One of the few things that can get me out of the house besides work and the lure of fast food in the great American pastime, baseball. I’ve been a huge fan of the game since I was a kid, and since I first began semi-regularly going to Major League games back in 1988, I have seen around 300 games in 14 different ballparks in 11 different cities from Denver to Atlanta to Minneapolis. Among the things that make baseball unique from most of the other major sports in North America are its fierce clinging to its past (which can sometimes hamper the sport, like the stubbornness shown to universally adopt the designated hitter rule), the anomoly that the defense rather than the offense always has control of the ball, and it’s greatest feature is the fact that the game is not timed by a clock, but by the number of outs… meaning that no matter what the score or how late it is in the game, the outcome is theoretically still in doubt until the 27th out is recorded.
But baseball has another unique experience that separates it from its brethren, an unsung ritual that makes the relationship between the fans and players one of the most interactive in the athletic world. If you want to take in this experience for yourself, you better come out early! Oh, and you might want to bring your baseball glove as well…
I’m talking about batting practice!
I was exposed to batting practice early on in my baseball attending days, and instantly fell in love with the idea that I could actually come home with a baseball that had been hit or thrown by a real Major League baseball player! Unfortunately, I never had any luck getting that ball in my younger years. In fact, I was 6 weeks shy of turning 20 when fate finally smiled upon me and allowed me to take home my very first horsehide souvenir… fittingly a ball that rolled to my feet while I wasn’t even paying attention since batting practice had been over for 20 minutes. Like a batter mired in a slump needing a bloop hit to break out of it, that fluke snag was all I needed to begin my souvenir baseball empire….
I currently have 91 baseballs I’ve gotten from Major League games, and have managed to net at least one every year since the first one came my way in 1995. The most recent addition to my collection was a batting practice homerun I caught on a fly that was hit by Josh Hamilton in Kansas City last Friday. And therein lies the beauty of batting practice… anyone has a chance to come away with a piece of memorabilia that came to them courtesy of perhaps some of the biggest stars in the game. I’m far from the only ordinary fan who can say they caught a Josh Hamilton homer… there have undoubtedly been hundreds of others from at some point in his seven year career. How many fans do you know who have caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady? Or got to block a shot on LeBron James? You just can’t have this kind of player interaction in any other sports venue….
Now you may have heard of the term “ballhawk” before. It’s a rather unflattering word that is used to describe those “grown kids” who make a habit of attending batting practice and hauling off as many freebie pelotas as they can stuff in their stupid backpacks. I have a couple of problems with this description dealing with both the characters it is applied to as well as those who cast an evil eye on such people….
First, I’m not a fan at all of the “pros” of the ballhawking trade. These people are generally driven by pure greed, and their overly competitive nature while participating in the batting practice game is both annoying and even dangerous. And nobody wants to see someone scooping up 5 or 6 balls in an hours time and stashing the spoils away in their oversized fanny pack while so many others go home emptyhanded. I’ve given up a handful of the balls that have come my way over the years if I already had one in tow… my only rule is I keep anything I catch on a fly.
Second, I get tired of the no-fun adults who whine because us alleged grown ups relish the chance to get to act like a kid again. I cringe every time I see a 6 year old turned loose by their parent with a T-ball glove in the semi-controlled chaos that is batting practice. I’ve suffered countless minor injuries during chases, and I’ve witnessed a few more serious injuries from bloody noses to knots the size of a grapefruit on some poor guy’s forehead. Kids should be standing at the wall and waiting for the player on shag duty to throw a ball up to them, and not among the wild crowd trying to catch a hard hit baseball with their peewee ballglove. Keep the kids away from the grown up part of BP, and I’ll stay away from the gimme tosses, which don’t excite me anymore anyway….
So if you ever want to experience one of the cool extras that take place at the old ballpark, come out when the gates open and join those of us who no matter how old we get still enjoy the thrill of the chase, and the chance to catch a ball from one of our favorite players. Just please, whatever you do, stake out your own spot and don’t stand so close to me. Did I mention I hate ballhawks….?