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Milestone baseballs and the Yankees fans who caught them

The pursuit of milestone baseballs reveals a lot about fandom, incentives and human behavior.

MLB: AUG 05 Yankees at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yankees first baseman Chris Gittens collected his first major league hit during the team’s game against the Blue Jays on Tuesday night. As is customary, the Yankees dispatched Eddie Fastook, the team security guard, to secure the baseball Gittens had hit. Players typically save the baseballs marking important milestones in their career, as well as the ones with which they got their first hit, their first home run, or first strikeout. Gittens’ home run baseball had sailed out of Sahlen Field in Buffalo and onto the pavement, where it was grabbed by a fan who wasn’t able to find a ticket to the game. While it appeared to require a degree of negotiation, Fastook was eventually able to retrieve the baseball for the Yankees and Gittens.

To my knowledge, the specific terms of the exchange between Fastook and the fan have not been made public. Many fans are content to give up the baseball they caught, so long as they can meet the player, or hand over the baseball to the guy themselves. Because Gittens’ first major league home run ball doesn’t carry sentimental or monetary value to anyone but Gittens himself, I wonder what was needed to persuade the fan to give up the baseball. With some persuasion, most baseball fans are gracious enough to turn over milestone baseballs, in exchange for a different piece of memorabilia, or the opportunity to meet the player. That said, at the end of the day, fans who catch a ball in the stands have the right to keep it.

Some fans get creative. When Giancarlo Stanton hit his 300th career home run at Yankee Stadium in August 2018, Tim Kunz, a Yankees fan from California who caught Stanton’s ball, gladly relinquished the baseball in return for a meet-and-greet with Stanton, a few Stanton-signed baseballs, a tour of the clubhouse and, to what I imagine was the amusement of Yankees personnel: two Bud Light beers. If you’ve frequented Yankee Stadium in the last five years and you’re reading this, you might be nodding in agreement. Beer at Yankee Stadium is really expensive!

When Derek Jeter went yard for his 3,000th hit in 2015, Christian Lopez, then 23, was criticized by some people who thought it was foolish to trade Jeter’s 3000th hit ball for Yankees memorabilia and box-seat tickets that were worth about $180,000 less than the ball’s estimated value on the secondary market. Lopez emphasized that returning the ball to the Yankees Captain was the right thing to do, even though he told reporters he had college loans to pay off. For Lopez, the experience of catching Jeter’s milestone and witnessing the achievement eclipsed any large sum of money. In multiple interviews, Lopez essentially explained that he’s young, he can make money later in his life, and, most importantly, he felt Jeter deserved to have the ball, due to the magnitude of his [Jeter’s] accomplishment.

The attitude of fans who catch milestone baseballs run the gamut. Christian Lopez’s earnestness stands in contrast to the antagonism demonstrated by Zack Hample, the man who caught A-Rod’s 3000th hit. Hample, a man in his 40s, is a ball hawk. He’s caught thousands of baseballs — he’s even written a book on the topic — and isn’t shy about pushing little kids out of the way to get his hands on the home run balls he covets. (He later was chastised by fans on Twitter after he caught a commemorative Fort Bragg baseball at a Marlins-Braves game and ... bragged about it. Hample’s ticket was specifically reserved for a member of the U.S. military).

Initially, Hample was extremely reluctant to hand over his ball to the Yankees. Hample was hell bent on keeping A-Rod’s milestone hit and he didn’t acquiesce to returning the baseball until Yankees president Randy Levine stepped in. Hample finally ceded the ball once Levine agreed to donate $150,000 to a charity that has special meaning to Hample.

Hample’s ravenous, retrieve-the-ball-at-any-cost mentality could not be more different than that of Sal Durante, who was 19 when he caught Roger Maris’ 61st home run ball in 1961.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim Mooney/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The story of Durante catching the ball and his memory of the event recirculated a couple years ago when the Yankees were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s record. Durante, who was working as a truck driver in Coney Island back then, recalled how Yankee Stadium security took precautions out of fear that Durante might be mugged if he left the Stadium with Maris’ home run ball.

Durante eventually sold the ball for $5,000 — this was before the memorabilia market took off — and also said that when he met Maris after the game, Maris told Durante to keep the ball. He also gave Durante a cigarette lighter with a Yankees insignia on it, which Durante still has. Another fun snippet: Phil Rizzuto told Durante he was excited a “paesano” had caught Roger’s ball.

Catching any ball at a game is special. Catching a ball that sets a home run record, or marks a player’s 3000th hit? That is a fan’s dream. Some fans dream of being a part of baseball history. Some fans dream of possessing one of baseball history’s tangible assets. Both are priceless.