Tagged: washington nationals

9/30/09 at Nationals Park

This was the Nationals’ final home game of 2009 — a 4:35pm start — and my friend Brandon was there with his fancy camera…

When we first ran into the stadium at 2:05pm, all the Nationals players were stretching in right field, yet batting practice WAS taking place. There was some type of bonus round of BP for Nationals employees, and as you can imagine, most of them were terrible hitters. One guy, however, was good enough to reach the warning track, even with the crappy training balls that were being used, and I ended up getting two them tossed to me. The first came from a ballboy near the foul pole, and the second came from a coach named Jose Martinez who was shagging in straight-away left field. In the following photo, the horizontal arrow is pointing to me as I reached out to catch my second ball, and the vertical arrow is pointing to Martinez:


My third ball of the day was a ground-rule double — hit by the random/talented employee — that barely cleared the railing and landed in the third row. There was only one other fan who was close enough to go for it, but he didn’t move until the ball was already in the seats, so I was able to beat him to it.

Without any warning or any break in the action, Adam Dunn stepped into the cage so I raced over to the right field seats. Moments later, a ball rolled onto the warning track in right-center, and I convinced a different random employee to toss it up. Brandon was still in left field at that point, but he had his camera aimed at me and got the following photo of the ball in mid-air:


In this photo (which you can click for a closer look), the arrow pointing up shows the ball, and the arrow pointing down shows me. The guy who tossed it was moving to his left at the time, so it looks as if the ball is heading toward the other fan in the front row, but I assure you that’s not the case.

Marquis Grissom tossed me my fifth ball of the day in straight-away right field, and then 10 seconds later, he saw me catch a Dunn homer on the fly. I was standing on the staircase, six rows back. The ball came right to me. I made a two-handed catch. It was embarrassingly easy, and by the way, every single one of these balls was a training ball.

adam_dunn_2009.jpgMy seventh ball of the day was thrown by Marco Estrada, and my eighth was another Dunn homer. I had to run about 15 feet to my right for it, and then as the ball was descending, I climbed back over a row (in the middle of the section) and reached over my head to make a back-handed catch. A gloveless man behind me complained that I’d already gotten a ball. I responded by offering to give him the one I’d just caught, but he didn’t want it.

“Give it to a kid instead,” he said.

You have no idea how much I do for kids,” I replied, but the guy clearly wasn’t interested in anything I had to say, so I let it go and moved on and continued to put on a snagging clinic.

(For the record, there was only one other kid in the section, and he’d already gotten a ball. It was one of those days where the players were being generous. Basically, everyone who asked for a ball got one.)

Saul Rivera threw me ball No. 9, and he did it as if he were turning a double play. He had Victor Garate throw him the ball, and as he caught it he made an imaginary pivot (as if he were a second baseman) and then fired it in my direction.

I looked at the clock. It was only 2:24pm. The stadium had been open for 19 minutes. Oh my God. I wasn’t just thinking about reaching the 20-ball plateau; I was thinking about what it would take to snag 30 and possibly even break my one-game record of 32. Meanwhile, Brandon finally made it out to the right field seats and got a cool shot of me catching my 10th ball of the day:


It was thrown by Livan Hernandez from the foul line, and as you can see in the photo above, there weren’t a whole lot of kids in the stands. Even the guy in the red jacket got a ball thrown to him. I’m telling you…there were PLENTY of balls to go around, and as a result, I was truly heading for the game of my life.

But guess what happened next…

Here, let me show you:


That’s right. It wasn’t even raining, and the grounds crew decided to (leisurely) roll out the tarp.


The good news is that there were several balls sitting in the left field bullpen, and I was able to use my glove trick to reel in one of them. The following three-part photo (which you absolutely HAVE to click) shows how it played out:


The ball was sitting underneath the overhang, so I had to swing my glove out and back in order to knock the ball out into the open. As you can see in the photo on the left, the the string angled back at the bottom of the Harris Teeter ad. The photo in the middle shows two important things (in addition to the ball itself): 1) my awesome farmer’s tan and 2) the glove being being propped open by the Sharpie. The photo on the right shows me reaching for the ball. I’m always paranoid that the ball will fall out at the last second, but it rarely does. The key is not to panic — not to rush — while raising the glove. I just try to keep lifting it up steadily.

In the middle photo up above, do you see the man in the light gray vest jacket? While I was carefully lifting up my glove, he said, “Excuse me, but your last name isn’t Hample by any chance, is it?”

I told him it was, and he told me that he owned a copy of my second book (Watching Baseball Smarter) and that his eight-year-old son loved it and that they actually had it with them and that they’d been hoping to get it signed…so of course I signed it as soon as I was done using my glove trick, and then I posed for a photo with his son. When I changed into my Mets gear soon after, three other kids recognized me and asked me to sign their baseballs. Here’s the autograph session in progress…


…and here we are with the balls:


Five minutes later, several Mets players and coaches walked out to the bullpen and tossed the remaining balls into the crowd. I got one of them from Sandy Alomar Jr.

Then it started raining, and for some reason, someone in the bullpen tossed a ball into left field. The arrow in the following photo is pointing to it:


I found out later that the ball had been used by Pat Misch during his bullpen session, and that when it started raining, it slipped out of his hand and sailed high above the catcher and hit a railing and ricocheted sideways all the way onto the field. Of course I wouldn’t be telling this story if I hadn’t ended up snagging it. Randy Niemann eventually tossed it to me while walking in from the bullpen:


Abe Lincoln was not impressed:


It got sunny again by 4pm, and with the game set to start on time, I headed to the seats near the Mets’ bullpen. There was lots of activity out there. It just seemed like the place to be. Bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello was warming up Tim Redding in left field. Omir Santos was playing catch with Alomar on the warning track. Several relievers were standing around with baseballs in their hands. Ken Takahashi tossed a ball to the kid on my right. Then Brian Stokes (who has recently gotten to know me) spotted me and tossed me the ball that he was holding. Here I am reaching out for it:


In the photo above, Stokes is the guy who’s standing still and cradling his glove against his chest.

Another thing about the photo above…

On the left side, you can barely see a catcher sitting down. He’s mostly chopped out of the picture, but just above the red flowers and the green edge of the outfield wall, you can see his black shin guard curling up over his knee. Right? Well, that was Santos, and when he headed into the bullpen one minute later, I leaned over the side railing and asked him for his ball in Spanish:


This was the result:


He flipped it up directly from his glove. It was my 15th ball of day. It had a Citi Field commemorative logo on it. Yay.

Josh Thole and Nelson Figueroa started signing autographs along the 3rd base line, so I headed over there and got them both. Thole signed my September 30th ticket, and Figueroa signed one from the previous day. Here I am after getting Thole…


…and here are the autographs themselves:


Right after the national anthem, David Wright tossed me his warm-up ball at the dugout:


I was tempted to stay behind the dugout and go for 3rd-out balls — I only needed four more balls to reach 20 — but the temptation to catch a home run was even greater, so I headed back out to left field. Here’s where I sat:


I had empty rows on both sides. There were very few fans with gloves. The circumstances were ideal. But of course nothing came anywhere near me.

Halfway through the game, when Nationals starter John Lannan came to bat, I noticed a statistical oddity on the scoreboard. Can you spot it? I’ll tell you what it is after the photo:


His on-base percentage was higher than his slugging percentage, which means that over the course of the season, he’d collected more walks (two) than extra bases via hits (one).

In the middle of the 7th inning, I got my 17th ball of the day from a Mets reliever in the bullpen, and I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t identify him. I think it was either Tobi Stoner or Lance Broadway, but I’ll never know for sure.

In the bottom of the 9th inning, Brandon and I moved to the third row behind the Nationals’ dugout. This was our view:


Francisco Rodriguez was pitching. The Mets had a 4-2 lead. The left side of my brain (or maybe it was the right) figured he’d nail down the save. The right side of my brain (or maybe it was the left) figured he’d blow the game. Either way, I was convinced that the Nationals’ dugout was the place to be. As I mentioned at the top of this entry, it was the Nats’ final home game of the season; I thought the players might be extra generous and throw some bonus items into the crowd.

Alberto Gonzalez led off the bottom of the 9th with an infield single. Then Mike Morse was called upon to pinch hit and took a called first strike. The second pitch was a 55-footer. Omir Santos blocked it and handed it to Kerwin Danley, the home plate umpire. Danley inspected it and handed it to the ballboy, who’d jogged out with a supply of fresh baseballs. As the ballboy returned to the dugout with the scuffed ball, I simply stood up and made eye contact with him and flapped my glove, and he tossed it to me. (HA!!!) Four pitches later, Morse ripped a ground ball single up the middle. Willie Harris followed with a sacrifice bunt and Elijah Dukes walked on a full count to justin_maxwell_2009.jpgload the bases. Ryan Zimmerman came up next and struck out on three pitches. There were two outs. The Mets were still winning, 4-2. The bases were still loaded, and then Adam Dunn walked on another full count. This forced in a run and trimmed the Mets’ lead to 4-3. Justin Maxwell, who had entered the game as a pinch runner in the 8th inning and remained in center field as a defensive replacement, stepped up to the plate. He took the first pitch for a ball and then watched the next two pitches zip by for called strikes. The fourth pitch was a ball. The count was even at 2-2. Then he fouled off the fifth pitch and took the sixth to bring the count to 3-2. Everyone in the stadium knew that Rodriguez was going to throw a fastball; the right-handed Maxwell, however, was so geeked up that he swung too soon and yanked a monstrous drive over the 3rd base dugout. On the next pitch — another 3-2 fastball — he swung too late and lifted a foul pop-up into the seats on the 1st base side. It was the most exciting at-bat I had ever seen in my life, and on the following pitch — the 9th pitch of the battle — Maxwell’s timing was perfect. He centered the ball and launched it into the flower bed in left field for a walk-off grand slam:


Final score: Nationals 7, Mets 4.


After all the celebrating and shaving-creaming was done, the Nationals DID toss a bunch of stuff into the crowd. They must’ve thrown 100 T-shirts (leftovers from the T-shirt launch) and two dozen balls. One player (not sure who) threw his batting gloves over the dugout. Incredibly, I didn’t get any of it. Not one damn thing. It was quite a letdown, but obviously I was still happy about the overall outcome of the day — that is, until Brandon and I made it back outside and walked to the parking lot. I’ll show you what I’m talking about after the stats…


23_the_seventeen_i_kept_09_30_09.jpg• 18 balls at this game (17 pictured here because I gave one away after the game)

• 523 balls in 57 games this season = 9.18 balls per game.

• 626 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 180 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 120 lifetime games with at least ten balls

• 4,343 total balls


• 126 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $454.68 raised at this game

• $13,210.98 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

As I was saying, the parking lot…

When I parked my parents’ gray Volvo there earlier in the day, it was in perfect condition, and when I returned eight hours later, it looked like this:


That’s me in the photo above, crouching down to assess the damage while holding a cell phone up to my ear and telling my dad about it.

