Tagged: sweet spot

8/4/09 at Citi Field

I hardly ever get my baseballs signed. Normally I don’t even try too hard to get autographs in the first place, and when I do, I usually get them on ticket stubs. In 1996 I made an exception and got my 1,000th ball signed by Pedro Borbon Jr., the player who threw it to me. In 2003 I made another exception and got No. 2,000 signed by Joe Roa. Then, on 5/7/07 at Yankee Stadium, I used my glove trick to snag my 3,000th ball, so I didn’t get it signed by anybody. But here’s the thing…with Borbon and Roa, I livan_hernandez_2009.jpgwas able to get their autographs shortly after they tossed the balls to me–both of them came over and signed as soon as batting practice ended–but when Livan Hernandez threw me my 4,000th ball on 5/18/09 at Dodger Stadium, I was trapped in the left field pavilion where there was no chance to get near him.

Fast-forward to this past weekend. I still hadn’t gotten Livan to sign The Ball, so I wrote a blog entry in which I asked for autograph advice. What I learned was: Livan is nice about signing autographs in general, but it’s really hard to get the Mets to sign on their way into the ballpark because fans aren’t allowed near the entrance where they walk in from the parking lot.

Yesterday, feeling nervous about taking my 4,000th ball out of my apartment and hoping that I wouldn’t ever have to do it again, I arrived at Citi Field at 2pm and made a beeline toward the players’ parking lot:

1_mets_parking_lot.jpg

Here’s another photo that shows exactly where I headed:

2_mets_parking_lot.jpg

Once I reached the end of the walkway, I saw firsthand why it’s so tough to get autographs. The players enter on the other side of a black, six-foot-tall fence; fans are kept 30 feet away from the fence by a barricade. This was as close as I could get:

3_waiting_for_mets_autogrraphs.jpg

Is that obnoxious or what?

I soon learned a piece of good news from the few other autographs collectors who were there: if we got a player’s attention and he called us over, the security guard would allow us to slip through the barricades and approach the fence.

More good news: I was armed with secret weapon:

4_zack_with_sign_for_livan_hernandez.jpg

How could Livan Hernandez possibly ignore my charming homemade sign?

Over the next 20 minutes, every single Mets player ignored our polite requests and blew right past us: Daniel Murphy, Alex Cora, Jonathon Niese (karma), Bobby Parnell, Angel Berroa, Jeremy Reed, and a few others that I’m forgetting. I heard that Carlos Beltran and Brian Stokes had signed earlier, but still, it was a disgusting display of human behavior. I mean, Angel Berroa?! Really?! Does he think his 2003 AL Rookie of the Year award gives him the right to blow people off? There were FOUR of us asking for autographs. It would have taken him–or any of the other players–approximately 20 seconds to stop and sign. Maybe 30 seconds if they cared to sprinkle a few pleasantries into the interaction. I was just about ready to start screaming obscenities at the next player when Livan pulled up in a big, boxlike silver vehicle. I held up my sign, shouted his name, jumped up and down like a little schoolgirl, and to my surprise/delight, he waved me over! I rushed to the fence and handed my ball over and resisted the urge to tell him why it was special (I didn’t want him to feel used) and simply asked him to sign it on the sweet spot. Here he is, doing it…

5_livan_hernandez_signing_my_4000th_ball.jpg

…and here’s his signature:

6_livan_hernandez_autograph.jpg

Woo-hoo!!

Five minutes later, Nelson Figueroa started walking past us with two big rolling suitcases. We asked him to sign and he said, “One minute.” He disappeared into the stadium for no more than 10 seconds, then returned without the bags and waved us over. He was VERY nice and talkative and articulate, and he even posed (as best he could) for a photo through a small gap in the fence. What a guy. I got his autograph on a Shea Stadium ticket that I’d brought from home:

7_nelson_figueroa_autograph.jpg

I could’ve gotten a few more autographs after that, but I chose instead to sit in the shade and read Portnoy’s Complaint. (That book is beyond brilliant and hilarious; I was too young to appreciate it fully when I first read it in college.) While I was reading, a man wearing black spandex shorts and a sweaty white T-shirt walked strangely close, prompting me to look up and realize that it was Tony LaRussa. If he hadn’t been wearing earphones, I might’ve said hello. Colby Rasmus also walked by around that time and refused to sign baseballs on the sweet spot.

