Matt Hersl proudly displays his first career game home run from… (Photo courtesy of www.mygameballs.com )
It seemed every seat was filled during the Baltimore Orioles' exciting playoff run last season except the one that belonged to Matt Hersl.
Friends say the rangy, baldheaded Orioles regular never sat during games but ran around Camden Yards, laughing with season ticket holders, keeping an eye on the batter to make sure he had the best vantage point to snag an errant fly ball or a home run souvenir.
Hersl was a vigilant "ballhawk," and brought the same sharp eye and enthusiasm to his Little Italy community, where he served as the neighborhood watch leader.
"We lost our right arm when we lost Matthew," said Mary Ann Campanella, former president of the Little Italy Community Organization, who has lived in the neighborhood all 71 of her years.
Hersl, who had worked as a supervisor in the city of Baltimore's finance department, was killed when he was standing in the path of a car that struck a light pole and overturned in front of City Hall on Tuesday.
The spectacle closed downtown streets, shocked city workers and sent waves of sadness from the offices of the City Council to the homes of Hersl's five siblings and the narrow streets of Little Italy, where he lived on South Exeter Street for 15 years. He was 45.
When he wasn't ribbing neighbor Donny Copeland about wearing a Yankees hat, he was making him feel more secure after Copeland's home and car were broken into. He was the guy who invited Carol Pennington, owner of Inner Harbor Travel adjacent to his home, to the neighborhood Christmas party.
He organized community cleanups and brought neighborhood concerns to the Baltimore Police Department, where his brother was a decorated officer. The fresh pavement on South Exeter Street? Neighbors credit Hersl with getting the city to do it.
In front of his two-story triangular rowhome, longtime friend Paul Oliver lit three candles — including one for St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things and missing persons. Nearby, he placed his 1979 American League championship commemorative Orioles seat cushion that Oliver had received when he was a child. On it, he wrote "VIP Matt 4-9-13."
"I got a little seat for him because he'd never sit down at the Orioles game," Oliver said. "I thought he could rest easier now."
Hersl never missed a baseball game, friends and family said, and was the guy you could count on to find you a ticket from scalpers or resellers. At games, he was a renowned and proficient "ballhawk," catching more than 100 fly balls or home runs — so many that he logged statistics on mygameballs.com, a website for hundreds who share his passion.
"When he started recording balls on my site, he was one of the top people that year," said Alan Schuster, who runs the site. He once caught or fielded 11 balls in one game and batting practice, broke fingers and skinned knees, all in the quest to catch souvenirs.
Many came during batting practices, but he snagged his first home run in 2010 off of then-Oriole infielder Ty Wigginton, Schuster wrote on his site. As soon as he pounced on the ball, he ran up the steps of Camden Yards and held it up to the entire stadium. The home run had tied the game, and the Orioles went on to win 3-2 in the 10th inning.
Watching another game with another seasoned ballhawk visiting from New York, the two were chatting when a long blast came their way. The two battled for the ball, which eventually went to Rick Gold. But Schuster documented the epic battle on his website under the headline "Gold defeats Hersl in Epic Ballhawking Battle."
"He lived for baseball," said Hersl's brother-in-law Charles Shott, who said he often gave the baseballs away to family members. "He'd do anything for you. Always helping out with the Orioles. Always getting people tickets."
Neighbors said he told them he was planning to move his elderly mother into his home to help out. He wasn't married and had no children, Shott said, which freed up his schedule for baseball. Rain or sunshine, he was always somewhere in the stands, always rooting for the home team.
"Thick or thin," Oliver said. "Winning or losing, he never knocked them."