BALLHAWKS STAY ON THE LOOK­OUT

EX­PE­RI­ENCE STILL THE SAME, BUT THEY’VE HAD TO AL­TER THEIR GAME WITH­OUT FANS

Chicago Sun-Times - - BASEBALL - BY SAM KELLY | skelly@sun­times.com | @@sgon­za­lezkelly

Wrigleyvil­le looks dif­fer­ent this sum­mer than in years past. Nor­mally, in the hours be­fore a per­fect August night game, you’d see armies of Cubs fans hop­ping from Slug­gers to The Cubby Bear to Mur­phy’s Bleach­ers be­fore pack­ing 40,000 deep into Wrigley Field. Not so much this year.

Peer be­hind the left-field bleach­ers to the cor­ner of Wave­land and Ken­more Av­enues, though, and a fa­mil­iar sight re­mains: A dozen or so peo­ple scat­tered around the in­ter­sec­tion with gloves and lawn chairs, eyes cast to­ward the top of the wall in hopes that they’ll be the first to spot a freshly smacked home-run ball sail­ing over.

The pan­demic has forced a shortened MLB sea­son and kept fans out of Wrigley, but for the tried-and-true ballhawks, the rou­tine hasn’t changed much, al­beit it now is done with masks: Post up for bat­ting prac­tice about three hours be­fore the first pitch, say hi to the regulars and catch any balls that come your way.

On a mid-August af­ter­noon be­fore a game against the Brew­ers, only one ball made it over the left-field wall dur­ing bat­ting prac­tice, bounc­ing squarely in the mid­dle of the in­ter­sec­tion at Wave­land and Ken­more be­fore land­ing in the mitt of Ken Van­geloff, a 30-year ball­hawk­ing vet­eran.

It was the third ball Van­geloff has caught this sea­son. He said that while the gen­eral ex­pe­ri­ence re­mains the same, the coro­n­avirus has brought a few changes. The scads of pedes­tri­ans do­ing their pregame bar crawl are nowhere to be seen, re­placed by more first­time ballhawks seek­ing a new way to ex­pe­ri­ence the game in a sea­son like none be­fore.

For old-timers like Van­geloff, though, the pan­demic has given this year’s ball­hawk­ing ex­pe­ri­ence an air of nos­tal­gia. Be­cause there are no fans to fill the seats, there has been no rea­son for po­lice to im­ple­ment game-day traf­fic re­stric­tions on streets around Wrigley, which were only in­sti­tuted in the early 2000s. This is ac­cord­ing to Van­geloff. This means that ballhawks may have to dodge cars as they chase down homers, much like they did when slug­gers like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were belt­ing balls out of the park.

“Not only did you have to worry about look­ing for the ball and catch­ing it, you had to watch out for cars go­ing back and forth,” Van­geloff said. “So that’s brought back an el­e­ment of risk and dan­ger and fun into it all.”

Rich Buhrke, who has been ball­hawk­ing since 1959, hasn’t no­ticed changes brought on by the new cir­cum­stances as much as those im­ple­mented by the Rick­etts fam­ily own­er­ship over the last decade.

“There’s nowhere near as many base­balls [fly­ing over the wall] with all the junk that they put up. They raised the bleach­ers and moved them back, then they put all this stuff up,” Buhrke said, ges­tur­ing broadly to­wards the neigh­bor­hood, which, among other things, has seen a ho­tel, an out­door plaza and an apart­ment build­ing sprout up next to the ball­park in re­cent years.

Most ballhawks miss hav­ing fans around, though, if only be­cause they can gauge where a home-run ball might be headed by the re­ac­tion of the crowd in the bleach­ers.

“No fans does not help a ball­hawk,” said Dave Dav­i­son, an­other 30-year vet­eran. “Back in the day you could see the ball com­ing out of the in­field, be­cause there was just a chain-link fence. Now you’re wait­ing for the re­ac­tion.”

Jodi Swan­son, for one, is glad that the ballhawks are com­ing out de­spite it all. Though she doesn’t chase down balls her­self, the sin­gle mother be­gan bring­ing her son to the cor­ner dur­ing the Cubs’ 2015 play­off run and they’ve been com­ing back ever since. The ballhawks set up tees for her boy to prac­tice and have even helped him with his math home­work in the past.

“It’s a very interestin­g dynamic to watch over the years, they pro­tect each other and they’re straight shoot­ers,” Swan­son said. “It’s re­ally kind of a beau­ti­ful thing to watch . . . it’s like ‘‘Field of Dreams,’’ when you get to the end of the movie and you get a feel­ing for the old base­ball you miss. They’re the old base­ball.” ✶

NAM Y. HUH/AP

Cubs fans wait for a ball out­side of Wrigley Field be­fore the sea­son opener July 24 against the Brew­ers.

Due to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic, most ballhawks out­side of Wrigley Field miss hav­ing fans around, as they can gauge where a home-run ball might be headed by the re­ac­tion of the crowd in the bleach­ers. NAM Y. HUH/AP

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