He has written three books, appeared on "The Tonight Show" twice and been interviewed in "Playboy." Oh yeah, and he has accumulated 4,972 major league baseballs in the past 21 years from 48 major league ballparks (as of May 25). Meet 33-year-old Zack Hample, ball hawker extraordinaire, who hopes to snag 1,000 balls this season.
ThePostGame: So, you've caught a lot of baseballs in your life ...
Zack Hample: As of today (May 25), I’ve snagged 4,972 balls. That’s 131 foul balls, 15 home runs, one ground rule double, and the rest are from batting practice or flips from players and coaches. I keep everything well-documented in a nerdy way, but not to the point of memorization. I still have to check my stats for this interview. And I don’t count certain things. A home run ball that bounces onto the field and is flipped to me doesn’t count as a home run. And a squibber in foul territory that I pick up off the field doesn’t count as a foul ball.
TPG: Are your totals stats world records?
Hample: My batting practice total, as far as I know, is a record. There are a few guys who have more total balls at professional games, including the minor leagues and the World Baseball Classic. There are also guys who don’t count balls tossed up by players as part of their total. I do. There’s a lot of friendly trash talk about who’s more legit, but we all have fun competing against each other.
TPG: Who is your No. 1 competitor?
Hample: The ultimate ballhawk is Moe Mullins in Chicago. He's the grandfather of ball hawks. He's gotten a couple hundred home runs balls and five grand slams on Waveland Avenue. Coming into this season, Moe had 5,441 balls including 1,500 to 2000 at spring training. But he also had 241 home runs during actual major league games, so he's the man. But I have more from major league stadiums.
TPG: How does a ball-hawking career such as yours get started?
Hample: It started when I was four before I even went to my first game. I saw Major League Baseball on TV and watched baseballs go flying into the crowd. Fans with foul balls and home runs reacted like it was the best thing that ever happened to them. I wanted to feel that. I went to my first game when I was six in 1984. I remember it was bat day at Yankee Stadium and my parents aimed to get there in the first inning. We ended up getting there in the third because of traffic and left in the eighth to avoid traffic. I was trapped in a sea of fans twice my height in the upper deck. I went home empty-handed. It took six years before I would finally get a ball.
TPG: How did you get that first ball?
Hample: At age 12, I discovered batting practice. Coming from a family lacking in sports knowledge, I had to learn pretty much everything about sports on my own. I begged my parents to take me hours earlier than usual to a game at Shea Stadium. They were like, "You want to leave when?" But they took me early and I got two balls from pitchers on the Mets. Unfortunately, I don’t know from who. But I got the balls and my father described my excitement as that of “a baby shark tasting blood for the first time.” Naturally, I have an obsessive personality. I tend to take things to extremes. When I’m into something, I want to be the best in the world at it. This is sometimes good, sometimes bad. Ball-hawking has shown me both sides.
TPG: How did the ball-hawking seed grow?
Hample: Well, when I was 14 in 1992, I got permission from my parents to ride the subway by myself to games. They allowed me to go on weeknights as long as I did my homework and went to school in the morning. It was harder to convince them about this than it was to go to batting practice early. Luckily, I’d been taking the subway to school everyday, which helped my argument. That season, I went to over 80 games. I didn’t know what I was doing, though, and had to figure it out on the fly. As long as you do anything enough and do it passionately, you develop tricks. That’s how I was with ball-hawking.
TPG: How did college affect this high school passion?
Hample: My initial goal was to catch one ball. That took six years. Then in '92, I started getting one or two a game. I wanted to get to 100. People laughed at me for that ... and other reasons. I got to 128 that year and made my new lifetime goal to reach 1,000. I reached 1,000 in 1996 before college. Everyone thought that’d be it. In college, I didn’t go to many games, but I still told everyone about my stats. I went to Guilford College in North Carolina, which was hundreds of miles away from the closest major league stadium in Atlanta. This was intentional. I wanted to be a college kid. I was like, "Oh my God, there are girls here. Who needs baseball?"
TPG: What about your book, "How to Snag Major League Baseballs," that you wrote in college?
