field:
As you can see in the photo above, the four rows down in front were roped off.
There was no way to sneak down there; every single staircase around the entire stadium was guarded by an usher. Here’s one of the ushers behind the 1st base dugout:
See the shirt that he’s wearing? I really wanted one, but obviously they weren’t being sold. The ushers wore those shirts every day. If the fans had been able to buy and wear them, too, it would’ve caused all kinds of security issues. There were some “San Juan Series” shirts for sale at the main souvenir stand, but they weren’t nearly as nice.
Normally, when I visit a stadium for the first time, I make a point of going to the last row of the upper deck and taking a couple photos that I can later combine into a panorama. Hiram Bithorn Stadium has no upper deck, so here’s what I ended up with:
Here’s a look at the stadium from the back of the seats on the 1st base side:
Here’s one of two ramps that lead to the press box:
I suspect this would be a good place to get autographs, but I didn’t stick around. It was only 20 minutes ’til game time, so I made my way back down the steps and took a couple pics of the multi-colored seats:
Then I headed into the lower concourse and saw the best concession stand of all time:
That concluded my tour of the main part of the stadium.
I headed out through the gate…
…and stopped for a minute to watch the band:
It might not look like they were playing, but they were. The blurry guy right in front was jumping all over the place while performing a drum solo.
When I made it back to the bleachers, there happened to be a TV crew from some local station called El Nuevo Dia getting shots of the crowd. The host recognized me as the guy who’d caught Mike Stanton’s home run the day before, and he asked if he could interview me. (He was bilingual.) While he was introducing me, Mike grabbed my camera and took the following photo:
It was a quick interview. Probably less than 60 seconds. Standard stuff. The guy basically asked me where I’m from and what I was doing in Puerto Rico, and we talked baseball.
The highlight for me during the game was that I snagged another San Juan Series commemorative ball (I’d gotten two the day before), and it was embarrassingly easy. With one out in the bottom of the 2nd, Dan Uggla ripped a line drive down the left field line. The ball hooked foul. I raced to my right through the cross-aisle. Mets left fielder Jason Bay jogged over and retrieved it. I was the only person in the aisle, so when I shouted at him, he tossed it right to me.
This was my view of the field, at least for a few moments here and there:
(FYI: the woman in the photo above is a vendor.)
In the bottom of the 5th, Uggla smoked a line drive home run right at me. I was lined up with it. There wasn’t any competition in the stands. It was going to be the easiest catch ever, but the ball fell five feet short and dropped into the gap and trickled under the bleachers. Here’s a screen shot that shows me looking down at it:
If I could do it all over again, I would have climbed over the railing and jumped down into the gap. At the time, I was one-third concerned about getting in trouble, one-third worried about getting hurt, and one-third convinced that there was already someone down there (a cameraman or security guard or fan) who must’ve grabbed the ball, so I stood there like an idiot and watched and waited…and waited…and waited, and 15 seconds later, some little kid appeared out of nowhere and ran under the bleachers and grabbed the ball and ran back out holding it up triumphantly. Good for the kid. Bad for me. It really would’ve been great to get that ball, and as it turned out, someone else jumped over the fence later on — without any negative consequences — for a warm-up that dropped into the gap. I really feel like I wasted an opportunity. It was one of only two homers in the game. The other was a grand slam by Hanley Ramirez that barely cleared the wall in left-center, bounced back onto the field, and immediately got tossed back into the crowd by Mets center fielder Angel Pagan. I tried running over, but didn’t even come close.
Final score: Marlins 7, Mets 6.
As for that Uggla foul ball that got tossed up to me, I took a bunch of photos of it and ended up with two that I simply have to share. I’ll post one now and the other after the stats:
• 3 balls at this game (1 pictured above/below because I gave the other two away)
• 179 balls in 18 games this season = 9.9 balls per game.
• 647 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 197 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 4,537 total balls
• 37 donors (click hereto learn more)
• $5.41 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $16.23 raised at this game
• $968.39 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
This was my first game at Turner Field in ten years, and I was pretty excited:
The crowd was going to be fairly small. The gates were going to open two and a half hours early. The configuration of the left field seats was going to be ideal. And in my previous four games at this stadium (two in 1999 and two in 2000), I’d averaged 9.5 balls per game.
I wasn’t merely hoping to have a big day. I was expecting it. But first, I had some exploring to do outside the stadium.
This is what I saw when I walked to the top of the steps:
That big area is called Monument Grove.
I walked over to the gate in deep left-center field and took a peek through the metal bars:
Two photos above, you can see a blueish wall in the distance. Here’s a closer look at it:
In case you can’t read it, the words on top say, “THE LONGEST CONTINUOUSLY OPERATING FRANCHISE IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.” (I was not aware of that fact.) Underneath it, there were years and logos and names of all the Braves’ former cities and teams: Boston Red Stockings (starting in 1871), Boston Red Caps, Boston Beaneaters, Boston Doves, Boston Rustlers, Boston Braves, Boston Bees, Boston Braves (again), Milwaukee Braves, and finally the current Atlanta Braves. It wasn’t nearly as snazzy as any of the Twins shrines that I saw on May 4th at Target Field, but it was still cool to see the Braves honoring their past.
Here’s the center field gate…
…and this is what it looked like when I rounded the corner of the stadium:
Meh. Nothing wrong with it, but not particularly memorable.
Here’s another look from further down the street…
…and this is what it looked like after I rounded another corner:
Pretty standard stuff, I guess. The street on that side of the stadium was so green and hilly that it didn’t even feel like a stadium. Check it out:
I resisted the urge to try to talk my way in as I passed the media entrance…
…and rounded yet another corner:
That’s more like it.
Two-thirds of the way down the street, a bunch of autograph collectors were waiting for the Mets players to arrive:
See the guy standing on the right with the red ESPN shirt? His name is Pete Gasperlin (aka “pgasperlin” in the comments). I had met him on 5/6/10 at Target Field. He’s a huge Twins fan. He’s the founder of the Denard Span fan club on Facebook. And he’s the guy who took my girlfriend Jona into the Metropolitan Club when she needed a break from the 40-degree drizzle. Yesterday, while I was talking to him, Jose Reyes, Johan Santana, and Oliver Perez were dropped off right in front of us. There were a dozen people begging for their autographs, including one guy (as you can see above) who was wearing a REYES jersey. It would have taken the players a minute or two to sign for everyone, but instead, they headed inside without even looking up or waving. It was pathetic. (David Wright, by the way, had stopped to sign on his way in shortly before I got there. Pete showed me a card that he’d gotten autographed.)
