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Plopped down in the heart of a roiling, beer-soaked, half gay, half frat-rat urban neighborhood, precious, rickety Wrigley Field, where the Mets play this weekend, is one of baseball's last great houses. It's also the site of one of baseball's terrifically quirky traditions hanging out on Waveland Avenue behind the left field brick wall trying to shag home run balls that get pelted out of the park.
On a recent foggy afternoon with the Royals in town, about a dozen folks have congregated on Waveland. Some of them are neophytes who've heard about the free souvenir action and want to see if they can snag a piece of horsehide. But about half of them are regulars, guys known as "ball hawks," who are there every game.
There's an air of shooting-the-shit camaraderie on Waveland, as the ball hawks chat and mingle. At the end of last year, however, these were anything but the friendly confines. Late in the season, Sammy Sosa hit a blast out onto Waveland and an elderly woman crossing the street got nailed so hard by a guy going for the prize that they had to call the paramedics. Those balls were worth serious money, and the ball hawks say the lure of free cash brought out a really bad element.
"There were some west side gangbangers who came over here and were trying to pull some shit," says Andy Mielke, a 33-year-old ball hawk who's been at it for more than 20 years. "Somebody told me, 'You catch a Sosa homer and we're kickin' your ass for it.' But everything's back to normal now. To be honest, I hope Sosa goes into a big slump because I don't want the same thing to happen again this year."
Mielke says he has nabbed close to 1200 balls on Waveland. He says anywhere from 10 to 40 get shot out of Wrigley during batting practice, and you can usually expect at least one during live action more if the wind is blowing out. When asked for his trade secrets, he advises, "You do this long enough you can follow everything from the crowd's reaction. You gotta pick your spot and stay there. And if you can, catch it on the fly, because by the time it bounces there'll be 10 guys on it."
The wind is blowing in today, and the hawks are all pretty laid-back, knowing that the game won't be a home run derby. However, every time Sosa takes the plate, which can be heard over the stadium's PA, Waveland goes quiet as the hawks spread out on the street. Each one constantly glances from side to side to see if anyone is encroaching on his territory. But through the fifth inning, Sosa has yet to jack one, and with the wind picking up, things are looking grim.
During the downtime, the two youngest ball hawks, Edvin Medrano, 12, and Andrew Rosario, 11, who live in the neighborhood, toss a ball against the left field brick wall. Rosario is the proud snagger of a Frank Thomas bomb, and Medrano has already nabbed four balls during his short tenure on Waveland. The ball that the two are basically destroying by throwing against the brick wall was a Tyler Houston home run caught by Medrano that is adorned with more than half a dozen Cub signatures. When asked why they're not saving this souvenir that many collectors would covet, Edvin's answer is refreshingly blunt: "Hey man, it's just a ball."
Then, in a flash, in the top of the sixth something totally unexpected happens. Less-than-Ruthian KC catcher Tim Spehr is up, and when the crowd roars and jumps to its feet, the hawks know it's on and they spring into action. Johnny Rosenstein, a hawk with more than four years of experience, calculates where he thinks the ball will clear the fence by judging the way the bleacher fans are looking. He sprints. And so does one of the neophytes. They arrive at exactly the same moment at the spot where the little white pill barely clears the wall, dies in the stiff wind, and drops straight down. Both of their gloves go up, but the older, taller, more experienced Rosenstein snatches it first.
Because this is Wrigley, and because the homer was hit by a Royal, the bleacher bums turn to Rosenstein and begin taunting him to throw it back. But Johnny don't play that. Rosenstein is a Reds fan, and he's keeping his prize. When the bleacher boys realize he's not giving it up, they begin to pepper him with insults "You suck!" and "You better not be there when the game is over because I'm coming down there."
Rosenstein, who's beefy and looks like he can take care of himself, just smiles and waves. "Screw them," he says defiantly. "They come out here to watch us."
The rest of the game goes quietly. Even though Henry Rodriguez homers in the seventh, the ball doesn't make it onto Waveland. But at least it isn't a total loss for the ball hawks. And besides, they'll be back tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. And the next.