Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about Zack Hample, who had complained about being bumped by a fan, causing him to lose a home run ball at Yankee Stadium. Hample, by his own count, got 11 other baseballs at that game, bringing his career total to 9,079—but he was unhappy about what would have been No. 9,080.
Hample, understandably, took issue with my negative characterization of him and the wider ballhawking hobby, of which he is its most visible and most successful member. He wrote me an email; eight minutes later he posted his email on Twitter:
I wrote back to Hample a couple of hours later, in what I intended to be a direct reply but turned into a more open-ended criticism of ballhawking as a whole. I did not write it planning to make it public, but I think it works fairly well as my manifesto against ballhawking, an opinion I’ve long held but never really elucidated before. My email is below.
Hey Zack, thanks for writing.
You are probably the last person on earth I need to say this to, but: getting a baseball is awesome. There’s nothing like it. To go to a game as a fan, and for just a moment to actually interact with the sport on the field, to go home with a souvenir that was actually used in the game—well, it’s a life-making memory. It’s enough to remind a grown man or woman of a purer childhood fandom. And I find it very difficult to believe the ballhawk’s experience is the same as that of the average fan.
The guy who made contact with you at Yankee Stadium last night, and the kid with whom you made contact—they both really wanted that baseball. You might not buy this, because obviously you really wanted that ball, but I would wager an awful lot that those two people wanted that ball more than you did.
That doesn’t mean they’re entitled to it, of course. But they’re regular people. Fans of a team. They didn’t come to the park to catch a ball, I’m sure they weren’t even thinking about it. Getting a ball is such a rush, such a memorable experience, because it’s not supposed to happen! Of the tens of thousands of people in a park each night, only a lucky few get to go home with a ball. It’s a miracle of probability, and an unforgettable, almost unimaginable stroke of pure luck. For those two people, that might have been the closest they ever get to catching a ball. I believe that ball would have meant more to them than it would to you.
By your own count, you’ve snagged 9,000+ baseballs. Those would have been the highlights of 9,000+ people’s game-attending lives.
You work hard at what you do—it shows in the results. Ballhawks pick their spots because they know the odds, and they’ve scouted hitters’ tendencies. (Unlike the random fans down the foul lines or in the bleachers, who may be there because they were the cheapest or only seats available.) Ballhawks go to a game hoping to get a ball. Maybe even expecting it? And when ballhawks succeed, it’s because they earned it. That seems like a pretty self-centered motivation to me. For the average person, a ball is a gleeful fluke; for you, it’s validation of your methods. For them it’s winning the lottery; for you it’s another notch in your belt.
I don’t want to harp on last night, but your reaction made it appear that you felt you were entitled to that ball. To me, that shows a lack of self-awareness that I find just baffling. The ballhawk community no doubt feels that you were robbed, and you do too. (And I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong to feel that way.) But you have to know how it comes across when a guy with so many baseballs to his name publicly complains that a random fan, who may never get a ball in his life, kept him from getting one more.
I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I believe that ballhawking lessens the sense of accomplishment of catching a baseball. It meritocracizes the single most populist fan reward. If I’m wrong, and your 7,358th baseball felt every bit as good to you as your first baseball, then my entire argument falls apart. But in all honestly I can’t conceive of being wrong about that. If I am, then it’s my failing and you should feel you won this debate.
I’m always down for a drink. I bet we’d have a grand old time talking baseball.