1,000-foot baseball visibility test

With my 1,000-foot baseball catch just nine days away, I thought it’d be a good idea to find out if I can actually SEE a baseball from that distance. I needed someone to help, of course, and since my girlfriend Robin was (and still is) concerned that I might die, she volunteered.

We started by doing some simple math . . .

Twenty city blocks = one mile.
One mile = 5,280 feet.
5,280 feet divided by 20 blocks = 264 feet per block.

Therefore, we had to stand roughly four blocks apart — and it began on 81st Street and Central Park West:

In the photo above, the arrow is pointing at Robin, and if you look closely, you can see her holding a baseball in front of her chest.

Robin stayed on that corner, and I walked south. Here’s what the ball looked like from 79th Street when she held it up:

Did you notice the little red circle in the photo above? That’s Robin. As teeny as she appears, you really CAN see the ball if you click the photo to expand it. Although I was only 500-ish feet from her at that point, you should know that my camera makes everything looks farther away than it actually is. I would estimate that your view of her in the photo above is similar to what my naked eye saw from 1,000 feet. For the record, I *was* able to see the ball from 77th Street, especially when she tossed it up and down. I suspected, though, that I was only able to see it because of the dark, colorful background of the city.

There were still a few more visibility tests that I wanted to try, but there were too many pedestrians in the way. (How DARE those people walk down the street when I’m preparing for a world record?!) Robin and I were communicating with our cell phones, so I told her to cross Central Park West and stand in the bike lane. Here’s a zoomed-in shot of her from four blocks away:

It was too tough to see her (with all those effin’ bicyclists in the way), so I asked her if she was willing to risk her life for me.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Next time there’s a red light, can you go stand in the middle of the street, right on the double-yellow line?”

“Okay,” she said, “but you better make it quick.”

“It’ll be very quick. I’ll be out there too. I just wanna get a photo.”

Here’s the photo. Note that Robin is (a) holding the ball in front of her stomach and (b) about to get run over by a taxi:

(Aww, the things we do for love.)

Robin cursed me out on the phone, but other than that, everything was fine.

Do you remember those spray-painted baseballs that I blogged about in February? Well, I had them with me, and we took them into Central Park. Here’s Robin with the orange ball and a regular/white ball:

Basically, I wanted to see how the visibility would differ.

Here’s a photo of her walking away from me:

I don’t know how far away she ended up — probably a bit less than 1,000 feet — but I can tell you this: when she tossed the white ball up and down, I had no trouble seeing it against the dark background of the trees. Click the following photo, and you’ll see it for yourself inside the red circle:

Here’s a zoomed-in photo of her tossing the white ball . . .

. . . and here’s a zoomed-in (and slightly blurry) shot of the orange ball in mid-air:

In the photo above, I love the guy in the purple shirt. He is OUT. Meanwhile, the people sitting in a cluster farther away must’ve been wondering what the hell Robin was doing.

It occurred to me that the most important visibility test hadn’t yet been done. Sure, I could see a baseball from 1,000 feet against dark backgrounds, but what about seeing it in the sky? I told Robin (via cell phone) that I needed her to throw the balls high enough that they’d clear the treetops — not an easy task for someone who’s never played baseball or softball or thrown much of anything. But she did it. It took her several tries (and she had to put the phone down), but she did put enough muscle into it to give me the glimpse that I needed. The white ball was invisible above the trees, and the orange ball looked like a faint gray speck.


I didn’t know what to think as Robin walked back toward me . . .

. . . but now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I really want to do this stunt with regular/white baseballs, or at least unpainted balls. (Someone recently suggested to me that a coating of paint could affect the aerodynamics and possibly cause the ball to drop much faster.) I’m thinking that if I can get my hands on some Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud, I’ll rub some onto the balls; if it’s safe/legal in Major League Baseball, it should be safe/legal for my world record attempt.