“I’m just a collector, I swear,” pleaded one fan.

“That’s what they all say,” said Rasmus.

another_dickhead_ballplayer.jpgYou know what *I* say? Colby Rasmus (and every other baseball player who refuses to sign balls on the sweet spot) is an ass. Who the hell does he think he is? He was a first-round draft pick in 2005 and received a $1 million signing bonus. Now he’s earning $400,000 this year to PLAY A GAME, and he stands to earn a lot more if he stays healthy. (I, for one, hope he doesn’t). And yet, God forbid some fan out there might possibly want to make twenty bucks by showing up early at a stadium, standing out in the 90-degree heat, obtaining his precious autograph, and then selling it.

Anyway…

I raced to the left field seats as soon as the stadium opened at 4:40pm, and I immediately got Gary Sheffield to throw me a ball. I was so out-of-breath that I almost wasn’t able to call out to him, but it all worked out, and the ball turned out to have a worn Shea Stadium commemorative logo (like this).

For some reason, all the batters during the first two rounds were left-handed, so I headed over to right field:

8_view_from_right_field_08_04_09.jpg

There was a ball on the warning track near the foul pole–one of the few places in the stadium where the outfield wall isn’t absurdly high. As I began to reel it in with my glove trick, Brian Stokes jogged over and threw his glove at mine. His glove thumped against the wall, causing me to jerk my glove which caused the ball to fall out. I noticed then that it was a 2008 Yankee Stadium commemorative ball (like this). Stokes walked over and stood there, watching me. I lifted my glove back up to readjust the rubber band and asked him brian_stokes_2009.jpg
to give me one more chance to go for the ball. He didn’t say anything. He just kept standing there, so I went for it, and sure enough I got the ball to stick inside my glove. As I started lifting it, Stokes moved closer and tapped my glove with his bare hand, knocking the ball loose for a second time. He picked it up off the warning track, then took a couple steps toward the infield and drew his arm back as if he were going to fire the ball toward the bucket. Just when I was ready to put the Hample Jinx on him, he turned around and smiled and flipped it to me.

Oliver Perez walked over and asked, “How many balls you got?”

It was the first time he had ever spoken to me, so it came as a surprise that he recognized me. Meanwhile, I didn’t want to give him a specific answer; better he should assume I had a few hundred than a few thousand.

“How many?” I asked. “You mean today? Or in my whole life?”

“In your life,” he said, “because I’ve seen you on TV and I know what you do.”

oliver_perez_2009.jpg“But did you know that I’m now collecting baseballs for charity?”

He asked what I meant by that, so I told him all about Pitch In For Baseball, and how I’ve been getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag this season, and how I’ve raised more than $8,000 so far, and how I also give away baseballs at just about every single game I attend.

“I don’t want you to think I’m greedy,” I said. “I want you to know that I give back a lot.”

“That’s good,” he said.

And that was the extent of our conversation.

Two minutes later, a left-handed batter ripped a deep line drive in my direction. I knew that it was going to fall short, but I knew that it had a chance to bounce up to me, so I shuffled over a few feet and as the ball skipped up in the form of a gigantic in-between hop, I turned the palm of my glove face down and swatted down at the ball, hoping to trap it against the padded outfield wall. It was a maneuver I’d tried in the past, without much success because it requires perfect timing and an equally perfect prediction about how high the ball is going to bounce. Somehow, on this fine day, I nailed it and got a nice round of applause from the fans along the foul line.

I headed over to the deepest part of left-center field, all the way out near the Home Run Apple, and I got Livan to throw me my fourth ball of the day. This is what the field looked like from the spot where I caught it:

9_livan_hernandez_left_center_field.jpg

Then, when the righties finally started hitting, I battled the crowd in straight-away left field and caught a Gary Sheffield homer on the fly. Moments later, Jeff Francoeur launched one in my direction–a bit over my head–and I jumped at the last second to try to make the catch. The ball hit off my glove (I should’ve caught it) but luckily landed right near me in a semi-crowded row. I bent down and scrambled for it and snagged the ball just before the nearest fan was about to grab it. It turned out that the other fan was a woman who was there with kids, so I handed her the ball. (That ball counts toward my grand total, FYI.)

