BALLHAWKS STAY ON THE LOOKOUT
EXPERIENCE STILL THE SAME, BUT THEY’VE HAD TO ALTER THEIR GAME WITHOUT FANS
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.” ✶
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