Here’s what the stadium looked like just beyond the autograph collectors…
…and this is what it looked like when I rounded the final corner:
I was back to where I’d started, and I still had some time to spare, so I headed into the parking lot in order to get a look at Turner Field from afar:
Then I walked even further (about a quarter of a mile) and checked out the remnants of Fulton County Stadium:
Fulton County was the home of the Braves from 1966-1996. I was there for one game in 1992 and snagged one ball. It was thrown by a (now totally obscure) player on the Padres named Guillermo Velasquez. I remember it well. It was rainy. There wasn’t BP. I was in the left field corner with my family. I didn’t have a Padres cap. I was 15 years old at the time. And…what else can I say? The whole thing was lucky and feels like it happened in a previous life.
In the photo above, do you see the little random piece of wall on the little random patch of grass? Let me take you closer and show you what that is:
It’s the spot where Hank Aaron’s 715th career home run landed. (At the time, Babe Ruth held the record with 714, so this was a big big big big BIG big big deal. And of course it was more than just the numbers. There was the whole issue of race, too. Big deal. Very big.) Very cool to be standing so close to where such a major piece of history went down.
After that, I headed back to Turner Field and claimed at a spot just outside the gates:
The photo above was taken by Pete. The guy sitting on the right was the first person I had seen while wandering around the stadium earlier. He had stopped me and asked, “Are you Zack Hample?” Most people who recognize me are like, “Hey, aren’t you that guy from YouTube,” but this dude actually knew my name. (If I’m remembering correctly, his name is Matt.)
Five minutes before the gates opened, this was the line behind me:
When I ran inside and headed down to the front row in left-center, I was rather excited to see this:
Glove trick heaven!
Even more important, perhaps, was the fact that the seats extended all the way from the foul pole to the batter’s eye. In other words, I was going to be able to position myself in all sorts of different spots based on who was batting and where the crowd was clustered.
My friend Pete unintentionally got the assist on my first ball of the day. It was a ground-rule double that kinda handcuffed him in the front row, and when it dropped down into the gap, I was all over it. Then I caught a home run on the fly, hit by a right-handed batter on the Braves that I couldn’t identify. Nothing fancy about it. It was pretty much hit right to me. All I had to do was drift a few feet to my right and reach up for the easy, one-handed grab. Two minutes later, I saw a ball drop into the gap in right-center, so I ran over there. I reeled that one in and then discovered another ball in the gap, just a few feet to my left:
The problem with the section in right-center is that it’s really far from home plate. Check out the view:
The batters basically have to hit the ball 400 feet just to reach the seats, and because the front row is always crowded, you’re talking 410 to 420 in order for them to reach a spot where you’ll have some room to run.
I ran back to left field and snagged a ground-rule double that bounced into the seats near the foul pole. I was proud of myself for this one because the ball had been hit really high, and I was all the way over in straight-away left field. I knew that it wasn’t going to clear the wall on the fly, but instead of giving up on it, I kept running in case it bounced over. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have made that play. I wasn’t as good at judging fly balls, and didn’t have The Vision. I don’t know what’s happening, but my instincts are suddenly improving. I can feel it. It’s awesome.
I ran all the way to the seats in straight-away right field (it takes an effort to get there; the path is anything but direct) and caught a home run hit by Melky Cabrera. I had to move a full section to my right for it, and when I looked back up for the ball, I found myself staring right into the sun — so I felt good about that snag as well.
The gap in right field is partially blocked by the backside of the LED board:
It’s still possible to use the glove trick there, but balls don’t drop down too often.
When the Braves finished their portion of BP, I raced over to the seats behind their dugout — and was told by various ushers that I wasn’t allowed down there.
Seriously, what kind of Citi-esque nonsense was that? Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton was throwing ball after ball into the crowd, and since I was already halfway down into the seats, I started yelling to get his attention. He threw a ball to a nearby female usher, presumably for me, and when she dropped it and it started rolling toward me, she yelled at me to get away from her ball. Then, after she “ran” over and grabbed it, Pendleton threw her another, which she kept.
“Are you kidding me?!” I yelled.
“Theesa fo’ my keeeids!” she insisted.
“Are you really competing with me for baseballs,” I asked, “and kicking me out of your section an hour and a half before game time?”
That IS, in fact, what was happening. As this usher was guiding me up the steps, however, I managed to get Pendleton’s attention, and he threw me my seventh ball of the day (which I caught right in front of her face).
Unbelievable. Does anyone have Ted Turner’s phone number? I need to have a word with him.
When the Mets took the field, I was once again prohibited from entering the seats behind their dugout — or even next to their dugout. The closest I could get was shallow left field!
I got a ball tossed to me in the left field corner by one of the trainer-type-strength-and-conditioning-coach dudes. Then I moved to straight-away left and fished a home run ball out of the gap. (That was my ninth ball of the day, and there was some competition from other fans with devices.) Less than a minute later, I caught a homer on the fly. I’m not sure who hit it. All I can tell you is that I was in the third row, and there was a guy around my age in the second row. When the ball went up, he misjudged it and moved back. This enabled me to carefully slip past him and drift down to the front row, where I leaned over the railing and made the catch.
Check out the ball:
It was a Citi Field commemorative ball. I’d snagged a bunch of these last year, but it was still great to get another. Commemorative balls are sacred to me — even the ones like this with poorly designed logos.
The Braves had been using standard balls with the word “practice” printed under the MLB logo; the Mets were using balls that had “practice” stamped sloppily on the sweet spot. Check it out:
The left field seats got pretty crowded…
…but that didn’t stop me. I snagged a David Wright homer that landed near me in the seats and then ran over to right field for the next group of hitters. It was either Jose Reyes or Luis Castillo — I just wasn’t paying close enough attention — but whoever it was hit a home run right to me. I mean right to me. I could sense that someone was running toward me in the row below me, so I reached up with two hands to brace for a potential collision. The ball cleared this other guy’s glove by three inches, and then he tripped and fell headfirst over his row. (Yes, I caught the ball.) Don’t feel bad for him. He was in his 20s and looked/acted like he belonged in the mosh pit at a punk rock show. Thirty seconds later, I saw him scramble for another ball and grab it right in front of a little kid, who looked pretty devastated. The kid’s father tried to plead with the guy to turn the ball over, and when he refused, I tapped the kid on the shoulder and handed him the one I’d just caught. The kid (as you might imagine) was thrilled, his father thanked me for a solid minute, and I got a bunch of high-fives from other fans.
Back in left field, I went on a mini-snagging rampage during the closing minutes of BP. Pedro Feliciano threw me my 13th ball of the day. Then I used my glove trick (No. 14). Then I grabbed a home run in the seats that some grown-ups bobbled (No. 15). And then used my trick again for a home run ball that landed in the gap (No. 16). I managed to get down to the Mets’ dugout at the end of BP, and as all the players and coaches were clearing the field, I got Howard Johnson to toss me No. 17.
