The Helicopter Stunt (Part 2)

Last year I attempted to catch a baseball that was dropped from a helicopter 1,000 feet high — and I nearly succeeded. If you saw my blog entry about it, you may recall that I caught several balls from various heights before the 1,000-foot drop was called off due to strong wind. At the time, I was VERY disappointed to have lost my opportunity, so you can imagine how excited I was to be back in Lowell, Massachusetts, to give it another try.

Anyway, let’s get right to it, huh? Here’s the helicopter coming in for a landing at LeLacheur Park:

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Did you notice the clock? That’s right — it was 6:10am (and I’d only gotten three and a half hours of sleep). The reason why we started so early was to avoid the wind. I’m no meteorologist, but evidently the air is calmest at that time of day.

I should mention that if you hover your cursor over any of these photos, you’ll see a number followed by two letters, which represent the initials of the photographer. The previous pic was taken by my friend Chris Hernandez, who’d arrived several minutes before me. If you see “ag” on any photos, that’s my friend Andrew Gonsalves. The letters “hd” indicate that my girlfriend Hayley was behind the camera, and “zh” is me. I just wanna make sure that everyone gets the credit they deserve.

That said, you can figure out who took the following photo (or rather a screen shot from a video) as I entered the stadium:

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In case you’re new to this blog, that’s me in the red cap, and just so you know, I’m being sponsored this season by BIGS Sunflower Seeds. In addition to paying for the helicopter (which cost $450 per hour), the folks at BIGS also paid to have paramedics at the field. The stretcher in the previous photo was for me! As you can imagine, it was rather disconcerting to walk in and see that, but I wasn’t too concerned. Last year my biggest fear was having to catch a 1,000-foot knuckleball and getting hit in the face and breaking my neck and becoming paralyzed or getting killed, but once I saw that the balls were NOT knuckling, I knew I could do it. Still, even on this attempt, I was nervous about breaking my hand or wrist. The terminal velocity of a baseball falling from a great height is “only” 95 miles per hour, but get this: it has the force of a 103mph fastball. That’s because pitch speed is measured upon release; by the time a major league fastball reaches home plate, it loses approximately eight miles per hour, so a “95mph fastball” is really only traveling 87mph when the catcher gloves it. But enough about that.

See the big guy on the left in the following photo?

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His name is Mike Davison, and without him, none of this would’ve happened. He’s a test flight engineer for the FAA, and he handled all the logistics; the hardest thing about this whole stunt wasn’t making the actual catch itself. The biggest challenge was setting it up.

In the photo above, Mike was leading us through a safety briefing and going over some other key points. See the guy wearing jeans and the tan baseball cap? That’s Bob Cloutier, the helicopter pilot. He and Mike and I were the only people who could call off the stunt at any time for any reason. See the guy to the right of Bob in the BIGS shirt? That’s Logan Soraci, who works for the company as a brand manager. (Neal Stewart couldn’t make it.) The guy standing to the right of Logan was one of the paramedics, and to the right of him, you can see two police officers. Mike had arranged for them to be there (and BIGS had paid for them) to block the walking path behind the outfield wall. That way, if a baseball happened to land outside the stadium, it wouldn’t kill anyone, but still, Mike said that if a ball did land there, he would call off the stunt.

There was a bit of time to spare before the helicopter took off, so I put on my chest protector and began playing catch with Andrew:

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Mainly, I just wanted to get loose and have some fun in the process, but once we got started, I realized that our throwing session served another purpose: I was providing some good B-roll footage for the cameras. Did you notice the guy with the tripod? That’s Nathan Minatta, who had traveled here with Logan from Colorado. He’s a professional photographer/videographer, so his job was to document everything.

A little while later, several folks gathered near the helicopter:

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In the photo above, everyone but Mike was going to be riding in it. Bob, of course, was going to be flying it, and Logan was going to be filming. Andrew was going to photograph the altimeter every time a ball was dropped, and the guy pictured on the left was going to do the actual dropping. His name is Caspar Wang, and he’s an aerospace engineer for the FAA. (I want to be an aerospace engineer just so I can tell people that I’m an aerospace engineer.) See the bag he’s carrying? That was filled with the six dozen baseballs that I’d brought, and by the way, these were all balls that I’d snagged at major league games and rubbed with mud. I figured that if major leaguers are allowed to use mud-rubbed balls to help them see better, then so could I.

Before the helicopter took off, Andrew made sure to get a photo of the altimeter, and a little while later, I did the same. Check it out:

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If you look closely at the double-photo above, you’ll see that the altimeter was set for 90 feet. (Because of the angles at which these two photos were taken, it looks like 100 feet on the left and 80 feet on the right.) Why not set the altimeter to “zero” on the ground? Two words: barometric pressure. I’m no test flight engineer, but evidently this can skew the altimeter readings, so the FAA provides pilots with info for what the local settings should be. (Mike, I know you’re gonna be reading this, so can you provide a better explanation in the comments section?)

At around 6:40am, the helicopter was ready for takeoff, and Andrew marked the occasion by taking a selfie in the co-pilot’s seat:

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Can you blame him? This was the first time he’d ever been in a helicopter.

Hayley got a nice shot of it taking off . . .

