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Record-setting baseball collector Zack Hample visits The Cell

(Riley Blevins )
May 22, 2013|By Riley Blevins @Riley_Blevins | RedEye

Glove in hand, backpack fastened around his shoulders, Zack Hample scans the field.

It’s batting practice at U.S. Cellular Field. The rhythmic thud of ball meeting bat stops.

A new slugger trots to the plate.

Hample perks up.

He bites the bottom of his lip. He squints. He looks like a marksman trying to spot his target through a pair of aging sights.

Target acquired.

“Dustin Pedroia!” he shouts. “Left field, left field!”

Hample, the record-setting baseball collector who has snagged more than 6,680 balls at MLB games, bounds up the aisle in right field, skipping two steps at a time.

He hustles furiously. But this is only practice.

Snagging balls was once just a hobby. But this season there’s money on the line.

Biggs Sunflower Seeds is challenging Hample to snag a game-used ball at all 30 big-league ballparks this season. For every stadium at which he succeeds, BIGS will donate $500 to Pitch in for Baseball, a charity that collects and redistributes new and used baseball and softball equipment to underprivileged communities around the world.

“It’s been exhausting and fantastic all at the same time,” Hample said.

So far, Hample has raised $7,000 and corralled balls at all 14 of his stadium stops.

Hample’s record for most balls nabbed in a game came on his birthday on Sept. 14, 2011. He pocketed 36 that day at Great American Ballpark.

But don’t ask him about it, he’s still bitter that he let a guy out jostle him from No. 37.

The last time Hample didn’t holster a ball? (game-used or BP) Sept. 2, 1993.

What went wrong?

“Two words: Yankee Stadium,” Hample chuckled.

While Hample failed to snag a game-used ball Tuesday at The Cell, rest easy. He returns Wednesday night.

Currently, Hample said he averages eight balls a game.

“He’s just so passionate about this,” said Neal Stewart, a Bigs employee who’s joining Hample on his journey. “He’s on a mission. The fun part is, this won’t be easy. He’s so intense about it.”

The intensity is easy enough to spot.

As seen in the New York native griping his backpack straps and sprinting down the outfield concourse, headed for left field and a better snagging position for the right-handed-hitting Pedroia.

“Hurry!” Hample shouts over his shoulder.

Hample reaches his destination: eight rows deep in left-center.

“Ah,” he says, “I think Pedroia’s gonna pull one.”

He repositions. This time in the far left-field corner, squished against the bullpen that takes up the last 20 yards or so of the left field fence.

The windup. The pitch. Crack.

Sure enough, Pedroia yanks a ball down the left-field line.

Hample looks back, pulsing his eyebrows a few times almost to say, “I told you so.”

But the ball crashes in the bullpen.

“That’s the problem with The Cell,” Hample says. “The bullpens swallow a lot of balls.”

Hample has this ball-snagging thing down to a science. He carries both rosters. He wields a sheet with some version of “Hey, throw me a ball,” written in more than 30 languages. He owns hats and T-shirts of all 30 big-league teams. He even owns an umpire hat for after the game. He tracks stats. He knows where to sit and where not to. He moves spots every half inning. And he’s nabbed at least one ball in his last 902 games.

He pocketed four just 20 minutes into batting practice Tuesday night.

A few more batters take their hacks. Only a couple of balls reach the outfield seats.

“Slow day,” Hample says, hands on hips. “Watch this.”

Hample heads back to the bullpen. He sets his backpack at his feet.

He dives inside, emerging with a lanyard, string, rubber band, Sharpie marker and a carabineer. He grabs his Rawlings outfielder’s glove. The one with “Zack Hample” branded down the thumb.

Hample loops the lanyard through the index finger hole in his glove and latches on the carabineer.

He leans over the bullpen railing.

“Look,” he says, pointing to a ball resting about five feet away.

He lowers the string. He sways his glove a few times like it’s the pendulum of grandfather clock, then tosses his contraption.

Direct hit.

He reels the ball closer. Time for step two.

He pulls up his glove, fastens a thick rubber band across its fingers, stuffs a marker in its heel and lowers it again.

He works the ball into his glove, wedging it between the marker and rubber band.

Bingo. He lifts it up.

A kid two rows back watches Hample with wide eyes.

Hample turns, ball in hand, eyeing his newest treasure.

Hample spots the kid.

“Here ya go,” he says, handing the ball to the youngster.

No biggie. After all, batting practice balls don’t count toward the charity challenge.

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