7,222. That’s the number of baseballs Zack Hample has collected from Major League Baseball games.
He’s also a world record holder in Arkanoid, a world-class Scrabble player, the owner of a 259-pound rubber band ball, and has been on hand at hundreds of Major League Baseball games to witness some cool moments throughout history.
About four or five years back, I heard about Zack and his incredible ability to snag baseballs. Two or three years ago, I received his book Watching Baseball Smarter as a gift, and about a year ago, I bought his book The Baseball. A talented author and a baseball super-fan, Zack is one of the more intriguing figures in America’s greatest game.
At 9:30 this morning, I got a call from Zack, a couple weeks after requesting to do an interview with him. He and I spoke on the phone for a bit, and he had some interesting things to say. Take a read.
If you would please just start by describing for me who you are and what you do.
Well, the word that is used to describe me and other people that do what I do is “ballhawk.” I go to baseball games; I try to catch baseballs that fly in to the stands. That’s the quick version. I’m also a baseball writer, I’ve written a few books, I’ve raised money for charity, I take people to games, I’ve done probably way more interviews about this over the years than I deserve, but it’s just now a hobby that is several decades in the making and I’m still having fun with is after all this time.
How long did it take you to get to the point where you could get baseballs on a consistent basis?
It took me a few years, well actually – I should back up. It took me a lot of years. I went to my first baseball game when I was six and I didn’t catch my first ball until I was 12. So there were six years of nothing-ness. Then, it took me another two years before I could even attend games on a regular basis, and even then, at the age of 14, every few games I would get shutout, I’d often get one or two or three balls, a couple times I got five and thought I was king of the universe. And it wasn’t really until I turned about 16 years old that I began this streak that I’m still on where I get at least one ball at every game that I go to. Actually, if everything goes well, I’ll pass the 1000th game mark on this streak in a few months. I’m at right around 970 right now. But yeah, it took me a few years to where I could get a ball every time and even beyond that, I was still only averaging a few per game. Now I average – I don’t know – seven per game, or eight. And if I went to better stadiums and I didn’t try to catch homeruns and I actually tried to work the dugout and tried to get foul balls, I’m sure I could average nine or ten balls per game. But it’s been a long process and I’m still getting better at it and refining strategies and I don’t know if I’ll ever really reach that point where I’ve totally mastered it.
What’s something that other ballhawks do or other general fans do when trying to get baseballs that you don’t really like seeing or that you don’t do yourself.
Well, that’s a good question. I kind of feel like anything that you can do to get a ball is okay as long as it doesn’t involve using physical force against other people. I can’t stand it when I see one person push someone else – whether intentional or not – or elbow someone or box someone out in a massive way. Obviously you’re dealing with hundreds of baseballs that fly in to the crowd every day if you count batting practice – maybe not a hundred but possibly a hundred some games, between all the BP homeruns and all the thrown balls and foul balls during games – and thousands of people in the seats and everyone wants to get balls, so you’re going to have issues with people getting up in each other’s faces, and sometimes it does get a little bit physical accidentally. And a little bit of jostling is okay, I’m very careful usually not to do that, but that does happen. I just can’t stand it when people act like bullies. I also don’t like it when people shout at players, you know, “It’s my birthday, give me a ball!” And I always just say to the fan, like “let’s see some ID.” Because I know that 90% of those people are full of it. I don’t like it when fans yell at players, “You’re on my fantasy team, can I have a ball?!” It’s like come on – that’s probably the most boring thing that I can imagine saying to a player. But listen I can’t blame people – if you only go to one game a year and you see your guy and maybe it is your birthday or maybe your mom is dying of cancer in the hospital and that’s their excuse for wanting a ball then – listen, I do plenty of things to get baseballs that other people frown upon like switching the clothing that I wear, you know I dress up as the fans of the visiting teams during batting practice to get them to toss me baseballs, that pisses off a lot of people. And I can understand why but at the end of the day it’s not hurting anybody so, if fans are shouting out requests to players that I think are annoying, listen it’s not really my place to say anything, so it’s fine. Just keep it safe, be respectful, and it’s all good.
