My Freshman Year at “Ballhawk U.”

Copyright FoulBallz
Copyright FoulBallz

I’ve followed the most famous ballhawk, Zack Hample, for a couple of years. Not obsessively; just as a mild curiosity. Every couple months I’d fiddle around to see what he was up to. No stalking type stuff. I’d found his work interesting, but not so profound as to drive me to try what he does or to research any more deeply than simple Google searches.

My mild curiosity regarding the work of ballhawks changed dramatically when I started FoulBallz.com this season. As a fan of the game in general and a lover (and hater) of fan antics, I started learning more about what ballhawks do and what they are all about. Essentially, this season was my first year at “BallHawk U”. I gotta admit it’s a pretty cool place, even if I can’t get to baseball games as often as I’d like and give it a shot myself. Currently, I’m doing nothing more than auditing “classes” (I try to keep up with ballhawks on Twitter and through various blogs they write); I don’t know if I qualify even as a freshman come to think of it.

For those of you uneducated in the ways of baseball ballhawks allow me to give you a class from an auditor’s/Freshman’s perspective on this hobby (or sport, depending on with whom you talk)…I hope you will be enlightened and that I pique your interest as well. I hope too that any of my Twitter followers who are ballhawks themselves will help fill in any blanks, expound upon anything I say and add additional knowledge and understanding about their very cool hobby (and correct me if I am completely off base on anything).

First and foremost: They are “ballhawks”, not “ballhawkers” or anything like that. Simply: Ballhawks. If it weren’t for @MyGameBalls clarifying that for me immediately after I tweeted something, I might not be here today to tell this story. @FoulBallzMLB may owe MGB its Twitter life!

Second: Ballhawks SNAG balls. They do this in a variety of very creative ways. Zack Hample showed me a trick (he posted it in an email conversation I had with him) in which he used string attached to a glove with a rubber band around it to snag a ball in the bullpen.

Third: Ballhawks have a code of ethics. Those guys and gals you see pushing kids out of the way to get a ball? Yeah. TOTALLY not a true ballhawk (see #5 below). Those people are just random oblivious jerks or jerkettes who think it would be cool to get a ball. Ballhawks might jostle others but never kids (at least intentionally). Hample has pointed out that kids are, essentially, off limits. You can’t compete with a kid. Many of the ballhawks I’ve slowly gotten to know over this inaugural season of FoulBallz have shown me that many actually give away some of their snagged balls (especially to their own kids) after snapping a confirmation picture (see more about this in #5).

Fourth: Ballhawks compete with one another. Picture “The Big Year” but for people collecting baseballs instead of bird watching. The premiere site for ballhawks is myGameBalls.com (with which FoulBallz has a limited, non-monetary partnership). Here the ballhawks track—using the honor system—all of their snags, post blogs about their experiences and police one another for honesty. The site gives each member (and visitor to the site) a visual representation of the numbers each members reports.

Fifth: True ballhawks do it for the love of the sport and respect the game, fans and the essence of baseball as evidenced in several stories, this being my favorite. It’s about giving back to the sport in some way. It’s not what so many people seem to think.

Sixth: All parks are NOT created equally. There are some fields  that are just not conducive to effective snagging.

Copyright FoulBallz
Copyright FoulBallz

Comerica, for example, is one of those. The best spot is along the third base line near the bullpen, but even that isn’t all that great because it’s where everyone congregates. Thus, there’s an actual mathematical science to being a ballhawk; it’s not just dumb luck as many critics of grown men with gloves seem to think. To be successful, a ballhawk must learn the layout before charging in and trying to get a ball. As in brick-and-mortar stores, it’s all about location, location, location. Besides the layout, I learned that timing is almost everything. Some parks open 2 hours before the game, while others open closer to game time. These differences alter how a ballhawk works.

Finally: There are various forms and, dare I say, levels of ballhawks. Some stand outside the park and wait for fouls and/or homeruns to be whacked over the fence. This group, for example, may be going extinct because of Wrigley Field modifications. Others are primarily MiLB ballhawks. They go to few MLB games to try to snag a ball. Some are park or region specific. Others try to or do get to all 30 stadiums each season. Some start in Spring Training.

What I have gleaned from seeing the numbers honesty numbs me in some ways. I was unaware (shame on me!) that different balls are used for batting practice. For example, All Star Game balls can be snagged during batting practice at any number of parks during regular season games. Other balls include commemorative balls—cancer, retirements, etc. These balls are the “swag” for ballhawks; more so, it seems, than even a home run ball from Big Papi during the playoffs.

Some of the collections these super fans have are amazing and, frankly, I, think the effort should be commended. But I get too why some parks are annoyed by these folks. One or two rotten apples in the vicinity, and who are more than likely NOT true ballhawks, can often dampen the mood. One accidental jostle or overzealous response and seasons of kindness and respect and of giving balls to kids instead of keeping them immediately evaporates. It takes only one person to goof up to ruin the experience for everyone else.

What I take umbrage at with respect to the teams overreacting by disrespecting and/or escorting out various true ballhawks is that baseball is supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be about the fans. As long as they aren’t hurting anyone, I (for one) see no issues with letting men and women, boys and girls try to snag multiple balls at a game and build an impressive collection of baseballs.

To the haters: Please remember that baseball is the only sport fans get to keep any and all balls they can get ahold of, so why the hate? We are the luckiest and most blessed fans in all of sports. Our teams, our players GIVE US free souvenir balls, bats, jerseys, batting gloves and signatures while at games! Consider yourself lucky and blessed to be a part of this sport.

I understand why there’s a misconception about ballhawks; some people do nudge and jostle kids and even steal from them, but true ballhawks never do any of that. At the risk of having fire and brimstone hailed down upon me, perhaps what is needed are ID tags that indicate that a person is an official ballhawk so players and security and others know who is in it for the game and who’s just being a jerk?

Regardless, try it out sometime. I will. The thought of snagging a 1968 World Series baseball at batting practice is overwhelmingly exciting (though unrealistic; I doubt they use 45-year-old balls in CoPa batting practice), but getting a ball from the 2013 ASG, especially if thrown by Max Scherzer, would be a dream come true too.

However, if you decide to try this out, learn some of the rules, check out the leaderboard, and be respectful. The ballhawks I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on Twitter all have respect for the game and each other, but especially kids. Do the same.