Aiken resident John Witt is known as a ballhawk. He has spent the past 30 years chasing down baseballs at professional games, starting at the age of 7 when he lived in Chicago. He is now the director of tickets for the Aiken Foxhounds of the South Coast League, and writes a blog for his www.MajorLeagueBallhawk.com. Witt, who has collected more than 4,800 baseballs, recently went One-on-One with The Post and Courier's Bill Henley:
What got you started and/or obsessed with getting baseballs?
"When I was a kid, we went to a lot of baseball games in Chicago. My dad was a freelance photographer -- that actually got started through (Charleston RiverDogs co-owner) Mike Veeck. Mike was the head of security for the White Sox and he saw some of his pictures and said he should do that during the summer when he wasn't being a school teacher. I'd go out early with my dad and chase down balls."
Was there any particular acquisition that sparked the whole thing — one that was really special to you early on?
"Not really early on. We got quite a few balls — 20, 30 or a hundred in the first few years. In 1983 we went to White Sox games. In '84, we started hanging out at Cubs games on Waveland Avenue at Wrigley and that became more of an obsession than anything else — just being able to go out whenever you wanted during the summer and not have to pay five bucks to go to a game. It was just a lot of fun. (My brother and I) would go to a lot of White Sox games at old Comiskey Park and we'd get in with my dad and sit in the upper deck. They closed off most of the outfield sections in the upper deck for the weeknight games and guys would hit home runs and we'd run after them. It became more than just a game to go to a game."
Was there any player early on who you felt like when he came to bat, you were more likely to get one?
"We had season tickets down the left field line in old Comiskey Park and we'd sit right on the edge and during the week, they'd close off the two sections beyond our section. It seemed Carlton Fisk would foul one off there at least once in nearly every game that he played in. We knew we were going to have a shot at a ball at some point in the game, either from Fisk or a couple of other guys the White Sox had. Most of the balls that I've gotten were during batting practice and it's a matter of knowing who hits where and moving to that area."
I saw that you got Sammy Sosa's No. 61 home run ball in 1998?
"I had lived in California up until 1993 and moved back to the midwest and hadn't been to a Cubs game in almost five years. I went to a party about eight blocks from the ballpark and I thought I'll just go by. Mo Mullins, who was the guy who got mauled and beat up for No. 62 said just come out and hang out by the van, and I ended up going to the game. Sosa hit a foul ball at one point and it looked like about a thousand people went off chasing it and I thought I've got no chance at this unless he hits one and it rolls right to my feet. In the fifth inning, he comes up and misses a building on the corner of Kenmore and Waveland by about three and a half feet, bounces, hits the ground, hits a guy's shin and rolls right to my feet.
You you sold that for $7,500. Do you regret that at all?
"No, not really. At the time, I had just gotten divorced. It was probably the best thing that could have happened. It kept the ex-wife happy, made life on me a lot easier and it really helped out. It was almost like I was supposed to go to that party so I could get the ball, sell the ball to make life easier on me. Some things you don't question, and once you do it, it's just the way things were meant to be."
I'm guessing you haven't gotten any balls more infamous than that, but are there any others that are as special to you?
"Jose Canseco hit one out of the park and I was looking under the cars for it and I didn't think to look in Somerset Park out behind left field. I didn't get that ball, but it helped me get the last roof home run at old Comiskey Park — it was hit by Ron Kittle. I was actually in my car going home to watch the Angels game to see if any friends of mine got a home run ball and as I walked past the gate on the third base side, I hear the announcer say Ron Kittle just hit a home run over the roof. Immediately, instinct took over and I drove around the park like a madman, pulled up to a spot and the ball was in my headlights. As far as other memorable home runs, I got Bob Boone's 100th career home run in '88, Dante Bichette's first major league homer in '89, Dave Winfield's 450th in 1993."
Do you still get excited about the thrill of the hunt?
"Yep. Even the ones that I'm working in, if a guy hits a foul ball and it's close, I want to go after it and I tell myself, 'Hey, dummy, you're working.' You can't go tearing off from the gate after a foul ball. I don't want to say it's something you can't control, but I'd see a foul ball go out at a high school game or something and part of me says I want to go after that ball."
Baseball's a little different in that it's one of the few sports where you can get a souvenir right off the playing field.
"Exactly. I've actually gone to hockey games and gotten hockey pucks and I've gotten footballs at arena football games. So, there are a few other things you can do to get stuff. I've gone to horse races when I lived in Chicago and gotten whips from some of the jockeys. It's just kind of neat when you can take something home with you -- whether it's a baseball or a hockey puck, whatever."
Do you have a goal of how many balls you'd like to get?
"People ask me that question, but I look at the guys in Chicago and Mo's got to be in his 50s and some of the older guys who have been doing this are anywhere from 45 to 55 and they've been doing longer than even I have. Goal-wise, I'd like to get to 3,000 baseballs at a major league game, preferably in the next two years, which will be tough going to minimal number of games. The overall goal is 5,000 baseballs from professional games overall. The biggest thing that I'd like to get out of the way this year that's been going on two seasons is that I've been stuck on 99 home runs.
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