05 May 2012

In Defense of a Ballhawk

Let me introduce you to Zack Hample. He's a New Yorker in his 30's who has built his life around a very interesting hobby, casually known as "ballhawking." Zack is the king of ballhawks. He attends Major League Baseball games quite frequently with the intent of catching baseballs that are hit or thrown into the stands. By the end of this 2012 baseball season, Zack will have collected over 6000 Major League baseballs over his lifetime. He has a streak of catching at least one ball per game that goes back 19 years and he frequently hits double digits. His single game record is 36 balls. Last year, he deliberately set out to establish a ballhawking record that will never be broken, snagging 1157 balls over 131 games while visiting all 30 Major League stadiums. Sit and think for a moment about the logistics of that.

Zack's hobby, and particularly Zack himself, is a magnet for trivial controversy. Going to a baseball game and catching a baseball is something that anyone who loves the sport will dream of and here Zack is, living that dream to the extreme. Many people resent that. Others see it as an easy target for ridicule. Full disclosure: I am not a ballhawk, but I am a close friend of Zack's and have attended many games with him. I have endured listening to his rants and have personally assisted in inflating his ego at times. I've known him for a good 6-7 years now, so you're going to have to trust what I am about to say about him. I'm writing this article because I have read many criticisms about Zack as a person and about ballhawking that, frankly, are not very fair. It's time to fully explore the ethics of ballhawking to set things right. Let's begin.

First, let's talk about ballhawking in general. It's a game within a game. Just like college basketball fans like to get themselves involved in the action by inventing new ways of distracting players at the free-throw line, ballhawks seek to get closer to the game by taking home a piece of it. There are many different ways to ballhawk. Zack only goes for baseballs acquired at Major League events, while some people count Minor League balls in their collection. Zack shows up early for batting practice and gets a large number of his balls thrown to him by players and coaches. Some people are only in it for the glorious game-used balls that fly into the stands from foul balls and home runs. Nevertheless, ballhawking is simply the hobby of collecting baseballs.

But this explanation isn't enough to fend off criticisms. Many people complain that ballhawks steal balls from others. They're greedy and they occasionally knock over small children in their quest to rob everyone else of a ball. This analysis is extremely short-sighted, though. First of all, the emergence of ballhawking is merely game theory in action. Balls are highly desired because they are perceived to be rare and they have added value because of their affiliation with the player who hit or threw them, therefore it is inevitable that a population of ball-seekers will emerge. Furthermore, the act of catching a ball under these conditions is exhilarating, even after the 6000th time. Chastising someone for wanting to catch a lot of balls is equivalent to ridiculing someone who collects any kind of trophy or strives for any kind of personal milestone.

The argument that ballhawks rob other fans of baseballs is not as valid as it might seem. Zack and other ballhawks are masters at "manufacturing" balls. That is, they can convince players and coaches and even grounds crew and security guards to toss them balls that otherwise would have never reached the stands. Zack has gone through the trouble of learning how to ask for a ball in a multitude of foreign languages and he interacts with players jovially to earn their respect for a toss-up. He also shows up early for games so that he is the first to get through the turnstiles and into the stands, looking for balls that have already reached the seats before anyone else. He even has an ingenious "glove trick" that he uses to grab balls several feet below him on the field. Any casual fan should readily admit that these balls were not going to reach them anyways and should not be griping about a ballhawk counting them in their collection.

What about the balls that are up for anyone's grabs? What justifies a ballhawk to get them over anyone else? Let's get something straight: even the best ballhawk only catches a small portion of the total number of balls hit or thrown into the stands. This is because luck plays a huge part in who ends up with a nugget. Also, if a fan wants even one ball, it is not hard for them to acquire. The simple effort of bringing a glove to the game will greatly improve your chances and I think it is fair to say that a fan who doesn't bring a glove has no platform to gripe from. Case in point: I have not tried particularly hard, but I have snagged a total of 10 balls for myself, including 5 in one game. All of these balls were either intended for me, hit directly to me, or promptly handed to their intended receiver after being caught. At the same time, players are eager to distribute balls to small children before they even consider giving them to teens and adults. So, when it comes to a contested ball that everyone tries to get, why fault a ballhawk for catching it over everyone else? When it's possible to obtain balls that aren't contested, it reeks of false entitlement to complain about others beating you out over a highly contested one.

Speaking of entitlement, let's not misinterpret a ballhawk's drive to acquire so many balls as this. They realize that nothing is owed to them and that is exactly why they put so much effort into going after balls. That's why the competition exists in the first place. It's true that some ballhawks lack class. They wouldn't have a reputation for knocking over kids and elbowing people out of the way if there weren't at least some culprits. But there is a central community, a network of ballhawks who communicate with each other, who collectively shun these actions. I've seen Zack pull a kid aside to remind him about these values. Just like a tourist may get the impression that all New Yorkers are assholes because they only run into assholes during their visit, so it goes with ballhawks. If you had a bad experience with one, it's likely that this person is new and overeager.

