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Awiry man in an Orioles cap stands outside the gates to Camden Yards in Baltimore, wearing a blue T-shirt with a single word in white letters—nerd. He carries with him the tools he will need over the next several hours, including a shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Angels, the visiting team on this muggy August evening; a worn Mizuno glove attached to a long string; and a piece of paper with the sentence "Please throw me a ball" written in 35 languages. Not that he needs the cheat sheet. Say it in French, I ask him. "Lancez-moi la boule, s'il vous plaît," he replies immediately. Portugese? "Por favor, me joga uma bola." If there is ever a major leaguer whose native tongue is Swedish or Swahili, Zack Hample will be able to hit him up for a baseball, no problem.
It is more than two hours before the game and the public is not yet allowed to enter, but Hample, a 32-year-old New Yorker, and a dozen other ballhawks, as they call themselves, are ready to dash inside for batting practice the moment the gates swing open. Some of them carry packs to hold all the balls they intend to accumulate before the night is out. To ballhawks, any baseball that has in any way been used by a big league team is a Holy Grail unto itself. It doesn't matter whether they catch it, chase it down or scoop it off the field, or even if they beg a player, a coach or an umpire to toss it to them—every ball is a victory.
Each one is also evidence of a certain—how to put this?—"fixation, passion, obsession," says John Witt, 40, who has been ball hawking for three decades. "Call it whatever you want. You won't hurt my feelings." O.K., then. Most ballhawks are a little nutty. Fascinatingly so. But still, a little nutty. Witt, for example, has collected 3,885 big league balls, including Sammy Sosa's 61st homer in 1998 (which he sold for $7,500), and seems capable of reciting the circumstances of each acquisition. Hample, who has gathered 4,569 balls, has an encyclopedic knowledge of big league stadiums and their ball-hawking quirks. He has been to every park and, like Witt (who lives in Anaheim), attends 50 to 60 games each year. "Camden Yards is the best," Hample says. "Easy accessibility between sections, friendly stadium staff that lets you move around and areas to stand beyond the outfield fences. Prime ball-snagging territory."
Like any serious ballhawk (and there are hundreds around the country), Hample and Witt document their activities religiously, tracking their stats more closely than you monitor your checking account. Ballhawks differentiate between foul balls, home run balls, batting-practice balls, balls tossed to them and balls retrieved with a device, like a fishing net or Hample's famed glove, which is circled by a rubber band to create the perfect opening and lowered by string to pluck balls left unattended during batting practice. Check the Ballhawk League standings—that's right, there's a Ballhawk League (countingbaseballs.mlblogs.com)—and you will find entrants ranked by their weekly and seasonal balls-per-game averages. (Hample was in first place in the most recent posting.)
It's all part of the explosion of ball hawking in the Internet age: In the nine years since SI discovered Hample (The Life of Reilly, April 9, 2001) the pursuit has grown from a relatively tiny group of chasers into a nationwide community of the obsessed. Ballhawks blog about their experiences. They post their results and the games they plan to attend on myGameBalls.com. They debate issues within the ball-hawking community. (The value of the batted ball retrieved in the stands versus the ball handed out by a player. Discuss.)
They often run into those who believe that ballhawks are taking the romance out of the chase, that fans are supposed to go to games hoping they'll be lucky enough to snag a foul ball, not race around the stadium from batter to batter trying to maximize their chances of grabbing at least 10 a game, which is Hample's goal. But it's hard to criticize them when you learn that Witt solicited pledges for every ball he retrieves, with the money going to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or that Hample does the same for a charity that distributes baseball equipment for needy kids. At the Orioles game, Hample asked one little boy if he had caught a ball yet. The kid shook his head, and Hample reached into his backpack and tossed him one from his haul. "Now you have," he said.
On this night Hample has a film crew following him for a documentary on collectors, as well as a client, 23-year-old Justin Hennis, who has paid $500 for the opportunity to go ball hawking with the master. When Los Angeles takes batting practice, Hample changes from his Orioles gear into the Angels shirt, and it pays off as L.A. coach Orlando Mercado tosses him a ball. He uses the glove trick to scarf one off the warning track during BP. He advises Hennis on how to catch a player's attention during warmups, and sure enough, Angels pitcher Jered Weaver tosses a ball Hennis's way.
Hample finishes with nine balls and Hennis two, but Hample considers it just a so-so haul. Witt knows the feeling. "You always think about the ones you didn't quite get," he said while ball hawking at Dodger Stadium recently. "But in the end it's all about the thrill of the. . . ." Just then a batting-practice homer came flying toward the stands, a few sections away. Witt was gone, the end of the sentence unspoken but crystal clear.
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