Zack Hample has caught a lot of baseballs. Some 6,833 to be exact.
As a ball-snagger, Hample travels to stadiums and tries to wrangle as many baseballs as he can. The Guilford College graduate has come home with a baseball from 50 professional ballparks. The last time he went to a game and didn’t get a ball? Sept. 2, 1993.
But on July 13, Hample caught a baseball from a unique place. The ball was dropped from a helicopter hovering 1,050 feet above Edward A. LeLacheur Park in Lowell, Mass.
“It was the most surreal, wacky athletic challenge of my life,” said Hample, who played one season in 1997 at Division III Guilford College in Greensboro, where he went 6 for 14 as a reserve third baseman.
The helicopter catch would have broken a world record, but he didn’t want to pay Guinness the $50,000 it costs to have records certified.
While researching his book, “The Baseball,” Hample started reading “The Physics of Baseball” where he learned of former major leaguers catching balls from high altitudes, such as buildings in cities, the Washington Monument and blimps.
“I think I could play adequate to average outfield defense in the majors right now,” Hample said. “So I told myself, ‘I could do that.’ ”
Hample said an attempt like his hadn’t happened since the World’s Fair in 1939, when major league catcher Joe Sprinz attempted to catch a ball from 800 feet out of a blimp. Sprinz broke his jaw and fractured five teeth when the ball entered his glove and slammed into his face.
“As a mother, one worries,” Hample’s mother, Naomi Hample said. “But I had confidence in him. I thought he could do it; my only fear was he wouldn’t catch the ball.”
Naomi said one of Hample’s best traits is that he goes all in with his passion.
“When he wants to do things, he does it 1,000 percent,” she said.
12 seconds, 95 mph
Hample tried to break the record last summer, but high winds forced the balls to sail out of LeLacheur Park. The stunt was deemed unsafe, and the event was canceled. He knew he wanted to try again, so a year later, Hample returned to Massachusetts.
Hample rented a helicopter and got in contact with the Lowell Spinners, a Class A affiliate with the Boston Red Sox. He rubbed 75 of his baseballs with mud so he could distinguish the balls as they were falling.
Hample, wearing catcher’s gear provided by Rawlings, stood in the outfield as the helicopter dropped baseballs from a lower distance. Eventually the helicopter climbed above 1,000 feet.
Baseballs dropped from that high have a velocity of 95 mph, which makes catching the balls dangerous and challenging. The helicopter also battled winds of up to 23 mph, which meant Hample was never sure where the ball would land.
“We actually had to rope off the areas around the park to make sure nobody was hit by a ball from outside the stadium,” Hample said.
Hample said he had about 12 seconds to locate the ball, get under it and catch it. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Hample was able to get underneath one and make a one-handed catch over his left shoulder.
The official height of the helicopter: 1,050 feet, a record.
“It was really fun,” Hample said. “If every day or every week or every year, I could do it again, I’d do it. If somebody wanted me to catch a ball from the (St. Louis) Arch, I would.”
Hample has become a quasi-celebrity for ball-hawking, getting foul balls, home run balls, batting practice balls or any kind of balls at major league games. He has written three books, appeared on the “Tonight Show” and even befriended Arizona Diamondbacks relief pitcher Heath Bell.
This year, Hample is attempting to travel to all 30 major league ballparks and come home with a game-used ball at each. He fits baseball around his job at a bookstore in New York City. Hample has caught baseballs at 22 stadiums, collecting 374 balls in 50 games.
Bigs Sunflower Seeds sponsors his challenge and donates $500 for every stadium he catches a ball in, with the money going to Pitch In For Baseball, a charity that donates baseball equipment to underserved communities. People can also pledge money on Hample’s website.
“It’s stressful, but I’m raising money for charity that they wouldn’t normally get,” Hample said. “It’s really the best kind of stress.”
Hample’s ball snagging began when he was a young boy, Hample’s mother said. She remembers him seeing fans catch fly balls at game, and him realizing that he could go home with a ball.
“It was like an electric shock,” Naomi Hample said. “From that moment, he didn’t want to do anything else.”
Hample’s catches include Barry Bonds’ 724th home run and Mike Trout’s first career homer. Hample gives some of his baseballs to kids at stadiums and keeps some in his parents’ home, but doesn’t sell them.
Hample’s mother says she has upward of 6,000 baseball’s in her New York City apartment. She says she’s a proud mother and admires how her son has gone all in on something he loves.
“He’s in heaven,” she said. “He’s so happy, and that’s a nice thing to be able to say as a mother. I never expected it would get so big. He’s really a champion at what he does.”
When the 2014 baseball season opens in Australia, Hample says he’ll be there.
“I’m livin’ the dream,” Hample said. “I’m getting to do all of these cool things, and I’m trying to not take it all for granted. I’m really just a big kid.”