MR. MAY: Zack Hample, Major League Baseball’s Tenth Fielder, Has Major Balls!

Zack Hample with a fraction of his collection (Wikimedia Commons)

Zack Hample with a fraction of his collection (Wikimedia Commons)

For a weekday matinee at Citi Field, the game officially starts at 1:10pm. For Zack Hample, the game starts two hours earlier as soon as the ballpark’s gates open.

Zack Hample is a ballhawk.

He collects baseballs at games, during batting practice and at actual games. During his 20-plus year ballhawking career, Hample has gotten 7,290 balls – and counting. Last April, Hample had perhaps his finest outing. He got two home run balls at Yankee Stadium, one on a fly, in a single game and was featured on ESPN. “I have a feeling that I should be a Major League baseball player, and I also have a desire to be the best,” says Hample, an Upper West Side lifer. “This is my way of being as close to the Majors as possible and still making it competitive. It makes me feel connected to the game to catch baseballs. When the ball goes in the air, twenty or thirty or fifty thousand people all have their eyes on it, and everyone wants it. When I get it, it’s a great feeling.”

Last season, Hample had a sponsor. BIGS Sunflower Seeds paid Hample’s way to visit every Major League stadium. For each ballpark where Hample got a game-used ball, BIGS donated $500 to Pitch In For Baseball, a charity, which provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids. After each game, Hample copiously blogs about his experiences. In addition, Hample has written three books, including the last two Watching Baseball Smarter and The Baseball.

At Citi, Hample is one of the first fans to be admitted. He runs to the seats, where there might be a few scattered batting practice balls hidden. Hample refers to these balls as “Easter eggs.” On this day, it’s unlikely that Hample will find any. The Mets and Braves played the previous evening, and there’s no batting practice, which is optimal ballhawking time. “Today is gonna be such a struggle,” grouses Hample. There are about three pairs of Mets throwing near the right field foul line. In this scenario, Hample is hoping for what ballhawks refer to as a “toss up,” which is when a person on the field  (a player, coach or an umpire) tosses a ball to a fan. Unfortunately for Hample, there are a throng of kids in the front row pleading for a souvenir. In the toss-up department, kids and women have a huge edge, and Hample deems himself a long shot.

“Why should they throw me the ball?” Hample asks. “The answer is they should not throw me the ball!” Hample opts to distinguish himself by standing alone about 20 rows up. He holds his arms straight up, one holding his custom-made glove. “Pedro, right over here!” Hample yells as politely as possible, waving his arms “Pedro!” When their warm-up is done, pitcher Pedro Feliciano spots Hample – and doesn’t give him a toss-up. Instead, he hurls a 60 mph rope, which smacks Hample’s glove. Sweet! With that, Hample’s streak continues. Since 1993, Hample has gotten at least one ball a game. Now, Hample can rest easy, well, kind of. Hample is now anxious to keep his streak of collecting two balls per game alive, which he has done since mid-season 2007. (Sadly, the two-per-game streak ended at the end of last year at 489).

Zack gets his 5,000th ball, at Rodgers Centre in Toronto, alongside an appreciative fan. (zackhample.com)

Zack gets his 5,000th ball, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, alongside an appreciative fan. (zackhample.com)

Hample got his first Major League baseball at 12. About two years later, Hample dedicated himself completely to collecting balls. Around this time, Hample innovated “the glove trick,” a revolutionary ballhawking device, which Hample uses for out-of-reach balls. For this, Hample places a thick magic marker in the throat of the glove, transforming it into a scooping device. Hample then attaches a string to the glove, so he can drop it like a fishing hook.

