Tell Us About The Time You Caught A Foul Ball

Baseball aficionado Zack Hample, author of How To Snag Major League Baseballs, knows better than anyone the thrill of catching a foul ball. He's caught more than 4,000, and offers tips to help you snag fouls from the stands.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Regular listeners will not be surprised when I report that I've been to a few Major League Baseball games - okay, a lot of Major League Baseball games. And at each and every one, I stand fully prepared to elbow aside small children and push down grandmothers if that will help me catch a foul ball. Once, just once in my life, it happened for me.

Three seasons ago, a part-time New York Yankee infielder named Craig Wilson dribbled a grounder right to my seat behind third base. As I leaned over and grabbed it, my cell phone fell out of my shirt pocket, but somehow logic dictated that an $8 baseball was well worth the loss of a Razr. As it turned out, third base coach Larry Bowa picked up my phone and handed it back, so I could immediately start calling everybody I knew.

We suspect that some of you have foul ball stories of your own. And with the World Series set to get underway tomorrow night in the Bronx, we'd like to hear them. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Zach Hample knows a thing or two about the art of catching a baseball in the stands. He has over 4,000 Major League baseballs to his name, and swears he has not come home empty handed from a game since 1993. Zach Hample joins us from our bureau in New York. His book is called "How to Snag Major League Baseballs." Zach, nice to have you with us on the program today.

Mr. ZACH HAMPLE (Author, "How to Snag Major League Baseballs"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So, how do you position yourself to catch a foul ball?

Mr. HAMPLE: Well, it would certainly help if I had tickets like you and I could sit in the front row down the third baseline. That's certainly a great spot.

CONAN: Every once in a while. It was a - that was just a great seat, and I was so lucky.

Mr. HAMPLE: Well, I should point out one thing, that I don't have over 4,000 foul balls during games. I - the total of over 4,000 includes batting practice. So, you know, it's one of those things. I have caught 124 foul balls during games over the course of my baseball-snagging career. Just wanted to clear that up for the record.

CONAN: Okay. Well, batting practices, obviously, you show up a couple of hours early and it's a lot of fun to watch batting practice. And boy, they smack them into the stands - almost all in fair territory, though.

Mr. HAMPLE: They certainly do. And whether you're going for a homerun ball, a foul ball, during BP or the game itself, one of the most important things is to make sure that you actually have some room to maneuver. You don't want to ever be trapped in the middle of a long row of fans.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HAMPLE: And if you happen to go to a stadium where they have a cross aisle that runs through the seats that provides for some lateral movement, that is key. You want to try to sit as close to that aisle as possible, because the odds of a ball coming directly to you are pretty slim. And then, of course, if there's someone crazy like you who's going to be throwing elbows, even if it does come to you, you might not have a chance to get it.

CONAN: And I suppose your odds go up if you wanted to go a, I don't know, a late August game that the Florida Marlins are playing when they're in last place.

Mr. HAMPLE: Yes. Or the Orioles or the Pirates or, you know, the - all those teams. It's kind of a tricky situation for me. I actually don't have a favorite team, but I grew up rooting for the Mets. And in 1993, when they were in the process of losing 103 games, I should have been miserable. But I realized, the more they lost, they fewer fans actually wanted to go to Shea Stadium, and I realized I had less competition that way.

So I was kind of torn between rooting for the Mets and rooting for my own personal gain. But…

CONAN: I spent two delicious summers unemployed living in Queens, and they happen to be the summers that the Yankees and the Mets shared Shea Stadium.

Mr. HAMPLE: Oh, my.

CONAN: And so there was a game there almost every single day. And for $1.30, you'd get a seat in the upper stands. But, boy, the upper tier of a three-tiered stadium is not the place to be to get a foul ball.

Mr. HAMPLE: Generally not. Though, Yankee Stadium, the old stadium, the front of the upper deck was actually pretty close down compared to other upper decks. So there were balls…

CONAN: If you didn't suffer from vertigo.

Mr. HAMPLE: Well, yeah. It was also pretty steep, too. So sometimes you have to risk other factors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMPLE: I mean, you have to risk bodily harm and sit out in the rain if it's pouring because, again, the fake fans will be hiding underneath the overhang in the concourse. If you're willing to sit out there and get drenched down in the actual seating bowl, you can really pick up a few extra souvenirs that way.

CONAN: And we've got some listeners on the phone who have foul ball stories or maybe homerun stories of their own, or BP stories. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Steve(ph) is on the line. Steve, calling from Cleveland.