Someday — SOME day — I’m going to attend a game at Nationals Park and have everything go smoothly…

9/29/09 at Nationals Park


This was the third time I’d ever been to Nationals Park, and it was the third time that something went wrong. This time? I took a wrong turn and got stuck in traffic and missed the first 20 minutes of batting practice. I would’ve missed even more if not for my friend Brandon and girlfriend Jona. They were with me, and when we got close to the stadium, they agreed to park the car (not an easy task in Washington, D.C.) so I could run in and try to make up for lost time. I was totally out of breath by the time I made it to the left field seats, and then when I realized that the left-handed Adam Dunn was taking his cuts, I sprinted around to the right field side. Here’s what it looked like out there:


Thirty seconds after arriving, I got Justin Maxwell to throw me a ball in right-center field. Then I hurried back to the other end of the section and convinced Ron Villone to toss me another…so at least I wasn’t shut out. Ten minutes earlier, while stuck in traffic and biting the crap out of my fingernails, I figured I’d be able to salvage the day and snag a decent amount of balls, but then again, every worst-case scenario still found its way into my head. Anyway, after getting the ball from Villone, I took a peek into the gap behind the outfield wall — just in case — and this is what I saw:



I crouched down in the front row (to avoid drawing extra attention to myself) and set up my glove trick, and within moments I had the ball in my possession. It was my third ball of the day, and they were all training balls:


I hate training balls. They’re cheap and plasticky. It’s no wonder that the worst team in baseball uses them, but hey, I wasn’t about to stop snagging.

A few minutes later, Adam Dunn launched a home run that landed 15 feet to my right and three rows behind me. I was able to grab that ball out of the seats, and then I raced down to the front row as Zack Segovia retrieved a ball from the warning track.


“Hey, Zack!” I shouted. “My name is Zack, too, and I have ID to prove it! Any chance you could toss me a ball, please?!”

I was already reaching for my driver’s license, but he didn’t ask to see it. Instead, he simply smiled and flipped the ball up to me.

My next ball was tossed by Garrett Mock, and I wouldn’t have gotten it if not for a fellow ballhawk named Aaron (aka “districtboy” in the comments section). Aaron happened to get into a conversation with Mock, and I happened to hear him mention my name, so I headed closer to see what was going on.

“You guys talking about me?” I asked.

“This is the guy,” said Aaron, pointing me out to Mock.

Mocked looked over at me and said something like, “So, what’s the deal with your charity?”

That’s when Brandon and Jona showed up and started taking photos of me. (Brandon is a professional photographer and had two cameras with him.) Here’s a shot of Mock looking up:


He and I talked for a couple minutes. I told him all about the charity and how I’ve been getting people to pledge money for every ball I snag during the 2009 season, and I mentioned that Heath Bell had made a pledge and that I’d raised over $12,000 and that the money was going to be used to provide baseball equipment to needy kids all over the world. Mock was interested enough that he asked if I had any additional info. I tossed one of my contact cards down to him, and he tossed a training ball up to me. (That was my sixth ball of the day, and yes, all of them were training balls.) He then thanked me and said he’d try to help out by mentioning the charity to the Nationals’ P.R. people.

I then had my picture taken with Aaron:


(In case you’re new to this blog, I’m on the left.)

My seventh ball of the day was a home run by Mike Morse. I had to climb down over a couple rows while the ball was in mid-air, but I didn’t quite reach the front row in time so the ball tipped off my glove. Luckily, it didn’t ricochet too far away, and since there wasn’t anyone standing near me, I was able to grab it.

Moments later, Segovia tossed another ball into the seats that landed one section away and began trickling down the steps. I raced over and picked it up and immediately realized that the ball had been intended for a kid in the front row, so I opened up my glove and let the kid reach into the pocket and grab it. The kid seemed a bit dazed by the whole situation, but his parents were very thankful.

By the time the Mets took the field at 5:30pm, I already had eight balls. I’d been planning to head over to left field at that point, but it was far less crowded in right field so I stayed put.

nelson_figueroa_2009.jpgSomeone on the Mets hit a ball that rolled to the wall in right-center. Nelson Figueroa walked over to retrieve it, so I asked him if he “could please toss the ball up.” Figueroa did toss it up, but it fell short and landed back on the warning track.

“Nelson!” I shouted. “Please, one more try!”

Once again, he tossed the ball straight up and it fell just beyond my reach.

Brandon was in left field at that point, and he took a photo that captured the ball in mid air. Check it out:


(Don’t forget that you can click all these photos for a closer look. Also, FYI, I had changed into my blue Mets gear by this point.)

After the second bad throw, I realized that Figueroa was messing with me, so I asked, “Could you please toss the ball up TO ME?!”

“Ohh!” he said with a big grin, “To you?! Sure, why didn’t you say that? Before, you just asked me to ‘toss it up.'” And then, sure enough, he tossed the ball to me. It was my first non-training ball of the day.

Meanwhile, the sun was brutal. It wasn’t directly over home plate, but it was still pretty tough to see:


I was one ball short of double digits, and I ended up getting No. 10 from Brian Stokes. In the following photo, the red arrow is pointing to him just before he threw it…


…and here’s a shot of the ball in mid-air:


I snagged two more balls in the next five minutes. The first was a Mets homer that landed in the wide open area behind the center field wall. It was tossed up to me by some random employee who was hanging out back there. The second was another Mets homer (not sure who hit it) that I caught on the fly. I made a lunging catch over the railing in the front row after climbing over two rows of seats, so I felt pretty good. It was redemption for the Mike Morse homer that had tipped off my glove earlier under similar circumstances.

I had 12 balls at that point, which brought my season total to 499. I walked over to Jona at the back of the section and told her that she HAD to get a photo of my next ball.

“Please don’t miss it,” I implored, and as the word “don’t” came out of my mouth, she took the following photo:


She was like, “Yeah yeah, I’ll get a photo,” but that didn’t comfort me. I was about to snag my 500th ball of the season, and I wanted it to be well documented. What made me relax was knowing that one of our three cameras was bound to capture the milestone moment. Here’s a three-part pic that shows Jona (on the left) and me (middle) and Brandon (right):


We were good to go, and then I had my chance…

Bobby Parnell was shagging balls in center field and accidentally let a grounder slip under his glove. The ball rolled back toward the wall and then trickled into the wide open space behind it. I raced over to take a look…


…and as you can see in the photo above, Brandon ran after me (with a baseball glove on his left hand).

Thankfully, there were different guys down in the open space this time, so I didn’t have to worry about being recognized. One of the guys got the ball and then when I asked him for it, he started walking toward me. In the following photo, you can see the guy with the ball in his left hand, and you can also see what that whole area looks like:


The guy’s first throw fell short. That was probably a good thing. It gave Brandon a couple extra seconds to move up against the railing with me. Then the ball was tossed up for a second time. The throw was right on the money, and I reached out for the easy catch:





I caught another home run on the fly soon after. It was hit by a lefty. I have no idea who. It was my 14th ball of the day. It pretty much came right to me.

Then, with batting practice winding down, I ran back to the left field side and got Mets coach Razor Shines to toss me a ball near the foul pole. The arrow in the following photo is pointing at the ball:


I didn’t know it at the time, but when I updated my stats later on, I discovered that this was the 4,000th ball I’d snagged since my consecutive games streak began on September 10, 1993. That’s kind of a random stat, but I think it’s cool. Also…this was the 625th game of my streak, which means I’ve been averaging 6.4 balls per game.

My 16th ball of the day was thrown by Pedro Feliciano. Nothing special there. I was standing near the Mets’ bullpen. He walked over to pick up a ball off the warning track. I asked him for it and expected to get dissed because he’s not exactly the most fan-friendly player in the majors, but to my surprise, he turned and chucked it to me. (So I guess that IS special.)

I wasn’t done…

David Wright launched a home run into the left field bullpen, and the ball happened to settle in the perfect spot for my glove trick. Here’s a shot that Jona took…


…and here’s a shot that Brandon took at that same exact moment from across the stadium:


A nearby Mets fan saw me use the glove trick and responded with a gesture as if to say “We’re not worthy!”


At the very end of batting practice, after all the Mets players and coaches left the field, there was a ball sitting on the warning track near the foul pole. I ran over and tried using my glove trick to knock it closer, but a groundskeeper wandered out and picked up the ball before I had a chance. I asked him for it, and when he looked up and saw me decked out in Mets gear, he said, “You’re wearing the wrong clothes.” He then pointed to the little kid next to me and tossed him the ball, but guess what? The ball sailed over the kid’s head, and I ended up catching it. I didn’t reach in front of him. I had stepped back so that he’d be able to experience the rush of getting the ball on his own. It was a total accident that the ball found its way into my hands, and I immediately turned it over to the kid.

It was 6:25pm. The game was going to start at 7:05pm. What happened next? Brandon and Jona and I left the stadium (I gave away another ball to a kid on the way out), and we never looked back. This was all part of the plan, but it’s not the end of this blog entry, so keep reading past the stats…



• 18 balls at this game (15 pictured on the right because I gave three of them away)

• 505 balls in 56 games this season = 9.02 balls per game.

• 625 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 150 consecutive games with at least two balls

• 179 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 119 lifetime games with at least ten balls


• 4,325 total balls


• 126 donors (one more month remaining to make a pledge)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $454.68 raised at this game

• $12,756.30 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

Okay, so, as I was saying, we left the stadium:


We jumped in the car and set out on a 13-mile drive that ended up taking 90 minutes! Traffic in D.C. was a true nightmare, especially for Brandon because he lives for music, and we were on our way to a concert. Isn’t life funny? Less than four hours earlier, I was stressed out of my skull because I was missing batting practice. Now it was Brandon’s turn to freak out about missing Muse play the opening act.

By the time we reached our destination, it was dark:


Can you tell where we were? Look closely at the photo above, and you’ll see a small “REDSKINS” sign on the light pole. That’s right, we were at FedEx Field for a huge huge HUGE concert. Traffic outside the stadium (in case you couldn’t tell from the last photo) was insane. I mean, it wrapped all the way around the place and then snaked around endless/temporary barricades in various parking lots that had been set up just for this event. Jona and I agreed to park the car so Brandon could run in and try to catch the first part of the show.

Finally, by like 8:30pm, Jona and I made it into the stadium and met up with Brandon. We walked through a VERY crowded concourse and eventually headed out through one of the tunnels. This was our first glimpse inside the seating bowl — and of the stage:


What the hell?!

Did you ever see anything like that? It reminded me of the huge alien-monsters in “War of the Worlds.” I was almost afraid to go near it, but in fact we were about to go very near.

Are you wondering what concert we went to? Who we went to see? The answer lies at the top of this ticket stub:


Yup, U2.

I’d never seen them in concert before, but that’s not saying much; I’d only been to a handful of concerts in my life, and they were all small shows, so this was quite an experience.

23_fedex_field_seating_chart.jpgTake another look at the ticket. See where it has the date? See right underneath it where it says “GENADM”?

Want to see where our general admission tickets put us?

Take a look at the FedEx seating chart here on the right (courtesy of StubHub).

See the red section that says “FLOOR GA”?

That’s where we were. It was a huge standing-room-only section right down ON the actual field itself. Well…we weren’t standing on the grass. There was a floor that’d been built for everyone to stand on, but it was still great to be down there. If we’d gotten there earlier, we could’ve rushed right up to the front, but because I’d selfishly insisted on stopping at Nationals Park for batting practice, we had to settle for being about 100 feet away from the main part of the stage.

Here I am in front of the big freaky structure:


Did you notice that I was making “U” and “2” symbols with my hands?

We moved as close as we could just in time for the main part of the show, and then…



U2 was on the stage.

Bono himself was close enough that I could’ve thrown a baseball to him had he asked.

The name of this tour was the “360 Tour” because of the circular stage and venues. The circular video screen was amazing. The lighting was cool. Everything was cool. Here are four different shots I took during the show (with my rinky-dink camera that I smuggled inside). In the photo on the lower left, all the little lights are cell phones that people help up at Bono’s urging:


It was truly an extravaganza. Was it worth leaving Nationals Park early and giving up a guaranteed 20-ball performance? Sure, why not. It was my own stupid wrong turn that cost me the 20 minutes of BP at the beginning, and I kept thinking about that throughout the show. But the show WAS good. I’m not a concert expert, so I don’t even know how to write about it. I only have five U2 songs on my iPod, and I was just glad to hear a few of them. I was bummed, though, that my favorite U2 song wasn’t played, but I wasn’t surprised because no one else in the world seems to know it or like it. It’s called “In a Little While,” and I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. (For the record, I have 139 Beatles songs on my iPod. I gravitate toward older music in general, but what would you expect from someone who didn’t own a cell phone until 2007 and still isn’t on Facebook?) Anyway, for me, this whole concert experience wasn’t about the music. It was just about being there and experiencing it with two great friends and simply witnessing the magnitude of it all.

Here’s some more Bono action:


After the show, when the general admission area began clearing out, we walked up to the edge of the stage:


We couldn’t get any closer than that because of the barricade, which you can see in the photo below. Also in the following photo: three cameramen suspended from some sort of diagonal beam. (The correct terminology is escaping me, but you get the point.) The red arrow is pointing to the cameraman in the middle:


I kept thinking about how many people had to be employed to put on the show and build the stage and how long it took and how much it all cost and how much money U2 makes for each show. If only there were a book called “Watching Concerts Smarter.” I also tried to guess how many people had been in attendance. According to the FexEd Field page on Wikipedia, the stadium holds over 91,000 people. I assume that figure doen’t include the field itself. The seats were basically full except for a few rows at the very top of the upper deck. So how many general admission tickets were sold? Were there over 100,000 people altogether?!

Here’s one final photo of me on the field/floor:


The traffic wasn’t too bad on the way out, mainly because we lingered inside the stadium for about an hour. Then we drove back to our hotel and ate a huge, fattening meal at 1am. It was the perfect end to an unforgettable day.

9/20/09 at Citi Field

Sixteen months ago, I had a Watch With Zack game at Shea Stadium with a seven-year-old kid named Cooper. Remember? It was Cooper’s first game ever, and even though there wasn’t batting practice that day, I managed to snag two commemorative baseballs for him.

Well, Cooper is now nine years old, and yesterday his family brought him back back to New York for another game with me. Here we are outside Citi Field:


In the photo above, the woman is Cooper’s mother Becky; the older gentleman is his grandfather Arthur.

As soon as the stadium opened, Cooper and I raced out to the left field seats. It was a day game, so I was glad to see that the Mets were taking batting practice. Meanwhile, Cooper was excited because it was the first time that he’d ever been to batting practice. Here he is, running down into the seats:


As soon as we reached the front row, Mets coach Razor Shines tossed a ball to another kid. That kid was older than Cooper (and wasn’t nearly as cute), so I called out to Shines and got him to look up at us, and then I asked him if he could possibly spare another ball. Shines said no and proceeded to mumble something about how we should stay where we were because there’d be some balls hit to us. (Gee, thanks!) But then he retrieved another ball that had rolled onto the warning track and, without much warning, tossed it up toward Cooper. Please don’t drop it, I thought. The ball was coming. I held my breath. It was falling a bit short, but Cooper wasn’t phased. He reached six inches over the railing and made a nice two-handed basket catch. I gave him a high-five and took his photo with the ball:


It was the first ball that he had ever snagged on his own.

The Mets didn’t throw many balls into the crowd after that, and the seats were still pretty empty, so I moved back a few rows and focused on snagging home run balls. I explained some basic strategies to Cooper, and he caught on quickly. Even though we were more than 375 feet from home plate, and even though he had never been to BP, and even though he was only nine years old, he was able to track the flight of the balls. He admitted that he wasn’t quite ready, however, to actually make an attempt at catching one, so when David Wright lifted a deep fly ball in our direction, I drifted down the steps and reached out over the wall for the easy one-handed catch. As soon as I took the ball out of my glove, I realized that I had reached in front of another kid who’d been camped out underneath it, so I handed him the ball. Then, two minutes later, I grabbed another Wright homer after it sailed over my head and ricocheted back to me.

That was it for the Mets’ portion of BP. The players were only on the field for 20 minutes, so Cooper and I headed to the 3rd base side. The Nationals were stretching in front of their dugout, but because the rules at Citi Field are so strict, we couldn’t get anywhere near them. Still, I was able to convince coach Marquis Grissom to throw us a ball from more than 100 feet away. In the following photo, the arrow is pointing at Grissom…


…and did you notice that Cooper was no longer wearing his Mets cap? Little things like that make a difference, but anyway, as the ball started sailing toward us, I was hoping that Cooper would be able to catch it. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t within his reach, so I had no choice but to lean out over the railing and snare it. (It was a training ball.) Cooper had said that he didn’t mind which one of us actually caught the balls, but I knew it would be more exciting for him if he was actually the one to get them.

When the Nationals started playing catch along the left field foul line, I positioned Cooper behind THE most generous ball-giver in baseball: Livan Hernandez. Cooper was now wearing a red Nationals cap. He was all set. This was our view:


As soon as Hernandez finished throwing, I called out to him and asked for the ball on Cooper’s behalf. Hernandez turned and tossed it to him. Here’s a photo of the ball in mid-air, and as you can see, the guy on my right tried to reach out and catch it:


It was no coincidence that I was standing between Cooper and this other guy. I could tell just by looking at him that he was going to try to catch the ball no matter what, so I used my body as a shield to prevent him from reaching all the way out…and Cooper was able to make the catch! I was actually hoping that Hernandez had been using a training ball — Cooper had never gotten one of those — but it was just a standard Selig ball. I told Cooper that if he didn’t snag a training ball, I’d give him mine.

We moved to the left field corner in foul territory. Ron Villone jogged past and picked up a ball. Cooper was in the front row. I was standing right behind him. I asked Villone if he could toss the ball “to the little guy” and he DID toss it, but it sailed five feet over Cooper’s head and came right to me. Once again, I had no choice but to make the catch. That was my fourth ball of the day, and then after moving with Cooper to the seats in left-center, the same thing happened with Logan Kensing. I asked for the ball FOR Cooper, but it was tossed to me instead. (Another training ball.) My theory is that the players were afraid that Cooper wasn’t big/athletic enough to make the catches. Finally, J.D. Martin showed some faith and tossed a ball to Cooper, who caught it easily. (Standard ball.)

When batting practice ended, I had five balls and Cooper had three, and there was a chance to get one more. Someone on the Nationals had hit a home run that landed on (and rolled to the bottom of) the batter’s eye:


I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to use my glove trick, so I took Cooper to the other side of the batter’s eye (where the side railing is much lower) and asked a security guard if he could get someone to walk out there and retrieve the ball. The four-part photo below (starting on the top left and then going clockwise) shows what happened next:


Let me explain:

TOP LEFT: A police officer climbed over the railing.
TOP RIGHT: The officer walked around the Home Run Apple toward the baseball.
BOTTOM RIGHT: The officer returned with the ball.
BOTTOM LEFT: The usher bobbled the ball when the officer tossed it to him.

And then the usher handed it to Cooper. (Another standard ball. Aarrghh!)

Cooper and I headed over to Shake Shack, where his mother and grandfather were already on line. We saw them before they saw us, so I placed all four of Cooper’s balls in his glove and had him stand in just the right spot so that when the line snaked back around toward us, his mother and grandfather would see him. This was their reaction:


And THIS was my lunch:


Arthur was kind enough to treat me, and let me tell you…I didn’t need to eat again for seven hours.

The photo above was taken from our actual seats. As good as they were, I still wanted to be a bit closer so that Cooper would have a steady flow of chances to snag a 3rd-out ball. Since we were on the Mets’ side, Cooper changed back into his Mets cap. Here he is from behind, sitting on the end of the row, getting ready to race down the steps:


Most of the 3rd-out balls ended up in the hands of first baseman Daniel Murphy, who tossed them unpredictably all over the place. I really wanted Cooper to snag a Citi Field commemorative ball, or at least to snag one for him. In the middle innings, I nearly caught one of Murphy’s throws, and then late in the game, Cooper nearly got his glove on a toss from Carlos Beltran. Check out the photo below. You can see Beltran right above the security guard’s head. Cooper is in the front row (just to the right of the guard) and the ball is in mid-air (in front of the red advertisement on the left field wall):


Unfortunately, the kid to the right of Cooper got that ball, but not all hope was lost.

In the 9th inning, I worked my way down with Cooper into the seats on the 3rd base side. The home plate umpire was Rick Reed. He was our last shot at getting a Citi Field ball, but the final three outs seemed to last forever, and Cooper seriously HAD to get going. He and his mother had to catch a flight at 5:30pm, and the game (which had started at 1:10pm) was coming up on three hours. She and Cooper probably would’ve left in the 7th or 8th inning if not for me, but I convinced them to stay until the end. I told them there was a good chance at getting one more very special ball, so she and Arthur lingered patiently (though perhaps anxiously) in the concourse while Cooper and I did our thing. Brian Stokes was not cooperating. He retired Willie Harris on seven pitches, but then surrendered a single to Ian Desmond, an RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman, and an RBI single to Adam Dunn. Then pitching coach Dan Warthen held a tea party on the mound. Then Stokes struck out Josh Willingham and walked Elijah Dukes after getting ahead on him 0-2. It was ugly. Manager Jerry Manual had seen enough. Pitching change. (Oh my God! Hurry UP!!!) Francisco Rodriguez came in and fanned Christian Guzman to end the game. (Finally! Thank you!!!) I bolted down to the front row and tried to get Reed’s attention as he headed toward the tunnel. He blew right past me without looking up, but I saw him pause briefly to toss balls to some other fans, so I raced back up the steps and moved alongside him as he walked quickly through the tunnel down below. Just before he reached the end, he pulled out one final ball and tossed it up near me. There were some other fans reaching for it too, but I managed to grab it, and I immediately handed it to Cooper. Here he is with that ball:


But wait, there’s more!

The Nationals relievers were walking in from the bullpen, so I raced back over near the dugout and squeezed into the front row behind the photographers’ box. Someone wearing No. 55 was walking toward me with a ball, but I had no idea who it was, so I frantically pulled out my roster for a quick look. It was Marco Estrada. “MARCO!!!” I shouted when he was still 40 feet away. He spotted me and threw the ball right to me, but some HUGE guy on my right reached out in front of me. Our gloves bumped and the ball fell down into the photographers’ box. A security guard climbed down in there and got the ball and tossed it back to Estrada. I pointed at Cooper, and he threw the ball toward us for a second time. I wanted Cooper to be the one to catch it, but I knew that if I hung back and let him go for it, someone else was going to reach in and snatch it, so I reached out as far as I could and made the grab. It was a standard ball, and I handed that one to Cooper as well. Phew!

I really wanted to stay and take some photos, but Cooper and his mother ***HAD*** to go, so I walked outside with them and gave Cooper a training ball and said a very quick goodbye.

Final score: Zack 7, Mets 6, Cooper 4, Nationals 2.


14_the_three_i_kept_09_20_09.jpg• 7 balls at this game (three pictured here because I gave four away)

• 472 balls in 53 games this season = 8.91 balls per game.

• 622 consecutive games with at least one ball

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

• 349 consecutive Mets games with at least one ball

• 20 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls (click here for more Watch With Zack stats; note that Cooper is now the youngest client to have snagged a ball)

• 4,292 total balls


• 126 donors (it’s not too late to become No. 127)

• $25.26 pledged per ball

• $176.82 raised at this game

• $11,922.72 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

6/3/09 at Nationals Park

The Washington Nationals are inept, from top to bottom.

Just had to get that out of the way. I’m so pissed about everything that went down yesterday, so forgive me for the angry nature of this blog entry, but by the time you get to the end of it, I think you’ll agree with the opening line.

Randy Johnson was scheduled to pitch. He entered the day with 299 career wins. This was my chance to see history.

My parents were nice enough to lend me their car. On my way to get it, I picked up a copy of the New York Daily News. I was told that I’d be in it, and I was not happy with the result.

So yeah, I was already p*ssed before I even got in the car, and then on the way down to D.C. (during which I managed to get lost because the roads around D.C. are horrendously marked), some dickwad on an overpass tossed a pebble that hit my car, scared the crap out of me, and cracked the windshield. Not a huge crack. No shards of glass on my lap or anything like that. Just enough to do $500 worth of damage, or whatever the hell it’s gonna cost to replace it.

One of the good things that happened yesterday was that I got to park for free. Gotta give a shout-out to my friend Mike for the hookup, but then of course there were weather issues. Oh sure, it was perfectly hot and sunny when I began exploring the outside the stadium at 3:30pm…


…but less than an hour later–right before the gates were about to open–it started raining:


It was right around that time that I met Nic Skayko–THE MAN who came up with a complex statistical formula to predict the number of baseballs that I’ll snag on any given day. (I wonder if his formula takes into account the fact that I’ve been jinxed by God.)

Well, when the gates opened less than five minutes later, it was officially pouring. Rather than running in to get a look at the field, I took shelter and waited for the rain to subside and then took the following photo:


I headed out to the Red Porch seats in left-center and watched four inept groundskeepers (okay, I didn’t yet know they were inept) head toward the infield:


Two notes about the photo above:

1) The batting cage is set up, which means there WAS going to be batting practice.

2) The red arrow is pointing to a baseball. I know it looks like a grain of salt from here, but take my word for it.

Nationals Park opens two and a half hours early (which is great) but for the first hour, everyone has to stay in the outfield. Foul pole to foul pole. Those are the boundaries. Therefore, as the inept groundskeepers made their way toward the ball, the best I could do was run around to the seats in the straight-away left field and scream my head off. They heard me, and the guy who picked it up pointed toward the seats in foul territory. This was both good and bad…good because he seemed to be indicating that if I headed over there, he’d give me the ball, but bad because I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near him. At least that’s what I was led to believe, but there weren’t any ushers or security guards at the boundaries, and the seats were not roped off (as they are in Philly during the first hour of BP), so I thought, “Well, what the hell, I might as well wander over there, try to get the ball, and worry about the consequences later.” So yeah, I cut right through the seats into foul territory, and I kept looking up at the concourse to see if anyone was angrily waving me back, but the few employees I saw just stared dumbly at me.

From a distance, I saw the inept groundskeeper look at me and hold up the ball (as one does for a batter before feeding a ball into a pitching machine) and place it in the wide front row of seats. No one else was around, so I took my time walking over, then paused for a moment to take a photo of the ball on the wet pavement…


…and finally grabbed it. It was a soggy training ball. (Estimated retail value: 14 cents.) The main part of the logo was very worn…


…but whatever, at least I had a ball.

I headed back to left field and watched with great sorrow as an inept groundskeeper rolled the L-screen off the field:


Then it started pouring again:


I took cover near some random employee doorway and passed the time with Mike and a couple other guys who recognized me.

Then it got sunny, a few Giants came out and started throwing, and the inept grounds crew took the tarp off the field:


Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry began playing catch in the left field corner. Howry was on the foul line, and Affeldt was out in straight-away left field. I positioned myself in foul territory so that I was lined up with them, and as soon at they were done, Affeldt took the ball and looked up into the seats in fair territory to find a worthy recipient. I shouted his name and waved my arms, and thanks to the fact that I was decked out in Giants gear, I got him to throw me the ball from about 100 feet away. I had to reach down and make a back-handed catch. Nothing special, and yet that was my athletic highlight of the day.

Merkin Valdez was still playing catch (with Sergio Romo) at that point, and there were a couple extra balls lying around on the field:


When Valdez finished, he walked over with two balls, handed one to the kid in the photo above with the “55 LINCECUM” shirt, and then placed the second ball in my glove.

It was still an hour and a half before game time, so I figured I’d be able to salvage my day and snag at least a few more balls…but no. Nature didn’t cooperate. The presidential mascots must’ve known what was coming. Look at their dejected body language:


Half an hour later, the inept grounds crew rolled the tarp back out:


And then–you have to read the rest of this line with an English accent–it rained like bloody hell:


The field got completely soaked, and when the rain finally let up, one of the groundskeepers sloshed through the grass and lifted up the edge of the tarp to see if the water had gotten underneath it:


Of course the water got underneath, jackass! You and all your pals are inept!

Twenty minutes later, this was the scene in right field:


Here are a couple inept groundskeepers attempting to fix the swamp otherwise known as the infield:


It was ugly. I didn’t see how the field would possibly be dry enough for a game, but I still kept hoping. I’d been hanging out with Mike the whole time, and when we parted ways (at about 8:15pm), I headed around behind home plate to the 3rd base side. It was there that I ran into  (and met for the very first time) a fellow MLBlogger named Todd and his adorable three-year-old son, Tim.

Here we all are:


(Does that shirt make me look fat?)

The rain started up again, of course:


I sat and watched it with Todd and Tim. There was nothing else for us to do.

Even though I was hungry, I held off on buying food. It just wasn’t worth it. The prices were outrageous, and the food wasn’t even that good. At least the one thing I’d gotten earlier wasn’t good. It was a square piece of pepperoni pizza for $8, and it wasn’t big. Major ripoff.

Why had the inept grounds crew taken all that time earlier to get the field ready? But more importantly, why weren’t the stadium operations people making announcements about the status of the game? (Oh yeah, because they’re inept.) Talk about outrageous…it was really disgusting the way they didn’t say ONE thing for three and a half hours and just let everyone sit there. The only info presented to the fans was a generic message on the video boards (you can see part of it several photos up) that said, “Please take cover under the concourse. Severe storms are approaching. We are monitoring the situation & will keep you updated as information becomes available.”


They never updated us. I had to call my friend Brad in San Francisco for updates.

It kept raining. There were waterfalls:


Finally, at like 10pm, the umpires wandered out and inspected the field:


After that? They went back inside. No announcement. Nothing. It was the worst treatment of fans I’ve ever witnessed. Once again, everyone was just left to stand around in the concourse and wonder what the hell to do. Naturally, 90 percent of the fans had left by that point, so I hoping SO BAD that the game would somehow get started. It would’ve been foul ball heaven. I’d splurged and bought a ticket right behind the Giants’ dugout. How cool would it have been to get a third-out ball from Randy Johnson’s 300th win? I was drooling at the opportunity.

By this point I was starving (to the point where my stomach was growling) so I decided to buy some more food. Only problem was…all the concession stands were closed! What the ****!!! You’d think the Nationals would’ve made an announcement along the lines of, “Attention fans, we’re going to close our concession stands in 20 minutes, so if you’d like to purchase any food or beverages, we advise you to do so at this time.” But why even close the stands while the stadium is open? Why not at least leave ONE stand open? Or…if the game was postponed and THAT’S why they closed the stands, then how come there wasn’t an announcement about THAT?! It was shameful. I’m not surprised the Nationals have the worst record in baseball. They deserve it.

Finally the umps came back out and there was a huge conference near home plate, and then as everyone headed off the field, I saw one guy make a gesture as if to indicate, “That’s it.”

Was there an announcement after THAT? Umm…no. All the remaining fans were left standing around for ten more minutes, and then finally, the announcement was made:


“Unplayable field conditions.”

Imagine that.

The P.A. announcer said something about fans being able to exchange ticket stubs for future games this season. Yeah, thanks. I don’t want to go to any more Nationals games. The team better refund my money. What a disgrace to baseball.

Of course Randy Johnson won his 300th game today, and I wasn’t there. I thought about getting a cheap hotel and staying overnight, but I had plans the next night back in New York City. Good plans. Very very good plans. I’d say more, but you wouldn’t believe me.


• 3 balls at this “game” (Yeah, it counts as a game in my stats. The balls didn’t just materialize out of thin air, you know?)

• 193 balls in 25 games this season = 7.72 balls per game.

• 594 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 160 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 4,013 total balls


• 106 donors (click here and scroll down for the complete list)

• $23.95 pledged per ball

• $71.85 raised at this game

• $4,622.35 raised this season for Pitch In For Baseball

8/19/08 at Citizens Bank Park

This was my third Watch With Zack game with Clif, a 14-year-old Mets fan who’s been reading this blog since last year and leaving comments as “goislanders4.” Our first game together was on 9/25/07 at Shea Stadium. The second was on 7/28/08 at Yankee Stadium. His mother Gail couldn’t make it to this game, so I picked Clif up at home, then got a tour of his baseball collection…


…and drove him to Philadelphia. (I don’t know why Clif decided to wear a Padres hat for the photo above, but I can explain the shirt: the Phillies were going to be playing the Nationals. Clif’s favorite player is Nationals center fielder Lastings Milledge and the shirt said “MILLEDGE 44” on the back.) This was the 10th Watch With Zack game I’d done since starting the business last year, but it was the first time that I went with a kid and no one else. I was extra responsible for Clif’s well-being, and yet I felt more free than ever to run around for balls and help him do the same. He’d already proven (to both me and his mom) that he knew his way around a major league stadium. He didn’t need a babysitter. He just needed someone to GET him to Citizens Bank Park so he could do his thing. Of course, it didn’t hurt that that someone was me.

We arrived at the stadium at 3:15pm…


…and got cheesesteaks at McFadden’s:


We were the first ones to run inside the stadium when the Ashburn Alley gate opened at 4:35pm. Clif peeled off and headed to the corner spot in center field. I walked over to the foul pole and took a photo of the left field seats:


See the flower bed that separates the seats from the outfield wall? Once BP got underway, I leaned all the way across it (with my knees on the back railing and my elbows on the front) and used my glove trick to snag two balls off the warning track.

ball3598_lopsided.jpgJust when I was starting to feel guilty that I had two and Clif had none, he got a ball tossed to him by Shane Victorino.

As the left field seats were getting more crowded, I caught a line drive homer on a fly and snagged another home run ball off the ground–a ball that had initially hit the heel of my glove when an aggressive Phillies fan bumped me from behind. The ball was lopsided. Check it out in the photo on the right. You don’t see that too often with “official major league baseballs.”

Toward the end of the Phillies’ portion of batting practice, Clif and I convened in left-center field, and I caught another home run on a fly. I was about six rows back, and the ball was hit high in the air. I judged it perfectly and drifted down the steps as it descended, and I reached up above half a dozen hands at the last second to make the catch. This was my record-breaking 322nd ball of the season (my previous record was set in 2005) and Clif was excited because he’d gotten a great view.

Clif and I ran out to the seats in right-center when the rest of the stadium opened at 5:35pm. Less than two minutes later, he got his second ball of the day from Nationals pitcher Garrett Mock, and I took a photo as the ball was flying his way. Check it out:


Clif is wearing the dark glove. The ball was thrown right to him. The kid on his left (with the light blond hair) nearly interfered. Good thing Clif was reaching out for the ball instead of standing back and waiting for it.

A little while later, Clif headed over to left-center and got ball No. 3 from Tim Redding. (I’ll let Clif share all the details about this and his other balls in a comment.)

The next ball I caught was my sixth of the the day and the 3,600th of my life. I wish I knew who hit it. It was another home run. It was hit by a right-handed batter on the Nationals. I bolted to my right through the empty second row, then realized the ball was tailing back so I darted back to my left and made a two-handed catch right where I’d been standing in the first place. Duh. And it was one of those crappy training balls:


The ball was so slick…it felt like it was made of wax. I really don’t understand why teams use these balls. I mean, okay, they’re trying to save money, but these balls feel nothing like game balls. If you were a concert pianist, would you practice on a Fisher Price keyboard? If you were a NASCAR driver, would you train by driving a ’98 Pontiac? Umm, no, probably not. Therefore, I demand to know: WHY ARE MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS USING CHEAP PLASTICKY BASEBALLS?!?! The only theory I can come up with is that if the players are forced to hit inferior balls, they might not try to hit home runs because they’ll know the balls won’t travel that far. This might make them focus on swinging level and hitting line drives, which ideally would improve their hitting. But it’s not. The Nationals are the worst team in baseball, and as of three days ago, they were mired in a losing streak that ended up lasting 12 games.

Collin Balester tossed me my seventh ball of the day–another stupid training ball–in straight away right field, and that was it for BP.

Ten minutes before the game started, two Nationals players began throwing in front of the third base dugout. I asked Clif which end of the dugout he wanted, and he chose the outfield end. It was a good choice because Ronnie Belliard, the older of the two players, was on that end. (The more experienced player usually ends up with the ball.) Sure enough, several minutes later, Belliard flipped the ball to Clif on his way in. I got another action photo:


Did you see the ball? Here’s a closer look:


Moments later, two more Nationals came out and started throwing. Clif stayed on his end. I stayed on mine. Ryan Zimmerman, the more experienced player, was closer to me and ended up tossing me the ball.

Poor Clif.

The ball he’d gotten from Belliard was a training ball.
The ball I got from Zimmerman was…


…a thing of beauty. But don’t feel too bad for Clif. He’d already gotten one of these balls earlier this season at Nationals Park, and when I offered to give him this one, he wouldn’t accept it.

Another reason not to feel bad for Clif is that he got Lastings Milledge to sign his T-shirt. Here’s Milledge tossing the shirt back to Clif:


Here’s Clif wearing the shirt backwards to show off the signature…


…and here’s a closeup of the signature:


As for the game…
Gail had hooked us up by going on StubHub and getting two Diamond Club tickets. The club itself is pretty lame. It’s just a big, over-fancy restaurant tucked underneath the concourse behind home plate, but the seats themselves were IDEAL for chasing foul balls. Seriously, just look at this view from the first-base side of home plate:


It’s truly impossible to sneak down to this section without a ticket. When you first arrive, there’s a pair of ushers (at the bottom of each of the two staircases) who make SURE you belong. The first guy checks your ticket and punches a hole in it, and the second guy gives you a wristband that you have to wear for the rest of the night. There’s no way to take off the wristband and give it to so
meone else. The only way to take it off is to rip it off, and get this…the color of the band changes from game to game, and the date of the game is printed right on it:


I’m telling you, the ushers guard this section as if their lives depend on it. On 4/25/07 at Citizens Bank Park, I got to explore the Diamond Club before the game because I had media credentials for a TV segment I was being filmed for, but once the game started, I got kicked out. I was stunned. This was my 15th game ever at Citizens Bank Park, and it was the first time I’d ever been in this section during the game, but of course, since I’m jinxed, there wasn’t a single foul ball hit anywhere near me all night. Amazing. But it was still fun to roam and hope.

Clif spent the first few innings going for third-out balls behind the Nationals’ dugout, and it paid off in a BIG way. Phillies catcher Chris Coste flied out to center field to lastings_milledge.jpg
end the bottom of the second. Who was playing center field for the Nationals? That’s right: Lastings Milledge. From my spot behind home plate, I could see Clif work his way down to the front row as soon as the catch was made, and eventually I saw Milledge flip the ball in Clif’s direction. But there were a bunch of other kids, and I couldn’t tell who had gotten it. I immediately called Clif on his cell phone. His voice-mail picked up. He was trying to call me. I answered and asked if he’d gotten the ball. He had! WOOO!!! Go Clif!!! How awesome is that?! Getting a game-used ball tossed to you by your favorite player?! Damn. I wish I could take credit and say that Clif couldn’t have done it without me–and perhaps he wouldn’t have if I hadn’t gone to this game with him–but he deserves all the credit. He knew what to do, and he made it happen. I was proud of him and very excited.

Clif and I were rooting for the Nationals all the way, but they blew a 4-1 lead and ended up losing, 5-4. I figured the best shot of getting a post-game ball was from the home plate umpire on the Nationals’ side, so I let Clif go for that. I went to the Phillies’ dugout and didn’t expect to get anything because it was so crowded and noisy, but as it turned out, Clif wasn’t able to make it all the way down to the front row to even ask the umpire for a ball, and I happened to get Brad Lidge to toss me the game-ending ball. Sweet! It was THE ball he had used to record his 31st save of the season and the 154th of his career (not to mention his 631st career strikeout). It felt good.

Once again, I offered to give that ball (and others) to Clif, but he wouldn’t take it. He had his collection. He knew I had mine. And that was that.



? 9 balls at this game

? 326 balls in 45 games this season = 7.2 balls per game.

? 541 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 132 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

? 10 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

? 3,603 total balls

But wait! That’s not the end of this blog entry. Because this was Clif’s third Watch With Zack game, he got a bonus the following day. I invited him over to my place where he saw (among other things) my 210-pound rubber band ball…


…and played some Arkanoid:


Then we went over to my parents’ place where I keep most of my baseballs. You could say Clif was in awe:


You could also say Clif had fun:


There are exactly 1,200 balls (three barrels’ worth) in the photo above. Clif stayed buried for about 20 minutes until Gail showed up. You could say she had fun too.

5/15/08 at Shea Stadium

First the good news: I had three Watch With Zack clients at this game.

Now some bad news: A magazine writer had been planning to tag along and write about it, but he had to cancel/postpone at the last minute.

More bad news: Not only was this a day game following a night game…and not only wasn’t there batting practice as a result…but it was “Weather Education Day” at Shea. The ballpark opened an extra 40 minutes early because there were 18,000 kids on hand for a special program.

More good news: One of my three clients was a seven-year-old boy named Cooper who had never been to a major league baseball game. (It doesn’t get any better than that.) The other two were his father, Jon, and grandfather, Arthur–and we all ended up having a great time.

Really, though, this day was all about Cooper. He had gotten to skip school and fly up from Washington D.C. with Jon, just to go to this game with me. In fact, Jon had considered taking him to Nationals Park earlier in the season but decided to wait so that Cooper’s first game would be with me. It was truly an honor. I knew I was part of something–responsible for shaping something–that he’d never forget.

The stadium was dead when we entered Gate C at 10am, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t matter to Cooper. It almost didn’t matter to me. I just stood back and grabbed my camera as Arthur and Jon led him across the concourse for his first look at the field:


I remembered the first time I saw a major league field–Yankee Stadium…summer of 1984…me and my dad…walking through a tunnel on the first base side of the upper deck–and I experienced the rush all over again.

Arthur knew a LOT about baseball and could’ve explained everything to Cooper, but instead he let me do it, often with a gentle prompt. “You wanna tell Cooper about the retired numbers?” he asked. “Why is there all this netting?” And so on.

I asked Cooper if he knew what the big building was in the distance, and he did. He told me it was the new stadium. I asked him if he knew what it was called, and when he shook his head, I told him “Citi Field” and explained how it got the name. I kept telling him stuff until the team store opened at 10:40am. Then the three of us grown-ups picked out a Mets cap for him (to go with the Nationals cap he already had) and headed out toward the left field corner where several Nationals pitchers had begun throwing.

weather_education_day.jpgThe entire left side of the stadium was empty. The right field side, meanwhile, was packed with kids, and it continued to get more and more crowded. Not good. I wasn’t thinking about snagging ten balls. I just wanted ONE. Obviously I wanted to keep my own streak alive (505 consecutive games with at least one ball), but again, this day was all about Cooper. There was no way I was gonna let him go back to D.C. without a ball.

