About an hour before the gates at Target Field open to season-ticket holders, a 31-year-old man wearing a Kirby Puckett throwback jersey peers through the bars of Gate 34.

Tony Voda stands on a ledge and gazes into the empty stadium. Is the cage set up for batting practice?

About 30 minutes later, another fan rushes over. Wearing a Joe Nathan T-shirt and beige Rawlings glove, Mateo Fischer gathers with Voda and other early-arriving fans.

Voda and Fischer are part of a niche group of baseball fans known as ballhawks, fans who attend games not only to enjoy the action, but to accumulate as many baseballs as possible. Critics argue — especially in the wake of accomplished ballhawk Zack Hample snagging Alex Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit and then holding onto it until the Yankees agreed to contribute $150,000 to a children’s baseball charity — that ballhawks are too old to wear gloves to games and risk knocking down children while chasing balls.

Ballhawks respond that they’re the game’s most loyal fans, spending the most time at the ballpark and actually paying attention to the field.

“It’s really a way to make baseball come alive,” Fischer says. “For me, it went from a love of baseball to a love of collecting baseballs. It’s about finding a new and unique way to touch the game.”

Fischer sits on a total of 844 baseballs, a collection that includes mostly batting practice toss-ups and home runs, but also a Trevor Plouffe game-tying ninth-inning home run in 2012 and another Plouffe ninth-inning home run on Jackie Robinson Day in 2014. Voda, whose résumé includes 468 snagged baseballs, caught Kennys Vargas’ first career home run.

On this warm Monday evening in June, a handful of ballhawks gather outside Target Field, an “at best, average” park for ball hawking, according to regulars. The friendly banter turns to the topic of tracking homers in right field, and words like parabola and circumference are thrown around like high school geometry class.

Secrets to snagging

For Voda, a yearning for snagging a baseball unofficially started when he was 5 or 6 and attended games with his father at the Metrodome.

“That kind of just brewed in the back of my mind until I was 25,” said Voda, who works in health insurance and has a degree in finance. “There’s not really another sport where you can go home with a piece of the game, especially on a consistent basis.”

Though snagging between the six or seven regulars — and youth teams and children in their parents’ arms — is competitive, it’s friendly competition. When the gates open for season-ticket holders, Voda lets Fischer use a perk Twins season-ticket holders have that allows them to bring another fan in with them.

Immediately, Fischer and Voda race to right field seats. Voda takes the corner spot, a ballhawk term for a seat in the front row at the end of a section where there’s nothing to one side. Within seconds, he out reaches another fan for a toss-up from Twins catcher Chris Herrmann.

That other fan is 12-year-old Nate Duppler, an up-and-coming ballhawk who started the hobby because of jealousy he felt when his brother got a foul ball given to him by an usher. Duppler has 70 lifetime baseballs, with his personal-best 10 coming on July 7.

“Every ballhawk who is just beginning dreams of getting double digits in a game,” Duppler said. “I’m the perfect age for ball hawking. I’m still young enough to get players to throw me a lot of baseballs, and I am athletic enough to run after balls.”

At 5:30 p.m., when all other fans are allowed to enter, three teenage ballhawks enter Gate 3 with gloves on their hands, flinging drawstring backpacks over their shoulders. By then, Fischer is in the second deck in right field — “Less crowded, less competition,” he says — and gets his eighth ball of the day handed to him by an usher.

Haters gonna hate

Fischer eventually heads to left field, where he says the bleachers are too steep — “Like a hike in the Himalayas” — but manages to catch several home runs on the fly. On the run to left, Fischer throws on a black shirt and White Sox hat. Players are more likely to toss baseballs to their so-called “fans,” he says.

It’s one of the many tricks Fischer learned from Hample, and one “haters” say proves ballhawks aren’t true fans.

Voda groups “haters” into three categories: outsiders who don’t attend games and just have a perception of ballhawks pushing people over; the average fan who may have a negative perception but also sees ballhawks as people doing something they enjoy; and players who don’t care either way.

“There’s obviously a negative perception of ballhawks, and the unfortunate truth is that there are ballhawks that perpetuate the stereotype of the kid pushers or being unfriendly,” Fischer said. “But there are a ton of great ballhawks that try and do their part in remedying this image of the ballhawk.”

Around 5:50 p.m., Fischer heads back to left field and in a 16-minute span gets four more toss-ups.

With Spanish-speaking players, Fischer calls out, “Dame la pelota, por favor,” and explains that asking for a ball in a player’s native language makes requests more personal.

At one point, Fischer asks a little girl standing with her family if she’s gotten a ball. When she says no, he reaches out and puts a ball in her glove. It’s the first of a few baseballs Fischer gives out that night.

Getting an edge

In his most-involved season, Fischer attended 64 games and spent an average of six hours in ballparks on game day. Paul Kom, an occasional Target Field ballhawk who attended the White Sox game, travels an hour and a half from Rochester.

“We are intense consumers of the product,” says Fischer, a sports management student at the University of Minnesota.

Fischer knows the game. He preaches sabermetrics. He knows, on average, a home run is hit every 10-15 at-bats. He also mentions Anthony Swarzak, a former Twins player who was a reliable source for getting toss-ups.

“Younger players, they are really good for toss-ups if you know their names,” Fischer said. “And that’s a general rule of ball hawking. If a player is unknown, and you know their name, that is a sure ticket to getting a baseball.”

And don’t tell a ballhawk that catching a home run or foul ball is pure luck. Ballhawks sit on aisle seats, maximizing their vertical space to move for a hit ball.

There are multiple websites with spray charts detailing where home runs land. Many ballhawks have blogs that give tips on how to snag at every stadium. There’s also an iPhone app called IdealSeat that lets fans buy the best-available seats for catching foul balls.

Two weeks after the White Sox game, Fischer was back in left field sitting on an aisle in the fourth row of section 129 with the intent of catching Miguel Sano’s first-career home run. In the first inning, Sano roped a shot almost directly at him, but it was caught by another fan five feet to Fischer’s left.

But it’s OK. There are more baseballs to be snagged.