On your website you linked an article to Deadspin, and it made me laugh because they described you as a member of “that fraternity of obsessive dudes who hang around ballparks and trample babies.” (Laughs) Conan O’Brien also wasn’t too kind to you. What is your response to people in general who don’t like what you do?
Conan O’Brien was the king of all schmucks. I’ve hung up on radio hosts who were a lot less rude than he was. But when you’re on The Tonight Show, you don’t just get up off the couch and walk off the stage. There’s a lot of haters out there, and I don’t know – it used to fire me up more when I was younger, I used to feel the need to defend myself more, and I wanted to make everybody like me. I’m getting to this point where I’m blogging less this year, I’m doing less media stuff, less writing – I’m trying to take this hobby back to its roots, where I’m not getting so much attention and I’m just doing it for myself because I enjoy it. So, I don’t know, to the haters out there, normally in life I would just write it off and say, “Whatever, you can go on hating me.” But I guess since you’re asking me for an actual response I would say that I never knock down anybody, I give baseballs to kids regularly, I’ve raised almost $40,000 for children’s baseball charities as a direct result of my collection and using to get charity pledges from people in the last five years. So, it’s not a negative thing, it’s a positive thing, and I’ve made a lot of people happy in the process including myself. So, you know, again, it’s one of those things where it’s really hurting people? No. Obviously I’ve caught some baseballs that many other people would’ve liked to catch themselves but, you know, that’s just how it goes. Someone’s going to catch them. If one person catches more than someone else, I just say that’s real life. Some people would say it’s not fair, you’ve got to spread them around, but I just try to be a good dude in the process of doing all of this and not make too many enemies along the way.
You’ve acquired thousands of baseballs, but in the process you’ve had the opportunity to not only be at a lot of baseball games but a lot of special baseball games, for example the one where Derek Jeter got his 3000th hit, or maybe some postseason games. Ignoring the fact that you’ve added some baseballs to your collection, what does it mean to you that you’ve gotten to be at some pretty cool games and witness some pretty cool stuff over the years, and what is the coolest baseball moment that you witnessed live?
I love the fact that I’ve gotten to see so much amazing stuff in the process of chasing baseballs. It’s funny though, because I attended Dwight Gooden’s no-hitter in 1996 at Yankee Stadium, and I was actually upset at the end of the day because I only snagged one ball. So that’s kind of my attitude with this stuff is, its baseballs first, and watching second. I also attended Johan Santana’s no-hitter, that was pretty cool seeing the first one ever in Mets history. I was also at the Robin Ventura grand-slam single game in the 1999 playoffs at Shea Stadium, I’ve seen a couple of players hit for the cycle – Randy Wynn in Cincinnati and Jose Reyes at Shea Stadium. I’ve seen a bunch of three-homer games, unfortunately I saw Ryan Braun do it just the other day in Philadelphia, that was depressing. I saw David Cone strikeout 19 batters in one game in Philadelphia, that was the last game of the 1991 season. So, I don’t know – yeah, the Jeter 3000 game, I was there when Ichiro got 4000 total hits from Japan and America. Of course I’m always upset these games when it involves a batter reaching a milestone. I was there for [Ken] Griffey’s 600th and Manny [Ramirez’s] 500th. Because I want to be the one to catch those baseballs. I was sitting out in right field when Ichiro hit his 4000th and I wanted him to hit a homerun to me. But he hit a groundball single through the infield. Everyone else was cheering and I was upset. I realize that people listening to this might think that I’m spoiled and obnoxious for not appreciating baseball history – I do, I just come at it from a much different perspective. So, I don’t know – that’s kind of how I feel about this. I feel that – I don’t know if simply being somewhere is a reason to feel proud or to brag. I think anybody can go to a zillion games and never see a no-hitter, or you can go to your first game ever and see a perfect game. It’s just the luck of the draw. And obviously if you’re going to a World Series game you know that something special will probably happen because it’s the World Series. So, simply being somewhere and sitting in a seat is, to me, not the most special way to experience something.