Now let's talk about the man, Zack Hample himself. Ballhawking is a lot of work if your goal is to obtain as many balls as possible. There are hundreds of different angles to approach a game from. Zack has written two books on the subject and is also the author of one of the most popular fan guides to enjoying the game, Watching Baseball Smarter. It is not a trivial undertaking, it is a passion. Some people have claimed that Zack's passion is ill-placed, that if he put half as much effort into other things in his life he'd be ... well, he'd be someone else entirely and that is totally missing the point. People like to project their own insecurities when they criticize others. I'm confident in saying that nobody who is at peace with their own passions, no matter how important or trivial, would fault Zack for making a life out of his.

Many people who have never heard of the man often jump to unfortunate conclusions with very little information. To begin this article, I gave you a few facts about Zack so that you, too, could make a judgement about him. Did you think to yourself that this guy must be weird, loser-ish, or totally awkward? What if I also told you he has a few world records in some classic arcade games? I've heard people posit that Zack must live in his mother's basement, that he's never gotten laid, or that he must be the most selfish person on the planet. Now, Zack does love attention, but he isn't selfish. In fact, he is very respected amongst his many friends and he devotes a lot of his time to maintaining contact with his fans and acquaintances. He lives in his own, very impressive Manhattan apartment, and, as for his intimate experience, let's just say that he would put any of his critics to shame.

Some of Zack's more creative tactics can draw the ire of other fans. One possibly shady practice of his is to wear the t-shirt and hat of the current team on the field, "tricking" them into thinking that he is a fan. This works especially well on teams that are visiting a long way from home. Is it dirty deception or is it, as Omar would say, all in the game? Let me call your attention back to my point about "manufacturing" balls. The only time this tactic works is when he's trying to get a ball that ordinarily wouldn't reach the seats. There are even times when I've witnessed players looking for fans to throw a ball to, standing there waving the ball and waiting for someone to speak up and claim it.

Still, is there anything to be said about deceiving the players, or even simply pestering them while they're out there trying to warm up? Such distractions are built in to baseball and players zone them out at will. If a player wanders close to the fence with a ball in his hand, his name is heard in chorus from ballhawks and ordinary fans alike. Zack is different, though. He often tries to engage the players and make it more than just another ball to add to the list. If the player is willing, Zack is always up for a game of catch, he's always vocal about thanking someone for a toss-up, and he's been known to hold conversations with players who recognize him. There's hardly anything shady going on. Clever, but not shady.

So, when you hear about this crazy guy who runs around baseball games, grabbing as many balls as possible, and you take into consideration everything I've said to defend the practice of ballhawking, you may still have your reservations about one man taking home 10 or 20 balls for himself from a single game. Don't worry, there's more to it that you haven't heard. Zack actually makes a point of giving away a couple balls at each game to young children who brought their gloves to the game, but haven't succeeded in snagging a prize. That is to say that he rarely comes home with the number of balls that he says he caught. He's not fudging his numbers, I've seen him do this at every game that we've been to. It really makes someone's day. Who knows what might have happened if those balls had been caught by someone who felt entitled to them.

More impressively, Zack uses his ballhawking prowess to raise money for charity. I can verify this as well because I am the one who helps him set up his website to gather pledges throughout the season. Fans pledge a penny or more for every ball that Zack grabs (I have a pledge in for 10 cents this year), and at the end of the year, they send a check to his charity of choice, Pitch In For Baseball, which provides baseball equipment for underprivileged kids all over the globe. He's been doing this for a few years now and it's been very successful. And it doesn't stop there. Other ballhawks are doing the same.

In a recently published flavor piece about Zack, MSN decided to call attention to his ballhawking antics, labeling him as a ball hog, asking readers to judge him on similarly scant information to what I presented in my first paragraph. Predictably, the comments section was filled with vitriol toward Zack. Of course MSN left out the part about him giving away balls and raising money for charity, but sites like MSN and Deadspin thrive on the controversy that they throw to the wolves. User engagement ├╝ber alles. Balanced reporting be damned.

Sometimes Zack is a victim of his own desire for sensationalism. During his appearance on The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien, Zack played into the conversation and joked about shoving kids out of the way to get a ball, which prompted Conan to call him "the worst man in America." On many other interviews, the same formula repeats itself; so much time is spent talking about the snagging that Zack rarely gets a chance to play his other cards. The result is that even people who are casually familiar with what he does can get the wrong impression. But he's in a tough spot because he needs the publicity to fuel his baseball-related endeavors and he's ultimately at the television producer's whim.

The ethics of ballhawking make it a controversial hobby, but it is ultimately a harmless one, if not a completely natural and expected reaction to the phenomenon of a ball, touched by a star player, finding its way into the stands. You may as well vilify heckling or autograph collecting. Zack, being at the forefront of this steadily growing game-within-a-game, takes the brunt of the misinformed opinions about it. If, after reading all of this, you still think Zack Hample is the worst man in America and ballhawking is a bane on the ballpark experience, I don't have much more to say. At the end of the day, we're talking about catching baseballs at a game. If you have a problem with someone catching them all, then grab a glove and be the change you wish to see in the world.