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. . . which shows two important weather-related things:

1) The flags were hanging limp, which meant there was no wind on the ground.
2) The sky was overcast, which meant I’d have an easier time seeing the balls.

Last year’s attempt took place on a sunny day, and even though I wasn’t looking directly up at the sun, I still struggled with visibility. There were a couple of drops that happened to take place as a cloud passed behind the helicopter, and those were the ones I had seen best. Against a blue background, the mud-rubbed balls looked like grains of sand — that is, when I could even see them — but against the white clouds, they showed up as minuscule (though unmistakable) black specks.

Did you notice the scoreboard in the previous photo? I had no idea that my name was going to be there, so that was a pretty cool surprise.

As the helicopter got into position, I quickly put on the rest of my safety gear:

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The chest protector, mask/helmet, and catcher’s mitt were all donated by Rawlings for this stunt; my plan was (and still is) to donate the gear (along with all the baseballs) to Pitch In For Baseball.

Mike had arranged for me to catch balls from two different heights. I’d been told that the first one was going to be dropped from 550 feet, thereby equaling the approximate height of the Washington Monument, where several baseball drops had occurred more than a century ago. Then, after I completed this test/warm-up, the helicopter was going to climb to 1,000 feet for the main attempt.

While Andrew was seeing this . . .

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. . . my friend Ben Weil was helping me tighten the straps on my helmet:

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Did you notice the guy in the previous photo in the maroon shirt? His name is Dennis Link, and he’s a member of SABR — the Society for American Baseball Research. He had contacted me after my attempt last year, and when I mentioned that I was going to try again, he asked if he could be there.

This event was NOT open to the public. It would’ve been dangerous (if not criminal) to have spectators in the stands, so the few people in attendance had to stay inside the 1st-base dugout. When the helicopter had first taken off, Mike noticed two random guys taking photos from the open-air concourse behind home plate. This was a major cause for concern, but as it turned out, they were members of the cleaning crew, and he instructed them to take cover in the doorway of the men’s room.

Here’s a photo of the helicopter getting into position:

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I was already out in shallow center field at that point, and the cameras were ready:

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In the photo above, that’s Nathan wearing the helmet, Chris wearing the No. 5 jersey, Mateo Fischer in the gray tee-shirt, and Dennis standing on the bench.

As for me . . .

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. . . I was doing my thing on the field, running all over the place and chasing the baseballs, which seemed to be landing everywhere. Here’s one falling well beyond my reach in deep center:

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The helicopter was so loud that Mike led everyone in a countdown from “five” for every drop. That way, I knew exactly when each ball was coming.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the helicopter was hovering much higher than 550 feet. The reason was simple: better to be too high than too low. Can you imagine how crappy we all would’ve felt if I ended up catching one from 1,000-ish feet, only to discover that it was only 950? That said, Mike had told Bob to aim for 600 feet for the first set of drops; to make sure there was no issue, Bob went even higher than that. Check out the altimeter:

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As you can see, it was showing a reading of 740 feet; subtract the ground measurement of 90 feet from that, and the helicopter was actually 650 feet above the ground. That was the altitude when I caught this ball:

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I didn’t really dive for it so much as leaning and lunging and then plopping onto my stomach. It’s a shame that I caught the ball in front of a white advertisement because I snow-coned it, and if there’d been a dark background, you’d really see it in the tip of my glove. Still, if you click the four-part photo above and zoom in on image No. 3, you can kinda/barely/almost see the ball. Here’s a video, filmed by Mateo, that shows several failed attempts leading up to the catch itself:

Allow me to point out several things:

1) To the casual observer, it probably looks like I can’t judge or catch a pop-up, so let me just say that it was HARD. I’ll explain why in a bit.

2) Did you notice that the first ball didn’t bounce? It went straight into the ground and got embedded in the grass. I felt really bad for the groundskeeper.

3) Even though I was wearing a heavily-padded catcher’s mitt along with a batting glove and a wrist/palm guard, I figured that if the ball hit my palm or one of my fingers, it would be an automatic broken bone. Well, wouldn’t you know it? I *did* catch this ball on my palm — that’s why it squirted to the tip of my glove — but amazingly it didn’t hurt. I took my glove off and shook my hand out of instinct, but I’m telling you, there was zero pain. Lucky me.

Ben and his girlfriend Jen hadn’t heard that the helicopter was going to start at a lesser height, so when they saw me catch the ball, they assumed that I’d just broken the record. As a result, this was their reaction:

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They took the news well. If anything, they were excited to get to see me give it another shot.

Nathan interviewed me for a couple of minutes . . .

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. . . while the helicopter climbed to 1,000-plus feet:

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I should mention that I was wearing a mouth guard and elbow guards, but no protective cup. (You might remember the cup from this photo of my equipment.) I had it with me at the field and briefly put it in place, but then decided . . . screw it. Yes, I’d like to have kids someday, but protective cups are **SO** uncomfortable, and this seemed like a low-risk situation. Getting hit in the balls by something falling from directly above just doesn’t happen. I wore the cup last year in case I ended up back-peddling for a ball and tripping and landing on my back and being exposed, so to speak, but that never happened, so yeah, to hell with the cup. I always wore one when I played shortstop, and I always hated it. If you’ve ever worn a cup, then you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, then I envy you.

