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Ballhawk snags stray balls at Missouri baseball games

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:58 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 26, 2012
MU freshman Phil Joens spends much of his time "ballhawking," a hobby shared by many others who collect foul and lost baseballs at stadiums. Joens said he collects an average of seven to eight baseballs at every Missouri game at Taylor Stadium.

COLUMBIA — It’s a windy day at Taylor Stadium, and that’s good news for Phil Joens. As the wind carries another foul ball, Joens stops midsentence and sprints from his place in the stands.

He does this for every foul ball, at every game he attends.

Ins-and-outs of ballhawking

Don't call them ballhawkers

There's no quicker way to show a ballhawk that you're a newbie than by calling them a ballhawker. It's seen both ways, but Zack Hample said he's never heard a ballhawk call himself a ballhawker.

"I usually only see that when the media writes about us," Hample said.

Joens vs. children

Phil Joens is smarter than the average 10-year-old. He has experience, clout with the ushers, and strategy on his side. Joens will give away the occasional ball to children, but each child must meet three criteria: They can't have a glove. They can't ask. And they can't have already gotten one.

"Don't get me wrong, I love giving balls to kids," Joens said. "It's just if I keep giving them away, I won't have any left."

The rude ballhawk myth

There's always that one fan that ruins the foul ball catch for everyone else. He's the one barreling down the bleachers with a mitt, an impressive lack of shame and zero regard for your $10 nachos.

But the next time you see him knock aside a kid for catch, know that he's probably not a ballhawk. According to Hample, it's the rookies that cause the most trouble.

"They're not aware of their surroundings. They think it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they'll do whatever it takes," Hample said. "Ninety-nine percent of the people who do this are nice guys who would never knock down anybody. Some even teach fans how to catch baseballs for themselves."

Hawking for a cause

Ballhawking isn't just a hobby for people like Hample. The writer uses his skills to help others. According to a Yahoo Sports blog, Hample has raised more than $20,000 to buy baseball equipment for underprivileged children.

"I've been getting people to pledge money for every ball that I catch," Hample said. "It's actually a very positive thing; there's just a misconception that it isn't."

Sentimental value

While ballhawking in his hometown in Iowa, Joens was approached by a representative from the city's minor league team. Joens said the Sioux City X's offered him $2,000 if he would return some of the balls he collected from them. Joens declined but said he's been tempted.

"It enters in my mind to get on eBay and sell a few, but I know that I would be heartbroken," Joens said. "I don't want this to become a job."

Storage

For both Joens and Hample, it's more about the chase and less about the case. Both ballhawks store the majority of their collection in large, dark containers and display only a small percentage of them in cases.

According to Hample, this is the ideal way to store baseballs.

"They fade and darken over time if they're exposed to sunlight," Hample said. "It's too bad that I can't have them sitting out all over the place, but it's not practical."

Like father, like son

Joens' father, Al Joens, is a television anchor for KTIV in Sioux City. Joens hopes to follow in his father's footsteps and enter into the sports journalism field. He hasn't decided if he wants to do broadcast news like his father but notes that he "has the voice for it."



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That means a lot of running and a little on-the-go bookkeeping as well. Joens pulls out his cellphone to change his foul ball total. He uses the number as a signature in his texts and emails. His current signature is “Joens 1101.”

“Do you ever get tired of chasing foul balls?” an usher asks as a winded Joens jogs back into the stadium.

“Never,” he says. He returns to his post in the right bleachers.

A lot goes into Joens’ ballhawking hobby.

Whether it means scaling fences, sprinting across parking lots or outwitting a kid or two, Joens is willing to do almost anything to get that elusive foul ball. He even disguises himself by staying clean-shaven and wearing ball caps and T-shirts from his high school to make himself look younger. Kids get more tosses from players.

“A ballhawk is an extreme collector of baseballs,” Joens said. “It’s a person who has absolute love for the game and tries to find as many ways to collect as many baseballs as they can.”

When Joens isn’t in class, he can often be found above and beneath the bleachers at practices and games, searching for his treasures.

After marking the balls, he tosses them into large plastic trashcans. Most of his baseballs are back in his hometown of Sioux City, Iowa, where he filled up his mother’s house with his collection. Joens had to expand into other family members' homes and says they still don’t quite understand his hobby.

Joens’ mother recalled a time when she cleared out some of her son’s baseballs.

“I was selling them at a show, I think, or just giving them away,” Susie Joens said. “To me it was no big deal, but he got really mad that I did that.”

She probably didn’t know about all the homework her son put in getting the balls.

