7/1/98 at Three Rivers Stadium

Do you remember how big of a deal it was when you turned 10? It was huge, right? Double digits at last! Well, this game for me at Three Rivers Stadium — the Pirates’ former home — sent my lifetime MLB stadium tally into double digits. It was also the first time I’d gotten on a plane by myself for the sole purpose of attending a game. This made me feel like a true (and very grown-up) baseball fan.

Thankfully, when I landed in Pittsburgh, the weather was perfect, and I had plenty of time to spare. I wrote in my journal for a while, grabbed some lunch, found my hotel, and eventually headed back out at around 3pm. I was too young to rent a car and didn’t want to mess around with public transportation, so I took a cab.

This was my first glimpse of the stadium:



Okay, not really, but I was so excited to be there that it didn’t matter. When I got out of the cab, I did what I always do: I wandered and took photos. Here’s one that shows a sneak peek through the gates . . .


. . . and here’s another of the Honus Wagner statue nearby:


I bought a ticket and kept wandering . . . and then? I probably shouldn’t admit this, but my goal was to sneak into the stadium extra early — something that was often doable before 9/11. In fact, over the previous few seasons, I’d done it several times at Shea Stadium, always with a game ticket in hand. I had never cheated the Mets by sneaking in for free, thought it would’ve been easy. For some reason, roughly three to four hours before game time, one of the garage-type doors was usually kept wide-open at Gate E. No guards. No cameras. It was too tempting not to take advantage, so one day I did. I just waltzed right in and headed up the ramp and ended up lurking in the Loge Level seats near the foul pole. Not only didn’t I get caught, but I got an extra ball out of it. The Mets were taking early BP, and the rest of the stadium was empty. So I did it again. And again. And now that I was here in Pittsburgh, I hoped to do something similar.

After walking around for a while and cautiously testing various gates and doorknobs, I found myself outside an open doorway — an employee entrance of some sort that led into a long hallway. There wasn’t much activity — just a few workmen passing by who didn’t acknowledge me — so I waited for a lull and then skulked in.

The first thing I noticed was an office on the left with glass windows and two workmen inside. Thankfully, though, the shades were drawn, so I could only barely see their outlines, and they didn’t notice me. Of course, as I walked a bit farther, I happened to look right up into a security camera. I probably should’ve made a U-turn at that point and gotten the hell out of there, but no, like a total schmuck, I kept going.

I ended up passing a groundskeepers’ room (!!) and the umpires’ room (!!!!), and eventually, when I approached the end of the hallway, I saw a VERY bright green sliver of light up ahead. It was shining through a narrow space at the bottom of the wall, and I knew that it could only be one thing: sunlight reflecting off the AstroTurf! I was too excited for words — too thrilled to have the sense to pull out my camera and take a picture. It was about 4pm when I turned left and realized exactly where I was: behind the outfield wall in right-center field. Wow!!! See the scoreboard in this random photo of the stadium? I was standing right below it. I found a place to get a peek over the outfield wall, and whaddaya know? The Pirates were taking early BP.

I continued walking through the gap behind the wall toward the right-field foul pole. Soon after I got there, one of the batters hit a home run that landed near me. (How convenient.) I looked around, and everything appeared calm and safe, so I walked over and picked it up and stuffed it into my backpack.

Take another look at the random photo of the stadium. See the bullpen in the right field corner? There’s where I ended up. Here’s my own photo of it:


I didn’t walk any farther than that. There were players on the field and several ushers in the seats. I was nervous about getting busted, so I stayed against the side wall, where I could barely see over the top strip of foam padding. Here’s another photo:


And another:


And hey, why not another! Look how close I was to the coaches and players:


While I was standing there, a batter sliced a ball that landed in the bullpen and rolled five feet away from me. I grabbed that one too and couldn’t believe how awesome my life was.

Then it all came crashing down.

One of the Pirates coaches — a really mean-lookin’ mofo — approached me and asked who I was. (I found out later that it was Pete Vuckovich, a former pitcher who had played the role of the evil Yankees slugger Clu Haywood in the movie “Major League.” Yikes.) He asked if I was with the grounds crew, and when I said no, he was like, “Why are you back here?” I thought fast and said I’d entered the stadium to use a bathroom and had gotten lost. Just as he was really starting to get agitated, I saw two security guards in the background heading our way, so when he told me that I had to leave, I was almost relieved. That’s when I made my U-turn and quickly retraced my steps. I didn’t run — that would’ve been an admission of guilt and perhaps prompted the guards to chase me — but I walked FAST. I headed through the gap behind the outfield wall, and when I reached the scoreboard, I turned right and proceeded quickly through the long hallway and kept my head down as I passed the security camera, and man, let me tell you, when I made it out through the door, I ran faster than ever.

I was on edge for the rest of the day, but no one ever approached me or said a word.

Take one more look at the random stadium photo. (Last time, I promise.) See the red seats in straight-away right field? See how they’re about 20 feet high? Well, once the stadium opened (90 minutes before game time) for regular BP, I used my glove trick twice to snag home run balls that had landed there. I should’ve gotten a few more with the trick, but I was an idiot and had bad luck, and stadium security eventually told me to stop.

My fifth ball of the day (including the two I’d gotten before the stadium opened) was a random toss-up from 20 feet below. In other words, the player didn’t seem to be aiming for anyone in particular, so I grabbed it when it sailed over another fan’s head and landed on a seat.

After BP, the Pirates took infield/outfield practice, and when they finished, I got Steve Bieser to toss me a ball at their dugout on the 1st-base side. Then, as the grounds crew began prepping the field for the game, I got someone to take my picture:


In case you’re wondering, I was 20 years old, and I was wearing that shirt because of Tony Womack. He had graduated from Guilford College seven years earlier, and I’d gotten to know him because of his connection to the school. (More specifically, I was on the baseball team as a freshman, and he came and worked out with us in the fall.)

Anyway, when the Pirates jogged off the field after infield/outfield practice, Womack saw me and waved. As simple a gesture as that was, it made me feel great. He wasn’t just some scrubby bench player. He’d played in the All-Star Game the year before — the first of three consecutive seasons in which he led the National League in stolen bases.

Then I wandered a bit . . .


. . . and made my way back to the dugout before the game. Who ended up coming out to play catch? That’s right — Mister Womack. And he ended up tossing me the ball. There wasn’t much security, so I stayed behind the dugout and took a photo of him at bat in the bottom of the 1st inning:


He lined out to left field. (Frowny face.)

Here’s the last photo that I took inside Three Rivers Stadium:



I didn’t snag any more baseballs during or after the game, which the Tigers won, 9-1. I finished the day with seven (and a lifetime total of 1,160) — a respectable total for a stadium with a stupid layout and a late opening time.

Before heading out, I collected more than a dozen ticket stubs. Here are four of them . . .


. . . and here are nine more that I got autographed weeks/months later:


How many of those signatures can you identify? Post your answers and guesses in a comment. In a few days, I’ll reply and tell you who’s who.

Finally, as I’ve been doing at the end of all these “Turn Back The Clock” blog entries, here’s my original handwritten journal entry about this game. It starts here on the first page of Volume 38 . . .


. . . and continues here with a whole lot of mundane details about my life:


But you know what? I love those details. I’m glad to know that I was dutifully studying four-letter Scrabble words beginning with the letter “o.”

Here’s the part when I arrived at the stadium and began trying to sneak inside:


You can probably guess what the bleeped out words are:


This next two-page spread has a diagram — an aerial view — of the right field corner:


Yes, I was obsessed with documenting everything, and I took my journal seriously.

Here’s the part where Vuckovich approached me in the bullpen and asked who I was:


I remember all of that *so* vividly. I wonder what would’ve happened if I’d gotten caught by stadium security.

Here’s the part where I reentered the stadium at the normal time and snagged two baseballs with the glove trick:


You think there’s been a lot of stuff bleeped out? Ha! Check out THIS spread:


Don’t ask. Some things are better left unsaid.

Here’s where the journal entry ends:


That’s it . . . kind of. Here’s a complete list of all my other “Turn Back The Clock” entries:

1) June 11, 1993 at Candlestick Park
2) June 11, 1996 at Shea Stadium
3) July 2, 1998 at Cinergy Field
4) July 10, 1998 at Tiger Stadium
5) July 13, 1998 at County Stadium
6) July 14, 1998 at Busch Stadium
7) May 29, 1999 at the Kingdome
8) July 18, 1999 at the Astrodome
9) September 24-25, 1999 at the Metrodome
10) May 9-10, 2000 at Olympic Stadium
11) July 17-18, 2000 at Qualcomm Stadium


  1. bdweingarten

    I enjoy these posts from the past a lot. I wasn’t born until ’99, so I don’t really remember pre-9/11 security. But I do think one of the coolest feelings is being in a stadium that’s almost completely empty. I’ve actually thought about this: there’s gotta be plenty of time during the offseason when a stadium is completely empty. I wonder if there’s any parks that you would be able to get into, just to take a look at. (I bet you could at Shea with the open outfield.) I’m not sure I would have the cojones to do that though.

  2. Ryan M.

    Pretty cool, and extremely ugly/nostalgic. It was perfect.

    Anyway, Zack, I wanted to pick your brain about something. Whether it’s my friends, parents, or girlfriend, I’m getting much more negative responses about my continued Ballhawking and aspirations to experience new things the hobby offers.

    I know you’ve gotten “hate mail” of sorts for years, but I wanted to ask you how how you dealt with criticism of you passion for the hobby from people who know you and care about you; the opinions you actually value.

    I could just shrug it off and tell them catching balls makes me happy, but that’s much easier said than done. You may not have had the same sort of responses because you started when you were almost a kid (compared to my first season as a 19 year old), but can you offer any advice on how to not feel bad about trying to set the bar higher in terms of Ballhawk goals that involve the time and money commitments, as well as traveling to different parks, especially alone?

  3. Zack Hample

    Ahh, well, you’ve probably heard from lots of older people how chill everything was before 9/11, so I won’t bore you with all that stuff. As for sneaking into Shea at some random time . . . eh, that would’ve been seriously risky. That would’ve been straight-up trespassing, whereas what I did here in Pittsburgh somehow seemed like less of a big deal.

    RYAN M.-
    That’s serious stuff. Thanks for asking, and sorry you’re being forced to deal with negative people. When I was much younger (14-ish), I got lots of crap about ballhawking because it was “dorky” compared to what other kids that age were doing. The thing that ultimately shielded me from criticism was my first book, “How To Snag Major League Baseballs.” The fact that I wrote about my hobby and made some money because of it and got to be on TV made people back off and actually respect me. (Of course, I was still the same guy so it annoyed me when people’s perception suddenly changed.) Anyway, my advice is to steer clear of people who are being negative and judging you. If your friends are making fun of you for ballhawking (or for anything, really), then you need to get better friends. It’s that simple. And if your family is giving you crap . . . well, you can’t get a better family, so you just have to earn your own money and establish your own life and then you can do whatever the hell you want. Of course, I still have to deal with haters (including several close members of my family) who think that baseball/ballhawking is the biggest waste of time and that I should move on and find other things and blah blah. I have no patience for people like that because they’re the ones with a problem, not me. The girlfriend issue is a tricky one. My advice is to date someone who has a solid circle of friends and has her own hobbies and interests — someone who doesn’t rely on you to provide all the entertainment, and who enjoys having alone time. Then you’ll be able to say “See ya!!” several nights a week and go to games and do your thing. Basically, if you’re doing something fun that doesn’t hurt anyone, then who cares? And if other people think you’re weird for doing it and can’t possibly understand why you would care about catching baseballs, that just shows that you’re doing something special that their undeveloped brains can’t comprehend. Lots of people complain about not having a passion, so if people are being negative about yours, they’re probably jealous. That’s how I see it at least. I hope that helps.

    Yes! The bottom middle and bottom right stubs are signed by Kris Benson, and the one on the top right is indeed Esteban Loaiza. Good call.

    You guessed a few correct names, but you need to indicate which stubs they’ve signed. Top? Middle? Bottom? Left, middle, right? And what’s with saying “and someone that I don’t know”? What kind of guess is that?!


  4. Demetrius

    top left; Bobby Higginson, top middle; Tim Laker. top right; Esteban Loaiza. middle left; Jason Christiansen. middle middle; Mike Williams. middle right; Tim Laker. bottom left; Juan Encarnacion. And finally bottom middle and right; Kris Benson.

  5. Big Glove Bob

    Good entry! Vuckovich IS a scary dude. This is from the Wiki entry about him:
    Vuckovich developed a reputation for bizarre, hyper-competitive behavior during his twelve season career. He would fidget, twitch, pace, and convulse while on the mound. He was known to cross his eyes and stick his tongue out at batters. He would spit in his glove, scream at umpires while in the stretch, and sometimes step to the back of the mound and dry heave. His colorful personality made him a fan favorite

  6. Zack Hample

    You are correct about Loaiza, Christiansen, Williams, and Benson.

    Well then. In that case, I feel that my reaction to running into him was justified.

  7. Cole's Hot Corner

    Great post Zack!! I’m currently reading your book Watching Baseball Smarter, and it is awesome! Keep up the good work!

  8. Ramiro Valdez

    I like your story adventurous daring with one thing in mind trying to be the first one to record something Historical that pertains to baseball. But how would you like to record something Historical for baseball that has been lost for years and dates back 137 years like the game winning baseball of The Championship of The West in 1876 played between the StLouis Brown Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings signed by the winning team to include acknowledgement signatures of several icons such as Andy Leonard, Gleason, Anson, Burkett, and others that will be revealed at a latter time. The ball has championship lettering plus the five diamonds to include a seven digit serial number that records its origination. One of the signature that stands out is that of the MVP pitcher player George Washington who’s signature is known as — The Tail and a 4 — because he won four games of that series the other one is that of Samuel Mason Graffen who was one of two coaches for the St. Louis Brown Stockings of 1876. His signature carries a crazy letter –s– which he was known to use in his signature. There is more info and details about this baseball , I just wanted to give you enough information to assure you that this baseball is soon going to be the most Historical Baseball ever found and I just want to know, since you are an adventurous who’s always looking to record special events about baseball, would you be interested in being the first to see this incredible baseball so you can be able to say that you were there first before any professional Authenticator ever saw it because been first is more enjoyable that second. The initial story was written by Stephen Whitaker of The Echo News Paper in Helotes, Texas 78023 on November 20 of 2013 section –B– page11. They are great reporters when it comes History of St Louis baseball because in their organization is two individuals who know a lot of History due to their family being from St Louis. Let me know soon if you are interested by calling me at 210-274-3316 / rvaldez2424@gmail.com

  9. Ramiro Valdez

    No problem honesty is always accepted and I appreciate you taking the time to read the story wishing you have a great 2014

    Thank you Ramiro Valdez

    Sent from my iPhone

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