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MLBlogger snags another ball: No. 72408/18/2006 4:30 PM ET
By Zack Hample / Special to MLB.com
I was 2,432 miles from home when Brian Giles tossed his pregame warmup ball into the right-field seats at PETCO Park. Everyone reached for it. No one caught it. The ball bounced back over the wall and landed on a small fenced platform just out of reach. An usher hurried down the steps with a special device for retrieving such balls.
"Is there any chance I could have it?" I asked politely.
"Well," he replied, "I usually try to give it to a guy in a wheelchair. Besides, you have 2,000 of 'em."
"What?! Wait! How do you know?!"
"How do I know?" he said with a grin. "You're famous. You got almost 2,900."
"Famous" might be a bit of an overstatement. I'd say I'm well-known among certain circles as a major dork and a pretty successful baseball collector. That's because I've written a book called How to Snag Major League Baseballs and have an MLBlog about my collection.
I attend a few dozen games per season -- PETCO is the 41st Major League stadium I've visited -- and I always show up early with my glove and an arsenal of strategies. I average more than seven balls per game, and most come from batting practice. Even the 96 balls I've snagged during games are forgettable by everyone else's standards; I usually stay behind home plate for foul tips, so a mere two of the 96 were home runs.
But here I was at PETCO with a chance to see history. Even though Barry Bonds was slumping (and even though I tend to root against him), I was hoping that he'd go deep -- and if he did, I needed to catch it.
For two decades, I'd seen Barry slug countless shots to the opposite field, and earlier this season, I'd watched jealously as he passed the Babe with a blast to straightaway center that ended up in the hands of some bozo who was waiting on line for food.
Still, I knew that right field was the place to be.
After the Home Run Derby, I'd stumbled across Hit Tracker, a Web site with extensive data for every home run in the Major Leagues. I found Barry's "Scatter Plot" and discovered that while he had, in fact, scattered this year's long balls to all fields, there were several that had gone to right.
PETCO had a wide aisle in right field. I knew that because I'd been watching Padres games on TV to prepare for my trip -- and the ushers, I learned later, actually let people stand there.
For the first two games of the series, that's where I hung out for almost all of Barry's at-bats. (I missed one for a photo-taking excursion at the top of upper deck. If he'd homered to my spot, I might've jumped off said deck, but thankfully, he grounded out to first base.) He went 0-for-7 with an intentional walk and a strikeout.
My friend Hannah, a baseball novice, joined me for my third and final game at PETCO. She had other stuff to do in the afternoon, so she showed up just before game time and met me -- where else -- in the right-field aisle. Barry Bonds was the only active player she could name, so when he came to bat in the top of the second inning, I decided to take her picture with Barry's scoreboard photo in the background.
First, I had to get my camera out of my backpack, which I did after Chan Ho Park delivered ball one. Then I noticed I was standing next to a really tall guy with a glove, so I moved 30 feet to the right. Ball two. I was now further from home plate -- a bit too far, I feared -- but the aisle was emptier. If Barry happened to get a hold of one, I'd have a clear path. Meanwhile, he swung through the next pitch to bring the count to 2-1. Excellent. If it'd gone to 3-0, Park probably would've walked him.
I had my camera in my right hand and my glove on my left. I was ready to take the pic, but Park was set to deliver, so we waited. Foul ball. Two balls, two strikes. Hannah scooted into the middle of the aisle, and I took the photo, just before Barry took a pitch to work the count full.
"Three balls, two strikes," I said as I handed the camera to Hannah. "Barry's gonna do something here."
I still wasn't taking him seriously, though. I mean, c'mon, Barry Bonds is gonna hit ME a home run? I think not.
Park went into his windup, fired the ball, and Barry jerked it deep in my direction. I figured it'd be another deep flyout, but that didn't stop me from bolting to my right to get in line with it. I often run for balls that don't come close. That's just how it goes. I'm willing to look silly in order to get a head start on the competition -- but there was nothing silly about this one.
The ball kept coming and coming, and I made it to the railing in front of the aisle with a second to spare, wondering if this were really happening, if the ball would have the distance to clear the four rows of fans down below, if someone else in the aisle was going to reach in front of me at the last second and steal my lifelong dream.
The ball was falling short. The fans below reached up. I reached straight out, waaay out, right above their hands, and felt the ball hit the pocket of my glove.
Oh my god. My god, my god, my god. Could it be?!
I had it, but at the same time, I couldn't believe it. I threw up my arms to celebrate as a million thoughts raced through my mind. Was this a dream? Why me? How could it've been so easy? Was it really that easy after all? What if I'd dropped it? What if the ball had traveled one foot less?
The fans started chanting "Throw it back!!!" I ran up to the front of the aisle, took a crow hop, and cocked my arm as if I were going to fire it back toward the infield, then stopped abruptly and pointed at everyone with a big smile, drawing laughter and applause from the entire section. People congratulated me. People shook my hand. People gave me high fives. People wanted to see the ball. People wanted to touch the ball. People wanted to hold the ball. That made me nervous. But I let them.
I kept waiting for a Padres or Giants official to walk up and say, "Come with me," but it never happened. The ball was important, but apparently not THAT important, so it wasn't marked by Major League Baseball.
People often ask if I've caught any historic balls. I've never had a good answer. But now I can say that I caught Barry Bonds' 724th home run -- the one that tied him with his godfather, Willie Mays, for ninth on the all-time RBIs list.
The Bonds homer was my ninth of 11 balls that day, giving me a grand total of 2,903. Can I prove which ball is THE ball? Doesn't matter. It's not for sale.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.