NEW YORK (AP) — Zack Hample leads the majors in hogging home run balls.
The 35-year-old New Yorker picked up Didi Gregorius’ first big league homer when the Arizona Diamondbacks rookie lined a pitch into the third row of right-field seats in the third inning Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.
Then he caught a tying drive by Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees in the first row of left-field stands in the ninth.
“It’s a little bit of luck, obviously. I move all over the place constantly,” Hample said after Arizona’s 6-2 victory over New York in 12 innings. “People don’t notice the seven games I’ve been to this year and didn’t catch a home run.”
Author of the 1999 book “How to Snag Major League Baseballs,” Hample is having a ball, the Cal Ripken Jr. of his hobby. Hample said he’s come away from 880 consecutive games with at least one ball, a streak dating to September 1993 at old Yankee Stadium.
He caught two homers in one game for the second time after accomplishing the feat at Baltimore’s Camden Yards on May 13, 2010, drives to right in consecutive innings by Seattle’s Michael Saunders and the Orioles’ Corey Patterson.
Hample caught Barry Bonds’ 724th home run, at San Diego off Chan Ho Park on Aug. 12, 2006. He caught the first big league home runs by Mike Nickeas (April 21, 2011) and Mike Trout (July 24, 2011) and the last home run hit by the New York Mets at Shea Stadium (Carlos Beltran on Sept. 28, 2008).
By Hample’s count, he’s come up with 29 home run balls: 24 off the bat and five tossed to him after landing in bullpens and other areas.
He claimed he would have grabbed Martin Prado’s sixth-inning homer to left had he not been speaking with a Diamondbacks television reporter at the time.
“I really just go by instinct. I don’t position differently for different hitters,” he said. “I had a friend sitting out in right field tonight who called me early in the game and said, ‘We’re over here. Say hello.’ I intentionally waited for Gregorius’ first at-bat. I knew he had no home runs.”
A graduate of Guilford College in North Carolina, Hample works at Argosy Book Store, which was founded by his grandfather near Bloomingdales on Manhattan’s East Side. He does some baseball writing and has turned ball-hawking into a business: He accompanies fans to games and guarantees each they will get a ball.
Hample has a website to track his quest, is quick to tweet pictures of himself with each newly caught ball and stores his home run records on his cellphone.
“I’m a dork, but not a big enough dork that I have it all memorized,” he said.
Even though he lives in Manhattan, in a ball-filled, one-bedroom apartment, Hample was wearing a Diamondbacks cap because he’s been a Heath Bell fan since 2004.
“Zack’s crazy. I know Zack from when I was a rookie with the Mets,” the Arizona reliever said. “He probably was a Padres fan when I was a Padre, a Marlins fan when I was a Marlin.”
Hample, who gave Gregorius back his home run ball in exchange for an autographed baseball, has been to Yankee Stadium, Citi Field and Fenway Park this season and plans on going to all 30 major league parks this year.
He’s being sponsored by BIGS sunflower seeds, which will donate up to $15,000 to Pitch In For Baseball, which collects and redistributes baseball and softball equipment to people in needy communities. It will donate $500 for each stadium where he gets a game-used ball — he has to grab it on his own; he can’t accept balls picked up by other fans. So far he’s 3 for 3, and he hopes to give BIGS a set of 30 balls to auction off, one from each ballpark.
Hample said he’s caught 153 foul balls during games and gotten 6,516 — “that’s the exact number” — baseballs from big league ballparks, mostly during batting practice. He’s caught more balls than many big leaguers in their entire careers.
“I’ve given away more baseballs than I can count,” he said.