In the book Watching Baseball Smarter, you shared a lot of information about baseball that a lot of people don’t really know, including myself, I learned a lot of interesting stuff reading it. How did you learn all of that stuff, how did you come to find out about all of that?
Well, thanks! I’m glad to hear that you picked up some stuff from the book. Basically, I’ve just had a life in and around baseball. Obviously I’m not a Major League Baseball player or coach or general manager or anything like that. But being obsessed with the game since I was little – and it probably started with watching baseball on TV and listening to everything the announcers said, and collecting about 100,000 baseball cards over the years from maybe the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s, and memorizing statistics and really understanding the game from a statistical point of view, and also just getting in to it from a writing perspective, going to a lot of games, I worked for a summer for a minor league team in Boise, ID and just gained a glimpse of professional baseball that way, I went to a tryout for the New York Mets when I was a player as a teenager at Shea Stadium, I’ve done a lot of cool stuff over the years with baseball. I toured the Rawlings Baseball Factory in Costa Rica – of course that happened after Watching Baseball Smarter came out – but there’s kind of been one thing after another and I just picked all of this stuff up. I was never learning it for the purpose of repeating it in book form, but it just sort of got to the point where I felt like I knew so much and I wanted to be able to give something back to the world. They were the ones that inspired the book. As I mentioned in the introduction of that book, whenever I used to go over to their place and we would watch games together, it would just be one question after another, after another. They would be like, “Would you explain again what slugging percentage is?” or “What’s the infield fly rule?” or “Why are umpires all so fat?” I mean it was just like anything. It was just this constant barrage of questions. On the one hand, I enjoyed [it] but on the other hand, it was like “Oh! Would you shut up already, I’m trying to watch the game and actually listen to what the announcers are saying so I can learn more, and enjoy all the anecdotes they’re sharing. So, I though there must be a lot of other people out there who are being driven crazy by their parents or just people who want to learn the game, maybe boyfriends can by this book for their girlfriends, or hell – maybe the other way around. Maybe there’s some extremely knowledgeable women out there whose boyfriend just doesn’t get it. I just thought there’s a big audience out there for this kind of stuff. I feel like people need to know these things. So I put it in to book form, and I didn’t even have a contract or an agent when I wrote the book and I spent four years on it, on and off. I didn’t know if it would get published, if it would do well. But the whole time I was writing it, I was kind of patting myself on the back like “man, this is a really good book.” How are people not going to like this? But it was a risk, spending all that time on it with no guarantee. It got rejected a lot at first, but eventually I got an offer for it, and went with it, and it’s done really well since then so it’s been quite a journey since that book.
Tell me about your charity work and how you’ve raised money for charity.
Starting in 2009, I had this idea that there must be some way for me to give back to the baseball world in the process of running around to all these stadiums and catching baseballs and having my fun. The idea that I had was sort of like how people will run a marathon and get their friends and family members to pledge like a dollar or five dollars for every mile they run. And I thought, what if I do that, but instead of running miles, I’m catching baseballs. And maybe I can get people to pledge money – even if it’s just like a penny per ball – for every baseball that I catch over the course of a major league season? It took some effort to find a charity that actually wanted to work with me. MLB – their RBI program, Reviving Baseball in Inner cities – for some reason they didn’t want to get involved. I called up and asked to speak to someone about charitable donations, and they were like “Well if you want to request a donation-” I was like “No no no no! I want to do something to raise money for you.” They didn’t get it. And I was like, “Alright, forget you,” and I found this charity called Pitch In For Baseball, which is based in Pennsylvania, and they loved the idea. I love them. Basically what they do is they collect new and gently used baseball and softball equipment and redistribute it to underprivileged kids all over the world. I was like, “Yeah, that’s a cause I can get behind.” And so I’ve been working with this charity and raising money to get people to pledge each season since 2009, and I’ve raised almost $40,000, and it feels great. I’m pretty much just doing my thing as I always was, but now it raises all this money in the process, so I can’t argue with that.
Reading your blog, I see that you’re pretty close with reliever Heath Bell. Tell me a little bit about how that all started and how that came about.
