When Stephen Drew hit a home run into the right-field stands last Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, Nick Paccione watched it sail over his head. The next thing he knew, the ball ricocheted off a seat behind him and right into his hands.
A few minutes later, he recognized Eddie Fastook, the Yankees’ head of security, coming down the aisle toward him. He suddenly had a sinking feeling.
“I knew who Eddie was,” said Paccione, a lifelong Yankees fan from Commack, N.Y. “Right away, I’m thinking, uh-oh, what did I do wrong?”
But Fastook was there to make Paccione a deal too good to pass up. The home run happened to be the 1,000 hit of Drew’s career, and in exchange for the ball, Fastook offered Paccione and his party of five — which included three boys — the chance to meet Drew, get autographed baseballs from him, pose for photos and tour the clubhouse after the players cleared out.
“It was an easy decision,” Paccione said.
For years, Fastook, a former police officer and longtime bodyguard for George M. Steinbrenner, has taken pride in a particular duty: going into the stands to retrieve home run balls that might be significant to the Yankee players who hit them. Among the milestones have been Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit and, in recent weeks, the first career home runs by the rookies Slade Heathcott, Jose Pirela and Mason Williams.
This season, Fastook has been especially busy, collecting as many of Alex Rodriguez’s home runs as he can, a request Rodriguez made early in the season as he closed in on and passed Willie Mays’s career mark of 660 homers.
It might be seen as an especially uncomfortable situation: a Yankees employee collecting mementos for Rodriguez even as the player remains locked in a dispute with the team over a $6 million bonus tied to that home run milestone.
But a high-ranking Yankees official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the continuing disagreement, said that in retrieving the balls for Rodriguez, the Yankees are doing the same thing they would do for any other player. The team will make every effort to do so if Rodriguez’s 3,000th hit is a home run, as it was for Derek Jeter in 2011. After going 0 for 4 on Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, Rodriguez still needs five more hits to reach 3,000.
Asked this past weekend why he wanted Fastook to chase down his home runs, Rodriguez said he was collecting the balls primarily as keepsakes for his two elementary school-age daughters.
“One day they may want them to see what their dad did,” Rodriguez said.
Many baseball players have kept baseballs that are important to them, often since Little League, as remembrances of an important hit, an exceptionally pitched game or perhaps a championship.
Sometimes these mementos — and others like uniforms, bats and lineup cards — simply end up creating clutter in closets. In other instances, they are displayed in man-cave trophy cases. And if they are particularly noteworthy or valuable, they might find their way to the Hall of Fame or an auctioneer’s table.
The clamoring for baseballs that were hit for historic home runs increased (along with their value) in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa staged their chase of the single-season home run record. McGwire’s 70th home run ball sold at an auction for $3 million. When Barry Bonds set the record anew in 2001, it set off a frenzy in the stands — and an eventual court battle — among fans trying to cash in on his record 73rd.
Historic home runs may not be worth as much these days, but they are worth something. Mike Shuster, a financial adviser from Warwick, R.I., was atop the Green Monster at Fenway Park on May 1 when Rodriguez hit his 660th home run, which tied him with Mays for fourth place on the career list. Shuster caught the ball but refused to give it to Rodriguez.
Shuster did meet that night with a Red Sox official and Fastook, who, in exchange for the ball, offered him a bat signed by Rodriguez and another signed by the Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. Shuster declined.
“It’s a piece of Alex Rodriguez’s history and it’s a piece of baseball history, but it’s also a piece of my history,” said Shuster, who has contacted the Hall of Fame about donating the ball. “It’s funny to say this, but Alex Rodriguez has hit 660 home runs. I’ve only caught one.”
Fastook, who has been collecting home run balls for players since around 2007, can remember only three that he was unable to retrieve: the former outfielder Ben Francisco’s first as a Yankee; Rodriguez’s 660th, caught by Shuster; and Rodriguez’s 665th, which was hit at Yankee Stadium off Kansas City’s Chris Young and grabbed by a fan who quickly left the stadium.
Fastook typically tries to collect players’ first big-league home runs, their first as Yankees and ones that are considered milestones, which are noted in the team’s daily news releases. Some, such as Drew’s 1,000 hit, are modest enough that the players do not realize their accomplishment until Fastook presents them with the ball afterward.
Then there is Rodriguez, whose pursuit of Mays’s mark barely received any attention for a while in the team’s news releases. It was an omission that seemed to stem from the team’s adamant position that it does not have to pay Rodriguez the $6 million bonus for reaching 660 because it is a marketing agreement made moot by his prior drug use.
But Fastook sidesteps that battleground and just keeps negotiating for baseballs, on behalf of Rodriguez and all his teammates.
“Eddie and Mark are like everybody’s second dad in here,” catcher John Ryan Murphy said of Fastook and Mark Kafalas, another security official who travels with the team. “They take care of everybody, and I think Eddie enjoys doing that kind of stuff. “
When the Yankees are on the road, Fastook will alert the opposing team’s security that the Yankees would like to retrieve certain home runs. With their help, Fastook then tries to quickly arrive and assesses what it might take to get the ball back, putting to use his policing experience in sizing up people.
“I introduce myself and always tell them they don’t have to give the ball back,” said Fastook, who typically offers signed baseballs, a tour of the clubhouse and — if the player is willing — a chance to meet the player. “Some people are as nice as can be. Once in a while, you get somebody trying to extort you.”
Sometimes the task requires a lot more work.
In anticipation of Rodriguez’s 600th home run — which he hit in August 2010 — Fastook and Kafalas spent every at-bat during a four-game series in Cleveland in the outfield seats, but Rodriguez did not hit the ball over the wall once.
This season has been easier. Pirela’s first career home run, hit earlier this month, landed in the visitors’ bullpen at Yankee Stadium, and Rodriguez’s latest home run, on Saturday night, bounced back onto the field, where Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones threw it into the Yankees’ dugout. Two of Rodriguez’s home runs earlier this season, in Baltimore and at Tampa Bay, were thrown back onto the field by fans.
When Rodriguez hit No. 662 in Tampa Bay on May 11, the ball landed on a tarp above the left-field wall and rolled back toward a walkway. Randy Coppens, a business supply salesman who was returning to his seat after buying tacos at a concession, reached up and grabbed it.
A Tampa Bay security official took Coppens and his wife to meet Fastook. A negotiation ensued: Coppens and his wife came away with four autographed baseballs and a signed bat from Rodriguez, along with two tickets to a Rays game at Yankee Stadium on July 3, which includes field passes to watch batting practice.
The best part may have been meeting Rodriguez outside the clubhouse afterward.
Coppens, 60, described Rodriguez as a gentleman who did not seem to be meeting them out of obligation. They took photos together, Rodriguez asked Coppens if he ever played the game, and Coppens said his wife admired Rodriguez’s looks.
“I guess I could have kept the ball,” Coppens said. “I don’t know if it was worth more, but to me the fact that he asked and wanted it back is enough to do the right thing and give it back to him. And besides, I’ve got a great story to tell.”