January 27, 2011
I had the priviledge of interviewing ballhawking King Zack Hample on January 14 about his book The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals and Secrets Beneath the Stitches which is due March 8, 2011. Please donot ask me anything about the book as all I will tell you is that Zack gave me a galley which is a copy of the book that is not quite complete but is close to it. Zack told me that it was his first interview about the book which made me happy. We talked for a little under an hour and he really seemed to enjoy the talk we had and at times it seemed to be more than just an interview. Here is the complete 5,266 word interview:
1 .You have written How To Snag Major League Baseballs and Watching Baseball Smarter, why a third book?
Zack Hample: "I just love to write first of all and I just love collecting baseballs. I love ballhawking, snagging, whatever you want to call it and although there's some people out there who think that I've kind of already overdone it and sort of maxed it out, I still feel that there's a lot more still to be said and it was even more than that even before I wrote this book. I had a vision for this book that was all about the baseball itself, and sort of an extension of my collection and my overall passion for this one particular hobby."
2. How did the title ultimately come to be?
Zack Hample: "The title was actually suggested by my editor and some other people at Random House. It took a long time to pick the title, and it was getting to the point where they needed a title because long before a book actually hits the stores, there's publicity and there's memos and releases and the publisher sends out stuff to bookstores to try and get them to pre-order the book, and they're trying to generate interest way ahead of time and you have to be able to call it something at that point. Months ago, it really came time to make a decision and we went through a lot of ideas, and I really like the title that they ended up choosing. I think that it is catchy and I think it's a pretty good idea of what the book is about."
3. We all know that a book takes research, how much research went into your book?
Hample: "A ton of research. I actually thought that this book would be easier to write than Watching Baseball Smarter, and I'm such a big nerd with numbers and like to keep track of things. I actually keep track of all the hours that I spent writing, and Watching Baseball Smarter took a total of about 1100 hours and I figured that this book would take less just because I knew there was going to be a lot of stuff on snagging baseballs which is pretty much all in my head and I figured I'd just be really passionate about the subject. My publisher actually told me that this book could be shorter. Watching Baseball Smarter, was 64,000 words, and they said for this one about the ball, aim for 50 to 70,000, so I thought great, if I can still get paid and write 50,000, then I guess that's what I'll aim for and that was my first thought, not like I was trying to sell anything short.
Once I started getting into it, I just loved the material and kept finding so much of it that I really didn't pay any attention to the word count and I ended up writing about 80,000 words and I needed to ask special permission to go over that limit. It took me a long time to write more words and it also took much longer than I expected because of all of the research that was involved. The bulk of my research came from the Hall of Fame. I was in touch with Tim Wiles the Director of Research and he had a ton of information and he had several files on foul balls and the ball itself, actual Xeroxes of newspaper clippings dating back to the 1860's and he told me that I was welcome to come up there and take a look at it for free. I guess otherwise I would have had to pay the admission to get into the museum that day, but that stuff is available to the public. That is way up-state in Cooperstown (New York) though, and I figured it would cost me a lot to get there, to rent a hotel and would have to stay a couple of nights. AmI just going to take all of my notes, in the span of two days? No I'm probably going to want to Xerox them anyway, so the other option was to pay $300 and have him Xerox everything and send it to me, so I chose that option. It wasn't cheap. I also spent about a thousand dollars of my own money going to Costa Rica (a roundtrip flight, two nights in a hotel, etc..).
I put a lot of money into this book which is how business works, you make an investment and you hope to end up with a great product in the end. The Hall of Fame sent me a phonebook sized stack of papers and I did nothing for a solid month, other than just comb through and read stuff and sort of methodically made my own index of what all of the different articles were about, categorized them and from there threw out a lot of stuff and highlighted a lot of stuff. That was a solid month of reading stuff and trying to figure out what to do with it. I felt like I was an English Major for a year and a half but other things involving research included visiting the Humidor where the Rockies store their baseballs. I knew that I was going to write about that in the book, and yes there were photos online and there were articles written, but like the Rawlings factory in Costa Rica, I could have written a chapter about it if I hadn't been there, but I just knew that it would be a lot better if I could see it for myself.
