1,000-foot baseball catch

As you may have already heard, July 2nd is going to be a VERY special day for me (and hopefully not my last). Assuming everything goes according to plan, I’m going to attempt to catch a baseball that will be dropped from a helicopter 1,000 feet high.

If I succeed, it will be a world record, albeit unofficial, as the folks from Guinness World Records declined the invitation to attend. (Whatever. Their loss.) And if I don’t succeed? Let’s not think about that quite yet. Right now the record belongs to a Hall-of-Fame catcher named Gabby Hartnett, who managed to catch a ball that was dropped from a blimp 800 feet high in 1930. According to legend, Babe Ruth once caught a ball that was dropped from a plane flying 100mph at an altitude of 250 feet. Other players have caught — or at least attempted to catch — baseballs dropped from the Washington Monument (555 feet high), the Tribune Tower in Chicago (462 feet high), and the Terminal Tower in Cleveland (680 feet high). No one has attempted to break this record since the World’s Fair in 1939. That’s when a former player named Joe Sprinz broke his jaw and lost several teeth in a gruesome mishap; Sprinz managed to get his glove on the ball, but the force of the ball smashed his glove into his face. According to this article about him on Wikipedia, the ball was estimated to be traveling as fast as 154mph.

How do I know all of this? Because I researched it extensively and wrote about it in my latest book, The Baseball. (That’s what inspired me to attempt to break this record; check out the section called “Such Great Heights” on pages 54-58.) I also know, or at least have a good reason to believe, that the estimate of 154mph is way off. According to The Physics of Baseball, the terminal velocity of a baseball dropped from a great height is “only” 95mph. I asked Neil deGrasse Tyson about this when I met him several months ago at my family’s book store, and he confirmed it: 95 miles per hour. Why? Because of the air resistance. (If Neil says it, it’s true. Case closed.)

Catching a baseball traveling that fast is certainly difficult, but (a) it’s within the realm of human capability and (b) I’ve done it myself. Don’t forget that I played college ball and have snagged my share of wicked line drives in the stands at major league stadiums. That said, I do plan to wear a catcher’s mask and helmet, along with a catcher’s mitt and chest protector. I’m crazy but not THAT crazy.

My record attempt is going to take place at a minor league stadium in Lowell, Massachusetts, called LeLacheur Park. That’s the home of the Lowell Spinners – the short-season Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Jon Boswell, the Spinners’ Director of Media Relations, is totally on board with this stunt, but of course it wouldn’t be happening without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. It just so happens that I’m friends with a guy who works as a test flight engineer for the FAA, and he’s taking care of all the logistics. His name is Mike Davison, and if you want to see what he looks like, check out this photo from my recent trip to Fenway Park. Mike is the big guy in the red shirt.

Now, just to give you an idea of the planning that’s been taking place, I’m going to share a snippet of an email that Mike sent to Jon three weeks ago:

“I will visit you next Thursday, which is my day off. I will bring a GPS so I can geomark the pitcher’s mound and second base. I will also bring the contact information for the Boston Flight standards district office (FSDO), as we need to get the briefing together and you need to give it to the Boston FSDO. Also, I need the elevation of your field above sea level.”

This stunt isn’t taking place in the parking lot of the stadium. I’m going to be standing ON the field — shallow center field, to be exact. At this point, the only thing that could prevent it from taking place is the weather. If the wind is stronger than 6 or 7 mph, we’re going to postpone it until July 3rd, and if it’s still windy on our backup day, we’ll have to postpone it for a few weeks. The wind, however, isn’t the only factor that we’re concerned about. If it’s raining or even foggy, we’ll have to call it off because of the lack of visibility, speaking of which . . . do you remember the mysterious blog entry that I posted several months ago with photos of spray-painted baseballs? THIS is why those balls were painted (by Mike) and mailed to me. At some point within the next week, I’m going to take those balls to the park and toss ‘em in the air and make notes about which ones are the easiest to see. Ultimately I’m hoping to do the stunt with brand new Rawlings Official Major League Baseballs, but if it’s too tough to see a white ball against the white sky, then we’ll break out the colors.

Mike says that once the helicopter is airborne, the biggest challenge will be getting the balls to land near me. Because of this challenge (and to help get me in the groove), he’s going to arrange for baseballs to be “test-dropped” from various heights. First the helicopter will hover at 300 feet, at which point several softballs will be dropped. Yes, softballs. The world record for catching a softball from the greatest height is only 200 feet, so we’re going to try to get that record out of the way first. Then the helicopter will rise to 500 feet . . . then 750 . . . and finally 1,000. Approximately five test balls will be dropped from each of those heights. I won’t try to catch those. I’ll simply stand aside and watch where they land. Hopefully they’ll all come down in roughly the same spot. Then I’ll move to that spot for the actual attempts. To clarify, the plan is for me to attempt to catch a baseball from each of those three heights: 500 feet, 750 feet, and 1,000 feet.

