Some fans go to Minor League Baseball games so that they can see the game's future stars in an intimate environment, others go for the skits, contests and general tomfoolery that surrounds the game itself and still others go so that they may explore the increasingly varied food and drink options.
But 15-year-old Nick Badders is a different breed of Minor League Baseball fan. He goes for the balls.
Badders, a Bay Area resident and Oakland Athletics season ticket holder, is a ballhawk. From batting practice to foul balls to third out toss-ups, this growing subgenre of fans devotes its evenings at the ballpark to snagging as many game-used leather spheroids as possible
I spoke with Badders during a recent Modesto Nuts game at John Thurman Stadium, during which he went on to snag a personal-best 11 baseballs. In this interview, conducted one day before he was briefly sidelined by the removal of his wisdom teeth, Badders explains how and why he became a ballhawk, stadium strategies and life outside of baseball. For more from Badders, check out his MLBlog "7000 Coliseum Way" (his recap of his productive night in Modesto can be found here) and follow him on Twitter @NickBatters.
MiLB.com: You've been a baseball fan your whole life, but at what point did you become a ballhawk?
Nick Badders: Back in 2009 or 2010, there was an article in Sports Illustrated Kids about a guy named Zack Hample, and I found it interesting because there was a picture of him in a bathtub and the bathtub was filled with baseballs. [Editorial note: Zack Hample is a former MiLB.com employee, having written game recaps for the site during the 2005-07 seasons]. In 2011 I started following his blog, "The Baseball Collector," and on June 28th 2011 I snagged my first ball at the Oakland Coliseum.
MiLB.com: At what point did you begin snagging baseballs at Minor League ballparks?
Badders: I never really thought about ballhawking at a Minor League stadium until early 2012, when I won tickets to a Stockton Ports game on Facebook. I went to a game right after Opening Day and it took off from there.
MiLB.com: Many ballhawks, and especially Zack Hample, have written extensively about their strategies at Major League parks. But what do you find are the most effective ways to get baseballs at Minor League parks?
Badders: At Stockton or Modesto, I will get to the stadium at about 4 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game, just to get warmed up before batting practice starts. I'll play catch with whoever's with me. In Stockton, I'll stand just out behind the left field seating area, a big dirt area that they have open, and here [in Modesto] there's a big grassy area just beyond the left field fence, and that's perfect for any ball that flies over. I'm in left field for right-handed hitters, right field for left-handed hitters, and I'll just move back and forth to where I feel I have the best chance of getting balls.
MiLB.com: Once inside the ballpark, do you approach players directly?
Badders: Sometimes if there's no batting practice, I'll go out by the Modesto Nuts bullpen, and they've been really awesome with me. I've gotten three or four balls from them, just from tossing it over the fence. I'll definitely ask players during pregame warm-ups ... and after the game is a good time to ask as well.
MiLB.com: I take it that some players are more receptive than others?
Badders: Some players are really good about tossing balls into the crowd. At the end of every half-inning I'll go for the third-out ball, whoever's caught the ball at the end of the inning. A lot of the time catchers just roll the ball back to the mound, but outfielders will toss into the crowd more often. It really just depends; some players like tossing balls and some don't.
MiLB.com: You mentioned how you position yourself for home runs for batting practice. Do you position yourself for foul balls during the game as well?
Badders: When it comes to Minor League games, I'll usually move a lot, to the right side of the stadium for right-handers and the left side for left-handers, because those are the directions they're more likely to foul the ball off in. In Stockton, I'll even go out in the parking lot and go for foul balls, but once there are two outs in the half inning, I'll go behind the dugout to try to get the third-out ball. I have a Ports hat, a Nuts hat, a San Jose Giants hat, and I also have a hat for almost every Major League team so I'll wear the hat of the [Minor League team's] affiliate if I have one.
MiLB.com: What are your favorite snags of your career thus far, the ones that play inside your mind like a personal highlight reel?
Badders: A couple of weeks ago, in Stockton, I got my 100th lifetime ball. It was a batting practice home run -- they opened the gates earlier than I expected, and I went out on the right field berm and caught a home run on the fly. That was my 100th ball, combined between Major and Minor Leagues, and definitely my favorite Minor League snag.
When it comes to Major League snags, a couple of weeks ago in Oakland I caught a Jose Bautista batting practice home run on the fly, and that was really cool because he's such a talented player.
MiLB.com: Outside of being a ballhawk, what are your other passions in life?
Badders: A lot of reading. I'm also huge with Boy Scouts; that's a big part of what I do and I spend a lot of my summer doing that. Boy Scout camp, weekly meetings, going camping, a lot of that stuff is fun.
MiLB.com: Any final words for aspiring baseball snaggers out there?
Badders: Don't be afraid to ask the players, be mobile, and the most important thing when it comes to ball snagging: bring your glove.
MiLB.com: Well, thanks for taking a few minutes to talk to me. I know that you've missed out on a few foul balls during our conversation.
Badders: I'm going to go check behind the stadium to see if any of those balls are still there.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.