(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
By Sue Manning
The Associated Press
Mitch Poole has painted some of baseball’s most memorable moments onto the very balls that set the records. He’ll never be mistaken for Monet or Matisse, but to some his works are more valuable.
The Dodgers clubhouse manager has been turning milestones into mementos for team members for 20 years.
Pitcher Orel Hershiser says his three prized Poole balls have outlasted videotapes of his 59 consecutive scoreless innings record and his 20-game win season in 1988.
“They are works of art,” said Hershiser, now an ESPN analyst. One is packed away, one sits on his desk and another is in a nearby trophy case. “These were special because they were done by a friend who cared about the records.”
Poole has been with the Dodgers for 24 years, starting as a bat boy in April 1985. His introduction to art was doodling Dodger lineups as he daydreamed about baseball in grade school. A few basic art classes followed.
It is traditional for a clubhouse manager to retrieve balls when a player or manager notches a notable hit, run, steal or win. But Poole wanted to do more.
Using acrylic paint, he started putting the athlete’s name, opponent, accomplishment, date, box score and other information on the balls. He can’t remember the first one he did but he has done hundreds since.
It’s not exactly like painting on a grain of rice, but sometimes it’s hard to squeeze everything on a leather canvas framed by curving seams and 108 stitches.
“The more there is the smaller the paintbrush,” he said.
The box score always goes across the ball’s sweet spot and the player’s name goes on a shield that looks like a coat of arms. Hershiser’s 59 consecutive-inning ball was covered with 59s.
Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy is one of Poole’s biggest fans. The former Dodger manager has balls for wins No. 200, 300, 400, 500 and 600 as well as a couple from his time with the Japanese League and Chicago Cubs.
Holding up an unfinished ball for pitcher Brad Penny, Poole said it’s the first thing he’ll finish in the offseason. Penny gave him the ball when he was with the Dodgers but it’s from the 2003 World Series when Penny won two games for the Florida Marlins in their six-game
victory over the Yankees. The ball is one he hit that drove in two runs.
Former Dodger manager Bill Russell knew Poole could paint when he ordered the young assistant to create a mural in the corner of his office about 20 years ago. Around the same time, Poole turned to smaller works.
The 46-year-old Poole lives in West Covina with wife Ann and teenage daughter Courtney.
Not all of Poole’s big game memories are recorded on balls. He has painted bats and he saluted All-Star outfielder Brett Butler’s 500th stolen base on Aug. 3, 1994, by painting on the second base bag he stole.
“When somebody takes the time to think of you when he doesn’t need to, it tells you what kind of person he is. He hasn’t changed one lick. He’s just a quality human being and a dear friend,” said Butler, who keeps the base at his Arizona home office. Poole also did two balls for Butler, for his 2,000th hit and his last hit in the majors, No. 2,375.
On the Dodgers’ last road trip this season, Poole retrieved Matt Kemp’s 100th RBI ball, but couldn’t find Andre Ethier’s 30th home run ball, a walkoff winner. Home runs are hard to wrest away from fans and Major League Baseball won’t authenticate any ball that goes into the stands, Poole said. Balls today have holograms imbedded in them, but many of Poole’s balls came before the security was implemented.
Poole doesn’t have time to do every significant ball these days, but he does keep up with all the requests he gets for the trophies. It’s easiest if he is in the mood and does several at once, he said.
While the balls are different from the ones that fetch high prices from collectors, they are probably pretty valuable, said Todd Mueller, a memorabilia dealer in Colorado.
“Anything related to baseball that commemorates a specific event has value,” he said. “A Rickey Henderson uniform is worth $12,000 to $15,000 if it was worn in a game. If it was the game when he broke the all-time stolen base record, it’s worth twice that.”
Poole is not aware of any balls he’s painted being sold. But if any are given away, he hopes they one day end up in the Hall of Fame.