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Bartering for balls: For love or money?

Bartering for balls: For love or money?

CLEVELAND -- Sammy Sosa took Paul Byrd's first offering and crushed it into the left-field bleachers, where it ricocheted among the sparse crowd on this late April afternoon and dropped back onto the field.

The Texas Rangers slugger had just made baseball history -- becoming the first player to homer in 44 different ballparks -- and Rik Danburg could rest easy.

The man in charge of retrieving milestone balls at Jacobs Field let out a sigh of relief as Indians left fielder Shin-Soo Choo rolled the ball in for safe keeping.

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And then it happened -- a ball barterer's nightmare. A bat boy unwittingly flipped the ball into the stands.

"Wow, I just couldn't believe it," Danburg said.

Such is the life of the men and women across baseball who are charged with retrieving landmark home runs. In a time when the memorabilia market can command exorbitant prices, they must not only be quick on their feet and shrewd negotiators, but sometimes father and mother figures, urging fans to honor the achievement above personal gain.

In the case of Sosa's record home run in Cleveland, it was a relatively painless process. Danburg dashed over to section 174 down the left-field line and found that a 17-year-old high school boy had come up with the ball.

Pulling him away from the commotion, Danburg told the kid that Sosa would like the ball. The boy gladly took the two Sosa autographed balls the Rangers had offered.

But it is not always such a smooth process, particularly if the ball is caught by a fan with money on the mind or if it's hit by an unpopular player.

Consider the challenges that lie ahead for ball barterers across the land with Sosa nearing his 600th career homer and Barry Bonds fast approaching the game's all-time home run record.

How do you get a fan to hand over a ball that breaks Hank Aaron's 34-year-old record, a ball that comes with a guaranteed $1 million payday and a ball that one Giants official says Bonds has no interest in obtaining?

You just ask nicely and pray. And even then, it will take that one-in-a-million fan who could turn their back on the jackpot.

"We're banking on the assumption that we're not getting that ball," said Staci Slaughter, the Giants senior vice president of communications, with a laugh. "But like with any big ball, it just depends on who catches it and what's meaningful to them. Somebody might say, 'I want to use the cash to go to law school,' so really, the right thing is what's right for the fan."

Of course, Bonds' 756th home run isn't your everyday scenario. In Cleveland, the six to 10 balls Danburg typically fetches each year are a bit less monumental: a player's first career homer, a first home run with the Indians, any sort of personal record.

Not that every one isn't treated with equal reverence by Danburg, 60, who takes great pride in having successfully retrieved all but one ball over his bartering career.

The process begins when Danburg, a guest services supervisor at Jacobs Field, is alerted by the club's media relations director and begins his dash to the homer's landing spot.

Once he's spotted the ball's owner, Danburg takes the fan to a quiet area away from the hubbub and peer pressure and begins his pitch. He starts simply by saying that the player has hit a meaningful home run and would like the memento in exchange for an autographed ball.

Oftentimes, the fan is thrilled. But just as many times, they're looking to push the negotiations.

Hafner's homer

Take Travis Hafner's sixth grand slam last August, which tied a Major League record. The fan who came up with the ball was immovable, as bent on holding onto his prize as Danburg had ever seen.

The barterer tried to reason with the man.

"Will the ball really be that meaningful to you?" Danburg remembers telling him. "Wouldn't it be nice, if you were hitting the home run, that you could tell your grandchildren about this ball? And wouldn't it look nice above your fireplace to have a signed ball by Travis Hafner, rather than a ball that nobody knows is real? That ball is going to mean a whole lot more to Travis than it will ever mean to you."

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But still no dice. The man wasn't making implausible demands, requests along the line of hand-delivering the milestone ball on a date with the player, as one woman once did. He just wouldn't let go.

So Danburg got the OK to throw in a signed Hafner bat, which would be the final offer. The club never surrenders more than a ball and a signed bat, and this instance would be no different. A deal had to be made now.

Finally, after several minutes of the barterer's gentle sermon, the man relented. Hafner would get his ball.

There was a time not long ago when milestone balls regularly vanished from Jacobs Field. In fact, Danburg's start came after the club's unsuccessful attempt to acquire a Mark Whiten homer in 1998.