Mike was in constant communication with the helicopter. Here I am with him shortly before running back out onto the field:

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Here I am showing off my mouth guard:

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(I am soooooo handsome. Admit it.)

Did you notice the BIGS Sunflower Seeds logo on my chest protector? Logan, sensing a bonus opportunity to promote the company, stuck it there, and I was fine with that. BIGS has done so much for me this season that I’m glad to do what I can for them.

A minute or two later, the helicopter was in position at 1,000-plus feet. Once again, Andrew was going to photograph the altimeter every time a ball was dropped. Therefore, if I did succeed in catching one, we’d know that his final photo would be THE photo — pretty simple, really.

Here I am, back out on the field, looking skyward for the first ball:

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As I mentioned last year, the mask/helmet was so heavy (and my head was tilted back at such an uncomfortable angle) that I constantly had to lift it slightly off my face. That’s what I was doing in the photo above. Sometimes, when I got tired, I’d hold the mask there *while* the ball was starting to descend. From 1,000-plus feet, it took approximately 11.5 seconds for each ball to reach me. That’s a long time to be looking straight up at the sky. Try tilting your head all the way back and staring at a point on the ceiling directly above you. Do it. Now. I mean it. I actually want you to take a break from reading this and hold your head like that . . . and then don’t move for 12 seconds. It’s not all that comfortable, huh? Now imagine doing it with several pounds of weight on your head. And imagine doing it over and over and over and over and over.

And over.

It seems funny to say this, but trying to catch baseballs dropped from a helicopter is quite an intense workout.

Here I am running for a ball . . .

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. . . which ended up bouncing off the infield dirt:

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Here I am narrowly missing another . . .

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. . . and another:

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I didn’t drop any of these balls; I just didn’t quite get to them quick enough.

According to Bob, the wind was blowing 23 miles per hour at 1,000-plus feet *and* it was blowing in different directions at various altitudes. Not only was it challenging for him to keep the helicopter stable, but it was tough for me because the balls didn’t fall in a straight line. They’d start drifting one way, then another . . . and sometimes another and another. And there was no pattern. For example, there were a few balls that initially appeared to be heading toward the warning track, so I started running in that direction — but then the wind took them back toward the infield and I had to scramble back toward the spot where I’d started. After that, I made sure to stay near the infield, assuming that the balls would blow toward me . . . but then the wind completely shifted, and the balls DID end up near the track. I didn’t mind the challenge, and in fact, I thought it was fun. The only thing that concerned me was losing my opportunity to make a successful catch. We were going through lots of balls, and of course if any of them landed outside the stadium, that was it. Game over. One ball landed on the pavement in the stands on the 3rd-base side and bounced about 50 feet in the air. You’ve never seen a ball bounce that high before. It was pretty cool, but served as a sobering reminder of how fast it was actually falling.

In the following photo, can you spot the ball? I could’ve circled it in red, but thought I’d give you a chance to find it for yourself:

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As you can see, I was jumping and reaching for that one, and I only missed it by a couple of feet.

Here I am nearly catching another:

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There were a few balls that appeared to be descending right toward me, but time after time, they veered off course at the last second, and since they were already traveling 95 miles per hour, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to react.

Here’s a cool (though massively pixelated) shot of Caspar releasing one of the balls:

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I found out later that he was actually tossing them (with some spin to prevent them from knuckling). That’s because the wind was forcing the helicopter to hover in various spots, and in some cases, he needed to put a little velocity on it in order to set the ball on the proper course.

Although, like I said, the wind was shifting, overall it seemed to be blowing in from left field. Because of that, the helicopter was hovering above the outer/left-field perimeter of the stadium, and that seemed to work. Most balls ended up drifting into the middle of the outfield, but I was concerned that if the wind changed slightly (or even died down for a moment), that one of the balls would land in the trees beyond the outfield wall.

That’s exactly what happened, and my heart sank when Mike started walking slowly onto the field with his head down.

He asked me where the ball had landed. (Evidently he hadn’t seen it.) Here we are talking about it:

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I reluctantly told him that it had landed outside the stadium, but I quickly added that (a) it had barely cleared the outfield wall and (b) it was due to the helicopter’s positioning more than the wind itself. I begged him not to call things off and reminded him that the cops were there for this exact reason — to block that area so that no one would get hurt. (The cops were in their cars; Mike had joked during the safety briefing that “if any balls hit the cars, the nice people at BIGS will pay for the damage.”) Mike got on his walkie-talkie and communicated with Bob. I asked if we could try again with the helicopter positioned above the field. Please please please!!! I was much more concerned about *not* getting to try to catch more baseballs than I was about possibly getting hurt or killed by one — funny how my mind works.

After talking to Bob and considering all the circumstances, Mike said yes! Things would proceed as planned! Here’s we are returning to our respective spots:

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Moments after that photo was taken, I ran back toward him to ask an important question: “How many balls do they have left?”

Mike got back on his walkie-talkie and asked Caspar. I was expecting the answer to be something awful like “six,” so I was thrilled to hear that there were still THIRTY balls remaining! I asked Mike what would happen if they ran out of balls — could the helicopter land and gather them all and head back up for another round? He wasn’t sure, but indicated that it was unlikely.

