bleachers don't bum out ballhawks
9, 2006BY MARK BROWN SUN-TIMES
Eight men in orange
prison-type jumpsuits pretended to compete for fly balls Friday afternoon on Waveland
Avenue, which would prove as close as I would come to seeing the effects of Wrigley
Field's new dimensions on the ballpark's honored tradition of ballhawking.
It was strictly amateur-hour stuff,
performed for the benefit of a reality television program. A crew member from
the show threw a baseball high into the air and the would-be ballhawks from Toronto
crashed into each other on the street or sidewalk trying to catch it, apparently
to simulate the pursuit of a real home-run ball.
videotaping ended abruptly when the guy threw the ball onto a Waveland rooftop,
the only one without spectators. It seems the reality show folks didn't bring
a backup baseball, which might give the eight contestants pause as to how much
confidence they should have in the show's alleged $1 million prize -- to be awarded
if one of them catches Barry Bonds' 715th home-run ball later this summer.
Amateurs get no respect
"It ain't going to happen," Moe Mullins,
Wrigley's most venerated ballhawk, pronounced dismissively. Mullins wasn't referring
to the prize money so much as the prospect of any member of the motley TV group
catching the ball in the first place. "They ought to get a reality check."
Plus, added Mullins, "if Bonds hits it here, odds
are that Moe Mullins is going to catch it."
Cubs home opener wasn't the best day to test how Wrigley's bleacher expansion
will alter the practice of trying to catch baseballs that leave the stadium.
In fact, with batting practice cancelled by the threat
of rain and a rugged wind blowing in from left field throughout Friday's game,
I couldn't have picked a worse day to watch the ballhawks in action.
Not a single ball even threatened to leave Wrigley
-- expanded bleachers or not.
the real ballhawks' disdain for the reality wannabes made it as good a day as
any to dip a toe into this unique subculture of Chicago's baseball world, where
grown men with pro model ball gloves never see a single pitch but jump into action
at the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd.
unfavorable conditions didn't keep most of the die-hard ballhawks from checking
it out for themselves, even if Mullins and fellow regular Dave Davison were eventually
reduced to trying to catch "roof balls" -- foul balls that clear the roof behind
on the outside
a professional ballhawk, it turns out, has its downside.
took us all of five minutes today to get heckled. I put my chair down, and I got
heckled," complained Wes Wagner, referring to the abuse ticket-holding fans sometimes
heap on the ballhawks for never coming inside to watch the games.
"What they don't understand is that we know more
about what's going on in the game than 90 percent of the people inside," said
Wagner, 35, only in his second year of ballhawking but already getting respect
from the veterans.
Wagner is a regular
Wrigley Field ballhawk even though he lives outside St. Louis. He started ballhawking
after coming here to visit his fiancee, who lives in the neighborhood. I would
love to tell you what Wagner does for a living to explain how he manages this,
but I promised I wouldn't, because if I did, he wouldn't have his job much longer.
Several of the ballhawks seem to have a similar need
to maintain privacy, their semi-celebrity status occasionally causing problems,
such as co-workers wanting to know how they happen to get so much time off.
Two distinct schools of thought emerged Friday from
the regulars as to how much the taller, deeper Wrigley bleachers will cut into
the action that draws them to the park for practically every home game.
Fewer balls predicted
Mullins and Davison took the more
optimistic view, both predicting a dropoff of only about 25 percent from the 801
balls that they say left the stadium last year, a statistic amazingly charted
by fellow ballhawk Ken Vangeloff on his Web site, ballhawk.com.
"Six thirty-five, that's my guess," said Davison,
the younger of the pair, his age somewhere in his 30s, which he admits lying about.
"I'll say 590," said Mullins, attributing the lower
total to a dropoff in Cubs batting power as much as the expanded bleachers.
But Vangeloff and others predicted a doomsday scenario
of only about 200 balls clearing the back walls this summer. Although the bleachers
aren't any taller down the left field line than the screen behind the old bleachers,
the bleachers will catch more baseballs because they extend closer to the street,
The changes might actually
work to the benefit of amateur ballhawks, because someone outside the stadium
will no longer be able to observe the flight of the ball on its way up, one of
the tricks that gives veterans their advantage.
if Barry Bonds' 715th was on the line, I'd still put my money on a Wrigley Field
ballhawk over anybody in an orange jumpsuit.