Hey, kid, you know why your mitt is always empty when you come
home from a major league game? It's because you've got no clue!
If you'd listen to Zack Hample, you'd come home with a ball from
every game. Two, even! Five! In the last 11 years Zack, 23, says
he has come home with 1,680 major league baseballs. And that's
just from throws by Chuck Knoblauch.
No, seriously, Zack, a student whose home is New York City,
averages six balls a game. He has gotten 14 in one game four
times. He even has a book out: How to Snag Major League Baseballs
($3.99, Simon & Schuster). According to Zack, these are the
questions you should be asking yourself.
1. Are you using your head? You're leaning over the dugout roof,
begging Ken Griffey Jr. for a ball, but you're wearing a Dodgers
hat! Griffey isn't tossing a ball to a Dodgers hat. That's why
Zack brings the caps of both teams to each game. He calls players
by their names, never "Hey, number 8!" He has even asked for
balls in Spanish and Japanese and by signing. Plus, knowing
players like to toss balls to kids, he raises his voice an octave
when he asks. (Someday, Zack will run the world.)
2. Are you ready? No, you're slurping ice cream out of a little
souvenir helmet! How are you going to leap for a ball with that
on your lap? And always sit on the aisle, even if it's not your
seat. That way you can sprint to a ball or away from a security
guard. (Zack also brings an extra shirt, in case he needs it as a
disguise if a guard is after him.)
3. Where were you during batting practice? Zack snags 97% of his
balls during BP and other nongame situations. He knows what time
every big league park opens, and he's always first through the
gate. No wonder Zack has now gone 264 straight games catching at
least one baseball. Hell, Bill Buckner used to be lucky if he
could go three.
4. Is that all you brought--a mitt? You need the ZackTrap. It's
his glove attached to a long string and with a rubber band around
it, which makes a perfect opening for a ball to roll into the
pocket. Zack lowers the trap onto the field to snag strays. He
even used it from the upper deck at the old Tiger Stadium. That
was about 40 feet. And he nailed one! Florida Marlins pitchers
were so amazed by the ZackTrap, they kept throwing balls out of
the bullpen simply to watch Zack try to pick them up.
5. Why are you sitting next to a six-foot guy with a mitt? He'll
outreach you. "You need to look for a family fascinated by the
JumboTron," Zack says, "or very old people."
6. O.K., here comes a ball, so what do you do? You run right to
the approaching ball. What does Zack do? He runs to a spot three
rows of seats below where he figures it will land, because
baseballs roll downhill. "Everybody overplays 'em," he says.
7. Is your brain made of Skittles? Then why are you camped out
along the third base line for a righthanded hitter? Zack says
that 99.9% of fouls are sliced the opposite way. "For a
righthander, I draw an imaginary line from the leftfielder
through home plate," Zack says. "That's the perfect place to
8. Did you do your homework? For instance, Todd Hundley, when he
was catching for the New York Mets, tossed Zack more balls than
any other player. Zack says that Mets pitcher Rick Reed, on the
other hand, "goes out of his way to keep me from getting balls."
One time Reed even threw his glove at the ZackTrap just as it was
fishing up a beauty.
9. How bad do you want it? Zack has hurtled railings, dived on
cement and fallen onto the field from the stands. In stadiums, he
measures the gap between the bottom of a seat back and the
concrete to see if a ball will roll through or stop. He catalogs
how and when he got every ball. (O.K., so he's a little sick.)
10. Are you ready to dance? When you get a ball, the camera will
be on you, so your dance better be good. Zack has been known to
do Cossack jumps, the swim, the Saturday Night Fever John
Travolta, the Pulp Fiction Travolta and the Cabbage Patch. Once,
Zack says, New York Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto saw him
going mental after catching a ball and said, "You can take your
seat now, son, it's just a baseball."
No, no, no! It's more than that! "It's being the 10th fielder,"
Zack says. "The ball goes from the pitcher's hand to the hitter's
bat to my glove. You can feel the game in your hand, smell it,
see the scuff marks. That's the thrill for me."
Now get out there and start snagging! (Just don't stand anywhere
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA