DATE August 8, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Zach Hample, author of "Watching Baseball Smarter," on
rules and traditions of baseball, and on catching balls at
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
When Barry Bonds drove a 3-2 pitch into section 144 of AT&T Park last night to
become baseball's all-time home run leader, he set off a bloody scrum in the
stands for the ball, won by a 22-year-old man from Queens. But we know
someone who, if he'd been in San Francisco last night, would have had a better
than average change of coming up with the prize. Zack Hample is a life-long
baseball fan who's managed to make a career of his obsession. His first book
was about how to get a ball when you go to the ballpark. He's snagged over
3100 lifetime, most from batting practice. Stay tuned and you'll hear some of
His second book is a guide to the game's rules, tradition, and jargon,
designed to reveal its secrets to those who wonder why players spit and
scratch all the time or what a hit-and-run play is. It's called "Watching
Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts, and
Deeply Serious Geeks." I spoke to Zack Hample last week.
Well, Zack Hample, welcome to FRESH AIR.
I'm going to start by asking you a simple question about the game that
probably puzzles a lot of people. I watched Wimbledon a month or so ago and I
didn't see any of the tennis players spit, and I never see soccer players
spitting or lacrosse players spitting, but baseball players spit in the
infield, in the outfield, on the mound, in the batter's box and even between
their feet in the dugout. Why are ballplayers spitting all the time?
Mr. ZACK HAMPLE: Because they're disgusting, filthy creatures, and spitting
is part of baseball's culture. But more specifically, baseball involves a lot
of waiting. It's part of why some people are bored with baseball, but if you
know enough, you can realize that a lot of the waiting is some of the most
interesting action, in a way, because there's so much going on. But baseball
players have to fill up that time with something so they chew sunflower seeds,
tobacco, gum. And even if they're not chewing anything, they just still have
to spit because I guess that's cool.
DAVIES: Well, and I always figured that, you know, a couple of generations
back, most of the big league ball players chewed tobacco and you have to spit
all the time and it just became the macho image of a guy who was steeped in
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah. Tobacco is actually banned now in the minor leagues, so I
don't know if that's supposed to get players to not chew tobacco or if it's
just supposed to motivate them even more to get to the major leagues, because
then they get to chew that stuff. There are even some players who've chewed
it since they were so little that they've developed some kind of immunity to
the tobacco juice and they don't even need to spit it out.
DAVIES: Now, you write in the book about why they scratch their crotches so
much. Why is that?
Mr. HAMPLE: Baseball players wear big, bulky plastic protective cups that
fit in a special pouch in front of their underwear because the ball can take
unexpected bounces on a little unlucky piece of turf, or if a base runner
leaves a footprint in the infield dirt can make the ball bounce in strange
ways, and these players have certain things they need to protect, and the
thing with these protective cups is that they have Styrofoam edges that chafe
the inner thighs, and the entire cup itself inevitably will slip out of place,
and it's pretty uncomfortable. And the players have to make certain
DAVIES: Your book is called "Watching Baseball Smarter." Who is it aimed at?
Mr. HAMPLE: It's aimed at every level of fan. I should probably point out
the subtitle, which is "A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts
and Deeply Serious Geeks." I wrote the book kind of with my parents in mind,
because they know baseball a little bit. My mom used to out slug other moms
in family softball games, and my dad was a ball boy way back in the day for a
minor league team. But they're not experts, they're not geeks. They don't
memorize stats. I don't know if they could even name more than half the teams
in baseball, but they know stuff, and whenever we watch big games together
when I used to live with them, they'd ask me so many questions and I figured,
well, there must be a lot of other people out there who have these same
questions, and there's a lot of weird, interesting, lesser-known stuff that I
think even life-long season ticket holders would not know.
DAVIES: Now, convince somebody who is not a fan that this game isn't a deadly
boring waste of time. Some folks just say, `I just don't get it. I mean, you
throw, the pitcher throws it to the catcher, the catcher throws it back. They
stand around, it happens again, it happens again. How do you engage somebody
who just doesn't get it?
Mr. HAMPLE: That's not so hard. The first thing I would point out is that
baseball really is a three hour game that takes three hours to play. Other
sports, though, basketball, for example, is a 48 minute game which takes two
hours to play; and football is a 60-minute game which takes three hours to
play. But baseball, there's a reason why it takes so long, and there's a
reason why there's so much waiting and standing around. And the most basic
way to get into that is the whole dynamic between the catcher and the pitcher.
The pitcher has to know what pitch he's supposed to throw, and the catcher has
to know what pitch is coming because the ball comes in so fast, and there are
different pitch grips and different spins that make the ball move in all kinds
of different directions, the catcher has to know what to expect. But the
pitcher can't tell him, `OK, I'm going to throw this pitch now,' and the
pitcher can't give a sign or a signal to indicate that, because then the
batter would see it, and the batter would know what to expect, and the batter
would just crank the ball over the wall.
