An American Ballhawk Goes to Tokyo

17 Feb 2015 | 04:03

By Robin Kilmer Most people go to sporting goods stores when they need baseballs. Zack Hample goes to Major League baseball games; the renowned ballhawk has collected 5,852 of them in his lifetime. Hample, a longtime Upper West Sider, has discussed his collection on numerous talk shows, including The Rosie O'Donnell Show and The Tonight Show. Though his love of baseball could be quantified by the amount of baseballs he owns, it has manifested itself in many forms. Hample has written three books on the subject and raised over $19,000 for Pitch in for Baseball, a charity that provides baseball equipment to underprivileged kids around the world. Last season he visited all 30 Major League stadiums, attended 131 games and snagged 1,157 baseballs. This March, his love of baseball took him all the way to Japan, where he played the unofficial role of United States Ambassador of American Baseball Fan Culture. At the Tokyo Dome, where the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics faced off to open the season, Hample discovered that while the game was the same and the stadium was similar to many back home, the fan culture was much different. Baseball games in the States are noisy affairs, but the opening games in Tokyo were marked by a silence usually associated with the PGA Tour. "It was so quiet I could hear the pitches smacking into the catcher's mitt from across the stadium," Hample said. Because of Ichiro Suzuki, Japanese fans where overwhelmingly rooting for the Mariners, and the silence that blanketed the game was interrupted only when he came to bat or when the Mariners scored. Hample decided it was his duty to infuse the game with some noise and found an opportunity sitting in left field, just behind Athletics left fielder Coco Crisp. "I know I could've spoken in a normal voice and he would've heard me-It was a heckler's delight," he recalled. "I didn't say anything particularly mean or funny, but my whole section was cracking up. The crowd was interested in American baseball, so I wanted to give them the full experience by showing them what American fans are like." Aside from the lack of noise, there was also a dearth of ballhawks, amongst whom Hample is famous for his quirky tactics: he can ask for baseballs in 35 different languages and uses a jerry-rigged baseball glove to retrieve the ones that are out of reach. The contraption-appropriately dubbed "the glove trick"-is propped open with a sharpie, fitted with a long rubber band and suspended on a string. "Snagging baseballs is just not part of the Japanese culture," said Hample. "The fans are not even allowed to keep most of the balls that go into the stands." Hample used this to his advantage and snagged a total of 23 balls in two games. Though most were thrown to him during batting practice, Hample drew extra attention to himself by using the glove trick twice. "In typical fashion, the fans loved it and stadium security hated it," said Hample. "I got scolded by the guards each time." While Hample and his hobby remain largely unknown overseas, this might change soon, as Sankei Sports, a Japanese-language daily newspaper with more than 1 million readers, is slated to run a feature story on him later this month. In the meantime, Hample got to witness a future ballhawk in action. "I saw a little boy who was probably 8 years old catch a home run on the fly with his glove. I thought the ball was gonna kill him, but he just reached his glove up like he was the coolest dude in all of Japan and caught that thing one-handed. Then the security guard stormed over and took the ball from him. I'm happy to say that when the usher tossed it back onto the field, the nearest player threw it back into the crowd for the kid to keep." Now that he is back in the States, Hample plans to spread the love of baseball to as many people as possible.