Hample tries to catch history in Lowell

Ballhawk, collector assembles helicopter team to set record

By Benjamin Hill / MLB.com | July 6, 2012 6:12 AM

Zack Hample catches a ball dropped from a helicopter hovering more than 750 feet above Lowell.

In the bizarre world of Minor League Baseball, "Why not?" almost always serves as a sufficient answer to the question of "Why?"

To wit:

"Why are those interns dressed as Mexican wrestlers?" Why not?

"Why is the grounds crew doing a choreographed dance routine to Miley Cyrus' 'Party in the USA?'" Why not?

"Why does an anthropomorphic piece of celery emerge onto the field after every home team home run?" Why not?

And, certainly, it was this "Why not?" spirit that led to what occurred at LeLacheur Park on Monday morning. The Lowell Spinners hosted a strange (and borderline dangerous) world record attempt, as ballhawk and author Zack Hample endeavored to catch a ball dropped from a helicopter at a height of 1,000 feet.

Don't ask "Why?" Ask "Why not?"

The protagonist

You might not have heard the name Zack Hample before, but if you have then you probably have an opinion on him. He's the world's greatest "ballhawk," having collected 6,058 baseballs at 50 Major League stadiums over the past 23 seasons. He's generally the first person through the gates at every game he attends, decked out in the gear of whichever team he plans on soliciting baseballs from (he often switches his allegiance during the course of a game).

His arsenal of ball-snagging tools includes the "glove trick" (in which a baseball glove, string, a pen and rubber band are transformed into a de facto ball fishing tool), and in recent years, he's collected donations for each ball he snags with proceeds going to the charity Pitch In for Baseball. Oh, and he knows how to ask for a ball in every language spoken by a Major League player, and once got a ball from deaf outfielder Curtis Pride by using sign language.

Zack's relentless focus on getting baseballs has garnered a fair share of vitriol, with each new article or video segment on him generating a fresh round of "Grow up and get a job"-style commentary from the online hoi polloi. People are certainly entitled to feel this way, but to a large extent, this is his job. He's a published author, and his third and most recent book was, The Baseball -- an exhaustive history of the spheroid at the center of his obsession. It was in doing research for the book that Zack came across stories involving catching baseballs from great heights. Many of these tales are apocryphal (Babe Ruth catching a ball from a plane that was flying at 100 mph?), but the established record, such as it is, belonged to Gabby Hartnett. In 1930, the Hall of Fame catcher caught a ball dropped from a blimp at an estimated 800 feet.

Zack decided that he wanted to try for 1,000 feet.

Why not?

Full disclosure

I first met Zack in 2003, after answering his Craigslist ad in search of individuals to hit fungoes with in Central Park (strange but true). We were briefly co-workers at MiLB.com in the site's inaugural 2005 season, and, in fact, it was Zack who first alerted me to a job opening there. So, in writing about this stunt, I am not an impartial member of the media. I am a friend of Zack's, and in that capacity, played a small role in helping this stunt get put together.

This past offseason, Zack asked me for recommendations regarding which teams might be interested in hosting his record attempt, and the Lowell Spinners were the first that came to mind. And for good reason! The Spinners regularly stage world record attempts ("Most people popping bubble wrap at one time" was particularly memorable), and just last season they made national headlines after launching David "The Human Cannonball" Smith out of a cannon and over the outfield fence.

They called that one "the Human Home Run."

Zack's stunt wasn't a ticketed event, due to concerns that a wayward ball could cause serious injury (or even death) to fans in the seating area. And, to take advantage of optimal (read: "as minimal as possible") wind conditions, it was scheduled for 7:30 a.m. The whole endeavor was hardly a moneymaker, in other words, but that wasn't a deterrent to the Spinners.

"Anytime that we can be part of a world record attempt, we're gonna do it," Spinners director of media relations Jon Boswell told me on the morning of the stunt. "[The helicopter ball drop] had a Spinners feel to it. If it had happened somewhere else, then we'd have felt like we'd been cheated."

Besides, this was only a logical progression from that which had come before.

"We've already dropped money, candy and soft toss balls out of helicopters," said Boswell. "So why not this?"

The man behind the scenes

The Spinners provided the venue, but even more integral to the stunt was a middle-aged Massachusetts-based ballhawk by the name of Mike Davison. He and Zack had first met in 2011 while waiting for the gates to open before a game at Fenway Park, and when Zack learned that Davison worked in the field of aviation, he began peppering him with questions regarding the feasibility of the helicopter ball drop. Soon enough, Davison found himself volunteering to coordinate it.

"We've been working on this for a year, planning really, really hard so that [Zack] wouldn't get hurt," said Davison on the morning of the record attempt. "This has really been thought out, with a lot of science, math and careful planning."

