The Helicopter Stunt (Part 1)

This was it. My opportunity to set a world record by catching a baseball dropped from a helicopter 1,000 feet high had finally arrived. But hang on for a moment. Before I show you how it all went down, I need to explain something about the NINETY-ONE photographs you’re about to see: the file name of each photo starts with a number and is followed by two letters. Those letters represent the initials of the photographer, so, for example, the “ag” after the number in the first photo . . .

. . . indicates that it was taken by my friend Andrew Gonsalves. That photo, by the way, shows me rubbing mud on a baseball in my hotel room in Lowell, Massachusetts.

See the letters “rk” in the file name of the following photo?

My girlfriend Robin Kilmer took that photo. Here are other initials to watch for:

1) “BH” is my friend Ben Hill, who writes for minorleaguebaseball.com and has a popular/wacky baseball blog.

2) “ZH” is some random guy named Zack Hample.

3) “CG” is Casey Gariepy, who’s working as an intern this summer for the Lowell Spinners.

4) “M” is a friendly woman named Margot, who crossed paths with me outside a restaurant.

5) “AB” is Aram Boghosian, who was photographing the stunt for The Boston Globe.

6) “AP” is Alex Prewitt, who was writing about it for the Globe. You might remember him from this photo on 6/8/12 at Fenway Park.

Got it? Now let’s get back to the mud. Did you notice that there was someone else sitting next to me in the previous photo? That was Andrew. He and Ben and Robin helped me rub mud on the baseballs while my mom looked on:

That was the first thing we did after checking into the hotel.

As I mentioned several days ago on Twitter, I’d picked out 75 balls from my own collection and received a complimentary container of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. I knew that it was going to be VERY hard to see the baseballs when they were dropped from the helicopter, but rather than cheating my way through the stunt with spray-paint, I decided to darken the balls with mud. I figured that if the stuff is legal in Major League Baseball, then it’d be legit for my world record attempt. (Interesting side note: I’d never used any of my baseballs for anything, not even when I hung out with Mike Torrez and he offered to pitch batting practice to me in the park, so it felt weird to be providing/muddying so many of them for this stunt. That said, it had to be done. If I hadn’t provided my own, I would’ve had to buy them for $141 per dozen. Can you imagine ME paying for baseballs?!)

The balls turned out nice and dark, just as I wanted them:

Dan O’Rourke, the Phillies’ equipment manager, had taught me how to rub mud on baseballs in 2009. Now, three years later, I passed along the wisdom to my friends in Lowell. With their help, we finished rubbing all the balls within 15 minutes, and with small traces of mud trapped beneath our fingernails, we headed out to dinner. Here we all are outside the restaurant:

During the meal, the ONLY thing I could think about was what I’d be doing first thing in the morning: trying to catch baseballs dropped from a helicopter. Part of me was excited, but mainly I was nervous. Several days earlier, I’d read this Sports Illustrated article about some old-time players who attempted to catch baseballs dropped from great heights. Allow me to quote two unsettling paragraphs from the article (starting with a quote from Indians catcher Hank Helf, who caught one that was dropped from the top of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower, 708 feet above street level):

“I could barely see those balls when they left Kenny’s hand,” Helf says. “They looked the size of aspirin tablets when they started down, and when they got closer, they had stopped spinning and were dancing like knuckleballs. I didn’t know if they were going to hit my glove or my head.”

After watching the first three balls fall uncaught, few present on that day would have criticized Helf or his teammates if they had taken cover. Mathematicians had estimated the speed of the balls at ground level to be 138 mph, 40 mph faster than Bob Feller’s best heater. The balls bounced six stories high upon hitting the pavement.

See what I mean by “unsettling”?

The velocity was actually not my biggest concern. I didn’t believe the estimate of 138 mph — all my other research indicated that the terminal velocity of a baseball is 95 mph — but the part about the knuckleballs scared me. What if I completely missed a ball and it hit me square in the face? Yeah, I was going to be wearing a mask, but WHAT ABOUT MY NECK?! These were the thoughts running through my mind at dinner. Instead of enjoying my “potato-bacon-cheddar spring rolls” and “old south country fried chicken sandwich” (which came with bacon and ranch dipping sauce), I was contemplating the possibility that in 12 hours, I might break my neck and end up paralyzed for life . . . or maybe die . . . and that this might be the last dinner of my life or maybe my last time hanging out at a restaurant with my friends and my mom. I’m not kidding. I was truly thinking those thoughts. That’s actually why I ate such a fattening, unhealthy meal.

Back at the hotel, I did a video interview with Ben for minorleaguebaseball.com:

I can’t remember whose idea it was for me to wear the catcher’s gear, but I can tell you this: the gear was donated by Rawlings for this stunt, and I’m planning to donate it (along with all the balls) to Pitch In For Baseball.