It starts before he even arrives at the stadium. Joens studies stadium specs before he begins collecting in a new location. Afterward, he can easily pick out the prime spots to stand, locations that offer him the quickest lane between where he watches the hitter and where he runs to retrieve the foul ball.

At Missouri's Taylor Stadium, Joens switches from locations at the center and right bleachers depending on whether the batter is right- or left-handed.

If Joens can't see the mound, he has to rely on the direction of the wind and even the sound of the ball hitting the stadium or other nearby buildings to determine its location. But that’s only the technical side of his trade. He uses his social skills to help charm stadium ushers.

“You have to do whatever you can to get in that spot,” Joens said.

Joens explained how he sometimes sweet talks ushers because he’s actually doing part of their job for them. Taylor Stadium ushers, and even some members of the team, usually retrieve foul balls to keep costs down. Baseballs can run anywhere from $20 to $30 per dozen. Costs can add up during the long baseball season, so teams have to be aware of losses. Some have return policies that can be a death sentence for ballhawks like Joens, but Derek Doolittle, assistant director of game operations, said Taylor Stadium’s ball policy doesn't hinder Joens.

“We try to get back as many foul balls as we can, but we don’t go and yank them out of people’s hands,” Doolittle said. “If we lose a handful, a dozen a game, it’s not the end of the world for us.”

Joens averages seven to eight balls at each Missouri home game.

Doolittle said Joens is the only ballhawk who frequents the stadium.

It doesn’t really matter for Joens because most of his competition is online. Joens — aka “Cubbies1945” — posts his stats online so they can be compared to other ballhawks, such as his mentor, Zack Hample.

Hample, the “god of ballhawking,” literally wrote the book on the hobby in 1997. It's titled "How to Snag Major League Baseballs." Hample only counts the Major League balls he collects, but that still makes him the top ballhawk with 5,852 balls.

“That’s not to take anything away from Phil because he doesn’t live near a major league stadium,” Hample said. He said collecting balls at lower levels is actually much harder because colleges and minor league teams are more concerned with the cost of losing balls. Major leaguers often just throw them to fans.

Hample recalled his first ever snagged ball in 1990. He was only 12 years old then and was instantly hooked.

“Baseball players back then were almost larger than life, almost godlike,” Hample said. “To have that connection to one of them who singled me out in the stands and tossed me a baseball, it was the greatest feeling in the world.”

Like Joens, Hample stores most of his collection at his mother’s house but points out that he doesn’t live with her.

According to Hample, Internet sites and bloggers have created a community. Social media sites like myGameBalls.com have more than 430 members and have helped create a robust ballhawk community.

“In every major league city, there’s at least one to 20 guys that do this, but years ago guys from one city didn’t really know about guys from another city,” Hample said. “Now everybody pretty much knows everybody. I don’t feel like as much of a geek.”

Like any community, ballhawks have their own terms and language to communicate with one another. Balls found settled on the ground are called and marked as “Easter eggs.” Ones found during batting practices are labeled “BP” and are usually less cherished than game-used balls labeled “GB.”

Some ballhawks even outfit their gloves with strings and rubber bands to snag a ball just out of reach. A pen is usually placed in the glove to keep it propped open once the rubber band is wrapped around the middle. After tying a string to the rigged up glove, ballhawks can toss or lower gloves onto the field. The maneuver resembles fishing. Ballhawks cast out and then reel in their “glove trick” balls.

Joens said he’s gotten two in Major League games using the method.

“I never had a lot of use for the rubber band in Sioux City, but (at Major League games) I’d fling my glove into the bullpen and pull out stray BP balls,” Joens said.

Joens said that’s about as far as the hobby goes but that it isn’t the only way he connects with the game. After being cut three times from his high school team, Joens has umpired, collected cards and watched the game to get a little closer to baseball.

“A coach told me there are other ways to enjoy the game besides playing it,” Joens said. “At that moment it clicked. I still hate the fact that I didn’t play high school baseball, but in retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me because I learned the game.”

Joens hopes to use that knowledge he gained on the sidelines to get close to baseball on a more professional level. Joens didn’t come to MU to collect game balls. Joens hopes the Journalism School can help prepare him to cover his favorite sport.

He said ballhawking is just a hobby for him and he won’t try to snag balls from the pressbox.

“I said in the seventh grade that I want to be a sports journalist, and that’s my real dream,” Joens said. “I’m out here because I want to have a little fun. I’m out here because it relieves stress. ... If I were to get a job, I’d be a professional first.”

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.


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