It was now or never.

Here’s a three-part photo that shows me chasing after one ball. As you’ll see, I started by running away from the infield, then turning back/left, and finally jumping/reaching unsuccessfully to my right:

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Did I mention that it was challenging?

I only lost sight of one ball, and it happened when I took my eyes off it. I did that because I knew that it was going to land far away, so rather than running like a doofus with my head tilted back, I sprinted toward the spot where I thought it was gonna end up, and when I looked for it . . . I was like, “Uh oh.” Thankfully I wasn’t in any danger because (a) I spotted it after a few seconds and (b) it ended up landing 50 feet away from me.

Meanwhile, I was *completely* out of breath and drenched in sweat. I could’ve used a breather, but since there weren’t many baseballs left, I decided to stay out there.

Here I am barely missing another stupid baseball:

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I was still having fun, but by this point, I was entering “stressed as hell” territory.

Wanna guess what happened next? Here’s a hint:

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That’s a photo of the altimeter at 1,140 feet, which means the helicopter was actually 1,050 feet above the ground when THIS happened:

Unfortunately, Mateo, who filmed that video, didn’t capture the countdown because he had *just* swapped SD cards, but it’s still great to have this footage. Nathan, of course, was also filming, but I’m gonna wait and show you his video at the end. For now, here are some photos of my record-breaking catch. This one shows me tracking the ball when Caspar first released it:

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I was ready to run in any/every direction, just like all the others, but to my surprise, the ball kept coming . . . and coming . . . right at me. As you saw in the video, I shuffled my feet and took a few steps, and then I settled under it — or at least I tried:

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Ideally, I wanted to make a one-handed catch directly above my left shoulder. Some people had advised me to use two hands (dumb because it would’ve exposed an extra body part to danger) and others suggested that I make a basket catch (dumb because you have less control when you’re not “looking” the ball into the glove). I knew what I wanted to do. It was just a matter of executing it.

The ball drifted a foot or two to my left, but by the time I realized that it was heading there, it was too late to move my feet. The ball might only have been 100 feet above me at that point, and since it was traveling so fast, that meant I had less than one second to react. Therefore, all I could do was  hold my ground and brace myself and reach out to the side:

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In the photo above, you can see the ball in my glove, and in the next photo, you can see me staring at it while trying to maintain my balance:

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The ball came down with tremendous force, but it didn’t feel nearly as powerful as the one I caught last year from a height that turned out to be 822 feet. (At the time, we thought it was 762 feet, but because of a discrepancy with some of the settings and measurements, the change swung in my favor and added an extra 60 feet. Of course, that accomplishment is much less significant now because of the 1,050-foot catch. By the way, some media outlets are mistakenly reporting that this catch broke Gabby Hartnett‘s record of 822 feet, but don’t be fooled. In 1930 Hartnett caught a ball dropped from a blimp that might have been flying as high as 800 feet. Ever since, he has been acknowledged as the unofficial record holder, so I guess some folks got confused about which record I broke.) The force from last year’s catch may have felt more powerful because I was wearing a flimsy infielder’s glove with no padding. This time around, not only was I using the catcher’s mitt, but the ball didn’t land squarely in the pocket; it landed just to the side of the pocket and seemed to rattle around for a split-second. That may have dispersed the force of the impact, but whatever happened, I was just glad that I didn’t drop it and that I didn’t get hurt.

Here I am holding up the ball:

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Here’s a four-part screen shot from the video that Nathan filmed:

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Here’s Mike coming out to congratulate me:

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This time, when Ben jumped over the dugout railing . . .

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. . . the celebration was for real.

He ran out onto the field . . .

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. . . and chased me around as if I’d just won a crucial game with a walk-off hit.

I ran away from him at first . . .

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. . . but then I turned back, and we shared a big ol’ hug behind the pitcher’s mound:

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Ben is the opposite of jealous. He’s been with me for some of my biggest moments (including the day I caught Mike Trout’s 1st career home run), and he’s always SO happy for me. Sometimes I think he gets more excited about these things than I do — and I *do* get pretty revved up. He is truly one of the best/kindest people that I’ve ever known.

Here I am walking off the field with him, Mike, and Nathan:

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The photo above reminds me of this. Heh.

We had to clear the field ASAP because the helicopter was going to be landing. Here’s a photo that Andrew took of the houses below . . .

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. . . and here’s another that shows the field:

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Beautiful.

By the time the helicopter landed, I was standing safely on the warning track:

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As soon as Mike and I knew that everyone else was safe, we shared an emotional hug:

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Then I was interviewed for a few minutes by Nathan and Dennis:

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At that point, I wasn’t paying any attention to the helicopter — why should I have been, right? — so I wasn’t aware that Logan and the others had started walking toward the dugout:

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Here’s what happened a minute later:

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As you can see, instead of dumping a cooler of Gatorade on my head, Logan showered me with an entire bucket of BIGS sample packs. Awesome.

I opened a pack of the Old Bay seeds, put way too many of them in my mouth, struggled to talk, spat some out into Jen’s cupped hands (I was hoping she’d eat them), and continued talking to the cameras:

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By the way, I ended up taking all of these sample packs home to New York City, and I’ll probably end up bringing some with me on the road, so if you see me at a game and I give you one . . . now you know the story behind it.