The interview lasted five minutes. Then I spent an hour answering emails. Earlier in the week, I’d group-emailed about 150 friends to let them know about the stunt. Here are the Top Ten replies:

10) ARE YOU NUTS?!? Whose idea was this? Who is sponsoring this? Have you practiced anything like this? You might as well make several attempts for balls dropped from a mile high.
-Darren

9) Awesome!!!! Any special tricks up your sleeve, like goose oil on your palm or three cloves of garlic around your neck or anything?!?!
-Brock

8) Couldn’t you maybe instead do a retake in the bath tub with even more baseballs around you?
-Jane

7) So that’s what you’ve been up to! yikes Zack why so dangerous?  I was on Geraldo with a guy who caught a grape dropped off the Sears Tower – he said “it doesn’t tickle” please be careful my friend!
-Harley

6) zacj wtf f*ck je record book live life record mean nothing character is a life heritage!
-Dwayne

5) It will drop 32 feet in the first second, and after the second second, if you don’t get in its way, it should be almost a foot below the surface of the field. At the point of contact, it will be traveling at the speed of sound, 7+ times a Randy Johnson fastball, and given that the helicopter it’s dropped from will be adding a significant downdraft at the start, it may even be going a good deal faster than that; so it’s quite likely to drive your elbow through your rib cage, or at least dislocate your shoulder if you can somehow keep your elbow away from body. You’re massively crazy. Not being a NASCAR fan, I don’t want to see the video of this. And I’m not even going to wish you luck, I’m only going to wish you gain the sense to run like hell.
-Joel

4) I looked up the terminal velocity of a dropped baseball. At 95mph, it doesn’t sound impossible. Wear a helmet and face shield, please. Good luck. It’s going to be really hard to catch.
-David

3) What if I sponsor you NOT to do it? Yet another confirmation that the Hamples are nut jobs. DON’T BREAK ANYTHING!!! xoxo
-Mimi

2) Good luck. Just remember all the drills at Manitou when we used the pitching machine and had your back to the plate and had to pick up the ball when we yelled, “now” And what about  “crazy catches” This should be a breeze.
-Steve

1) Oh for f*ck’s sake!! I refuse to watch you get your face smashed in. You have enough problems as it is! love you,
-Maria

Somehow, with all this stuff pumping through my brain, I managed to fall asleep at around 12:30am.

Five and a half hours later, the phone rang. It was my wake-up call. The big day was officially underway, and before I left my hotel room, I took a couple photos. Here’s a shot of all the balls that I brought with me for the stunt:

In the photo above, the two bags on the right contain 55 mud-rubbed baseballs. The bag next to that has 20 un-rubbed baseballs; those were going to be used for the “test drops.” The bag on the left is holding 16 softballs — 12 yellow ones donated by Rawlings and four white ones that I snagged on 6/2/11 at Citi Field when the Long Haul Bombers were doing their thing.

The other photo that I took shows the equipment and safety gear that I’d soon be wearing:

Next stop?

LeLacheur Park.

Here I am walking inside with Andrew at around 6:55am:

The ballpark was empty. There was no sign of life. It almost made me wonder if this whole thing was really going to happen.

A minute or two later, I saw this:

The helicopter was approaching the ballpark! That was the first time that everything felt real.

In the photo above, do you see tan thing on the grass in center field? I’d been told that the helicopter was going to land on a tarp, so that had to be it. Unfortunately (and somewhat frighteningly), as the helicopter hovered over the field and began descending, the tarp blew up in the air wildly. I learned later that the tarp was being held down with spikes, but obviously they were no match for the powerful rotor wash.

As the helicopter flew away, several guys appeared out of nowhere to deal with the tarp . . .

. . . and I wondered if the stunt was going to be canceled. Was the helicopter even going to come back? Maybe the pilots decided that the whole thing was too dangerous? I had no idea what to think, and for a moment I was pretty bummed out.

One minute later, the helicopter reappeared, and I grabbed my camera:

This is what I saw:

It was going to land on the infield dirt! Awesome!

To my surprise, the rotor wash didn’t cause a windy dust-storm. That’s because Jeff Paolino, the Spinners’ head groundskeeper, had heavily watered the infield dirt. I’m not sure if he’d done it because of the helicopter, or if the field had to be watered anyway, but whatever the reason, it really helped. Of course, we were all concerned about how the weight of the helicopter (2,500 pounds when fully loaded) would affect the infield, but it was too late to do anything about it. Now that it was on the ground, none of us — most importantly Jeff — would know anything until it took off.

Here’s what was happening less than a minute later:

In the photo above (which shows the helicopter on the field), I’m talking to two guys from the Federal Aviation Administration. The big guy on the left (wearing shorts) is my friend Mike Davison. He’s a test flight engineer, and he was the logistical mastermind behind this whole event. You might remember him from this photo on 6/8/12 at Fenway Park – the day I snagged my 6,000th baseball. The other guy (wearing jeans and a maroon shirt) is named Casper Wang. He’s a mechanical systems engineer, and he was the one who was gonna be dropping the balls from the helicopter.

After a few more minutes, everyone headed into the 1st base dugout and disappeared under the stands. That was the route to get to a conference room where there was going to be a safety briefing. On my way there, I was stopped by this guy:

His name is Sam Poulten, and he was interviewing me live on WCAP 980 – Merrimack Valley Radio. As you’ll see, this was just the first of many live interviews that we did throughout the morning.

At some point during the interview, Mike rushed into the dugout (from the conference room) and made a gesture with his hands that meant one thing: HURRY UP!! Everyone else was waiting there for me to begin the safety briefing.

Here’s what the briefing looked like from where I was standing . . .

