By Alex Stumpf, Point Park News Service:
Ian Weir does not remember when he went to his first baseball game, but he remembers what he brought.
“I’ve taken my glove to every baseball game I’ve ever been to,” Weir, 20, of Oakmont, said.
Weir used his glove to snag nearly 200 balls last year and is a part of a distinct demographic of fans known as “ballhawks.”
A ballhawk refers to a fan that is able to collect multiple baseballs a game. They say they do this for a variety of reasons, from being able to tour stadiums around the country, to meeting fellow ballhawks nationwide and to boosting their memorabilia collections. The subject has spawned multiple blogs, a book and even a documentary narrated by Bill Murray.
The art to catching a ball varies from person to person. Weir claims that it takes patience, skill and luck.
Jefferson Hills’ Erik Jabs, who was recognized by the website MyGameBalls.com as its ballhawk of 2013, said it takes a sixth sense of knowing the surroundings for catching a batted ball and the manners to get one from a player.
Zack Hample, author of How to Snag Major League Baseballs and the recipient of more than 7,000 free souvenir balls, preaches the importance of positioning.
“To catch a batted ball, I always make sure I have some room to run,” Hample said. “If you get trapped in the middle of a long row of fans, you pretty much have no chance. Lateral mobility is key.”
For Rick Sporcic, ballhawking can happen outside a major league stadium. The sports memorabilia small business owner became involved with the sport-within-the-sport after catching a ball St. Louis pitcher Andy Benes threw into the stands of Pittsburgh’s old Three Rivers Stadium.
Last year he estimated he averaged 10 balls a game. One of his favorite places at PNC Park is in his kayak on the Allegheny River outside during Pirates’ home games. In the spring, he prefers to go on the hunt at places such as McKechnie Field, the Pirates’ spring training home in Bradenton, Fla., and Bright House Field, the spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla.
The Pirates’ on-field success in 2013 ended up hurting the chances for ballhawks such as Sporcic, he said.
“I do not find MLB Ballhawking fun anymore,” Sporcic said. “The primary reason is the bandwagon fans who have taken over PNC Park. Left field at PNC Park is like an obstacle course during BP [batting practice].”
The offseason provides a mixed blessing for these ballhawks. While Hample enjoys the break to catch up with friends, Sporcic and Weir made the trip to Bradenton to catch the Pirates at spring training.
“The Pirates take BP everyday here, so [there are] a lot of chances to snag baseballs,” Weir said.
Not everyone is a fan of ballhawks either. Fan jealousy often leads to backlash at the stadium and occasionally over the Internet on blogs.
Misunderstandings are not unheard of either. Hample was ejected from Washington’s Nationals Park in September 2012 after being accused of selling balls in the stadium.
“I realize that what I do is seen as controversial to some people just because there is a finite number of baseballs flying into the crowd,” Hample said. “I try to treat people right and hope that people see the good in it and not the bad.”
The good Hample is referring to are the donations he has been able to make to children’s baseball charities through his ballhawking. To date he has been able to raise over $20,000 through fundraisers, while also giving a couple of kids souvenirs every game.
Sporcic, while admitting he uses some of the balls for his own batting practice, said he gives away balls to kids too.
As for Jabs, he’s saving most of his prizes for his two-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son.
“I gave away over 100 this past season,” he said. “The rest I take home and store in my garage. I’m waiting for my kids to get old enough to play baseball and then the plan is to use them in our practices.”