STEVE (Caller): I'm calling from Cleveland, Ohio.

CONAN: Yeah. Go ahead. Where did you get your ball?

STEVE: Oh, in the bad old days, same thing in Cleveland. They didn't count the house, they named them so we didn't have a lot of competition. And one day, we found ourselves sitting in the front row on the first baseline - my little 7-year-old son at that time. And he had his baseball glove with him. And it was cold day, so there were even fewer people in the stands and there happened to be this foul ball just laying on the warning track in front of us and everybody was lusting after it.

So between innings, the first base umpire, who happened to be Al Clark, walked over, picked up the ball and put it in his pocket which made us all sad. But a moment later, he came over to my son and he said, hey son, let me see your mitt. My son gave him his mitt. The umpire put it on his glove and pounded it, you know, pounded the pocket a couple of times and said, nice mitt son, and gave it back to him. Then when he opened it up, the ball was inside the mitt.

CONAN: Oh, that's a nice story.

Mr. HAMPLE: Nice.

CONAN: Yeah. That was in the days when the umpires were still American League umpires and National League umpires. And I do remember somebody asking, as they announced Al Clark umpiring at first base, how come he got to have his name on his hat?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: Al. Right.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much.

STEVE: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: Your son, I bet, still has that ball.

STEVE: Oh, you bet you.

CONAN: You bet you. Thanks very much.

Mr. HAMPLE: And, you know, there's another way to get baseballs from umpires. Think about it: The umpires have to enter and exit the field before the game. And at the end of the game, the home plate umpire will probably have a few extra baseballs in the pouches on his hip. And if you know where those umpires exit the field and if you can actually get past security, or if you're lucky enough to have a ticket down in the front row there, you can very well get that umpire to hand you a ball on his way out.

CONAN: But it's not a game-used ball.

Mr. HAMPLE: You know, it's true. It would be a game-rubbed ball with mud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: From the Delaware River, yes, indeed.

Mr. HAMPLE: You know, and there's just so many different ways to connect to the game. Some people like to keep score and some people play fantasy baseball. And for me and so many other people, we just - we love to take home a part of it. And that's really the allure of the whole thing.

CONAN: Do you keep track of who hit every ball you've got?

Mr. HAMPLE: I try to. Sometimes, you know, if I am there before the game and players - if I'm way out in the outfield, 400 feet from home plate and players are wearing their warm-up jerseys over their uniform numbers I - if I can't identify a guy based on his batting stance, then I won't know who hit it. But I do keep very detailed statistics and just information on my computer and on my blog about this. So, yeah, it's very well-documented.

CONAN: And let's talk to Gary(ph). Gary with us from Jackson, Wyoming.

GARY (Caller): Yeah. Well, I'm a Yankees fan. This is actually a Mets World Series story. In 1973, I was 14 years old, and my dad happened to get four seats to the World Series. I've got two other brothers so there are five us in our family and only four of us could go. And we happened to get - they put two temporary rows of seats on the first base and third baselines. So we were in second row, almost right down on the field and Gene Tenace of the Oakland A's hit a pop fly right to me. The only foul ball that's ever come even close to me in my entire life. I had it in the palm of my hand and someone knocked me down from behind and it fell out of my hand and started rolling down the aisle. And only then did I look up and realize that it was my dad who was crawling down the aisle to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARY: …get the ball for my younger brother who wasn't at the game.

CONAN: Oh.

GARY: And he got the ball and we have it to this day.

CONAN: And you know, is it in one of those cubes and you know that Gene Tenace was the guy who hit it?

GARY: I know that Gene Tenace was the guy that hit it. I don't believe it's in one of those cubes. It's just is a baseball that we've got somewhere in, you know, in my brother's house somewhere lying around. But the story lives with us forever.

CONAN: And your father proud of getting that ball for you.

GARY: He's proud of getting that ball. Even though he did have to knock me down. I don't think he had any qualms about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No truth to the rumor that I was at that game.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much, Gary.

Mr. HAMPLE: Nice.

GARY: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye. This email from Michael(ph) in San Rafael. I've always dreamed of how I could die happy: If I were ever to find an ancient Roman coin while walking on a beach in Italy. Catching a foul ball at a Major League game would be a close substitute.

And this from David(ph) in Cincinnati: Catching foul balls is easy. Real fans aspire to catch homeruns. I have a homerun ball hit by late Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins on July 20th, 1987. I was sitting in centerfield and I still remember how the lights were reflecting off the ball as it lofted toward me. It glanced off my hand and landed at my feet where I snatched it immediately. The ball still sits on my dresser.