Because I won’t be able to see the balls when they’re dropped, Mike is going to stay with me on the ground and communicate with the people in the helicopter. They’ll let him know when they’re dropping each ball, and he’ll let ME know. He plans to be as far away from me as possible, but within shouting distance.

I don’t think I’m going to die, but I’m concerned about breaking my hand. Nevertheless, I’m going to proceed and hope for the best. If I can catch the balls in the pocket of my glove, I should be able to emerge from this stunt uninjured. Afterward, whether I’m successful or not, I plan to donate all the balls and catcher’s gear to Pitch In For Baseball.

I’m mainly doing all of this for fun (and because I’m nuts and because I want to have permanent bragging rights), but also because it’ll be good for the charity — and hey, if the stunt helps to sell a few extra copies of my books, that’ll be nice too, especially considering that I’ll be shelling out $1,500 of my own money for the helicopter. Renting it (along with a pilot) costs $500 per hour, and I’m going to need it for a minimum of three hours, so if anyone has ideas about how I might be able to find a sponsor, speak up!

Earlier today, while walking through midtown Manhattan after work, I looked up at the tallest buildings and tried to imagine catching baseballs being dropped from the tops. Here’s one . . .

. . . and here’s another:

What do you think? That doesn’t look like it’d be hard, does it? Just take those two buildings and stack them on top of each other and voila! One thousand feet!

One last thing (for now) . . .

The helicopter stunt is scheduled to take place on a game day for the Lowell Spinners, but not when the stadium is open to the public. The game is scheduled for 7:05pm, but I’ll be attempting to make history from 6am to 9am. According to Mike, that’s when the wind will be calmest, and also, it wouldn’t be safe to do this with the stands full of people. I might bring a few friends with me, and my terrified mother is thinking about being there, but whoever joins me will be kept in the dugouts (which are covered). I’m not sure if anyone else (other than the media) will be allowed to attend.

That’s it for now. I’ll post an update if anything changes, and in the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

30 Comments

I remember those spray painted baseballs! I unfortunately will be at boy scout camp on July 2nd…. But I will look forward to reading about it when I get back… And if you haven’t already, I would suggest emailing MLB Network as well as local news stations and Sports illustrated kids about the event, as I am sure they would be interested

NOW I know what those spray-painted baseballs are for!! But just like Nick, I’ll be at boy scout camp that day so I won’t even have Wifi. I’ll find some way to find out results.

Cool. The wife and I will be in NYC until the 5th. Catchers’ gear is definitely the smart way to proceed with this. Replacement teeth can get expensive.

NICK-
Excellent ideas. I’m going to try to get in touch with the folks you mentioned.

SKIM-
What’s with all the Boy Scout camp? Are you and Nick twins?

DONNY IN HOUSTON-
I should get a dentist and/or a hand specialist to sponsor me.

What about the big/famous sporting goods company you talked about on Twitter?

Any additional things we need to do? Have you decided on the baseballs to use?

Go Zack. You can do this. Be the ball. I think all of your followers should chip in $10. To sponsor you. Anyway to have a PayPal donation location?

DYLAN-
They haven’t confirmed anything yet.

MIKE-
I’ll either buy baseballs from Rawlings or provide my own.

Good luck Zack.

ED MOLLOY-
Sorry . . . didn’t see your comment until after I’d posted my last reply, but anyway, I do have a PayPal account, but I’m not gonna ask for money from everyone. If there’s some big company out there that wants to get in on it and cover the cost, that’d be cool, but if not . . . well, that’s why I work.

KSLO69-
Thanks.

I’m going to the Rockies/Rangers game on the 24th. Are they any guys on the Rockies who are nicer than others? Thank you.

Maybe Red Bull or Monster could be a sponsor. They always seem to be sponsoring these “extreme” sporting events.

DYLAN-
Jeremy Guthrie is incredibly nice. Tell him that Zack Hample says hello.

CONNOR-
I like how you think.

Haha no, Nick and I are not twins.
NICK- What boy scout camp do you go to?

What speed does a high pop up usually come down from a batted ball? This stunt doesn’t seem that dangerous at terminal speed of 95 mph for the ball. Many BP HR balls travel that fast. Maybe its just the vertical angle you will be catching the ball and the wind to judge it as it is coming down so fast. Hope it doesn’t affect your ball hawking the rest of the season.