. . . and here’s another shot that was taken from the other side of the room:

In the photo above, the two men sitting on the right side of the table are pilots — Bob Cloutier (with the sunglasses on his head) and Bill Witzig (wearing the tan cap). Bob is the chief pilot at C-R Helicopters, and Bill is a test pilot for the FAA. On the far left side of the photo, the guy in the plaid shirt is Alex from The Boston Globe.

Do you see the white sheets of paper in the photo above? Those are copies of the “ball drop flight profile plan.” Here’s a two-part photo (front and back) that shows them up close:

Mike did most of the talking during the safety briefing. That’s how it was supposed to be. He had told me countless times that his biggest concern wasn’t whether or not I broke any records. It was making sure that everyone was safe and came out of this thing alive and well. During the briefing, he said that there were four people who were going to be able to call off the stunt at any time for any reason: him, me, and the pilots. I then asked/joked if my mother was allowed to call it off if she got nervous.

Mike reviewed some important hand/body gestures. Among them was the “thumbs-down” sign, which I could use to indicate that I was *not* ready for a ball to be dropped. He also told me that if I was injured or needed help, I was supposed to drop down to my knees. It was comforting to know that there were plans in place to deal with a potential worst-case scenario, but I didn’t expect things to go in that direction. Despite my lingering fear of 95mph knuckleballs, I felt good and confident. I was energized by the large number of people involved. I was ready to perform and put on a good show.

After the safety briefing, everyone (including a slew of Spinners interns) hung out in and around the dugout for a few minutes:

I can’t remember what was happening at that time. Mike might’ve been going over some last-minute details with Bob, but in any case, it was nice to relax for a bit.

In the photo above, you can see me leaning over the dugout railing, talking to the guy in a maroon shirt. That’s Jon Boswell (aka “Boz”), the Spinners’ director of media relations. You’ll see a better photo of him later on, but for now, just know that he’s the person who gave me permission to do this stunt at the stadium. (I never had to convince him. From the moment that he’d first heard about me from Ben Hill, he was like, “Sure, let’s do it.” He and the Spinners are quite fond of wacky stunts. Check out this one that took place at the ballpark last season.)

There was still some time to spare before the helicopter took off, so the cameramen wandered over and filmed me. I don’t remember what I was saying . . .

. . . but I can tell you that I was having LOTS of fun.

In the photo above, do you see the guy in the middle wearing the purple-ish shirt? That’s Aram Boghosian, who was taking photos for The Boston Globe. As for the other two cameramen, the guy on the left (in the blue shirt) is Matt Scott and the guy on the right (wearing the helmet) is Dan Silvia. They both work for Chelmsford TeleMedia. There were so many people who set this whole thing up and interviewed me and photographed me and filmed me and offered their time and expertise that it feels like a crime to merely mention them each briefly.

Here’s a photo of Mike with the pilots and the cameramen:

It was time for the helicopter to take off, which meant it was time for me to start putting on my safety gear:

Here’s one of my favorite photos from the entire day — my mom watching me get ready:

There’s something powerful and touching and sad about her being just on the other side of the netting — so close and yet so far, slightly removed from the action, unable to do anything except watch and hope for the best.

As the helicopter took off . . .

. . . and flew away to get into position . . .

. . . I continued to put on my safety gear:

Here I am adjusting my mouthguard . . .

. . . and putting on my mask/helmet:

There were so many thoughts racing through my mind at that point, the main one being, “Holy shit, this is really happening.” My heart wasn’t racing, though, and I really wasn’t nervous. I was just thinking, “This is it. You can do this. You can DO THIS,” and then . . . it was strange, but I started feeling totally emotionless. I felt like an assassin putting the silencer on his gun. It was all business. Balls were going to be dropped from way high up, and I was going to catch them. It was that simple.

Here’s a photo of me and Mike looking up at the helicopter:

Here’s a photo of me looking up at it:

The helicopter was 312 above the field at that point. (The field at LeLacheur Park is 138 feet above sea level; the helicopter was hovering 450 feet above sea level, so if you do the math, the difference is 312. Got it?)

I wonder what my mom was thinking here:

My parents never worried about me hurting myself. When I was a very little kid, whether I was removing a super-sharp knife from the dishwasher or hanging upside-down from a jungle gym above the unforgiving pavement of Riverside Park, they believed in me. They knew I could do it, and I understood my limits. Now that I was playing chicken with a helicopter, I was worried that my mom was worried, but ultimately I sensed that she knew it’d be okay.

The first order of business was breaking the softball record. Prior to this event, the world record for catching a softball from the greatest height was 200 feet.

TWO HUNDRED FEET?!?!

That’s child’s play.

Mike and I watched from the warning track in front of the dugout as several softballs were test-dropped from the helicopter. I was able to track them the whole way, and they didn’t even appear to be falling THAT fast.

And then?

I jogged out to shallow center field and started trying to catch them. Here I am running after one unsuccessfully:

Seeing the helicopter hovering above me was surreal. Was it going to fall on my head? Was I going to set a world record? Was all of this madness seriously happening because of ME?!

