August 19, 2010
During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, candidate Barack Obama had the plan to "spread the wealth" to the dismay of some and excitement of some others. He brought that plan and others to his new house on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The only effect that the spread would have on ballhawking is the money in the pocket of some hawks - for the most part.
My brief hawking career had been confined exclusively to Oriole Park at Camden Yards before a planned trip on July 10th brought me to the Nation's Capital. Nationals Park has been a hot spot for ballhawking - a park where Hample has snagged 18 twice and 28 one other time. A big day was surely in the works.
I, my friend, and his family first journeyed to College Park from our homes in Parkville, Maryland located in Baltimore County. Once in College Park - the home of the Maryland Terrapins - we would board the Metro and take it all the way to the District, exiting at the Navy Yard stop, putting us on the doorstep of the Nationals' home.
The game time was set for seven and the gates were set to open at 4:30. It was around three when we finally arrived, giving us enough time to purchase our tickets and take a lap around the stadium that was new to us. After our tour we set up shop in front of the main gates, first in line, and half of us went to go find a bathroom. We returned from the bathrooms and the time was around four. Even though the gates weren't supposed to open for another half hour, the Nationals crew decided to open early, a move that astonished me. At Oriole Park, the ushers wait until the final second drains out and sometimes even open the gates later; never earlier.
My first impression of Nationals Stadium: perfect.
We positioned ourselves perfectly in right field by where the National pitchers were playing catch; overthrowing and dropping more balls than any Major League Baseball team I had ever seen. Stephen Starsburg was in our sights the entire time. He tossed one ball up, to a family after he chased down the overthrow.
The duo closest to us was Sean Burnett and Matt Capps. Once they were done throwing, Sean Burnett ended up with the ball and I called his name and the ball was thrown to me. My friend got a ball from his buddy Matt Capps and we each had one.
The usher patrolling the sections was very courteous. He answered all our questions we had about game homeruns and batting practices and the best places to stand. He told us to have fun before departing to continuing doing his job.
Time went by and we had a few more toss-ups here and there and some balls hit off the bat once the Nat's started taking cuts. Between the two of us we had maybe seven combined. I had given one to the nice usher to give to some lady without a glove. It wasn't even time for the Giants to take batting practice and we were already loaded.
Right field started to get a little more crowded as it got later and later. The Nationals were still taking batting practice and we had gotten a few more balls apiece.
Once we had maybe ten combined, that same kind usher approached us. This time, he had a gripe.
"You guys can't catch any more balls or I will have to kick you out. You need to give other people a chance. Other people are here to have fun too, not just you," he said.
I had given him a baseball already to give to someone he knew and now he wants us to stop doing something in which was completely legal and safe. I just walked away. My friend stayed and chatted with him, he didn't take the threat too kindly. He explained to the usher that neither of us had done anything wrong, no pushing, no shoving, no jumping in front of kids and we were letting everyone their fair opportunity. He further told him that any toss-up to a single person was uninterrupted by us but any ball of the bat was fair game - common sense. "If you want to kick us out for getting too many balls, that is just completely stupid," he told him. The usher walked away and there were no more confrontations.
Did we really just get warned for catching too many baseballs? What was it to him? He wasn't paying for the balls in use. His pay wasn't being deducted for the balls being caught. We only had around ten combined. Zack Hample once cleaned up for 28 while using devices; which we had not. Did he not see that? Sure, Hample had some run-ins during his 28-ball performance, but nothing like this. Has this ever happened to anyone?
My friend went to go get autographs from the Giants between practices - ended up with a Tim Lincecum and a Buster Posey autograph - and I stayed around in our ole section where I reeled in a few more balls. I had nine balls on the day - two given away - and my friend had six. The usher hadn't said anything more to me but we still were angry with our threatened ejection.
I returned home that night and read over the Nationals Park code of conduct. We hadn't broken or even bent anything in the guide. We emailed the Nationals on two separate addresses listed for complaints and compliments; weeks passed with no response from either.
Judging from their A-Z Guide and Code of Conduct, the Nationals appear to be an organization that thrives themselves on fan experience. The focus on the fan experience is a must for the Nationals who annually struggle to win baseball games.
With ballhawking quickly becoming an American sensation, the Nationals need to do all they can to ensure a perfect environment for hawks. Just down the beltway, Oriole Park at Camden Yards provides the best park for hawking in Major League Baseball; confirmed by hawking legend Zack Hample in the most recent Sports Illustrated:
"Camden Yards is the best. Easy accessibility between sections, friendly stadium staff that lets you move around and areas to stand beyond the outfield fences. Prime ball-snagging territory."
You have your work cut out for you, Nationals Park. I will be back, but I will be wary.
Tim Anderson is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com and also maintains a Blog.