Snagging Baseballs at Nationals Park

Michael Solem

A friend of mine who works for a publisher in New York put me in touch with Zack Hample, author of "How to Snag Major League Baseballs" and "Watching Baseball Smarter." He's also a Mets fan . . . but in the spirit of bipartisanship, let's not hold that against him (for now).

Zack's collected well over 3,000 baseballs and recently set a personal snagging record of 28 baseballs at Nationals Park. What's the secret to his snagging prowess? Read on, ye Grounds Crew faithful!

MS: Compared to other ballparks, how conducive is Nationals Park for baseball snagging?

ZH: This was my first time at Nationals Park. It's gorgeous and it's spacious, and there's so much room to run around. So thumbs up to the Nationals and to the folks who designed the stadium.

I'd have to say that Nationals Park is one of the better places [to collect balls]. I just so happened to set my one-game record when I went. There's a lot of different opportunities to get baseballs there. You have a low wall down the foul lines where if guys in batting practice hook foul grounders, you can lean over and scoop them up. You have a lot of outfield sections where you can run around for home runs. I have a special contraption that I call "the glove trick" that I can lower down and pluck balls that are out of reach, and there are several places to do that. At on top of that, security was very friendly. They never really gave me a hard time, and in fact they even encouraged me to go for a few baseballs, which almost never happens in a MLB stadium. I hope that wasn't just a result of the ballpark being new and all the rules having not being established yet. I hope the stadium stays fan friendly. I'm tempted to move down to D.C. as a result. It was such a great place.

MS: With the way the Nationals are playing, we're going to need the fan base, so please come on down.

ZH: Alright!

MS: Next question. Suppose a fan, driven by a feverish desire to snag baseballs, arrives when the gates open at Nationals Park. What should he or she do next to score as many baseballs as possible?

ZH: Well, it would help to already be wearing a glove and have baseball caps or some type of gear from both teams, especially the visiting team. It would also help to have rosters printed for both teams. A lot of the strategies for collecting baseballs begin even before you arrive at the stadium. It would help to know how to ask for a baseball in different languages, so you can ask Latino players in Spanish and Japanese players in Japanese, and so forth.

You have to do a lot of research and planning if you want to get an obscene number of baseballs. But if you just really want to go home with one or three or five, you don't have to do that much. It helps if you're quick and athletic and can judge a fly ball and catch it if it comes to you.

A simple strategy would be to head out to straightaway left field or right field and find an open patch of seats. During batting practice, if you're in the front row you'll have a better chance of being seen by the players and having a ball thrown to you. But, when you're in the front row, almost any home run will go over your head, and it'll be harder to run backwards / up the steps, just like it's harder to run backward than forward. So if you want to catch a home run, stay at least a few rows back.

There are also railings that block some of the rows, like on the staircases that lead down into the section. Every few rows are blocked by railings. So pick a row where there's not anybody sitting and that doesn't have a railing so you can run freely from left to right.

If you want a player to throw you a ball, use his first name and say "please!", and make sure he sees your glove. The visiting team especially will reward fans with baseballs and sometimes autographs, if they look like fans of their team. Yes, it is sneaky, and if you're a big time Nationals fan, you just have to put your pride on the shelf and look like a fan of the visiting team for a few minutes. You might get some dirty looks or comments from other fans. At Yankee Stadium, I have actually been elbowed in the ribs as a result of wearing the visiting team's hat during batting practice, and I won't even repeat some of the things that have been said to me. Nationals Park seems like a much friendlier place in comparison. Just look like a fan who can actually catch a ball if it's thrown at you. Players don't want to injure anybody and they are much more likely to throw a ball to fans if they look prepared to catch.

MS: Suppose a fan wants to collect baseballs while the game is being played. What advice can you give for out-snagging other fans?

ZH: Nationals Park is not the easiest place to catch a foul ball. What can make a stadium really good for that is when there's an aisle that runs left and right through the seats. At Nationals Park, you pretty much only have steps leading down into the seats. If you're sitting on the end of a row on that staircase and a ball is hit in your direction, you can quickly jump and run up and down the steps. But in a stadium where there's also an aisle, you can also run left and right. You have to give yourself some range and never be trapped in the middle of a row.

You should know your competition as well. If there's anyone really young or short who's reading this, you don't want to stand next to some dude who's 6'4 and talking trash about how he's going to kill somebody to catch the next baseball. Just avoid those people and move over a section, whether it's during batting practice or during the game. You have to always be thinking how you can give yourself an advantage over another fan. You really have to be alert and think about how a ball might reach the seats and what it will take to get it.

Every ball that ends the inning, the third out ball, almost always gets tossed into the seats, especially seats right behind the dugouts. So if you can get access to those seats, and you can scoot down to the front row as the players are running off the field with that third out ball, that's a great place to get a ball. And I got a lot of those balls during my record-breaking night in Washington.

MS: Let's say if a fan is at Nationals Park when it's only 2/3 full and, assuming lax security, what sections of the park are balls most likely to be hit into?

ZH: For home runs it'd be straightaway left or right field. If you can find a spot directly behind the left fielder or right fielder, that's where the most home runs will land either during batting practice or the actual game. The further from home plate you go, the easier it will be to find sections with more space to move around.