In a world where people sue each other for the stupidest/smallest injuries and where you have to sign release forms and waivers in order to do anything remotely fun, it was almost other-worldly to be RUNNING AROUND ON A BASEBALL FIELD UNDERNEATH A HELICOPTER AND TRYING TO CATCH BALLS THAT WERE PLUMMETING TOWARD ME. Where the hell was I? What was happening? How did my life end up here? Was I crazy? No, I was the luckiest bastard on the planet. It was the most bizarre and intense athletic challenge I’d ever gotten to be a part of. No one else in the world had ever done this, and here *I* was doing it. I felt more alive than ever. So what if I missed the first ball? It wasn’t my fault. The wind made it drift too far away from me. Bring on the next one. I was ready!

Andrew, meanwhile, was all alone in the 3rd base dugout. This was his view of the folks across the field:

Mike had put him there with a pair of binoculars. His job was to try to track the balls as they were dropped from the helicopter and report back periodically.

I can’t remember if I caught the very next softball or if it took me a few more tries, but I know that it didn’t take long. Here’s a six-part sequence of photos that shows what it looked like from the 1st base dugout:

I was able to see the ball from the moment that Casper dropped it. At first it appeared to be coming right down at me. Then I started drifting back slowly, but it ended up sailing, and I had to reach way back at the last second to make the catch. In photo No. 3, it looks like my wrist is breaking, but I didn’t feel any pain. You’d think that my shoulder might’ve gotten hurt from stretching back like that, but I’m telling you . . . no pain. Zero. Nada. And just like that, I’d set a world record. (It’s funny how the 6,058 baseballs that I’ve snagged at major league games over the course of 23 seasons isn’t an official record because how can I actually prove it and blah blah blah, but here in Lowell, in the span of just a few seconds, I set a record, and it really wasn’t that hard. Go figure.)

Catching a baseball from 312 feet was more of a challenge because it was harder to see — but I *was* able to see all of them as they left Casper’s hand. Again, I have no idea how many attempts it took before I caught one. It might’ve been the first or the fourth, but I don’t think it took more than that. Here are a few photos that show me catching it. I started by drifting into position . . .

. . . and THWACK!!! The ball hit the pocket of my catcher’s mitt:

Here’s one more photo that shows me trying to maintain my balance after gloving it:

I’m not sure if the ball had enough time/distance to reach terminal velocity from 312 feet (any mathematicians in the house?), but it was definitely traveling pretty fast, and get this — it had NOT knuckled! I can’t tell you which way it was spinning or why it was spinning. I just know that it WAS, indeed, spinning. That was huge. All of my fear was instantly wiped away, and I was pretty much certain that I wasn’t going to get hurt.

Here I am walking off the field with Mike:

He was in constant communication with the pilots. Immediately after my successful catches from 312 feet, he was talking to them about the next series of drops. To call Mike “professional” is an understatement. He was on top of everything.

When I made it back to the dugout, I ran along the railing and gave everyone a high five. Then I did another live radio interview with Sam:

He was asking me stuff like, “You just set a world record! How does it feel?!” He was excited. I was excited. The helicopter was insanely loud. We were both shouting. It was an awesome moment.

The interview continued while the helicopter rose to an altitude of 562 feet — slightly higher than the top of the 555-foot Washington Monument. More than 100 years ago, two major league catchers — Gabby Street and Billy Sullivan — caught balls that were dropped from the top of the Monument; Mike had arranged for the helicopter to hover at 562 so that I could make an attempt to one-up them.

When the helicopter got into position, Mike and I stood near the dugout and watched the five test-drops. To my surprise, I *was* able to see all the balls from the moment that Casper released them, but the “shot pattern” was really wide. In other words, the balls were flying all over the place, and there was no way to predict their landing spots. Mike and I collected the balls and discussed it:

Then it was showtime.

Mike hurried out of harm’s way . . .

. . . and once again, I was out on the field by myself. It was me versus the helicopter, the baseballs, and gravity.

Here’s what the helicopter looked like from the dugout . . .

. . . and check this out. Here’s a zoomed-in photo that shows a ball being dropped:

In the photo above (which you can click to expand), do you see the teeny dark speck near the tip of the arrow? THAT’S the ball.

Catching balls from that height was quite a challenge, but I realized that it wasn’t just the height that was making it so tough. Because the helicopter was a free-floating object, I had no reference point for judging the descent of the balls. If the balls had been dropped from the top of a building, not only would I have known which direction they were gonna be heading — AWAY from the building — but I also would’ve been able to see how far away from the building they were drifting. Does that make sense?

Anyway, here I am JUST missing one from 562 feet:

(Nice ballet move, huh?)

Did you notice the arrow pointing at a white thing in the grass? THAT’s the ball. The balls that landed on the infield dirt bounced 30 or 40 feet high; the ones that landed on the grass didn’t bounce at all. They thumped down with tremendous force and got embedded IN the grass. Jeff (the groundskeeper) was horrified when he realized what was happening to his field . . .

. . . but my mom didn’t seem to care. Based on her expression in the following photo, I can only assume that she was enjoying the spectacle of it all:

In between the baseball drops, I held onto my mask and raised it slightly off my face:

Staring straight up in the air was putting quite a strain on my neck, so I took some of the weight off whenever I had a few seconds to spare.

Here’s a photo of the people in the dugout:

Did you notice the woman who’s standing on a platform at the far end of the dugout? See her there in purple shorts? That’s Casey Gariepy.

