The tension, the anticipation, the feeling of men girding for battle, is palpable in the left-field sections of Angel Stadium every time Albert Pujols steps to the plate with a chance to hit the 600th home run of his distinguished career.
While fans throughout the stadium rise and point their smartphones toward Pujols, grown men in left field pound their fists into their baseball gloves, stake out their territory and size up the competition for a milestone baseball with six-figure earning potential.
“It’s jungle law out there,” said Ben Villa, 43, who sat in Section 257 next to the left-field bullpen with his wife and two young sons Wednesday and Thursday. “There were guys saying, ‘I’m gonna truck you for that ball!’ Everybody’s like, ‘I’m not gonna let you get to it!’ And these guys were friends.”
The chance to witness history — with his next home run, Pujols will become only the ninth major league player to hit 600 homers — is not all that is drawing fans to the outfield seats this week. Dan Imler, managing director of Laguna Niguel-based SCP Auctions, which has sold numerous milestone home run balls in the last 15 years, predicted that Pujols’ 600th home run ball would fetch “$100,000 and up” if it goes to auction.
Imler’s company sold Barry Bonds’ 600th home run ball for $46,000 in 2002 and Ken Griffey Jr.’s 600th home run ball for $42,000 in 2008, “but the market is obviously elevated since those sales,” Imler said, “and a six-figure price would not surprise us.”
That’s one reason Dave Whitman, a 48-year-old fan from Riverside, paid $70 for a seat in the first row behind the short left-field wall Thursday night after sitting farther back in the same section Wednesday night.
Whitman, who works for a produce company, wore a No. 5 Pujols jersey and called the slugger “my hero — I’ve been following him since he came into the league, and he’s a great player.”
What would Whitman do if he caught home run No. 600?
Whitman said he had “no idea” what the ball would be worth. What if he could sell it for $100,000?
“That would help me out immensely,” Whitman said. “My wife and I are planning to buy a house.”
As two men rose for a Pujols at-bat Wednesday night, one said: “Remember, that ball is four years tuition at UCLA.” The other said, “I think I’d buy a Tesla.”
Pat O’Keefe, a 52-year-old real-estate broker from Anaheim Hills, isn’t sure how he’d spend the proceeds from the ball, but he knows what he’d do if he caught it.
“I would sell it to the highest bidder, of course,” he said.
Said Wyatt Jones, a 27-year-old Tustin resident who was sitting eight rows up from the left-field wall Thursday night: “I’d probably keep it for a while and see what supply and demand was like.”
Not everyone was money hungry. Alex Soliz, a 32-year-old Temecula resident who recently got out of the Navy, said he would return the ball to Pujols in exchange for signed memorabilia from Pujols and center fielder Mike Trout.
“I would do that for him,” Soliz said. “I’m a fan first, money second.”
Villa, a former Long Beach Press-Telegram sportswriter who works in security for the Anaheim Marriott, said he would “probably just give it back” to Pujols.
Told the ball could be worth $100,000, Villa said, “Wow, really? That might change my mind.”
The ears of Villa’s wife, Cindy, perked up when she heard that figure.
“We’ve gone to 17 of 30 stadiums, so honestly, if Albert can hook us up with tickets and a nice experience in every stadium, that would be great.”
Pujols’ 500th home run ball in 2014 was caught by Air Force serviceman Tom Sherrill, a Pomona native and Angels fan who was in Nationals Park that night. Sherrill gave the ball to Pujols in exchange for autographed memorabilia.
That wasn’t the case with the ball Bonds hit for his single-season record-setting 73rd homer of 2001.
When Alex Popov, who owns a health-food restaurant in the Bay Area, caught the ball in right field in Pacific Bell Park, a group of aggressive fans pounced on him. The ball popped loose, and Patrick Hayashi, then a graduate student at San Diego State, came up with it.
After an 18-month court battle, a California Superior Court judge ruled the two had joint ownership and that proceeds from the ball, which sold for $450,000, would be divided equally.
SCP Auctions also sold Bonds’ 756th home run ball, the one he hit to break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2007, for $752,000, his Aaron-tying 755th home run ball for $186,000 and Alex Rodriguez’s 500th home run ball for $103,000.
Pujols, 37, entered Friday 125 hits shy of 3,000 and could surpass 700 homers, which would likely elevate the value of his 600th home run ball.
“That combination of 3,000 hits and 600 homers is extremely elite … and Pujols is far from done,” Imler said. “He’s still carving out his place among the all-time greats.”