As the Cardinals took the field, the seats became more and more crowded:

10_crowded_as_usual_08_04_09.jpg

In the photo above, do you see the fan standing in the front row wearing red? He’s almost a full section away. That’s a friend and fellow ballhawk named Gary (aka “gjk2212” in the comments section).

I headed back to right field because, once again, there were a bunch of lefties hitting. It’s nearly impossible to catch batted balls in right field at Citi Field (because of that stupid Pepsi Porch overhang), so I had to focus on other sources: the players’ kids. There were four of them shagging balls in the outfield: two kids with blank jerseys, one with “FRANKLIN” and another with “PUJOLS.” Here’s Trever Miller with two of the kids:

11_little_pujols.jpg

Young Franklin fired a ball up into a patch of empty seats in right field. It was a two-person race: me and a 40-something-year-old man in a Cardinals shirt. (I was wearing a Cardinals shirt, too, at that point.) Neither of us could find the ball at first. We must’ve searched for five seconds (which at the time felt like five years), and eventually I spotted it, tucked out of view against the back of a seat. That was my seventh ball of the day, and I got another one right after from Miller. I would’ve snagged it on my own with the glove trick because it was sitting right below me on the warning track, but some old grumpy security guard in the bullpen (who has personally cost me about 30 balls since 1992) made me stop.

Remember where I got the ball thrown by Livan in left-center field? I headed back there and got another one from Little Pujols. The kid made a heck of a throw from about 60 feet away and 15 feet below. Right on the money. I was stunned, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given his last name.

I moved to Death Valley after that–the deepest part of the ballpark in right-center field where it says “415” on the outfield wall. This was the view:

12_ball4162_location.jpg

I didn’t expect to catch a batted ball out there. I was just focusing on trying to get one of the players to throw one to me, when all of a sudden I heard people shouting, “Heads up!!” so I looked up and saw a deep fly ball heading about 10 feet to my right. I shuffled through the empty row and tracked the ball and couldn’t believe that it kept carrying and carrying. Eventually I reached out and made a back-handed catch. (Remember Gail from 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium and from Game 4 of the 2008 World Series? She was in the section at the time and thanked me for “saving” her from the home run ball, but I don’t think it would’ve hit her. She and I ran into each other a few times throughout BP, but we could never talk for more than a minute because I was always running off to a different spot.)

As soon as I caught this home run, I started shouting, “Who hit it?! Who hit it?!”

Soon after, a man walked over and showed me the screen on his fancy digital camera.

“This is the guy who hit it,” he said.

It was a zoomed-in photo of Colby Rasmus. Bleh.

I asked him if he was 100 percent sure, and he said yes, so I’ll just have to take his word for it.

During the final 20 minutes of BP, it was an absolute zoo in left field. Pujols and Matt Holliday were batting, and people were in a snagging frenzy. It was the most crowded I’ve ever seen Citi Field during BP, and granted, this was only my seventh time there, but still. It was nuts. Every staircase was packed. Every row was full. There wasn’t any spot in left field where I had more than five feet on either side…so I pretty much gave up. It was Shea Stadium all over again, which is to say that batting practice was in progress, and there was absolutely NO point in even being there.

I made my way over to the Cardinals’ dugout at the end of BP and got Little Pujols to throw me another ball on his way in. Ha-HAAA!!! I was standing five rows back, and he made another perfect toss, this time right over everyone’s head.