During his adolescence, Hample enjoyed baseball, either playing or going to games – and not much else. “All I wanted to do in life was baseball. My parents were concerned about me,” he says. “I really did not have any friends until I went off to college.” After riding the pine at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina his freshman season, Hample quit the team  – and almost quit baseball altogether. But After his freshman year, Hample wrote a book, How to Snag Major League Baseballs, and that renewed his interest in ballhawking. Publishing is in Hample’s blood. His father is the late Stuart Hample, the well-known writer-illustrator. Following graduation, Hample worked at his family’s business, the Argosy Book Store, which deals in antiquarian items, everything from first editions to photos and documents, continued writing and collecting balls, not necessarily in that order. He also held a number of jobs, including television production assistant, admissions recruiter for Guilford and writer for minor league baseball.

In his quest for that second ball, Hample changes gear, donning a Braves t-shirt and cap, and heads to the visiting team’s bullpen, where Braves pitcher Julio Teheran is warming up under the watchful eye of Braves pitching coach and former Met Roger McDowell. (Hample pioneered the practice of changing attire in 1992). Now, Hample is jonesing for a Teheran toss-up. Teheran might remember Hample from the previous month in Atlanta. During BP, a ball richocheted off the top of a concrete barrier and banged Hample in the face. Fortunately, Hample suffered only a black eye. Fortunately, Teheran rewarded Hample with a souvenir.

Hample is no stranger to injury. In 2011, he sprained his ankle running to get in position, and in 2008, he cracked his rib when he fell over a row of seats and slammed into a metal armrest. As Hample studies the bullpen session, he notices a ball without its leather covering in the bullpen roof’s gutter. Immediately, Hample takes to twitter, asking his ballhawk brethren if this will count as an official ball. They say it’ll be good if Hample conducts an autopsy of the ball and confirms that it is indeed an official ball. Unfortunately, Hample can’t quite reach it with his outstretched arm, and his glove trick has been banned at Citi. As Hample eyes the bare ball longingly, Citi security orders Hample to stay clear. As this plays out, a man with a pronounced belly, relentlessly badgers Braves coach Eddie Perez. “Eddie, can you get a ball for my son?” asks the man. “What about us? C’mon Eddie!” It doesn’t appear as if Perez has any balls on him. When Perez doesn’t deliver a souvenir, the man becomes enraged. “I hope you get hit by a pitch!”

During the actual game, Hample is seated on the field level in left field, seated directly behind where the outfielder is positioned. He’s feeling optimistic. It’s warm, and the ball is carrying. Most importantly, Hample has an aisle seat, and there are lots of empty seats around him. During games, as well as BP, mobility is key. Hample needs to be able to have room to move, so if the ball comes in his general vicinity, he can get it. Hample sees himself somewhat as a tenth fielder. Of course, he won’t show up in the box score, but he just might turn up on a highlight reel. “I feel like I’m good enough to play Major League outfield right now,” says Hample. “Put me in a uniform. Put me in a game.” After first pitch, Hample locks in on the ball, prepared to make a read and get a jump. This afternoon, Hample will not get another Sports Center moment. Nothing comes remotely close to him.

At the bottom of the 7th, Hample exits Citi. There’s another game to catch cross town in the Bronx, and Ichiro Suzuki is one hit away from his 4,000th career hit. If a fan happens to snag that ball, it could be worth six figures. Indeed, there can be big money in ballhawking. Mark McGwire’s 70th home run in 1998 sold for over $3 million.  Though he has had offers, Hample has not hawked any of his balls. However, Hample says that he will auction off Ichiro’s ball if he’s fortunate enough to get it.

When Hample gets off the 4 train, it’s well before 5pm, but fans are already waiting to get in, most notably a very capable father and son ballhawking team. They’re very friendly, but they’re also competition. In general, the ballhawks share a sense of camaraderie. They compare how many balls they’ve gathered on mygameballs.com, and they gather at BallhawkFest, a three-year old ballhawk convention. Once in the stadium, however, ballhawks try to stay out of each other’s way. “I’d almost rather deal with 40,000 people and no regular ball hawks than 20,000 people and a dozen regular ball hawks,” says Hample. When a milestone ball is at stake, things can turn ugly. If the ball happens to bobble, fans have been known to scramble and pile up on one another. Hample has not been in a melee in about two decades.

