Sunday, September 19, 2010

Willie Mays' 600th home run ball

This story was about a San Diego man recalling the night in 1969 when he caught Willie Mays' 600th career home run ball at San Diego Stadium. The story appearedin the San Diego Union-Tribune in August of 2002:

Al Frolander didn't see Barry Bonds' 600th home run.

It would have been hard for Frolander to relate to the scene of a melee 10 days ago in the center-field stands at Pac Bell Park, the writhing scrum of
fans fighting to retrieve the ball.

Jay Arsenault of Vacaville eventually emerged with the treasure held high, his face bloody.  It was a souvenir worth fighting for, valued by some
estimates anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million.

But it was a scene 33 years -- and light years, culturally -- removed from the moment Frolander held aloft Willie Mays' 600th home run ball at what
was then known as San Diego Stadium.

There was no scrambling, no fighting, no vision of an instant cash payoff. There was ... no problem.

"No, there weren't many people at the ballpark that night," said Frolander, 47, now a stockbroker in Encinitas.  In an era before players became
millionaires and their memorabilia could be cashed in like stock options, just 4,779 fans showed up that night to see the Giants and Mays, locked on
599 homers, play the Padres.

Mays, in fact, wasn't supposed to play that night, Sept. 22, 1969, because of a sore knee.  But with the Giants in the pennant race, he was sent up as
a pinch hitter with the score 2-2 in the seventh inning to face the Padres' Mike Corkins.

And because Al's dad, Al Frolander Sr., knew baseball and guessed that Mays would be coming on, young Al got to share in Mays' moment.

Frolander, then 15, was at the game with his dad, sister Coral and brother John, sitting in their season seats in the front row of the Field Level,
near third base.

"My dad told me a batter or two before that Willie might be coming up," said Frolander.  "So I took off running with my brother.  Up from Field Level, down the stairs, up the long cement stairs to Plaza Level, then out and around to left field.

"Just as I got there I heard cheers, then saw the ball flying into the seats."

Al had gotten a lead on his brother by sliding under a barrier.  As he zeroed in on the ball, an usher beat him to it ... but then flipped it to him.

But he didn't keep it.  He quickly gave the ball up to several Padres officials who converged on him, saying the ball "was going straight to the Hall of Fame."  In return, they promised him bats, balls and a hat from the Giants and Mays. He was also hoping to get Padres season tickets for 1970.

Frolander was taken down to the Giants dugout and clubhouse after the game, an experience that was like a blur as he was "whisked around."

The Giants, he said, were excited about the 4-2 win courtesy of Mays' two-run shot, some chanting, "We beat the spoilers," in reference to the expansion Padres.  In the clubhouse, Frolander and Mays were brought together, and Mays signed a baseball for him ("Best wishes, Willie Mays, San Francisco Giants") and they had their picture taken together.  Frolander
also received another ball signed by the entire team, and a hat.

But the promised bats never came ... and neither did the season tickets.

"They had a promotion the next night, when Willie was supposed to play," Frolander said.  "Whoever caught Mays' 600th home run that night was going to win two season tickets for the next year.  In those days, because the crowds were small, the left-field stands weren't even open.  But they were going to open them up."

He'd hoped that catching the ball a night early would still count.  It didn't.

Today, he's still a big baseball fan.  His daughter, Hayley, 10, has become a fan as well, and in fact just recently got a player at a Padres game to
flip her a ball.

The two balls Frolander received that night are displayed in his office at his home, as is the picture of him and Mays after the game that ran on the
front page of the San Diego Evening Tribune the next day.  A few years after the 600th home run, in fact, Frolander's mother, Cora, was able to get Mays to autograph the photo (again, "Best wishes, Willie Mays").

Frolander knows that if he'd kept the home run ball back then, it would be worth a small (or maybe even medium-size) fortune today.  But the thought
never occurred to him to keep it.

"Afterward, maybe.  But not then," he said.  "It wasn't really that big a deal then."

He has, however, visited the ball.

At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., a few years ago, he had his picture taken in front of the display of the ball and the bat Mays used
that night.

As he thinks about what might have been, though -- if he'd kept the ball -- he laughs.  Because he knows what he might have done with it.

These days, the ball Mays signed for him that night is a bit hard to read.

"I was only 15 when I got it," he says.  "I think I played catch with it a few times."

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