January 2, 2010
Just over a year ago, I knew I wanted to create a website. I wanted to come up with something cool, something that would get people excited and something that would attract lots of visitors. So after hours of racking my brain trying to think of ideas, I came up with a great idea: an online crossword puzzle maker. It was a brilliant concept - teachers could put together a list of words, type them into my website, and in a matter of seconds the website would construct a printable crossword puzzle to hand out to their students.
It wasn't hard at all to create. After less than a week of programming, the website was complete and worked perfectly. I was ready to share my project with the world.
Just to make sure there wasn't anybody out there trying to steal my idea, I ran a Google search for "Online Crossword Puzzle Maker". And instantly, the dreams for my website came crashing down. I scrolled through pages and pages of online crossword puzzle makers, most of which were a lot better than mine. It was back to the drawing board.
About that time, I had stumbled across a website that kept me entertained for hours on end - Zack Hample's Blog. I was amazed that a guy could collect so many baseballs, and I quickly got hooked on reading about his snagging pursuits.
I was particularly facinated by the detailed stats that appeared after each entry and on his personal website zackhample.com. He included stadium-specific totals, game-by-game totals, detailed tallies of toss-ups, foul balls, and home runs, and even a complete list of every player who had ever tossed him a ball.
As I scanned his stats, I started to wonder if an even greater level of organization could be added. What if you could quickly bring up a list of every ball that he plucked off the warning track with the glove trick at Yankee Stadium? What if you could instantly bring up a list of every ball that was hit or thrown by ARod? The idea was beginning to take root.
As I continued to read through the site, I couldn't help but notice that Hample had a pretty huge following. Ballhawks from all over the country were posting comments, asking for snagging advice and telling Zack about their collections. Having only snagged one lone baseball at a Major League game, I wasn't a ballhawk myself and had no idea that there was such a large community of people out there who loved snagging baseballs. Almost instantly, the vision of ball-snagging website popped into my head.
I spent a few days with a pad of paper designing how all the data would be organized and how the database would be searched. Not really knowing specifically how everything would pan out, I started programming away. I labored for months, compiling hundreds of lines of computer code which to this day can be found on my computer in a folder labeled "Test Project".
It was a pretty cool website, and this time it was indeed a one-of-a-kind idea. I showed it to a few friends and they liked it, although my wife couldn't understand why anyone would want to use it.
I found a web host and loaded everything onto the internet, but I had a bad feeling that I had just wasted a large amount of time, energy, and money on something that simply wouldn't catch on.
Halfway expecting to pull the plug on the site after a week or two, I fired off an email to a few of the big names in the ballhawking world, including Zack Hample, John Witt, and The Rockpile Ranter. I knew those guys get tons of email so I wasn't even sure they'd bother to read it, or if they'd think it was junk mail. But I knew that the only way for the site to become legit would be for the top ballhawks to create profiles and perhaps mention it on their high-visibility blogs.
A few hours went by and I went back and checked the site. Much to my surprise, the Demo account that I had created was now joined by 4 or 5 other accounts, including John Witt. For the next 15 minutes or so, pretty much every time I reloaded the page, a new account appeared. I checked the website traffic, and it was indeed getting hammered, racking up new hits by the minute.
Wondering how word was spreading so quickly, I clicked over to Hample's blog and saw that he had posted a new entry about myGameBalls.com. Sweet! Later on I checked Witt's blog and saw that he too was featuring my website. I spent the next 3 or 4 hours doing two things: gloating to my wife that people were flocking to my website, and panicking that some sort of technical glitch would cause the site to crash. Thankfully the site held up great, and by the end of the night over 30 people had signed up.
My inbox filled with notes from people telling me how cool the site was. Almost all of them, however, had lots of suggestions for how to improve it. So I knew my work was just beginning. I spent the next few weeks tweaking the site, trying to improve on its shortcomings. It gradually got better and better, and for the most part people stuck with it, consistently logging in and recording their snags.
By the end of the summer, a lot of the big names in the snagging world had signed up. Zack Hample was there. Pittsburgh's Erik Jabs was there. Young ballhawks Greg Barasch and Alex K from New York were there. A semi-retired ballhawk named Rick Gold had a profile, complete with photos of nearly all of his 37 game home run balls. A Manny Ramirez lookalike named Jose Mannywood had uploaded a really cool photo gallery of his recent snags. From coast to coast, the myGameBalls phenonemon was catching on.
Aside from a few minor technical problems, everything came together really well. Even one of my biggest initial concerns, that lots of people would simply lie about their stats, seemed to be a non-issue. There was only one guy who tried to do it - a guy calling himself "Mack Spackle" who supposedly was averaging over 10 balls per game. Mack was quickly kicked off the site when members began exposing him as a fraud.
I began posting articles featuring the most significant snagging achievements, and in the process got to know a lot of really cool people. Originally an outsider to the ballhawk community, I had now been welcomed in, trading regular emails with many of the members. I hope to make it out to the ballpark more in the coming year and possibly get to meet some of the members.
The first season drew to a close, concluding with a vote for the Junior Ballhawk of the Year (Alex K) and the Ballhawk of the Year (Zack Hample). Immediately I set my focus on my next goal, implementing myGameBalls 2.0, the new-and-improved version of the site. Currently it is about 75% complete.
With the new website to be fully complete by Spring Training, 2010 should be even better than 2009. Only 3 short months to go.
Alan Schuster is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com.