So the catcher has to tell the pitcher what to throw, and he does that with a
very complex set of signs, which he then has to bury in his crouch, deep
between his legs, so that the first and third base coaches can't even peek in
and see the signs. He has to look up at the catcher. The catcher also has to
look up at the hitter every time he gives a sign to make sure that the hitter
is not peeking back at him. And if there's a runner on second base, well,
that guy's looking directly in at the catcher, so that just makes the signs
even more complicated. You'll often see the catcher jog out to the mound and
discuss with the pitcher, and they're basically changing the signs to confuse
the runner on second base so that guy will not be able to relay those signs to
the hitter. So there's this whole cat and mouse game between every single
And sometimes the catcher doesn't even decide the pitch to be thrown. Often
the manager will be calling the pitches from the dugout so the manager will be
giving a whole set of weird signs. If you ever see the catcher kind of
looking over his shoulder to the side right before he turns towards the
pitcher, he's getting those signals from the manager. So the manager gives
the signs to the catcher, the catcher gives those signs to the pitcher in such
a way the other players on the other team can't steal those signs. And then
even the pitcher can shake his head and disagree with the catcher and say,
`No, I don't want to throw this pitch in this situation,' so that's why
baseball takes so long. Because every pitch you have this kind of
strategizing and scheming and deception, and it goes on from both sides
throughout the game.
DAVIES: Right. But that whole process of negotiating the kind of pitch and
the location of the pitch and making sure the batter isn't seeing it is pretty
much invisible to a fan in the stands. They're just waiting for these guys to
get it straight and for him to throw it.
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah, I actually think that baseball is more interesting on TV.
Now, of course, nothing can beat the in-person excitement of being at a ball
game, but the way baseball on TV is produced nowadays, you have so many
different cameras with different angles and you can see slow motion and
replays and you can just get right up close and see things that you would
never see from the stands. Even if you're sitting in the front row behind the
dugout, you're not going to pick up on some of the things you're going to see
DAVIES: Can you think of an example of a nuance of the game that you think
kind of opens the door to somebody who's just learning about it?
Mr. HAMPLE: There's so much specific stuff, little rules and weird quirks
that you can look for when you're watching baseball, I think a lot of things
that many people would never realize. Just even small things like you'll see
a baseball player holding his batting gloves in his hands. Once he reaches
first base, you'll see him take of his batting gloves and just hold them, and
you might not ever notice this. And if you do, you might not think that
there's any reason. But the reason he's doing that is so that if he does end
up having to slide into a base, he's forcing himself to make fists because he
has to hold his gloves. And he's protecting his fingers from getting stepped
on and possibly jammed or broken.
DAVIES: Really? I have noticed people holding their gloves, and I've always
thought, why don't they give it to the first base coach? They want their
fists balled so they don't injure their fingers.
Mr. HAMPLE: Absolutely. Another thing that's, you know, just another little
detail that you can look for, when the batter hits a pop-up, right near home
plate, watch and notice that the catcher will not fling his mask until the
last second. Now, the catcher doesn't want to be holding his mask when he
makes the catch, because he wants both hands free. And if he flings that mask
too soon, he might end up drifting as the ball drifts and he could end up
tripping over the mask. So he's going to camp out under the ball, make sure
that he knows where it's going to land, and at the last moment he'll fling
that mask, and sometimes you'll even see that mask fly towards home plate and
come close to hitting the batter or the umpire, and the catcher will then get
a dirty look but everyone really knows that's just part of the game.
DAVIES: Right. And you'll often see the umpire looking because they know
that mask is coming sooner or later.
Mr. HAMPLE: Exactly.
DAVIES: Let's talk about some of the etiquette of the game. One of the
things you see in baseball is that it's OK under some circumstances to argue
with an umpire. I mean, you don't see football players running up and
arguing. When is it OK to argue and when is it not OK to argue, and how far
can you take it?
Mr. HAMPLE: Technically you're not allowed to argue balls and strikes with
the home plate umpire. And it's supposed to be an automatic ejection. Of
course, you'll still see players complaining and managers flailing their arms
in the dugout. But, yeah, arguments, the whole manager-umpire dynamic, that's
part of the game, man. I mean, you can see arguments really get crazy. There
are certainly magic words, which I'm not allowed to say on the radio, but if
those words are uttered to an umpire, that's an automatic ejection. But
sometimes the manager will intentionally get kicked out of a game, or even if
he knows that the umpire made a good call, he might still have to run out and
pretend to be protecting one of his players, so he'll pick up the argument on
his player's behalf so the player doesn't get kicked out of the game. A lot
of it is just used to motivate the players and really get the team fired up.
You know, a good argument can even get the hometown crowd going, and, yeah,
umpires know that the manager's just doing his job. Of course, sometimes it
can get pretty personal and ugly. But for the most part, I think everyone
knows what's going on when there's a heated debate on the field.
DAVIES: So it's OK if there's a play, an out--like if there's an out at
second base that's called safe or vice versa, the player can get right in the
umpire's face and argue. The manager can charge out of the dugout and argue.
However, on a third--on a called third strike, if the manager comes out to
argue, he's immediately tossed, right? You can get away with a word or two
but you can't get in their face on a ball-strike call, right?
Mr. HAMPLE: Correct, correct, yeah.
DAVIES: There are also etiquettes and conventions about pitchers hitting
batters with the ball. When are the times when it's sort of considered
acceptable for a pitcher to deliberately plunk a batter with a baseball?