It was Davison who assembled the team at the core of the stunt -- helicopter pilots Bill Witzig and Bob Cloutier as well as ball-dropper (for lack of a better term) Casper Wang. Both pilots come from a military background and, as Davison put it, "have previous experience in dropping stuff, mostly bombs and bullets... They know a lot about the wind and how it affects an unguided object coming toward the ground."

Zack Hample and the team plot their strategy at LeLacheur Park. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com).

The extent of Davison's preparation was made evident just prior to the stunt, when he conducted a briefing in a LeLacheur Park conference room. He meticulously went over the morning's itinerary, which was explained in a photocopied handout that listed radio frequencies, "hover coordinates" and helicopter elevation points. These were communicated using acronyms that are largely unknown to the general public, such as MSL (mean sea level) and AGL (actual ground level). Davison is an accommodating and friendly individual, but was clearly on-edge as the stunt approached.

"If you see a large, slow-footed man running toward you, then duck," he said at the briefing, referring to himself. "That means that things are going badly."


And then, finally, came the stunt itself. Seventy-five baseballs from Zack's collection (all of them sporting a fresh coat of Lena Blackburne's rubbing mud for increased visibility) were loaded into the helicopter, which then took off from its spot in shallow right-center field. All of the spectators -- which included team employees, a smattering of local media and Zack's ever-supportive mother, Naomi -- were then herded to the relative safety of the Spinners' home dugout as Zack, decked out in catcher's gear donated by Rawlings, took the field. The only other individual "at risk" was Davison, who stayed on the field to relay instructions to Zack while communicating with the pilots via walkie-talkie.

Zack Hample lunges for a ball in Lowell's outfield. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com).

The plan was to drop baseballs at varying heights, starting with 300 feet and culminating with 1,000. This way, all involved could acclimate themselves to the situation -- the equivalent of wading into the water as opposed to taking a dive into the deep end. But no matter what the height, the speed of the ball would not exceed its "terminal velocity" of 95 mph. (I wish I could explain the science behind this terminology but, alas, this was never my best subject).

At 7:50 a.m., the first "test drops" took place, and two minutes later the ball-dropping began in earnest. The first task was to catch a softball dropped from 300 feet, as this would establish a new record in the not-so-hotly contested category of "catching a softball dropped from the highest distance." Zack caught the fourth softball dropped from 300 feet (he seemed unable to see the first three) and then soon snagged a baseball dropped from this height as well. By 8:07 a.m. the helicopter had made its way to an official height of 562 feet, and this was significant in that it exceeded that of the Washington Monument (from which previous catch attempts had been made). And, this time, Zack was successful on the fifth attempt. At 562 feet it was still possible to pick up the ball as soon as it was dropped, but after a couple of test drops at 750 it was apparent that this was no longer the case.

Hample has gathered more than 6,000 balls at various Major League games. (Ben Hill/MiLB.com).

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Davison began leading all of the dugout observers in chants of "5-4-3-2-1 DROP!" so that Zack would know exactly when the ball was leaving the helicopter, but even with this auditory assistance, it was clear that seeing the ball from 750 feet would be a challenge (let alone catching it). After a couple of failed attempts, the helicopter zoomed away in order to refuel and during this intermission Davison expressed increasing concern about the increasing winds. It was still a docile morning, weather-wise, but from this altitude even light wind could throw the ball drastically off course.

"The wind limit is seven miles an hour," Davison told me. "We don't want any balls to be falling outside of the park."

Meanwhile, beleaguered groundskeeper Jeff Paolino used the break in action to plant small flags marking the divots created by the previous ball drops. Zack was sympathetic to Paolino's concern over the field condition, but convinced him to hold off on the flag-planting operation until the stunt had concluded. After all, they might cause him to trip.

Safety first.

Finally, after a delay of approximately a half hour, the helicopter returned and the 750-foot ball drop continued. Some of the drops were wildly off-course (one landed in the third base seating bowl), but a couple of others bounced off of Zack's outstretched catcher's mitt. He eventually switched to his less padded but more broken-in fielder's glove and -- yes! -- that did the trick. Three minutes after wearing this "new" piece of equipment, Zack snagged a ball that, according to the helicopter's altimeter reading, had been dropped from a height of 762 feet.

But there was no time to celebrate -- the winds were increasing, and there were only nine baseballs left in the helicopter. The helicopter was quickly re-positioned at a height of 1,000 feet, but after a hurried test drop and several failed attempts (one of which was juuuust outside the reach of Zack's lunging grasp), Davison called it a day because the wind had picked up to a degree which he felt compromised the safety of those both in and outside the stadium. So 762 feet would mark the day's highlight -- in the same league as Hartnett, but no clear-cut record. Zack walked off of the field dejectedly, his catcher's mask propped atop his head.

"I'm hugely disappointed that I didn't catch it from 1,000 feet, but I know that I can and I know that I will," he said.

Davison expressed an equal desire to give it another go in the near future, remarking that "You have an established professional team to support you. Next time we'll get up to 1,000 feet and just go."

Why not?

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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