Hample: I played baseball my freshman year for Guilford, but then gave it up. I really thought I would get away from baseball. Then, after my freshman year, my job at an environmental group fell through. When my parents came to pick me up, we had a big discussion on the ride home. "You don't have a job, so what are you gonna do all summer?" they asked. My dad was a writer, so he planted the seed for how to write a book about snagging major league baseballs. During that car ride, my mom pulled out a pad and a pen and my dad and I started brainstorming. He helped me shape it and showed me how to structure it. I had chapters and subcategories. By the time the 10-hour car ride was done, I had a basic outline for the book. The book ended up selling to Simon & Schuster and they gave me a contract. The book rejuvenated my passion for snagging baseballs. It got me a lot of media attention that was both awesome and terrifying. It's funny how when I didn’t have a book, I was a loser, and then I wrote a book and I was "the man." People's perspectives changed, but I was the same guy throughout.
TPG: Do you plan on continuing ball-hawking throughout your adult life?
Hample: I didn't plan on making this my adult life and I won't be able to maintain this pace. I can get away with it for this season because my third book, "The Baseball," just came out and I have some money saved away. This year, I’ll go to as many games as possible. I’m already feeling pretty wiped out, though. (Chuckles). This is it, unless it becomes a big thing. I want to go to 100-120 games this season and get 1,000 balls. That'd be pretty cool.
TPG: You are known for snagging 32 balls in one game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City? Would you consider that to be your best game ever?
Hample: Strictly from a numbers standpoint, that was my best game. But I feel my best was probably the last game ever played at Shea Stadium. I caught the Mets last home run ever hit there, which was hit by Carlos Beltran. I'd take that historic home run any day over 1,000 batting practice balls. I also caught two home runs in Baltimore once and a Barry Bonds home run. I just enjoy being part of baseball history.
TPG: You've mentioned the Mets twice now. Did you grow up a Mets fan?
Hample: Yeah, I was die hard as a kid, but as I grew up, I found myself rooting for players on other teams. One of these players was Greg Maddux. I just loved the way he pitched. He was practically my size and weight and looked like a music teacher, not a professional athlete. I loved him even though he was on the hated Braves. I had a tough time rooting against him. From an even more selfish standpoint, I'm not disappointed with the Mets' recent struggles. With more losses comes less people and less strict security. With less people, I have a better time getting balls. I’ve stopped rooting for the Mets and don’t have a favorite team. I'm just a fan of the sport.
TPG: What is your favorite ballpark to catch balls?
Hample: Camden Yards is probably my favorite. I like Rangers Ballpark in Arlington too. The Batter's Eye, the grassy area behind centerfield at Rangers Ballpark, is my favorite spot. When balls go there, fans can jump over the railing and get the balls. I haven’t gotten one yet , but some day I will. I wish I could go there everyday. The most successful spot for catching foul balls is the second deck, ten rows back, at Miller Park behind home plate. I like to shade a little towards first or third base, depending on the hitter. There’s a wide cross-aisle at the 200 Level with so much room to run. You’re not really allowed to stand there, but if you casually walk through there, it’s the place to be.
TPG: Would you rather catch a home run at Miller Park or go down the slide?
Hample: Can I catch one and then ride down the slide? There’s lot of little kid in me, so the slide is tempting, but I'd probably pick the home run.
TPG: Is there a hitter or pitcher you know best?
Hample: I always look at the hitter, pitcher and situation to decide where I think the ball will be hit. I don't know that this guy will always hit it to this place. When a pitcher's throwing 97 mph and a lefty's up, I know the ball will probably go higher and to a certain part of the third base side, so I go there. I don’t stand in straightaway centerfield when Ichiro is up because he'll never hit the ball there. When security is quiet enough, you can go all over for any hitter. I refine my position according to weather, wind, and temperature. If it's warm and the first 16 rows in the bleachers are packed, I can still go back further for a guy like Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds, Albert Pujols or A-Rod. I also sometimes feel like I'm thinking along with the manager. Is he going to put the hit and run on, so the batter will try to poke it into right field? Then I have to make a quick move to a certain section.
TPG: Is there a hitter that you’ve gotten the most foul or home run balls from?
Hample: I don't keep track of the names of every player that hits a foul ball. However, starting after my 2,000th ball, I've kept track of how I've gotten the balls, not just how many. I also look at the attendance, which affects numbers. Other people don't apply handicaps. Last week was the second time I caught three foul balls at Camden Yards. People ask how you do that. It's not that hard. There's space to maneuver. At other parks, that's hard. I know all 15 home runs, though. I should have had a second Michael Saunders home run last week in Baltimore, but I was out of position and blocked by an employee. I was rather upset.
TPG: Who are the friendliest players when it comes to flipping balls into the crowd?
Hample: Manny Acta, the manager, has tossed me the most balls. Next up would probably be Livan Hernandez. He's really generous and has flipped me a bunch of balls, including No. 4,000. There are also guys like Heath Bell who recognize me and try to increase my collection.
TPG: So, your celebrity status works to your advantage ...
Hample: Not exactly. I usually try to avoid being recognized by players. A lot of players have watched me catch a lot of balls, so they won't give me any. There are people like Rick Reed, a former pitcher of the Mets, who used to stand on the left field line during batting practice to scoop up grounders before I got them. I felt like his mission during batting practice was to keep me from getting baseballs.
TPG: You gained a lot of publicity three years ago for making home run catches on two consecutive nights at Yankee Stadium. What happened then?
Hample: I sat in the right field bleachers both nights. I know catching home runs on two consecutive nights seems unheard of, but at the old Yankee Stadium it was actually kind of easy. The old stadium had a cross-aisle in front of the bleachers which gave me a lot of room to maneuver. I just needed the ball to be hit at the right distance and I was right there. I almost caught a third consecutive the next night. The Johnny Damon one was harder than the Jason Giambi one because I had to reach out over the railing. Athleticism was required. Remember, catching is almost impossible without a cross-aisle. If you catch one in the middle of a section, that's a once in a blue moon type thing.
TPG: What about that dance after those Yankee catches?
Hample: Oh, that dance. That was the Cabbage Patch Dance. Why? I just figured I'm sitting in the bleachers in a very visible spot in my hometown with many of my friends, family and blog readers watching on television and at the park. I caught the ball that first night and did a stupid celebratory dance. Maybe the cameras will see me and people will be like, "Dude, I saw that dance. That was pretty funny." Michael Kay made a comment about it on the YES Network. Then I caught a ball in the same spot and didn’t have a routine planned, so I did the same dance and hoped I'd be recognized. I became an international story. Friends in Europe saw me on CNN. I was on "The Tonight Show," "The CBS Evening News" and a Japanese TV station. I caught a couple baseballs and did a silly dance. When I look at it as an outsider, it seems pretty amazing. But being there, it didn't seem that hard. I had a lot of room to run. As a freelance writer trying to sell my book, I was glad to get the press coverage. I was written up in "Sports Illustrated," "Playboy" and "People." I just try to have fun with it all. When I started in the early 90's, there was no Internet for the public except for some government agencies. I didn't have any knowledge of other ball hawks and there was no such thing as blogging. Even if this all didn't show up, I'd still be doing this. It's me against the ball, trying to predict where it's gonna go.
TPG: You mentioned "The Tonight Show." You were on the program with Jay Leno and then again with Conan O’Brien. Leno or Conan?
Hample: Leno, by far.
TPG: You recently caught three balls at Camden Yards and the Orioles announcing team joked that they were likely the only three foul balls you'd ever caught in your life. How did you react?
Hample: I used to get offended by people who didn't know me, but I don't really care now and only try to look at the positives. I was talking with my friend after that game and he asked me how much more I have to do before everyone recognizes me. That's the fourth time I've caught three foul balls in one game, but every time, I feel like no one's heard of me before. I've made a lot of better catches than the two at Yankee Stadium and the three at Camden Yards, but that's when the cameras got me. I'm still not even doing this to be recognized or acknowledged -- just for fun.
TPG: What stadium has the strictest ushers and security?
Hample: Yankee Stadium's the toughest, followed by Dodgers Stadium and Citi Field. All three have many factors that you have to consider. At Citi and Yankee, my two home parks, there are ushers and "hospitality attendants" at every aisle. They check tickets from the moment batting practice ends to the moment the game ends. It doesn’t matter if it's the 11th inning. They still check. Most stadiums check tickets in the early innings and then let you go. Part of the fun of going to a game is moving around a little bit. Some people tell me I'm horrible for moving down sections, but why not? No one follows the speed limit, people walk the street when it says, "Don’t Walk" and at baseball games, people move down seats.