Dylan -
Most of the Rockies players are fairly friendly and if you ask nice they will toss you a ball or give an autograph. The stars Tulo, Cargo, Giambi, and Helton are hard to get, but if they are in the right mood entirely possible. However, since they have been losing A LOT they may not be in a good mood.

Zack could you pick up 10-12 softballs also. I’ll look for a good neck guard next week. When we get closer, I’ll coordinate with you to get the baseballs to the aircrew

Skim- Wait, we aren’t twins? I thought were… well I guess you learn something new every day… But my troop has 3 different camps that we go to… last year, we went to Royaneh and Oljato (Oljato is on Lake Huntington) this year we will be at Royaneh and next year we are going to Camp Cherry Lake, which is on Catalina Island.

Zack- I am going 3 or 4 games next week, to see the Dodgers and Giants play in Oakland and for all games, I got $35 seats behind the bullpen. I know that the Dodgers bring commemerative balls with them on the road, and I hope to snag a lot during BP. Thought I’d share.

Zack, a mouth guard wouldn’t be a bad idea… and wear an inner glove inside the mitt (a standard batting glove would work just fine) for extra padding. If you can line the ball up–you’ve got this!
~Matt

This is interesting, but will be very hard to accomplish. It will be all about lining the ball up and at what point you can see the ball. With a MLB catcher they only have a limited range when catching a hurler throwing heat. Meaning at 60 foot 6 inches, if the ball is more than about 2 feet or so from their glove it ends up going to the backstop. Granted, they are crouching. I would start practicing catching balls dropped from modest heights like 100 feet or so to “train your brain” and get used to moving your feet while your head is tilted straight up. It is an unnatural way to move so the more you can get oriented to it, the better. I would even wear a cup just in case. It is very likely that if you move backwards quickly with your head tilted up you’ll land on your ass. The last thing you need is the ball to hit you in the store at 95 MPH.
Big Glove Bob

Also, maybe you could use the huge glove!

Big Glove Bob makes good points. As for the color of the ball, it will depend on the weather that day. If it’s sunny, the shiny gold one might be best. If it’s cloudy, perhaps a flourescent safety green ball. Studies have shown it’s the color we can see most easily, hence tennis balls and many fire trucks. You should face west if possible so the sun won’t be in your eyes as it gets closer to the ground. Good luck! I will try not to worry.

Nick- I go to Camp Workcoeman in Connecticut.
EVERYONE- Has anyone ever been to a Bridgeport Bluefish game? I am going and I don’t even know what time the gates open. The website is terrible.

KEN-
Most home run balls travel 100 to 110 miles per hour OFF THE BAT, but by the time they reach the stands, they lose roughly half their velocity.

MIKE-
Sure, I’ll look into the softball situation. I actually own four that I snagged a year or two ago from the Long Haul Bombers at Citi Field. Are those official enough to be used for this stunt? I don’t want anyone claiming afterward that my record doesn’t count because of the type of balls that were used.

NICK B-
Good luck, and thanks for sharing.

MATT-
That is an *excellent* idea about the mouth guard. I have to run out in a few minutes and do some neighborhood errands. I’m gonna swing by Modell’s and see if they have one. (If they don’t, then they suck because it’s a big sporting goods store.)

BIG GLOVE BOB-
Ouch. I’m still hoping to have kids someday, so let’s try to avoid that type of injury. Thanks for your thoughts/suggestions.

CONNOR-
Ha. That thing is actually tough to use.

LIZ MERRY-
Interesting idea about facing west. Mike, are you reading this? What do you think about that?

SKIM-
Never been there, but can’t you just call the team and ask? My guess is that they’ll open 60 minutes before game time. Maybe 90 if it’s a weekend.

Yeah, I called earlier today. They said it opens 60 minutes before game time. I am going to hang out by the arena before the gates open to try to get a ball or two that are hit over the billboards.

Liz has a few good points. I’m thinking of having some of the balls wrapped with reflective tape, and have amfewmpainted safety orange. Btw, Any softballs will do as long as its a regulation softball. I’ll pick up a few also

I haven’t been this excited for a stunt since Annabel Chong attempted to service 251 men in one video.

Big Glove Bob

Zack, see if ***Dick’s Sporting Goods*** will sponsor you, and donate the gear! It would give them good pub! Rocco

SKIM-
Let me know how it goes.

MIKE-
I don’t like the idea of putting tape on the balls, but what about ordering some official Lena Blackburne rubbing mud and making the balls tannish/brown? No one could argue with that.

BIG GLOVE BOB-
I just Googled Annabel Chong and . . . you make me smile.

ROCCO SINISI-
I might do that in a few days if my other potential sponsor falls through.

JOHN LISANKIE-
Ouch.

Zack – Your cousins wish you good luck and hope you survive so you can catch more balls at the Dodgers game with them.

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