BALTIMORE -- Ball hawk Zack Hample hurdles a row of empty left field seats at Camden Yards. His right knee kicks high into the air, then left, breaching the seat backs. Hample lands without breaking stride and gallops toward a batting practice home run that is skittering between the steps and the fence in the corner of the section. Another souvenir seeker, in better position, captures the prize. Hample shakes his head and returns to his starting position.
Gates opened less than 10 minutes ago. First pitch is two hours away. Ball hawking has already become a steeplechase.
Hample is on a nationwide, 30-ballpark tour. For every park where he snags a game-used baseball, a sunflower seed company donates $500 to charity. Batting practice balls do not count. But other donors are offering a few bucks per baseball to charities, game-used or otherwise. And anyway, this is what Hample does. He does not watch batting practice; he lives it. "Once I found out there was such a thing as batting practice, I wanted to go early," he says.
A dozen other dedicated ball hawks join Hample in left field. Hample directs the reporter and photographer trailing him to give him space. "If I could ask you to please stay out of my lane," he says, gesturing to the surrounding rows.
The ball hawks give each other wide berth, like fishermen at a prime bend in the river, but the Orioles are not swinging for the fences. Hample gets the attention of Baltimore infielder Alexi Casilla, lazily warming up in the outfield. Casilla tosses Hample his first baseball of the evening. Moments later, a little girl with a pink glove toddles down the steps and leans over the fence. She earns instant attention, and a baseball. "That's who I have to compete with," Hample says.
Hample is not just competing with little girls, but everyday fans, plus acolytes who learned the tricks of the ball hawk trade from Hample's own books and blog. He also battles the weather, ballpark security policies, a brutal travel schedule and the law of averages. A finite number of baseballs make their way from the field to the stands each year. Hample is devoted to acquiring a disproportionate number of them.
Hawk Across America
Hample was in Arlington on May 3, Houston on May 4. Then he traveled to Cincinnati, Cleveland and Pittsburgh before arriving in Baltimore on May 9. He slept about four hours per night, racing from ballpark to hotel to airport every day. "It's totally exhausting, and I love it," he says.
BIGS Sunflower Seeds donates $500 to Pitch in for Baseball, a charity that provides sporting equipment to needy communities worldwide, for every ballpark at which Hample hawks a game ball. Hample was 11 for 11 when he arrived at Camden Yards.
Each ballpark presents a unique challenge. AT&T Park (Giants) has easy-to-maneuver aisles but lots of competition, holdovers from the days of Barry Bonds' home run chase. Busch Stadium (Cardinals) has too many railings. The Ballpark at Arlington (Rangers) has friendly ushers that give ball-seekers leeway, while Yankee Stadium security is far tighter. Kauffman Stadium (Royals) is a pitchers' park that opens late for batting practice, making it bad for hawking.
Camden Yards is one of Hample's favorites: wide aisles, accommodating ushers and architecture that places fans extra close to home run balls. Other factors worked in Hample's favor as he prepared to cross a 12th ballpark off his list. He avoids weekend games, where crowds are bigger and ball-craving children are more numerous. Half-empty stadiums are ideal for Hample's purposes, and the Royals are an awful road draw. On-and-off Thursday evening rain limited walk-up ticket buyers.
"It's amazing how different the experience can be from one stadium to the next," Hample says. With his early entries and endless circuits of aisles, sections and concourses, he experiences ballparks in ways their architects never imagined.
Hample replaces his sponsor's hat with a Royals cap when the visiting pitchers warm up. He stations himself behind Greg Holland near the left field foul pole. After some cajoling, the Royals pitcher offers Hample a baseball. With one more session of home batting practice to go, Hample returns to the left field seats, first fishing into his backpack to retrieve an Orioles cap.
Hample is frustrated that a local television station scheduled an interview with him next to the Orioles dugout in the middle of batting practice. "So they don't want me to catch any baseballs?" he groans. He completes the interview, then races out to the flag court in right field for Royals batting practice. Lefty sluggers Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer serve a generous portion of homers to the growing crowds. Hample comes away with three of them. Then he returns to left field.
He meets other ball hawks while circling the stadium, many of them followers of his blog. James Lee is a health care professional from Potomac, Md. He is wearing a Royals jersey, because visiting jerseys get more attention from visiting players. A laminated chart on a lanyard around his neck provides the names, faces and batting stances of the Royals players. Lee has caught 24 balls in roughly one year of hawking. When he travels to Tampa this month on a family vacation, he will attend a Rays-Padres game, wearing a Padres jersey and cap. He is dedicated, but not like Hample. "I don't do it like he does it," Lee says. "He's on a totally different level."
No one does. Hample can ask for a baseball in 35 different languages; his Spanish is convincing, his Japanese has coaxed a few baseballs from Ichiro. He estimates that he walks, jogs, climbs and leaps about three to four miles per game. Ushers and well-wishers call to him as he enters each new section of a ballpark, but the greetings are always brief. "This has gotta be a quick hello," he tells an usher after a chest bump, "because batting practice is going on."
