This is one of those stories that requires context, so here it is:
1) I’ve become friendly with Padres closer Heath Bell.
2) Heath knows about my baseball collection and seems to enjoy adding to it.
3) When I saw Heath on 4/15/09 at Citi Field, he told me he had saved a ball for me from the World Baseball Classic–but he didn’t have it with him. The ball was in San Diego.
Ever since that game, Heath and I have been texting back and forth, trying to figure out when and where we could meet. Obviously, since the Padres’ travel schedule was set, it was up to me to make the effort.
Here’s some more context…
The week before the All-Star Game, Heath left me a voice-mail in which he asked if I was going to be there. “Unfortunately I don’t have a ticket for ya,” he said, “just ’cause I got a bunch of people coming, but hey, if you are, hit me up.” I called him back, got his voice-mail, and told him that I was not going to be attending the All-Star Game. Then I reminded him that I’d be in Philadelphia on July 23rd and said that if he happened to see an extra All-Star Game ball lying around, it’d be cool if he could grab it for me, but if not, no worries.
On July 21st (the day before the Padres were going to be leaving on an eight-game road trip), I texted Heath with a “friendly reminder” to bring the ball from the World Baseball Classic.
Yesterday was THE day: July 23rd at Citizens Bank Park. Was Heath really going to bring the ball? I wasn’t sure…and it ended up raining like hell during the drive down to Philly (see the photo on the right)…but I had to keep going. I had to be there. To hell with batting practice. There was no other way I’d ever get to count a ball from the World Baseball Classic in my collection. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I don’t count Spring Training balls, and the only minor league balls I’ve counted were used by major league players at major league stadiums at actual major league games. (For the last few years, the uber-cheap Tigers have been using balls like this and this during BP.) Along these lines, I decided back in 2006 not to count balls from the Classic–it’s an exhibition that isn’t exclusively played by major leaguers–but if I somehow were to snag a Classic ball at a regular season game, that would be the one exception.
I reached the stadium at around 3:30pm, and even though it was really gray and windy, there was no sign of rain:
There was no sign of life either, and for a while I didn’t know what to think. Would there possibly be batting practice? Would there even be a game?
By the time the stadium opened at 4:35pm, there was a huge crowd waiting outside the gates, and when I ran inside, this is what I saw:
Of course the left field seats (where everyone is confined for the first hour) ended up getting unbearably crowded:
During that first hour, I managed to snag three balls. The first was thrown by Joe Blanton at the furthest edge of the seats in left-center field. The second came via the glove trick near the foul pole, and the third was a home run that I caught on the fly. I don’t know who hit it. There’s a slim chance that it was Jayson Werth, but whatever. Doesn’t matter.
I spotted Heath as soon as the Padres took the field:
I shouted his name and waved my cap (the one that he gave me on 8/31/08 at PETCO Park) and he looked up and spotted me in the crowd. As he started throwing, he told me to wait for him in foul territory. For some reason, though, the rest of the stadium still hadn’t opened by 5:40pm, so when Heath headed off to the clubhouse (presumably to get THE ball), I wasn’t able to keep pace with him by cutting through the seats toward the dugout. That sucked. It meant I had to wait with everyone else near the foul pole, where the wall was so high that I wasn’t going to be able to have a normal conversation with Heath or shake his hand. And then it started to rain. The Padres kept hitting, however, and eventually Heath came back out and started walking toward me:
It looked like he had something tucked inside his glove, and as he got closer and tossed it up, I still had no idea what it was:
I could tell that there was a ball inside…no wait…there were TWO balls inside. It was some sort of tube sock…dark green fabric…with knots tied around each ball to keep them separate. My mind couldn’t process it, but I snapped back to reality just in time to yell “Thank you!!” as Heath jogged off toward right-center. Two balls?! Seriously? Had he given me two balls from the World Baseball Classic? Or was one of them from the All-Star Game? Or maybe from some other All Star event? Since I now number my baseballs, how would I know which one I’d snagged first? I got them both at the same time. But why even number them if they were each one-of-a-kind?
I was dying to untie the knots and see what was inside the sock, but there was a ball that was sitting on the warning track in left-center. I decided that my surprise would have to wait for a couple minutes, so I ran over and leaned way out over the flower bed and used my glove trick to reel it in. When I pulled the ball out of my glove, this is what it looked like:
The rain, meanwhile, was great. It was light enough that the Padres kept hitting, but heavy enough that it chased half the fans out of the seats:
I took the sock out of my backpack…
…but just as I was about to start untying the knots, several righties starting taking their cuts, so I threw the sock back in my bag. AAHH!! It was killing me to keep waiting, but it would’ve killed me to miss any opportunities.
