Anybody who has gone to a game and returned with a ball knows that thrilling feeling. For most of us, getting a ball at Dodger Stadium comes down to pure luck. Most of the time, it is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. But for some, getting balls at games is practically a professional art form.
With millions of dollars potentially at stake for historical balls, chasing down balls at games resembles the wild west. Every man is for himself, and the competition that brews between the close knit “ball hawking” community is friendly, but fierce at times.
Serious ball hawks employ several techniques and strategies, from talking to players in their native tongue to using spray charts to determine the best place to stand during an at bat. Although the practice is controversial, and there is no shortage of critics online, there is no questioning the motivation, skill, and strategic capacity necessary to be a successful ball hawk.
Nobody catches baseballs at stadiums better than Zack Hample. In fact, Hample is nearing 10,000 lifetime baseballs from over 50 different Major League parks. While his bread and butter is catching balls at batting practice, he routinely catches foul balls, home run balls, and balls thrown into the stands. Most notably, Hample caught Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit, which he returned to A-Rod in exchange for a sizable donation to charity.
Hample has caught a total of 97 baseballs at Dodger Stadium. On his most recent trip to Chavez Ravine in June, he caught 7 balls, which he considers a disappointment. Zack sat down for an interview with Dodgers Nation earlier this week to talk about Dodger Stadium, ball hawking, and more.
Dodgers Nation: You’ve caught 9,110 baseballs and have caught a ball in 1,224 consecutive games. What was your best day in terms of numbers. Where was that at?
Zack Hample: Well, I’m up to 9,183. The YouTube videos that I do are a little behind real life. In terms of numbers my best day was September 14, 2011, on my birthday in Cincinnati. I got 36 baseballs that day.
Dodgers Nation: How do you go about catching 36 baseballs? I have trouble getting one at most games.
Zack Hample: The Reds give people an opportunity to get in their stadium very early at their stadium, two hours and forty minutes before game time. The Reds weren’t doing well, and there were just a handful of people for the first hour out in right field. I got about 10 balls out there in an hour. Then I ran over to another section of the stadium when that opened. I found about five balls in the seats there. I was working third out balls and I got a ball from the home plate umpire, Gary Darling, after the game. So it was a solid day of successes.
I should have had 37, but I was just complacent on one. A ball was tossed right to me. I just stood there waiting for it to come to me, and another guy jumped up in front of me and caught it. 37 would sound a lot better than 36, I mean it even has an extra syllable! I don’t think I will ever catch that many in one day, but it was still just an amazing day that I will never forget.
Dodgers Nation: How many balls do you typically catch per game?
Zack Hample: I’ve been averaging about 7 balls per game. If I were choosier about my games, and if I didn’t mostly go for home runs, my numbers could be a lot higher.
Dodgers Nation: How does Dodger Stadium compare to the rest of the league in terms of ballhawking?
Zack Hample: I actually love Dodger Stadium. Some people have a hard time with Dodger Stadium. There are a bunch of weird sections or rules that have changed a bunch over the years. But once you’re inside, I think that it’s beautiful and there are a lot of opportunities for catching baseballs.
Also, the Dodgers allow season ticket holders to enter the stadium three hours early, every day. In fact, you can get in so early that batting practice hasn’t even started at that point. You can see the Dodgers do their full pregame routine, which is amazing.
Dodgers Nation: Where is your favorite part of Dodger Stadium?
Zack Hample: I love the pavilions in particular. The outfield wall is set up 10 feet from the stands. They also have these staircases that go down to this dead space behind the wall. I think it’s really fun to play on the staircases. If a ball is hit near you, you can either run up the stairs into the seats or down the stairs and hang out in that landing area. As I said in my video for Dodger Stadium, there is nothing else like that in the Major Leagues. That’s where I actually got my 4,000th ball thrown by Livan Hernandez.
Dodgers Nation: I imagine you’ve caught a bunch of home runs during batting practice on the staircases.
Zack Hample: I have. I’ve gotten home runs, toss ups, and balls that have landed in that dead area. There’s all kind of opportunities there, and I also like the area down the lines near the foul pole, because the wall is pretty low. It’s one of just a few stadiums where it is low enough for you to scoop up ground balls near the foul pole.
Dodgers Nation: On your last visit to Dodger Stadium, you caught balls from all parts of the ballpark. It seems like there are good opportunities to get balls from all parts of the park.
Zack Hample: Definitely. No matter what ticket you have, you can take a full lap around the stadium. Being able to move around to different parts of the stadium is a lot of fun, and I was actually disappointed to have only snagged 7 baseballs my last time at Dodger Stadium. I know that might sound crazy to some people, but that’s my reality. You know, I realize people might go, “Oh poor me, boo-hoo, I only caught 7 balls”, but I average more than 7 balls a game in much tougher stadiums that don’t open as early. Getting inside Dodger Stadium three hours early, and only getting 7 was quite frankly kind of a bummer. I am looking forward to getting back and having a bigger and better day, as it is one of my favorite places to go watch a baseball game.