Legion of the Hawk
Lee is one member of a growing community of ball hawks who take ballpark souvenir collecting past the casual stage. Alex Kopp is another. An Orioles season ticket holder, he started collecting baseballs at minor league parks as a child and has hauled in 310 major league balls in three years. He has goals. He would like to catch a player's first homer, as Hample has done three times, or a milestone home run which would give him a chance to meet the batter. "I would love to snag 1,000 game balls," he adds.
Kopp, like Lee and others scattered around Camden Yards, discovered Hample through his blog. Hobbyists who thought they were alone joined forces to build a community. Hample is their Pied Piper. He directs traffic during batting practice, trades tips and offers advice. "It's not a lonely, solitary hobby," he says, and his fellow enthusiasts confirm it.
Hample taught aspiring ballhawks to wear the visiting team's jersey to attract attention. He taught them to learn players' first names, so they can make personal requests during warmups. He taught them the secret of getting into prime location to catch the third out ball when a team heads for the dugout: for strikeout pitchers, veer toward the home-plate side of the dugout to get the attention of the catcher. For groundball pitchers, head toward the first base side, and the first baseman may toss you one after a 6-3 putout.
But there is more to ball hawking than scrapping for every last hunk of horsehide. Baltimore's own legendary ball hawk, Matt Hersl, died in a car crash in April. Hersl, a 45-year-old city employee, collected more than 100 baseballs per year. The Orioles held a moment of silence in his honor early in the season. Some hometown ball hawks spotted a media crew trailing Hample and asked that one of their own be remembered. The quest for baseballs brought Hersl, Kopp, Lee and other fans closer to their team, and to each other. Hample connects them across the nation.
Competition for Quarry
Hample takes time to sign books between batting practice and the game. A commotion breaks out while he talks to a small group of admirers. Two fans confront Hample, accusing him of "diving over" them to get a baseball.
The accusation angers Hample. "Not once have I ever knocked down a fan, young or old," he said. Still, he is often accused. "People assume that I must be robbing children and knocking them over." Those of us following Hample around the stadium saw no such behavior, and a nearby usher confirms that it was a case of mistaken identity.
Hample's ball-hawking is built around anticipation, not aggression. He reacts to balls and breaks on them like a veteran outfielder. His eyes constantly dart about, looking three places at once: the batter's box, anywhere fielders are warming up and to either side, so he knows how far he can safely range. He may refer to cute kids as "competition," but he realizes that they take precedence.
A brief rain delay offers little opportunity for a breather; Hample is back in left field when players resume warm-ups, and he comes away with more baseballs. He removes his cap for the national anthem, but also hustles into position over the visiting bullpen in right center. When the song ends, Hample has his Royals cap on once again, and he collects a baseball from Jeremy Guthrie as Freddy Garcia delivers the first pitch of the game.
"It makes me antsy even to be out here," Hample says as he stores the Guthrie ball. None of the balls he has collected so far matter to BIGS Sunflower Seeds for Pitch in for Baseball. After two hours of circling the ball park, changing wardrobe and jockeying for player's attention, the real challenge begins.
Hatching an Obsession
Hample, now 35, got his first ballpark baseball at a Shea Stadium day game in 1990. A Mets pitcher tossed him one from the bullpen. "My father always referred to that moment as a baby shark tasting blood for the first time," he says.
Quickly hooked, Hample sought to master the craft he was inventing. He developed the "glove trick," a deceptively simple rig of rubber bands and lanyards that turns a glove on a string into a lobster trap for baseballs. He began learning languages and the rhythms of batting practice.
Hample has not been shut out of a baseball at the ballpark since Sept. 2, 1993. "Day game at Yankee Stadium," he says as an explanation: no batting practice, too crowded for the then-teenager to maneuver. He remembers the date without pausing, like the failure is still fresh in his mind. Since then, he caught Barry Bonds' 724th home run, Mike Trout's first and the last home run ever at Shea Stadium. His charity quest began with a bang at Yankee Stadium in April: he caught Didi Gregorius' first career home run, turned in the ball so the young shortstop could keep it, then caught a game-tying Francisco Cervelli homer to officially cross the Stadium off his list.
Hample published his first book, How to Snag Major League Baseballs (now out of print) in 1999. Watching Baseball Smarter came out in 2007, The Baseball in 2011. He began blogging in 2005. At first, he thought he was the only person in the world with an interest in collecting baseballs, but the books and Internet connected him with kindred spirits.
He has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. His current quest has brought out the local news affiliates. He says he is honored by the attention, but he does not appear interested in the attention. He is hard to interview at the ballpark, because he is always plotting his next move, too busy catching baseballs to talk about catching baseballs. He will spend his week off from his quest at Yankee Stadium, doing what he has done for the last grueling month, only without the planes and hotels.