  1. jere80

    Have you thought about practicing using a bridge? The GWB is like 200 feet, and you could go to the base of the stanchion on the NYC side where there’s some green space near tennis courts, and have someone walk out onto the span and drop a few. I don’t know how popular that park is but you could do it early or late in the day. Bonus: have the person start climbing the stanchion from the roadway for extra-high drops! ;)

  2. johnlisankie

    Hey Zack, I just wanted to know, have you ever been robbed of a home run? At the Yankees-Mets game last night, on the Andruw Jones home run, it was literally right in my direction. I went down one step and put my glove up, and felt the ball slap into my glove, and before I could even close my glove, the man next to me had his hand in my glove, and about half a second after the ball came into my glove, it was gone? It’s really difficult to cope with something like this. What should I do?

  3. Mateo Fischer

    I know the drop is in a few days, so I don’t know how many of these you can consider, but here are a few suggestions for things you *could* do:

    1. Calculate the time it would take the ball to fall the distance. If the ball really does go faster because of the paint’s weight, do a second calculation accordingly. If it is because of the lessened air resistance because of the lesser friction with the paint, I don’t think you can calculate it in anyway besides dropping it from a height high enough for it to reach its terminal velocity and work backwards from the time it took to fall.

    1a. With this time in mind, figure out if you even need to be able to see the ball at the 1,000 ft mark. It might be that you can pick it up a few seconds after. If you see that Mike, or whomever drops the ball can be accurate with it, you know you can pick it up later and don’t have to freak out about not seeing it “as soon as it’s dropped”. If he/she isn’t that accurate, you will know when you have to get in position to catch the ball.

    2.Figure out how to make it so the ball doesn’t weave in and out of the helicopter’s bottom. What I mean by this is you want to have the ball against a constant back ground. If the ball starts out with the dark background of the helicopter then slides over to the bright background of the sky while it is mid-air, it’ll probably have the same effect as a pitch being thrown from the shadows and then coming into the sunlight: it’ll be more difficult.

    3. Paint/Sharpie/pencil in/water color only one side of a baseball. It may be hard to pick up any motion on the ball from that high up. The white ball has the seams, but those will be nearly impossible to pick up until the ball is very close to the ground, and the colored balls are all uni-color, so until they are big enough to see the color, there is not much to separate them from any other blip in the pattern of the sky. Also, it may be hard to pick up if the ball is moving in one direction or another if it is all the same color.

    The point is this: There are a lot of variables in play; some of which you won’t know or get a sense of until the day of the drop. If you can account for as many of them as you can before hand, you will be more likely to catch the ball given your “given”s. There are probably (definitely) some things I didn’t think of, but I hope these can maybe help.

  4. Matt H (@LSThrasher04)

    I love the police car headed towards you in traffic. If anyone had a reason to wonder WTF you guys were doing, it was the cop lol. The guy in purple is priceless. Hope it was just a nap on his own accord.

  5. Mike

    @ Mateo. Those are good points. From my calculations the ball will take about 10 seconds to drop. I’m not 100% convinced painting the ball will have any appreciable effect on its speed. My goal with the colored balls was to give Zack a few more seconds of visibility, as his ability to see the ball will be key to him catching it, especially if we have issues eliminating the error in getting the ball near him as the altitude of the helicopter increases. The helicopter we are using is a Robinson R-44, which has a pretty small cross section. We may have no control on what the ball does as it leaves the helicopter, as we did not model in the rotor wash of the helicopter. (we are compensating for that somewhat by dropping balls before hand to see where they land, and putting Zack in the middle of the shot pattern). If you have any other ideas, please tell me. I really want Zack to break the record.

    Zack, repeat the test with robin wearing either a light blue shirt or a white/gray shirt and see how well you can pick up the ball. The aeronautical community that is about to drop this ball upon you has serious doubts about your ability to see a white/dirty white ball against the sky. As much as you may not like it, I’ll have some spray painted balls as a last resort available should all else fail.