And I wonder, Zach Hample, how many of your balls are homerun balls?

Mr. HAMPLE: I've gotten 11 homerun balls during games. One of them was tossed up by an outfielder after it bounced back down onto the field, so that one kind of has an asterisk in my book. But a few of my homeruns were pretty important baseballs. Like, for example, I caught Barry Bonds' 724th career homerun.

CONAN: Wow.

Mr. HAMPLE: I also caught the last Mets homerun ever hit at Shea Stadium, and two of the last 10 ever hit at the old Yankee Stadium.

CONAN: And what is the art of catching a homerun ball? You just have to be in the right place at the right time?

Mr. HAMPLE: Well, that's certainly part of it. There's a lot of luck involved. But as Branch Rickey said, luck is the residue of design. Positioning is obviously a huge part of it. And one thing that helps -and, again, this can apply to foul balls as well as homeruns - you can really try to think like a manager or a scout, and think about all the different factors. For example, I always pay close attention to the pitching match up. Are there lefties pitching? Are there righties pitching? Because managers prefer to stack their line-ups with batters who hit from the opposite side of the plate from which the pitcher throws.

So if there are two lefties going, for example, there'll be a lot of right-handed batters in the line up. All the switch hitters will be batting righty. So if you're going for a homerun, well, most batters pull homeruns, righties would be hitting homeruns to left field. But foul balls generally - they're a result of the batter swinging late and underneath the ball, so they'd go to the opposite side, like the first base side of the stadium. So you can really pick your spots according to the pitching match-ups and other factors as well.

CONAN: Let's talk with Chris(ph). Chris, with us from San Francisco.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi. I'm actually calling about a foul ball story in Japan. I was with my junior high school exchange program for three weeks when we were in the Kansai area in Kyoto and Hiroshima. But I think it was the Hiroshima Carps versus the Yakult Swallows. Anyways, a foul ball was hit over near our group. And my buddy and I ran over. He's the one who actually picked it up. But the big surprising thing after we were so excited about getting this foul ball is that the ushers came and made us give the ball back.

CONAN: No.

CHRIS: They wouldn't allow you to keep the ball.

Mr. HAMPLE: Oh, yeah. They do that in Japan.

CONAN: Why? Well, they can't afford another $8-ball?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMPLE: They actually used to do that here in this country, as well. Fans were not allowed to keep foul balls. At the turn of the 20th century actually, there was an actual rule that teams could put employees in the stands to retrieve foul balls from the fans who caught them. And…

CONAN: Well, profit margins were a little lower those days and they hadn't quite realized that if you - a fan gets a foul ball, he's a fan for life.

Mr. HAMPLE: Exactly. Well, things changed over the first couple of decades of the 20th century. And thank God for that because I might not be talking to you otherwise.

CONAN: Chris?

CHRIS: Yes. This was during the bubble economy in Japan, so it certainly wasn't a financial issue. But I think they still have that rule today, although I'm not certain.

CONAN: All right. Chris, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

CHRIS: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Zach Hample who's collected more than 4,300 balls from Major League ballparks. A lot of them in batting practice but some, as he's mentioned, famous homeruns. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Kathy(ph). Kathy, with us from Waupaca, is that right, in Wisconsin?

KATHY (Caller): Well, it's called Waupaca - Indian name.

CONAN: Okay.

KATHY: I caught a - well, it wasn't exactly a foul ball, but I caught it at Royal Stadium in June of 1983. This was when Bill Caudill was pitching for the Seattle Mariners. And his nickname was the inspector. So I brought a stuffed pink panther that I had to the game with me. And we were about the only Mariners' fans in Royal Stadium that day. And he yelled, hey, hey, and sees the panther. And so, I - he threw me a baseball, and I caught it in the stands. I still have that ball.

CONAN: And if he'd shown that kind of accuracy, he might have a longer career.

Mr. HAMPLE: Ooh.

KATHY: I think he hurt his arm, something like that.

CONAN: Oh, well. Yeah, yeah. Too bad. You still have that ball. And you will always remember the name of Bill Caudill.

KATHY: Darn right.

CONAN: Yeah. That's great a story.

KATHY: Oh, thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye, Kathy.

Mr. HAMPLE: And, you know, that's a good point that Kathy brought up - getting baseball's tossed by the players and coaches is certainly a great way to actually get one. You know, you do it in baby steps. You show up at batting practice, you get a ball tossed to you. Maybe the next time, you try to get a homerun ball that might land in the seats, then you work your way up to the game itself, go for a foul ball maybe. And then the big money. That's the actual game homerun ball.

CONAN: And there are places, as she mentioned, Royal Stadium in Kansas City, that's - there's this big grassy area in dead centerfield, the so-called batter's eye, which is supposed to be kept blank, so the batter can see the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand. Nevertheless, a lot of homerun balls land there and you see people scrambling over the wall and running out under the grass to see if they can get it.

Mr. HAMPLE: Yup. I think that's at the ballpark in Arlington, right?

CONAN: The ballpark in Arlington has one of those…

Mr. HAMPLE: Texas Rangers.

CONAN: Texas Rangers' ballpark.

Mr. HAMPLE: Right. Kansas City, that's a fantastic stadium. They renovated this year. And I actually set my one-game record, most baseballs including batting practice: 32.

CONAN: Wow.

Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah. I had a great three-game series, 59 balls in three games.

CONAN: Do you bring your glove to every game?

Mr. HAMPLE: Oh, absolutely. Oh, yeah. And, you know, people will say, that, oh, if you're 12 years old, you shouldn't bring your glove, but come on, all these baseballs that I caught, I would not have - I definitely would not have caught the Barry Bonds homerun without a glove. Definitely would not have caught the last Mets homerun at Shea without a glove because it was so crowded. And a lot of times, the glove just gives you a few extra inches of reach. With the Bonds homerun, I was leaning as far as I possibly could over a railing and caught the ball in the very tip of the glove. So if I'm barehanded, there's no way I come home with that ball.

CONAN: Let's talk with Ellen(ph). Ellen on the line from Kansas City.

ELLEN (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ELLEN: My husband took my daughter to a game a couple of years ago. She was about 8. And a couple innings in, he sent me text message on my phone - shows Levee(ph) holding a foul ball. And a couple innings later, he sends me another picture, she's holding two. A couple innings later, she's holding three.

CONAN: Wow.

ELLEN: Three in one game. I think she ended up giving the third one to another kid at the game.

CONAN: Ellen, is your daughter still single? And Zach, are you looking for a date?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAMPLE: I'm all set for now. But thank you.

ELLEN: She's just 10.

CONAN: Well, I'm sure he's willing to wait for a skill like that.

Mr. HAMPLE: That's pretty good.

ELLEN: Okay. We'll put her on hold.

CONAN: Ellen, thanks very much for the call. Tell your daughter congratulations.

ELLEN: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an email from Todd(ph) in Denver. My company has the seats right behind the visitors' dugout at Coors Field in Colorado. I have gotten to a handful of games each year. In my first in those seats, Shawn Green, then the first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, threw me a ball as he was coming into the dugout. I got the ball and looked down at this six-year-old kid that had puppy dog eyes and I gave him the ball. In the years since, that same kid has gotten at least two balls each game I have been to from various players and coaches at the end of each inning. Worse still, his younger brother is now getting into the act - bitter, bitter, bitter. Do you remember who hit the first ball you got Zach Sample(ph)?

Mr. HAMPLE: It was actually thrown to me during batting practice at Shea Stadium. It was by a pitcher on the Mets, and I don't remember who unfortunately. The first foul ball I ever got - kind of a funny story: 1922, Shea Stadium, it was hit Darren Fletcher, a lefty and I was over on the third base side. The ball landed a few rows behind me. I sort of turned and bent down and looked over my seat behind me, and amazingly I saw the ball trickling right down the steps towards me. So I lunged and grabbed it. And then having seen fans celebrate their foul ball snags on TV, I decided to jump up and hold up the ball triumphantly. But unfortunately, I had forgotten that I ducked underneath an orange metal railing. And just whacked the back of my head while standing up. So throbbing pain but jubilation at the same time.

CONAN: Held onto that baseball.

Mr. HAMPLE: Oh, you know it.

CONAN: All right. Zach Hample, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. HAMPLE: It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: Zach Hample, I assume you're on your way out to Yankee Stadium tomorrow?

Mr. HAMPLE: …have a ticket yet, but I'm working on it.

CONAN: Zach Hample, with us from our bureau in New York. His book is called "How to Snag Major League Baseballs," and we mentioned he joined us from our bureau in New York. And good luck getting that World Series ticket.

Tomorrow, so Baby Einstein didn't make your baby smart, we'll tell you what might. Join us tomorrow for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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More Than 100 Tested Tricks That Really Work

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