Dodgers fan pulled switcheroo after catching a 'hated Padre' homer. Why did he keep the ball?

As soon as he heard the crack of the bat, lifelong Dodgers fan Renan Zuniga knew exactly what to do.

The 45-year-old finance manager from Victorville sprung out of his usual seat in the left-field bleachers at Dodger Stadium, jumped as high and stretched as far as he could, and made a fantastic catch of a home run San Diego Padres star Manny Machado hit off Dodgers pitcher James Paxton on Sunday evening.

Zuniga wasn't done with the slick moves. Immediately after landing on his feet and securing the ball in the glove on his left hand, Zuniga slipped his right hand into the pocket of his Dodgers jacket, pulled out another ball and threw it onto the field.

It was an attempt to create the illusion that he was tossing back the home run ball — something he had no intention of doing with the first one he ever caught on the fly during a game after nearly two decades of trying.

"It was just reactionary," Zuniga told The Times in a phone interview. "I didn’t even think about it, I just knew what to do because in my head I rehearsed it a million times.”

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As it turns out, Zuniga might have been too well prepared for the moment. ESPN aired video of his "hidden ball trick" during its "Sunday Night Baseball" broadcast of the Padres' 6-3 win.

"I caught it and did it all so quickly that the camera still happened to have not panned away from me, you know?" Zuniga said. "And it also didn’t help that it was a nationally televised game too.”

ESPN's Buster Olney caught up with Zuniga for an in-game interview in which the affable fan admitted he "got caught" while trying to avoid getting "booed mercilessly by the Dodgers faithful" for not throwing back a home run hit by a "hated Padre."

Zuniga was speaking from experience.

He started attending Dodgers games at age 7 with his mother, Joyce, who died in 2021. He now attends 25 to 30 games a year, usually accompanied by either his 19-year-old daughter, Taylor; his 17-year-old nephew, Daniel Villela; his 8-year-old nephew, Mikey Gullart; or his aunt, Avis Latscha. (His 24-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, used to attend games with him as well, but she now lives in Omaha.)

At Sunday's game, Villela was with Zuniga.

“I’ve always been enthralled with wanting to catch or get a home run ball," he told The Times. "I started having season tickets in 2006, and I believe it was Sept. 13, 2007, when I finally got my first home run ball. The Dodgers were playing the Padres, David Wells was pitching, and Morgan Ensberg of the Padres in the sixth inning hits a home run."

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Zuniga had a shot at catching the Ensberg ball on the fly, but it bounced off his forearm and onto the ground. Still, he was able to grab the ball "a millisecond" before another fan.

"He says, ‘Please don’t throw it back. Give me the ball. I’m a Padres fan,’" Zuniga said. "I look at him and I said, ‘Are you kidding? I am not throwing this ball back. I’m keeping it.’ To me, it's like, I finally got my first home run ball."

But Zuniga wasn't able to explain that to the multitude of Dodgers fans who started chanting, "Throw it back!" as has become tradition at many ballparks.

“So normally what will happen is they’ll chant for 10, 15 seconds and if you don’t, you get booed and they move on," Zuniga said. "On this day, they are not letting it go. ... It was kind of like they put a damper on my childhood dream of getting a home run ball."

Eventually, Zuniga had had enough. He discreetly grabbed another ball he had gotten during batting practice that day and switched it out with the home run ball.

"I stood up. I tossed the ball in the air a few times so people could see I had the ball, and I threw it onto the field," he said. "And everybody cheered me and everybody got off my back. Since that day, I know to bring a ball with me in case it happens again."

Since then, Zuniga has come away with two other home run balls that landed in his vicinity at Dodger Stadium. When the All-Star Game was held at Dodger Stadium in 2022, Zuniga was on hand for the home run derby and caught a ball blasted by former Dodger Albert Pujols, then with the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the only home run ball, outside of batting practice, that Zuniga had caught on the fly.

Manny Machado hits a home run during a baseball game against the Dodgers
San Diego Padres designated hitter Manny Machado hits a home run during the fourth inning against the Dodgers on Sunday. (Eric Thayer / Associated Press)

Until Sunday. Now the home run balls hit by Pujols and Machado sit in a place of honor in his man cave — even though the recent addition was hit by someone Zuniga said is "in my top five of my least favorite players in all of Major League Baseball" — among his extensive collection of Dodgers memorabilia. That collection also includes 30 baseballs individually autographed by every member of the 2020 World Series champion team and "every bobblehead ever given out at Dodger Stadium."

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Zuniga joked with Olney that his wife, Keli, would be mad at him for bringing home yet another ball.

So, was she?

"This moment was kind of big," he said, "so I think I got a free pass on this one.”

He also seems to have gotten a free pass from fans, rather than the anger or jeering he might have been expecting.

“My friends, my family, my co-workers, the softball players I play with — everyone has been giving me a lot of positive feedback," Zuniga said. "It’s weird that me getting quote-unquote busted on camera has turned into a funny moment for everybody.

"People are reaching out, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you remember me, I used to work with you. I saw you on TV. That was great!’ I believe everybody in the world is just getting the biggest kick out of this.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.