As far as foul balls at Nationals Park, I seem to recall a wide walkway in a section behind home plate. If you can hangout on that walkway slightly toward the first or third base side, that would be a great spot to get foul balls. Right-handed batters hit most of their foul balls to the first base side, whereas lefties will slice their foul balls to the third base side of home plate.

If you draw an imaginary line from the left fielder right through home plate and back behind home plate into the stands, where that line ends in the stands approximates the direction where most right-handed hitters will hit their foul balls.

MS: The following is a list of scenarios, each of which involves a person who stands between you and a stray baseball that, if snagged, would earn you the distinction of Guinness world-record holder for number of pilfered baseballs.

(a) Would you snag that ball if it meant denying a young child his first baseball?

ZH: This is a tricky situation. If a ball is thrown by a player intentionally to a child or adult, I'd never reach in front of anybody for it because the ball is intended for that person. But if a ball is hit, nobody has the right to claim it's meant for them. So if a home run is hit and heading toward someone else, yeah, I'd reach for it, but a lot of times I'll hand it to the person it was heading toward.

When I was little, I was offered so many balls by grown-ups, and I never accepted one of them because I always wanted to catch one myself. I just felt like that's how it should be done. I'd rather help a kid get a ball for himself than simply hand one over, although I do the latter quite a bit.

(b) Would you snag that ball if it meant spilling a margarita held by a beautiful woman?

ZH: Oh, yeah. I don't care about that. I have a girlfriend and I don't drink, so this wouldn't be a problem for me.

MS: Even if the margarita was made with Patrón? Sorry, next scenario:

(c) Would you snag that ball if it meant preventing Ryan Zimmerman from making a game-ending catch in foul territory during a late season game versus the Phillies, who happen to be tied with the Mets for the division lead?

ZH: Oh, yeah. I'm much less concerned about the outcome of the game than I am about my personal gain. I would not interfere with the ball in play, but if Zimmerman were reaching into the stands for a catch, then he's going to have to battle me for that souvenir. But I'm not going to reach out over the wall and catch a ball, and I can say that with confidence because I've had such opportunities but never interfered. Of course, I wasn't going for a world-record baseball at the time, but I am very conscious about not disrupting the game.

(d) Would you snag that ball if it meant fatally disrupting Dick Cheney's pacemaker?

ZH: Ha Ha! Definitely!!

(e) Would you snag that ball if it meant exposing Sam Donaldson's toupee?

ZH: Well, I have some hair issues myself. I might think twice about that. But yeah, I'd probably have to go for the ball.

MS: Last question, Zack. What is your most cherished snag of all time?

ZH: Hmmm. I'd have to say, even though I don't like the man, Barry Bonds' 724th career home run on August 16th, 2006 at PETCO Park in San Diego. I caught it on the fly and was absolutely in shock.

MS: Thanks, Zack. It's been a pleasure speaking with you today. By the way, are you working on an update to Watching Baseball Smarter?

ZH: I already have, and the new edition just came out.

MS: Congratulations on that, and enjoy your afternoon in Florida.

ZH: Oh, one last thing. I gather from your blog entries that you're quite the drinker, so please don't hold it against me that I'm not!

(Of course not, Zack. In fact, I envy your teetotalism. But tell me: are you sure you didn't have just one teensy, weensy bourbon when the Nationals knocked the Mets out of the playoffs last season?)

So folks, be sure to check out photos of Zack in action at Nationals Park, and if you have other baseball-snagging tips to share, post them in the comments.

By Michael Solem  |  April 28, 2008; 1:02 PM ET  | Category:  Michael Solem
Previous: A Little More Love for the Ballpark | Next: Teddy... Oh, Teddy


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I like Hample's enthusiasm and reading his stuff, but his answer below pretty much says it all. I don't get why he needs tens of balls every night - maybe running over other people who are just peaceably sitting in their seats to get them - when there are lots of other people who might also want, say, just one ball.

ZH: Oh, yeah. I'm much less concerned about the outcome of the game than I am about my personal gain.

Posted by: Svrlugamania | April 28, 2008 2:52 PM

Great, he's "That Guy" at the ballpark.

Posted by: M Street | April 28, 2008 2:53 PM

Kind of strange for a grown man to be obsessed with having balls thrown to him.

When I had seats on the aisle behind the dugout at RFK, I'd bring my 10-year-old son with me, and he'd get balls thrown to him several times a game. He loved it, but even he was wise enough to give them away to other kids. He realized a 1/2-dozen balls on his shelf at home was already probably 5 more than he needed, but oh man, how he loved watching other kids' faces light up when he gave them a ball. Zack should try it some time.

Posted by: Teddy Roosevelt | April 28, 2008 8:52 PM

...and Marc Fisher called ME ridiculously obsessive...

Posted by: | April 28, 2008 9:09 PM

"a lot of times I'll hand it to the person it was heading toward."

I've seen him at games. He keeps 98% of the balls that he catches. He barely gives ANY balls away!

Posted by: Yanks4Life | April 29, 2008 9:21 AM

Sorry, anyone who has reached puberty and still brings a glove to the game is a douchebag. Be a man and catch it with your bare hands.

Posted by: Andre Roussimoff | April 29, 2008 11:56 AM

Good luck catching an arod homerun ball zack.

Posted by: Darby welch | April 29, 2008 5:46 PM

Zimmerman jumping into the stands? Go for it Zimmy, you're much better than the Yankees.

Posted by: A Different Michael | April 30, 2008 2:45 PM

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