As some of MLB’s most valuable and sought-after balls get launched into the stands, something — or someone — notable is missing.
Aaron Judge, who hit his 60th home run Tuesday night to tie Babe Ruth’s single-season high, is on the precipice of tying and breaking Roger Maris’ American League – and untainted by steroids – record of 61. After a scrum broke out in the left-field stands for Judge’s 60th, CCNY student Mike Kessler snared the ball and soon returned it to the Yankees in exchange for autographs and a photo.
As each next home run ball now only increases in importance, MLB’s most famous ballhawk Zack Hample is stuck with FOMO.
“I am actually in Southern California at the moment,” Hample told The Post Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve had this trip booked for a while, in my pursuit of going to all 30 stadiums this year. I thought about canceling it, right up until the last second. Kind of wish that I had, based on Judge hitting No. 60 while I was gone and also where that ball landed. That landed right near one of the few of my regular spots at the stadium, so that’s pretty frustrating.”
Amid Hample’s mission to visit every stadium in 2022, he’s long had game tickets, flight tickets, hotel reservations and camera people reserved and purchased. Since growing in stature for hauling in Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th-career hit and Mike Trout’s first-career home run, Hample runs a YouTube channel where he documents his ball-snagging feats around the country.
The plans were too expensive to go back on, even for this. So, as Judge takes the field just swings away from history this week, Hample has been on the West Coast. He took in both the Angels and Dodgers games on Monday – snagging a Carlos Santana grand slam in the process – to bring him to his 28th and 29th ballparks of the year. A trip to Petco Park Tuesday night – when Judge hit his 60th – brought him to 30, where the Cardinals were visiting the Padres and offered Hample a different chance at history.
Cardinals legend Albert Pujols sits at 698 homers, just two shy of an iconic mark of 700. Beyond that, every at-bat the imminently retiring Yadier Molina takes is significant, as it can produce his last-career homer.
Neither manifested for Hample, whose Judge-induced anxiety grows by the day. He still plans to attend at least five more Yankees home games this season, offering him a faint chance at the milestone should Judge suddenly go cold.
And if that does happen, he promises his No. 1 priority will be getting the ball back to Judge.
“It’s just unbelievable how every day, or every two or three days, Judge is hitting one,” Hample said. “So it drives me crazy to not be in New York right now. But I was going to lose a lot of money on two non-refundable hotel rooms in LAX, and flights for two people, and I had already bought some tickets, so I had to make that decision. It’s always gonna eat at me, especially with where No. 60 landed. I hate to root against Judge, and that seems like a losing bet. I don’t want Yankee fans to be pissed off at me for saying this but I really hope he doesn’t hit a home run for a few days.
“Normally, in mid-September, I don’t know, you’re not expecting somebody to be coming up on 60 home runs. Had I known, I certainly wouldn’t have been doing this, but that’s the weird timing of it all.”
Hample does share a history with Judge, though. He hauled in the slugger’s 145th-career home run last year against the White Sox in Chicago, hit off Craig Kimbrel.
“I’ve loved him since he first entered the league,” Hample said. “There was a time earlier in his career where he recognized me and was cool with me. I think he still would, I just haven’t really gotten close to him. I had Yankee season tickets for a while and I was there a ton, and I remember when the Yankees were playing at Citi Field one time, and I was near the Yankees dugout on the third-base side, and Judge was out on the field warming up, and he spotted me, and he shrugged, and he made like a swinging gesture with his arms and pointed to the outfield, which was just kind of funny, he knew my deal. I played catch with him one time during batting practice, really early, after the stadium had barely opened.”
It’s Hample’s fifth time visiting all 30 parks, but he wasn’t even planning on it this season. He made the decision midway through the year, when the Twins and Mariners – two teams’ venues he was planning to skip – announced plans for one-game only special Jim Kaat and Ichiro-memorialized baseballs, respectively, he wanted to try to snag.
Since he won’t be there to compete in the stands, Hample had some advice for Yankees fans chasing what he desperately wished he could be.
“I tend to focus on spots where I would have the most room to move, even if it’s not the most-likely spot for a ball to land. What makes me successful is having an open row, or a walkway, or a tunnel, or some standing room, a party deck, anything where I have some lateral mobility.
“A strategy for the bleachers at Yankee Stadium is that, and I heard someone else explain this strategy to me at a home run derby once, that if you’re in a bleacher section, and everybody is standing, you can actually run on top of the bleacher benches, because nobody is actually sitting down. I haven’t done that myself, but it’s interesting to think about all the different ways people are going for advantages and try to stand out somehow. I think about all these things.”