Through the Eyes of a Ballhawk

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Zack Hample is a baseball writer, native New Yorker (though not a Mets or Yankee fan), and has caught more than 6,000 baseballs at 50 Major League Baseball stadiums. He talked with The Globe’s Peter Baugh about his collection, writing, and opinions on stadiums.

Tell me a little bit about your blog.

I started the blog in 2005 in April because a senior editor at mlb.com, who hired me to write for the Minor League Baseball website, was also starting a side project called ‘MLBlogs’. Basically he needed bloggers and content. He heard about my collection, thought it was pretty cool, and asked me if I would be willing to write a blog about it. Now, before that point, I had never even read a blog in my life. I had no idea what to do. I remember asking my friends, ‘If you have a blog, do you have to blog every day? Do the entries have to be a certain length?’ I had no idea. I kind of made it up as I went along. That’s how it got started.

What exactly is ‘ballhawking’?

If you look up the word ‘ballhawk’ in the dictionary, you’ll see a definition that says, ‘An athlete who is skilled in handling the ball.’ From a baseball fan perspective, it’s someone who goes to games and tries to catch baseballs that fly into the stands.

What is the most memorable ball you have ever caught?

I’m going to go with the final homerun that the Mets ever hit at Shea stadium. That ranks at the top of my list. It was hit by Carlos Beltran, September 28, 2008. It’s interesting, the most memorable ball that I will catch, is probably coming up in a few weeks, and it’s not even ballhawking. I am planning to attempt to catch a baseball dropped from a helicopter at 1,000 feet.

Is there anything that frustrates you when you ballhawk?

Yeah, being in New York. Both of the stadiums in New York are the toughest and most frustrating, I think, that I have ever been to . . . What frustrates me is when there are a lot of rules imposed by security guards and by the stadium and the team that I do not think are in the best interest of the fans. Rules that are way too strict. When stadiums are very expensive and very crowded, the umbrella frustration that covers everything is when I don’t get a chance to use my full set of skills and athletic abilities. And that just seems to happen in New York every time I go to games. I’m just trapped in one spot, it is crowded, I cannot move and it really is almost a matter of luck because the ball has to come right to me. That is frustrating.

How often do you give a ball away rather than keep it for yourself?

I’ve been giving away balls for a number of seasons, and every year I seem to give away more and more. This year I try to give away about three balls a game, two or three, it depends on how many I personally snag. If I only get three, I’ll probably only give away one, but if I am getting 10, I’ll give away about three or even four. Not always, I got ten the other night at Fenway and I kept eight of them because five were commemorative, another one of the remaining three I kept was my 6,000th, and the other two were numbers 6001 and 6002 which I thought were cool numbers and cool baseballs to hang onto . . . over the course of the season I will give away 100, 200 baseballs probably.

What do you qualify as snagging a baseball?

I’ll only count a ball if it is given to me by someone who works for the team or for the stadium. So if a regular civilian or a fan gave me a ball, I won’t count it.

Hample with baseball commisioner Bud Selig. Selig is holding Hample's third book. Photo from Zack Hample.

Hample with baseball commisioner Bud Selig. Selig is holding Hample’s third book. Photo from Zack Hample.

People sometimes have a negative reaction to fans catching baseballs. Why do you think that is?
There is a conception and assumption that for every ball I catch, that there must be a poor, crying, deprived child somewhere who’s been knocked down and had the ball ripped out of his hands, but it’s really not true . . . There are a lot of balls that roll onto the warning track or might be even further away that wouldn’t end up in the stands at all if I were not there. There’s not even a kid around me, and if there are kids they are not even asking for those balls. I have a way of communicating with the players and getting inside of their heads, so I create opportunities and I get balls thrown to me that otherwise would have just been thrown back into the bucket in shallow centerfield . . . I try to give away a lot of balls, I help kids and grownups learn how to catch them themselves, and I always tell people, ‘There are more than 2,000 games that are played every year in the Majors. I go to a tiny fraction of those. And at each game, there are 40 or 50,000 seats, and I just take up one.’ I do not think it’s fair to blame one person- or even a group of ballhawks- for taking enjoyment from other people. Certainly there are ballhawks who are not nice about it . . . but overall I think that the guys who do this are a really good group of guys and we just try to be respectful of other fans. Could you explain a bit about your charity work?It was an idea that popped into my head in early 2009. I was trying to come up with a way to try and give back to the baseball world a little bit, and to use my collection and all the attention it gets to do something positive and help people. I was looking for a charity that I could work with, and the idea that first popped into my head was ‘Could I get people to pledge money for every ball that I catch.’ . . . I got connected with Pitch in For Baseball, and once I heard about them and they heard about me, it happened right away . . . I have raised almost 20,000 bucks at this point.

What are some of the most memorable player interactions you have had?

A recent one from Miami was Jeremy Guthrie. I got him a non-alcoholic beverage during batting practice and held it up to a chain link fence for him and he pulled the straw through and took a few swigs, and then he got me a commemorative baseball the next day . . . Heath Bell has really been the best over the years . . . I played catch with him from the stands when he was on the field, talking to him on a cell phone at a game, meeting up with him in various stadiums, having him give me equipment, having him save baseballs for me from the 2009 All Star Game and World Baseball Classic, having him make a 200 dollar pledge to Pitch in For Baseball. He’s just been so great, and I feel lucky getting to know some of the players because I am still a little kid at heart.