I also got to go and spend a day with the Phillies' Equipment Manager and Citizen's Bank Park on a day when the team was on the road. He took me into all of the secret areas of the stadium and showed me how he actually rubbed mud on baseballs that are used during games. So I went to certain places and gathered info along the way and even for the snagging baseballs section at the end of the book, I had already been to every Major League Stadium, but there were a few places that I hadn't been to in about a decade and I knew that I wanted to write about those in the book. Again, I could have written stuff asking people about it, looking at photos and seeing charts of the stadium but I went to Atlanta for three games, I went to Cleveland for three games and I went on a few other trips just for the book. I kind of crammed those trips into last spring to beat one of the deadlines so I consider that research, and it was never ending really. So many interview requests and just a lot of online research, I sort of was poking around doing various searches and Google and just seeing what comes up and kind of following the leads and talking to people. That was a long answer, but that was because I did a lot of research. That's why I took so long to write this book."
4. What was your favorite part of the book to write?
Hample: "I am not even quite sure how to answer this, because just in sort of looking through the book, or telling people about it, it seemed that whatever chapter I'm talking about, is sort of like 'Oh man I love this chapter, this is my favorite chapter!' and then I start thinking about the one that came after it and it's like, 'No, that's my favorite chapter!' I really enjoyed a chapter called 'Foul Balls in Pop Culture' and there's kind of two things there and the main one was that I critiqued a lot of TV shows and movies that had scenes in them with foul balls. That was a lot of fun, to actually watch these things, sometimes in slow motion and sometimes twenty times to pick up on little details and sort of play the role of film critic briefly, I think that really turned out to be a fun section.
The timeline, 'The Evolution of the Ball' which is definitely the biggest single chapter in the book, is pretty intense. It was probably the toughest section to write because it was so long, but I learned the most probably from writing that. It's not like I knew all of this stuff going into the book, I learned a ton along the way. The 'How to Snag Major League Baseballs' portion of the book, that was great because I got to write it in the first person. I didn't write about myself just to hear myself talk but I thought that it would actually kind of change the tone of the book and make it more personal and be able to tell some stories that could help people out. It was fun to kind of change gears a little bit and it almost resembled my blog at times, and I sort of felt more of a connection of the reader or who I imagine the reader to be.
I guess the Rawlings chapter as well was just a thrill on a personal note. It was the last chapter that I wrote and my dad was really sick at the time, and he was diagnosed with cancer in June, and he ended up dying in September and his last few weeks alive, he and I worked on that chapter together (he is also a writer) and I did all of the work and writing, but I would write a sentence and then read it to him and he'd say 'great' or 'no I don't like that word, what else can you put in there'? We combed through that whole chapter together and he was with me every step of the way and it was our last real great time spent together. My mom said that he didn't really have energy to be awake a whole lot during the day but whenever I came over with my laptop, it just energized him and he was so happy to see me and to work with me, so when I see that chapter, there's a lot of my dad in it."
5. What do you want people to think of your book?
Hample: "In general, I really love it when I can share my passion with people and then other people share it back in return, so it's sort of my way of saying to the world, 'look how cool baseballs are'. This sort of explains why I am such a nutjob about it, and why I'm so into catching them. I want people who don't even like baseball to enjoy this book, just because it sort of intellectualizes an object, and brings to life something that I think most people wouldn't think about."
6. Who is the target audience for your book?
Hample: "I don't think any diehard baseball fan would know half of the stuff in the first two parts of the book, probably not even 10 percent of the first two parts of the book. There's some famous stories for sure, but I go into a lot of detail that I certainly never knew and I probably know as much about baseballs as anyone going into this book. I certainly have baseball fans in mind just because I use baseball jargon and I just talk about certain things about the sport without stopping to give a ton of context, whereas in Watching Baseball Smarter, I did stop and took some time to explain things, because I was trying to introduce people to the sport they might not have known as much about it coming in, so certainly a more educated fan I guess for this book, but I don't really think you have to know a whole lot about baseball. There's certainly a few things you might not get if you don't know about baseball, but there's just so many fun stories that are great out of context that I think anyone can read. I think that maybe kids under 10 years old might have a tough time but I think this book will appeal to a wide-range of readers, I hope so anyway."
