5 Tweets With ... Ballhawk Shawn
To this day, some 20-plus years later, it is still the greatest catch I’ve ever witnessed. No, I am not referring to The Kid’s catch in 1987 to preserve the first and only no-hitter in Milwaukee Brewers' history. The catch I am referring to isn’t in MLB’s video library and, in fact, probably is remembered by only a handful of people.
In the days of Milwaukee County Stadium, fans regularly could chat with players before the game and it was not uncommon for a kid to be handed a batting-practice ball. I hope my sister still has the ball that Dan Pleasac personally signed and gave her. Anyone remember reliever Tony Fossas? I do, primarily because he gave me my first Brewers baseball. ("The Bullpen" notes: I also remember Mr. Fossas, as he signed my glove during a similar pregame interaction.) Snagging a batting-practice ball was nice, but not nearly as exciting as an actual game-used ball.
My uncle had packed up six or eight of the nieces and nephews for the annual Brewers trip. We were comfortably parked down the first-base line, just under the edge of the upper deck. I don’t recall who the Crew was playing, but I do remember catcher Charlie O’Brien hitting a soft pop-fly in our direction. We all turned into Robin Yount, watching the flight of the ball and hoping it fell into one of our gloves. It wasn’t meant to be, as the ball sailed over and past us, landing in the upper deck.
Before the ball had even landed, we had all returned to our seats to wait for the next pitch. All of us but one, that is. My brother then made the single-greatest catch I’ve ever witnessed. Not that it was a difficult catch, by any means; the fact he made the catch was impressive.
The ball landed in the upper deck, then bounced back over the railing and into the mitt of the one person who was still standing. I can still see it clearly in my memory -- everyone sitting down as my brother stood there all alone. My bro slapped his mitt off of his thigh, off his chest, then one more each for good measure (You didn’t think Barry Bonds started that routine, did you?) before calmly flipping down his shades just before the ball landed in his glove. We had our first game ball!
There have been a few others since that great grab. A few years later during a high school bus trip, also at County Stadium, a buddy and I both got foul balls in the same inning. Then last year a friend caught a foul ball on a play reminiscent of Evan Longoria’s AMAZING "catch". Yes, he passed it off to the kid next to us. Well, technically he handed it to the mother next to us, who handed it to her kid.
I’ve picked up a few other balls along the way, but it shows how rare the feat is that I've only had those relatively few instances in my 25-plus years of Brewers fandom. Sadly, I’ve never come anywhere close to catching a home run ball, an even rarer feat for a baseball fan. However, the experience is not so rare for those who call themselves a “ballhawk.”
I saw a story a few years ago regarding the ballhawks who hang outside of Wrigley Field in hopes of catching a home run. I had absolutely no idea that Miller Park has its own resident ballhawk until I joined Twitter and started to follow @BallhawkShawn. Shawn has nearly 1,500 balls in his collection, including 15 home run balls, two of which were hit by former Brewer Prince Fielder. I can’t begin to grasp the focus, knowledge and determination it takes to amass such a collection.
This year there is an added incentive for Shawn to hawk as many balls as possible. He has joined up with Pitch In For Baseball to raise money for equipment for inner-city youth, places whose resources have been depleted and even some overseas causes.
I’ve tweeted Shawn on several occasions, professing my admiration for what he does. When I saw that he is raising money this year, I thought I’d help him get the word out. Shawn recently spared a half-hour of his time for the next installment of "5 Tweets With." Allow me to introduce Shawn, Milwaukee’s very own ballhawk!
Me: How long have you been hawking, and do you remember your first ball?
Shawn: I've been ballhawking since around the middle of 2002. My mother and I attended a game on June 15, 2002 -- the Brewers vs Mariners at Miller Park. My favorite player has always been Ron Villone, who was on the Mariners at the time. When my mother and I went to Friday's for a pregame meal, the stars aligned and Ron Villone came to retrieve a ball that landed directly below our table on the concourse. I called out to Ron and he immediately obliged, throwing me my first career baseball. From that moment on, I knew what my favorite hobby would be.
