Lets make a deal: Players, fans negotiate for keepsakes
Process of retrieving a milestone ball can be anything but ordinary for Major Leaguers
A slew of Indians players spilled out of the dugout, stampeding toward Jason Kipnis, the rookie who had just collected his first Major League hit, a walk-off single to beat the Angels on July 25 of last year.
First-base coach Sandy Alomar wanted no part in the celebration.
Alomar was on a mission. He had his eyes locked on a fan in the stands.
Angels right fielder Torii Hunter had scooped up the baseball that Kipnis lined through the infield and heaved it into a sea of frenzied Cleveland fans at Progressive Field. Alomar, astutely cognizant of the feat just notched, followed the track of the ball and hunted down its new owner.
"I found three regular balls nearby and traded them those for Kipnis' ball," said Alomar, now the club's bench coach. "I chased them down. They were really nice about it. That one was easy."
Negotiations with fans don't always follow the script when a club attempts to retrieve a baseball involved in a milestone or special occasion.
Typically, a member of the home team's media-relations staff notifies the ballpark operations crew, which flags down the fan with the ball and initiates the bartering process in a sequestered area. At Progressive Field, the Indians first offer tickets to an upcoming game and an autographed ball. In rare cases, the club has granted an opportunity to meet the player or watch batting practice on the field. Many teams follow a similar negotiation process, though the results can be a mixed bag.
"It's just a plain ball to any fan, but to the player, it means a lot more," said Indians guest services supervisor Rik Danburg, who serves as Cleveland's chief negotiator. "When you don't get the ball, then you start making them feel guilty and say, 'It's a shame that Jim Thome will have every ball except No. 603. It's a shame that he won't be able to show his grandchildren that ball and it'll be in [your house] instead of in his trophy case.' Then they start feeling guilty and they give it up to me."
Major League Baseball will authenticate a ball only if it returns to the team's possession. For historic milestones, such as a 500th home run, the league will implement specially marked balls to use during that player's at-bats until he completes the achievement. Those balls then become more difficult to pry out of fans' hands, since the proof is already applied to the baseball.
Mark McGwire's 70th and final long ball of the 1998 campaign fetched $3 million on the open market. Barry Bonds' record-breaking 756th career home run ball sold for more than $750,000.
In normal cases, however, the ball is no different from one snagged during batting practice. Without authentication, it leaves little value for the fan.
"It's not the fan's baseball," said Reds director of media relations Rob Butcher, who handles Cincinnati's negotiations. "That's how we look at it, at least. It has all the value in the world to the player who hit it. Most people are really good about it and give it back for an autographed ball or bat. But some fans think they're going to become famous and they hold these guys hostage."
Four years later, Butcher still can't believe one particular exchange. MLB used special hologrammed baseballs for each of Ken Griffey Jr.'s at-bats as he approached 600 career home runs. That gave one lucky fan the upper hand in his negotiation. The man on the receiving end of Griffey's monumental blast on June 9, 2008, refused to even welcome a discussion with the Reds staff.
"He never even gave us a chance," Butcher said. "Before we could even sit down, he said, 'Just so you know, I'm not giving this back. I'm going to sell it. ... Legally, it's his. But morally? Give Griffey his 600th home-run ball back. That's priceless to him."
Negotiations became a regular part of Sharon Pannozzo's job in 1998 when she served as director of media relations for the Cubs. As McGwire and Sammy Sosa jockeyed for position atop the home-run leaderboard and the history books, Pannozzo had to convince fans to hand over each baseball Chicago's slugger socked over the fence.
"It was just this different element," Pannozzo said. "All of a sudden you're in this major negotiation. It's like you're an agent or something."
Danburg quickly learned the tricks of the trade, which allowed him to determine which tactics to use when he comes across the rare, stubborn fan.
"I'd say 99.9 percent, if not 100 percent, are very obliging," Danburg said, "but my demeanor is very important. I always approach them positively with a smile and say, 'Congratulations on getting that ball.'"
Pannozzo said most fans acknowledged the meaning the baseballs had to Sosa and were "thrilled to death" for the opportunity to meet the All-Star, rather than attempt to pawn the baseball off for their own benefit.
"These were once-in-a-lifetime mementos to have," Pannozzo said. "There was a certain sense of accomplishment when you actually walked away with the baseball and you didn't have to give up much for it."
Certain fans, however, will set an exorbitant price. Pannozzo recalled an occasion in San Diego when a man without health insurance wanted the Cubs to pay for the delivery of his pregnant wife's baby in exchange for one of Sosa's home run balls.
He eventually settled for a family photo with Sosa and a bagful of autographed items.
Occasionally, clubs will fulfill an unusual request. In Colorado, the recipient of Griffey's 400th career home run relinquished the ball and in return the center fielder made a donation to a specified foundation.
Danburg said season tickets are a popular, albeit unreasonable, demand.
"They think they're going to get $3,000 season tickets for catching Lonnie Chisenhall's first home-run ball," Danburg said. "They do try for the moon and the stars."
This season, a 15-year-old Yankees fan traded Alex Rodriguez's record-tying 23rd grand-slam ball for an autographed bat, jersey and ball from the third baseman.
The Nationals dodged a bullet when rookie sensation Bryce Harper's first career round-tripper landed in the bullpen. Of course, that doesn't always result in a seamless retrieval.
On June 1, Tribe closer Chris Perez returned to the bullpen from a bathroom break, picked up a stray baseball and nonchalantly tossed it to a fan in the center-field stands at Progressive Field. Kipnis had just deposited the ball into the 'pen for his first career grand slam, a milestone ball he eventually got back.
Amid a franchise-record 30-game hit streak in 1997, Alomar extended his groove with a home run. The fan who corralled the ball maintained a high selling price. While in the dugout, Alomar signed a bunch of gear, which the Indians' ballpark operations staff delivered to the fan in exchange for the baseball.
Moments later, rain washed away the game -- and all of the history recorded in the few innings played. Alomar's home run never happened.
"I gave away a jersey and all this stuff and then the game got rained out," Alomar said. "I said, 'You have to be kidding me.'"