Here’s a random/artsy photo that Hayley took:

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A few minutes later, I headed to the outfield to collect my baseballs and survey the damage that they’d caused. This crater should give you an idea of the force with which they’d thumped the turf:

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Here’s what the ball looked like when I pried it out of the ground:

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I owe a huge thanks to Spinners groundskeeper Jeff Paolino, not only for allowing this to happen on his field, but for waking up at 5am to be there in the first place. Everyone who participated in this event was incredible.

While I was in the outfield, Mateo and Ben played catch on the 3rd-base side:

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Then I posed for a photo with Mike and Bob:

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In case you’re wondering, the ball I’m holding is THE ball. Mike had asked to keep the one that I’d caught from 650 feet, and I made sure to hang onto the record-breaker for myself.

Here’s another random/artsy photo for you:

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Here’s a less artsy shot of Ben and Andrew playing with the sunflower seeds:

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(That’s Benny being Benny.)

Eventually, everyone gathered near the helicopter for a group photo:

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I don’t know the name of the officer pictured above, but I can identify everyone else. From left to right, you’re looking at Nick (one of the paramedics), Mike (always the biggest and tallest), the cop (who hopefully won’t arrest me for spacing out on his name), Matt (the other paramedic), Bob (whose company is called C-R Helicopters), Andrew (who thinks the Dodgers will win the NL West), Hayley (who will hopefully forgive me for making her wake up so early), Ben (who owns more hats and jerseys than you and all your friends and all of their friends combined), Jen (who is adored by everyone), me (still never tasted Coke or Pepsi), Logan (who was cool as hell about everything), Caspar (who thankfully didn’t kill me), Mateo (hiding in the back in typical Mateo fashion), Chris (kneeling and feeling good about life), and Dennis (who plans to make a presentation about this madness to his fellow SABR members). I wish that Jeff (the groundskeeper) and Jon Boswell (the Spinners’ director of media relations, who had also done so much for me) had made it into the photo, but they’d already moved on to other tasks, as overworked/underpaid minor league employees tend to do. I also wish that Nathan had made it into the group shot, but he was too busy documenting everything to be a part of it.

Here’s a photo of the baseball that I caught from 1,050 feet:

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Some media outlets have mistakenly reported the helicopter’s altitude at 1,200 feet. I’m not sure how that happened, but my guess is that word spread a little too quickly. There were times when the altimeter *did* reach 1,200 feet, so that number must’ve been shared before we determined the actual reading for my catch (1,140 feet) and then subtracted the starting altitude (90 feet). Are you with me? Just to repeat it (because there are lots of numbers in this paragraph), the ball I caught was dropped from 1,050 feet. Okay? Good.

Here’s a photo of Caspar . . .

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. . . who’s one of those guys that I know I’d be great friends with if we didn’t live so far apart, and if our lives were more interwoven. I’m glad to say, though, that we had a long phone conversation  several days later, and it looks like we’ll stay in touch.

Ben and Jen had never been in a helicopter, so Mike arranged for Bob to fly them back to the airport. Here they are, ready for takeoff:

66_zh_ben_and_jen_in_helicopter

Meanwhile, it was business as usual for Jeff, who was tending to the field:

67_zh_jeff_paolino_working_on_the_field

After the helicopter lifted off (and before it flew away), I ran out onto the field for one more wacky attempt: catching a camera. I’m not sure what type of camera it was, but (a) it belonged to Nathan, (b) it had streamers attached to it, (c) it was weighted so that the lens would face down, and (d) supposedly it could withstand a major impact. Here I am, ready for it:

68_ag_zack_under_helicopter_for_camera_drop

Here’s a closer look at the camera being dangled from an open door:

69_hd_helicopter_about_to_drop_camera

The idea was to get a shot of what the drop would look like from the ball’s perspective. Unfortunately, though, I failed to catch the camera . . .

70_ag_zack_retrieving_camera_after_failing_to_catch_it

. . . and the glass (or was it plastic?) cracked when it hit the ground. Here I am showing it to Logan:

71_hd_zack_and_logan_examining_camera

Because the helicopter had been hovering so low, the rotor wash was VERY strong and blew the camera away from me. Nathan and Logan had wanted to drop it from 650 feet, but Mike wouldn’t allow it; he wasn’t sure how or where the camera would fall, so he couldn’t take a chance on people’s safety on the ground. If it *had* been dropped from that height, then I would’ve worn it as a helmet-cam for the 1,000-plus-foot attempts. THAT would’ve been cool. (Maybe next time?) (You think I’m kidding about doing this again? Well, I’m not. I would love to catch baseballs dropped from anywhere. Someone suggested that I try to catch one dropped from the CN Tower into the Rogers Centre. Of course, that person has no clout with the Blue Jays or any governmental agency in Canada, so it probably won’t happen, but seriously, if the mayor of St. Louis lets me attempt to catch a ball dropped from the top of the Gateway Arch, or if the President of the United Arab Emirates invites me to try it at the Burj Khalifa, I am soooooo there. What about the Grand Canyon or the Eiffel Tower? Let’s think big! Do you think Felix Baumgartner would be willing to take a bucket of balls with him next time he visits the stratosphere?)