Me: So what's the total ball count at now?
Shawn: I'm sitting at right around 1,474 career baseballs.
Me: I saw that the balls you get this year raise some dough for charity. Tell me for whom and how you got this set up?
Shawn: The charity partnership is something I am really excited about this season. I have wanted to do something like this for a long time. Ballhawk Zack Hample gets some recognition for the idea, and PIFB's own David Rhode for welcoming me to the PIFB family. Basically, people are pledging a few cents per baseball I get at MLB stadiums this year. Right now, each ball I get in 2012 is worth $1.28 for Pitch In For Baseball, a 501(c)(3) organization that raises money for youth baseball programs in areas lacking local resources. They collect donations and equipment for places that have been ravaged by tornadoes, like Joplin, MO, and Henry, IN. They also do overseas work and work with inner-city youth. So far, my donors and I have raised $47.35 and are on pace to collect close to $350 by the end of the season. Anyone who would like to donate to the per-ball donation should contact me on my blog, on Twitter or in person and tell me exactly how much they'd like to donate per ball. All donations are collected through the PIFB website's online donation form. There is a field for general comments, and people should identify the donation as a result of my ballhawking.
Me: How many balls do you hope to get this year?
Shawn: I'm hoping to end the season around 300 or 350, so every $.05/ball donation is worth around $15 at the end of the year. That buys a glove for one lucky youngster.
Me: So how many HR balls have you caught? Any favorites that come to mind?
Shawn: Total, I've got 15 game home runs. I collect them via any method: thrown from players, hit from players or in a scramble in the bleachers. I have Jose Altuve's third career home run, George Kottaras's third career home run, Michael Taylor's first spring-training home run, an Alex Gonzalez spring-training home run, Ryan Braun's 55th and 115th career home runs, a Johnny Estrada home run ("The Bullpen" notes: Off a first-pitch fastball, no doubt.), Geoff Blum's 79th career home run, a Carlos Lee walk-off home run from 2006, Luke Scott's 18th career home run, a JJ Hardy spring-training home run, Adam Dunn's 304th career home run, Lastings Milledge's 32nd career home run, and two Prince Fielder home runs (one from very early in his career, and his 180th). I have a few favorites. Adam Dunn's home run completely left Miller Park and I had to run outside to get it. I got LOTS of TV face time on the highlight shows and broadcasts. He's one of my favorite players, too. Also, in July 2010 I caught three home runs in two days, including Braun and Fielder back-to-back home runs. I've gotten two home runs in one game twice. But they're all special; there isn't really one "favorite."
Shawn: Thank you for noticing! I'm blessed with an above-average memory. The "glove trick" is something I learned from other ballhawks. Hample was the first guy I saw use it and when I noticed lots of other ballhawks following suit, I made my own. It's essentially a spare glove with some string attached. It's propped open with something, and has a rubber band in a very strategic position. Tricks of the trade!
Me: I listen to ALL of the Crew's games on the radio so I had no idea who the "Happy Youngster" was until my editor suggested I ask you about him. I guess not all of Brewers Nation appreciates his behavior. Do you have any thoughts on him?
Shawn: His name is Nick Yohanek and he is a very good friend of mine. We sit a mere 12 seats away from each other during most games. He and I have had ups and downs, but we're good friends now. When you get to know him, he's a nice guy and great father. He may have made a few missteps, but let he who is without sin may cast the first stone. I never understand why people like to judge him (or anyone, for that matter) without getting to know him first.
Me: I REALLY appreciate you taking some time to chat with me!
Shawn: THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT!!!!
Tim Thompson is a carsalesman, farmer, and huge fan of the Milwaukee Brewers. He lives in Milton area with his wife and two kids. Tim is a community blogger and is not a part of The Gazette staff. His opinion is not necessarily that of the The Gazette staff or management.