Ball Hawk Down
Hample's first-inning strategy is to alternate between the flag court for lefty power hitters and foul territory behind first base for righties. Hard pitches bring hard fouls, but the Orioles pitcher is not cooperating. "Garcia is throwing puss tonight," a frustrated Hample says. When the Orioles bat, he ranges to the third base side, Royals gear donned, so he can get a third-out ball. Manny Machado gets caught stealing with Adam Jones at the plate, and Hample is in perfect position as Royals infielders head for the bench, but a young Orioles fan is granted the ball instead.
The top of the second proves a fruitless race along the right field foul line. Hample is indecisive about the bottom of the second. Jones, a right-handed slugger, will be followed by two lefties. The trip from left field for a Jones homer to the flag court for the lefties, then back to the Royals dugout, is just not practical. Hample decides to linger near home plate for a foul ball.
He does not wait long. A Jones foul ricochets off an overhead beam, into a row of seats, and into the aisle. Hample's attempt to trap the ball under his glove fails. The ball caroms wildly, and another souvenir seeker joins the fray. Hample and his competitor never make contact with each other, but both drop to the concrete in a chaotic scrum. Hample finally smothers his prize with his whole body.
A game-used ball has been hawked -- Hample's 12th in 12 stadium visits -- but there is controversy. The ball did not ricochet off a seat, but a fan's forehead. Ushers verify that the patron is just shaken up, while others in the row call to Hample to give him the ball. Hample has been generous with balls all day, handing a few out to children and well-wishers, but this ball is worth $500 for charity. He tries to explain the situation, but the patrons are skeptical. Hample eventually tosses the fan the Guthrie ball.
The incident lingers with him. In other circumstances, he would have given up the ball. But the quest comes first. "I don't owe him a baseball," Hample says later. "It was the nice thing to do."
A Different Game
Ball hawking Hample-style changes the ballpark experience. It is hard to keep track of the game situation when hustling from right field to foul territory. A foul straight back occupies full attention; a double in the gap is reason to turn away from the action and get into position for the next batter.
"The baseballs have always been my top priority," Hample says. He admits that he misses some at-bats but "I still know what's up." But when he talks about his road trip, there is no mention of the outcomes of games, only ball tallies.
Hample played baseball through college, and his love of the game is clearly more tied to the experience of playing it than watching it. When discussing formative experiences, he talks of throwing pop flies back and forth with his childhood friends, not important major league games. Ball hawking kept baseball a game for him, not a spectator sport.
Hample's approach is surprisingly low-tech. His backpack contains caps and his glove gizmo, but no computer printouts of batter tendencies. He uses hand-written lineup cards. He knows the starting pitchers and power hitters, but he does not keep detailed scouting reports. "I don't pretend to be an expert on all these players," he says, consulting the Royals roster to learn which way some starters bat.
His focus on something other than the score of a Royals-Orioles game in mid-May is not that unusual for modern fans, who have more than one way to participate in the baseball experience. "It's like my own version of fantasy baseball," he says.
Hawks Never Rest
The Jones foul ball ends the struggle, but not the quest. Hample stops rushing to the Royals dugout for third outs. He hangs instead behind the front row of fans in the right field flag court, swapping tips with Alex Kopp. The batter's box is obscured by fans, but Hample knows that home runs will appear to leap from the sausage advertisement behind the plate. Kopp points out that Alex Gordon has already hit two home runs to right field in the series; Kopp caught one of them.
On cue, Gordon rips another shot. A vast crowd surrounds the well-positioned Hample, but the ball carries and hooks. Hample gives up the chase; other fans jostle. The ball sails over a picnic table and through gate rails onto Eutaw Street. Hot dogs and French fries fly.
Hample is visibly frustrated that he came so close to a home run ball but could not catch it. "I don't even want to look at that," he says as the ball's new owner displays it. Later, he calms down. "This will bother me all of tonight, but not in a profound, psychologically damaging way."
Hample has collected 6,630 ballpark baseballs. He has 18 stadiums left to visit. Yet he still frets over the big one that got away. Every ball he collected at Camden Yards came with a story that Hample could retell to anyone who missed it. He probably has 6,630 stories, plus hundreds of others about near misses, remembered down to the batter, ballpark, spot on the field, hand gesture.
He acknowledges that he has taken his hobby to the extreme. "Sometimes obsession, sometimes passion, sometimes sickness," he says, when asked how he thinks of his own pastime. He comes across as the Captain Ahab of the ballpark at times. More often, he is just a man focused on playing his own game, a game he has shared with other ball hawks, young and old. "Ultimately, I am just having fun with this," he says.
Hample watches an Orioles third out from the flag court, content to let another fan retrieve the dugout toss-up. He spots a kid in a Royals jersey waving his glove at the infielders. "That ball is his, guaranteed," Hample says from a football field away. Sure enough, a Royals infielder tosses the ball squarely into the webbing of the little ball hawk's glove.