    For all of those concerned, please start making the appropriate sacrifices to the weather gods so that we have good weather a week from Monday.

  6. Mateo Fischer

    Mike, the rotor wash concern was actually something I’d thought of, but I guess there really is no way to go around it without either speeding up the ball or adding a second (intentional) dimension of motion to the ball, so it seems like test tosses are the only form of preparation.

    I really didn’t think the paint would have any affect either. At least in 2 dimensional travel, it is how well an object can displace air that affects its terminal velocity, so dimples on a golf ball, or in a more relevant example, the height of the seams on a baseball. This actually *does* bring up a question in me, though: Are the spray-painted baseballs Standard Rawlings balls, or are they something else? Most non-MLB baseballs have higher seams, therefore they might travel faster than any baseballs Zack would be volunteering. That said, I’m not a HUGE physics nut, so I would clarify with someone else. Maybe it could be that a ball with higher seams actually increases the drag on the ball?

  7. Mike

    Mateo, the spray painted balls are baseballs that I found walking around local high school ballparks with my four year old son. I was/am going to use these as last resort as they were free. As far as the higher seams, they would increase the skin friction of the ball, but they may also act like the dimples of a golf ball and increase the energy of the flow around the ball , which forces the flow to stay more attached to the ball, and reduces its drag. That’s why a ping pong ball has more drag than a golf ball of the same size. Technically speaking, it’s a matter of laminar vs. turbulent flow. (I suggest you Wikipedia it for a better explanation).

    As far as the rotor wash, I’m hoping the effect is gone after the ball is a rotor diameter or two below the helicopter. The real test will be when we drop the first two or three test softballs as I will be able to track their entire flight. I am damn curious as to what happens. I did not want the ball dropper to throw the balls out with any horizontal velocity, as I’m trying to eliminate all the variables I can, and I think that would just increase the diameter of the shot pattern.

  8. Skim

    Instead of buying catcher’s gear, you should contact Pitch in For Baseball and have them loan you some for the day.

  9. Mateo Fischer

    Yep, I was good on the terminology- well, except for the name of the helicopter- until laminar and turbulent flow. I can’t even make sense of it on Wikipedia. Sorry for all these things I’m throwing at you, but questions/ possible concerns keep coming to me.

    Coming from a pitching background, would the spin of the ball affect the ball? So if a ball were simply dropped, it will start spinning. Would this all necessarily go towards moving the ball downwards? Could it be possible that the spin of a ball causes it to slice one way or another? I know that a four-seam fastball is thrown with back spin, and this pitch goes straight, but that’s with gravity in play. Without gravity, could it be possible the ball drifts upwards (from the aerial perspective)? Or if the ball spins forward, would the ball move downwards? Is there any possibility of a lack of spin, causing the ball to “knuckle”?

    Also, would it matter what side of the baseball is facing upwards when it is dropped? The four-seam fastball travels the fastest out of any of the grips because it has “four” seams to reduce the air resistance. If you try to reduce the speed of the ball by facing the “sweet spot” so only two seams can cut through the air, would it have the same type of movement as a two-seam fastball, or is that just because of the spin applied with the pronation of the arm.

    When you say you hope the effect of the rotor wash “goes away” after one or two rotor diameters, is that to say straightens out, or continues on the path it has been put on so it becomes more predictable for Zack to get under?

    Like I said in the initial comment. Some of these things may be stupid or otherwise impractical to consider given their neglible impact or the imminent nature of the drop, but goal is to just put as much as you’ll take so as that I may help see one thing that may have previously been a problem.

  10. Zack Hample

    I’ve thought about practicing from various high-up places, but I’m not going to. The most I’ll do (when I get the catcher’s mitt from Rawlings) is go to the park with my friend Leon, who can throw about 85 miles per hour. I’ll have him throw me some fastballs and pop-ups.