Inside Yankee, BP is already underway, and Hample’s game is on. He runs to right field, where he finds immediate success. Yankee bullpen coach Mike Harkey, a habitual tosser upper who has tossed Hample about 10 balls this season, promptly throws Hample a ball, and he also gets a toss-up from Mariano Rivera. After a guy grumbles that Hample has a ball already, Hample gives the Harkey ball to a female fan. Earlier in the day, Hample had given away one of his Citi balls to a kid. For about the past six seasons, Hample has been spreading the wealth, handing out balls to kids.

Abruptly, the relative serenity of BP is interrupted by a loud Japanese voice. It’s Hample! He’s asking Yankee Hiroki Kuroda for a souvenir. Hample knows how to request a ball in 35 languages. This time, Hample strikes out. Next, Hample moves over to left field, where he displays his athleticism, catching a Vernon Wells homer.

During the actual game on the field, Hample takes a seat on the field level in right field. Once again, he’s fortunate to get an aisle seat. As the game gets underway, all eyes turn to Ichiro. In the first inning, the Yankee right fielder delivers his 4,000th, and the stadium rejoices – but not Hample. Ichiro nailed a single through the infield. “That sucks,” Hample mutters. “That really sucks!” There’s the game on the field, and then there’s Hample’s game. The former is secondary. Hample gets shut out the rest of the way, with nothing coming remotely close to him. In a different ball park, Hample would rotate sections between innings and position himself according to a specific player’s tendencies. Hample keeps an eye on hittrackeronline.com, which records where every Major League home run lands. At Citi and Yankee, however, Hample can’t move around freely because ultra-strict ushers aggressively check tickets.

During the early games of the season, there’ll be plenty of games that will be ignored. For Hample, however, all the games are meaningful. He’s chasing balls – and his fans are counting on him. Yes, Hample has fans.  Hample started out as a fan, but through sheer will and his ingenuity, he became a player. He ballhawks until the very end of the season. September is arguably his favorite month of the season because of the expanded rosters, when many rookies make their debuts. Since most of the rookies will be going for their first ever Major League homers, the probability of getting a milestone ball is much greater. Hample has caught the first homers of three players, including the two-time all-star Mike Trout. For returning the milestone ball to each player, Hample made one request: to personally present the ball. (In each case, Hample’s request was granted.)

Angels in the Outfield: Zack Hemple returns Mike Trout's first home run ball. (zackhample.com)

Angels in the Outfield: Zack Hemple returns Mike Trout’s first home run ball. (zackhample.com)

In September 2005, Hample was also able to strike up a friendship. Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Heath Bell, then a late-season Mets call up, was warming up and Hample, as usual, was trolling for balls. Before a game, Bell needed a partner to warm up with, and he asked Hample to throw. They learned that they’re kindred spirits, and have been friends ever since. “The guy has a passion, and he went after it,” says Bell, a three-time all-star. “It’s kind of like myself. I have a passion to play Major League Baseball and I went after that, and he has a passion to go after balls. One of these days, I’ll be able to see every single ball he has, but I know some of them are locked up in storage because he doesn’t have a big enough house.” Indeed, Hample lives in a one-bedroom, but he does the most with limited space. He has covered his living room walls with magazine pictures.

Outside the ballpark, Hample puts in hours at Argosy, and spends time with his girlfriend. He also plays competitive Scrabble and thrives at video games, for which he holds several records. (He currently holds the world record for the game Arkanoid). He also comes up with unique stunts. For instance, last season, Hample caught a ball dropped from a helicopter at 1,050 feet. And once in a while, Hample ponders not spending as much time at the ballpark. “Every spring, I tell myself that I’m not gonna get sucked into the vortex. I’m only gonna go to one game this week, and I’m not gonna write the blog. It takes too much time,” says Hample. “And then I don’t know what happens. I go to a game or two, and it’s just so empty in April, and I have all this room to run around, and I just want to go again and again.”