I’d been planning to go for homers during the game, but now that I was so close to 20, I decided to stay behind the dugout and pad my numbers. For some reason, the Mets never came out for pre-game throwing, so that cost me an important opportunity, but there was still the chance to get a third-out ball. This was my view early in the game:
Yunel Escobar grounded out to Mets first baseman Ike Davis to end the second inning. Davis jogged in and tossed me the ball. Pretty simple. The ball, it should be noted, had the Citi Field commemorative logo on it, which means it wasn’t the actual ball that had been used during the game; Davis had obviously kept the gamer and tossed me his infield warm-up ball instead.
As I jogged up the steps, I happened to see Kevin Burkhardt, the Mets’ sideline reporter, sitting at the back of the section with his SNY microphone. I had gotten to know him a bit over the past few seasons, and once I started snagging baseballs for charity last year, I’d been asking him if he’d interview me about it someday. Long story short: the interview finally took place last night during the bottom of the 4th inning.
The whole thing only lasted a couple minutes, but I think it went pretty well. Here’s a screen shot (courtesy of SNY) before the interview started. It shows Kevin pointing out the camera that was going to be filming us:
Here’s another screen shot (courtesy of my friend Howie) during the interview itself.
Yes, Howie actually photographed his TV.
Kevin asked me two main questions:
1) How do you catch so many baseballs?
2) Can you tell me what you’re doing for charity?
It was great to get to give a plug on-air for Pitch In For Baseball. Big thanks to the Mets for letting me do it. (The Braves, as I mentioned three days ago on Twitter, denied my media/charity request.)
Here I am with Kevin after the interview:
I still have yet to see a tape of it, but according to Howie, when Eric Hinske homered the following inning (to a spot where I wouldn’t have been anyway), the Mets announcers mentioned me.
Gary Cohen said, “Zack did not get the ball,” to which Ron Darling replied, “He’s probably negotiating for it.”
I spent the rest of the game chasing nonexistent foul balls behind the plate. This was my view for right-handed batters:
There’s a cross-aisle that runs through the entire field level, so it’s easy to run left and right. The only problem is that the protective screen is rather tall, so balls have to loop back over it — something that doesn’t happen too often.
If you’ve been reading the comments on this blog, you may have noticed a bunch over the years from someone known as “lsthrasher04” and later “braves04.” The person who’s been leaving those comments lives in Atlanta. His name is Matt. We’d been in touch for a long time, but we’d never met in person until yesterday. I saw him briefly during BP, but I was so busy running all over the place that we barely had a chance to catch up. Late in the game, he came and found me, and we finally had a photo taken together. Here we are:
Matt had kindly given me some pointers about Turner Field in recent weeks. I returned the favor last night by signing his copy of Watching Baseball Smarter.
By the time the 9th inning rolled around, I still needed two more balls to reach 20. My plan, since the Mets were winning, 3-2, was as follows:
1) Go to the Mets’ dugout.
2) Get a ball from home plate umpire Ed Rapuano.
3) Get another ball from the Mets as they walk off the field.
4) If that fails, get a ball from the relievers when they walk in from the bullpen.
Good plan, right? It gave me three chances to snag two balls. Well, Rapuano took care of the first one, but then the Mets let me down. None of them tossed a ball into the crowd as they headed back in — and get this: the relievers never walked across the field. They must’ve headed from the bullpen to the clubhouse through the underground concourse.
So that was it.
My day ended with 19 balls.
(Yeah, I know, poor me.)
The Mets held on for a 3-2 win, so my Ballhawk Winning Percentage improved to what would be a major league best: .792 (9.5 wins and 2.5 losses).
Before heading out, I caught up with Pete…
…who generously gave me a new Braves cap. (My old one, circa 1992, was crinkly and fugly and being held together at the back with duct tape.)
Good times. Good people. Good baseball. Can’t wait for the next two games here. I’m hoping to snag 23 more and hit 4,500…
• 19 balls at this game (18 pictured on the right because I gave one away)
• 119 balls in 12 games this season = 9.9 balls per game.
• 641 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 192 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 124 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 4,477 total balls
• 31 donors (click here and scroll down to see who has pledged)
• $4.95 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $94.05 raised at this game
• $589.05 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
I woke up in Cleveland at 5:15am with three hours of sleep. By the time I checked into my hotel in Minnesota, I was so tired that my eyes hurt. I should’ve taken a nap, especially considering that I was going to be on TV later that evening, but I was too excited about Target Field. To hell with sleep. I had to get over there and see it. This was my first look at it:
(Did you notice the HUGE Target logo on the walkway?)
I could tell from afar that the place was gorgeous, and once I got closer, I noticed that the Twins (unlike the Mets) did an amazing job of honoring their past. One of the first things I saw was a long, wall-like display featuring the team’s former stadiums:
Right nearby, there was a fence with pennant-shaped tributes to important players and executives in Twins history…
…and then I saw Gate 29:
That’s kind of a random number for a gate, right? Well, it was named after Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who wore uniform No. 29 for the Twins for 12 seasons. Target Field has five gates, all of which are named after Twins players who’ve had their numbers retired. Genius.
I walked clockwise around the outside of the stadium. Here’s the team store…
…and here are some of the many team-related banners:
FYI, there are service ramps behind those long wooden boards. If you look closely at them, you can see a door on the lower left that swings open.
Check out the view through Gate 14 (named after Kent Hrbek):
It was one o’clock. First pitch was scheduled for 7:10pm. That’s why there weren’t many people around.
This is what I saw when I walked past Gate 14 and turned the corner:
The fence on the left was lined with poster-sized replica Topps baseball cards of Twins players, past and present. Brilliant.
At the far end of the walkway, I passed a Light Rail station…
…and turned another corner:
Here’s another sneak peek inside the stadium through Gate 6 (named after Tony Oliva):
I felt very welcomed, indeed.
I kept walking. Here’s more of what I saw:
I passed some artwork (officially known as the “5th Street Panels at Target Field”) on the far end of the building:
This piece in particular is called “A History of Minnesota Baseball.”
I risked my life to take the following photo:
Okay, not really, but I *was* standing awfully close to the train tracks.
(Gate 3, which you can see in the photo above, is named after Harmon Killebrew. I later learned that on Opening Day, Killebrew stood just inside the gate and greeted fans as they entered. That’s how to run a major league organization.)
Here’s where it gets weird. I’d been walking around the stadium without any problems. Everything was beautiful and clean and simple. But when I passed Gate 3, this is what I saw:
Where was I supposed to walk? Into the tunnel? Was it even possible to walk all the way around the outside of the stadium? I crossed the street on the left side and headed onto a narrow walkway. I had no idea where I was going. There were no signs. There was nothing but a pair of unmarked glass doors:
Just when I was was preparing to retrace my steps and head back toward Gate 3, two guys walked by and gave me directions. They said I had to enter the doors and walk through a long hallway and follow the signs and head upstairs…and…what? I was so confused, but they seemed convincing, so I did what they said.