After the helicopter took off . . .

72_hd_helicopter_taking_off

. . . we had some time to spare. The plan was for Mike to drive back to the stadium with Ben and Jen, so we all entertained ourselves in various ways. Andrew played catch . . .

73_hd_andrew_playing_catch

. . . while Hayley photographed my ass:

74_hd_ass_shot

Here’s the bucket of balls:

75_hd_bucket_of_balls

It’s weird to see a mud-rubbed ball with the word “practice” stamped on the sweet spot, no?

Hayley took my picture with Dennis . . .

76_hd_dennis_link_and_zack

. . . and then he took a picture of us:

77_dl_hayley_and_zack

Here I am with Logan:

78_hd_zack_and_logan

I was totally sweaty and disgusting, so Logan hooked me up with a spare BIGS shirt, just like the one he was wearing. Check it out:

79_hd_zack_talking_to_dennis

While I was having a serious conversation with Dennis about baseball history, Andrew was making a mockery of the national pastime:

80_hd_andrew_hanging_on_dugout_roof

Then I played catch with Chris . . .

81_hd_zack_playing_catch

. . . and called my mom to let her know that I wasn’t dead. And then I started writing this tweet:

82_hd_zack_tweeting_about_record

It would’ve been fun to stay for the Spinners game that night, but someone had to get back to New York (or rather New Jersey) for a Taylor Swift concert.

Before leaving LeLacheur Park, I swung by the office and said goodbye to Jon. Here he is with the team’s clubhouse attendant, who goes by the name of “Dogman.” Can you guess which one is which?

83_zh_dogman_and_jon_boswell

Dogman is quite a character. I’d met him last year, remember? He’s the guy who gave me ice after I bruised my finger on an 822-foot pop-up.

Look what I found on my way out of the stadium:

84_zh_finding_one_of_my_baseballs_on_the_way_out

No, not the BIGS bucket (which was filled with my baseballs). I’m talking about the ball sitting in the bushes. That was also one of mine! It was the one that had landed on the pavement and bounced absurdly high — how nice to be reunited with it.

There was one last hurrah before hitting the road — brunch at the Owl Diner. Here’s a group photo:

85_group_photo_at_owl_diner

Yes, I had two plates of food: blueberry pancakes *and* scrambled eggs with melted cheddar, home fries, and a very buttery English muffin. And did you notice the baseball on the table between the plates?

At the end of the meal, Jen had some fun with the ketchup bottle:

86_zh_jen_did_this

At the time, we didn’t yet know the exact height from which the ball had been dropped, but we all know now: 1,050 feet.

MANY thanks to everyone who was involved: Mike for handling all the logistics, Jon for letting me do this at the Spinners’ stadium, my friend Ben Hill for introducing me to Jon in the first place, Jeff for expertly fixing the mini-craters in the field, Caspar for tossing the balls so well, Bob for flying the helicopter in challenging conditions, Nathan for documenting everything, the paramedics for being ready to save my life, the police officers for blocking the walking path behind the outfield wall, Dennis for sharing this adventure with his colleagues at SABR, Logan for being there and making the whole day a success, BIGS Sunflower Seeds for picking up the tab, Rawlings for donating the catcher’s gear, Jim Bintliff for donating a container of Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud, and all my friends who were there to support me. This was a team effort all the way.

The final part of the effort was orchestrated by Logan and Nathan. While the rest of us were stuffing ourselves silly at brunch, they were working hard to edit the footage and send clips to the media. Here’s the video they came up with:

Twenty-four hours after they uploaded it to YouTube, it only had a few hundred views. Now, four days later, it’s been seen more than 40,000 times. I don’t know if that qualifies as having gone viral, but it’s pretty damn cool.

Before we parted ways, Logan mentioned something about ESPN, and I remember thinking, “Yeah, okay, whatever, riiiiiiiight,” but somehow I ended up making SportsCenter‘s Top Ten plays the following day:

87_sportscenter_top_ten

Later that day, Arsenio Hall posted a couple of tweets about it . . .

88_arsenio_hall_tweets

. . . and the story took off from there. A friend in Australia emailed to say that she’d heard about my record-setting catch on the news, and a cousin in England send me this newspaper article:

89_article_in_english_newspaper

That’s not any old “thrower.” That’s my pal Caspar Wang, who’s a frickin’ aerospace engineer for the FAA! C’mon, England, get with it!

The catch also made headlines in America. Here’s a screen shot from Yahoo! Sports . . .

90_yahoo_helicopter_coverage

. . . and here’s the link to the piece itself. The host who narrated the video segment started by saying, “If you’re trying to break a world record, you might wanna have someone from the Guinness Book standing by.”

Dear Yahoos, if you wanna have someone from the Guinness Book standing by, you’re gonna have to pay roughly $50,000. Yeah. Seriously. That’s what it costs to have one of their “adjudicators” present for a record attempt. Maybe YOU’D like to pay for them to come and watch me do it again? And by the way, it wasn’t Hartnett who caught the ball from 822 feet. GAH!!!

I was also mentioned briefly on NPR. And so on.

