DENVER – There’s an old baseball adage that any time you come to the ballpark, you’re likely to see something new.
Or, in the case of Nolan Arenado reaching 1,000 hits Monday night, you’re likely to see something special.
In the case of Rockies clubhouse manager Mike “Tiny” Pontarelli, who is responsible for everything mail delivery to laundry to preparing the locker room for a playoff clinching celebration, he needs to be ready for both the unexpected and, more importantly, the expected, especially if a player is going to keep the baseball from his special moment.
“Our PR Department is really good about keeping us up to speed on who’s anticipating what,” he shared over the weekend. “For example, we’re anticipating Nolan getting his 1,000 hit on this homestand. That’s been on our radar the last couple of weeks, so we’re tracking that inch by inch.”
When your marquee player has a milestone like that on the way, you don’t miss it. But there’s 24 other players on the roster and many counting stats to track.
“(Nolan’s 1,000th hit) is one of fifteen things the we could be looking at,” Pontarelli said. “A lot of times, they’re tracking things that aren’t as important in a players mind, so many doubles, like looking at their 100th double. Not a lot of guys collect their doubles. But those are bits of information that we get throughout the course of a homestand and when I’m on the road.”
Without a technological system in place at the moment for receiving almost pitch-by-pitch, it’s really as simple as paying attention when it comes to being aware of a record on the field.
“You know what you’re heading into coming into that day. You’re paying attention to the game,” he included. “Last homestand, Freeland got his 300th strikeout. We were able to get that for him. So, that’s also important to stay in tuned to the game and what’s going on when you’re tracking something.”
In the instance of Freeland’s most recent landmark, it would be rather strange for anyone not wearing the Rockies trademark purple pinstripes to run onto the field and inform the umpire, so Pontarelli has to plan for the inevitable.
“Before the inning, it gets a little dicey,” Pontarelli shared. “We’ll tell the catcher, ‘If he gets a second strikeout this inning, throw that ball out.’ And most of the time, they remember. Sometimes, it’s a little bit of a scurry to get the ball back. Normally, I’ll let a few people on the bench know, like the hitting coach or pitching coach, whoever is pertinent to that milestone.”
Coming into Monday night’s game, Arenado had recorded 997 career hits with the potential for a milestone to come as soon as his third at bat of the game; he would homer in his fourth at bat.
“In this case, Nolan is coming up on his 1,000th hit,” he said. “I told (hitting coach Dave) Magadan a couple days ago, ‘Nolan’s coming up on a thousand,’ then he’s in tune. He’s paying attention. As soon as that ball’s hit, we need to get that. Obviously, Nolan’s 1,000th hit will be a bigger deal. They’ll probably flash something on the scoreboard. But smaller milestones, not quite of that magnitude, there’s three or four people on the bench who are aware of what’s going on.”
Before managing the home clubhouse, Pontarelli worked on the visiting side and monitored the many major landmarks for numerous NL and AL teams. One that will never be forgotten is Ichiro Suzuki’s 3,000th hit on August 7, 2016.
“We had been anticipating that. I knew there would probably be some celebration. I got Ichiro his favorite bottle of wine for him. He was actually super cool,” smiled the 13-year clubhouse veteran. “He signed a ball for me after the game, thanking me for all the efforts into making sure he got the ball back, we got his uniform authenticated and all that.”
As for the details that go into the authentication process, is one in which Pontarelli doesn’t have a lot of hands on, in the literal sense.
“There’s always two authenticators,” he stated. “One of them is always in the loop of what’s going on. We ask one of them to be present. A lot of times with home runs, we can’t authenticate when it’s gone into the stands just because all of the different possibilities of swapping out (the baseball) and things like that.”
The importance of authentication process is one that could potentially have million dollar ramifications depending on the significance of the player and his milestone.
“In a situation like that, you can tie in Barry Bonds with his home run chase,” Pontarelli said. “In a magnitude of a situation like that, (the balls) are independently marked. So, we had a special set of baseballs for that whole series with the Marlins (for Ichiro’s 3000th). They were marked with the batch and also the ball, so if a fan tried to swap it out, we’d know immediately that wasn’t the correct ball. When you get in a situation like that, it’s very easy to see if it’s a fraud or not.”
In the case of Ryan McMahon’s two home run game from Thursday night, the process was easy, particularly because both baseballs landed in the Rockies bullpen.
“(That) wasn’t too difficult. We were actually able to get it back without any effort,” he share. “We have more than a difficult time on the road when it happens.”
When Arenado launched a 1-0 cutter 419 ft to left center field into a group of fans, one question arises: what is the process for getting the ball back?
“We try to let stadium ops know right away that we’re looking for a baseball.” Pontarelli would go on to add, “Then, ushers will disperse throughout the crowd, get the message. They’ll go talk to the fan directly and find out if there’s any willingness to let go of that ball, relinquish the ball back to the player. They understand the importance of it to the player. Usually they’ll want an autographed ball or bat or something to replace it from the player.”
For the most part, fans have been great about returning a baseball that means a lot to a player, unless that fan is wearing a color other than purple.
“It’s more challenging getting it back from a fan of the opposing team,” he said. “They want to make things difficult a lot of the time, which is understandable… But usually from my experience, fans are pretty accommodating when it comes to exchanging a baseball or a signed bat. We try to keep it pretty simple. But we don’t go overboard either. If a fan is being just absurd with a request or they want ten jerseys for the ball, we’ll cut ties with a ball.”
Pontarelli shared one instance in which the request to exchange the baseball happened to be a bit much.
“I can’t remember what the milestone was in Oakland ten years ago and we were trying to get the ball back and the fan was less than cooperative than usual,” Pontarelli said as he searched his memory for the game in question: Brad Hawpe’s 100th career home run on June 27, 2009.
“So, the guy asked for several jerseys and the guard told me (the fan) wanted to come talk to me,” he said. “We had a conversation. And once the guy got down there, we had a very pleasant exchange and I kind of explained to him how valuable the ball was. I think once he looked into my eyes, there’s a human element involved there that usually works in our favor to make that process a little bit easier.”
While we don’t always get to see the memorabilia in the personal collections of ballplayers, oftentimes the special moments from the games we love can be viewed around Coors Field or places like the National Ballpark Museum on Blake Street and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
The countless folks behind the scenes that help care for the future artifacts from those memories, folks like Mike “Tiny” Pontarelli, should be given proper thanks for their contributions to the game of baseball and preserving it for generations to come.