    I just watched the highlight, and all I can say is “OUCH.” The look of disbelief/horror on your face is painful. I’ve been there before, and my best advice is this: go to many more games and keep putting yourself in the right spot to catch home runs. You’ll never get over the pain of missing this particular ball, but it won’t bother you as much when you catch others. It won’t be your last chance to catch a home run. You’ll have other opportunities. Just become THAT much more determined to make it happen — and it will. I still feel bad about balls that I didn’t catch in the early 1990s. Griffey’s 600th home run and Jeter’s 3,000th hit with *always* haunt me, but what can I do about it? Just suck it up and start strategizing about the next milestone ball. How are you feeling now that you’ve had a few days to think about it?

    You’re putting way more thought into this than I am, but keep it coming. I love all of your ideas and suggestions. I don’t think there’s any way to see the ball at 1,000 feet, but as long as I can see it when it’s at least 200 feet high, I should be okay. That won’t give me much time to move for it, but hopefully it’ll be close to me. Worst case scenario: having to catch a 95mph knuckleball.

    MATT H-
    Good call with the cop. Funny stuff all around.

    There’s no way that I’ll see the ball from 1,000 against a light-colored shirt, but so what? I’ll be able to see a white ball in the sky 200 feet high, and that’s really all I’ll need. Even if I can see the ball at 500 feet or 900 feet, I won’t be able the judge where the hell it’s going. I think the key to all of this is to get the balls to land within about 10 feet of me (or better yet, within one foot of me). I know that you can’t MAKE that happen, but I really believe that’s what it’ll take. I don’t expect to be running 50 feet for each ball and lunging wildly. If a ball ends up landing, let’s say, even 30 feet from me, I probably won’t even bother running for it because I’ll figure it out too late. Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. Maybe I *will* be able to run quite a distance, or maybe, even if the ball lands five feet from me, I’ll still have no chance, but isn’t that what makes this whole thing fun?!


    I thought about that, but most of their equipment comes in “youth” sizes. It would really be nice if Josh Thole lends me the catcher’s mitt that he uses for R.A. Dickey’s starts.

    Whaddaya say?

  11. Double T

    An object dropped from a height like that, the objects speed will increase 9.81 meters per second. So the ball will probably be going over 100 mps.

  12. johnlisankie

    After the past few days, I keep replaying the exact moment in my head. I still cannot believe it, but it’s not nearly as painful as it was when it actually happened. But I expect things to get better from here. Thanks for responding.

  13. Mike

    Mateo, all of you suggestions/comments are excellent, and I do appreciate it. As you saw on my last post, I’m better at engineering than ball hawking. We are trying to put spin On the ball, as it was actually Zacks idea. We’ll see if it works.

    PS had I known, I would have had you drop the ball.

  14. Mark McConville

    zack, do you know any way i can get my hands on a season ticket for tomorrow nights game in Baltimore (June 26)

  15. Nicholas Badders

    Your situation reminds me of something that happened to me last year. On September 2nd at the Oakland Coliseum (Zack was at this game I’m not sure if he remembers this story), Cliff Pennington hit a bomb right at me in the 8th inning. I tried to get out of my seat. The usher boxed me out, so I jumped over my seat, but he boxed me out again. The ball ended up bouncing a few feet behind me. I stuck my glove out and it tipped off the edge and bounced right to some hot chocolate vendor who ran off with the ball. I reported the whole siutation to guest relations. This past offseason, I actually got an email from the front office, apologizing for the situtation, and I guess the guy has been since fired. He still has the ball, but is out of a job. It put me in a baad mood right awat, but I did get to meet Zack and get my copies of his books signed, so that just about made up for it.

  16. Mateo Fischer

    Thanks, but I’m all idea-ed out for now. Oh, and just to clarify what Mike was saying about Double T’s comment; yes, -9.81 Meter Per Second squared is one “g” or the acceleration caused by earth’s gravity. However, this is left on its own only in theoretical scenarios where air resistance does is not brought into play. If you were to go by this, a leaf would drop at the same pace as a canon ball. Since we have this thing on earth, called the atmosphere, though, which slows objects down, an object’s mass and ability to cut through the air come into play when calculating its velocity.

