Last year I ran in the Baltimore City Marathon. It was definitely a cool experience but required a ridiculous amount of training. Like most runners in training I scheduled my long runs on the weekends and reserved the shorter runs for midweek. After several weeks of training I developed a few staple run routes that had proven tried and true. The round trip from my front door to Oriole Park at Camden Yards is almost exactly five miles. Adding a loop around M&T Bank Stadium would tack on another mile. These became my most common weekday routes.
All of my training took place during the baseball season. I got in the habit of checking the Oriole’s score before I left the house, running down to the ballpark and rechecking the score when I got around to the back of the stadium. After several nights of this routine I got to know the stadium attendants at one gate in particular. In case you haven’t payed attention to baseball since the mid-nineties, the Orioles have been pretty bad. Their terrible play has led to even more terrible fan attendance. Because of this, the nice people that worked the gates would sometimes let me in if the game was into the later innings. I’m not sure what the statute of limitations is for this sort of thing but I’ll deny everything if Peter Angelos asks.
One night last May, the day before my birthday actually, I went out for a run. The O’s were in town for a series against the A’s so I decided to run South to the stadiums. On the way back from the Raven’s facility I stopped at the gates and caught up with one of the attendants who is especially friendly. A few minutes of small talk and complaining about the Birds and he told me to go ahead on in and catch the end of the game. I walked up Eutaw Street to my favorite spot in the park, the flag court beyond the right field wall. It was crowded at the wall but I’m tall enough that I didn’t have any problems seeing the field over the people in front of me. The Orioles were up 3-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Oakland’s Michael Wuertz had just entered the game to relieve Craig Breslow and up to the plate steps my current favorite Oriole, Nick Markakis.
I’m not sure what it was about this particular moment but when Markakis approached the plate I knew the ball was coming to me. I knew it. I had never caught a major league baseball foul or fair but I just had this feeling. First pitch, Markakis watches a strike. Pitch number two, ball. Pitch three, Nick swings and you hear the crack of the bat. This is it. I was right, the ball is coming straight for me. And I mean straight for me. I start taking a few steps back so it can drop into my hands right front of me. But I’m wrong. It’s not going to make it as far as I thought it would. I’ve misjudged it. The guys in front of me are starting to reach up. I blew it. I’m going to miss my opportunity. And then boom. The guy in front of me can’t handle it and the ball blasts right through his fingers. And who’s behind him to catch the ball? Me. I knew it the whole time. That was my home run ball.
It was so exciting. The park was going crazy for Nick’s home run but it felt like they were cheering for me. I ran back down the gate to tell the attendants what had just happened. My smile must have given it away because they were clapping for me before I could even start to talk. We all had a laugh about it and I left to head back home. I finished out the last three miles of my run with a baseball in my pocket. Uncomfortable, but I couldn’t care less. I didn’t even put my earphones back in. I just ran home in silence and thought about the crazy string of luck I had witnessed. Just running and smiling. Heck, I’m smiling about it now.
When I got home, after calling my dad and my brother, I looked up Markakis’ stats online. This particular home run was Nick’s third homer of the year and the 80th of his career. That week I bought a display case for my new treasure and put it with the rest of my sports memorabilia. Right on top of my bookshelf between my Eddie Murray bobble head and my mini Ed Reed helmet. It sat there for about a week or so and I got to thinking. Having Nick Markakis’ 80th home run ball is cool and all but you know what would be even cooler? If it were signed.
The next time I ran down to the stadium I asked the same attendant how I should go about getting Markakis’ signature. He told me that I could mail it to the Oriole’s offices in the warehouse at Camden Yards. He made it clear that as long I included prepaid shipping to have it sent back then most players would sign memorabilia for fans. There was definitely some risk involved in mailing it away but why not? I’m already playing with house money. I caught a home run ball at a game I didn’t even pay to go and see. I basically ran in the stadium, caught the ball and ran back out. Everything had worked out so far so what’s the harm?
Fast forward to today. It’s over a year later and I never got it back. The empty display case still sits on my shelf teasing me. Haunting me. But there’s no baseball. The bright side — I still have this unforgettable story.