I can’t believe I almost skipped this game. Wow. What a mistake that would’ve been. I’d gone to Angel Stadium the night before and PETCO Park the night before that.
Over the course of those two days, I’d snagged a total of 32 balls and
ended up with a comparable number of bruises and blisters. I needed to
sleep. I needed some painkillers. I wanted to blog. I wanted to go to
the beach. And to top it all off, this was a dreaded
day-game-after-a-night-game; I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be
I arrived at PETCO at 9:30am, and two good things happened within the
next 15 minutes. First I ran into my friend Leigh (aka “padreleigh” if
you read the comments) who’d been given an extra $50 ticket and passed
it along to me for free. Then I saw Brad Hawpe entering the ballpark
and learned that the Rockies WERE planning to take BP. Hot damn!
Of course the Padres were nowhere to be found when the stadium opened
at 10:30am, but the protective screens–minus the batting cage–for BP
were indeed ready to go. This was the view from behind “the beach” in
deep right-center field:
Did you notice the sand sculpture in the photo above? Here’s a closer look…
…and here’s the other side:
Finally, the batting cage was on its way toward home plate…
…but when the rest of the stadium opened at 11am, this was the only action:
In case you can’t tell from the photo above, Rockies bullpen catcher Mark Strittmatter was playing
catch in front of the dugout with bullpen coach Rick Mathews. If this
were New York, there would’ve been about 50 people screaming at them by
the time they finished, but here in San Diego only two other fans had
made it down to the dugout. One was Leigh, who had a glove but no
Rockies gear, and the other was a man with Rockies gear and no glove.
It almost goes without saying that I was the guy who ended up getting a
ball from Mathews, and what a ball it was. He had dug around in the
basket for at least 10 seconds before pulling one out and tossing it to
me. I think he was trying to find the dirtiest, most beat up ball, and
that was fine by me. Brand new balls, while fun to snag because I feel
like I’m getting away with robbery, are not nearly as interesting.
As soon as I snagged that first ball, two Padres began playing catch in right field:
How convenient. And best of all, there was NO competition. A father and
son wandered down to the front row at the last second, but neither of
them had a glove or even bothered to ask for
the ball. The player who ended up with it was a pitcher named Josh Geer
who had made his major league debut the night before and gone five
innings for the win. When I asked him to throw me the ball, he said,
“Are you gonna throw it back?”
“Absolutely!” I said. “I’d love to play catch. I really need to warm up my arm.”
Geer then threw me the ball and held up his glove to indicate that he
wanted it back. I threw a perfect chest-high strike and was excited to
be playing catch with a major leaguer, even someone who’d been one for
less than 24 hours, but he then threw the ball back and told me to keep
it. So much for that.
The Rockies started taking BP soon after, and I raced out to the left
field seats. As I got there, Troy Tulowitzki lined a ball that landed
20 feet to my right and one row below me. There was another fan in that
row, cutting through the seats from the opposite direction, and I was
sure he was going to end up with the ball, but he didn’t because I got
one of the luckiest bounces of all time. Basically, the ball rattled
around, as if trapped briefly in a three-dimensional pinball machine,
and bounced up into my row. It was fantastic and I grabbed it, fully
aware that it was my third ball of the day and No. 399 on the season.
I’d never reached 400 before. The next ball was going to be historic–at
least for me–and I started paying extra close attention so I’d be able
to identify the source.
“Excuse me,” said another fan who was standing in the front row, “are you Zack?”
“Here,” he said, holding out his cell phone, “Heath Bell wants to talk to you.”
“Excuse me?!” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “he’s been looking for someone named Zack for the last two days.”
I did recognize the guy with the phone–I’d seen him two days earlier
and remembered him from the three games I attended at PETCO in 2006–but
how the hell would he have had Heath Bell’s number? I was sure one of
my friends was playing a trick on me. Leigh? Brandon? Someone in the
ballpark knew that *I* knew Heath and was messing around. They had to
be. So I decided to play along.
I picked up the phone and said, “Yeah, hello?”
“Zack!!” said the voice on the other end.
“Who is this?”
“Okay, really, who is this?”
“I see you in left field,” said the voice. “Look across the stadium. I’m waving in front of the dugout.”
I looked up…and oh my God…Heath WAS waving at me from across the field and holding a phone next to his ear.
“Wow, it really IS you,” I said.
“What are you up to right now? You trying to get some baseballs out in left field?”
“Well, yeah…why, what’s up?”
“I have a ball here for you,” he said. “I think it might be something
you haven’t seen. I don’t know, maybe you already have one, but do you
want to come over and take a look? Or do you want to wait ’til after
On the one hand, I *did* want to wait until BP was over so I wouldn’t
lose any snagging opportunities, but on the other hand…could there
have possibly been a better way to snag (or in this case “receive”)
ball No. 400?
“I’ll head over right now,” I told him, “but it’s gonna take me at least three minutes to get there.”
“Perfect,” said Heath, “the ball’s in my locker so it’ll take me a few minutes to get it.”
“I’ll even take off my Rockies gear for the occasion.”
“Nah, don’t worry about it.” he said. “Leave it on. Just meet me right here.”
I handed the phone back to the guy and sprinted around the
stadium. PETCO is one of those segmented ballparks–the shortest
distance between two sections is never a straight line–so it really did
take several minutes to reach the dugout, and when I got there, a
security guard standing on the warning track looked up and said, “Heath
“Wait here,” said the guard. “He’ll be right out.”
Thirty seconds later, Heath popped out of the dugout and tossed me a Padres cap:
He was wearing an identical cap, so it’s not like he took this one
right off his head and gave it to me–but clearly it was HIS cap because
his uniform number was written on the inside.
I had no idea what to expect. I’d been assuming (or at least hoping)
that the ball would have some type of commemorative logo, and when I
got my first look at it, my jaw literally dropped. This is what I was
“Oh my GOD!!!” I shouted. “Thank you SO much!!!”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Heath.
“No really,” I replied, “I can not thank you enough.”
I told him that I’d once gotten an Opening Day ball during BP that was
so worn that I could barely read the logo. And of course I loved the
cap as well. I actually needed a Padres cap (the plastic, adjustable
strap on my old one broke two days earlier), and I’d been making
late-nite trips with Brandon to various Walmarts in search of a
I asked Heath if I could actually give the cap and ball back to him for
a moment so I could get a photograph of him holding them. He suggested
that we get a photo together instead, so security let me down into the
camera-well next to the dugout, and the guard on the field took our pic:
The guard handed the camera back to me as I was asking him to take
another pic, so Heath grabbed the camera and held it out at arm’s
length and took the pic himself. It didn’t come out well, only because
I wasn’t ready and was looking off to the side, but whatever. I was
still in shock over the whole thing.
I thanked Heath again. He asked how long I was gonna be in town. I told
him I’d be seeing him the next two days in L.A. and then flying back to
New York City. We then shook hands, and I ran back out to left field to
The fan who’d lent me his phone was still there:
His name is Ismael. He has season tickets. He knows people. Incredible.
I snagged four more balls in left field during the next half-hour. The
first was a deep drive by Matt Holliday that Ubaldo Jimenez caught near
the warning track and tossed to me. The second was a home run to
left-center that got snared by the netting that separates the stands
from the Padres’ bullpen. The third (which I later gave away) came via
the glove trick, and the fourth was thrown by Scott Podsednik.
I headed over to right field when a bunch of lefties started taking
cuts, and I snagged my ninth ball of the day behind the foul pole. One
of the batters hooked a deep line drive that landed in a totally empty
section, so I had all the time in the world to walk over and pick up
the ball. (I love the Padres for being in last place. I wish every team
could be in last place.)
I didn’t snag anything else during BP. I had to wait until closer to
game time to reach double digits. Two pairs of Rockies started playing
catch along the left field foul line, and I got Clint Barmes to throw
me his ball when he finished. Simple. Easy. No competition once again.
I was in heaven.
I caught up briefly with Leigh and met another PETCO Park
regular/ballhawk named Rob (aka “juveasts”). We all chatted for a bit
until the Padres started throwing in right field. I ran out there and
ended up getting Nick Hundley to toss me my 11th ball of the day just
after the national anthem.
My actual/assigned seat was behind the Padres’ dugout, so I stayed
there for the whole game and waited for a chance to snag a third-out
ball. I was still banged up from Anaheim, and the blisters on the
bottom of my right toes were now on fire. Jake Peavy was on the hill. I
knew it was going to be a good game, and although this might come as a
surprise to many people reading this, I actually wanted to sit in one
spot and watch it. Peavy, meanwhile, kept making things difficult for
me by ending each inning with a strikeout. I was behind the outfield
end of the dugout, hoping that first baseman Adrian Gonzalez would end
up with the inning-ending balls, but catcher Josh Bard kept getting
them and tossing them to little kids behind the home-plate end of the
dugout. Thus, the only ball I snagged for the first eight innings was
made of nerf and thrown by the mascot:
I later gave this ball to Brandon’s roommate.
