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The ball, not the ballgame

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK - It's opening day and the Pirates are beating the Phillies 2-1.

Baseball fan Zack Hample, 26, flashes a slightly malevolent grin as he watches the last out of the game on TV in his parents' Manhattan apartment.

"Millwood lost; I'm glad," Hample says, referring to Phillies pitcher Kevin Millwood. "He's really snotty."

Hample is driven by an unquenchable thirst for baseballs, and at a Phillies game last year in Montreal, Millwood denied Hample a baseball during batting practice. Hample hasn't forgotten.

"I said, 'Hey, Kevin, any chance you could give me that ball?' and he didn't even look at me," Hample says.

Not that he has grounds to complain. Since 1990, Hample has snagged more than 2,100 major league baseballs and he has every intention of catching many, many more.

Most of the balls come from batting practice, when players freely toss used baseballs to fans in the stands, but Hample has still managed to catch 70 balls during actual games, including two home runs.

Monday, he broke a personal record by snagging 19 balls at a single Mets game (against the Montreal Expos at Shea Stadium): 17 at batting practice, one foul ball caught during the game (off the bat of Mets center-fielder Mike Cameron), plus one ball recovered after the game from a grassy area next to the field.

This season, Hample is continuing his summer ritual of attending as many New York Mets and Yankees games as he can, as well as flying to ballparks all over the country. He's planning trips to recently opened stadiums in Houston and Cincinnati.

After attending three Mets games so far this season, Hample has amassed a collection of 2,164 baseballs, which fills three trash barrels, five dresser drawers and a duffel bag.

Hample, who considers Cal Ripken Jr. his favorite player, is driven by a quest for numerical perfection, like Ripken's record-breaking streak of consecutive games.

Hample began his hobby at age 12 after he read a magazine article about how to catch balls at batting practice.

Soon after, he went to a Mets game with his family and snagged two balls during practice.

When he was 14, his parents gave him permission to attend games by himself. He went to as many games as he could, often alone, simply to fish for baseballs.

As he perfected his skills, Hample decided to try writing a book. The result, How to Snag Major League Baseballs, came out in 1999 amid a burst of media coverage and sold 23,000 copies before dropping out of print.

Five years after his book's publication, Hample shows no sign of easing back on his hobby.

"I really thought that he'd come to a number and hang it up. I thought maybe 1,000," says Zack's mother, Naomi Hample. "It's a very strange compulsion. It satisfies a very unusual itch."

Hample supports his baseball habit by working in his parents' bookstore and living off savings he has accumulated. He lived with his parents until recently.

While he's not working or trolling for baseballs, he's writing another baseball book. He also holds the record high score in a 1980s-era video game called Arkanoid, he's an expert Scrabble player and he has assembled a 130-pound rubber band ball.

But he can't stay away from baseballs. He has even managed to score a bat and some batting gloves that players have handed him from the field. And he keeps a careful log of when and where he has caught baseballs, which he posts on a Web site, www.zackhample.com.

Hample has encountered other people who share his hobby - "There's one of me in every city," he says - but he has never met anyone who has taken it to such extremes.

Baseball's most famous ball snagger at the moment is likely Steve Bartman, the Chicago Cubs fan who infamously deflected a foul ball during game six of the National League Championship Series last year.

Furious fans blamed Bartman for costing the Cubs a chance at the World Series, and Bartman issued a public apology.

Hample, not a Cubs fan, doesn't blame Bartman.

"If I were sitting there, I would have caught the damn thing," Hample says. "I'm selfish. I'm there for the ball first and the game second."

It's a different story, though, when Hample talks about Jeffrey Maier, the fan who deflected a ball hit by Yankee Derek Jeter during an American League Championship Series game in 1996.

That ball went into the stands and was ruled a home run, and the Yankees beat the Baltimore Orioles and went on to win the series.

Hample says catching the ball was wrong because Maier, then age 12, reached over the field to interfere with a ball in play.

In fairness, Hample is a bit biased against Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, a bias he shares with his father, Stuart Hample, a writer and cartoonist.

Even though Zack Hample grew up a Mets fan, he once began to root against the Mets in the hope that attendance would keep dropping. A less crowded stadium means easier pickings for baseballs.

Hample often carries two hats to batting practice, so he can don the team cap of whichever player is close enough to toss him a ball.

His book includes tips on how to sneak closer to the field without drawing the attention of ushers, how to make excuses when other fans ask you to share your baseballs, and even how to use crutches or a cast to get players to toss you a ball out of sympathy.

"I used to reach in front of people when a player was throwing them the ball," Hample says. "I think back on the way I acted and I was really a jerk."

Hample says he has improved his manners, but he still will not sell or give away a ball.

"If you just want a ball, there's a souvenir stand across the concourse," he says. "The point is you caught it yourself."

One of Hample's friends, George Amores, a photo researcher for Sports Illustrated magazine, has watched Hample in action at many Mets games and says Hample doesn't seem selfish about seeking baseballs.

"He likes to see other people succeed," Amores says.

Amores, who collects player autographs, is impressed with Hample's ability to predict where a ball will land.

"He figures out lefty hitter against a righty hitter, where the ball is going to go," Amores says. "It's just an amazing skill."

When Cal and Bill Ripken visited a bookstore in Manhattan for a book signing recently, Hample waited in line for about three hours to meet them.

At the front of the line, Hample recalled later, he thanked Bill Ripken for throwing him a ball at Yankee Stadium - 10 years ago.

How he does it

Here are some of Zack Hample's tricks for catching baseballs.

Get to the stadium early and claim a spot near the field during batting practice.

Know the players. During batting practice, call them by their first names and specifically ask for a ball.

If you know a player speaks Spanish, Japanese or another language, learn how to politely ask for a ball in his language.

Avoid crowded games. Try going to the first game of a double-header or a game on a rainy day.

Watch games on TV carefully to see where balls are most likely to land in your stadium.

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