My decision paid off. Someone on the Padres hit a home run that landed near me in a small cluster of fans. The ball got bobbled (not by me) and landed briefly on the top edge of the back of the seat right in front of me, at which point I snatched it. Nice! That was my seventh ball of the day, including the two that Heath had given me.
It was time to see what was in the sock…
If I’d gone to the All-Star Game, the flights and hotel and ticket would’ve cost more than $1,000, and what would I have hoped to get out of it? Umm, snagging the ball pictured up above on the right. Yay for Heath Bell. That’s all there is to it. (Oh…and if you want to see my entire collection of commemorative balls, click here.)
Anyway, a bunch of lefties started hitting so I ran over to right field and ended up catching a home run on the fly. See the guy below in the “HAMELS 35” jersey?
After I caught the ball by reaching in front of him, he threatened to throw me over the wall.
Stay classy, Philadelphia! Yeah!
My goal, at that point, was to snag two more balls and reach double digits. I didn’t snag anything else during BP, but I did get my ninth ball right before the game started. Drew Macias was playing catch with Will Venable…
…and Macias hooked me up when they finished. (I’m proud of myself–even though it’s indicative of other problems–for not getting distracted by the cheerleaders.)
Over the course of the day, several people recognized me from YouTube, including one guy who’s 6-foot-10, and since I have an obsession with height (obviously not my own), here we are:
If I’m remembering correctly, his name is Morgan. I asked him if he has ever tried to catch baseballs at games, and luckily for the rest of humanity, his answer was no. Can you imagine how much he would dominate? Who would ever stand next to him? He’d have a whole section to himself wherever he went. Is there anyone reading this who’s freakishly (and I mean that in a good way) tall? If so, I want to hear about your snagging experience. I wonder if there’s ever been a seven-footer who was serious about ballhawking. Yikes.
After the national anthem, Heath and I caught a glimpse of each other near the dugout. I mouthed the words “thank you” and put my palms together and make a little bowing gesture. He gave me a nod as he began walking across the field toward the bullpen, and that was the last I saw of him.
As for the game, I’d splurged and bought a Diamond Club ticket. Why, you ask? Because of all this room to run for foul balls:
The only problem was that there weren’t any foul balls to be caught. That area seems like it would be awesome, but it’s so close to home plate and so close to field level that most foul balls fly way overhead.
One good thing about the Diamond Club is that there’s a sweet view of the batting cages. Here’s Eric Bruntlett taking some mid-game hacks:
Another good thing is the food. Yes, it’s expensive, but the quality really is the best I’ve ever experienced at a stadium. Check out what I got for 11 bucks:
That’s a burger with grilled onions, swiss cheese, and bacon, along with a caesar salad and fresh pineapple. Yum! (I’d also eaten two hot dogs after BP, one with diced/raw onions and another with cheese sauce. So?)
After the game, I went to the Padres’ dugout (even though they lost) and saw a ballboy tossing out ball after ball. I got him to toss one to me, and for a second, I thought it was commemorative because there was a big dark spot on it, but it turned out just to be a smudge:
Still, the ball was clearly game-used, so that was cool.
As soon as I snagged it, I gave one of my BP balls to a little kid. It just so happened that an on-field security guard (who recognizes me, it should be noted, and is exceptionally rude) saw me hand it over. What was his response? Instead of a) praising my generosity or b) simply keeping his mouth shut, he c) started scolding the ballboy for giving a ball to me (“What’s the matter with you?!”) and demanding that I give away balls to all the other kids in the section.
Citizens Bank Park has officially become Yankee Stadium.
• 320 balls in 37 games this season = 8.6 balls per game.
• 606 consecutive games with at least one ball
• 168 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball
• 109 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
• 48 lifetimes games outside of New York with at least 10 balls
• 4,140 total balls
• 114 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)
• $24.59 pledged per ball
• $245.90 raised at this game
• $7,868.80 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball
I arrived at the stadium at 4pm, walked up to the ticket window, and asked what the cheapest available seat was.
Way up in the upper deck.
I stepped out of line and thought about it…took a little stroll…counted my money…made a phone call…hated my life at that moment…and walked back to the adjacent window where I was told that the cheapest seat was seventy bucks.
