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Jun 04, 2009

Pro-ball dropout but a major league champion nonetheless, Zack Hample plays his own game.

By David A. Ross

He is running as fast as he can. Back up the aisle then laterally crossing toward the left field crease, he never lets his eyes off the prize—a hit deep into the left field stands at Citi Field, new home of the New York Mets.

Snagging it with his well-oiled glove, Zack Hample, champion ball hawk of Major League Baseball, brings down number 3,992, and he’s all smiles.

Just ten minutes earlier, he was standing with a small group of people waiting for the gates to open. With him were the kind of fans who like to turn up early to watch batting practice, but Hample was as anxious as any athlete before a game. When the gate opened, he took the steps to the seating area in left field three at a time, at a full run. 

A former college-level ballplayer who was realistic enough to admit to himself that he didn’t have the talent for the big leagues, Hample instead developed his own baseball game. At this game, he has excelled into the realm of legend. Unlike the ephemeral world of fantasy or Wii baseball, Hample’s game is physical, and his ambition is dead serious. He wants to dominate—through physical skill or strategic psychological manipulation—all the other players in the surprisingly serious business of hawking big league baseballs. 

In pursuit of that goal, he has given new meaning to the word avid. Knowing all the players by first name and place of origin, he has taught himself to call out personal appeals to the field in eight languages, including Korean. He carries T-shirts and caps of both teams to every game, and when he senses that the right team logo will raise his chances of being tossed a ball by a player, he changes into them faster than a runway model. Knowing that kids have a higher hit rate with the players than grown-ups, he pulls his hat down over his brow, bends low and calls in a high child-like voice when he begs a player for a ball, always cunningly polite.

You get the feeling there’s just about nothing Hample won’t do to get a baseball. “I’m not just competing against other fans for a ball that’s been hit,” he says. “I’m trying to outsmart major league players and get inside their heads.”

After 16 years at it—ball hawking having grabbed him even as a player—he has become a curious fixture in Major League Baseball, which has given him his own blog, called The Baseball Collector. He is the author of two books, Watching Baseball Smarter and How to Snag Major League Baseballs.

Now 31, Hample just reached a major milestone, copping ball number 4,000 during a game at Dodger Stadium between the L.A. Dodgers and the New York Mets. Though Hample tries to rise above partisanship, he cannot hide a certain special affection for the Mets. So it was more than fitting that it was a Mets away game that offered him the chance for this particular achievement. 

“I was prepared to hang back and only go for balls that were hit to me,” he says, “but I was up against the gun, fighting the clock…so I did have to ask players to throw me balls, Livan Hernandez of the Mets threw me what turned out to be ball 4,000.”

Hample can be counted on not to rest on his laurels. Next up: “I would love to get 1,000 balls in one season,” he says. “If I can’t be a major league player, I can still live the life and be at about every game.”

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