By Jon Hart
When Zack Hample snagged A-Rod’s 3,000th hit at Yankee Stadium in June 2015, he took ball hawking – which is the hobby of collecting baseballs at Major League baseball games – out of the shadows. Universally, Hample, who has a mega popular You Tube show https://www.youtube.com/user/zackhample is considered the greatest ball hawk ever. He has collected 9,843 baseballs – and counting. And then, there’s the streak. For the last 1,338 games that he has attended, Hample has collected at least one ball. Meanwhile, there are other ball hawks shooting for history.
Doug Hakey is not your typical ball hawk, to say the least.
Hakey’s a bit similar to Dennis Quaid’s character in The Rookie, as he’s 57 and has retired from a career as a plumber and developer in Martha’s Vineyard. However, Hakey still has some juice in the tank – and then some. “He’s older than a lot of guys who do this,” says Hample. “He’s also a successful businessman, so he has financial stability. That certainly helps when it comes to traveling and buying tickets, and I applaud him for that. I think it’s cool that someone who’s done so much with his life and lives large still has so much energy and youthful enthusiasm and wants to run around and chase baseballs. That shows what a fun guy Doug is and also how meaningful baseballs are to people.”
These days, Hakey resides in Amherst, Virginia, a speck of “God’s Country” in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 200 miles away from the closest Major League ball park. Yes, it’s Field of Dreams territory. When he’s not collecting baseballs, Hakey is collecting other stuff: Vintage motorcycles, vintage cars, Native American artifacts and fossils. Hakey, who started hawking about seven years ago, has collected 1,482 baseballs to date. At 306 consecutive attended games, Hakey has collected at least one baseball. “Every time you walk through the gate, your streak is in jeopardy,” says Hakey, who has caught six home run balls, four this current season. “When I caught a home run ball at Nationals Park earlier this year, I’ve never been more excited in my life,” says Hakey.
In the ball hawk universe – which is chronicled on the site mygameballs.com – Hakey is one of the most productive – he’s 13th all time on mygameballs. However, last year, Hakey wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to do something unique, go where no ball hawk had gone before – not even the great Zack Hample. No one challenged Hakey, so he challenged himself. Ultimately, Hakey decided to attempt to get three balls from three different ball parks – in one day. “I figured I had a 50-50 chance of being successful,” says Hakey. Alan Schuster, the founder of mygameballs confirms that this feat has never been accomplished.
Hakey’s self-appointed date with history was July 23, 2016. Hakey’s mission was to get at least one ball from each of the following stadiums: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore and Nationals Park in Washington D.C.
If Hakey’s momentous day were to be a movie, it would be pitched as Ocean’s 11 meets Major League with hint of Bad News Bears.
Hakey’s day started in Pittsburgh for a 4 pm tilt versus the Phillies. Hakey wasn’t flying solo. Fellow ball hawk Ben Wilson would be doing the driving, allowing Hakey to focus on the balls. Batman has Robin. Hakey has Ben. (When they’re not chasing baseballs, Ben and Hakey search for great roller coasters.) The gates to the PNC concourse opened at 2 – with the gates to the field opening at 2:30. (Hakey had been counting on the field gates opening at 2).
The clock was ticking – and the schedule was tight.
Fortunately, a veteran PNC hawk, Eric Jabs, gave Hakey a tip and told him his best shot at nabbing a ball was the visitor’s bullpen. Hakey, who was decked out in Phillies regalia, hustled over and found a Phillies pitcher warming up – but he ignored Hakey. (Hample pioneered the technique of wearing an opposing team’s gear in hopes of enticing a ball.)
At 2:22, a batting practice home run landed in the Phillies bullpen, but unfortunately, there was no way to get it. A life preserver arrived in the form of Phillies pitcher Edubray Ramos. Promptly, Hakey pulled out his signature charm. “I never have a problem striking up a conversation with a stranger,” says Hakey. Hakey convinced Ramos to toss the ball to the young girl who was nearby. As Wilson set a strong pick on two aggressive hawks, Hakey caught Ramos’ throw, took a ball and out of his pocket and handed it to the excited young girl – all in practically one motion. Yes, it was a bit deceptive. Then again, everyone left happy and, of course, history was at stake.
One ball down, two balls to go.
Hakey and Ben sprinted to their car, a Z06 Corvette. A long ride awaited on I 70, but thanks to Ben’s strong foot and a very capable laser detector, the ride was much briefer.
At about 6:10, Ben dropped off Hakey at the Camden Yards entrance. With only about 10 minutes remaining of batting practice, Hakey had to work fast. But he struck out. Plan B: Hakey hit the Cleveland Indians dugout, where he worked their bat boy, who took a shine to him. Certainly it didn’t hurt that Hakey was in full Indians regalia. Soon after, the bat boy took a few steps into the dug out, grabbed a batting practice ball and tossed it to Hakey. Success. Hakey took a picture with an usher and the ball and he was off to meet Ben.
Two balls down, one to go.
Fortunately, traffic was on Hakey and Ben’s side, and the ride on 295 to Nationals Park took about 50 minutes. During the third inning, Hakey and Doug entered Nationals Park. Shortly after, in the fifth inning, Hakey, who had – no surprise here – changed into San Diego Padres gear, positioned himself near the Padres dugout. Hakey convinced Screech, the Nationals mascot, to get a ball from a Padres coach for him.
Hakey achieved history – and approval from the greatest hawk of all time. “Snagging a baseball at three different MLB stadiums in one day is totally insane and impressive,” says Hample. “Evidently, there were some people (in the ball hawk community) who claimed that the feat shouldn’t count or that it was tainted because Doug didn’t stay to watch the entire game, but that’s arbitrary and silly. He did something amazing that was meaningful to him, so that’s all that matters.”
By the seventh inning, Hakey and Ben made their way to their seats behind the Padres bullpen, but they weren’t done hawking, and Hakey managed to convince the Padres bullpen crew to toss him three more balls over the course of the final three innings.
What does Hakey do with all the balls?
“I give away about three quarters of the balls,” says Hakey. “I give them to kids. I don’t need to die with two thousand baseballs in my house.”
You can follow Jon Hart at @ManVersusBall