What is the best stadium for ballhawking?

Camden Yards, definitely. It is not crowded, there’s a cross aisle that runs around the stadium, you have lateral range wherever you go . . . everything is perfect about that place pretty much. I could improve a few things, but no one stadium combines all of those elements like Camden does.

What is the highest number of baseballs you have caught in a single game?

Thirty six at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati last year, September 14th 2011, which just happened to be my birthday.

Have there been many bad interactions with players?

Not a lot, but definitely a few . . . Rick Reed is probably one of the rudest players I’ve ever encountered. He used to stand on the foul line during batting practice at Shea Stadium, just for the purpose of preventing me from catching foul grounders rolling in my direction . . . Hector Villanueva, who was a catcher for the Cubs, tossed a ball up into the crowd and I caught it. He demanded that I hand it to the person that he said it was intended for . . . Back then I was [around age] 14 and I was just like ‘No, I am keeping it. You are a player; you can get another ball if you want.’ And he was like, ‘I am going to come right in there and take that from you.’ Mitch Williams once kicked a ball out of my glove when I was reaching out of the stands. And of course, Gustavo Chacin basically sabotaged my glove trick and took a ball from me, so I put what I call the “Hample Jinx” on him, and his career just immediately went down the toilet. It’s usually not anything worse than a player not wanting me to catch extra baseballs, but some guys can be pretty nasty about it, which is strange because these guys make millions of dollars, and that is fine, but heaven forbid! There is a fan that wants to catch an extra baseball, and they just start to freak out.

You live in New York, but you do not root for either the Mets or the Yankees. Why do you think that is?

I just had a really unpleasant experience at both New York stadiums over the years . . . I was treated so badly that I had actual nightmares about being at games and being picked on by stadium personnel. And I still actually have bad dreams to this day where stadium employees are out to get me and change the rules on me, and this is all based on reality. So I can’t really root for teams that make baseball so unpleasant for me. I just tend to root more for individual players.

What other stadiums do you like in general besides Camden Yards?

I don’t think anything can beat Fenway Park. It’s not great for ballhawking, but it’s just so gorgeous . . . that nothing can compare. AT&T Park is glorious, but it can be tricky for ballhawking just because it’s so crowded and the sections are kind of deep. Kauffman Stadium is great . . . Rangers Ballpark, or Ameriquest now, is also outstanding, although it’s less good now I think [due to changes in the outfield seating].

What other stadiums besides Yankee Stadium and Citi Field are not very fan friendly?

Dodger Stadium. They open the parking lots at the same time as they open the stadium itself, so technically you can’t enter the gates for the start of batting practice. Basically any stadium that only opens 90 minutes early. I think that it’s horrible, and is not fan friendly . . . If I was the commissioner of baseball I would make it mandatory that each stadium would open at least two hours early, maybe two and a half.

Could you tell me about your books?

“How to Snag Major League Baseballs” was my first book, and it came out in 1999. It’s just a straight up tutorial on how to go to games and catch balls . . . Looking back on it now, I’m kind of embarrassed by it, I think the writing is terrible, and I didn’t even know that much about different stadiums and I hadn’t refined all of my techniques. I was 19 when I wrote it and I hadn’t even declared English as a college major. I guess that’s my excuse for it not being a great book. People still like it, but I am sure they don’t like it for any great literary quality. “Watching Baseball Smarter” was my second book, it came out in 2007. It teaches people to understand anything they could possibly see or even hear when watching the game on television or in person. There are sections that cover historical context, rules, strategies, statistics, and so much more. It’s a broad picture of the whole sport, and I tried to make it fun so it’s not like a straight up text book. It’s actually fun to read; at least that is what I’ve heard from many people over the years. And then the third book, “The Baseball” came out last year in 2011. It’s basically an entire book about actual baseballs themselves — a glimpse of the sport through the lens of the baseball. Just all sorts of wacky stuff that has happened with baseballs, a lot of controversies, the whole juiced ball theory going back to the 1860s, a chapter called Death by Baseball, a look at how they are manufactured by Rawlings in Costa Rica, and then there is a huge section at the end called How to Snag Major League Baseballs.

A Met's 50th season ball caught by Hample at Citi Field. Photo from Zack Hample.

A Met’s 50th season ball caught by Hample at Citi Field. Photo from Zack Hample.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to catch a baseball?Try to be the first fan to enter the stadium. Bring a glove. I don’t care how old you are, how tough or athletic you think you are, bring a glove. Print rosters of both teams; bring a hat and/or a shirt of the visiting team. Just keep in mind that the best and easiest way to get a ball is not to make a leaping catch on a game winning homerun . . . The more reliable way is to focus on getting toss ups from the players. So if you’re just starting, that is something to focus on. Just really, really pay attention. You can play lefty-righty matchups; position yourself on one side of the stadium or the other depending on who is batting. It also helps to be athletic. If you have never caught a baseball in your life or if you can’t judge a fly ball to save your life, go out to the park and play catch with someone.
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