TPG: Do you wear any particular clothes to increase your chances of being tossed a ball?
Hample: I usually wear whatever I want to start because if you dress neutrally, the home team assumes you're rooting for them. I bring a shirt for the visiting team too, though, to increase my chances of getting one of their batting practice balls when they're tossing them out.
TPG: How do you get the balls stuck between the outfield fence and the bleachers?
Hample: For balls like that and balls stuck in bullpens or the warning track I have a glove trick. If you search "glove trick" on Google, the first link is to a blog entry on how mine works. I use my baseball glove, a rubber band, a magic marker, and a long piece of string tied to it all. This is hard to explain in words. But anyway, when a ball is not moving below me, waiting to be rescued, I can lower my contraption down and get the dead ball. During batting practice at Tigers Stadium in the late 90's, I lowered my contraption all the way from the upper deck to the warning track. They had the famous short porch back then. Security isn’t always happy about fans using ball-retrieving devices. I’ve been threatened arrest for "trespassing" onto the field. Some places, though, like San Francisco, let you bring whatever you want to the stadium. I once saw a guy with a light bulb-changer. I think if something's okay in San Francisco, it shouldn’t be forbidden in New York. It's just that every team is independently owned and has its own rules.
TPG: Have you ever sustained any ball-hawking-related injuries?
Hample: I cracked a rib in Anaheim in 2008. It was so stupid and entirely my fault. There was a home run during batting practice in right field that kicked off a seat a few rows in front of me. I was in the middle of the section and leaned out over the seats in front me. Just as I touched the ball, I lost my balance and plunged into the next row, while a metal armrest hit me in the ribs. I was whining like a baby and my friends made fun of me for not being able to laugh all game. Sure enough, X-rays later showed that a rib was cracked. That same year, I was at a Rays and Blue Jays regular-season game played at the Braves Disney Spring Training complex. There was a wide place to run just behind the left field wall. In batting practice, an easy home run ball was coming to me when some dude stuck his hand up and the ball hit me square in the nose. My nose bled and I had a black eye. The ushers urged me to go to the First Aid Station, but I wasn't going to leave with batting practice in progress. That’s just the price you pay for doing what I do. I caught a few balls in batting practice after the injury.
TPG: What are your thoughts on the saying, "Throw it back?"
Hample: I will never throw a home run ball back onto the field. Actually, that's not true. If someone else catches it, I'll throw it back. But I'll never throw my own back. I would love to reach the infield on a fly. I could probably throw a ball 200 feet, so if I stood behind the 364-foot sign, I could come close. If I could make eye contact with the shortstop and chuck it to him, that'd be awesome.
TPG: A la "Rookie of the Year?"
Hample: Right, but I can't throw that hard. I still have it, though. I love the opportunity to be athletic in a sort of normal, everyday atmosphere. I turn the world into my own playground. When I see a "Don’t Walk" sign down the block start flashing, I may just sprint down the block to meet the challenge. I love to be at the ballpark, running to catch fly balls. You have to deal with steps and fans and guards. It beats a gym membership.
TPG: Is there a dream catch you hope to make in the future?
Hample: A-Rod's 800th home run. Actually, there are three A-Rod home runs. One: His 763rd when he passes Bonds. Two: His 800th. And three: His final one. I still think Bonds' 756th is a bigger deal. Hank Aaron's record stood for so long. It was the number of my youth. People aren't as fond of Bonds or A-Rod. Actually, you know what, forget about all that. You know what would be even better? How about catching my future son's first home run? How about that! He may leave me tickets in the first row, but no. I'm going to the outfield. I'm calling it right now. I’m going to raise a major league son and catch his first home run ball. This is the first time I've ever said this.
TPG: When was the last game that you didn’t get at least one ball?
Hample: September 2, 1993.
TPG: What happened?
