Ball “hawks”—the obsessed, not-afraid-to-run-you-or-your-mother-over fans that shag and collect baseballs from Major League ballparks—are a special breed. But Pittsburgh’s Pete Schell is a unique gamer within that subculture. Typically, the competitive ball shagging is done inside the park during pre-game batting practice. But Pete Schell has found his own version of the hawks’ life outside PNC Park on the banks of the Allegheny River.
“The riverwalk, I believe, was always here. But now that the stadium is here, people are going back and forth all the time—jogging, biking, walking. This is where I come down and shag home run balls. I grew up in Chicago and so balls coming out of Wrigley Field onto Waveland Avenue—that’s just in your blood. So when I saw the design of the new park, I said, Okay, I’ll be there. To me, it seemed natural. To most of the people that know me, it’s pretty goofy.”
“Typically, four or five a day will come out during batting practice. During a game, you’re lucky if one comes out. So it’s not worth coming out here during a game. When Barry Bonds played, I would set up a chair, and then you’d hear, Next batter, Barry Bonds. So you stand up and hope that something comes out. And that never worked out either because he walked all the time! So you look at the scouting report, see a team that’s coming to town that has a bunch of left-handers and—boom—you’d better be down here in right-center field.”
“Right behind us—20 feet or so—is the Allegheny River. So if you back up too much, you’re gonna fall into the river. So I’ll stand down here and people like to say, Now, don’t go back! I mean, every baseball player knows that, right? First step has to be back. Or is it in?”
LISTEN: “400 baseballs and counting”
“I’ve never chased a ball into the river. I had a friend do that once and I had to get help to get him out.”
“My favorite story of all time: A good friend of mine, Pastor Guy Wasco, he was a youth pastor here at our church on the Northside. I stop in the office and Guy was like, “Where are you going?”And I said, “I’m going down to the river.” He was like, “For what?” And I’m like, “For batting practice.” And he’s a Cub fans, he understands. So he grabs a glove and comes down with me. Well, he’s talking to everybody. He’s not focused on the ball because I guess pastors focus more on people than they do on baseballs. But I’m a hawk; I’m looking for balls. And I see the one coming out. He doesn’t see it. So I’m taking the first step. I’m racing after it. The ball bounces, and as I’m reaching for the ball and it’s in my glove, I get smacked. The dude tackles me, knocks me down! I’m like rolling around on the ground like, What just happened? And he’s laughing and giggling and cackling, holding the ball. And he’s like, “You lookin’ for this?” And I still can’t believe it—that the youth pastor took me down for a baseball.”
“One of the craziest stories from inside: It was the first year of PNC Park. It was a Sunday afternoon. We came down to the Pirates game. My kids are with me. They were interested in batting practice for the first batter and then they sit down because, of course, they’re tired. A ball comes out and I lean over the fence and catch it, and a man standing beside me goes to take it out my glove. And I fight with him for a split second and then realize: I can’t fight for a ball in front of my kids. I said, “Nice job, buddy, you can have it.” He said, “No, you had it first, take it.” I said to the guy, “Listen, sir, if you don’t want the ball, just give it to the kids.” He doesn’t know they’re my kids! So he says, “Here, you guys, you can have it.” Both of my kids: “No sir, that’s okay.” And I turn to the kids: “What are you thinking? What are you doing?” And they say, “Dad we want to get ‘em the real way.” And I’m like, “Oh, I catch ‘em, right? You’re not doing anything but sitting.”
“There are regulars. And, of course, I make fun of them. They probably go home and make fun of me.”
“How many baseballs have I gotten? I really don’t have a clue. Maybe like 300 or 400 baseballs, something like that. I give mine away. Just a few weeks ago, up in Brighton Heights, there was a team from the Urban Impact Foundation. It’s a wonderful inner city organization here in Pittsburgh that helps kids. So I saw they were on the fields, and I ran home, loaded up a bag full of Major League baseballs, brought it out and gave it to one of the coaches. I said, “Look, I gotta go. Make sure every boy gets one of these. And there’s extra—give ‘em to the coaches too.” That’s what I do with the balls. Just to see the thrill on their face, it’s worth it.”
“I don’t have a trophy room at home for baseballs. That’s ridiculous. You’d have to be crazy to collect baseballs. I collect golf balls. I probably have about 1,500 logo golf balls at home. My wife thinks I have 50.”
“Major League baseballs last forever. Those balls we played with when we were kids, you buy ‘em at Kmart, you take three hits on ‘em and—boom— they’re out of shape and the cover is coming off. Not these balls. They last forever.”
“The dream is to catch one on the fly. And obviously, I age each year. I’m almost 54 and I don’t know how much longer I can chase balls down out here. I would love to catch one on the fly just to see if I still have the reactions. Because you only have about a second and a half to react. You know you’re ‘on’ when a bird flies and you have two steps on it.”
“Growing up in Chicago, you’re a huge Cubs fan. I mean, I knew the whole lineup. That was hard to leave behind. But when we moved to Pittsburgh, we moved in like 1971 or 1972. This was the city of champions. The Pirates had won the World Series in 1971; they would win another one in ‘79. So it was like, “Cubs, who?” I mean I’m sorry to all my family still in Chicago who’s gonna hate me for that. But it was easy to be a Pirates fan at that time. If the Pirates aren’t playing the Cubs, and we aren’t competing against them for a playoff spot, I love to see the Cubs win. But I think I’m a baseball fan even more than I am a Pirates fan.”
###This story is part of our series of audio postcards exploring life on the Three Rivers. To check out the other stories in the "Our Three Rivers" series, click here.