“Are you serious?!” I said. “Three minutes ago, the guy at the next window told me I could get one for forty-eight!”
“Oh, let me check on that,” said the new guy without making eye contact. Then, after five seconds of perfunctory keyboard-tapping, he mumbled, “Yeah, I could sell you one for forty-eight.”
(Nice work, Yankees. Good job. Way to go. Must be fun to be so popular that you can cheat your fans and lie to them about the cheapest available tickets and make them overspend. Tell them the cheap ones are sold out even when they’re not. Say the game is a “sellout” even when the attendance is 2,000 below capacity. Penalize the real fans who show up early by waiting until game time to release the cheapest seats. And then charge $8.50 for a beer. You guys sure know how to run a business.)
Just as I was about to hand over the money, a man and woman walked up next to me and said they had a few extra tickets they were trying to get rid of and would sell one for $25.
These people looked presentable. They were friendly and articulate. They’d just flown in from Utah (or so they said). They gave me a whole story about how they’d bought four print-at-home “tickets” and then upgraded to better seats at the last second and were now trying to sell the cheap ones to get their money back. Was this a scam? I had no idea, but I decided it’d be better to get ripped off for $25 by people unaffiliated with the Yankees than to knowingly GIVE the Yankees $48. Therefore, I bought one of these so-called “tickets” and got in line at Gate 6. The only thing that made it a “ticket” was the bar code which was going to get scanned at the gate. How did I know that these people hadn’t xeroxed this “ticket” 20 times and sold them to other suckers like me? I didn’t. But it turned out that the “ticket” was legit.
At the very instant that I got it scanned, one of the security guards started shouting. At first I hoped that she wasn’t shouting at me, and when it became apparent that she was, I pretended not to hear her.
Long story short: Drawstring backpacks are no longer allowed inside Yankee Stadium.
After security pulled me away from the turnstile (followed immediately by another “are-you-serious” moment), I was faced with a choice. I could either check my back across the street in the bowling alley…or throw it out.
I was so ********** at that point that I nearly went home. I was contemplating making THIS the final time that I ever set foot NEAR Yankee Stadium, let alone inside of it, but I surrendered to security. I just really wanted to be at a baseball game.
I told the guards (yes, plural) who surrounded me that I would throw out my bag, and they escorted me to the nearby dumpster. (Keep in mind that while this was happening, hundreds of fans were filing past me and heading into the stadium for batting practice.) I started taking out all my stuff, and I really had no idea how I was going to manage. In addition to my glove and hats, I had my camera, cell phone, keys, wallet, rosters, water bottle, rubber bands and Sharpies (for the glove trick), ball-point pens, and a book (“Three Nights in August” which is pretty good). It was crazy. And then, by some miracle, all the guards dispersed and turned their evil attention elsewhere. I quickly rolled up the bag and stuffed it into my pocket and entered the stadium. No one said a word. Once I reached the right field seats (which were already crowded), I took out my bag and put all my stuff back in it and began the painful process of trying to snag. Again, no one said a word…that is, about the bag…but when I tried to use the glove trick soon after, the on-field security guard ran over and yelled at me and said I wasn’t allowed. WHAAAAAT?!?! Was I in some alternate universe where the snagging gods hated me? Well, yes, and it’s called Yankee Stadium, but beyond that basic fact, I learned that there were new rules in effect in preparation for the All-Star festivities. Un-effing-believable.
The Yankees were on the field for the first half-hour, and I didn’t get a thing (which is a shame considering they were using both Shea AND Yankee commemorative balls). Shocker. Look how crowded it was out in the right field seats:
There wasn’t any room to maneuver in foul territory either:
And did you notice those obnoxious nets halfway down the foul line. Yankee Stadium is ball-snagging hell. (And yet I’ll still guarantee at least one ball for all Watch With Zack games there.)
I tried shouting at the players anyway whenever a ball rolled to the wall nearby, and at one point I heard a fan behind me yell, “HEADS UP!!!”
I looked up and saw a ball flying right at me. Home run? Line drive. Who’d hit it? Didn’t matter. I reached out and made a one-handed catch, and my streak was saved. Ten minutes later, I got a player (whom I later identified as Warner Madrigal) to toss me a ball, and I immediately handed it to the kid on my left. Guess what he did. He put away his glove and left the right field seats with his family and didn’t even try to snag another ball–and THAT is why I don’t like to give away balls during batting practice. I can’t really blame the kid. He got his ball, so why did he need to keep trying for another? But it’s the fact that he WAS trying that made me want to give him the ball in the first place.
The ball from Madrigal was my last of the day. I couldn’t get down to the dugouts for pre-game throwing. I couldn’t get down to the Rangers’ dugout after the game. Security was insane. But at least I was able to hang out in left field during the game. Derek Jeter was sitting on 199 career home runs, so I was hoping he’d turn on one and launch it in my general vicinity. I had plenty of room to run, but of course nothing came my way. Look at the nice wide aisle to my right:
After every pitch, I kept looking to the side to make sure that my path was clear. Unfortunately, my view changed slightly in a not-so-great way:
Here, let me show you a close-up in case you missed it:
Normally I wouldn’t publicly humiliate someone whose crack was hanging out (okay, that’s not exactly true), but this guy deserved it. He was about 7-foot-4 and kept standing up and blocking everyone’s view. And when people yelled at him and told him to sit down, he yelled back and told them to stand up, even though he was the ONLY person standing.
The highlight of the game (other than seeing A-Rod hit a monstrous home run to left-center) was getting the back of my head filmed for the Jumbotron by a roving cameraman. What’s the deal, you ask? Last summer I got my girlfriend to shave a hand into the back of my head (just because), and I recently had it done again. Perhaps I’ll get a pic of it today if I head back to The Stadium…
? 2 balls at this game
? 219 balls in 29 games this season = 7.6 balls per game.
? 525 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 114 consecutive games at Yankee Stadium with at least one ball
? 3,496 total balls
…and by the way, everyone always disses Shea Stadium for being a dump (which it is), but for the record, I’d like to point out that Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly Buckingham Palace:
Pat picked me up at my hotel at 2pm, took me out to lunch, and interviewed me extensively about my baseball collection. We had talked for an hour before I’d left for Denver, and by the end of the meal, he had more than 5,000 words of notes and quotes on his laptop.
We headed over to Gate E at 4:45pm. Pat had a press pass that gets him into just about any game in any sport in any stadium–but he didn’t have a ticket for this game at Coors, so he had to trek halfway around the stadium to the media entrance and then
rush back. He barely made it in time, and it’s a good thing because I snagged three home run balls within the first minute or two of batting practice. The first landed in the front row aisle all the way out in left-center field and rolled to an usher who was kind enough to step aside and let me grab it. The second (pictured here on the left) landed several rows deep in the bleachers near the foul line, and since the stands were still mostly empty, I had time to race up the steps from the aisle and cut through the section of metal benches. The third landed 15 rows deep and conveniently bounced right back to me.
As soon as I stopped running all over the place for balls, the Associated Press photographer showed up, but before long, he got a cool action shot of me lunging for (and catching) a ball tossed by Indians pitcher Scott Elarton. Over the next 20 minutes or so, I got two more balls thrown to me (one of which I gave to a kid with a glove) by David Dellucci and Edward Mujica, and that was IT for batting practice. It was incredibly frustrating. I came within five feet of at least half a dozen balls, both home runs and ground-rule doubles. I don’t know what was going on. I just seemed to be consistently out of position or a step too slow. Was it just bad luck? Was I losing my edge? I really can’t explain it. Then, on several occasions, when I left my spot briefly to try to get a ball thrown to me somewhere else, the batter ended up hitting a home run RIGHT to where I’d been standing. It was just one of those days, and the worst moment of all occurred late in BP. First check out the following photo (taken by my friend Robert Harmon…the guy from my Bonds 762 article), and then I’ll explain what happened:
Let me start by identifying everyone:
1) the AP photographer
2) an usher (note the tunnel that he’s standing in)
3) a guy named Dan who reads this blog and brought his copy of my book for me to sign
4) Zachary Ben Hample
5) Pat Graham
6) pure evil
There was a home run ball hit right at us that barely sailed over our heads. We jumped for it, or at least *I* jumped for it. I don’t even know if he’s athletic enough to get both feet off the ground at the same time, but anyway, after we missed the ball, there was a brief lull when we were both trying to figure out where it went. Suddenly we realized that it had landed in the tunnel directly behind us, and we started running. I didn’t take a pic of this tunnel, so you’ll have to settle for this cheap drawing. Basically, where the tunnel goes underneath the stands, the left half is blocked by a concrete wall, and the right half has an open door. The ball had rolled through the door, and I was running straight for the opening, about to zoom past this guy Doug when he realized he was about to get beat so he elbowed me from the right side and shoved me into the wall on the left as he kept running…and he ended up getting the ball. I couldn’t retaliate with a shove of my own because my every move was being witnessed and captured by the Associated Press (and anyway, using physical force against other fans is not my style), so I had to settle for giving him a piece of my mind. I pretty much told him that what he did was uncalled for and that that kind of behavior belongs at Yankee Stadium.
