Local student has caught more than 200 baseballs at USPBL games

By: Timothy Pontzer | Shelby - Utica News | Published August 4, 2017

 Ferris examines a foul ball he retrieved from the stadium parking lot July 20. During this particular contest, the Troy Athens junior notched 17 baseballs.

Ferris examines a foul ball he retrieved from the stadium parking lot July 20. During this particular contest, the Troy Athens junior notched 17 baseballs.

Photo by Sean Work

UTICA — With each pitch toward the plate, Billy Ferris is crouched and ready for a hit.

A Birmingham-Bloomfield Beavers hitter lofts a high, drifting fly ball. Immediately after contact, Ferris is sprinting, tracking the rawhide’s flight. The baseball is certainly in foul territory, but Ferris still has a chance at it, positioning himself perfectly for the descent.

The ball eventually lands just on the other side of a fence, narrowly missing the glove of Ferris. However, he is still determined to make a play on the ball.

Ferris can do this, as he is not an outfielder, nor does he play any other position for one of the four teams in the United Shore Professional Baseball League. Instead, he is a “ballhawk,” part of a unique hobby in which he is determined to catch and collect baseballs.

On this mid-July day, Ferris corrals the foul ball after it caroms off a parked car and rolls close enough to the stadium fence to be snatched up. 

“That was an easy one; it bounced perfectly. I wish they were all like that.” Ferris remarks as he quickly puts the ball in a drawstring bag. 

His bag carries all the tools needed to ballhawk: his glove, the extra space for captured baseballs and multiple hats. A common trick in the hobby is to bring a hat for both teams competing in the contest. That way, Ferris can quickly switch headgear to beckon and appeal to players on both sides for a toss-up.

A junior at Troy Athens, Ferris has posted some impressive numbers. He considers himself to be the only current USPBL ballhawk, although he often has to compete with friends who tag along — especially when they hear about his success.

Ferris has acquired 211 baseballs at USPBL games, a league that has only existed for less than two years. He consistently attends one game a week, sticking to a routine that has paid dividends.

“I usually show up at about 5 p.m. and dig around outside the stadium behind the outfield wall,” Ferris said. “I usually only look for less than 15 minutes and I find a few. It’s nice because there is no mud or poison ivy. Sometimes I look in the weeds on the other side of the stadium and find ones that were fouled off behind home plate.”

Before the July 20 affair, Ferris uncovered 14 baseballs outside Jimmy John’s Field. Last season, Ferris would stand outside the stadium and catch homers and throws from players during batting practice, a strategy that once resulted in his all-time high of 24 balls at one game. Now the league discourages players from tossing away batting-practice balls, so Ferris has adopted his current game plan.

“I keep an eye on who is batting, knowing if they are a power hitter or not,” Ferris explained. “If it is a power righty, I stand on the hill behind the left-field fence. If it is one of the lefties that can homer, I run over to right field. If it is a guy who I don’t think will really homer, I will stay over on the patio side on the left-field line, waiting for a foul ball.”

The setup of Jimmy John’s Field is advantageous for ballhawkers, offering a paved concourse running behind the entire outfield fence. This allows Ferris to quickly navigate a team’s lineup, dashing back and forth depending on which side of the plate a hitter prefers. The patio in left field is fairly open, seeing many foul balls. It also features a smoking patio, which allows Ferris to rush out of the stadium if he sees a foul travel into a side parking lot.

“I spend the majority of the game in left field because I can run down and try to get a foul on the fly or on a bounce, and I can head out the pathway if it is out of the stadium,” Ferris said. “If I can see where it lands, I usually can beat an usher to it.”

Ferris keeps a roster with the players of all four USPBL teams in his pocket, marking which batters have power and those who are more likely to foul off a pitch. Overall, he’s tracked down nearly 300 balls, with 45 coming in MLB games and 32 others caught in minor league parks.

Ferris used to frequent Comerica Park, but he said the pursuit of baseballs impacted his fandom for the Detroit Tigers. He likes the USPBL because it provides an alternative place where he doesn’t necessarily care about the final result and can instead focus on his hobby.

“I stopped caring if the Tigers won when I went to the game; it just became all about the baseballs,” Ferris said. “I was just running back and forth going after foul balls. Here I don’t care who wins; I just like being close to the players and getting a chance to catch a game ball.”

Baseball is by far Ferris’ favorite sport, something he played from the ages of 4 to 14. He cites a fellow ballhawk named Zack Hample as his inspiration, a man who runs a popular blog online called The Baseball Collector, where it states that he has snagged more than 9,800 MLB balls since 1990.

“I found Hample’s blog and spent the entire day reading it and was hooked,” Ferris said. “I actually got to meet Zack at a Tigers game last year. I don’t think I want to catch that many, but it is a way to have a lot of fun at a baseball game.”