The baseball playoffs are well underway, on a quest to find the last team standing in 2011. Are you glued to your set? Are you still wearing the same clothes you were wearing when your team entered the playoffs? Can you name the team’s best hitter against left-handers after the seventh inning when facing a deficit of two or more runs?
There are many people who are obsessed with baseball. Chances are you know one of them. But there are comparatively few who can honestly claim to be obsessed with the baseball. Zack Hample is one of those people.
He’s the author of “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches,” a truly fascinating look at the game’s most important element, the one constant since the very origins of a field game from the mid-19th Century. Players have come and gone, but the baseball has seen it all.
Though writing is his vocation, Zack could just as easily be called a “professional fan.” For he is a ballhawk, someone who spends his time at the ballpark collecting as many baseballs as possible.
The New York native took time out of his 12-city, 13-ballpark tour to talk to me about what makes this little round piece of cowhide so special. “The baseball is the object that’s at the center of the national pastime,” he began. “The game can’t be played without the ball.” He calls it a “cultural artifact.”
I think about that for a moment. Baseball consists of bases and balls. The ball is called a “baseball.” The game is called “baseball.” Without the baseball, there would be no baseball. The sport might then have to be called “basebat” or “cleatcup” or something else related to the props on hand, no doubt diminishing its allure.
From reading the thoroughly-researched tome, you’ll find that the controversy of the juiced ball is not a modern construct, but has survived longer than any accomplishment housed in the record books.
In fact, it’s been criticized for being juiced longer than the leagues have been in place. In 1867, when the ball could flop around, the Nationals of Washington were accused of “juicing” the balls by the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
The term “tear the cover off the ball” used to be taken literally (due to the flimsy construction of it) and not simply as a hyperbolic statement describing a steroid-enraged (allegedly) Roger Clemens arguing a balls and strikes call.
Another little known fact, prior to reading Zack’s book – the baseball used to be the prize. Winning teams were allowed to keep the ball as they were expensive and hard to come by. “Hey, you won! Here’s the ball.” (That’s nothing like today’s World Series trophy.)
Over the years, Zack has amassed a collection of official major league baseballs well into the thousands. “It makes me very happy just to own so many baseballs.” At press time, he claims it to be 5792 – “That kid’s got balls,” one might say – but that could change as games continue within travel distance.
This (Pittsburgh) pirate’s booty resides in several locations. “They are mostly at my mom’s place,” he tells me, “in my old childhood bedroom, and she wants them the hell out.” There are eight 32-gallon recycling bins that hold about 400 balls each. Then he’s packed balls snuggly into five filing drawers. He knows that each holds precisely 144 balls; no more, no less. “It’s almost as if they built them for baseballs.”
Who’s to say they didn’t? Finally, he estimates close to a thousand sitting in various duffel bags, and maybe a hundred more in some plastic shopping bags.
What is he saving them for? Someday, he hopes to have children. “I’d like to pass these along to them. It’d be fun to dump them all out and then jump in them, play around in thousands of baseballs.” He pauses for a moment, then proudly adds, “I like doing that now and I’m supposedly a grown-up.”
All this for a little piece of cowhide stitched together with some yarn. (Which one might think it’s as rudimentary as that.)
The stitching process itself is interesting, an exhaustive and precise undertaking. It recruits Canadian thread, Rhode Island yarn, a metal detector, a numerical code, a stamping machine, invisible ink, and the Costa Rican climate (though produced indoors with air conditioning so as not to affect the materials).
The stitching process is done by hand where warehouses filled with slouching people hunched over balls lining fourteen rows of 25 chairs each at the Rawlings Factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica (which is of no relation to catcher Yorvit Torrealba of the Rangers.)
Read the book and you’ll discover all you wanted to know and things you didn’t know you wanted to know. It’ll open your eyes to one part of the game you love that has been taken for granted all this time.
The book, Zack’s third, is broken into three parts – historical and factual stuff, baseballs in the news, and, of course, snagging the ball. The final section highlights some of the most successful ball hawks in the stands. “Even though major league baseball is huge and spread out all over the continent, it’s still kind of a tight-knit community of guys who do this, at least to this level,” Zack explains, as one who is unique, but not nearly alone.
Pick up “The Baseball” and become a ballhawk yourself. It’s something I’ve been sorely in need of. I’m perpetually haunted by memories of near-misses, my thumbs and forefingers still scarred from baseballs glancing off them time and again.
As I tell of my most recent failed attempt at snagging a ball, I am hoping he absolves me of my feelings of shame. “Most people are just passive about catching balls,” he says. “I think most people would love to catch a ball. Very few people make it happen.”
I feel a little better at my success rate. After all, Zack’s the expert. He is a hawk and can spot other hawks at the ballpark easily. “I can tell pretty quickly who has a clue of what they’re doing, just by the way they’re standing, how he looks, what they’re wearing. . .”
He’s just very good at it. By the time he was in college, he’d snagged his first thousand.
Growing up as someone who wanted to play the game, this gives him the feeling he’s part of it, a way of connecting to the sport he loves. “It makes me feel like I’m part of the game.”
The hobby leaves him a bit misunderstood which he seeks to correct. “I think a lot of people assume I don’t appreciate the sport, that I’m just interested in catching balls and if I can’t do that, I don’t really care about the game, but that’s far from the truth.” He doesn’t participate in fantasy baseball, but still reads every box score.
A lot of the time, he’ll go to games alone because he’s not interested in the typical leisurely passive viewing habits of the average fan. There are not many companions that fit his criteria. “The few times that I tried to take people, they either bitched about moving around from seat to seat or they were competing with me for baseballs.”
Now, when he attends with friends, Zack explains, “I don’t ask them, ‘Is this okay with you?’ I just say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ But they’re my friends and they know how it goes, so they want to come and witness what I do, willing to switch their seats over the course of the game.”
He’s experienced the glory of catching a home run ball held seconds earlier by the pitcher and inspected by the ump. But he’s had his share of injuries as well. “I was on crutches this season for three weeks because I sprained an ankle at a game. I’ve cracked a rib in the past at a game, broke my nose slightly.” Ah, the dreaded BDL (ballhawk disabled list).
This last one is a sore subject. “It’s not that I can’t catch. If I’m camped underneath a homerun ball and some idiot comes flying out of nowhere and deflects a ball, sending it off course by an inch just over the tip of my glove into my face. . . I’ve learned my lesson.”
The pursuit has spawned a philanthropic effort as well as he is dedicated to a charity called “Pitch in for Baseball” that provides baseball and softball equipment for underprivileged kids all over the world. “I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball that I catch.” Since he started in 2009, he’s raised over $20,000. “It’s my way of giving back to the baseball world and not being a doofus in the process, running around and catching balls.”
And as the season goes into hibernation, while those obsessed with baseball will go through withdrawal symptoms, you can be sure Zack will experience a much different sensation as he will no doubt marvel at the spoils of this year’s hard work. (He collected 1110 balls during the regular season, continuing with nine at Philadelphia’s Citzens Bank Park, for Game One of the NLDS.)
Perhaps this is a good time to dump out a barrel and do some rolling.
[If you would like to donate to “Pitch in for Baseball,” please go to www.zackhample.com.]