Hample: Well, it was at Yankee Stadium. I believe it was a sunny day and there was no batting practice. It was a dreaded day game after a night game. All those superstar players had to sleep late. The weather was nice and there was a huge crowd. Nothing really happened on the field and not many foul balls were hit. I try to choose my games wisely now, but I still go to some crowded ones. I’ve been to Yankees-Red Sox games, the Subway Series, World Series games, Home Run Derbys, and All-Star Games. The Home Run Derbys and All-Star Games are in real MLB stadiums with real MLB players, so they count. I don't just go to empty stadiums with crappy teams. Although I prefer them, I won't avoid more crowded games. That is, unless it's like Derek Jeter Bobblehead Day and Yankee Stadium is too packed. I don’t want one ball per game. I want 20. When I don’t snag 10 balls, something must have gone wrong that was out of my control. Maybe the park didn’t open early enough-most open 90 minutes before game time. If I don’t have much batting practice to work with, that’s a problem. If the stadium is designed in a way that was idiotic and has railings all over the place, that’s a problem. The benchmark of success is double digits. And I at least have to make sure I keep my streak going since that September 1993 game.
TPG: What streak?
Hample: 697 consecutive games with at least one ball. Only 2,000 to go before I pass Cal Ripken.
TPG: So minor league and spring training games don’t count for your stats?
TPG: What about a foreign league ball?
Hample: What do you mean?
TPG: What if you went to Japan and caught a ball in the Japanese League?
Hample: It wouldn't count, but I'd still write a monster blog entry about it. That'd be awesome. I only count balls when the stats count for the real MLB players, though. That's why the games in Disney and a Mets-Marlins series in Puerto Rico have counted.
TPG: What's your policy about giving balls away? What do you do if a little kid asks for a ball?
Hample: I didn't used to give balls away. I used to feel like if I didn't take a ball home, I couldn't count it. As I grew up, I had a change of heart. Now, I give some away. As long as I catch it, I count it. I don't need to take it home. Giving balls away takes the pressure off me. I feel like it's nice to be able to give back to people. I used to always be worried about my stats, but that's not my consideration anymore. It's more about fun now.
TPG: For every ball you collect, money is given to charity. How does that work?
Hample: Since 2009, I’ve been asking people to pledge a little money for each ball that I catch. The charity is called Pitch In For Baseball and provides baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged kids all over the world. People give anywhere from a penny to a dollar, and they can give even more. I do count batting practice and usually collect an average of nine balls per game. It a sponsor pledges a nickel per ball this year, they’ll probably end up paying $30-$40 at the end of the year. I'm taking pledges now at my site. I don’t get anything out of this except it feels good to do something nice.
TPG: How does it feel to have your own Wikipedia page?
Hample: That's a good question. My Wikipedia journey has been interesting. I always wanted to have a page, but I never wanted to create one for myself. I knew that I could make one, but I didn't want to be cheap like that. Then someone made one and there were some wrong facts, but I didn't care and hoped the public could fix it. Then a few weeks later, it was gone. I was able to dig up the history of the page and find the reason for its deletion. "Insignificant person," someone commented. That was crushing to my ego. I thought that was the end of it. Then when my second book came out, someone put up the page again and people started to edit it. I haven't checked it out for awhile, but it's pretty cool. There used to be a Wikipedia page for certain types of pitches that listed my book as a reference. That was really cool. It made me feel like, "Oh yeah, baby, I'm alive. I'm on Wikipedia. My life is complete."
TPG: Where to next?
Hample: Weather permitting, I'm going to Philadelphia for the end of the week and then back home for the Subway Series, although I don’t want to deal with the Bronx Zoo. Then I'm heading to Toronto for a series, and I'll be at Coors Field and Safeco Field in June. I'm trying to set up a monster road trip for mid-August to September when I'll go to 18 stadiums. I need to get to the first 12 before then. Depending on whether or not a friend of mine is in for the road trip, I’m trying to make it to all 30 stadiums. This isn’t something I would do alone, so I need him. I also want people to know that this is not my entire life. Before this season, I would go to 30-70 games per year, one or two or three per week. People think I'm Mr. Baseball, but for 300 nights of the year, I do nothing baseball-related. I do a lot of other stuff during the off-season and during the season, as well.
TPG: I've caught a foul ball before. Mike Myers was the pitcher, Dan Johnson the hitter. Yankees vs. A's, Yankees Stadium 2007. The lefty-lefty matchup gave me a foul ball on the third base side.
Hample: See that! Everyone remembers the details. I get a huge jolt of adrenaline when I catch one. When a ball flies near me, I get excited. I'm sure the same thing happened to you.