New Wrigley bleachers don't bum out ballhawks

April 9, 2006

BY MARK BROWN SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

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.

The 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."

The 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.

But watching 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.

Friday's 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 home plate.

Always on the outside

Being a professional ballhawk, it turns out, has its downside.

"It 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, he theorizes.

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.

But 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.

http://www.suntimes.com


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