7. What is your favorite picture in the book?
Hample: "Probably the Justin Bieber photo, no I'm just kidding. Well probably, the photos from the Rawlings factory, I guess, just because it's a place that basically nobody gets to go to. I was fascinated with it long before I even dreamed of writing this book, I always wanted to go there. I was there on a family vacation in 2005, and I contacted Rawlings and tried to get them to let me in and of course they said no. I don't know, it was such an elusive place and I have many more photos on my computer from the factory that did not make it into the book because there was limited space and all that, but I think just looking at those brings back some great memories. We all want behind the scenes access, we want special privileges, we want to see stuff other people don't get to see, and so that's what I think of when I see those photos and it's pretty cool to be the one who gets to share that with other people."
8. Why three sections, and why did you come up with the three sections that you came up with?
Hample: "It took a lot of planning and scheming and strategizing and the biggest challenge by far with this whole book, was simply figuring out how to organize all of the information. It just seemed logical, I mean it's not like three is the magic number or anything like that, I mean I would have done five parts if there were five huge, different areas that needed to be talked about and at one point I just considered doing two parts. I knew it would be at least two, as I thought about doing a snagging part and then everything else, and there was even a time when I was considering four and I forget what the fourth one would have been but it really just worked out that way. The structure of the book kept evolving right up until the end."
9. You tried to incorporate the good of baseball such as how crazy people were in the early 1900's over baseballs and the bad such as death in baseball. Why do you think there is so much good and bad in baseball?
Hample: "I think that baseball is probably a reflection of life in general, I mean it's not all bad and it's not going to be all great. I think that's sort of the nature of the world and there's just a lot of money involved in baseball and a lot of ego so there's a lot of drama in that sense. You are dealing with a very hard object of course, that can travel more than 120 miles per hour when it leaves the bat so from a physical standpoint, there's certainly the chance that destructive things will happen. I just think that's sort of how it goes, it is what it is, and that's what makes it so entertaining too as something great might happen but something tragic may happen as well and you sort of live and die with it, sometimes literally."
10. What inspired you to write down the complete history of the baseball ('The Evolution of the Ball')?
Hample: "Just my own curiosity inspired it and I just felt like that was an essential part of it. It's a book about the ball and in fact, when I tell people about the book, I tell them the title, and the first thing they ask is, 'oh it's like a history of the ball,' and it's funny that that is the first thing they mention, and I have to say, 'well yes, there's a chapter about that but there's so much more'. So I think without even really knowing much or thinking much about it, it's sort of a logical obvious thing to write about and from a personal standpoint, I was fascinated myself in how it had changed and how it affected the sport along the way."
11. You made a youtube video recently showing all that was inside the baseball. What inspires you to break down the baseball literally and would you recommend it to others?
Hample: "That's something that I had done on my own a couple of times over the years, just out of curiosity. I'm not really particularly handy or good at fixing things or you hear stories about kids who took their parents microwaves apart when they were seven and then learned how to put it together and now they're an expert mechanic. It's not anything like that with me, I was curious to see what was inside of it and as far as the Youtube video goes, as with the book itself, it's just something I love so much that I want to share with a wider audience and it would be fun and interesting really for people to see it."
12. Why did you decide to put all of the pictures in of the commemorative baseballs, and how many different types of commemoratives out there?
Hample: "I don't know the exact number, and it is kind of hard to pin down, because there have been prototypes of balls that were never released to the public but there are a few collectors who have them. They weren't ever used in games, so many are unsure if you count those. There sometimes is one logo which has three different versions and different background colors, so do you count that as three different ones or just one? It's hard to pin down a number, but there are hundreds. I'm friends with someone who is a serious commemorative baseball collector, and he shared with me a master list at one point, and he was very helpful and it helped me come up with those 36 commemorative balls that you see in the book. The reason why I wanted to put those in there, quite simply, is who doesn't love photos?
My editor told me that unfortunately we were not able to do color photos but she said you can have as many black and white photos as you want. Photos or any kind of visual really, bring stuff to life, and I just wanted to have a whole chunk of photos. When I pick up some random book in a store, I always flip through to see if there are pictures and I look at those and read the captions and I wanted that to be the case with this book, but not just have them clustered in one little area, but have them all throughout the book. I struggle with ADD, I haven't officially been diagnosed, but I don't want to read something that's just hundreds of solid pages of text, I like it when it's broken up a little bit with cool stuff to look at."