Heath Bell is the coolest dude ever. He’s like a gigantic man-child and I am too. And I fell like that’s why we bonded, and he’ll admit that himself, so no disrespect to Heath. He came up with the Mets in September of ’04 and he was just one of those quadruple-A players, he couldn’t quite stick with the big club, and he got called up again in ’05. And I was always at Shea Stadium hanging out at batting practice down the right field line, near where the Mets pitchers were warming up and I had been recognized over the years by various other players. Some of them were actually kind of rude about it, they recognized me as the guy who gets all the balls and some of them would prevent me from getting balls. But Heath Bell is the opposite. One day I get to ask him too many times for a baseball and he eventually came over and was like “dude, what do you do with all these baseballs, why do you have so many balls?” But he was cool about it. We got to talking, it just kind of went from there. I would spot him on the road and I would see him and he would wave, I would see him at Shea Stadium. We just got to know each other. We would chat for a minute or two here and there, he’d come and shake my hand during batting practice. Eventually he got traded, he went to San Diego from the Mets if I’m remembering correctly, it was sort of like a bigger deal when I would see him. Either I was in California or he would travel to New York. Before, I would see him all the time, but then only a couple of times per year. It’s weird but it was almost like it meant something because it established this kind of report. And he also knew about my books and, you know, other stuff that I was doing. So I wasn’t just any old random fan but I was just this guy that, you know, had actually done something kind of neat with baseball. I think he respected that. Eventually we traded contact info, he made a sizeable donation to my charity fundraiser in 2009, it got to the point where we went out and had lunch a couple of times last year when I saw him on the road; he took me to the MLB fan cave after a Mets game last year. I don’t know – he’s just amazing. He’s extremely friendly and kind. I noticed that he’s that way with a lot of other people, so I feel a little less special [jokingly]. But no he’s really great and he doesn’t know it yet but I’m planning to go down to Baltimore in a few days and surprise him. I could text him and be like “Hey Heath, I’ll see you in a couple days!” But no, I’ll surprise him. So, that’s the deal with Heath. He is my favorite player. It’s kind of funny that you tell people “Heath Bell is my favorite player” and they give you a weird look. But how can I not root for a guy who has been that awesome to me over the years?
You had the opportunity to see the Rawlings Baseball Factory in Costa Rica as you mentioned earlier. What about that visit was most intriguing or surprising to you?
Man, I felt so privileged to go there. It is NOT open to the public. You can NOT go there for any reason. Before I had gone there, I understand the last member of the media that had gone there was like seven years before me, and that was a member of the Boston Globe. So it’s just so secure, I basically had to coordinate my visit through Major League Baseball and two executives from Rawlings in Missouri flew down to Costa Rica to meet me, and they had to show their passports to a security guard, just to get in to the parking lot of the factory. It sounds ridiculous, it sounds like some crazy movie that you’d see, but that’s actually how it went. So just being there, I felt special. Once I was inside, I was blown away by how meticulous the entire manufacturing process is. Obviously you know it’s a big operation, they’re trying to make the balls in a very precise way, but to actually see the many different stages of the manufacturing process – you hear all these people talk about “Oh the ball is juiced,” this and that. Yes, obviously there are a lot of people touching these baseballs along the way, and I suppose there are opportunities for very slight variations, but actually being there and seeing how precise it is, it’s hard to imagine how the balls could be changed in any way. Just a quick example- there’s four layers of string and yarn inside each ball. After each one of those layers is wound by a machine, the balls are weighed on a digital scale, and there is such a small window for what each layer of the ball is supposed to weigh. If it weighs just like a fraction of an ounce too much, they’ll actually skip off an inch of the yarn and re-weigh it. And that’s four different times during the process of the balls being wound, and the cowhide itself is supposed to be within a hundredth of an inch for margin of error as to how thick it is. It’s just amazing how they do it. So seeing that whole process, I have so much more respect for the actual baseball itself, which is pretty neat because I’ve caught thousands of them. So it’s a meaningful object in my life, so to be there seeing them being made is like a once in a lifetime thing.