    Oh, and if you’ve seen us reference the term “terminal velocity”, this is also because the atmosphere. Without the presence of air, an object would just keep accelerating. An object reaches terminal velocity when the force of the drag due to the air equals the force of the object falling down (I don’t know if force is the proper terminology, though). The more massive the object, the higher a speed an object will reach before it stops accelerating. I don’t know how an object’s ability to cut through air factors into the equation, though. My guess would be it takes away from the “force of drag” side of the equation.

  17. Blakethesnake

    Zack,(or anyone else)
    How deep do you think the gap is in the outfield at Turner? I am trying to figure out how much string I need for my “cup trick.”

  18. tonyv433


    I just had a Hample-like game at Target Field. Scored 6 balls through BP and then added a gamer that was tossed up in the 7th inning. So between the 7 balls, the field-passes, AND meeting Robin Ventura (my childhood favorite), I was having a very out of body experience. I mean, Robin even gave me a ball and signed it!! It just sounded like a story that you would have written about, not one that I would experience.
    I’m now sitting at 31 at Target Field, and you are at 32. My goal was to overtake you this year, so let’s just call this “game on”!
    Best of luck with the Helicopter Catch, sounds pretty sweet!

    And to those who want to read about my ballhawking adventures, check out:
    I am in the process of detailing all of my snags in detail, so this most recent game will probably not be posted for another 2 weeks or so.

    Stay classy and stay safe! I look forward to the video of the successful catch!


  19. kslo69

    Okay, logistically this might not work due to safety concerns and cabin size, but I keep picturing a length of conduit that could be unrolled and through which the ball could be dropped and travel an appreciable distance below the heli before being exposed to the “rotor wash”. The conduit would have to be stiff enough to not get tossed around too much itself, and might cause the ball to kick out a bit, but could also generate some forward spin.

  20. Zack Hample

    According to everything I’ve read and heard (from the experts), the ball will be traveling 140 feet per second.

    You’re welcome. Just hang in there. It sucks royally but it’s really not the end of the world. Believe me . . . I know.

    Putting spin on the ball wasn’t my idea. One of my friends suggested it. I think it was Leon Feingold, but I’ve been getting so many ideas from so many people (which is awesome) that I might be wrong. Meanwhile, what do you suppose the terminal velocity is for a softball, and will the softball reach that velocity in 300 feet?

    Yikes. I don’t know. Get there early and ask Avi to hook you up? You know what he looks like, right? I got a photo of him at my most recent game at Citi Field. He’s usually at the CF end of the warehouse before the stadium opens.

    I remember that. Glad I helped to make that day a little bit less crappy for you.

    I like you.

    It’s about as deep as the outfield wall is high. Just google it and/or look at the photos on my blog. There’s even a photo of it in “The Baseball.”

    Awesome. Seven balls at Target Field is like 14 balls anywhere else (except New York). It’s really a tough place, as you know. I consider myself a lame-duck ballhawk, given the fact that you’re about to overtake me at that stadium and I have no way (for now) to do anything about it. But no . . . good luck. I knew that my “record” there wouldn’t last long, and I’m glad you’re the one who will break it.

    This is weird. A friend of mine (who quietly reads this blog and never comments publicly) suggested the VERY same thing last night in an email. Mike, what do you think? I like the idea of doing this as simply as possible — regulation balls, not painted or marked, not rolled through a tube, just dropped, no binoculars (as my anonymous friend suggested), etc. I want to be able to say that I caught a ball that was dropped from a helicopter — not rolled through some weird-ass tube from a helicopter. You know? But that’s not meant to diss the suggestion. I love the creativity, but it’s just not quite what I have in mind.

  21. jere80

    Blakethesnake: Just to add to Zack’s answer, whatever you end up estimating as the length of string needed, double it. No harm in having extra, right? But if you’re a foot short, you’re screwed.
    (The genius switch has no off position, my friends.)

  22. kslo69

    However it works out, we’ll all be thinking of you and hoping for the best that day!

  23. Austin

    Everybody who reads the comments- I have finally located where Lena Blackburne baseball rubbing mud comes from! Most people online said it comes from the Rancocas Creek that were guessing, so I checked there for a long time, and it appears that it comes from Mitchell Tract, on the Creek’s side. Mitchell Tract is located near 21 Clay Street, Riverside, New Jersey, 08075. Note: I did post this on Wikipedia earlier. I hope I didn’t get any haters from the Bintliff family. My source for it was the video at http://gizmodo.com/5850268/every-baseball-is-rubbed-with-this-special-mud-before-it-gets-used

  24. Zack Hample

    Good call. It’s wise to have extra string so that you can swing your glove from side to side and knock a ball closer . . . or whatever.


    Cool. You may have unraveled a huge mystery.

  25. Mike

    KSLO69-the safety and logistical considerations out weigh any potential benefits. Besides, it might act like the barel of a smoothbore musket, in which the bullet sort of rattles around the barrel on the way out, and you are not really sure where it is going when it leaves the barrel. So it may not add any additional accuracy than dropping the ball, and I don’t think it will fit in the helicopter we are renting.

    Zack-I do. Not know what the terminal velocity of a softball is, but it will be slower than a baseball, since there is more drag. It might just achieve it when you catch it. My guess is it is around 65 mph.

  26. Cook & Son Bats

    That’s rough. Sorry, man. But is it clear the guy stole it after you caught it? It looks like it happened incredilbly quickly for him to have gone in and pulled it out. Obviously, I wasn’t there and you know better. But could he have caught the ball with his bare hand while you caught his hand and the ball? During BP at my last game at old Yankee Stadium, my #1 guy Ken Griffey Jr. hit a foul ball right to me. I put my glove up and the guy in the row in front of me put his glove right inside of mine. He caught the ball and I caught his glove. It was sad. But the guy just had better position than I did. Anyway, Griff made it up for me by hitting his 601st career homerun to set it all straight.

  27. Zack Hample

    Not a bad idea.

    Interesting about the tube, but as for the softball, are you sure? Softballs are heavier than baseballs, right?

    If I were wearing a hat right now, I’d tip it to you for being the voice of reason.

  28. Mike

    Zack, the softball is an ounce or two heavier than a baseball, depending on the ball used. My guess is that the diameter of the ball will be a bigger factor over the 300 feet of travel for the ball.

  29. Austin

    Zack- I have compared Lena Blackburne baseball mud to other muds, and what really makes the mud effective is the secret ingredient. I am not positive about this statement, but i believe the secret ingredient is baking soda. If you feel like being weird (I have not done this and am not responsible for any injuries or medical trips or anything else but success) try licking a game used baseball. I really don’t want to try this, but I think this is it because of pH tests that I have seen of the mud and various videos that have baking soda in the background of the guy’s house who gets the mud it indicates, at least to me that the secret ingredient is baking soda. So in theory, you could get mud from Central Park or something, (I’ve never been to the East Coast,so I dunno) Sift it, add baking soda, and voila!

  30. Zack Hample

    I’d really love to know what the exact velocity will be for the softballs. Any way to find out ahead of time? Meanwhile, did you see the softballs (and other equipment) that Rawlings sent to me? Just got it last night. Have a look: http://i.imgur.com/yzj8Z.jpg

    Interesting. I just talked to the guy who owns the company, but not about his ingredients. He’s going to send me some mud for me to rub on the baseballs for this stunt. That’ll help me see them.

    ZACH V-
    Tonight. But I might leave after BP. I have *so* much to do.

    These things happen.

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