Fans, Brewers work together to return keepsakes to players
Decisions, decisions. Chris Kopp shuffled up in the concession line, looking at his options. Once at the counter, he resolved to make the June 6 Milwaukee Brewers game against the Chicago Cubs one to remember.
He ponied up and purchased the collectible plastic cup for his soft drink, featuring the throwback Brewers colors. Souvenir gained, mission accomplished.
Once emptied, he tucked it under his seat in Section 104 so he wouldn't forget.
The next day, in Section 105, 11-year-old Matthew Boston couldn't believe the good fortune he found in his concession purchase.
The Cubs fan from Skokie, Ill., was enjoying the afternoon and a bag of peanuts with his stepfather Rusty Silber, when he discovered in his small handful the highly coveted three-nut peanut.
You can't find two more common, simpler joys at a ball game than a cup and a peanut, but Kopp and Boston would later experience a delight few ever do.
Behind the milestone
Up in the Miller Park press box, Milwaukee Brewers Director of Media Relations Mike Vassallo begins every game well aware of which player is awaiting his first home run, or is on the verge of another milestone.
Once the ball leaves the yard, Vassallo begins the process of making sure it returns.
As the ball makes its way out, Vassallo breaks out the binoculars and uses television replays to see who caught it. Once the fan is identified, he will radio to members of the stadium operations staff to find the fan and secure them and the ball as quickly as possible.
That's the key part – getting the ball in hand before it can be swapped out with another or lost, or before the fan moves out the area.
At that point, a member of stadium operations will inform the fan the player would like the ball, and if they would be amenable to meeting him and trading it out for an autograph. If the fan obliges, they can finish watching the game from their seats but then are immediately taken down below Miller Park.
Vassallo hustles out of the press box and beelines to the service level, arriving just as the fan and stadium ops do. He has already been told what, if anything, the fan has asked for in return of the ball.
"The best ones are the ones that go into the bullpen," Vassallo admitted. "(Martin) Maldanado hit it right into our bullpen and I'm like 'yes.' Those are the best ones because I know I'm not going to have to negotiate with (bullpen catcher) Marcus Hanel or one of our relievers."
In the case of a player's first big-league home run, the negotiation often concludes with a meeting between the player and fan and an autograph, creating a positive, memorable experience for all involved.
"I just signed a bat for somebody, gave him some tickets," said Nyjer Morgan, who hit his first home run off Arizona Diamondbacks starter Doug Davis in Pittsburgh in 2007. "That's very rare (to be held up by a fan). It's somebody's first hit, first home run, why would you want to do that? That's kind of evil, I think. Just give it back. You'll always remember it."
The players admit the fan gets more out of the interaction than they do, but the fan's attitude leaves an impression.
"It's cool to see that person being generous enough to make that trade, so it's definitely cool when the fan understands it means so much more to the player because that's one thing we're going to keep forever," said Brewers catcher George Kottaras, who vividly recalls how nice the fan was who caught his first home run as a member of the Boston Red Sox three years ago.
The experience turns if the fan begins to demand memorabilia from the player's teammates – which could happen at any point until the ball is turned over. Vassallo quickly negotiates while also trying to avoid escalation to a hostile point.
"I go back to the player and have to explain it to him, and ask him how important it is for him to get the ball back," Vassallo said of those instances. "And if he really wants it, then we do our best to negotiate with the person. But if they don't care, then I go back to the fan, alright, keep it."
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It's great to hear about fans like this instead of clowns like the Happy Youngster who create hostage situations out of what otherwise should be very easy transactions.
Another good article. And it's nice to know that quality fans like the ones profiled are out there. Good stuff and go Brewers!
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