This is what it looked like just inside the doors:
Was this a trick or a scam? Perhaps a hidden-camera TV show? Should I have been concerned for my safety?
I walked quite a ways down the hallway and eventually saw this:
What was the Target Plaza? Was that connected to Target Field? Ohmygod, what was going on? I hadn’t researched the stadium beforehand. I intentionally showed up knowing as little as possible so I could explore and discover things.
There were escalators at the far end of the hallway:
I headed up to the second level and saw this:
Uh…was I supposed to go up to the 3rd level?
It looked like there was a little sign on the door, so I walked over for a closer look. This is what it said:
Hooray! Thank you! Finally, there were clear directions that applied to what *I* hoped to find. Target Field, through the doors. Right?
Umm, not so fast…
This is what I saw when I opened the door:
WHAT THE HELL?!?!?!
I figured the sign had to be right, so I walked across the garage and encountered another set of doors. This is what I saw on the other side:
I walked past the Kirby Puckett statue. This is what was on the right:
Now we’re talking.
Gate 34…the right field gate…just behind the standing room area. I hurried over for a peek inside:
The giant “gold” glove was sitting nearby on the right:
Just how big is it? Here’s my backpack:
I still had a little more exploring to do, so I continued heading around the stadium:
Is that a slick design or what?
In the photo above, do you see the fan wearing red sleeves? More on him in a bit, but first, I have to show you even more Twins history that was on display. Check this out:
You know what those things on the fence are?
There was a roster from every single season since the franchise moved to Minneapolis.
Even the team store was exquisite:
Back outside, I walked right past Justin Verlander and two of his teammates:
One fan approached Verlander and asked for an autograph.
“Not today,” said the Tigers ace.
(Ballplayers are so friendly nowadays.)
Okay, remember the guy wearing red? His name is Greg Dryden, but he’s known simply as “Waldo.” He’s the No. 1 ballhawk in Minnesota. He used to sit in the front row in left-center at the Metrodome, and he always wore a helmet. That was his thing. I’d been hearing stories about him for years — some good, some bad. Everyone I knew who visited the Dome had something to say about the guy, and here he was. I knew it was him because the back of his jersey said “WALDO 13,” so I walked over and introduced myself, and as it turned out, he had heard lots of stories about me, too. Here we are:
I knew that we were only going to have a few minutes to chat, so I asked him the basic questions about how many baseballs he’d snagged over the years. He told me that he only kept count one season and ended up with 352. (He was a season ticket holder and attended all 81 of the Twins’ home games.) He said that was probably a typical season for him and that he’d been ballhawking regularly since 1999.
“So you’ve probably gotten over 3,000 balls?” I asked.
He shrugged and said, “Yeah, I guess.”
“How many game home runs?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “probably 40 or 50…and I’ve gotten about 20 ground-rule doubles.”
Not too shabby.
At 2pm, two attractive women (who looked to be in their mid-20s) started walking right toward us. Waldo’s jaw literally dropped, and when they got closer, one of them asked me, “Are you Zack?”
“Catherine?” I asked.
She welcomed me to Minnesota and introduced me to her twin sister, Laura-Leigh. Then, as the three of us headed off together, I turned toward Waldo and shouted, “I’ll see you back here in an hour!” The look on his face was priceless.
The ladies led me to a nearby mall called Butler Square. Here’s the main entrance:
See the arrow in the photo above? There’s a restaurant in the mall called Smalley’s 87 Club:
That’s where we went. It’s named after former major league All-Star Roy Smalley, who played nine of his 13 seasons with the Twins. Now get this…
1) Roy Smalley just happens to be their father.
2) Roy Smalley is the president of Pitch In For Baseball.
3) Roy Smalley is a commentator on FSN North.
See where I’m going with this? In case you’re new to this blog, I’ve been raising money for the last two two seasons for Pitch In For Baseball — a charity that provides baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. Roy was planning to interview me live on the Twins’ pre-game show about it, and he was at the restaurant. Here I am with him and his daughters:
(Catherine is on the left, just above my red-and-white Pitch In For Baseball cap, and by the way, I should mention that both plates of food were mine: chicken strips and a caesar salad. The food there is great.)
We all hung out for a couple hours, during which time Roy let me play with his 1987 World Series ring:
Here’s the ring with Roy in the background…
…and here are two close-up shots of it:
(His championship ring is slightly cooler than mine.)
My lack of sleep was killing me, but I was so happy that it didn’t even matter.
By the time I made it back to the Target Field Plaza (that’s the official name of the area outside Gate 34), there were quite a few people milling about:
At 5pm (half an hour before the stadium opened), look who showed up and found me:
It was my girlfriend, Jona.
As I’d mentioned the day before on Twitter, there was a chance that she wasn’t gonna be able to make it to Minnesota, but everything ended up working out, and here she was.
Remember the small crowd waiting outside the gate on 5/1/10 at Progressive Field? If not, click here to see what I’m talking about. Here’s the difference between Cleveland and Minneapolis. Ready? Take a deep breath and brace yourself:
Holy mother of GOD!!! And don’t forget that this was just one of five gates. My biggest gripe about the stadium is that it doesn’t open earlier. I think it’s a real slap in the face to the fans that they can’t even get inside early enough to watch the Twins take batting practice. Every team should open its stadium two and a half hours early. Not just for season ticket holders. Not just on weekends. Always. For everyone. Forever. And especially when it’s the first season of a new stadium and the crowds are extra large. Seriously, Twins: duh.
Shortly before the stadium opened, I learned that FSN’s cameras were going to be filming me from afar during BP. I wasn’t going to be miked up. They didn’t need any audio. They just wanted some B-roll footage that they could later use during my interview with Roy. Catherine (who helped set up the interview) told me to call the producer as soon as I ran into the stadium. She said I needed to let him know where I was so he’d be able to make sure that the cameras were following me — and if I ran to another section, I was supposed to give him another call.
You know what I did instead? I handed my phone to Jona, who offered to make the phone calls for me.
I was so stressed and tired, and at 5:30pm it was time to roll. I raced inside and peeked at the right field seats and quickly decided to head for the left field bleachers. Jona chased after me and called the producer.
“Where do I tell him we are?!” she shouted.
“Ohboy,” I mumbled loud enough for her to hear me, then yelled, “Tell him I’m running behind the batter’s eye!”
