Since the baseball All Star Game is being played this evening, it seems like a fitting day to post on professional "ballhawks," a profession I wasn't aware existed until I read about it last week in The Wall Street Journal.
Ballhawks go to games with the intention of grabbing any ball that goes in the stands, especially milestone home runs like a player's first or 500th. Most then refuse to give them back to the player unless he coughs up something valuable in return, from a signed bat or a jersey to up to $10,000. This breed of sophisticated collector now appears more determined than ever, stalking everyone from rookies like [Marlins rookie] Mr. [Chris] Coghlan to veteran stars such as Ken Griffey Jr.
Coghlan was mentioned because his first dinger in the bigs landed in the outstretched glove of one Nick Yohanek, a Milwaukee cop who moonlights as a "ballhawk".
Yohanek gives most of the balls he snags to kids. (The majority of his captures are gotten during batting practice, not during the game itself.) On his website, he also keeps track of milestone balls (100th HR, 500th HR, etc.), which may be worth something more than a signed ball or a couple of tickets.
Obviously, the more super the star, and the higher the number, the more valuable the trophy. Thus, Vlad Guerrero's 400th will be worth more than Jhonny Peralata's 100th or Johnny Damon's 200th.
Yohanek's tracker is not completely up to date. Boston's David Ortiz got his 300th the other day. But I'm sure that, between nabbing wrongdoers on the mean streets of Milwaukee, and shagging BP flies, there's not a lot of time to keep track of everything.
Ballhawkers everywhere will, of course, be on the alert when Alex Rodriguez starts to zero in on 800 - the juiciest of the juiced, as it were. A-Rod is "only" at 570 at this point in time, but he's still relatively young, and if his body doesn't breakdown on him, and he keeps playing in Yankee Stadium, the new home-run capital of the major leagues, he should jet past Ruth, Aaron, Bonds, et al. And each time he jumps up a notch in the Top 10, or hits a round number, I'm sure the ball will be worth mega-bucks.
Woe betide the little old lady who's sitting innocently in the bleachers when A-Rod goes yard past The Babe, or Henry, or even (hiss, boo) Barry Bonds.
And if you don't think there's gold in them thar' home run balls, consider this:
After Mark McGwire hit his 70th home run in the 1998 season, Philip Ozersky, the man who caught it, got $3 million for it at auction. Before that, the most expensive ball ever auctioned was the first homer in the old Yankee Stadium, hit by Babe Ruth; it brought $126,500, according to Sports Collectors Digest.
I certainly wouldn't want to be in the way of a ballhawker and his $3 million. ("Fan's neck broken in scramble for record-breaking ball.")
Even the ball for Ken Griffey's paltry 600th HR fetched $42K at auction.
To make sure that a ball is the real deal, by the way, MLB has "two memorabilia authenticators at every park." (Now there's a job for you.)
Not all fans who catch balls are ballhawks. Nor are most fans typically aware of when a homer is a milestoner. Yes, everyone in the ball park will likely know when A-Rod's up for his 600th; but they probably won't know about Jhonny Peralta's 100th. (Let alone know why Peralta spells Jhonny that way.)
Personally, much as I enjoy baseball, I don't want to be anywhere near the receiving end of a milestone homer. (("Fan's neck broken in scramble for record-breaking ball.") Or any homer, for that matter. It may not mean broken neck, but I can sure envision broken glasses, broken nose, and broken wrist as some 220 pound goon in a Kevin Youkilis jersey, a 200 pound goon with too many brews and too few Crackerjacks in him, lunges over me to get the goods.
Perhaps, if I do find myself with the possibility of being in the Fenway bleachers when A-Rod or some other worthy is going to knock-a-homa that really matters, I will hire Zack Hample to teach me the ballhawk ropes.
Zack is a writer, baseball fan, and ballhawk par excellence - over 4000 nabbed to date - who "charges hawk-hopefuls $500 to attend games with him, and said he averages a couple of clients a month." ($500 is probably more than I'm willing to pay. And, alas, his book "How to Snag Major League Baseballs" is out of print. But his "Watching Baseball Smarter" looks plenty interesting.)
This year, by the way, Zack is snagging balls for charity. You can make a pledge of whatever amount you like for each ball he nabs this year, and the proceeds go to Pitch in for Baseball, which provides equipment for poor kids.
His site is charming, and he is totally giving ballhawks a good name - even if I really don't want to be anywhere near one when he's got his eye on the ball. (And even if the pros know how to snag responsibly, without breaking the neck, nose, glasses, or wrist of the future little old lady Red Sox fan with the ill-fortune to be sitting between them and the $5M A-Rod prize.)
Meanwhile, tonight we will root, root, root for the American League team to bring home the home field advantage for the World Series. It's a long season, but that home field advantage could come in handy for the Olde Towne Team this year.
And speaking of the Olde Towne Team.
At the advanced baseball age of 42 - although not that advanced for a knuckleball picther - "our" Tim Wakefield is a first time All Star. By all accounts, in a world full of spoiled, prima donna, rapacious, obnoxious, and genuinely odious professional athletes - think the picture of A-Rod kissing himself in the mirror - I've yet to hear a bad word uttered or see a bad word typed about this guy (other than complaints against his pitching when he's Shakey Wakey).
There was a nice tribute in The Boston Globe today. To add one of my own: I don't know one middle-aged, female Red Sox fan who doesn't have a big, fat crush on Tim Wakefield.
Go, American League! Go, Tim Wakefield!