CHICAGO -- When the Cubs finally welcome 20th century technology and erect a jumbo video board behind the left-field bleachers, the small band of North Side characters known as the ballhawks say they will quickly disperse.

It may happen as soon as 2014, or it may take a couple of years if the process of choosing a company, constructing the board and hiring a crew to run it proves too difficult for the Cubs, who want to end their squabble with rooftop owners before proceeding with their $300 million ballpark renovation plan.

But one thing is certain: Video killed the radio star, and its next victim will be the ballhawks.

"It's the end of an era, for Christ's sake," said 66-year-old Rich Buhrke, the elder statesman. "It's something I've been doing for 54 years, since I was a little kid. I'm going to miss it a lot. I'm going to miss the people more than anything else."

The Wrigley Field ballhawks are part of the ballpark's history, though only a few old-timers still come out.

They mostly hang around the corner of Waveland and Kenmore Avenues, outside the left-field wall, waiting for right-handed hitters to clear the fence. Sometimes they shuffle over to Sheffield Avenue when a left-handed hitter with pop is up, but the majority of the action is in left, where the new video board eventually will exist.


Advertisement

"As soon as I heard the Jumbotron was getting approval, to me that was like the death knell of the Waveland ballhawks," recovering ballhawk Mark Didtler said. "That will pretty much end the long history out there, at least in my mind."

The ballhawks have had more than their fair share of publicity over the years, mostly because of the curiosity factor involved in their unique hobby. Why would anyone with a life -- or half a brain -- willingly spend hours standing on a Chicago street for the remote chance a baseball will sail over the wall and into an area you can snatch it?

They say it's for the camaraderie, the hunt and the thrill of victory when you outmaneuver the others and wind up with the ball in hand. Of course, there also is the chance they're just nuts, a theory none of those polled denied.

No one knows precisely how many balls will end up on Waveland Avenue with the new video board, which will be 4,500 square feet instead of 6,000, after a slight compromise by the Cubs.

Renderings of the location of the video board suggest its installation won't completely eliminate balls landing on Waveland. But the thrill of the chase would be over since only balls pulled straight down the line or the rare monster shots to left-center would escape the Friendly Confines.

"They're going to move the whole ballpark out to the middle of Waveland Avenue and then throw that (video board) up there," Buhrke said. "It'll take away the whole left-center field there. About the only place (a ball) is going to be getting out is down the line."

Of course, balls could always hit the video board on the fly and drop down, creating a different kind of scramble.

"It's possible," Buhrke said. "They're going to have to put some netting up there to protect that thing because they will hit it. They're going to start busting lights and screens and everything else."

But the ballhawks say they already have seen many fewer balls fly out of Wrigley over the last decade.

"There's two reasons there are less balls right now," said Moe Mullins, a ballhawk since 1958 who claims to have caught nearly 5,800 balls. "In the old days, you'd get about 1,000 balls out every year. Since the Wrigley (bleacher) expansion in 2006, there are about 350 a year now. And I hate to admit it, but also the lack of steroids.

"Those guys are gone. The steroid era was very good for the ballhawks. I admit (steroids have) to be out of baseball. These boys today can still hit but not like the way they did (before testing)."

Irrespective of performance enhancing drugs, the Cubs don't have any Sammy Sosas or Glenallen Hills on the roster. Sosa was a ballhawk's dream, especially before he was caught using a corked bat in 2003, and Hill actually deposited a ball on top of a rooftop building. The all-time favorite was Dave Kingman, who the ballhawks say hit 10 batting practice balls onto Waveland on a windy day in 1980, when 33 balls left Wrigley during batting practice.

The Cubs' best right-handed-hitting street-shot threats now are pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood.

"They've been our two best Waveland shots," Mullins said. "Even (Alfonso) Soriano, when he was still here, wasn't hitting the long ball out for us."

As they get older, Buhrke and Mullins don't come out as much as they did back in the day, and the decrease in souvenir projectiles is only one reason. Buhrke cited back problems and Mullins conceded: "I can't outrun those pocket rockets" -- the younger, quicker ballhawks who come out on a lark to see what it's like.

Didtler refers to himself a "recovering ballhawk." He used to park his old, gray Buick on Kenmore in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s to store baseballs he caught. Now he's an Associated Press sportswriter living in Tampa, Fla., forced to watch quality baseball (the Rays) on a regular basis in charm-free Tropicana Field, where crowds are scarce.

Though he said he understands the Cubs' right to maximize revenue, Didtler believes the end of the ballhawks means the Wrigley Field of his youth is gone.

"The idea they're going to take away home runs landing on Waveland Avenue, in the grand scheme of the world, is a minor thing," he said. "It's just another longtime tradition that made the ballpark unique now disappearing. To me it's a sad thing because baseball is a tradition-laden game, and it's sad that something common fans get a kick out of will be something (of) the past.

"Wrigley Field is no longer a ballpark. It's just another stadium."

At least the ballhawks can take comfort knowing their 15 minutes of fame lasted about four decades. A documentary called "Ballhawks," narrated by Bill Murray, had a screening a few years ago at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The end of the ballhawks also will mean the end of ballhawks.net, a blog written by Dave Davison that keeps tracks of the number of balls hit onto Waveland and Sheffield. It also includes tidbits like this, about an Anthony Rizzo home run on Aug. 1: "Rizzo deposited the only ball onto Sheffield, via the bounce out, going straight up the steps of a rooftop building, through the open doorway and into the hands of the doorman."

Davison, a 45-year-old ballhawk who said he began his hobby at 8, doesn't believe the Cubs' claim they need the revenue generated by the video board to win a championship.

"The idea the Cubs need a Jumbotron to be competitive is pure nonsense," Davison said. "They won 97 games (in 2008) without one. It's just to put extra money in their pockets. Forbes reported they are the most profitable team in baseball, and they're going to make even more money next year with the national TV contract and when the WGN (TV) contract expires (after 2014). No one asked for one, but they claim everyone wants it."

Like any species on the verge of extinction, the ballhawks will try to find a way to adapt to their new environment. They can continue to buy tickets and stand in the back of the bleachers with their gloves on, as they often do.

But it's not the same as playing a G-Hill bounce off a building.

Buhrke said the ballhawks aren't crazy enough to believe anyone will care about their plight. Time marches on, even for a team that hasn't won in 105 years.

So what will they do when there are no more balls on Waveland Avenue to chase?

"Oh, I'm sure I'm going to find things to do," Buhrke said. "But this is what I want to do, so I'd like to continue to come out here, probably do it in the back of the bleachers. I don't know how this whole thing is going to lay out when they move everything out. But if they have a big walkway behind the bleachers, that's a good place to be."

Mullins still holds out hope he'll be ballhawking when the Cubs win it all, a scenario that appears increasingly unlikely in the immediate future. But whether the Cubs win or lose is really of little concern to Mullins and the ballhawks. For these guys, it's all about the chase.

"I never lose sleep over the Cubs winning or losing," Mullins said. "I grew immune to them being a bad team. I'm looking forward to them winning -- and they will do it in my lifetime -- and hopefully I'll catch some World Series balls out here."

Dream on.