It was nuts, and yet Jona somehow managed to take photos while all of this was happening. Here I am in the bleachers:
The bleachers were awful. Too steep. Too crowded. Too many railings. Tucked underneath an overhang. And because of the flower bed down in front, there was absolutely no chance to use the glove trick:
If someone asked me to design a miserable section for catching home run balls, I probably would’ve come up with this. Oh…and the sun was in everyone’s eyes, too.
The bleachers got crowded pretty fast:
Things were NOT looking good.
At one point, I had a chance to catch a home run ball:
(In case you can’t tell, I’m wearing the dark blue jacket with a Tigers shirt.)
Here’s that same moment captured by an FSN camera:
Want to see how it ended?
Yeah, the short guy in the front row jumped up and caught the ball two feet in front of my glove. Then, five minutes, later, I got robbed once again by a guy who reached out and made a bare-handed grab as I was cutting through the second row:
My overall assessment:
My friend Bob (aka “Big Glove Bob” in the comments section) made an appearance in the bleachers:
He had kindly picked me up at the airport that morning, and he’d given me lots of tips on Target Field and Minneapolis in the previous weeks. It was great hanging out with him — this was the first day that we had ever met in person — and I foolishly neglected to get a photo with him. (Random coincidence: he was interviewed on TV that day, too.)
I was getting desperate. I still didn’t have a ball. I was worried about my streak. And I was embarrassed to be putting on such a lousy ballhawking display for the cameras, which were evidently capturing my every move.
After what felt like an eternity, I finally got Tigers reliever Brad Thomas to throw me a ball. He was in left-center field. I was standing near the slanted railing next to the bullpens. His throw fell short. I nearly had a panic attack. I reached way out — full extension — and caught the ball in the tip of my glove. It was a true snow-cone. Here’s an FSN screen shot…
…and here I am pointing at Thomas as if to say, “You’re the man. Thank you.”
I was so relieved at that point. My streak was alive, and I had snagged a ball in my 47th different major league stadium. Here I am with the ball:
I wasn’t sure what type of balls the Tigers were going to be using during BP; in 2008 they used Pacific Coast League balls and in 2009 they used International League balls. As you can see in the photo above, the ball that Thomas threw me was an official major league ball, but check out the logo:
The Tigers had marked it. Many other teams have done the same thing over the years, but never on the logo itself.
My phone rang. Jona handed it to me. I answered it. It was Roy. He asked me to swing by the FSN set down the left field line, and since BP was such a colossal waste of time, I didn’t mind sacrificing a few minutes of it to go check in with him:
He asked me to be back there by 6:25pm. The pre-game show was going to start at 6:30. I was going to be interviewed during the second segment, and I needed to get miked up…so for the time being, I was free to run around a bit more and try to snag a few additional baseballs. Unfortunately, there weren’t any more to be snagged — at least not during BP. The bleachers were dead, and when I ran over to the Tigers’ dugout at the end of BP, I didn’t get anything there. The look on my face tells the whole story:
I had snagged ONE pathetic baseball during batting practice. I was sweaty and exhausted…
…and I wanted to go back to Cleveland.
It was time to head over to the FSN set, so I cut through the seats with Jona. I stopped along the way to photograph a fugitive hot dog:
Here’s what it looked like from my perspective:
Remember the random sausage I photographed on 4/27/09 at Miller Park? Yeah, I don’t know what to say. It’s just one of those things that needs to be documented.
I made it to the FSN area as Roy and his fellow commentators were finishing up the first segment:
He and I caught up for a moment during the commercial break…
…and headed into the left field bleachers:
(Roy is adjusting his ear piece in the photo above, and if you look closely, you can see The Ring on his right hand.)
See those two women sitting behind us? When we walked into the bleachers, the blonde one said to Roy, “You look like you’re famous.”
“Umm, that’s because he IS famous,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, half-excited and half-embarrassed, “should I know your name?”
I turned toward Roy and said, “Would you like me to to be your spokesperson?”
“Smalley,” he said to the women. “I used to play for the Twins.”
The women were like, “Smalley…Smalley…oh! Yeah!” but they had no idea who he was.
The interview itself went pretty well…I think. Here’s a photo that Jona took while it was in progress:
We were being filmed by the camera behind home plate in the upper deck.
The interview flew by — they always do — but I got to talk about Pitch In For Baseball. That was the most important thing, and I ended up getting a few new pledges as a result.
I still have yet to see the interview itself, but I did manage to get a screen shot. Here’s what it looked like to the folks watching on TV, and for the record, I did NOT write the text that appeared below my name:
The interview ended just in time for me to make it down to the front row along the left field foul line for pre-game throwing:
I ended up getting a ball from Scott Sizemore, and then less than 60 seconds later, because there wasn’t anyone else competing with me, I got another from Adam Everett. That made me feel a little better, but of course the FSN cameras weren’t on me anymore, so as far as the general public in Minnesota was concerned, I was just some random putz who happened to catch ONE ball during batting practice and then talked about some charity thing.
I spent most of the game in the standing room area down the right field line. Here’s that section from above. The red “X” marks the spot where I was standing:
Here’s what my view from that spot looked like:
Yeah, it was rainy and nasty and cold — about what I expected.
Here’s a photo from the back of the standing room area, with my back against the inside of Gate 34:
(I can’t explain that random box, so don’t ask.)
Waldo was on the outside looking in:
He’s “protesting” Twins management because he feels he got screwed over on his season tickets. Long story. Go to Target Field and ask him about it. But anyway, as part of his protest, he’s refusing to enter Target Field this year. He also wants to catch the first home run that either flies or (more likely) bounces out of Target Field, so in that sense, his spot just outside Gate 34 is actually ideal. Personally, I would go crazy if I had to spend even one game outside a stadium with such slim odds at snagging a homer, but he seems content (relatively speaking) out there, and he doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone, so I say hey, why not?
Jona and I sat in a few different places throughout the game. Here’s one…
…and here’s another:
I thought it was going to be really tough to move around, but a) there were empty seats to be found and b) the ushers were really laid-back.
After the bottom of the 8th inning, I got Miguel Cabrera to throw me a ball as he jogged off the field:
Although it had a commemorative Target Field logo, I knew it wasn’t the actual third-out ball that’d been used in the game because it was kinda beat up.
In the photo above, do you see the kid on my right, reaching up with both hands? It was a girl who was probably about 10 years old. Even though she didn’t have a glove, I just felt that giving her a ball was the right thing to do, so I pulled out a regular/non-marked/non-commemorative ball from my backpack and handed it over. I ended up sitting next to her and her father for the last half-inning, and they thanked me about a dozen times.
The Twins won the game, 4-3, on a run-scoring wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth. That made a winner of starter Nick Blackburn, who went the distance. It also meant that I notched a rare “tie” in the Ballhawk Winning Percentage category. My record moved to 4.5 wins and 1.5 losses, so my percentage is .750, second only to the Rays, who lead all of baseball with a .759 mark.
Jona was freezing her you-know-what off, but I was not in any rush to leave. (Sorry, baby.) I took more photos of basically everything around me, including the beautiful MLB logo atop the visitors’ dugout:
And then I had to stick around and watch the FSN crew do their on-field analysis of the game-ending wild pitch:
1 = Tim Laudner
2 = Bert Blyleven
3 = Roy Smalley
Very cool to see former players using the field itself as a teaching instrument. That’s how it should be.
• 66 balls in 6 games this season = 11 balls per game.
• 635 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 186 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 47 different major league stadiums with at least one ball
• 4,424 total balls
• 29 donors
• $3.85 pledged per ball (if you add up all the pledges)
• $15.40 raised at this game
• $254.10 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
One last thing…
I just discovered that someone with Minnesota Public Radio wrote a short article about me — and about this actual blog entry. Here’s the link to it, and here’s a screen shot of the piece:
My 6-foot-6 friend Leon Feingold sent me the following email a few nights ago:
“Hey, want to meet some 7-footers tomorrow??? Call me around 10 or 11am….”
Based on this blog entry that I’d posted a month earlier, you could say that my response went something along the lines of “HELL yeah!!!”<
It turned out that the 5-foot-9 Martha Stewart was going to be taping a show based entirely on tall people. There was going to be a fashion show with extra-tall models (run by a tall designer), an interview with a 6-foot-3 woman who wrote the definitive book about being tall, and other tall-related topics.
“You can’t come into the studio audience,” wrote Leon in his follow-up email the next day, “b/c EVERYONE in the audience must be minimum 6′ and I’m afraid you just miss the cutoff. But you can come meet me and mom lining up outside at 221 w 26th (7/8) where they’ll be doing the taping, and meet Dave Rasmussen, who I think is 7’4″. We’re heading over now, and will be there through 4pm.”
It just so happened that I had to be at West 13th Street for a two-hour meeting ending at 12:30pm, so I headed over to find Leon as soon as I got out. Here I am with him and his 6-foot-1 mother, Eleanor:
(Note my “trying-to-appear-taller-than-I-actually-am” pose. For the record, I’m officially 5-foot-10 and five-eighths, which I normally round up to 5-foot-11.)
Unfortunately, I had just missed the super-tall guy — actually, there were two super-tall guys — but at least I got to hang out with Leon for a while. And if I wanted to wait for a couple hours, I could catch them on the way out.
Suddenly, the line started to move. Leon and his mother and all the other tall folks were about to head inside. He said he’d try to sneak me in. I didn’t see how that was possible. (Leon once snuck me into Citi Field, so I should stop doubting him.) He’d once snuck me into a Mensa meeting (where I managed to trick everyone into thinking I was smart), but how do you fake height? I happened to be wearing thick-ish sneakers, so that was good for about an inch, but everyone was wearing shoes that made them look taller. It was a celebration of height. Even the women were at least six feet tall, and most of them were wearing high heels.
We headed inside to a little check-in/security area with an airport-style metal detector. There were several “Martha Stewart” employees standing behind a counter, looking at everyone’s IDs and having them fill out forms. I was screwed. I knew it. Crap. I wasn’t scared about getting in trouble, but I was ready for them to tell me to get lost.
I handed my driver’s license to one of the ladies.
She looked it over and said, “You’re not on the list.”
“This is my friend, Zack,” said Leon. “He decided to join us at the last minute. Is there any chance you can still add him?”
“I think so,” she said. Then she checked the list to review some other names, and before I knew it, I was holding a ticket to the studio audience:
The fact that I was standing on my tiptoes might’ve helped, or maybe I’d managed to trick her because Leon had poofed up my hat to make me look a little taller. I don’t know what happened. Maybe the lady just wasn’t paying attention, or maybe she didn’t care, but regardless, I was in. Every member of the studio audience was given a yellow, ruler-like name tag. Here’s how I filled out mine:
There was a large waiting area with dozens of chairs and people milling about. I kept walking around on my tiptoes. My calves got sore within three minutes. I was thrilled to be there, but felt so out of place.
“Imposter!” snapped a middle-aged 6-foot-2 woman as I walked past the coat check area.
I couldn’t tell if she was joking, so I just shrugged and pointed at my name tag.
“You’re not six feet,” she said a bit too seriously.
I smiled and said, “I rounded up.”
And then it happened: the two TALLEST human beings I had EVER seen walked by with a bunch of other tall people (who looked short by comparison).
“Go get a photo!” said Leon.
Eleanor grabbed my camera (which I always carry with me, just in case), and we followed the crowd into a hallway. Everyone immediately turned and stared at me. It was bizarre. The two super-tall guys…THEY were the freaks of nature (I mean that in a good way), yet I was being looked at as the freak. Everyone was smiling, though. They knew why I was there.
“YOU!” I said, pointing up at a 7-foot-3 black guy named Curtis, and “YOU!” I said again, turning toward the 7-foot-4 (if you round up) white guy named Dave. “I *need* to get a photo with you two!!”
They just kinda looked at each other and shrugged and said okay. We gathered close together…and Eleanor took a couple quick photos…and oh my God. Check it out:
Seriously…JEE-zus Aitch. I was happier standing between those two guys than I would’ve been if I’d been standing with Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken Jr. I don’t know what it is. I just freakin’ LOVE tall people. You know how you hear stories about women who feel trapped in men’s bodies? Well, I feel like a 7-foot-8 monster who’s trapped in a nondescript 5-foot-11 (if you round up) body. I realize that 5-foot-11 is a perfectly acceptable height. In fact, it’s actually slightly taller than average, but as far as I’m concerned, just based on how I feel in my head and in my gut, my height is a complete disaster.
BTW, when I thanked these guys after the photo and reached to shake their hands, it’s like I was reaching right for their crotches. The whole thing was just…weird.
Eventually, it was time to line up outside the studio:
See that guy at the bottom of the ramp? He’s 6-foot-6. And the woman between him and Leon? 6-foot-2.
Once we got inside the studio, we were told that we could take photos before and after the taping, so…here you go:
The show itself was fine. I won’t give a play-by-play. You can watch it for yourself if you’re interested. It’s going to air on Thursday, February 18th. You might even catch a glimpse of me. On several occasions, those cameras that get shots of the crowd were pointing right at me, but I have no idea what exactly they captured or if it’ll be used in the actual show.
During the commercial breaks, I talked to the two women sitting next to me. One was 6-foot-1. The other was 6-foot-2. They told me that they’re members of the Tall Club of New York City. I fessed up and admitted that I’m not quite six feet tall (we were sitting down, so it wasn’t obvious) and asked if I’d be allowed to attend one of their events. They said there are get-togethers in bars that are open to the public. “Anyone can come,” said one of the women, “but we don’t like it when really really short guys show up. You know, really short, like 5-foot-8 or under. We call them ‘tree-climbers’.”
