Photo by Jeff Ballard
Jeff Ballard has had it all. He earned a degree in geophysics from Stanford University. He was an outstanding college pitcher who was later inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Upon graduation, the star athlete turned pro, notching 41 career wins for the Pirates and Orioles. In 1989, his best year, he won 18 games. Despite injuries that cut his career short at age 30, in 2004 Orioles fans voted him one of the 50 most popular Orioles of all time.
The only thing missing from his life was a small memento from his best at-bat in the big leagues. Playing almost entirely in the American League, where pitchers don’t bat, Ballard had just 13 career at-bats and five base hits for the National League Pirates. On September 16,1993 he knocked a ground-rule double into the stands in a game against the Marlins.
If Ballard had known that he would never hit his way beyond first base again, he might have dispatched a coach or the batboy to retrieve his keepsake. Luckily, a fan who caught the ball not only saved it, but inscribed the ball with the date, teams, and other information about the event.
Photo by Fleer Inc.
Why a fan made a point of documenting the souvenir remains a mystery. He didn’t know Ballard from Adam. “I think it’s a curious story in that the finder of the ball at the game, kept it, notated it and probably had it with some more game or signed baseballs and for whatever reason, decided to sell the baseballs he had,” says Joe Phillips, a prominent baseball historian and author of a Rawlings glove history. At some point the owner either sold or gave away the ball.
Fast forward 25 years. Gary Stilinovich, an avid Pirates collector, lives in Richardson, Texas 1300 miles away from Billings, Montana, where Ballard grew up and resides today. About a year ago, Stilinovich bought a collection of signed balls in the Dallas area, including the one from Ballard’s only extra base hit. He displayed that ball on a shelf due to its link to the Pirates.
Around holiday time, Stilinovich decided that it would make a sweet gift to the former Pirate. He assigned his friend, Joe Phillips, the task of tracking Ballard down.
After a bit of detective work on the Internet and The Baseball Autograph Collector’s Handbook, Phillips found Ballard in Billings. “Player and Ball REUNITED!” Phillips wrote me. “And I bet that doesn’t happen too often especially as obscure as this one was.”
Photo by the Ballards.
Ballard was thrilled. “Being that I didn’t have many MLB at bats, I remember this hit well,” he wrote Phillips. “Too funny that someone actually kept the ball and wrote the details on it.”
Ballard, 54, took immense pride in his hitting. At Stanford he took his turns at the plate, a rarity for a pitcher at that level of college play. While on the Pirates he took batting practice with the regulars rather than with pitchers, and Jim Leyland, the manager, told him twice to get ready to pinch hit. “If I would have elevated that double, it would have been a homer,” Ballard, the Sr. V. P. of Investor Relations at Ballard Petroleum Holdings LLC, told me. “I always thought I could have made it as a hitter, but that could just be me dreaming.”
Notation baseballs marking a personal milestone or historic event constitute some of the most valuable and worthless memorabilia. On the high side, is the so-called “Mookie Ball” that Mookie Wilson dribbled through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series, rescuing the Mets from imminent defeat. This holy relic, once owned by Charley Sheen, sold for $412,000 in 2012 in a Heritage Auction.
The bottom end is, well, the Ballard ball. “Of course, a prominent player’s key hit would have some value” Phillips explained. “Otherwise a ball just has sentimental value to the player or his family,”
Photo by Heritage Auctions
In other words, Ballard’s ball is priceless to him and his two children, son Kyren, 8, and daughter Kennley, 5. “Kyren thinks it is pretty cool, but it is hard for him to comprehend my baseball career since it happened so long before he was born,” Ballard said. “He is not sure what to make of his dad playing on TV.”
One of my favorite auction sites is MEARS because it sells affordable game-used bats, gloves, and other memorabilia of average players. For example, in its last auction there was a game-used ball signed by Indians pitcher Larry Sorenson, noting a victory against the Indians in September, 1982. It had no takers for $15.
Phillips recalled a notation ball involving the hot-tempered Ted Williams. “A rookie pitcher had been called up and, facing Williams for the first time, struck him out,” Phillips said. “The pitcher kept the strikeout ball and, after the game was over, went into the Red Sox dressing room and asked Ted to sign it. Ted wasn’t happy about it, but signed it.
Next trip into town, the rookie was pitching and Williams hit a long, towering home run off him.
As he was rounding the bases, Williams yelled to the pitcher, ‘If you can find that one, I’ll sign it for you too!’”
Photo by MEARS..
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