I lingered 20 rows behind the dugout for the next half-hour, read more of my book, and eventually moved back into the front row when Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo (pictured below) came out to play catch:

13_julio_lugo_pregame_throwing.jpg

I’d picked the end of the dugout where DeRosa was throwing, figuring he’d be the one to end up with the ball, but I was wrong. Luckily, I was the only fan behind the entire dugout who was yelling for the ball, so Lugo lobbed it to me from about 50 feet away. As easy a toss as it was, I almost dropped it because I lost it in the lights. It was my 12th ball of the day (tying my personal Citi Field record), five of which had the word “practice” stamped onto the sweet spot:

14_practice_balls.jpg

I stayed behind the dugout for the first few innings, hoping to get a third-out ball tossed to me by Pujols. This was my view:

15_ball4165_location.jpg

It seemed as if there were always at least two vendors blocking my view and/or the stairs.

Pujols ended up with the ball after the first inning, but tossed it to someone else. I noticed that the ball had a standard MLB logo on it, which meant that Pujols had switched the game-used ball with the infield warm-up ball.

In the second inning (thanks to a Luis Castillo ground out), Pujols ended up with the ball once again. I was blocked at the bottom of the stairs so as Pujols approached the dugout, I scooted about five feet to my right through the partially empty second row. I waved my arms and shouted at him and pointed straight up as if to say, “Throw it high so the people in front of me won’t be able to reach it.” Pujols DID throw me the ball, but he threw it on a line. Chest-high. Oh no. Easily interceptable. I said a silent prayer, knowing I was at the mercy of the people seated directly in front of me, and I reached straight out, hoping to be able to make the catch. As it turned out, no one in the front row even noticed or cared that a ball was sailing two feet over their heads, and I snagged it. The ball had a Citi Field commemorative logo, but I don’t think it was THE ball that had been used in the game. It looked really beat up. Take a look for yourself. Here are two different views of it:

16_ball4165_two_views.jpg

Is it possible that Pujols switched balls and still ended up tossing me a commemorative ball? Sure, why not. I believe that’s what happened.

As soon as I turned to head back up the steps, some guy asked me for the ball. Duh. Not only was it commemorative (I never ever ever ever never ever ever EVER give those away), but it came from Albert effing Pujols. Did you hear me? Albert Pujols!! Okay, so it was the second ball I’d ever gotten from him, but so what? ALBERT PUJOLS!!! (It should be noted that I never give baseballs to people who ask for them, whether or not they’re commemorative, but that’s another story.)

I wandered a bit during the game and eventually made it back to the 3rd base side when things started getting interesting in the eighth inning. With the Mets leading, 7-4, and Johan Santana still in the game, Senor Pujols led off the frame with a mammoth homer to dead center. Then, in the top of the 9th, Francisco Rodriguez melted down, and in the process of throwing 41 pitches, he managed to give up two runs. Tie game. Blown save. No win for Johan. In the top of the 10th, Pedro Feliciano allowed the Cardinals to load the bases. Then Sean Green came in and, in typical Mets fashion, hit DeRosa with his first pitch. That gave St. Louis an 8-7 lead. Next batter? God Himself. Green quickly got ahead in the count 0-2, but God wasn’t bothered by such insignificant things as balls and strikes. The third pitch was a foul ball. The fourth pitch resulted in a grand slam to left-center. It was God’s fifth granny of the season, tying a National League record.

Final score: Cardinals 12, Mets 7.

What does one ask God after such a performance? I don’t know, but apparently someone was brave enough to stick a microphone in front of His face:

17_albert_pujols_postgame_interview.jpg

In this tainted era of Major League Baseball, I can only say that I ***hope*** Pujols’ name never appears on any “list.” Of course it wouldn’t surprise me if it does, but until then I’ll be rooting for Him.

After the game, Trever Miller threw me a ball at the dugout–the second from him on the day and my 14th overall–as he walked in from the bullpen.

SNAGGING STATS:

18_the_13_balls_i_kept_08_04_09.jpg• 14 balls at this game (13 pictured here because I gave one away)

• 346 balls in 40 games this season = 8.65 balls per game.

• 609 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 480 consecutive games in New York with at least one ball

• 345 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 7 consecutive games at Citi Field with at least nine balls

• 111 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 62 lifetime games in New York with at least 10 balls

• 4,166 total balls

CHARITY STATS:

• 117 donors (if you make a pledge now, it will include all the balls I’ve snagged this season)

• $24.74 pledged per ball

• $346.36 raised at this game

• $8,560.04 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball