A Special Baseball Stadium Bird: The 'Ball Hawk'

Most baseball games are played in ballparks full of fans cheering on one team or the other. But another kind of fan is loyal only to the fly ball: That's the ball hawk. One ball hawk, 36-year-old John Witt, has caught almost 2,800 Major League balls.

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With the baseball playoffs underway, you might catch yourself watching the highlight reels late at night, and you'll see home run after home run, and for a split second, possibly, you'll see some guy standing over the rest of the fans, glove in hand, snagging the ball. It's a strong possibility that that guy is a ball hawk. Every stadium has them - fans obsessed with catching as many major league baseballs as they can.

KQED's Rob Schmitz has this profile of one.

(Soundbite of baseball game)

ROB SCHMITZ: When you're watching a ball game, John Witt's the guy you see racing up the aisles every time someone hits one out. He's the guy with his rear end in the air, leaning over the third-base wall to snag a foul ball. John Witt is a ball hawk.

Mr. JOHN WITT (Ball Hawk): Some people take out their day's frustrations by, you know, going and eating, or maybe a woman will go shopping, or somebody will go gamble. I go to the ballpark.

SCHMITZ: The goateed 36-year-old has pretty much lived in ballparks his whole life. As a child, his father, a baseball photographer, got him into White Sox games. As an adult, Witt's worked in minor league clubhouses across the country. Since 1977, Witt says he's caught 4,085 baseballs as a fan at minor and major league games. This number seems more believable when you learn that for ball hawks, a game includes batting practice.

(Soundbite of baseball being hit)

SCHMITZ: Two hours before one of the final regular season Dodgers games, Witt and around 30 other ball hawks, all boys and men wearing baseball gloves, jostle for position in the left field pavilion. They line the aisles for easy movement and keep their eyes on home plate. This is where Witt has caught most of his 2,793 major league balls.

Mr. WITT: This is when somebody will hit one up here.

SCHMITZ: And that's precisely what happens. Witt gracefully weaves through the crowd and sticks his glove up in the air.

Mr. WITT: There we have 2,794.

SCHMITZ: Not that he's keeping score. Like most baseball fans, Witt pays more attention to numbers than an accountant. He publishes his stats on his blog. Just this year, he snagged 94 balls at 26 major league games, putting his 2006 average at 3.6 balls per game.

(Soundbite of applause)

SCHMITZ: When the real game starts, snagging balls becomes more challenging. This is when experience comes into play. Witt will switch seats depending on how a certain player hits. He'll always stay along the aisles. He's not a big fan of Dodgers Stadium because the outfield seats are separated from the rest of the park.

His favorite parks are Chicago's Wrigley Field and Boston's Fenway Park, mainly because you don't have to pay for tickets at either to catch out of the park home runs. The good thing about Dodgers Stadium, says Witt, are the fans. They arrive in the third inning and leave by the seventh because of L.A. traffic.

You might think spending this much time going to baseball games only to put the number of balls you caught on the Internet is, well, lame. Witt's girlfriend, Sydney Heburt(ph), would agree with you.

Ms. SYDNEY HEBURT: I mean, do people really think that's that great? So to me, it's kind of like, it's embarrassing, like you're bragging about catching a ball - wow.

SCHMITZ: Well, some people are impressed. Witt has gotten thousands of hits on his Web site from all over the world.

(Soundbite of booing)

Mr. WITT: First home run of the game.

SCHMITZ: Towards the end of the game, the opposing team hits a home run. Fans scream at the person who caught it to throw the ball back. Witt is incredulous.

Mr. WITT: Who in their right mind is going to catch a home run and throw it back?

SCHMITZ: No home team deserves that kind of loyalty, Witt says, but just in case he's the one being yelled at, he says under his breath, he comes prepared. He always brings a ball from home to toss back so that he can keep the real home run ball - oldest ball-hawk trick in the book.

For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.

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