13. Sticking to the same theme, what is your favorite commemorative baseball, either snagged or not snagged?
Hample: "I think the prettiest one is La Primera Serie from Monterrey, Mexico. The captions says that, 'it is the first commemorative ball for actual regular season games that took place outside of the US or Canada' and it's too bad that there are not color photos in the book, because this particular ball is just gorgeous. The ball has alternating red and green stitches and the actual stamping from the ball is red, so it's extremely festive. That's a popular ball in general among collectors, and I think it is one of the coolest ones. I'm not sure about the rarity of the ball, there might have been a lot of them made and just sold as souvenirs, it's only 15-years-old or so."
14. Now on to something both you and I are rather familiar with- snagging. You wrote an entire book on this topic earlier, how is this section different from that book?
Hample: "The first thing I want to say about it is that I didn't simply copy and paste my first book into the final third of this new one. I completely rewrote it. A lot of the chapter names are the same, I got that right when I was 19 and wrote the book the first time, but looking back at that first book now, I'm actually kind of embarrassed by it. I think the writing is terrible and I wasn't nearly as knowledgeable about this stuff and it's not really a good book. I mean you could say 'yeah well it was good for a college kid' or whatever, but it's certainly not my best work.
I think that I had only been to a dozen stadiums by the time I wrote that first one, and now I've been to 48, and I talk about many different stadiums, many different players and stories, I've learned much more about this since I wrote the first one. The writing is better; it's more fun, it's more personal, and I sort of go beyond myself and beyond just catching balls and bring in stories about the sport too and sort of actual historical things and things that were in the news connected to ballhawking. I think it's a good enough section that people that don't even want to catch baseballs would have fun reading it."
15. If you could give a quick tip to those reading this interview that are interested in ballhawking that you do not normally give, what would it be and why?
Hample: "I have to say that every possible strategy that I've ever thought of is in the book, I did not withhold a single thing. The only thing that I understated in the book was when it came to sneaking past security and being sneaky. I didn't want to go there, I don't want to (tick) off anybody in Major League Baseball or get myself in serious trouble. It's all there in the book, so I would just sort of reiterate the basic things, which are: show up early to batting practice, bring a glove, and invest a few bucks in buying some clothing of the visiting team as you'll really get a lot of balls tossed at you. Those are just the basics, so just go out to a park sometime, and have a friend hit a few fungos and just practice catching fly balls, it can really be helpful, just learning how to judge a a ball.
I don't have an extra insider's info, and part three of this book is so thorough that it may come back to haunt me. I've already lost out on a lot of baseballs because other people were there to catch them that got into it because of me, and they were using my own tricks against me. I'm willing to make that sacrifice and lose out on a few baseballs here and there just to be able to share this with a lot of people. There are many baseballs to be caught, and if my numbers are just slightly down at the end of the year, so be it, I'm sure there's a lot of other people out there that will be happy to have caught those baseballs."
16. For those interested in ballhawking but who have never tried, what is the top saying you use to get a player's attention for a baseball?
Hample: "My voice. I mean that might sound obvious, but I think if you've never really tried or have never you gone early, you might not realize that it is perfectly acceptable to shout out at the players as loud as you possibly can as long as you do it politely and you don't expect anything and you're not demanding and you say please. Just don't be shy, raise your voice and make yourself be heard."
17. What is your favorite snag?
Hample: "I'm still going to go with the last home run ever at Shea Stadium (hit by a Met), just because it was incredibly crowded and it was a very historic game and I practically grew up in that stadium and I never caught a home run there in all the years that I'd been there, and then with just a few innings to go, I managed to do it, and to me that's better then a Barry Bonds home run because Bonds is just one guy, and of course, there's speculation that he may have done some dishonest things along the way. The Mets home run ball represents an entire organization, a city and a stadium so that one is going to be hard to beat, unless I catch somebody's 500th home run or someone's 3000th hit, maybe it will be a ground-rule double and bounce up to me."
18. Why should people buy your book? What makes it different from other baseball books?
Hample: "Well, because it's fun and interesting and because I think a lot of books out there focus on a particular player, they focus on a team, they'll focus on a particular World Series, they'll focus on some history and there will be a lot of trivia, but my book it, as far as I know, there has never been a book that just focused on an object before like this or to this extent in baseball. It's a different kind of baseball book, it's sort of like a look at the sport itself through the lens of the ball."