IN-SANE!!!

36 Comments

Great work Zack. High 10.

Congratulations on the World Record. Screw the Guinness Book haha. I think it would take quite a good throw from the CN Tower to the Rogers Centre, with the retractable roof and all. They’re next to eachother, but with wind drag and everything I’d imagine that they’d have to block out a big area just in case it hit anyone.

“This event was NOT open to the public. It would’ve been dangerous (if not criminal) to have spectators in the stands, so the few people in attendance had to stay inside the 1st-base dugout.”

I think criminal might be overstating it a little. I think it would have been cool had they sold General Admission for people to sit in safe areas, like the dugout or covered seats and stuff so they wouldn’t get hit.

Living the dream, AWESOME! It was quite exciting to hear your name dropped on a local radio show this morning. (As you know, the audio will be sent over shortly.)

I’m also looking forward to the ASG entry (entries?), as that will be a better forum for the questions I have in my mind.

Again, congrats!

For the 45th time, thanks again for having me there. I had an awesome time, and it’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. See ya when I see ya. I’ll let you know when my post is up about the heli stunt.
– Chris

http://ballhawker.mlblogs.com

i’m going to have to meet/visit with Ben Weil one of these days.

Congratulations again, Zack! It’s hard to spot the helicopter on the video, so a ball must have been really hard to see. And speaking of incorrect facts, Jon Karl said you had snagged more than 9,000 balls during the piece on Diane Sawyer two nights ago.

But it was a SNOW CONE !!!

Nice job! You are truly blessed to have such a great group of friends.

Big Glove Bob

Congratulations! You are the man!

I was thinking yesterday of the first time we met, and you asked if I could help with this. I was wondering if you thought I was just another eager fan that you meet during your travels…..
If you had told me that of the many things I have accomplished in my life, that engineering the ball drop would have been on the list I wouldn’t have believed you, but here it is.
For those who read this, this is the end of two years of planning and effort. A great many things went into this so don’t be thinking you can try this at home, or on a whim. Zack and I went back an forth over almost every aspect of this, to include the catcher’s gear, the color of the ball, and every other detail. As you can see the higher you go, the more variability you have with the winds at altitude, which makes this all the more difficult as you go higher. This is why there was no one in the seats. It is just too risky, since I knew the area over which the ball would impact increases dramatically with increase in altitude. At some point, we will post some video taken last year from the helicopter which shows the ball being pushed by the diffrent winds at diffrent altitudes. It is pretty dramatic. I’ll post more on some of the technical aspects discussed above in a later post.

Haha! The photo of you guys coming in off the field – As soon as I saw it I thought of the Hank Aaron shot. How cool. What an amazing achievement this is. So happy for/proud of you.

Two things:
1. You seem to be towering over a couple of people who were at the field that day!
2. Ben’s not wearing a jersey! WHAAA??
And… congrats, my friend.
~Matt

Congratulations Zack!!! Is the ball you caught numbered? Just curious where and when you snagged that one originally. You are nuts!
~Dennis in Chicago

RAY BURTON-
Thanks! Do I lose points because of the snow-cone, or does that just make the whole thing even cooler?

BRENDAN-
Good point about the CN Tower. I forgot that there *is* some space between it and the stadium. I still think it would be possible, though. As for selling tickets to the public, what would happen if a ball landed near the dugout and ricocheted off the steps or the railing and shot *into* the dugout and hurt or killed someone? Not good.

TONYV433-
Thanks. Glad you got to hear me on the radio. There will be two All-Star entries — one about the Derby and another about the game itself.

CHRIS-
It was great having you there. Can’t wait to see the entry.

JOE-
Yeah? And then what?

JAMES LEE-
9,000 balls . . . oish. I finally saw the piece last night. That made me cringe — not even sure how that mess-up was possible, but it was still nice to be featured.

DINNER PORTION-
That’s very kind of you to say, and I agree.

MICHAEL H.-
Shux.

MIKE-
I have no problem with eager fans as long as they don’t follow me or talk to me during BP or the game. But yeah, when I first met you, I didn’t know what the hell to think. Looking forward to seeing more comments from you here and hearing more of your thoughts.

LIZ MERRY-
You seriously thought of it too? Ha, nice!

MATT-
1) I noticed that too, but some people (like Mike) tower over me, so there.
2) I think he only wears them at games. (Benny, what’s the story?)
Thanks. I know I owe you an email, but I am SWAMPED. I’m going to have to reserve an entire day (perhaps this weekend or next week) to catch up.

DENNIS B-
It’s not numbered. I pretty much stopped labeling my baseballs after I “passed Pete Rose.” At this point, I only mark the extra-special ones.

To answer your question about the altimeter, it works off of air pressure. As the local air pressure varies from day to day for any one place. To adjust for this on the ground, there is a knob that you can adjust for the local barometric pressure, which shows up on a little window, called the Kollsman window. This barometric pressure is available at each airfield,and is updated throughout the day. Bob dialed in the local barometric pressure for the nearest airfield, Lawrence, and that’s why the altimeter read 90′. The difference you noted based on the viewing angle is known as paralax error, and is something I routinely deal with in my day job.

Damn Ben is almost bald. No wonder he always wears hats!!