Peavy ended up fanning 13 batters in eight innings and handing a 1-0
lead to Trevor Hoffman. What did Hoffman do? He gave up a run…which
was a shame…but it gave me an extra chance to snag a ball. I knew
there’d be a bottom of the ninth…which meant there’d be another
third-out ball tossed into the crowd after the top of the ninth
(instead of an on-field celebration), and wouldn’t you know
it…Tulowitzki ended up grounding out to third baseman Kevin
Kouzmanoff to end the frame. Gonzalez took the throw at first. All the
kids were waiting behind the home-plate end of the dugout. I had no
competition at the outfield end. Gonzalez jogged in and tossed me the
But wait, it wasn’t THE ball. It was too scuffed to be THE ball, and I
realized he must’ve switched balls. You know how the first baseman
always catches a ball on his way into the dugout after each inning?
That’s the infield warm-up ball. Gonzalez, for whatever reason (maybe
he’s a baseball collector too?), had tossed me that one and kept the
gamer for himself. Here’s the ball he tossed to me:
The Padres ended up scoring in the bottom of the ninth on three
singles. Game over. Thank God. I needed to rest. I’d be running into
Dodger Stadium less than 24 hours later…
? 12 balls at this game
? 550 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 136 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
? 89 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
? 34 lifetime games outside NYC with at least 10 balls
? 3,685 total balls
As I headed to this game with my friend Brandon, I told him that my goal for this entire trip was to snag 20 balls–but perhaps I should’ve been more optimistic. Good things tend to happen to me at PETCO Park. The last time I was there, I caught Barry Bonds’ 724th career home run, and now I was back to be filmed by Steve Smith for San Diego’s Channel 10 News.
In case you’ve forgotten (or are new to this blog), Brandon is the guy who photographed me the day I brought my Big Glove to the Rays-Jays series at Champion Stadium. Thankfully, he likes using his camera more than his baseball glove, so he followed me around the stadium and documented the action.
Moments after the stadium opened, I convinced Padres manager Bud Black to throw me my third ball of the day, and yes, you read that right: third.
Before the stadium had opened, I’d found a way to get inside and snag a couple balls. Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis tossed me the first, and a female security guard hooked me up with the second. That’s all I can say. The place I went to is kind of a secret spot–more of a well-guarded secret, really, and the person who shared it with me did so only after I promised not to tell anyone else. Sorry.
Soon after I got the ball from Bud Black, I spotted Heath Bell walking by in right-center field and I shouted, “Heath!!! It’s me, the baseball collector, from New York!!!”
Heath looked up and immediately walked over and made his best attempt to shake my hand through the chain link fence. He had gotten to know me when he was an under-appreciated middle reliever with the Mets–and he has remembered me ever since. (One time, while he was still with the Mets, he played catch with me at Shea Stadium. He was on the field. I was in the stands. He even crouched down like a catcher and called balls and strikes. It was awesome. That was also the day Ryan Speier gave me his glove, and you can read about it here. As far as I’m concerned, Heath Bell is BY FAR the nicest major league baseball player.)
“What’re you doing out here?” he asked as Steve walked up with his camera.
We talked on and off for the next 15 minutes. The only reason it was “off” was because I had to race back from the fence to chase a few more balls. At one point, I got one tossed to me by someone I couldn’t identify–until I asked Heath and he told me it was Chad Reineke.
“Did you know I have a new book?” I asked.
Heath said he didn’t, so I asked if he had another minute to spare.
“I’m not doing anything right now,” he said.
“Cool, wait just a moment,” I said. “I have a copy in my bag. I’ll run and get it.”
I ran back to the first row of the bleachers and grabbed the book, and as I was about to run back, a right-handed batter hit a deep drive toward right-center that I knew had a chance to reach the warning track and bounce over the outfield fence…so I bolted to my left as the few other grown-ups in the section did their best impressions of statues, and finally, as the ball cleared the fence and bounced to the back of the sandy area, everyone started chasing it. The ball ended up hitting a concrete wall and ricocheting back toward the field as I cut across at just the right angle to scoop it up and keep running back to Heath:
Moments later, Heath had the book in his hands:
At around 4:55pm–five minutes before the rest of the stadium was going to open–I asked Heath if he was going to give me a “welcome to San Diego” ball.
“Just hang out here,” he said. “I’ll get you one.”
“Well, actually, I was planning to head over to left field at 5pm.”
“No problem,” he told me, “I’ll get you one before that.”