After the taping, Martha Stewart lingered in the studio for a few minutes and took questions from the audience:
In the photo above, do you see that big brown thing behind Martha? That, my friends, is a 1,250-pound chocolate cake (with a cherry made of sugar on top). Every audience member was given a piece of a different chocolate cake during the Q&A session. Each of us also received a copy of The Tall Book as well as a coupon for a free extra-tall cutting board. I’m thinking I might use mine as a coffee table.
Another thing about the photo above…
See all those people standing next to the cake? See the guy standing closest to it? That’s Tom Cruise. Sort of. It’s a life-sized cardboard cutout of him, which is to say that it’s exactly 5-foot-7…
Mwahaha!! Suck it, Cruise!
Here are three more photos of people standing with the cutout, going in increasing height order.
First, we have a random six-foot-tall hottie:
Next we have Leon:
And (drumroll) here’s the tallest of the tall:
Here’s a group photo, and FYI, the woman wearing red underneath the “AR” in “MARTHA” was standing on a bench:
Here’s one last photo (which needs no explanation):
(If there’s anyone reading this who’s at least seven feet tall, please get in touch. I want to know you and have 18 million of your babies. Okay, that was a joke, I only want 16 million, but no, seriously, I do want to know you. I swear this isn’t a sexual fetish. I just really REALLY adore tall people. The end.)
On a personal level, the best thing about Game 5 of the 2009 World Series was getting a free ticket. The worst thing was that I had to watch the Phillies and Yankees. To put it lightly, I don’t care for either team. I thought about wearing all Mets gear (as a way of staging my own mini-protest), but ultimately I decided to dress like this:
It was my way of messing with fans of both teams without getting laughed at. As I made my way around the stadium, I noticed people staring and pointing. One guy asked if he could get a photo with me. His friend asked if I was bipolar.
It was only 2:30pm — more than five hours before the first pitch — so I had time to get food (don’t order pasta or the turkey burger at McFadden’s) and take a bunch of photos…
Here’s a look at the street that runs from the 3rd base gate to the Ashburn Alley gate in left field:
One word: HOOPLA.
The whole place had a carnival-like atmosphere…
…and yet as I walked around, I noticed that I wasn’t really feeling it. It didn’t feel like the World Series. It just felt like any other game, except colder. I was hoping to snag at least eight balls in order to maintain an average of nine balls per game for the entire season, and of course I wanted to get my hands on a commemorative game-used ball with the 2009 World Series logo, but I felt no sense of urgency. I don’t know why — maybe because it’d been so long since my last game that I’d fallen out of SnagMode — but I felt rather Zen about the whole thing. Ultimately, I just wanted to snag one ball and see a good game.
The TV crews were out in full force…
“I gotta talk to you for a minute,” she said, reaching for a microphone.
Sure enough, she asked me about the clothes I was wearing.
I explained that I didn’t like either team.
“You hate everybody!” she joked, and then she asked me why I was even AT the game.
“Because I got a free ticket,” I said.
“How’d you manage that?” she asked.
I told her about my books and my baseball collection and mentioned that there’s a ticket company called First Hand Tickets that recently “sponsored” me…and that I got the ticket from them. She was pretty intrigued by the whole story and kept asking me questions. I couldn’t believe how long the interview was lasting, but once it was over, she told me that it was being taped and that her editor was going to trim it down and air part of it later. Oh well. Still cool.
Before I headed off, she got one of her assistants to take the following photo of us:
First Hand Tickets, you can actually call up and speak to real human beings who can help you get what you need. They even help put together flight and hotel packages, so check out their site and give them a call. The head of the company — a really nice guy named Warren — said he’ll offer discounts to people who ask for him and mention my name. So yeah. Keep these guys in mind.
Anyway, by the time the gates were getting ready to open, the sun was setting…
…and by the time I ran inside and snagged the first November ball of my life, it was already dark:
It was thrown by Phillies pitcher Kyle Kendrick, and as you can see, it was a regular MLB ball. It’d be really cool if teams used World Series balls during BP before World Series games. I don’t see what the big deal is. I suppose MLB figures they’ll end up selling more World Series balls (at thirty bucks a pop) if they’re harder to get a hold of, but if that’s their logic, then I must respectfully disagree. If there were even a few World Series balls floating around during BP, fans would go nuts to try to catch every single ball. More people would show up early (which would lead to extra concession sales for the home team), and for every fan who managed to catch a World Series ball, there’d be 20 other fans standing right nearby, asking to have a look at it. Those people would be more inclined to buy the balls if they actually saw them being used — and if they felt like they were THIS close to actually catching one. Plus…Home Run Derby balls are used during BP prior to the Derby itself, so obviously it can be done.
At one point, during the first few minutes of BP, Phillies fans were ganging up on the few Yankee fans. One guy who was decked out in Yankee gear got (intentionally) slammed from behind while reaching up to catch a home run. This caused him to drop the ball, and when he tried to scramble for it in between two rows of seats, the Phillies fan (who was absolutely huge) dove on top of him with crushing force. It was perhaps the most blatant case of aggression and violence that I’d *ever* seen at a game. But you know what? Any non-Yankee fan in the Bronx is likely to be treated just as badly, if not worse. I’ve seen Yankee fans rip opposing teams’ caps off fans’ heads and light them on fire. In conclusion: “Yankee and Philly fans, I now pronounce you man and wife.”
Now…did you notice how empty the stands were in the photo above? It didn’t stay that way for long. By the time the Yankees took the field, I still only had one ball, and the seats were packed:
I just wasn’t on my game. In addition to the TWO tossed balls that had tipped off my glove (longer arms would’ve helped), I wasn’t judging home runs well, and I think it was partly due to the fact that the balls weren’t carrying. Everything was falling short — no surprise there — and I was slow to make the adjustment. Once I turned my attention to the glove trick, however, things started picking up. There was a ball that rolled onto the warning track near the left field
foul pole, and as I was trying to reel it in, Alfredo Aceves walked over and stuffed it in my glove. Then, in straight-away left field, I had a chance to use the trick to reel in another — and get this: even though I was wearing my Yankee gear at that point, there was a female Yankee fan in the front row who was incredibly rude to me. Basically, she was taking up two spots against the railing, and she refused to let me in because she wanted the ball for herself. (She was about 25 years old, looked like she was 45, needed a meal more than she needed a ball, and wasn’t wearing a glove.) She made such a big fuss about not letting me into the front row that the two Phillies fans to her right moved over to make some space for me. (Thank you, Philadelphia. You’re not so bad after all.) Once I climbed into the front row, the woman told me that if I got the ball, I had to give it to her since she’d let me in. (I ignored her at that point.) Moments later, as I was starting to lower my glove over the wall, she said, “Ohmygod, you are so embarrassing. Can you go away?” My response went as follows: “Lady, there are 45,000 other seats in this stadium. If you have a problem with me, you can move to any one of them.” While everyone else was cheering for me, the woman was talking trash and cursing. I just tuned it out, went about my business, snagged the ball, and headed back up the steps.
