Around Town: Meet the 'ballhawkers'
Nick Pelescak celebrates catch No. 300 in the center field bleachers at PNC Park. Mr. Pelescak has been "competitively collecting" in the ballhawk league since last season.
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Most people will never know how good it feels to catch a baseball that flies into the stands. Fewer still will know how good it feels to catch your 300th.
Before meeting Nick Pelescak, Erik Jabs and Jim Saylor in PNC Park's outfield seats before a recent Pirates game, I hadn't realized ballhawking had become competitive.
Mr. Pelescak, 28, an Army specialist, grabbed his 300th ball in a little over 100 games across two seasons while I was watching him in the left-field bleachers during batting practice late Friday afternoon.
Only minutes before, I watched his friend, Mr. Jabs, a high school Spanish teacher, catch one on the fly in right center field.
And in that same section was Jim Saylor, 62, of Stanton Heights, the acknowledged career leader in game-time home runs caught. The soft-spoken Mr. Saylor has caught 26 homers -- including two in one half-inning back in 2001 -- since he first caught one off the bat of a Houston Astro named Kenny Houston in 1984 at old Three Rivers Stadium.
"I love baseball and I love the feel of a ball, a baseball,'' Mr. Saylor said. "It's kind of like an addiction almost.''
Kind of? It is most certainly an obsession for these men.
Mr. Pelescak, an outfielder for Langley High a decade ago, said, "It keeps me focused, keeps me out of trouble. It brought baseball back into my life, really, because it makes me a participant."
The online contest was founded by Mr. Jabs of Munhall, a teacher at Steel Valley High, who keeps a blog called "Counting Baseballs.'' He has caught 527 balls in his "career'' -- and 367 of them this year.
Twenty-two ballhawks are in his league, ranging from age 13 to fortysomethings. They dot the country, but the man Mr. Jabs calls "The Barry Bonds of Snagging'' is Zach Hample of New York. Mr. Hample has caught more than 4,000 balls in his career -- including Bonds' 724th career home run.
As the crowds get smaller at PNC, Pirates owners may squirm, but the ballhawkers love it. There's so much room to maneuver.
They arrive a couple of hours before game time, when the gates open, and Mr. Pelescak and Mr. Jabs will run back and forth between left and right field depending on whether a lefty or a righty is batting.
Mr. Pelescak has been to 69 games this year, and would have been to the park more often had his Army commitments not kept him away.
Friday's game was Mr. Jabs' 73rd; he has a season-ticket plan for $399 and will tell you that when you divide that by 81 games, each game costs less than five bucks.
"I catch a few balls and I've paid for the ticket and then some.''
Mr. Saylor doesn't do as much running as his younger brethren, but he still averages 60 balls in his 60-odd games each year. An usher, Lou, described Mr. Saylor as gentleman. He likes to occasionally given a ball up to a fan in the nearby handicapped seating.
These guys know most fans aren't so keen on the hunt for horsehide, and Mr. Pelescak and Mr. Jabs will keep an extra ball to give to a kid if either finds himself catching one in front of a youngster.
The most innovative twist I saw Friday belonged to Mr. Jabs. He grabbed five balls Friday (and the same on Sunday), which was in line with his average of 4.8 per game. But the snag that impressed me most was the one I didn't see.
He has this glove trick, one Mr. Hample also employs: Stick a pen in the webbing to keep the glove open, and then wrap a thick rubber band near the end of the glove's fingers. If you then lower the glove carefully over a ball sitting in the bullpen walkway, you can pull one up like a fisherman reeling in a whitefish.
He demonstrated how he has pulled in 63 baseballs with a device this season; he also has used a collapsible stick to nudge two or three balls up from the center field ivy.
Friday was a beautiful night for a ballgame but, even with shades and a ballcap, the sun made it tough on the ballhawks. Yet the sparse crowd and widely spaced bleacher benches made it easy for Mr. Jabs and Mr. Pelescak to bounce through the section almost as fast as the balls they chased.
First Published September 22, 2009 12:00 am