Less than a minute later, he got one of his teammates to throw one to him, and then he flipped it to me:
We kept talking about a million things after that. He told me he’s hoping to get the closer’s job after Trevor Hoffman retires…and that he gets heckled for being fat…and that I inspired him to be more creative with the ways in which he gives balls to fans…and that Pedro Martinez is a cool guy. It was the BEST conversation. Oh my God. It seemed like the conversation wasn’t ever going to end. I was enjoying myself so much that I sacrificed the first few minutes of BP in left field–and definitely lost a few balls as a result, including an easter egg I heard about later from my friend Leigh (aka “padreleigh” in the comments section), but it was totally worth it.
Steve filmed me running to the left field seats and kept the camera rolling after I got there. In the four-part photograph below, starting on the top left and going clockwise, I’m 1) hurrying back into position after trying unsuccessfully to get a ball in the left field corner, 2) scribbling notes about all the balls I’d snagged, 3) giving a glove trick tutorial, and 4) showing how I labeled one of the FIVE balls that I plucked off the warning track.
It was crazy. I kept pulling up one ball after another, and the ushers weren’t saying a word. Were they giving me a break because I was being filmed? Or because they were distracted by the guy who got hit on the nose by a home run ball and was bleeding all over the place? I had no idea. I just kept doing my thing and Brandon kept taking pics. Here are some highlights:
I got Brian Fuentes to throw me my 12th ball of the day and then used the glove trick to snag No. 13. It was then that an usher finally walked down the steps and informed me that security had been watching me on various cameras and that I had to stop. So I did.
There was still half an hour left in BP when Steve decided he’d already gotten enough footage and took off. Ugh. I’d been planning to give away a ball or two right after BP, as I often do, and I was looking forward to having Steve film that. I wanted the world (or at least the people of San Diego) to see that I’m not a total ball hog…but…so much for that.
The Rockies were hitting bombs into the second deck in left field, and since I couldn’t use the glove trick anymore, I went up there. It would’ve been great if I didn’t have to share the terrain with a legendary ballhawk named T.C. (aka “tracycollinsbecky”), but that’s his regular spot for right-handed batters so I gave him some room. He caught several balls up there, and I only got one–a ball that he would’ve had if not for a silly/lazy mistake on his part. Someone on the Rockies crushed a deep home run over the aisle, and T.C. beat me up the steps. The ball landed on the steps and bounced all the way to the back of the section to where we couldn’t see it. T.C. assumed it had bounced over the back railing and into the concourse down below so he gave up and headed back down to the aisle.
“You don’t think it’s there?” I asked?
“I don’t know,” he said as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “You can check.”
I did check. And the ball was there, waiting for me in the last row.
Several minutes later, Brandon got a cool action shot as a home run sailed into the seats below. Check it out. I’m on the far left, leaning over the edge of the second deck, watching as a guy in the front row makes a leaping catch in front of Leigh and next to a woman ducking for cover:
After BP ended, I got Jeff Francis to toss me my 15th ball of the day at the Rockies’ dugout, and Brandon got a couple great photos. Here’s the first one. It shows Francis as he’s about to under-hand the ball to me:
Here’s the second pic, which shows the ball in mid-air, about a foot from my glove:
Brandon took some photos of me with my 15 balls (the best pic turned out to be the one he took two seconds before I was ready)…
…and then I gave one to kid (who had a glove!) who was sitting a few sections over with his dad.
What did Brandon look like on this fine day? See below:
Earlier in the day, I’d met a kid named Timmy (aka “holdsworthtimmy”) who’s been reading this blog for a while. When I ran into him after BP, I found out that he’d snagged almost as many balls as me! Here we are with Leigh who’d also snagged a bunch.
Soon after this pic was taken, four Rockies began playing catch along the left field foul line. Timmy ended up getting one of the balls, and I was left to try to talk Troy Tulowitzki out of the other. When he finished throwing, he tucked the ball in his glove and walked
over to sign a few autographs. Instead of asking him to sign anything, I asked for the ball, and when it appeared that he might not give it up, I said, “In all seriousness, Troy, it would be a real honor to get a ball from you.”
“Why is that?” he asked as he finished signing and backed away from the wall.
I thought fast and said, “I just love how you play the game. I played shortstop too.”
He then nodded and flipped me the ball.
Several Padres had just started playing catch across the field, so I raced around to the RF foul line and got there just in time. Will Venable, who’d been called up from the minor leagues earlier that day, ended up with one of the balls, and I got him to toss it to me…but the ball fell a bit short and tipped off the end of my glove as I reached over the wall for it. Then it rolled about six feet to my left and a security guard started walking toward it. I quickly let out some string and flung my glove to the left, got it to land just beyond the ball, and then tugged the string to jerk the glove back and bring the ball with it. It worked on the first shot! The ball rolled back along the warning track, right to the spot in front of me, and I was able to lunge over the wall and grab it with my bare hand.