I don’t know how many attempts it took — probably about half a dozen — but eventually I caught one from 562 feet. Here I am camped underneath the ball:

Here it is JUST before entering my glove . . .

. . . and here I am right after catching it:

Compare the position of my body in the previous two photos and you’ll see that the force of the ball knocked me back somewhat. It didn’t hurt at all, though.

It obviously felt good to catch a ball from that height, but I didn’t freak out about it. Given enough chances, I *knew* that I was going to catch one, and I was well aware that this was just the second of four heights. I still had a long way to go. Mike, on the other hand, was downright giddy. You can’t tell based on the following photo . . .

. . . so take my word for it. He was VERY excited and happy for me. Having him rush out to meet me on the field after each successful catch was one of the highlights of the day.

Here I am approaching the dugout:

The helicopter took off at that point to refuel, so we all had half an hour to kill. I spent some of that time with Jeff on the field:

He was out there assessing the damage and marking the baseball-sized craters with small white flags. (See the flags in the photo above?) Ready to see one of the craters up close? It isn’t pretty, so brace yourself. Here goes:

As I already mentioned, Jeff was (understandably) upset when he first saw the craters, but once he realized how to fix them, he was totally cool about it. Somehow he was able to use that pitchfork to dig into the ground underneath the craters and press down on the handle just enough to puff them back up. Then he carefully stepped/tapped on the grass with the bottom of his sneakers . . . and presto! The field was fine! There was no sign of damage, and when I expressed concern about the grass dying and leaving him with lots of little brown spots, he practically laughed and told me that it’d be okay. I’m convinced that Jeff is a magician. I truly couldn’t believe how easily/expertly he was patching things up, but I still apologized profusely. I told him that during the summer of 1995, I’d worked as a part-time groundskeeper for the Boise Hawks, and that as a result, I really DID feel his pain. But it wasn’t just the field that I felt bad about. There was also the issue of sleep. Because I was there to attempt this ridiculous stunt in the first place, Jeff had to arrive at the stadium at 6am — four hours earlier than usual — but he never complained or said one negative thing. Amazing.

Meanwhile, here’s what was happening in the dugout:

Ben was taking notes for a story for minorleaguebaseball.com, Mike was simply relaxing, and my mom (in typical Mom fashion) was reading the newspaper.

Several minutes later, I was filmed in the dugout . . .

. . . and eventually the helicopter returned. Here it is getting into position at an altitude of 762 feet . . .

. . . and here’s my mom talking to Mike about it:

A minute or two later, when the helicopter was ready, Mike and I moved to the warning track and watched the test-drops. It was VERY hard to see the balls when they were released — there were some that we didn’t see at all — so whenever I spotted one, I pointed at it for everyone else’s benefit:

The shot pattern was even wider than before, but hey, that’s what we expected. When the five test-drops were done, I jogged out to shallow centerfield and once again looked skyward.

Did I mention that it was hard to see the balls? Here I am hopelessly chasing after one:

Imagine being in a room with a light blue ceiling, roughly 20 feet high. Now imagine looking straight up and trying to spot a grain of sand floating near the top. That’s kind of what it was like for me out on the field when I was trying to see the baseballs from 762 feet. I pretty much just stared at the side of the helicopter from which the balls were being dropped and tried to pick up on ANY movement. The initial plan had been for Mike and I to give each other thumbs-ups before each drop and for Mike to give me a verbal countdown. This didn’t work for two reasons:

1) It was easier for me to keep staring up at the helicopter.
2) The helicopter was so loud that I couldn’t hear him.

The solution was for everyone in the dugout to chant the countdown in unison:

“FIVE . . .FOUR . . .THREE . . . TWO . . . ONE . . . DROP!!!”

That made a huge difference. It allowed me to keep staring up and to know exactly when the balls were being released. That said, there were still some balls that I never saw and others that I didn’t see until they were just a few hundred feet high (and therefore already traveling 95 miles per hour). That probably sounds scary, but I wasn’t too worried about getting hit. I felt well protected with all the safety gear and figured that if a ball were coming down straight at me I’d see it and catch it. The balls I never saw were usually the ones that instantly veered off course and landed 50 or 100 feet away from me — one in the infield, another near the warning track. It was wild.

I wonder what the folks in the dugout were thinking:

As for the balls that I did see from the start . . . they seemed to float in place for several seconds, and they didn’t appear to be coming any closer. Initially, the only movement I could detect was seeing them shift slightly from side to side — kind of like they were wiggling, but in a very subtle way. With some of the balls, I could tell fairly quickly that I had no chance, but others seemed to be heading right toward me.

After a bunch of drops, I got my mitt on one, but it bounced right out of the pocket:

Was it my fault or was my equipment to blame? The mitt *was* brand new. Rawlings had sent it to me less than a week earlier, and I’d worked hard to break it in as best I could. Several days before the stunt, I went to the Uptown Sports Complex and paid $40 to catch half and hour’s worth of baseballs in the 85mph batting cage. That seemed to help, and I also played catch in Central Park with several friends, but the mitt was still tight. Nevertheless, I stuck with it for the stunt . . . until a second ball popped right out of the pocket. That’s when I jogged in and switched gloves:

I happened to have my small, unpadded infielder’s glove with me, but I hadn’t brought it for the stunt. I’d brought it to Lowell because I was going to be attending the Spinners game later that night and didn’t want to have to chase foul balls with a clunky catcher’s mitt. I knew that it was risky to use it in this extreme situation, but I simply had to do it.