Danburg overheard one of his fellow employees in guest services lament that they had tried everything to secure the ball, but it just wasn't happening.

"Not to show this person up," Danburg said, "but I asked if I could try to get it."

They let him. He got it. And a barterer was born. An easy-going former teacher well-versed in the art of compromise, the Tribe had found its man.

"It takes a certain person to make the fans feel comfortable, a person who makes them feel like they're not getting one pulled over on them," said Bart Swain, the Indians media relations director. "Rik is that person. He's genuinely the most friendly person you'll ever meet."

San Francisco splash

Larry Ellison, a McCovey Cove regular at San Francisco's SBC Park, caught himself daydreaming the morning of the Giants' 2004 home opener.

"What if I get the milestone home run? What if I actually did catch No. 660?" Ellison thought. "What would I do with it?"

He was talking about Bonds' 660th career home run, a shot that would push the Giants star into third place alongside his godfather, Willie Mays, on the game's all-time career homer list. And the answer seemed obvious: sell the ball.

And then it happened. The magical ball found its way into Ellison's kayak.

"It kind of felt like I had won the lottery," said Ellison, a 56-year-old computer executive.

Enter the barterer. Security brought Ellison into the club's offices, which he figured was just for show. There was no way he was handing over this ball.

But in came Staci Slaughter, with her kids in tow, and Ellison's stance quickly shifted. She explained what the ball meant to Bonds and Mays and everything that would be in it for him. The Giants would give Ellison a pair of personalized "660" jerseys, a couple of bats signed by Bonds and Mays, a game-worn Bonds jersey and scores of tickets.

"My inclination now was to give it back," Ellison said. "But I had to call my son. We had talked about splitting the money, and he was still thinking dollar signs. He's saying, 'Dad, that thing's worth a lot of money.'"

Yes, but Slaughter was making it so difficult.

"She was a motherly type," Ellison said. "Her kids were there and there was that feeling that I wasn't under pressure. It made me feel at ease."

So he gave it up.

"For me, it was a personal thing," Ellison said. "When I found out Barry wanted it, I knew it would probably mean more to him. He was the one who created the value. So if he wanted it, I felt it would just be a privilege to be there. Had I been a hard-nosed negotiator, I would have taken my ball and gone home, but why?"

Incredibly, Ellison also caught No. 661 and sold it for $17,000. But it's his act of goodwill that will forever will be ingrained into the history surrounding Bonds' landmark ball.

McGwire's money ball

Three years earlier, it was the same way during Mark McGwire's home run chase in St. Louis. Fans handed over homers 56 through 61 to the man who then represented everything that was right with a sport reborn.

Mike Davidson, the man who caught the record-tying 61st homer, only asked for an autographed jersey for his expected child in return.

"That ball would mean more to him and to all of baseball than a million dollars could ever mean to me," Davidson told Associated Press.

Then again, history has also seen its share of money-hungry fans, the folks who turn away the barterers. McGwire's 70th and final homer of '98 was put up for auction and sold for over $3 million to Todd McFarlane, the creator of Spawn Comics. Bonds' 73rd ball kindled litigation that eventually saw two men split the $450,000 the ball commanded. And even going back to 1976, a Milwaukee groundskeeper refused to return Hank Aaron's 755th homer and auctioned it off for $650,000 23 years later.

Similar challenges could loom with milestone homers this season.

No barterer will get every ball. The fan who catches a home run will make the ultimate decision, whether it is Bonds' 756th or a rookie's first.

Yet, this knowledge doesn't make the ones that get away any easier to take. This was true for Danburg in 2002, when he was unable to reclaim Jim Thome's club-record 51st home run ball.

"I was upset," Danburg said. "I was sorry for the person who kept the ball and I was sorry for Jim. It really had me thinking what I could have done differently."

But like a relief pitcher who blows a save, a ball barterer cannot dwell on the one that got away.

"Sometimes it's the personality," Danburg said. "I know what my record is, and I'm an optimist. I look at the positive side of my life. I've gotten every ball but one, and that makes me feel good."

David Briggs is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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