Five minutes later, while still wearing my Yankee gear, a Phillies fan was kind enough to hold my legs while I reached way out and across the flower bed to reel in another ball with the glove trick — my fourth ball overall. Granted, this fan recognized me from YouTube and then proceeded to ask for the ball (I gave him my rally towel instead — estimated eBay value: $20), but it was still a nice gesture on his part.
Batting practice ended two minutes later, and on my way out of the section, I found a ticket lying on the ground. Half an hour later, while walking through the field level concourse, I found another. Check this out:
See the ticket for Section 130? Do you know where that is?! Take a look at the Citizens Bank Park seating chart below:
That’s right…the game hadn’t even started, and for the rest of the night, I was guaranteed to have full access to the seats behind the Yankee dugout. This was a big deal because my actual seat was up here:
I was officially supposed to be in the “right field bleacher deck,” or some kind of nonsense like that, but there was no way that I was going up there. I didn’t know where I’d end up — I was expecting to have a standing-room-only ticket — but I knew I wasn’t going to any section where it was physically impossible to catch a ball. If I had to, I’d stand in the concourse all night and wait until a foul ball or home run started flying in my direction and then bolt down the steps. The problem with sneaking anywhere was that there simply weren’t empty seats.
But wait…hang on…I’m getting ahead of myself. Just after Alanis Morissette sang the national anthem, Derek Jeter came out and started playing catch in front of the dugout (probably to show off for her and/or to ask for her phone number). I used my “Section 130” ticket to get past the ushers, and then I waltzed right down to the front row. Almost every seat was full at that point, but there was one opening in the middle of the section right behind the dugout. It just so happened that this open space was at the outfield end of the dugout, where Jeter was likely to return with the ball. Another happy coincidence: my Yankee shirt said “JETER 2” on the back, so I slipped my arms out through the sleeves and turned the shirt around so that I was wearing his name on my chest. I poked my arms back out, grabbed my camera, positioned my backpack in just the right spot so that it wouldn’t get trampled…and before I knew it, Jeter was finishing up. I didn’t have time to take a photo. All I could do was wave my glove and shout his name and try to make sure that he could see my shirt. He was walking right to me with the ball in his hand. Could it be?! I’d never gotten a ball from him and always wanted one. Even though he played for the Yankees, he was one of my all-time favorite players — one of only two guys (Mariano Rivera being the other) who can actually make me root FOR the Yankees. He kept walking closer. I shouted my head off. He looked to the left, then to the right. Was there a more worthy recipient? A pretty young woman or a cute little kid? No! Jeter took another step and then flipped the ball right to me. The fans on either side reached for it, but they had no chance. I dove forward and caught the ball (pictured on the left) in my glove with full extension, and I belly flopped on the dugout roof. Oh. My. God. DEREK JETER!!! And as a bonus, this ball broke my own personal single-game World Series record of four balls, which I achieved last year at Game 4.
That made my night, week, month, and…I don’t want to say year, because there were quite a few highlights, but man, I was so excited after that. I almost couldn’t tell if it had really happened. I’d been having a lot of snagging dreams lately, and they all felt so real at the time.
As for the game, fun fun fun. Cliff Lee gave up a run in the top of the first, but the Phillies answered with three runs in the bottom of the frame and three more in the third. Chase Utley hit two homers, tying Reggie Jackson’s record for the most home runs hit by one player in a World Series. Unfortunately, I was halfway across the stadium for both of those homers, just chillin’ in foul territory. If I felt like I had a chance to catch a homer, then I would’ve been in the outfield seats, but there’s no cross-aisle at Citizens Bank Park. There’s no way to run left or right. There were no empty seats out there. I wouldn’t have been allowed to stand on any of the staircases, and even if I were, and even if a ball came right to me, there’s no guarantee that I would’ve caught it because the crowd was in a snagging frenzy, even with foul balls. People were pushing and shoving like mad.
In the top of the ninth inning, with the Phillies clinging to an 8-5 lead, this was my view from the back of Section 130:
Then, after Jeter bounced into a run-scoring double play, this was my new spot:
There was a pocket of empty seats down at the front.
I couldn’t sneak all the way down while the game was in progress, but I had my post-game route planned out: down the steps, through the second row, into front row, all the way to the right. That was as close as I could get to the spot where the umpires would be walking off the field. Home plate ump Dana DeMuth had tossed me two post-game balls in the past — both at PETCO Park, incidentally — but those came during the regular season. Would his generosity possibly extend into the World Series?!
The answer had to wait as Johnny Damon smoked a single to center. Mark Teixiera came up next and promptly fell behind in the count, 0-2. I was ready to pounce. I wasn’t sure if any other fans were thinking what I was thinking, so I need to move fast. Teixiera took a ball to bring the count to 1-2. My heart was pounding. I was afraid he’d hit a two-run homer and tie the game. I didn’t want extra innings. I wanted the Phillies to win, and I wanted them to win NOW. Next pitch? Strike three! Ballgame over. Final score: Phillies 8, Yankees 6. I raced down the steps, did some fancy footwork, and reached the corner spot JUST in front of another guy who’d been rushing there too. The rest was up to Mister DeMuth. As he began walking toward me, it was so noisy that I could barely hear myself screaming his name. Somehow, though, he must have heard me because this was the result:
It’s hard to tell in the photo above, but the ball was actually quite rubbed up with mud. The photo below (which shows all six balls that I snagged) will give you a better idea of what the ball really looks like. And here’s the best look of all.
• 6 balls at this game (the Jeter ball is in the middle of the bottom row)
• 538 balls in 60 games this season = 8.97 balls per game.
• 629 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 182 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 12 consecutive post-season games with at least one ball
• 5 consecutive World Series games with at least one ball
• 4,358 total balls
• 129 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)
• $25.45 pledged per ball
• $152.70 raised at this game
• $13,692.10 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
The charity has already received thousands of dollars’ worth of donations. (Click here and look at the scrolling box on the upper right to see who has officially contributed.) If you’ve made a pledge but haven’t yet sent in the funds, now’s a great time to do it. I’m not free to attend Game 6, and I’m not even going to try to attend Game 7, so this effectively concludes my season. For instructions on how to pay, click here.
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.”