His response: “Oh grow up!!”
But enough of that. I have better things to talk about, like the fact that Pat was so nice that it was almost unbelievable. I got the sense that he would’ve been interested in me even if he weren’t writing about it for his job. I’m not saying he still would’ve hung out and taken notes for eight and a half hours, but he was just a GOOD guy. Some people in the media have gone out of their way to make me look bad and poke fun at what I do, but I knew that wasn’t the case with Pat. And then there were the little things he did for me…like, for
example…when he ran up to the press box after BP to drop something off, he returned with a cup of peanut M&M’s.
Before the game started, I snuck down to the Indians’ dugout and heard an usher tell another fan (who wasn’t as skilled in the art of sneaking) that the players don’t give out balls. Thirty seconds later, after the fan had walked back up the steps, Casey Blake tossed me my seventh ball of the day.
Generally speaking, a seven-ball day is great in the Bronx and lousy in Philadelphia. Overall, it’s about average for me–not enough to celebrate, but not bad enough that I can complain. That said, I was sooooooo frustrated to have snagged just seven balls by that point. If things had been a little better during BP, I could’ve easily had a dozen. I explained all of this to Pat during the game, and he never stopped taking notes. At one point, he pulled out a voice recorder and had me give a 90-second monologue about what I do and how I got into it. While I was halfway through, an Indians batter lost the grip on his bat and sent it flying in our direction. (It fell about 30 feet short.) I didn’t miss a beat and kept talking, but I must’ve been distracted because when I mentioned my ball total, I accidentally said “3473” instead of “3463.” Pat told me not to worry about it. The way he saw it…I would have that many balls by the time the piece ran. He told me that the audio clip would soon be on the AP web site along with a slide show from BP. (The photographer had to leave before BP ended, but he’ll be back again today with Pat. It was so much fun just to BE photographed. He was crouching in the aisle during BP, telling me to pose this way and that, getting pics of my glove…and of course all the fans were staring at me and probably wondering, “Who the hell is THAT guy?”)
I never went to my assigned seat during the game. Instead I worked the dugouts and tried to get a third-out ball tossed up. Once again, things just weren’t going my way, and in case you want to hear me complain a bit more, let me just say that Brad Hawpe hit a home run EXACTLY to the spot where my seat had been the night before.
Despite the fact that the attendance was only 28,146, the lower level was nearly full. There weren’t many aisle seats behind the dugout, so I ended up having to sit in Row 34. That’s not exactly the best place to be if you want a third-out ball, but I got lucky as the sixth inning came to a close. Hawpe hit a towering pop up to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, so I had time to bolt down the steps while the ball was in mid-air. I ended up getting it tossed to me, and when I turned around, there was a little kid (with a glove!) standing right behind me. It just so happened that I already had another ball in my pocket because I’d been planning to give it away, so I asked the kid if he’d snagged a ball yet, and when he said “no,” I pulled out the practice ball and handed it over. He thanked me and raced up the steps to show his family. The usher patted me on the back and several fans gave me high-fives, and meanwhile I got to keep the game-used ball so it was a win-win situation. By the way, this was the furthest back I’d ever been sitting before a successful attempt for a third-out ball. I challenge you–I dare you–to sit in the 30th row (in the ballpark of your choice) and try to snag one.
More frustration? Late in the game, I tried to move to a great spot for foul balls behind home plate and was stopped by an usher. Less than an inning later, a batter hit a high foul pop-up that landed on the staircase ***RIGHT*** where I wanted to sit (there were even a couple empty seats there), and no one even bothered to stand up and try to catch it. AARRGHH!!! Pat could’ve used his press pass to get me into any section in the stadium, but he wanted to see how I maneuvered on my own.
I tried going for an umpire ball after the game and ran into some bad luck there as well. Tim Tschida, it turned out, only had two extra balls and gave them both to kids in the first few rows. He actually stopped and told me he only had two…and get this…he apologized and then thanked me for asking.
Yeah, great, you’re welcome. Anytime.
Final score: Rockies 10, Indians 2.
? 8 balls at this game
? 187 balls in 24 games this season = 7.8 balls per game.
? 520 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 123 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
? 882 lifetime balls outside NYC
? 3,464 total balls