Jogging back out onto the field with it, I felt really confident. I’ve had that infielder’s glove for half my life, and it’s perfectly broken in. That glove is like an old friend — it’s practically an extension of my own hand — and I was glad to be wearing it at such a big moment.

It didn’t take long before I had an opportunity to use it. I saw one of the next few balls as soon as it was dropped from the helicopter, and it seemed to falling right toward me. As it got closer, I drifted back . . .

. . . and kept my body turned so that I’d catch it on my glove side:

That seemed to be the safest way to approach it.

Here’s a photo of me reaching up for the catch . . .

. . . and here’s another look from a slightly different angle:

The ball SLAMMED into the pocket of my glove with tremendous force:

It felt like someone had tugged down on my left arm, and I had to jog and do a little stutter-step in order to maintain my balance:

Before the stunt, I had claimed to have caught line drives that were traveling more than 100 miles per hour, but I no longer think that’s true. I remember one particular shot at the old Yankee Stadium — a rocket off the bat of Jim Leyritz that must’ve been traveling 80 to 90 — but I’m sure that the ball I caught here at LeLacheur Park from 762 feet high was the fastest of my life. The strange thing about it was that it never appeared to be traveling fast. I suppose that’s because I had ten seconds to watch it from the moment it was first dropped, so its path seemed long and drawn out. Facing 95-mile-per-hour heat in the batter’s box is a different story; the ball seems to come out of nowhere, and there’s very little time to react. Although there wasn’t a radar gun pointing up at the sky, I’m pretty sure that the ball I caught was indeed traveling (roughly) 95 miles per hour because of (a) the force with which it hit my glove, (b) the sound that it made upon impact, and (c) the fact that the tip of my middle finger was numb. Here I am flexing my fingers after walking off the field:

I didn’t think that my finger was broken because I could bend it and make a fist without causing any additional discomfort — but it didn’t feel good. Beyond that? I just shrugged it off and turned my attention toward the attempt from 1,000-plus feet.

Unfortunately the wind was increasing, and there were only nine baseballs remaining in the helicopter, so the whole thing was uncertain. The first test-drop from that height landed in the front row of the stands along the left field foul line, causing a shockingly loud CLANG as it struck a metal bench. The next test-drop landed in straight-away right field — a difference of more than 200 feet.

There was talk of calling off the stunt at that point. At the very least, Mike wanted to see the remaining three test-drops, but I was like, “Screw the tests! Just let me go out there. We’re running out of time and balls.”

Mike agreed and radioed the helicopter to let them know what was happening. Then I ran out onto the field for the final time and stared up. The helicopter looked the same as it did from 762 feet — I truly couldn’t tell the difference — but just knowing that it was more than 1,000 feet high was intense.

“This is it,” I thought. “Bring it.”

The next few drops landed nowhere near me, but then I had my chance. I saw the next ball soon after it was released, and for a moment I thought that it was coming RIGHT to me. When the ball was just a couple hundred feet high, I realized that it was drifting — that it was going to land in front of me. All I could do at that point was take a step or two forward and lunge/dive for it:

I missed it by about three feet.

Moments later, everyone in the dugout was giving me another countdown for the next ball, but I never saw it. The next thing I knew, Mike was running toward me and yelling for me to get off the field. What was going on? Was the helicopter malfunctioning? I had no idea what was happening until he told me: the last ball had landed completely out of the stadium (in the woods behind the batter’s eye) and therefore the stunt was being called off.

My expression in the following photo says it all:

The pilots had reported that the wind at 1,000 feet was blowing 30 miles per hour. It was unsafe to continue, both for them and the people on the ground. Mike didn’t want to risk someone getting hit outside the stadium, and obviously I agreed, but still, DAMN!!!

The helicopter landed briefly so that Matt (the cameramen) and Casper could get out:

Then I was filmed and interviewed on the warning track:

My mom was filmed too . . .

. . . but I didn’t hear what she was saying for two reasons. First, the helicopter was taking off for good . . .

. . . and second, I was still being filmed and interviewed:

That’s when I took off my batting glove and got a look at my finger:

It was throbbing and felt a bit swollen, but overall it seemed to be fine:

Fast-forward 30 hours for a moment. Here’s what it looked like when I got back home to New York City:

Purple IS my favorite color, but not like that. I’m glad to report, though, that the bruising only lasted for a couple days, and my finger is totally back to normal. (By the way, did you happen to notice that I had sweated completely through my chest protector? Take another look at the photos above and you’ll see. Part of the reason why I was so hot is that I was wearing a bulky pair of sweatpants under my break-aways. I figured it’d be good to have extra padding and protection all over.)

When my mom and I were done being interviewed, we hugged for the cameras:

Then I met a character who’s known as “The Dogman.” He’s the clubhouse attendant for the Spinners and has been working in professional baseball forever. Here I am listening to him telling one of MANY stories:

In the photo above, I’m holding an ice pack, which The Dogman had gotten for me.

Several minutes later, I caught up with Jon and Ben:

Mike and I got a photo together . . .