Brandon got a pic of this too. In fact, he got about two dozen pics, but I won’t share them all–just the best one:
I had 17 balls at that point. I needed to get three more, and my plan was simple: snag a third-out ball during the game from each dugout, then get a ball from the home plate umpire after the game.
Just then, by some miracle, the man sitting to my right made a comment about my glove and said he wanted me to protect him from foul balls.
“I’d love to,” I replied, “but I actually don’t belong in this section.” I then told him I had to run over and visit a friend behind the other dugout and asked if I could possibly borrow his ticket stub for “five to ten minutes.” Naturally he didn’t want to hand it over so I offered my book as collateral.
That did the trick.
“Wait,” he said as I headed off. “You WROTE this?”
I nodded and told him to enjoy it and that I’d be back half an inning later.
I raced around to the third base side and called Brandon. He understood the situation, and because he’s so awesome, he was willing to trade ticket stubs and sit out in left field with Leigh. (No offense, Leigh, but your view can’t compare to dugout seating.)
I didn’t get anything after the first inning because Gonzalez struck out, and I was in the wrong spot.
In the top of the second inning, I used the borrowed ticket stub to get back down into the seats behind the Padres’ dugout. How many more innings could I keep this up? The back-and-forth business was stressing me out. I absolutely NEEDED to get a ball this time, but I was at the mercy of the action on the field…and when Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook came up with two outs, I didn’t like my chances. I was convinced he was going to strike out, and when he fell behind in the count 0-2, I seriously thought I was doomed. But then another miracle occurred: he made contact! He stuck his bat out and punched a weak grounder to shortstop Luis Rodriguez. YES!!! Gonzalez took the throw at first base and jogged off the field with the ball. When he approached the dugout, he looked up and rolled it across the roof a foot to my left. I reached out and scooped it easily with my glove…and then realized I was surrounded by little kids who had apparently charged down the steps behind me after the out had been recorded. I felt kinda silly, towering above all those kids, so I handed the ball to the smallest one I could find and got a big round of applause from the entire section. That was my 18th ball of the day; remember that I still count balls even when I give them away.
Atkins, the Rockies’ first baseman, kept ending up with the inning-ending balls, but he was tossing them all over the place to fans who were several rows deep. He was hard to predict, but I didn’t outsmart myself. I just ran down to the front row every inning and hoped that eventually he’d toss one right to me…and he did at the conclusion of the fifth inning after Cook induced Rodriguez to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play. SWEET!!! I only needed one more ball, and for the rest of the game I tried like crazy to catch a foul ball behind the plate–but nothing came close.
Fast-forward to the bottom of the ninth. The Rockies were clinging to a 9-4 lead. This meant I was going to have (at least) two more chances to snag ball No. 20–one from umpire Dana DeMuth who’d be exiting the field at the home plate end of the Rockies’ dugout, and of course another chance from the Rockies themselves.
Brian Fuentes fanned the first two batters in the ninth and then got Josh Bard to pop up to second baseman Clint Barmes to end the game.
I bolted down to the corner spot at the far right end of the dugout and got my 20th ball from DeMuth. WOO!!!
Less than a minute later, all the Rockies players and coaches walked in, and I spotted Fuentes with the ball in his glove before he even crossed the foul line. I knew he wasn’t going to keep it because a) it wasn’t a special ball (he hadn’t used it to record a save), and b) he throws lots of balls into the crowd. Well, sure enough, I got him to toss it to me, and just like that, I’d tied my second highest single-game total ever. (The other time I got 21 balls was on 9/19/07 at Chase Field.)
Here are the last two balls I snagged:
Here are the 19 balls I kept:
Here are the notes I’d frantically scribbled throughout the day (so that I’d be able to remember the details later and write this entry):
Here’s one final pic that Brandon took. He’d taken a bunch of shots from across the field as I was snagging those last two balls. This one shows me jumping for what would’ve been ball No. 22. Glenallen Hill tossed it five feet over my head on his way in, and if you look closely you can see the ball in mid-air as it’s about to sail over my outstretched bare hand:
Oh well. I won’t complain about that one getting away.
? 21 balls at this game (tied my second highest one-game total)
? 385 balls in 52 games this season = 7.4 balls per game.
? 548 consecutive games with at least one ball
? 134 consecutive games outside NYC with at least one ball
? 87 lifetime games with at least 10 balls
? 32 lifetime games outside NYC with at least 10 balls
? 3 lifetime games with at least 20 balls, all of which occurred outside NYC (of course)
? 3,662 total balls