SOMEWHERE IN FENWAY PARK — Zack Hample is certain. After all, he is the best. No doubt about that. On a Saturday afternoon at Fenway Park, the cloudy remnants of a mid-June thunderstorm gliding past the Citgo sign, Hample will catch his 6,000th career baseball. Guaranteed.
The tally includes foul balls and home runs caught during games and batting practice, but most come via “toss-ups” from players. Only Major League Baseball games count. Hawking at minor league stadiums is too easy. He never interferes with a child.
This is the code by which he lives.
The question is why?
Welcome to the curious existence of Hample, forever on the end of a baseball, his gloved reflexes synched with a vocal motor that guns like a six-cylinder. Most fans long to snag a piece of history, but Hample is cut from a rare piece of leather. He is one of the world’s few professed — nay, obsessed — ballhawks. For the layman, Hample is just a normal guy who loves collecting baseballs.
Except this is not normal.
After the rain canceled batting practice, Hample lingers in the right-field concourse, holding up No. 5,999. Minutes ago, he asked Daisuke Matsuzaka for it in Japanese, one of the 35 languages in which Hample knows how to ask for a baseball. But the next ball is the most important. And it will not be found standing still.
Slithering through the lower bowl behind the visiting Nationals dugout, hiking up his brown cargo shorts to avoid the puddles, Hample performs a quick-change act mid-stride. Out from his backpack comes a red T-shirt and blue hat, both with Washington logos, both donned in a flash. He has two stacks of T-shirts in his Upper West Side bedroom, one shirt for every MLB team. Nearby, a row of hats is arranged in alphabetical order.
“It helps to be organized,” Hample says. “I always seem to be running off to a game.”
The transformation complete, Hample turns to a videographer he hired to document the occasion, and glares into the camera.
“I am the world’s No. 1 Nationals fan,” he says, jabbing his finger into the Nikon lens.
“Now give me all your baseballs.”
Fun and games
How did this happen?
How did a childhood desire morph into a full-time passion? How did a lifelong New Yorker, the son of a third-generation used bookstore owner and a late World War II submariner-turned-best-selling author, adopt a hobby few consider more than an ephemeral dream? He is 34 years old and childless, his hawking arsenal deprived of the most potent weapons: being a kid, or having one.
As Hample said in a 2006 interview with SportsNet New York, “What kind of parents would allow this madness?”
These are the questions you are asking. These are the questions Hample always gets, and answers with a smile. But let’s make one thing clear: This is not madness. This is fun.
“That’s a hard one for me to say,” said Naomi Hample, Zack’s mother. “That’s a tough question. Because I’m not even sure I know the answer. But isn’t it something that everyone wants, to have their child be successful and happy?
“Zack is, so I’m very glad about that.”
A hit from the start
It began with a big red bat.
At a friend’s house many summers ago, a 5-year-old Hample picked up the plastic bat. Someone pitched him a beach ball.
“It was like an electric shock,” Naomi Hample said. “I think something happened. He couldn’t wait to hit the ball again, and it never stopped. It was such a natural evolution.
“Well, generally not natural. But for Zack, I’d say yes. When he likes something, that’s it. He goes full.”
Hample used to play, batting .429 in 14 at-bats his freshman year at Guilford (N.C.) College, but the infatuation bled into total fandom. He began attending games alone in his early teens, despite his mother’s nail-biting and ultimately futile worry.
“It was like trying to contain a wild animal,” she said. “He just had to do it. I realize that he’s not a standard cookie-cutter kind of kid who’s going to go to law school and then move on. He has his own rhythm and he’s very happy.”
Frustrated with the weather, Hample would be most happy getting No. 6,000, 113 more baseballs than the day’s starting lineup for the Sox had in total career hits. He is now one baseball away, searching for the milestone, for more validation of his craft.
“I put on a good show, don’t I?” he says.
Early Monday morning, the show came to LeLacheur Park, home of the Single A Lowell Spinners. Framed by billboards advertising local businesses such as Bugs R Us and Sal’s Pizza — “Now that’s a slice!” — Hample marched into an empty stadium in search of a world record.
A Robinson R44 helicopter would hover over the infield, 1,000 feet in the air. Someone inside would drop a baseball off the edge. Standing in center, decked out in blue catchers equipment donated by Rawlings for the occasion, Hample would do what he always does: catch it.
Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett holds the record, set in 1930 at 800 feet, though a lack of precise measurements has left the height in question. No attempt has been made since 1939, when Joe Sprinz lost teeth and broke his jaw after the ball’s force smashed his glove into his face.
First, Hample caught a softball from 300 feet, setting a world record. Then he caught a baseball from the same distance. Then one from 550 feet, 5 feet shorter than the Washington Monument. Then from 762 feet. The balls that Hample missed blasted stitched craters into the LeLacheur outfield.
“Imagine looking up at a blue sky with a few wisps of cloud, trying to spot a grain of sand,” Hample said.
Wind forced a cancellation before Hample could succeed from 1,000 feet, leaving him with lasting disappointment and a bruised middle finger. He plans to try again soon.
“I tend to get obsessed with things and take things as far as I can possibly take them, achieve things nobody else has achieved,” Hample said from the Spinners dugout. “I don’t know if it’s ego or me being competitive or me being a dweeb and wacky about it. Maybe it’s all of these things. It’s a pretty cool feeling to know that you’re the best at something in the world.”
A clubhouse attendant began wheeling out equipment for batting practice. Hample stopped mid-sentence.
“Oh my God,” he said, “look at that bucket of balls.”
A baseball historian
They are kept in drawers. And trash cans. Eight barrels full in his mother’s apartment, the tight lids masking the odorous amalgamation of grass and leather. The most valuable balls reside in clear plastic cubes, entombed in dark cabinets. Too much light fades the covers.
The last time he got shut out was Sept. 2, 1993. His single-game record is 36. He counts a Carlos Beltran homer, the last Mets homer hit at Shea Stadium, as his most prized find. He caught Mike Trout’s first career homer in Baltimore, and Barry Bonds’s 724th career blast in San Diego. He has never sold one. Lately, he gives more away to children.
“He’s on a different level, there’s no question,” said Ben Weil, a friend and fellow collector who has more than 1,600 jerseys. “I don’t understand how he does it sometimes.”
Hample has appeared on CNN, ESPN, and Leno, and works full time at his family’s New York City bookstore. He takes pledges per baseball caught, and has raised more than $19,000 for charity the past three seasons. He claims to have the world’s largest rubber band ball, started at age 4, and holds the official world record in the arcade game Arkanoid.
He has authored three books, the latest a history of the baseball itself. Three hundred and sixty-eight pages on spherical cowhide.
“I knew he would do something unconventional, from the beginning,” his mother said. “He just has a quirky, interesting mind, full of passions. We waited to see how it would play out.
“He marches to his own beat. And that’s fine.”
Yes, he has a girlfriend. Her name is Robin and she is a writer, too.
For $500, Hample will take your children to a game, teach them how to shout Spanish to David Ortiz and pass on the maneuvers that turn heads in every park:
Arrive early. Bring a glove. Wear the team’s gear. Print out a roster. Say please and thank you. Address the players by first name, none of this “Mister” or “Sir” business.
But most fans do not engage in the ballhawking practices Hample has published on his MLBlog, “The Baseball Collector,” like the glove trick he invented at age 12. From the stands, he wraps a rubber band around the pocket, weaves a pen through the webbing, and lowers the glove using string. The ball snaps into the mitt, locked between rubber band and pen, and he reels it in. At Yankee Stadium in 2007, Hample got No. 3,000 this way.
“He is the rules,” said 12-year-old Max Nitke, who caught nine balls at a game with Hample earlier this year. “All you have to do is follow Zack Hample.”
Follow him to ballparks, to baseballs, and, more often than you might think, to hatred.
Villain or hero?
A group of teenagers in Red Sox hats have turned from awestruck — “No way you’ve caught 6,000 baseballs” — to livid.
They call Hample annoying and weird. One mutters a slur. If he gets one more ball, another says, I’m going to kill him.
Perhaps the vitriol derives from the nature of Hample’s hobby. Ballhawking means transforming into “that fan,” scorned for his aggressiveness and volume. Pastimes like card collecting are more introspective, performed in the shadows and housed in shelved binders. But Hample is out there at the park, right beside you, clutching five baseballs while you come up empty.
“People want to believe that he’s a jerk, bullies people around, steals balls from little kids,” said Andrew Gonsalves, a friend of eight years and member of Hample’s writing group.
Try the opposite. Hample offers to take a couple’s picture in front of the Green Monster. He signs autographs on ticket stubs. He chats up younger hawks, imparting the wisdom self-taught 22 years ago.
“He seems to have passed the age when it’s cute,” Naomi Hample said. “It’s on the outskirts of what people think a young man should be doing. But he’s the idol of all these kids. They love to watch him and think he’s so cool. He’s their hero, in a way, for that.”
Sensing the mounting frustration, particularly among the foul-mouthed locals, Hample holds a newfound ball up high.
“Smallest kid with a glove gets this,” Hample says. “Single digits. Young. Little.”
Tips from the pro
Still questing for 6,000, Hample is restless, clambering over seats in pursuit of more advantageous angles. His glove shields a Nationals roster, so the players will not realize he cheats on their names. Hample usually cheats. Just another tip.
“It’s almost like, who do I want a ball from?” he said.
Washington reliever Brad Lidge becomes the target, unaware he will soon get played by a champ. Between throws, Hample asks Lidge for the ball once he finishes tossing. “We’ll see,” Lidge responds.
“I think he was ready to give that answer to anyone,” Hample said. “But he turns around, he sees me in Nationals gear . . . I’ll get it.”
Lidge remembered. The ball fluttered into the stands, resting in Hample’s weathered Mizuno mitt. He high-fived friends, snapped a picture, and went back to work.
Three minutes later, Hample caught No. 6,001.
He asked Chien Ming-Wang in Taiwanese.
Speaking different MLB languages to get a baseball
Want to ask for a baseball in the native tongues of your favorite players? Here are some phonetic pronounciations:
SPANISH: DAH-may la BOH-la por fah-VOR?
JAPANESE: CHOH toh boh-OH-roo oh NAH-geh-teh koo dah SIGH
ALBANIAN: Teh-LOO-tem mah yep TOH-pin
ENGLISH: May I please have that baseball?
Four of Zack Hample’s tips for ballhawking at Fenway:
■ 1. Red Sox Nation membership ($14.95) allows entry 2½ hours early for the start of Red Sox batting practice. Fenway is one of the only parks that allows such an early entry. The more time you can have in the park, the better.
■ 2. The best place for catching home runs is in center field, just to the right of the Green Monster. There is a cross-aisle in the front that allows easy access throughout the section.
■ 3. Try standing outside the stadium on the parking garage roof across Lansdowne Street during BP. “Any stadium where you can catch balls and not even be in the stadium, that’s huge,” Hample says.
■ 4. The protective screen that covers the seats behind home plate has a gap where it meets the second deck facade. Foul balls often roll up the net, pop through the space and drop down. “If you can find that spot, it’s almost like a guaranteed foul ball,” Hample says.