Ballhawks give back by collecting baseballs
As it pertains to Major League Baseball, a "ballhawk" is someone who attends MLB games with the goal of snagging as many baseballs as possible.
But a wave of veteran ballhawks, like Wayne Peck, are redefining what the term means every time they step into a stadium.
"Ballhawks are viewed as greedy, pushy losers that spend all their time playing World of Warcraft in their mother's basement," Peck said. "We go to games, push kids, elbow grandmothers and tromp on people's popcorn just to get a baseball.
"Of course, all of that is not true. I wanted to sort of solidify those myths to be false by starting a charity called 'Snagging Baseballs for Puppies' to help out the local animal shelters in my area. It's a great way to give back -- and at the same time have fun at the stadium -- knowing that what you're doing is going towards a good cause."
Peck isn't alone. Several of his fellow ballhawks, including Zack Hample, Zac Weiss and James Conarroe, collect pledges for charities of their choice.
Hample, who some call the "father of modern ballhawking," is the pioneer of the charity movement.
"I feel like any time you can inspire people to do something, it's pretty special, especially if it is for charitable purposes and other people are being helped," Hample said. "If something good is actually happening in the world because of my silly hobby, that's a pretty special feeling."
Hample, a New Yorker, snags baseballs for Pitch in for Baseball, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide baseball equipment to underprivileged children. Weiss, a college student who hails from Pittsburgh, collects for The Children's Institute, a pediatric rehabilitation facility which helped him through some motor skills issues. Conarroe's charity is the Alzheimer's Association, chosen in memory of his late grandfather, who suffered from the disorder.
"I love baseball. I have since I was 7 years old," Conarroe said. "It's been a part of just who I am. It's a connection to my childhood, attending games with my dad, [and now] with my children. It just connects you to the game."
Weiss added that he appreciates the chance to interact with players.
"It feels like you are one of the players, if they know you well enough, because you're just running around, just like they are, trying to catch baseballs," said Weiss, who is a junior in college. "It kind of feels like you're that fourth outfielder out there." Weiss also likes the fact that he gets plenty of exercise by ballhawking.
Hample tied it all together.
"I would say that my love of baseball is what keeps me going after all of these years, but I like that I can feel connected to the game by catching balls," he said. "For me, it's like my own personal version of fantasy baseball. I love the competitive aspect of it. I like that everybody is trying to get this one special object during a game and there are 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on that one ball, and you are the one person that gets it.
"It's just a very special, exhilarating feeling. I also just love any opportunity to use my athletic ability in everyday life and using the world as my own personal playground."
Peck's ballhawking career began on a 2005 mid-tour leave from Iraq.
"My then-girlfriend mentioned to the usher that I was home from combat and she wanted to make things extra-special at the game," he said. "The usher came back with a baseball from the Royals bullpen, and later I got it signed by Jeremy Affeldt, who played for the Royals at that time. It was pretty special, and then a little light clicked in my head."
Weiss described the same 'light-bulb moment' when talking about when he first decided to collect for charity.
"Zack Hample had kind of set the standard for ballhawking for Pitch in for Baseball," Weiss said about the foundation of The Children's Institute. "I just thought that was great. I thought, 'What more can I do?' and the light bulb kind of clicked around mid-May last year."
|"I feel like any time you can inspire people to do something, it's pretty special, especially if it is for charitable purposes and other people are being helped. If something good is actually happening in the world because of my silly hobby, that's a pretty special feeling."|
|-- Zack Hample|
"There must be some way for me to have fun in the baseball world, but also give back to the baseball world in the process," he mused before the start of the 2009 season, when he came up with the idea to donate pledges to charity. "I thought back to all of these group e-mails I had received from friends who would be running in a marathon and they would ask friends to pledge a dollar for every mile that they run. So I thought, 'I wonder if I could do something like that with baseball.' Instead of running miles, I would be catching balls, and instead of pledging a dollar, they could pledge a penny or a nickel -- whatever they want."
Hample, Peck, and Weiss author MLBlogs, on which they regularly raise funds and discuss their charity efforts.
All four use a variety of tactics to snag as many balls as they can for their respective causes.
Conarroe relies on the simplest rule of them all: "Put yourself in a position where most of the balls are going to be hit.
"Get to the park early, and be the first one inside. I don't know how many baseballs I've found lying around as soon as I ran inside. Also, know your players. Most players wear BP jerseys that don't have their name showing. If you can call to a player by their first name when they're wearing one of those, you're golden," Peck added.
"I maintain pretty good relationships with the players," said Weiss, who has told some Pirates coaches and players about his charitable efforts. "I think they get a kick out of it sometimes, seeing me trying to run after some of these balls!"
Hample has even more tricks up his sleeve. For example, he uses a contraption known as the "glove trick" -- comprised of a glove, string, a rubber band and a Sharpie marker -- to snag baseballs from the warning track and bullpen.
He also owns the apparel of all 30 teams, and dons the appropriate gear when seeking balls from players. Hample even knows how to request a ball in 35 different languages.
All four are quick to recognize, though, that no matter what the strategy, the most important part is to have fun and help a good cause.
"Last month, I gave some kid -- he was probably about five or six -- a ball. I was watching him during batting practice, and at the end of batting practice, he didn't get a ball. I kind of tossed it to him and he jumped up and down and his dad got the camera out ... so that makes me feel good," said Conarroe, who has 19 balls so far this season.
"Hopefully that kid will grow up and want to ballhawk, and that'll bring him to the games, and he'll bring people to the games. I think it's just a cool way to support Major League Baseball."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.