January 7, 2014
I used to go to baseball games all the time. As a ball park vendor, I never watched the game, much less snagged a ball. My job was to scour the crowd, find famished (or just bored) fans and hawk wienies, among other items.
About two years ago, I retired my smock. It was just time. When I returned to Citi Field this past August with ballhawk extraordinaire Zack Hample, I hadn't been back since my wienie days. I was at Citi to write a profile on Zack. During our day together, Zack shared his ballhawking secrets, which aren't so secret because he's documented them extensively in his books. After the Mets matinee, Zack and I trained it to a night game at Yankee Stadium. That day, my job was to document, but I wound up almost getting a ball. In the bleachers, one landed just a few aisles from me. Unfortunately, I wasn't quite quick enough and someone else grabbed it. Athleticism is required in ballhawking. No, it's not just luck. You have to have great instincts and move like a cat. In short, you're an athlete. I'm not making excuses, but I had a bad hip due to a roller derby wipe out. That's a story for another time. Ultimately, I got my story on Zack - but no balls.
About a month later, I decided to change that. We decided to hit Philadelphia for a game between the Padres and Phillies. It was a meaningless game that meant everything to me and my pal Gregg, a former all-star cotton candy vendor, because we were each trying to get a ball. We got off to a horrendous start. Someone in the Phillies office told me that gates open at 5:30. Wrong. You can get in at 4:30. When we finally got in at around 5 or so, ballhawks seemed to be all over the outfield. That didn't seem to bother Gregg. Almost immediately, he snagged a ball, which he promptly gave to a kid. Then, he almost snagged a second. Meanwhile, I was getting shut out. I came in second a few times. In the ballhawking game, second means squat. In the bleachers, there's a ballhawk that's worthy of mention. The Vacuum had an ideal spot near centerfield, and he seemed to snag a dozen or so balls. Each time his huge glove swallowed a ball, he looked around as if he wanted some sort of acknowledgement from his fellow ballhawk brethren.
As first pitch nears, we head to our seats behind the Padres dugout. I'm wearing a Padres cap. Yes, Zack taught me well. Apparently, there aren't too many Padre fans in Philadelphia. Besides myself, I spot only one other Padres cap in the crowd, and he's wearing one of those old school, brown Padres caps. We have great seats, but we want even better ones. We move up to the front row. Unfortunately, we're ordered to move. A few moments later, we move up again and are told to move once again. With two strikes against us, we stay put.
When the game gets underway, I'm focused on getting a toss up from one of the Padres. Unfortunately, my dry spell continues. I've got some tough competition. No, The Vacuum is not in our vicinity. However, there are some tough seven year old girls to contend with. They can be like kryptonite for a ballhawk. They whine and pout and even cry. When players see them, they feel obligated to toss them a ball. I know I would. I do manage to get somewhat of a repartee going - and I'm being generous in that description - with the Padres first baseman. When he sees my Padres cap, he nods.
I didn't come in as a Padres fan but now I've become one.
When the first baseman comes off the field with the third out ball, he doesn't toss it to me. Perhaps he knows that I'm an imposter. Innings come and go. There's a game on the field and lots of runs are being scored, but the only thing I know is that I'm being shut out! My personal scorecard: I have doughnut as far as balls! Just as I'm about to surrender, the right fielder makes a great grab on the warning track for the third out of the inning. When he runs off the field, he tosses me the ball.
How does it feel? AMAZING! It doesn't matter how old you are, it's exhilarating to get a ball. But as great as I feel, the seven year old whom I toss the ball to moments later feels even better. When she accepts the ball, her face instantly lights up. Reenergized, at the end of each half inning, I rotate between dugouts in an attempt to get a second ball. Yes, I want more. Behind the Phillies dugout, there's more competition and success seems like a long shot. After a few innings of running back and forth between dugouts, we call it a night. We already suffered through a rain delay, and we have a long trip back. And we accomplished what we wanted: We each got a ball. We'll be back. Next time, hopefully, we'll each get a souvenir to keep.
Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures.
Jon Hart is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com.