Forty seasons of home games at Shea Stadium and Citi Field. Literally hundreds of visits. Wins. Losses. Elation. Heartbreak. The gamut of human emotions. The whole bit.
Except for a ball. I had never gotten a ball from the field of play. Not foul, not fair, not batting practice.
But that has changed. Thirty-nine years and one month after attending my first Mets game without my glove — because my camp counselor Marvin told us we’d just lose ’em if we brought ’em — I got a ball. A glove wouldn’t have done me much good in the process of getting the ball. A catcher’s mask, however, would have been dandy.
This was last Wednesday evening, a little more than an hour before gametime, the Blogger Night portion of my second visit to Citi Field over three consecutive days. A little later I’d be a regular fan, sitting with some good friends who had kindly invited me to join them before I knew this would be a Blogger Night, but for now I was being quasi-media, specifically part of the blogger gaggle (or bloggle) interviewing Bobby Ojeda in a Pepsi Porch huddle during Marlin BP.
I was diligently taking notes, mentally preparing my own question for Bobby O about why announcers are suddenly referring to “little” cutters and not just cutters lately, when someone in our ranks shouted, “LOOK OUT!” In that once-a-generation way I have of not reacting properly to onrushing trouble (like the night I graduated from college, opened a can of Old Milwaukee and didn’t think to aim its contents at the nearby sink when they exploded like a geyser, instead mindlessly spritzing the veritable beer fountain at everybody else in the room), I didn’t look up. We’re all the way up here, I thought. What are the odds of a ball reaching us?
My mistake came from forgetting that these weren’t the Mets practicing batting. A little while earlier I stood on the field and watched the Mets swing, at best, for the warning track. Only Daniel Murphy got one over any fence, and then just barely. He surely didn’t reach the Pepsi Porch. No Met did. But this Marlin — and at first I couldn’t tell which one it was — seemed to be doing OK in terms of loft and distance.
“LOOK OUT!” someone shouted again.
There was a commotion and lots of sensible ducking in our tightly gathered group. Even Bobby O, fearless on the mound in his Met heyday as he is behind his SNY desk now, isn’t anxious to take on flying horsehide without a mitt. The ball hits something or somebody. And then it ricochets off the cement and…
…ouch. I mean OUCH! Really OUCH! Damn ball got me in the right jaw. A Major League Baseball when hit by a Major League Baseball player after it’s been tossed slowly by a Major League Baseball coach is HARD! Nothing on my face or in my head seems broken or out of place, but it’s definitely a jarring experience, comparable to being tapped on the rear bumper in stop-and-go traffic. You’re pretty sure you’re OK if you’re not the litigious type but you’re honestly not sure.
The ball smacks my right jaw and then it goes I don’t know where. Somebody, I don’t know who, has it. Then somebody, I do know who, announces that it glanced off his hand in the first place and therefore he is entitled the spoils. He is handed the ball and stands up waving it in the air pretending to be a fan who has caught it on the fly.
Three thoughts instantly cross my mind.
1) Ouch, still.
2) We’re pretending to be working journalists up here, so it’s unbecoming pretending to be fans, thus I find the waving of the ball a little out of place…even though we’re all really just fans with blogs (this Blogger Night business is always put forth courteously and professionally by the Mets, and I’m continually grateful for the opportunity to take part and have a bit of behind-the-scenes access that allows me to write with a different perspective from time to time…but, honestly, the we’re media but not we’re not really media conceit never quite hits the experiential mark as squarely as the ball hit me in the face).
3) I will be goddamned if this story becomes “the ball hit me squarely in the face and I didn’t even get the ball.”
Really, that’s mostly what I’m thinking as Bobby O returns to his seminar on pitching and I reflexively take my reporter’s notebook and whap the guy with the ball on his left shoulder. I whap him once…twice…on the third whap, I get his attention. He turns around.
“Hey! The ball hit me in the face!”
Without a word, the guy stops waving it and wordlessly, honorably hands it to me. I fondle it briefly and then drop it in my bag, returning to my note-taking, stealing only five or six glances at it for the rest of the Ojeda availability.
A few followup thoughts:
1) It’s a BP ball, which is to say it has no 50th Anniversary Mets logo, which is too bad, but after decades of waiting, bloggers can’t be choosers. To be clear, however, it is an OFFICIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL for sure; it says so right over Allen H. Selig’s signature.
2) If there was as much poetry in baseball as we like to believe, the ball would have been hit by Carlos Lee, because Carlos Lee hit the only ball I ever retrieved in an OFFICIAL MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL game, on July 26, 1999, at new Comiskey Park. Lee is a Miami Marlin these days, so theoretically he could have been reaching out to me again. But it wasn’t Lee. Putting together the fact that it was a lefty and it was a player wearing what from a distance appeared to be “25” (but that’s a coach’s number on the Marlins), I have since deduced that the Marlin who socked me in the jaw was No. 26, Greg Dobbs, who socked Jorge Sosa with a grand slam on September 16, 2007, when he was with the Phillies at one of the hundreds of Mets home games at which I didn’t get a ball (and one of the dozens involving heartbreak). Dobbs and Lee — and Ken Landreaux, my Spring Training 1982 patron — are now forever linked for me. But I still can’t stand him more for the grand slam and everything else he’s done to us as a Phillie/Marlin than I appreciate him for the ball.
3) To be on the field before a game, you have to sign a waiver saying, essentially, that if a ball hits you, the Mets are not responsible. I don’t think that mattered once were in the stands, where your ticket says basically the same thing. Anyway, there was nobody to sue and nothing to sue over. Our PR tender did express concern and I’m sure would have summoned medical help if needed. But I was fine. Or was by morning when the “jarred” feeling dissipated for good.
4) There’s a guy who apparently lives to nab zillions of balls in BP and during games. One is plenty for me, though I make no guarantees I won’t lunge for a second should a ball head toward me in less aggressive fashion in the future. Actually, I’ll probably just do a better job of ducking.
5) Thanks to Chris McShane’s Amazin’ Avenue transcription, I can tell you exactly what Bobby Ojeda said when I asked him what the deal was with the “little cutter,” which I took as some kind of slap at any pitcher who didn’t throw big manly fastballs:
“I think it’s just a word, a descriptive word people use [...] You’ll hear, ‘he’s got a deep slider, it’s got some tilt to it.’ We all know tilt, this [gestures as if he’s throwing a slider] is the tilt of a slider. The cutter’s a little bit flatter. The cutter is meant to go in and just get off of the barrel and get inside the label, if you will. That’s the cutter. So when they say, “he’s got a little cutter,” it’s just a term that we throw out there when you have to talk every single day — or write every day, as you guys know — you throw out words, you don’t really mean it as it’s written, you mean it as mildly descriptive.”
Nice of Bobby Ojeda to frame himself as just another communicator groping for a linguistic changeup the way any of us seated around him not sporting a 1986 World Series ring would…except he was the only one sporting a 1986 World Series ring, so that — and the preferring not to take on a red-stitched projectile missile off the bat of Greg Dobbs — might be the only thing he and I truly have in common.