Dodgers Nation: Where is the most random place you’ve gotten a ball?
Zack Hample: I have a good answer for this one. Gosh, it’s so weird that it’s almost hard to describe. At Shea Stadium, I think it was Tsuyoshi Shinjo who hit a BP Home Run just beyond my reach. It barely tipped my glove, and it sailed over the the bullpen and landed in this open air walkway for employees where vendors pick up things. Fans were just not allowed down there at all. But I went to the very lowest level of the stadium, because I saw the ball sitting out in the open there.
It was so weird. There was an employee, in this sort of a doorway, and he was just sitting there reading a newspaper, and not paying attention. I walked right past him about 50 feet out onto this walkway where there were vendors pushing carts right past this baseball that was just sitting there, and I walked over and I picked it up. A couple people looked at me. They went about their business. Then I walked right back past this guard who was completely spaced out. He didn’t even look up at me, and that was it.
Dodgers Nation: I believe you also caught the last Mets home run hit at Shea Stadium.
Zack Hample: Correct. I believe that was September 28th, 2008. That’s a date that I’ll never forget. Carlos Beltran, batting right-handed against a left pitcher on the Marlins cranked one out. I was out in the bleachers, and I think I actually had better seats to the game. I had traded down for a bleacher ticket with a friend of mine. He was like, “why do you want to sit there?”, and I was like “so I can catch a Home Run, duh.” So he was happy, and I was happy. That remains my favorite baseball that I ever caught.
Dodgers Nation: Even more than A-Rod’s 3000th hit, which you caught?
Zack Hample: Absolutely. The A-Rod ball, just purely shocked me. But with that Mets ball, it was just pure jubilation. It was actually the first home run ball that I caught at Shea Stadium in more than 300 games. To be there for the very final day ever and catch my first home run ever at Shea, which was practically my second home growing up—that was super exhilarating.
Dodgers Nation: Recently Ichiro almost hit a home run for his 3,000th hit. Did you see the guy running on top of right field fence at Coors Field?
Zack Hample: I did. I nearly had a heart attack. Ichiro nearly hit a home run, and I thought of trying to get his 3000th hit. But, I couldn’t go to Colorado. I definitely would have been out in that section. I did see that there was a fan up at the top of the wall with a glove and he was right in line with it. You can sort of see him waving his arms in disgust or disappointment. That’s a lottery ticket for some people there. But where that guy was, I feel his pain. He was running on top of the wall, and I mean that’s a brilliant move that’s kind of crazy.
It just shows that people will do whatever it takes to get a ball. You even see people doing crazy things to get a regular foul ball at a game. So for a ball that is worth 6 and potentially 7 figures, it’s understandable. Ichiro is legendary in Japan, beyond what anyone here can comprehend. If he hit a home run and that ball went up for auction, just think about all of the Japanese millionaires and billionaires who worship Ichiro. There could have been a bidding war between each of them. That ball could have gone for millions potentially. You just don’t know.
I am always going to wonder how much my A-Rod’s 3,000th hit ball would have sold for. I don’t regret giving the ball to him and to get a big charity donation from the Yankees.
Dodgers Nation: You have proven that baseballs can be gifts that keep on giving. How much money have you raised for charity by catching balls?
Zack Hample: More than $191,000 for a charity called Pitch In For Baseball which provides baseball and softball equipment to kids all around the world.
Dodgers Nation: You’re actually on your way to Philly today, and the Dodgers are playing.
Zack Hample: That is correct. I actually sort of wish the Dodgers weren’t playing, because they are such a good team with such a big fan base. It’s always more crowded when the Dodgers play on the road. That’s great for most normal people that just want to watch an exciting game. Everything that I do with catching baseballs depends on having more room to run, less competition, and all that kind of stuff.
There easily be a few thousand more Dodger fans today. There is still a huge portion of New York City that love and miss the Dodgers from Brooklyn. The love for the franchise passes down through generations. I’m sure a lot of people from New York are going to make the trip, and of course, Chase Utley is returning.
Dodgers Nation: You’ve been to Dodger Stadium earlier this year, you’re in Philly today, and you’re going to Baltimore later this week. How many stadiums have you been to this year, and where are you going next?
Zack Hample: 19 this season and I have a lot of stuff in the works. I could very will end up in Milwaukee, Minnesota, both Chicago Stadiums, Houston, possibly San Diego and Anaheim. I don’t know if I am going to make it back to LA this year, but it’s possible.
Dodgers Nation: It would be great to see you around Dodger Stadium sometime soon.
Zack Hample: Hopefully. Like I said, it’s one of my favorite places to watch a baseball game. Who knows? Maybe in the Postseason.