19. Who is your favorite current baseball player?
Hample: "I'm going to have to go with Heath Bell. He's been so incredibly nice to me and I already felt that he was my favorite two years ago before he was even a closer, and now look at him, he's the man. He's making all-star teams, he's in the spotlight and he's the man for the Padres so I think it's got to be Heath Bell. I mean there are other guys I just love. I've always loved Jeter and Mariano. Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki- I love those two guys because they found their own unique way to succeed. I mean Mariano, just throws one speed and yet he just dominates and throws off Major League hitters, it's unheard of, and Ichiro, he's practically got his (butt) hanging out of the batter's box and he's running one way, his bat goes the other way and he weighs like 30 pounds with rocks in his pockets and he just should not be a professional athlete or baseball player, and it's not just like he made it, I mean he dominates, so I sort of feel like he is an underdog even though he is still great, so I appreciate players like that."
20. What team is the best bp team for you?
Hample: "The Marlins. The Marlins have always been really generous with tossing out baseballs into the crowd and it may be because I have a wonderful teal colored outfit, but for a number of years, they've just had a ton of righties and just guys that really crush the ball. I've always put up good numbers and had a lot of fun seeing the Marlins play."
21. Since I will likely put this on my Pirates blog, what do you make of the Pirates?
Hample: "In general, I actually don't keep up with off-season news, just because baseball completely takes over my life during the warmer months, that I actually like to take the winter months and get as far away from it as possible, so I don't really know that much about what's been happening in the Major Leagues in general since the end of the World Series and then you sort of go a step further back and talk about the Pirates, I couldn't tell you a single move they made. For all I know, Albert Pujols may have signed with them but wait, is Clint Hurdle going to be managing them" (Upon finding out that Garrett Atkins will join them) I think he has proven that he can hit a mile above sea level. I don't expect good things from the Pirates, this season, just judging on past performance. I mean I would love for the Pirates to win the division, I would love it, again, I love the underdog and Pittsburgh is such a wonderful baseball city that just goes back to generations and I would love to see that franchise resurrect itself, but I don't see it just turning around that quickly, but no one thought the Padres were going to do anything last year, I mean everybody thought that they were going to suck, and they did end up missing the playoffs, but they surprised a lot of people.
22. What do you make of PNC Park from a ballhawking perspective?
Hample: "My best advice on how to handle right field at PNC Park is not to go there or hang out behind the bleachers before the stadium opens. I know I put PNC Park in my top 10, but it sort of barely squeaked in there. It is not a great batting practice park, but it's really good during games. If it were just according to BP, I probably would have put Citizen's Bank Park in there. I have become more home run conscious. There's sort of that flat standing room area between the bleachers and that low second deck that helps a lot."
23. Is there anything else that you would like to add?
Hample: "Ballhawking as a cultural phenomenon gets a lot of bad press and there's a lot of negativity associated with it. People have this perception that ballhawks knock over little kids and steal baseballs from them, just because I catch one ball means that someone else is deprived of it, but that's really not how it works, and it's something that kids of all ages just enjoy.
I try to give back. I'm raising money for a charity and I give a lot of baseballs to kids and I see other ballhawks doing the same thing. When my first book came out, I was sort of all about keeping every single ball and I even wrote a list of excuses to give people on why not to give them a baseball and I am pretty embarrassed by that now. My attitude has changed, and ballhawking has received a lot of press in the last few years and I think it's going to get a lot more in the coming seasons when A-Rod starts taking aim at Bonds' career record and Pujols as well. Everyone is going to be hearing about ballhawks, and ballhawk related things. I think that the less people know about this, the more negative things they will tend to assume but I think for people who aren't familiar with this, give it a chance, read the book, read some blogs of ballhawks, go on mygameballs.com, read some of the columns and read your (Zac's) blog. It is a really fun, positive hobby and like anything, there are some negative things that do arise, but it's just pretty cool, and I just want more people to know about it and give it a fair shake."
Editor's Note: Head over to Amazon.com to Pre-order your copy of The Baseball today!
Zac Weiss is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com and also maintains a Blog.