3,494 and counting

DENVER - Zack Hample can beg for a baseball in 32 languages, including Swahili, Swedish and sign.

The baseball-seeking savant from Manhattan has tricks galore to help him snare a prized souvenir at a major league game, like lowering his glove on a string to pluck up a ball resting far below on the warning track during batting practice. Or his “fumbling with a slice of pizza” ploy to sneak past an usher and move closer to the dugout.

Not that he needs decoys, deceptions or dialects. Hample has a knack for properly positioning himself for wayward baseballs, gathering up, by his count, 3,494 over the last 19 years.

This year alone, he’s averaging 7.8 balls a game over 28 contests, which takes into account homers from batting practice and games, foul balls and those flipped to him by players, coaches and umpires.

He’s in the midst of a Cal Ripken Jr.-like streak, going 524 straight games, he said, with at least one ball, a string dating to Sept. 10, 1993.

What’s more, the 30-year-old recently set a personal record by snagging 28 baseballs at a Washington Nationals game, his backpack bursting with his bounty. He bagged 17 in batting practice, was tossed five before the game, finagled three from players running off the field during the game, found another hidden behind a gap in the outfield wall and had two flipped to him after the final out was recorded; one by home plate umpire Tim Welke and another from Marlins closer Kevin Gregg.

Not a bad night’s loot.

Pursuing baseballs has become his life’s work. He’s written books on the subject - including “Watching Baseball Smarter” - answers questions on his blog from fans wanting tips, and has started a business called “Watch with Zack,” in which he’ll take fans to a game and guarantee them a souvenir ball or their money back.

“I’d still rather be a baseball player, but this is a cool second place,” Hample said. “It’s like a dream job - since I actually can’t be Derek Jeter.”

But he’s made some Jeter-esque catches from the bleachers, his most memorable snag coming on Barry Bonds’ 724th home run on Aug. 16, 2006, at Petco Park. He scooted through the aisle and thrust his well-worn Mizuno glove upward to pluck it out of the air, nearly tumbling over a railing.

“In one moment, I made a catch I’ll feel great about for the rest of my life,” he said.

Hample became hooked on hunting down baseballs after attending his first game at Yankee Stadium when he was 6 years old.

He finally caught his first baseball at 12 when a Mets pitcher - Hample doesn’t remember who - nonchalantly tossed it to him during batting practice.

These days, Hample goes to great lengths to make sure he recalls every detail, scribbling a number on the ball in blue ink before stuffing it in his backpack. He’ll also log data on a piece of paper to be transferred to his laptop later.

Hample said he’s never once sold a baseball, but gives plenty to kids - only if they’ve brought their glove to the game, the sign of a truly dedicated ball hunter.

The ones he’s kept are stored at his parents’ house, his cache filling five drawers and six 121-litre barrels.

There isn’t one baseball in view around his apartment - at least not anymore. He used to have the Bonds ball on display until it started fading because of exposure to light.

“It made me so happy to sit on my desk and remember that moment,” said Hample, who also is a freelance baseball writer and works at his family’s bookstore. “Baseballs are like little pieces of art. I feel extremely connected to the game by being able to take home a part of it.”

Hample met up with some fellow ballhawks at Coors Field last week for a Rockies game against the Cleveland Indians. He was first in line when the ticket-takers opened the gates two hours before the game.

Slinging his backpack over his left shoulder, he sprinted up a steep flight of steps and into the left field bleachers, quickly nabbing three batting practice home runs 90 seconds after his arrival.

“Good start,” he said casually.

As he wandered back and forth along the front row in left field, a ball hit by Garrett Atkins sailed over his head, and Hample took flight up the steps to retrieve it. An usher lectured him about leaving his assigned area.

Ushers are his nemesis.

They watch him like a hawk, making sure he doesn’t try to sneak into their turf without a ticket. He’s been kicked out four times in his career, all at Shea Stadium.

Hample shrugged off the usher’s comments.

Just then, Rockies reliever Manny Corpas picked up a ball and Hample leaned over the railing, yelling for it in Spanish: “Dame la bola, por favour!”

Corpas smiled and tossed it to a kid instead.