By the time we made it to the outfield seats, there were two other kids with gloves, and they each got a ball tossed to them. Thankfully the kids left as Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire began throwing with John Lannan, so Cooper and I slipped into the corner spot. Before long, there were a few other fans around us, but we were the only ones wearing Nationals gear. I was sure we were going to get the ball, but no, Lannan ignored my polite request and disappeared into the bullpen. After a few more minutes, Saul Rivera started playing catch with Jesus Colome. THIS would be the ball. Yes, I knew it. I paid close attention as their throwing came to a close, and I positioned Cooper in front of me and told him to hold up his glove. Colome ended up with the ball, and I asked for it, and he quickly turned and tossed it in our direction. TIME OUT…I wanted Cooper to enjoy the rush of catching a ball on his own, but I
didn’t want to take a chance that he’d miss it and possibly get hurt. I had asked Jon earlier if Cooper would be able to catch a ball that was thrown to him. The answer? Probably not. Jon said that Cooper simply wanted a ball and wasn’t too concerned about how it ended up in his zack_cooper_ball.jpgpossession…TIME IN The throw from Colome sailed right toward us. There was an older kid with a glove, standing just to the left–no way I was going to let him interfere, so I reached out and made an easy one-handed catch and immediately handed the ball to Cooper. Just when I was getting ready to apologize for it being one of those cheap training balls, I realized that it had the Nationals Park commemorative logo instead. Wow. How’s THAT for a first ball? If I hadn’t snagged six of these balls on April 10th, it probably would’ve hurt to give this one away, but as things were, it didn’t bother me at all.

We didn’t snag any other balls in that spot, but I helped Cooper get four autographs: Joel Hanrahan, Tim Redding, Jon Rauch, and Saul Rivera. Cooper got three of those guys to sign redding_rauch.jpghis cap and the fourth to sign his glove. I got Redding and Rauch to sign a couple old ticket stubs. (Of course Rauch signed it upside-down.)

Soon after the Nationals finished throwing, the Mets pitchers gathered in the right field corner and began their own warm-ups. The Field Level was completely packed, so we headed to the right field cooper_cow_bell_man.jpgLoge and shouted at the players from above. No luck. But Cooper DID get his ticket stub autographed by “Cow Bell Man.”

We got some food and went to our seats–just a few rows behind the Mets’ dugout. I tried unsuccessfully to get Cooper another ball before the national anthem, and finally, after having spent three hours and ten minutes inside Shea Stadium, the game was underway. Mike Pelfrey versus Jason Bergmann. Not exactly a match-up that we expected to yield a pitcher’s duel. But sure enough, that’s exactly what we got. Pelfrey was perfect through the first two innings, then allowed two walks in the top of the third before escaping further damage.

Cooper and I had been running back and forth from the Mets’ dugout to the Nationals’ dugout each half-inning. I really wanted to get him a game-used ball, and that was the best way to do it. Finally, after nearly half a dozen unsuccessful attempts, Carlos Beltran ended the bottom of the third with a line-out to right fielder Austin Kearns. Cooper and I scooted down to the front row right behind the dugout, and as Kearns jogged in with the ball, I yelled at him and asked him for it and pointed at Cooper, and he tossed it right to us. Again, I reached out and caught the ball and handed it over to my snagging companion. Another commemorative ball…this time with the Shea logo.

I have to give credit to Arthur and Jon. They get an unofficial assist on that ball. If they hadn’t trusted me enough to let me run around with Cooper, I never would’ve been able to get it.

Cooper and I made it back to our seats as the fourth inning got started, and every fan around us was amazed that he had two baseballs:


For the first few innings, whenever Cooper and I were behind the Mets’ dugout, we sat next to each other. Arthur and Jon sat directly behind us. We had a four-seat box. Two seats in front, two in back. Shea is weird like that. But it worked out fine. I kept telling Cooper lots of stuff about the field and the stadium and the players and the game itself. I made sure we talked about some fun stuff (skipping a day of school, for example) so he wouldn’t feel overwhelmed with his first MLB lesson. I’ve said it jon_cooper_during_game.jpg
before, and I’ll say it again…I’ve always wished I had a little brother, and for a while on this glorious day at Shea, it felt like I did.

Pelfrey kept cruising, taking his no-hitter into the fourth…fifth…and sixth inning. The game, however, remained scoreless. There were some amazing plays in the field. Cooper got some cotton candy. The weather was perfect. The world seemed right. Eventually I switched seats with Jon so he could sit next to Cooper. Father and son. It was a beautiful thing to see.

During the seventh-inning stretch, I moved back half a dozen rows for the t-shirt launch (no point in standing right next to Arthur and Jon) and ended up snagging one, and my logic paid off. That logic is as follows:

1) Spread out.

2) Cover twice as much ground.

3) Snag twice as much stuff.

Arthur also grabbed a t-shirt, which meant I got to keep mine. If he hadn’t gotten one, I would’ve given him the one I caught, and let me tell you, it’s a GOOD looking shirt. I’m thrilled to own it. No joke. It’s such a nice shirt that it’s almost worth going to Shea just to try to catch one. Check it out:


Anyway, Pelfrey lost his no-no when Aaron Boone led off the seventh with a clean/solid line-drive single to right field. An inning later, Jesus Flores ripped a lead-off double, advanced to third on a sac bunt by pinch hitter Willie Harris, and broke the scoreless tie by coming home on a Felipe Lopez sac fly.

After Jose Reyes ran the Mets out of a potential rally in the bottom of the eighth (by trying to go from first to third on a sac bunt), Arthur was ready to leave and beat traffic. Cooper wouldn’t have it. He wanted to stay. (My kinda kid.) So we stayed.

Matt Wise kept the Nats off the board in the top of the ninth, and the Mets came THIS close to tying it in the bottom of the frame. With Beltran on first and nobody out, Ryan Church sliced a fly ball down the left field line. Harris (who replaced Rob Mackowiak in left field) sprinted toward the foul line and dove headfirst and caught the ball IN FAIR TERRITORY inches off the ground, arm fully extended, kicking up a cloud of dust as he skidded across the warning track. Unbelievable. Beltran then stole second base and advanced to third when the throw went into center field. Carlos Delgado followed with a low line drive down the first base line, but Boone, playing first, snared it on a fly and chucked the ball to Ryan Zimmerman at third for a game-ending double play. Final score: Nationals 1, Mets 0.


? 2 balls at this game

? 96 balls in 10 games this season = 9.6 balls per game.

? 506 consecutive games with at least one ball

? 324 consecutive games at Shea Stadium with at least one ball

? 7 consecutive Watch With Zack games with at least two balls

? 3,373 total balls

4/10/08 at Nationals Park!

I wasn’t planning to attend this game. I wasn’t even planning to visit
Nationals Park for a few months, but when I woke up on April
10th and…

a) realized I was free all day
b) found out that my parents weren’t using their car
c) learned it was supposed to be warm and sunny in Washington, D.C.
d) saw that the previous night’s attendance was only 23,340

…I knew I had to be there. My girlfriend Jona was also free, so we went together–not exactly the most romantic getaway, but hey, we did end up spending a lot of quality time together in the car.

zack_outside_nationals_park.jpgThe 231-mile drive from New York City was relatively painless, and the stadium was easy to find, but the parking situation was a nightmare. Yes, there were parking lots all over the place, including several that were tucked into the stadium itself, but they all required permits. It literally took 45 minutes to find the ONE garage that would take us, by which time it was too late for me to wander and take pics. Very disappointing. It’s one of my rituals whenever I’m at a stadium for the first time, but it wasn’t meant to be at Nationals Park. Jona and I pretty much had to buy our tickets and get right on line at the center field gate, but at least we were able to buy tickets in the first place. That’s the reason I wasn’t planning to go to D.C. until later in the season. I assumed every game through the All-Star Break would be sold out, and I was nationals_tickets1.jpgwaiting for the crowds to shrink. This game, however–only the fourth regular-season contest in the brief history of the stadium–was so sparsely attended that I was able to buy two seats in the third row behind the visiting team’s dugout. This was huge. I didn’t know how strict security would be, and I absolutely needed access to that section; the Nationals were using commemorative balls during games, and I had to snag at least one. That was my goal for the day, and when I walked away from the ticket window, I knew I had a great chance.doug_zack_alex.jpgTwenty minutes before the gates opened, two guys walked over and introduced themselves, and you can see us in the pic on the right. Doug (beard and glasses) was friends with Alex (Nationals jersey), a fellow baseball collector who’d recently been leaving a bunch of comments on my blog. He had told me to let him him know when I was coming down for a game. I emailed him that morning. He wrote back and told me what he’d be wearing, and voila, here we were. At first I was a bit concerned about competing with him. And then Doug pulled out a glove. Great. Would they be going for commemorative balls at the dugout as well? Did either of them have a glove trick? What about a Marlins cap? No, no, and no. I was relieved, of course, but then I felt guilty about invading their otherwise mellow snagging sanctuary. Alex didn’t mind. He wasn’t gung-ho about snagging every possible ball, and anyway, he wanted to see me in action. Doug, meanwhile, was even more laid-back about snagging. He was just hoping to get a ball or two, and if it didn’t happen, it wasn’t a big deal.

zack_corner_spot.jpgThe gates opened five minutes late, and I was okay with that. It was still only 4:45pm–nearly two and a half hours until game time. I ran in ahead of Alex and Doug, and Jona followed me with her camera. I was so excited to be inside my 43rd major league stadium that I completely spaced out and forgot to look everywhere for potential easter eggs. Instead, I ran directly to the corner spot next to the left field bullpen, and sure enough, Alex ended up finding a ball in the flower bed between the wall and the first row of seats. Duh.