. . . and then Ben interviewed me with his Flip Cam:

Jeff, meanwhile, was working alone on the field:

After I wrapped things up with Ben, I spent some time with Alex:

He was asking me some final questions for his article in The Boston Globe, which you can read here.

Everyone else was pretty much hanging around and waiting for me to finish . . . literally. Here’s Ben goofing around with the dugout roof:

Ben wrote two different pieces about the stunt. Here’s one (with video footage!) that appeared on the front page of minorleaguebaseball.com, and here’s the other that ran on his blog.

As for my mom, she wasn’t impressed that I was being interviewed for The Boston Globe. She (along with Robin, Andrew, and Ben) was hungry and just wanted to go eat lunch:

Alex joined us for the meal and took the following photo outside the restaurant:

And that’s pretty much it.

On a final note, the reason why this entry is titled “Part 1″ is that I’m already planning to return to Lowell and try again to catch a baseball dropped from 1,000 feet. When Mike first called-off the stunt due to high winds, I thought that I’d lost my chance forever, but as it turns out, everyone involved wants me to come back and give it another shot — the FAA, the pilots, the videographers, the Spinners, and yes, even Jeff, the head groundskeeper. This IS going to happen. Right now, it’s just a matter of when, so stay tuned for Part 2 . . .

UPDATE (one year later): The ball I caught from “762 feet” was actually dropped from 822 feet. There was an issue with the altimeter settings in the helicopter, and when it all got sorted out well after the fact by the FAA (by looking at photos and videos with time stamps), we realized that the mixup actually added 60 feet. Also, I finally made another attempt to catch a ball from 1,000 feet. Here’s my blog entry about it.

57 Comments

damn it why did you end part one when it started getting exciting :D ? waiting for more!!

Awesome start! Looking forward to reading the rest. I’m going to be in Lowell later this season, so I’m also curious to see what you think about the ballpark
- Malcolm

http://theballparkguide.mlblogs.com/

you are a big tease. we need to hear more

EVERYONE-
Just to be clear, when I say “to be continued,” I’m talking about adding onto THIS blog entry, so keep checking back. Like I said at the top, there are going to be ninety-one photographs, but it’s taking a loooooong time to put everything together.

CARL L. MILLER JR.
That pretty much sums it up.

PETER_PL-
Ha, glad you’re enjoying it so far.

MALCOLM-
When are you going to be in Lowell? Between the stunt and then the game that I attended at the stadium later that night, it’ll probably be a while before I finish blogging about my Lowell experience.

RANDY KISER-
I’m not trying to be a tease. I worked on this entry all day and well into the night until I had to go to bed, and now I’m at work. I just don’t have time right now to keep going, but the fully story WILL be told, so stay tuned.

Zack- Are you going to try again because of the weather? Please let us know when!

Yay! You’re not dead or in the hospital!

If it is any consolation, I did not sleep well the night before either. All I kept thinking about was what could go wrong, and that I was going to seriously hurt you in front of your mom and Robin. I took your personal safety very seriously

no problem buddy looking forward to the rest

AUSTIN-
Definitely, but I haven’t yet picked a date.

LIZ MERRY-
I’m alive! Aliiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiive!!!

MIKE-
I think we’ll all sleep better the night before “Part 2″ (whenever that might be).

RANDY KISER-
Cool.

awesome zack cant wait to see the rest are you going to be in cali from july 26 to august 7? or tampa this month?

Thanks, but no, I won’t be in California or Tampa at those times.

Hey Zack, are you coming to California at all this season? I missed you last year but I’d like to come watch you do your thing (and get my book signed).

Right now, my only California plans are July 16-17 at Dodger Stadium. Any chance you can make it?

Yup, I think I’ll see you there!

Coolness.

Haha that’s awesome! I finally made my donation from last year :-O

how many girls did you rob for those softballs.? im going to break your records with just a glove and batting glove.the empire state bldg is higher than 1000ft. dave letterman is flying me out next week. dont you have any other hats ?plastic bags? get a backpack goof

Zack, hope to meet you on the the 17th at Dodger Stadium. What section will you be sitting? Ill be in left field pavillion with Jose. (the little Latin guy that looks like the Tasmanian Devil) Perhaps we can all go to Tommy’s World famous burgers after the game. So we can talk about baseball and ballhawking funnies. Shoot me an email.

Cant wait for the next part. I went to the Rangers/Rockies game June 24th and told Jeremy you said “Hi” and he smiled and said “Oh that guy.”

Zack, are you going to the Phillies game tomorrow?

DODGERS KINGS OF THE GALAXY-
Thanks! I see that it did indeed go through.

FRANK CALDERON-
I don’t know what section I’ll be in. I haven’t gotten tickets yet, but there’s a decent chance that I’ll be in the left field pavilion. I wish I could join you for a post-game burger, but my flight back to NYC leaves at like 1am, so I’m actually gonna have to BOOK IT to the airport right after the final out. Hope to meet you, though. It’ll be good to hang out.

DYLAN-
Ha, awesome.

JOHN LISANKIE-
Tomorrow . . . meaning July 7th? Yes.

Does it actually count as a “world record” if Guiness wasn’t there to certify it? Or, is it an “unofficial” record?