MIKE-
Thanks for telling me/us all of that. Very interesting. I had no idea that there were so many details to monitor.

RICK-
First of all, you’re rude and should be ashamed of yourself, and second, Ben has an amazing/beautiful girlfriend who thinks he’s the sexiest man alive, so on Ben’s behalf: suck it!

If it makes you feel any better, I had the absolute time of my life at that Taylor Swift concert!!! I have to show you the pictures ;-)
Congrats, again, of course! Thanks for letting me and Jen be a part of it, and the helicopter ride! Awesome entry, and well worth the wait!
And I’ve been wearing hats every day since I was 7. That’s not an exaggeration, I remember my first Charlotte Hornets hat. Bald and loving it! Makes showering that much easier! Thanks Zack :-)

I think as far as the record, it was important that Dennis for SABR was there. As he put it to me, all of the other people who did this in the past are dead, and you, Zack, are the only link to that past. We have the altimeter pictures, whch clearly show tha the ball was dropped at 1050′. I think the 1200′ number comes from Bob who was flying most of the time at that altitude. The altimiter measures altitude above mean sea level, so you had to subtract the 90′ the helicopter was reading on the ground like you pointed out. For the last drop, he was at the altitude I assigned. (when i determined the altitudes, I rounded up to something that Bob could easily hover at). sometime when things slow down, I’ll fill out all the paperwork for Guiness. If you could please send me the altimeter pictures, I’d appreciate it.
It was great to be involved. It was great to see everyone, and meet new people. I had a great time with Mateo the day before, and it was fun to tell Ben he was getting a helicopter ride.

Oh, and you should buy another catchers mitt and give that one to Pitch in for Baseball. You should keep the one you caught the ball with.

Yes, I seriously thought of it, too. I know…aging myself again. Not sure which feat I am more impressed with. : )

Zack, way to go. Must have been fun (and stressful). Never seen a pic of Ben without a jersey on.

BEN-
I would love to see some photos. When are you coming over?

MIKE-
When Dennis told me that everyone else who’d ever done this was dead, I practically got chills. I mean, I *knew* that it had been a looooong time since anyone had attempted it, but he phrased it like THAT . . . wow. Thanks for yet another round of explanations on how things worked up in the air.

LIZ MERRY-
Clearly, my accomplishment is more impressive. Hank Aaron isn’t even the record holder anymore. (Note: I might not be totally serious.)

DAN COX-
Thanks! And yes it was — much more fun than stressful, though.

Mike makes a great point about the mitt you used. I think the mitt & ball should eventually be in a museum, as a record breaking artifacts. In fact, you could make a case for all the gear you wore that day. Anybody here knows the director of acquisition for the Hall?

Nice job, Zack! Who was that who suggested catching a ball at Rogers Centre tossed from the CN Tower? That’s a great idea! Although the Blue Jays might not like huge dents on the roof of the stadium. Several additional thoughts:
1) Caspar should start telling everyone that he set the world record for longest baseball drop successfully caught on the ground.
2) I was waiting for Andrew’s official catch altimeter shot. Did I miss it?
3) A “320 Meter catch” doesn’t have the same appeal as a 1000 foot catch. You better go for an even 500 meters for the Brits.

Lol WORD! Lame old 755 HRs, not to mention .305 lifetime BA. Anybody could do that. Let’s see him get under the blades at 1000+ feet! Piker. (Absolutely not serious, but really, your catch is equally impressive to me.)

Todd, the altimiter shot is right before the sequence of photographs that show zack catching the record baseball

Thanks Mike! You are the best :-) And anything that makes Jen’s day, makes mine 10 times better!

Great job Zack !!!!!!!! Do I hear 1,250 feet next time? LOL I was glad to see you do it. You are a great guy. Don’t know if you remember me, I am the guy from Akron who tried to help you out with something. I don’t know how it turned out as because of my eyes I am no longer able to go to games.
I still can’t thank you enough for that piece of Yankees history. It is sitting on my night stand and I look at it everyday. I still can’t thank you enough. Good luck on your next record. Jerry

Ben, telling you and Jen to get on the helicopter was one of the many good parts of that day!

Congrats Zack! Also if nobody pointed it out in the specified photo, the ball is between the letters “S” and “T” in the Red Sox logo on the top of the scoreboard.

JAMES LEE-
Hmm. I do know a few folks at the Hall of Fame. I might just have to give them a shout.

COOK & SON-
I have no idea. For all I know, you’re the one who suggested it, and you’re just messing with me. To address your other points . . .
1) Ha. I like it.
2) Yes.
3) I’d love to give it a shot.

LIZ MERRY-
I just explained our comment-conversation to my girlfriend, who told me she hasn’t heard of Hank Aaron.

MIKE-
You tell him!

BEN WEIL-
You guys are so damn cute.

JERRY-
I do remember you. Thanks for getting back in touch. I’m glad to hear that you’re enjoying that special item.

JARED-
No one else spotted that ball, or if they did, they didn’t bother saying so in a comment. Nice job.

Gah! I should’ve known. I’ve been bombarded by so many messages lately that it’s hard to keep track of who has said what.

Congrats Zack you made it look easy. It’s good to be the King.

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