Thankfully, the people who designed this stadium never considered the fact that I’d be there someday with my glove trick. (Or maybe they DID consider it and decided to make it easy for me.) The front row behind the left field bullpen actually overhung the space down below. How perfect is that?! There was nothing (i.e., an extra flower bed or double railing) preventing me from lowering my glove, so when a Nationals righty hit a home run that landed there, I went to work. In the four-part pic below (going clockwise from the top left), you can see me lowering my glove, swinging it out to knock the ball a little closer, dropping the glove over the ball, and lifting it up:


Props to Jona for her excellent camera work, and check THIS out…Alex was able to dig up some photographs taken by a couple of construction cams mounted high inside the stadium. In the shot below, you can actually see me using the glove trick while Jona (wearing a pink jacket) leans over the railing with her camera:


Of course, the ball was one of those cheap, made-in-China training balls. The Nationals have been using them for a few years. You don’t even have to look too closely at this one to see that it’s lopsided. If I were going out to Central Park to first_training_ball_of_day.jpgplay ball with a few friends, *I* wouldn’t even use these balls. I truly don’t understand how major leaguers put up with them. These balls don’t even feel the same as regular balls. The surface is slick like plasticky leather. Real balls are a bit grainier and feel softer and more genuine. I really wonder if there’s a correlation between the quality of the BP balls and the success of the team that uses them. Two days earlier, the Tigers were using minor league balls during BP at Fenway Park, and whaddaya know, they started the season 0-7. The Nationals, meanwhile, were stuck in the middle of a losing streak that ended up lasting nine games. Attention general managers (and equipment managers): if you want your players to play like All-Stars, consider circulating a few All-Star balls into the practice bins. If you want your team to play well enough to reach the World Series, let the players see and feel and throw and hit a few World Series balls. Give ’em a taste of what lies ahead. It would certainly make us baseball collectors happier as well.red_porch_seats.jpgEven though the left field seats were still mostly empty, I could sense that that whole area was temporarily dead so I ran over to the “Red Porch” seats in left-center. Beautiful. All the seats had extra thick cushions, and there was a decent amount of space to run around. But best of all, there was a glorious red_porch_seats_gap.jpggap between the outfield wall and the first row of seats. It’s like it was custom-made for my glove trick. I only stayed out there for a couple minutes, during which time nothing landed in the gap, but I did get two more training balls tossed to me. The first came from Nationals first base coach Jerry Morales, and as for the second, I asked pitcher Ray King for it when he walked over to pick it up off the warning track in straight-away center field.

“Didn’t you just get one?” he demanded.

“Yeah,” I said, “but I was really hoping to get another for my girlfriend.”

It was the only thing I could think of, and as soon as the words left my mouth, I cringed at how lame it must’ve sounded. But it worked. King nodded and flipped me the ball, and I ran over to Jona and pretended to give it to her. She didn’t care, and in fact, she was able to snag a ball on her own several minutes later. The construction cam, which according to Alex takes one photograph every ten minutes, had excellent timing. Check it out below. Jona is standing in the corner spot, holding up her arms to get the player’s attention while I’m watching proudly (and wishing I were a girl) from a few rows back:


I got my fourth ball of the day (another effin’ training ball) tossed by Luis Ayala near the left field foul pole, then quickly moved to straight-away left field when a righty started taking cuts. Less than a minute later, he launched a deep line drive right at me. I froze, then moved down one row as the ball was approaching, and reached up for the easy one-handed catch. I stuck the ball in one of my many cargo pants pockets and waited for a little break in the action so I could label it and drop it in my backpack. When I pulled it out for another look, I nearly did a double-take. It was a commemorative ball:


I wasn’t satisfied. The logo was worn. I needed another, and the snagging continued.

Another home run landed in the bullpen, and I was all over it. Another training ball. GAH!!! At least Jona was able to take more pics:


While I was coiling the string, John Lannan walked onto the warning to retrieve a couple balls. I didn’t expect anything from him because I’d just gotten one, and there was a kid with a glove right next to me (he got a ball soon after, don’t worry), and I wasn’t even wearing mine. But I still called out out to him (I was the ONLY fan who called out) and made a polite request, and he threw me the ball:


Did you see the ball? Here’s a close-up of the same pic. Note the string from my glove trick wrapped around my right hand:


Yup, another training ball. Six of my first seven were training balls. I didn’t like them, but they training_balls.jpgcounted. As I mentioned in my Fenway entry after snagging four minor league balls…if they’re good enough for major league players to use, they’re good enough for my collection.

Now get THIS…when I ran over to check in with Jona at the corner spot for a moment, I happened to notice that there was a teeny gap between the flower bed and the outfield wall…and that there was a ball that had dropped into the wider space below. I ran back to the front row and leaned way out over the railing in the approximate spot where I thought the ball would be. I was five feet off and moved to my left. The gap was so thin that my glove wasn’t able to fit. This forced me to disassemble my zack_glove_trick3.jpgcontraption, lean out even farther, reach down past the flowers and into the gap itself, and THEN place the Sharpie inside the pocket. It wasn’t easy, and the metal railing was digging into my thighs, and I was afraid that stadium security would finally shut down my operation–but no one said a word. Alex was right next to me, cheering me on, and a few other fans were curious to see what I was up to. Getting the ball to stick inside the glove wasn’t any harder than usual. The challenge was getting it out. I had to reach even farther than before because the ball was in the tip of my glove, and I had to pull it out before removing the marker. It hurt. But I did it. And by the time the Marlins took the field for BP, I already had eight balls. I wasn’t sure how many I’d end up with, but I knew it was going to be a pretty good day. The idea of breaking double digits at my first game at a new stadium was pretty cool, and within a couple minutes, I was there.

marlins_pitchers_throwing.jpgMarlins pitcher Taylor Tankersley tossed me his ball (a genuine major league ball) when he finished throwing, and Burke Badenhop flipped me another that had rolled onto the warning track two sections to the left. Soon after that, I caught a home run on a fly (major league balls travel much farther than training balls), and before I had a chance to blink, I was racing to my left through an empty row and lunging for another home run ball. I was a split-second too late. The ball hit the end of my glove and bounced into the row below me. In New York, that would’ve been the last time I ever saw the ball. Other fans would’ve mugged me for it, but in our nation’s capital, the few other people nearby had no idea what was happening, and within a few seconds, I was clutching my 12th ball of the day.

Ball No. 13 was thrown by Marlins bullpen coordinator Pierre Arsenault (it helped that I was wearing a bright aqua-colored Marlins cap and had a cheat-sheet with faces and uniform cheat_sheet.jpgnumbers of the guys who were harder to recognize), and ball No. 14 was another homer that I caught on a fly. Nice running catch. I ranged one and a half sections to my left and made a thigh-high, one-handed grab with other fans reaching up in front of my face. In New York, that ball would’ve been deflected before it reached my glove, and in the Bay Area, it would’ve been caught by someone in the row below. There were a few other fans with gloves, but they didn’t know where to stand or how to judge fly balls. It was ball-snagging heaven, and I was seriously considering what it would take to break my one-day record of 21 balls. I’m not talking about simple arithmetic. I know how to add. I was considering all the remaining opportunities and limitations and the likelihood of actually making it happen. At the very least, I figured I had a chance to break a more random personal record: most balls at my first game at a new stadium. I had snagged 17 balls at my first and only game at Miller Park back in 2003, and I thought it’d be cool to surpass that total.

I got a major boost in my quest for THE record when two consecutive home runs landed in the bullpen and rolled to the perfect spot for my glove trick. Here I am about to reel in the first one:


That gave me sixteen balls for the day, and five minutes later, I tied my Miller Park total by getting Renyel Pinto to toss me a ball. (It helped that I asked him in Spanish.)

At this point, I knew I’d get at least one more ball. But five more? One after BP at the Marlins’ dugout? One during pre-game throwing? A third-out ball from each dugout during the game? And a ball from the umpire after the final out? It seemed possible. But where did the umps even exit the field? I had a lot of work to do.

BP was almost done, so I cut through the seats and headed to the third base dugout. Security didn’t stop me, and even if they had, I had every right to be there and that felt good. And there was no competition. A father and his teenage son were standing in the front row, just to my left, but they were holding Sharpies, not wearing gloves, so I knew they were only zack_loves_coach_porter.jpginterested in autographs. It was too good to be true, and then it got better. The Marlins players and coaches gathered up all the balls, but all the guys didn’t walk back to the dugout at the same time. Paul Hoover, the back-up catcher, was one of the first to walk back, and he flipped me my 18th ball. First base coach Andy Fox hadn’t seen this, so when he returned to the dugout 30 seconds later, I got him to toss me No. 19. Less than a minute after that, third base coach Bo Porter headed my way with a ball in his back pocket, and Jona took a pic as he was just about to under-hand it to me. OH…MY…GOD. In the pic on the left, you can see several balls bulging through my pockets. I’d snagged so many in such a short amount of time that I didn’t have a chance to label them until the last Marlin was off the field.

Alex (six balls) and Doug (none) caught up with me behind the dugout and told me that during batting practice, they’d seen a ball drop into the gap in front of the Red Porch seats. I assumed the grounds crew would’ve taken it, but Alex was pretty sure it’d still be there, and since there weren’t any other potential balls to snag, we all headed out that way.ball_in_gap.jpgHe was right. I couldn’t believe it. The ball was just sitting there, waiting for me to come rescue it. I was able to convince a skeptical security guard that I actually had a way of getting the ball (without climbing down there) and that he should let me go for it. He was nice enough to walk up the steps and look the other way, and within a minute, I was able to lower my glove and swing it out a few times and knock the ball closer. And closer. And closer, until it was right below me. There was never an easier ball to be snagged. All I had to do was raise my glove, wedge the Sharpie inside, and lower it again for the kill. I was about to tie my record when the guard walked back down the steps and told me that he’d gotten a call on his radio and that I had to stop.

“Please,” I begged, “just five more seconds. I’ll be out of your way, and you’ll never see me again.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I can’t let you do it. They’re watching you right now, and we’ll both get in trouble.”

I was beyond frustrated. Why did this have to happen now?! After having been allowed to lower my glove into the bullpen while the Marlins’ players and coaches were standing 20 feet away, why was I being stopped from snagging a ball in such a harmless location? It didn’t make any sense, but hey, that’s stadium security for you. I suspected the rules at Nationals Park were being invented on the spot, but I couldn’t argue.

Several Marlins began throwing in shallow left field, so I ran over. Hoover was one of them. He ended up with the ball. I didn’t bother asking for it. I knew he would’ve remembered me from the dugout.

I ran around to the other side of the stadium and worked my way down to the front row behind the Nationals’ dugout. Nick Johnson was on the top step, standing next to a bag of balls. I asked him if he could toss one to me. He turned around, spotted my glove and Nationals cap, nick_johnson_playing_catch.jpgand held up an index finger as if to say, “Hold on.” Then, as he jogged onto the field to play catch, an usher walked down the steps and told everyone in the front row that we had to return to our seats. I stepped aside and let the other fans out, then walked over to the usher and said, “Listen, I know I have to leave this section, but I think Nick Johnson just promised me a ball. Is there any ch–”

“I saw that too,” he said. “You just wait right here until he’s done and get your ball. Good luck.”

Was I dreaming?! I’ve been in that situation a hundred times, and the ushers never budge. If anything, they’ll act snotty and claim that the players don’t give away balls and threaten to call their supervisors. Major kudos to the Nationals front office for hiring friendly employees and encouraging them not to be so strict. (Shame on the Mets and Yankees for doing just the opposite.)

Anyway, I waited in the front row, and as Johnson was finishing his throwing, he made sure he ended up with the ball, and he threw it to me on the way in. That was my 21st ball of the day. Just one more to break my record. It all seemed so easy. I wondered why I didn’t snag 20 balls at every game. (Oh yeah, Shea and Yankee Stadiums are the worst.)