Good question, but it’s kind of like asking, “Does it count as ‘ketchup’ if it doesn’t say ‘Heinz’ on the bottle?” Guinness is certainly the best known record adjudicator, but just because they weren’t there doesn’t make my record invalid. There’s a new up-n-coming record-judging website called RecordSetter.com. I plan to submit the video footage to them. Everyone I’ve ever talked to about Guinness has said that they’re impossible to work with. Setting world records should be fun. Guinness is not fun, so I’ll take my accomplishments elsewhere.

Nick, (and Zack) I am going to analyze the tapes and see what it needs to do to make these Guiness records, as I am a stubborn, stubborn man

MIKE-
What would I do without you?

Awesome! I’ll be there.

I just got back from Scout camp, and wow! I can’t wait to read more!

JOHN LISANKIE-
Great meeting you today and congrats again on the great snag on that EPIC ricochet. Watching you get that ball was truly a thing of beauty.

NICHOLAS BADDERS-
Cool. I hope to have this entry finished soon — maybe in the next 24 hours? I can’t believe how long it’s taking.

Are you going to BallhawkFest? I’m not because being 13 sucks.

Being 13 does suck in a lot of ways, but hey, at least you don’t have to work-full time and pay your own bills. As for Ballhawk Fest . . . no.

If you don’t mind me asking… did you get a sponsor to pay for this record attempt or was this all on you?

Your entry is very good so far, Im excited to read the rest!
Paul

http://apieceofthegame.mlblogs.com/

GARRETT-
How DARE you ask such a question?!?! Just kidding. I don’t mind at all. I had to pay for the helicopter, but the film crew generously worked for free. In addition to that, my buddy Mark Kraemer at Rawlings sent me all the catcher’s gear for free, and I also got a free container of mud from Jim Bintliff, the owner of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud. I’m hoping to have someone sponsor me when I make another attempt (“Part 2″) to catch one from 1,000 feet.

PAUL-
Thanks! Glad you’re enjoying it.

Zack- I just talked to my dad and he says i might be able to go to LA while your at those games!

Any plans on visiting Comerica Park this season?

AUSTIN-
Cool. Just so you know, I’ll be in the main part of the stadium on the 16th, and I’m gonna be with a whole group of people as part of a “Watch With Zack” game. On the 17th, I’ll be with a friend or two, and I’m not sure where I’ll be — possibly in the main part of the stadium, but more likely in the left field pavilion.

S-
No. :-(

Looks like you had a day to remember. Keep livin’ the dream, Zack! (And ice that finger.)

Thanks again for signing the book!

http://www.johnlisankie.mlblogs.com/

Zack- Are you going to blog about the Spinners game that you ballhawked at?

Great job, Zack! Just starting at 1000 feet next time really early with low wind and a 100 baseballs or so should definitely do the trick. I’m glad to see you made your best catch with your trusty Rawlings fielders glove. Nice one.

Wow. Nice detailed entry and the video of the catch was really impressive. If you would like to donate the wrist guard to my camp, you’re welcome to mail it out as we threw away the bloody ones (yes, they were actually bloody) but you may find a more worthy, non-profit camp to give it to locally.

Glad you’re not giving up. You’ll get it next time!

CHRIS H-
Thanks. The finger’s all good now.

JOHN LISANKIE-
You’re welcome.

AUSTIN-
Yes, that will be my next entry. Looks like there’ll be about 60 photos, so get ready.

COOK & SON BATS-
Thanks. Just waiting for Jon Boswell to throw some dates at me, and then I’ll do it all over again.

CONNOR-
Because I’m going to try this again from 1,000-plus feet, I need to hang onto the safety gear, but can you remind me again after my next attempt?

LIZ MERRY-
I hope so. This is getting expensive.

Are you going to the Homerun derby or All Star Game? Are you going to a game in Minnesota this year?
Paul

http://apieceofthegame.mlblogs.com/

Also – the weather can really wreck things. You’ll get it next time
Paul

http://apieceofthegame.mlblogs.com/

“Did you notice the woman who’s standing on a platform at the far end of the dugout?”

Instantly.

PAUL-
No and no and you’re right about the weather.

JERE80-
MAH boy!

Of course!

Zack,
I’m going to Wrigley Field next week and I was wondering if you could answer a question I had: Are the bleachers connected to the rest of the stadium or would I have to leave and re-enter somewhere else?
Thanks and nice job.

The bleachers are totally separate. You can’t go back and forth unless you have a (pricy) “bleacher box” ticket.

I laughed, I cried, there were moments I was simply unsure of what was going to happen and I was overcome with fear and anxiety. :-)

Awesome entry, I hope to be around for the next one!

I know you were disappointed but I am glad no one got hurt. I will look forward to reading Part II!

Just listened to you on the FAN590. Cool stuff! Might be going to the Angels/NYY game Friday, maybe I’ll see you there.

Great stuff, Hample. I enjoy this wacky stuff you do. Not sure about making the trip to Lowell for your next attempt, but keep me in the loop. Life is all about having fun. You seem to be doing it right.

TLeon

BEN WEIL-
Nice. Glad you were able to make it for the next attempt.

LELIA-
Part 2 is almost ready. I’ve been spending all day blogging about it.

CHRIS H-
I forget . . . DID we see each other there?

TLEON-
Thanks. Hope to see you again one of these years.

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