“A lot of players would rather give them to kids,” Hample said. “If I get them to give it to me, I feel like I’ve won a battle there.”

He’s careful, though, not to plow anyone over. There’s honour among ball collectors.

Not that he was accorded that courtesy on this afternoon. He battled with a fan for a ball that skipped down a corridor, his adversary throwing a mean elbow into his rib cage.

“Did you see that?” he yelled.

Steaming from the elbow, Hample wanted another ball to come his way to wipe the lost one from memory.

Cleveland pitcher Scott Elarton obliged, fielding a ball in the outfield and tossing it to Hample when he darted over.

“Don’t throw anymore to him,” a woman screamed in disgust. “He already has one.”

Try six.

After batting practice, Hample headed toward the Indians dugout, hoping to get a ball from one of the players warming up along the third-base line.

“They won’t give you one,” an usher scolded.

And then Casey Blake flipped Hample ball No. 7.

During the game, his assigned seat was in centre field, but he wasn’t content to wait for a ball to come to him.

He went looking for a ball instead.

Between innings, Hample frequently jogged along the crowded concourse, slipping down an aisle when an usher wasn’t paying attention. He wanted to be as close to the dugout as possible, so he could sprint down and get a ball tossed to him as players ran off the field after the third out.

While he flip-flopped between the Rockies and Indians dugouts, he switched caps. Hample has one for every major league team, an investment that’s paid off in numerous baseballs.

When he was in Florida recently trying to snare Ken Griffey Jr.’s 600th career home run - coming an agonizing five feet from catching it - he wore a Cincinnati cap down to the Reds dugout after the game. Third base coach Mark Berry spied the cap and flipped him a ball.

Being asked to scram from a seat doesn’t deter Hample. Twice he was asked by rightful ticket holders to scoot along as he sat on the Indians side. He settled into a seat 29 rows behind the Cleveland dugout in the sixth inning, his goal to scamper down the aisle for a third-out ball. When the final out was recorded, he bolted for the dugout, fans chuckling in his wake.

Jhonny Peralta rewarded him by rolling a ball across the dugout roof. Hample held it aloft and then handed it to a kid with a glove, the audience’s chuckles turning to cheers.

That made eight for the night.

Yet he was dissatisfied. He easily could have had another half-dozen. Of the ones that got away, none was more disheartening than the ball he lost to the elbow-thrower.

“If there was an official scorer for baseball snaggers, they could not really give me an error based on my performance tonight,” he said. “I just wasn’t reacting with 100 per cent efficiency.”

His fellow ball chasers at Coors Field marvelled at his methods.

“He’s just got the knack,” said Robert Harmon, a fixture in the outfield bleachers at Coors wearing his left-handed glove. “He gets more baseballs in a homestand than I get all year.”

Hample has been to 44 major league parks - all the current ones plus 14 no longer in use. His favourite stadium is Camden Yards (as if designed with ball snagging in mind) and his worst is Yankees Stadium (cramped sections, rigid security).

He’s played catch with former Mets pitcher Heath Bell from the boxed seats along the right field foul line, been razzed by Pedro Martinez for chasing after baseballs and had hearing impaired outfielder Curtis Pride toss him a ball after Hample used sign language to convey his request.

Thanks to his language skills, he’s also gotten more than a dozen Japanese players, including Ichiro Suzuki, to toss him a ball. He can also politely ask for a ball in Italian, Korean and Russian.

“Some might learn a language to say, ‘Give me a beer,’ or ‘What’s your number?’ No, I can ask for a ball,” Hample said.

He also counts playing classic video games as a passion, and holds records in Arkanoid and Breakout.

“I like to take things to extremes,” he said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘What if I used all this energy and learned the stock market?’ I would be a billionaire. Fortunately, this is what has gotten my interest.”

Hample views his mounting collection (3,494) as if he’s moving up major league’s career hits list. He’s closing in on Hall of Famer Tris Speaker (3,514) at No. 5 and hopes to soon pass Pete Rose (4,256).

“I feel like I should be out there with those guys - it’s a crime that I’m not,” he said. “I always wonder, if these guys weren’t major leaguers, what would they be doing? I’m the answer to my own question.”


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Updated Saturday, Jun 28, 2008