Several Marlins began throwing in front of the third base dugout, and I raced over. I had the hat. I knew their names. I asked politely. There wasn’t any competition. It couldn’t have been any easier, and Jeremy Hermida tossed me my record-breaking 22nd ball of the day. Jona was in her actual seat two rows behind me (how convenient) and took another pic.

The game was underway, and I said goodbye to Jona…only temporarily. The Nationals were on the field first so it wasn’t gonna do me much good to wait behind the Marlins’ dugout. Back I ran to the first base side. At this point, the ushers were checking tickets at the top of the stairs so I waited for a large group to head down to their seats and slipped in behind them. I picked an empty seat on the end of a row behind the outfield end of the dugout. No point in going to the home plate side with Odalis Perez–not exactly a strikeout pitcher–on the mound. The odds of catcher Paul Lo Duca ending up with the inning-ending ball were slim. The odds that one of the Marlins would put it in play were much better, and I was hoping for a ground ball. First base was directly in front of me, as was a gap in the protective netting/railing in front of the dugout where Johnson would surely run off the field. Would he recognize me after having just tossed me a ball 10 minutes earlier? I didn’t think so, and I was right. With two outs, Josh Willingham hit a weak grounder to shortstop Christian Guzman who fired it over to first base. Johnson took the ball back to the dugout and flipped it right to me. HA!! I had my 23rd ball, and it was commemorative…still not as nice as I’d hoped…Johnson must’ve switched balls and tossed up the infield warm-up ball instead…but whatever. I’d just have to snag another and add to my record.

I ran back to the Marlins’ dugout and found Jona in the 3rd row. I showed her the ball. She just laughed.

Willingham ended up catching the final out of the inning–a fly ball to left field by Ryan Zimmerman–and he tossed it to the fans behind the outfield end of the dugout. Blah. I ran back to the Nationals’ side and snuck down the steps behind the middle of the dugout. The usher on the outfield side had scolded me when I caught the ball after the top of the first…gave me some B.S. about how I wasn’t allowed to be in the first row…and I didn’t want her seeing me again. Also, if Johnson ended up with another inning-ending ball, I knew he wouldn’t throw it to the same spot. Mike Jacobs led off the 2nd inning with a groundout to Johnson and Jorge Cantu followed by striking out. Good. The whiff was out of the way. Cody Ross then took a called first strike and jumped on the second pitch, sending a fairly deep fly ball to Lastings Milledge in center field. By the time Milledge caught the ball, I was standing in the front row, and by the time he crossed the foul line, I was waving my arms and shouting his name. No one else was standing or waving or shouting. He commemorative_ball_3.jpghad no choice but to throw it to me. The ball sailed high. I jumped and made a backhand catch. Wooo! Ball number twenty-four! I didn’t even look at it until I reached the concourse. It was commemorative, of course, but still not perfect. The logo wasn’t worn, but the ball was particularly dirty.

I ran back and found Jona and waited for the next three outs. Johnson led off the bottom of the second with a single, and Austin Kearns bounced into a double play. Lo Duca then flied out to Ross in center…and the ball was once again thrown into the crowd at the far end of the dugout. I knew I’d get one there eventually, but it was frustrating to wait. I also knew I wasn’t exactly going to be welcomed back to the seats behind the Nats’ dugout, so I tried something else. Remember the ball in the gap that I tried to get with my glove trick after batting practice? Yeah. I back ran out there. Just in case it was somehow still there, in case there was a different security guard, in case…I don’t even know. I just had to take a look. By the third inning, however, the ushers in that section were checking tickets, so I asked one of them if he’d let me walk down between innings and take a picture.

“Between innings,” he said firmly and told me to wait in the concourse. (It’s a good thing he didn’t ask to see my camera; I’d left it in my backpack with Jona at our seats.) The top of the third seemed to last forever. There was an error, a stolen base, 22 pitches thrown…and I was really getting antsy. Finally, the third out was recorded. Showtime. I walked back to the usher, and he gave me a nod. I headed all the way down to the front row and asked a couple fans if I could squeeze past them.

“Still trying to get it?” asked one of them.

Trying is not the word,” I said.

The rubber band was already on my glove. I wedged the Sharpie into place. I knew I only had one shot. There WAS a different security guard manning the section about a dozen rows back, but I knew he’d be all over me in no time. Phew. Deep breath. I lowered the glove quickly but carefully, dropped it right over the ball, jiggled it a couple times to make sure the rubber band had stretched around my prize, and began lifting it back up. The ball was in the glove…then in my right hand…then in my right pants pocket…and then I was being scolded bigtime by the usher who seemed offended that I had lied to him, and he gave me this whole rant about how I couldn’t be trusted, and if he ever saw me again, he zack_jona_during_game.jpgwasn’t going to let me back down into his precious section (which was located eight miles from home plate). I waited for him to finish and then flew back to Jona with a loving death-grip (if there IS such a thing) on my 25th ball of the day. It was great to share the excitement with her, and to have such a nice seat waiting for me where I could catch my breath.

Like I said before, it all seemed so easy, yet I knew I was in the process of doing something VERY special. On the one hand, I half-expected to snag another 20-something balls at my next game, but at the same time, I was constantly reminding myself that I might never have another game like this in my life. Basically, I forced myself not to take it for granted so I’d stop and think about each moment and let it all sink in.

Ronnie Belliard led off the bottom of the third with a homer to left field, and I didn’t even see it because I was busy racing back to the dugout through the concourse. Felipe Lopez then reached on an infield single to second, and I think I missed that too. I don’t know. I can’t remember, and I don’t care. Perez followed by bunting into a fielder’s choice, Guzman popped out to Uggla, and Milledge commemorative_ball_4.jpgstruck out swinging to end the inning. Marlins catcher Matt Treanor took the ball back toward the dugout. I shouted my brains out and got him to toss it to me. Unreal. Another commemorative ball…essentially flawless…my 26th ball of the day. And that’s when things slowed way down for me. I went back to the Nationals’ dugout the next inning, and I got kicked out by the ushers. No surprise there, and no harm done, really, but it meant I couldn’t go back for the rest of the game. I felt like I still might’ve been able to get an inning-ending strikeout ball from Lo Duca (if he ever stopped rolling them back to the mound), but I couldn’t take a chance by showing my face there again.

I stayed with Jona and watched the next five innings with her, rooting for the Marlins all the way. If the Nationals won the game, I wouldn’t have been able to go to their dugout, and although I never did find out where the umps were going to exit the field, I suspected they’d be doing so at the home plate end of the third base dugout. Except for the placement of the bullpens, Nationals Park was a near clone of Citizens Bank Park, and in Philly, that’s where the umps exited. Nationals Park had a little tunnel there, blocked by a small gate that was clearly designed to swing open. It had to be. And if the Marlins won the game, I knew I’d have a chance to snag two more balls: one from the home plate ump as he walked off the field and another from the Marlins themselves as they walked back to the dugout.

LF_bullpen.jpgFinally, in the top of the sixth, the Marlins scored two runs to take a 2-1 lead. They added an insurance run in the eighth, and by the time they made the third out, I was sneaking down the steps toward their bullpen. Taylor Tankersley stepped out of the ‘pen and played catch with Willingham in left, and when he returned with the ball, I asked him for it. “Y’already got one!” he shouted, and that was that.

The Nationals scored once in the bottom of the eighth to make it 3-2, and the Marlins regained their two-run cushion in the ninth. Once again, I tried to get a ball between innings at the bullpen, and I was denied, this time by Matt Lindstrom who recognized me and tossed the ball to someone else.

The bottom of the ninth had arrived. Marlins closer Kevin Gregg came in (with his lifetime 4.12 ERA) to hold the lead, and I made my way back to the third base dugout and somehow managed not to bite my nails. Milledge led off with a double, Zimmerman flied out, and Johnson hit a double of his own to trim the Marlins’ lead to 4-3. Kearns was then hit by a pitch and I nearly had a heart attack. Runners on first and second…TYING RUN on second…one out…not good. And then Lo Duca, bless his soul, grounded into a game-ending double play. I bolted down the steps and worked my way to the far right side of the dugout and shouted at “Mister Welke” (Tim, not Bill) as he walked in my direction. He reached into his pouch, grabbed a ball, and tossed it to me from about five feet away before disappearing under the seats. Moments later, the entire Marlins team was out on the field, exchanging high-fives (and undoubtedly patting each other on the buttocks):


Who had the game-ending ball? It had to be in someone’s glove. Did Wes Helms have it? He’d taken over for Mike Jacobs at first base. No, probably not. The guy who catches the 28th_and_final_ball_of_the_day.jpgfinal out almost always hands it to the pitcher. I had to look for Gregg, and I had to spot him fast. Pretty soon, there’d be 15 cookie-cutter white guys all walking toward me at once. Thankfully, I knew that Gregg is 6-foot-6 so I paid close attention to the taller guys and spotted him just in time. I shouted his name. He looked up and tossed me the ball…my 28th of the day!

You could say I was in shock. Alex, however, was not. He and zack_28th_ball_of_day.jpgDoug had seen me running around throughout the night, and when they caught up with me after the game, they were just…happy for me. Alex had actually left a recent comment (or was it an email?) in which he said he thought I had a chance to break my record at this stadium. Of course I didn’t take him seriously. Yeah okay, so the place opened early, and the pre-game crowds weren’t too big, and the fans weren’t that aggressive, and there was lots of room to run around in left field. Big deal. You could say that about half the stadiums in major league baseball, and had I ever come close to getting this many balls at any of them? Even at Chase Field and Miller Park, I had beaten the system by getting in extra early. Both stadiums have a Friday’s restaurant that opens before the gates and has seating that overlooks the field. At Miller Park, I had gotten five balls before the stadium officially opened, and in Phoenix, I was able to snag seven on my previous record-breaking day. But at Nationals Park? I wiped the asterisk out of the record book.28.jpg


nationals_park_commemorative_balls.jpg• 28 balls at this game

• 60 balls in 5 games this season = 12 balls per game.

• 501 consecutive games with at least one ball

• 3,015 balls since the streak began (the ball from Arsenault was No. 3,000)

• 109 consecutive games outside of New York with at least one ball

• 774 lifetime balls outside of New York

collins_molitor.jpg• 76 lifetime games with at least 10 balls

• 2 lifetime games with at least 20 balls

• 43 major league stadiums with at least one ball

• 3,337 total balls…moves me ahead of Eddie Collins (3,315) and Paul Molitor (3,319) and into 9th place on the all-time hits list. Next up is Honus Wagner (3,415). (If you’re wondering why I’m comparing balls to hits, click here.)

• 5,795 words in this blog entry

• 8 days until I’ll be at Champion Stadium

• 1 more pic of my 28 balls…