Mr. HAMPLE: In my opinion, it's never acceptable to hit anybody with the
ball. I think there are certain times when you need to throw inside, to move
the hitter off the plate. They'll call it "chin music," you know, if you
throw a ball near the hitter's face or, you know, you "give the hitter a bow
tie" if the pitch is up and in. But if it's a team, for example, is just
really hitting the ball hard and diving out over the plate and they're
reaching pitches on the outside corner and they're hitting home runs, some
pitchers will intentionally hit a batter just because they're mad or to prove
a point. You know, `Well, you can't knock me around.' But in situations like
that, I think it's appropriate to pitch inside but maybe not hit someone. Of
course, if one guy gets hit on one team, you'll often see a pitcher then, they
want to pick someone off on the other team, and it just sort of goes back and
forth and the retaliation can really get out of hand sometimes.
DAVIES: Well, and the terminology you'll see players use in that situation
is, `You've got to protect your teammates.' In other words, they hit one of
our guys and you expect your pitcher, even if he's going to get tossed out of
the game, to go out there and hit one of their guys.
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah, and it's tougher, in this new era, with the designated
hitter, the whole issue of protection, because, in the old days, when every
pitcher had to come up himself and take a turn in the batter's box, you know,
if you wanted to hit someone on the other team, it was almost viewed as, `OK,
well, that's fine, because now you're going to have to stand up there too and
watch what we're going to do to you.' So it's like you can give it, but you're
going to get it. But nowadays pitchers in the American League don't bat so if
they hit someone, they don't have to face the consequences; but unfortunately
one of their teammates often will.
DAVIES: Now, one of the things that will get you thrown out if you're a
batter is what's called "showing up the pitcher." Explain that.
Mr. HAMPLE: If you're a batter and you hit a home run 450 feet, 500 feet,
doesn't matter, you don't want to stand there in the batter's box and pose and
watch that thing. You don't want to finish your swing with your hands high
over your head and flip your bat off to the side. You don't want to take your
time running around the bases. You want to just put your head down, run
around the bases, get back in the dugout, high fives, whatever, curtain call,
if the hometown fans call for it. But you see a lot of players posing and
showboating because of ESPN and all these other sports networks that just show
the highlights. And it's not enough, I guess, to just hit a home run and be
great. You have to look great while you're doing it, and the pitcher can take
that as an insult, and the next time that batter comes up into the box, boy,
he better watch out.
DAVIES: And I think, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, that was much more likely
to draw retaliation, right? I mean, you just weren't supposed to do that.
Mr. HAMPLE: Not at all. Nowadays the umpires have been instructed by the
officials at major league baseball to prevent fights, so before you'll see
things escalate on the field, often the home plate umpire will issue a warning
to both teams, and that's pretty easy to spot. Basically, the ump will take a
few steps towards one dugout and just point very emphatically towards that
dugout and he'll usually say, `That's a warning.' You won't hear that on TV
but if you see the ump walk over and point and then he'll walk over to the
other dugout and do the same thing, and what he's basically saying is if
anybody throws at anybody for the rest of the game, that pitcher and the
manager will be ejected.
DAVIES: Baseball fan and writer Zack Hample. His new book is "Watching
Baseball Smarter." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: We're speaking with baseball fanatic Zack Hample. He's written about
how to snag balls at ballparks. His new book is called "Watching Baseball
You know, one of the interesting kind of partnerships in the game is the
catcher and the umpire. And again, you know, you don't see this unless you
really look carefully for it, but these guys are standing close to each other
all through the game and also they've got a guy throwing a ball 90 miles an
hour at them, and once in a while a foul pitch will catch, let's say, the
catcher's ungloved hand. What does the umpire then do?
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah, when the catcher gets nicked up by a foul ball or, you
know, a wild pitch that bounces and hits him, the umpire will sometimes walk
the new ball out to the pitcher just to give the catcher a moment to recover.
The ump might even bend over and pretend to brush some dirt off home plate,
some nonexistent dirt just to give the catcher a break. And conversely, if
the umpire gets hit, well, the catcher will sort of wander out to the mound
and sort of make it look like he's discussing strategy with the pitcher. But
it's just all for show, and it's professional courtesy. It's to give the
other guy time to recover.
DAVIES: Recover from that injury. Right.
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah. Absolutely. You'll often see the umpire throughout the
game, when he's in his crouch and the catcher's in his crouch, the umpire will
lean forward to brace himself and place his hand gently on the catcher's back.
It's just, you know, these guys have such an intense relationship with each
other, they're practically touching each other the whole game, and they're
giving each other time to recover from being hit by the ball.
And yeah, the catcher tries to frame pitches. If the pitch is thrown, you
know, two inches off the outside corner, the catcher will just move his glove
slightly to try to, you know, convince the umpire and trick him that it was in
the strike zone and the catcher's very careful not to argue, you know, when
he's at bat himself because he might make the umpire mad, and then the umpire
won't give him the benefit of the doubt when the catcher's then behind the
DAVIES: You know, Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Fame third baseman for the
Phillies, once described being at bat, and a pitch came in that was low that
an umpire called a strike, and what he said was, he kept the bat on his
shoulder, continued to look out at the pitcher, and said to the umpire, `It
looked a little low to me.' And he noted that the umpire appreciated him
saying that while he kept his stance and looked at the pitcher. Why?
Mr. HAMPLE: Mike Schmidt was not showing up the umpire. If he turns around,
it's obvious right away that he has a beef with the umpire, that he's not
happy. Attention is drawn to the umpire. Maybe he made a mistake. But,
yeah, just by continuing to look at the pitcher, you can't hear that if you're
in the stands or even on TV, you know? There aren't microphones right around
home plate, so yeah, and the worst thing you can do as a batter is, you know,
drop the bat down and slump your shoulders and complain. I mean, even worse
than that would be--and I've seen this happen a couple of times--instant
ejection. If you're the batter and you think the pitch is a few inches
outside, don't draw a line in the dirt indicating to the umpire where you
think that ball crossed the plate. Yeah. You just don't want to do stuff
like that because umps have a lot of pride themselves. Even though no one is
actually there to watch the umpire, yeah, you got to respect them.
DAVIES: My guest is Zack Hample. His book is "Watching Baseball Smarter."
A couple of things about rules of the game. One of the things that's
interesting, our producer Roberta Shorrock pointed out to me, that this is one
of the few sports that doesn't have a standard field. I mean, the soccer
field is always the same size, a football field is always the same size.
Baseball fields aren't. Why?
Mr. HAMPLE: Because baseball's beautiful. There are certain dimensions on a
baseball field that have to be uniform, like the distance from the pitching
rubber to home plate. That's 60 feet, six inches. Although back in 1893 and
earlier, that distance was only 50 feet, so these distances evolve. But the
distance from one base to the next is always 90 feet, and the batter's boxes
are always four feet by six feet. Some of these things have to stay the same
from one field to the next, but yeah, you'll see the outfield dimensions and
the distances from the foul line to, let's say, the first row of the stands,
those will vary wildly from one ballpark to the next.
And again, even though those can vary, there are some rules in place. Every
ballpark that was built after 1958 is supposed to be a least 325 feet down the
lines, like from home plate to the foul poles, and it's supposed to be at
least 400 feet to straight-away center field. Now again, there are some new
ballparks that don't quite conform to that, like for example, AT&T Park out in
San Francisco. It's about 309 feet, I think, down the right field line, and
the Giants got permission from major league baseball to have a shorter
distance because they had to cram that ballpark into a small piece of land
between a major boulevard and the water. McCovey Cove is what it's called
now, where Barry Bonds hits all those home runs. So to make up for the short
distance to the outfield wall, they built that wall really high, and actually
it's 24 feet high, and the reason why they picked that height is to honor
their great player, Willie Mays, who used to wear uniform 24. So there's
even, there's and then there's rules to get around the rules, but yeah, the
height of outfield walls and even the surface. I mean, you have ivy at
Wrigley Field and you have padding and you have brick and you have fences and
you've got that big green monster at Fenway. It's really one thing that makes
baseball so interesting.
DAVIES: Baseball fan and writer Jack Hample. His new book is called
"Watching Baseball Smarter." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.
We're speaking with baseball fan and writer Zack Hample. His new book,
"Watching Baseball Smarter," explains the game's rules and traditions and
reveals some little-known facts about life in the big leagues.
Baseball is played with new balls, but they're not exactly new. They're
treated with mud, right?
Mr. HAMPLE: That is correct. You'll never see a ball--if you ever catch a
ball at a game or if you see a close-up of one, it will not be brand new and
shiny white. And basically the reason for that is, well, it would cause a
glare for the hitters. The sun or the stadium lights could reflect off the
ball, and also the pitchers would not be able to get a good grip on the ball
because it's so slick right out of the box. So what happens is the umpires,
or more often nowadays one of their assistants, will rub mud on the balls.
They'll take the ball right out of the box, brand new, and rub mud on them to
reduce the slickness and the glare.
And it's not just any mud. It's a special mud called Lena Blackburne Rubbing
Mud, which is--I mean, there have been stories about this. This mud is
collected at low tide from a tributary of the Delaware River in southern New
Jersey. The exact location is a secret. The actual ingredients of the mud,
because they mix other stuff in with it, is a secret. But every professional
team uses this mud, and it's rubbed up on all the balls.
DAVIES: Comes in a can, right?
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah, it sure does. And those cans can last a long time because
you just take a little bit of mud--I mean, you're not just globbing the mud
all over the ball. It's just a slight layer, just a little bit. If you look
at the ball really closely you can kind of see the mud in the little teeny
pores of the ball's surface.
DAVIES: Yeah, twice in my baseball-watching career I've gotten balls. One
was a warm-up ball. But the ball that was actually a foul ball that I caught
off of the bat of Phillies pitcher Terry Mulholland back in the '90s. When I
got the ball, you could see it was brown with mud. It was different than the
white balls that people at bought in at the stands. You've made a bit of a
career out of chasing balls in ballparks. You wrote a book about this, right,
how to get a ball at a ballpark?
Mr. HAMPLE: Yeah. My first book is called "How to Snag Major League
Baseballs." I wanted to catch a ball from the moment I first was watching
baseball on TV. You know, you'd see foul balls going in the seats--home run
ball,s too--and fans would just go crazy to get them and act all obnoxious and
give high fives. And, you know, I wanted to be obnoxious too. I wanted that
to be me. And I went to games for six years before I got my first ball.
DAVIES: Well, it's interesting. I will confess that I looked at your blog
and discovered an amazing coincidence, which is that you recently attended a
game in Philadelphia, which I and a number of the producers at FRESH AIR also
attended, and in that blog, you said you went home with eight balls...
Mr. HAMPLE: It's true.
DAVIES: ...including a home run ball. I mean, I would almost think you're
telling us tall tales here. Give us the tricks for getting a ball.
Mr. HAMPLE: Well, I should point out that of those eight balls, seven I got
during batting practice and one was tossed to me at the dugout after the game.
So even the home run ball was a practice ball. I have caught home runs during
games. I caught Barry Bond's 724th career home run last year in San Diego.
But just a few basic tips for people who want to go home with a baseball.
You've got to get to the ballpark early. You want to be one of the first fans
to enter the stadium for batting practice. If you have just a ticket for the
game, that entitles you to show up early and watch the players practice.
Bring a glove, even if you think that, you know, it's not cool if you're a
grownup to bring a glove, or it's, you know, unmanly. Doesn't matter. Put
your pride on a shelf and bring a glove to the game. I bring a hat of both
teams that I'm going to see. I own all 30 major league team cap. Because if
I can kind of suck up and look like a, quote, unquote, "fan" of the visiting
team, they'll be more likely to toss balls my way. I can also ask for balls
in about two dozen different languages so I'm always asking foreign players in
their native languages.
DAVIES: Whoa, hang on. Ask--I'm Iguci. Ask for me a ball in my native
Mr. HAMPLE: Gucci is Japanese so I would say...(Japanese spoken).
DAVIES: Does this work for you?
Mr. HAMPLE: Absolutely. I've gotten a few dozen balls by asking in
Japanese. I got one at the last Mets game I went to. Masumi Kuwata tossed me
a ball, on the Pirates. It helped that I was wearing a glove, that I was the
only fan in the section that knew his name, that I could speak his language,
and I asked him in a polite way. I think the translation is just pretty much,
`please thrown me the ball.' I've asked...
DAVIES: What--go ahead.
Mr. HAMPLE: I've asked in Spanish. I've even used sign language a few
times. There's a player named Curtis Pride who's 95 percent hearing impaired,
and I used French once for a coach on the Expos. And I can even ask for balls
in, you know, other weird languages, Bulgarian and Swahili and, you know, just
Russian and German. Not that these are all weird languages. But in the
baseball world, they'd be considered weird languages.
DAVIES: So you haven't found that Bulgarian infielder yet?
Mr. HAMPLE: Not yet. But boy, when that guy comes up to the show, I'm going
to be ready to say...(foreign language spoken).
DAVIES: Now, how many balls do you have from major league games?
Mr. HAMPLE: The current tally is 3,123.
DAVIES: Have you made a profession out of being a fan?
Mr. HAMPLE: Well, in a way I have because I've written two books about
baseball. I also write for minorleaguebaseball.com, and I've started a new
business where I am now taking people to games and teaching them how to watch
baseball, how to get the most out of it and have a few laughs in the process,
and also teaching them how to catch balls if they're interested. And I'll
even catch balls for them, so I've had a few clients there and, yeah, just
trying to make my living in baseball. It's going pretty well so far, so I'd
have to consider myself pretty lucky.
DAVIES: Tell me about this business where you take people to games. I mean,
if I sign up, what's the experience like? What do we do?
Mr. HAMPLE: We get there as early as you want. We could go for autographs
hours before the stadium opens, you know. I know where the players' parking
lot is and where the press gate is and exactly where to go, and you know,
just--to get even more specific about autographs, a lot of people like to get
baseballs signed. That's like the object of choice usually, but a lot of
people make the mistake of getting their baseball signed with a magic marker.
Sharpie is the type of marker that autograph collectors love to use, and it's
great on baseball cards and photographs. But it's terrible on balls because
the ink will bleed over time, and the lines lose their crispness. So, you
know, just little things like that I would know and teach someone if they were
interested in autographs. You know, if they even want the full Zack Hample
experience we can buy cheap seats and try to sneak past security and do it
that way or, you know, we can try to get good seats and just sit in one spot.
So, yeah, it's a full days' worth of fun.
DAVIES: And what's it going to cost me?
Mr. HAMPLE: Well, it costs $500. I do have a money back guarantee, though.
If someone attends batting practice with me and we do not get at least one
ball--if they don't catch a ball and I somehow fail to even get one myself to
give to them, I refund all their money and the day is on me.
DAVIES: What is the best pen to use for a baseball autograph?
Mr. HAMPLE: Use a blue ballpoint pen. The reason why you want to use blue
is because all printed autographs are black, you know.
Mr. HAMPLE: Any fake autograph that's just like machine made will be black
so if you get something signed in blue, it sort of automatically indicates
that it's authentic. I mean, you could fake a blue autograph too. Also,
black and other colors--red especially--will fade over time, so blue is less
likely to fade and it's more likely to show someone that it's authentic.
DAVIES: What are your off seasons like?
Mr. HAMPLE: My off seasons are so relaxing. Oh, I love the off season. It
used to be when I was about 14 or 15 that I would dread the last day of the
baseball season, because baseball really was the only thing that I lived for.
But now there's just so much other stuff that I love and do, and it's almost
like a six-month vacation for me once the baseball seasons ends.
DAVIES: And what are the other things you love to do?
Mr. HAMPLE: Well, I work at my family's bookstore, The Argosy Bookstore. I
do some Web site stuff for them. I run a writing group. I'm a competitive
Scrabble player. I like to spend some time going to the New York City club
and the occasional tournament. I also have a few video game world records and
I compete in some classic video game competitions. Everything I do is dorky
to some extent or another. And, of course, I just have more time to spend
with my family and friends and girlfriend and I can focus on my writing more.
You know, it's tough to set aside solid weeks at a time during the baseball
season, but I can really kind of seclude myself during the winter and work on
DAVIES: Do you have a favorite baseball movie?
Mr. HAMPLE: Oh, yeah. I think I have to go with "Field of Dreams." There's
something magical about that movie that really just gave me chills, and it was
inspiring. Just a beautiful story.
DAVIES: Have you seen "Fever Pitch"? That's the one...
Mr. HAMPLE: I did.
DAVIES: ...with the obsessive Red Sox fan who you, frankly, you kind of
remind me of.
Mr. HAMPLE: Yes, I saw "Fever Pitch." It was a cute movie. And I don't
think I'm quite that obsessed. I mean, when people come over to my apartment
for the first time, they're always stunned and their first reaction is, `Where
are all the baseballs? Where's the baseball stuff?' There's not really
anything baseball in my apartment. I'm lucky enough to have parents that let
me keep a lot of my stuff at their place, so that's where pretty much all of
the balls are and just other memorabilia that I've collected over the years,
cards and autographs and stuff. So I don't know. I try to maintain a pretty
normal, quote unquote, "normal" just everyday kind of feel to my apartment. I
mean, there's some other stuff in my apartment that's kind of strange, like a
203-pound rubber band ball and some other things, but, you know, there's no
baseball stuff showing.
DAVIES: You're an obsessive guy, Zack. I have to tell you this.
Mr. HAMPLE: I take that as a compliment. Thank you. But now, come one, in
all fairness, the rubber band ball--I started working on that thing when I was
four, OK? So we're talking about decades here and it's not like I work on it
everyday. Sometime I'll add a pound a day for a week and then I won't touch
it for a year. So, you know, you work on something for a few decades, it's
going to be big and crazy if you stick with it, so it's not really an
obsession, it's just kind of another one of those weird Zack things that
people like to laugh at me about.
DAVIES: Fair enough. Is there a favorite player in the game that you love to
Mr. HAMPLE: There are a few. I think right now, I love Ichiro Suzuki
because he kind of does things his own way. He just has such a weird batting
stance, how he kind of runs up towards the ball and hits it. And in general I
love people who find their own special ways to succeed and to do things, and,
you know, he came over from Japan, didn't know any of the pitchers, didn't
know any of the tendencies of the players and just succeeded right from the
start and he's dominated. And, you know, he's got that whole mysterious
superstar thing going, which is also very appealing. He's just kind of like
a--I've read some of his quotes and maybe something has been lost in
translation, but he says some kind of weird things, and I just love the way he
carries himself and goes about playing.
DAVIES: What kind of weird things?
Mr. HAMPLE: I can't remember the exact quotes, but like some reporter had
asked him a little while back like what his dog's name was, and Ichiro said
something like, `I will not tell you because I have not received permission
from my dog to tell you the dog's name.'
DAVIES: Well, Zack Hample, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HAMPLE: It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Zack Hample. His new book is "Watching Baseball Smarter."
Coming up, a satiric novel set in the early days of the American occupation of
Iraq. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Author Malcolm MacPherson discusses book "Hocus Potus"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The events and decisions made in the early months of the American occupation
of Iraq are getting far more scrutiny now than they did at the time. The lack
of planning for the occupation, the failure to control looting, and decisions
to disband the Iraqi army and purge Baath Party members from the government
are now seen by many as major contributors to the four years of chaos and
violence that have followed.
Our guest, Malcolm MacPherson, covered the early occupation for Time magazine.
And when he returned to the United States, he wrote a satiric novel based on
his experiences. He shelved the book for three years, until it seemed to him
the country was ready to re-examine the period. MacPherson is a former Marine
who was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek for 12 years and has written 12
other books of fiction and nonfiction. His new novel set in Iraq is called
Well, Malcolm MacPherson, welcome to FRESH AIR. This novel that you've
written, "Hocus Potus," is set in Iraq and it begins with the absurd
circumstance of some Americans and Iraqis that are traveling on a C-130, these
huge military transport planes. And they're flying over Iraq and discover
that there's this massive cargo on palettes underneath tarps, and we discover
that the cargo isn't food, it's not weapons, it's stacks and stacks of
American currency, 17 tons of it. Where did this image come from?
Mr. MALCOLM MacPHERSON: It came from, actually, my own experience, which was
when I flew up from Kuwait. I was sitting across from--flying from Kuwait to
Baghdad--and I was sitting across from this soldier who was all festooned in
mylar and helmet and he had a machine gun and whatnot, and I asked him at one
point, I said, `What are you doing here?' And he said, `I'm guarding cargo.'
And, of course, my ears went right up. And I said, `Well, what's the cargo?'
And he said, `It's 17 tons of $20 bills.' And it was that instant that I knew
I had a book because, frankly, I mean, for the rest of the flight I was
absolutely consumed with the notion of, `How can I steal this money?' I mean,
what else would you think about if you were in a C-130 with $75 million?
Underneath you, on the land, there was absolutely no law that pertained to any
civilian. Or probably there was a military law but I wasn't in the military.
It really captivated me, and I knew at that instant that there was a book in
DAVIES: And to maybe belabor the obvious, why was the United States flying in
17 tons of $20 bills?
Mr. MacPHERSON: I suppose it was to pay off somebody or some group of
people. I can't imagine that it was for any other reason. They did
need--because of the dinars--the Saddam dinars were pretty worthless at that
point. The only currency that held any sway would have been dollars, and I
would guess that. But nobody was informing me, believe me.
DAVIES: The center of the American occupation was the Green Zone, this kind
of enclave that was isolated by blast-proof walls in which high American
officials and operatives and private contractors worked. Tell us what were,
say, some of the physical characteristics of the Green Zone that really caught
Mr. MacPHERSON: Well, there were no blast zones at that point. They put
those up later or they were installing them as I left, but the Green Zone was
a, I mean, you had to have some kind of--I used my Virginia driver's license
to get in and out of the Green Zone. It was that easy.
DAVIES: So it wasn't so secure at the time.
Mr. MacPHERSON: Well, there was no need to have it that secure because the
day I got there actually was the first--we were driving in from the airport
and a jeep went up into the air on the other side of the road, on that road
between the airport and the downtown of the Green Zone, and it was blown up
and it was the first one to get blown up. It was the first roadside bomb.
And it was very, very easy going, in a way. I think I was shot at once, that
I knew, and the other part of it was that there was a sense of adventure. I
mean, we would go into town every night. We would leave, go across the river,
we'd leave the Green Zone. We'd go out to a restaurant--of the few that were
open there, there were a couple of good ones. And we'd sit outside and we'd
get a bottle of Suntory whiskey and sit around and talk. And it was mostly
the guy--I was living at the Imperial, I mean, at the Republican Palace at
that point. I was living upstairs in one of Saddam's bedrooms with about, I
don't know, about 10 other guys and eight trillion mosquitos, and it was very
hot. And then I finally got a slot in one of the containers in back by the
swimming pool, which was air conditioned and it was quite nice. But...
DAVIES: Now when you say container, you're talking about a shipping container
that's been converted to a living space, right, which was...
Mr. MacPHERSON: Yeah, exactly.
DAVIES: Which was standard quarters in that area, right?
Mr. MacPHERSON: At that point it was and they had an air conditioner and a
little shower and it was actually quite nice. It was very cozy.
DAVIES: Certainly there were images and thoughts that you brought back with
you that made their way into the novel, but tell us some about your reporting
in Iraq. What were some of the things you focused on and wrote about?
Mr. MacPHERSON: My assignment for Time was to get my nose under the tent at
the Republican Palace, which I did.
DAVIES: Now the Republican Palace, that was being used then for what?
Mr. MacPHERSON: It was being used as a headquarters of the reconstruction
effort. It was where Jay Garner had set up his group and where...
DAVIES: For the audience, Garner is the general who first went over before
Bremer to try and head the reconstruction, right?
Mr. MacPHERSON: That's correct. And it was now being used by Bremer and his
people, and it was going like topsy. There were trailers being built on the
surrounding grounds, and trying to house as many people as they could so that
the entire Green Zone was then forming up as a place. Because while I was
there, they bombed--or they had rocketed the hotel that most of the people
were staying in from the reconstruction effort, and they knew that they
couldn't stay in a high-rise, so they decided to do what they could do by
getting as many buildings around the Republican Palace as that they could.
DAVIES: So you had this sprawling kind of American and foreign community of
government people and contractors and military people, and what do you spend
your day doing? Do people talk to you?
Mr. MacPHERSON: Oh sure. I mean, I was talking to everybody from Bernie
Kerik, who was the former police chief of New York City, and he was sent over
to start their police department, to the head of USAID. And became very
friendly with General Garner, who was a great guy, and I went all over the
country with him, from up in Kurdistan, the town of Irbil, down to Basra and
we went to Hilla. At that point--in fact, I even--down in Hilla we talking to
a cleric, a Sunni--I mean a Shiite cleric, and he said that he knew where to
find weapons of mass destruction. And I, the next day, went off into the
wilderness trying to find these weapons of mass destruction, of course didn't.
I mean, it was...
DAVIES: Did he tell just you or did he tell the American government
Mr. MacPHERSON: He told General Garner and he told a State Department guy
who was there translating and one of the generals who was in charge of that
area. And I asked them what they were going to do about it and they didn't
indicate too much. So I found that, I mean, in terms of weapons of mass
destruction in that case, that there weren't any, and I certainly hadn't found
any but that was no big deal. And I went back to the palace that night and I
ran into, again, the defense intelligence guy, and he looked at me and he
said, `Well,' he said, `I could have told you.' He said, `They don't exist.'
He said, `Just get over it.' And I still thought they were there.
DAVIES: So in the three weeks that you were there the officials inside the
tent, so to speak, those in the Republican Palace, had at that point already
concluded there would be no discoveries of weapons of mass destruction?
Mr. MacPHERSON: Yeah.
DAVIES: And yet Bremer and others remained obsessed with finding them, right?
Mr. MacPHERSON: Well, I think they couldn't admit that there were none at
that point and I think that hope did spring eternal; and I thought that, you
know, what they were hearing from the intelligence people was what I had heard
was, `Just get over it, you're not going to find any.'
DAVIES: We're speaking with Malcolm MacPherson. His new novel is "Hocus
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with journalist and writer
Malcolm MacPherson. He has a new novel based on his experiences in 2003 in
Iraq. It's called "Hocus Potus."
You know, you said that your assignment was to get your nose under the tent,
that is to say in the Republican Palace where the US occupation officials were
established. What struck you in those three weeks that you were on the
inside? What struck you as odd?
Mr. MacPHERSON: I think more than anything it was the lack of consensus of
the idea that we were doing something there that had been thought out prior to
the arrival. It was all very ad hoc, on the back of envelopes and scratched
up on chalkboards and whatnot, and there were a lot of meetings with people
trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. And these were the big
picture guys, too. I mean, you know, it wasn't just sort of the tactical
stuff, the little details. And it was just very confused. It was a lot of
what I thought was a great deal of trial and error. `Let's see if we can get
this thing to work or not.' You know?
DAVIES: What about the Iraqi characters in this book? You know, you write a
lot about Americans and their, you know, some are honest but misguided. Some
of them are ambitious. Some of them are clueless. What did you want to tell
us about the Iraqis from the characters in this book?
Mr. MacPHERSON: I think I wanted to tell people that what I saw among Iraqis
was how they really were very pleased, excited actually, about having the
Americans come in and get rid of Saddam, and how quickly that changed. One
night I heard that the great football legend in Iraq, a guy named Amal Baba,
had been thrown in jail. And we went over there to the stadium where these
guys were being held by the American Army. And they didn't have a clue where
Amal Baba was and we looked around, and we finally found him. And he was with
an older man who had just had a heart attack actually and was in very bad
shape. We managed to get Amal Baba out and he went to Amman, to Jordan. He
left the country. But I found that these guys were just, you know, very
excited about, and a lot of the people were very excited about what they were
seeing happen to their country, and it just really turned bad quickly.
DAVIES: You said you and a bunch of journalists got this football star, Amal
Baba, out of jail?
Mr. MacPHERSON: No, it was the defense intelligence guy and myself who went
over there. He had all kinds of clearances and badges and whatnot, so the
Army guy over there said, `Sure, take him with you if you want.' You know?
DAVIES: Well, this is an interesting moment. Why was this soccer star
arrested by--I assume US military?
Mr. MacPHERSON: Yeah, he didn't know. They came in in the middle of the
night and they, you know, broke down his door. They accused him of some sort
of complicity in something. He was with his wife. The other man was with his
wife. They were terrified. And they just had the restraints put on them, and
they were put in the humvee and they were taken off to the soccer stadium,
which was kind of ironic. But he never knew. He had no idea why he'd been
picked up. They never charged him with anything, of course, and there he was.
So he got out and we got him out. And, you know, he left the country.
DAVIES: Well let me ask you this. How did you and this defense intelligence
agency official know that he didn't belong there? How do you know that he
wasn't complicit in, you know, terrorism or insurgency?
Mr. MacPHERSON: Well, one thing that we supposed was--and it was a
supposition. The question is a good one. We knew that Amal had been on the
national team and a couple of years before he had been playing down in Kuwait,
I believe, or maybe it was Saudi Arabia, and he had muffed a goal that was
pretty easy. And when he came back, Uday, who was head of the soccer program
for Iraq--Uday, being the son of Saddam--made Amal do laps in the--swim laps
in the sewage treatment tank in Baghdad. And we knew that--everybody knew
that Amal Baba was not a supporter of Saddam Hussein. He hated him and he,
you know, just had to keep his head down in order to stay alive.
DAVIES: Well, there is an Amal Baba who was a soccer star in your book, and I
think you tell the story of him having been forced to swim in a sewer. That's
Mr. MacPHERSON: Yeah, it is.
DAVIES: Well, Malcolm MacPherson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MacPHERSON: It's been my pleasure, Dave. Than you.
DAVIES: Writer Malcolm MacPherson. His satiric novel set in Iraq is called
If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, you can download
podcasts of our show by going to our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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