San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds ended the 2001 regular season with a moonball to right field, capping a historic power surge with his 73rd homer, surpassing Mark McGwire's mark of 70 from a few years earlier. The McGwire ball fetched more than $2 million at auction, so it seems only logical that Bonds' ball would sell for a comparable amount. But there were three key variables to consider: McGwire was better-liked than Bonds, whose reputation as a sullen, self-absorbed egotist had long turned fans against him. Still reeling from Sept. 11, a mere month earlier, the U.S. was just entering the war in Afghanistan, and people had more important things on their minds. And two fans claimed possession of the ball, leading to a legal showdown that personified for many the greed and pettiness that had tarnished America's pastime. Michael Wranovics' wildly entertaining documentary Up For Grabs follows the bizarre media circus surrounding home run #73, but remains dispassionate enough not to favor one side over the other, and the distance offers some much-needed perspective.
The two alleged meatheads claiming the ball are Alex Popov and Patrick Hayashi, whose lives converged in Pacific Bell Park's chaotic "Arcade" area between the right-field stands and the wall over McCovey Cove. Hayashi emerged from the dogpile with the ball, but Popov claims that he caught it square in the webbing of his girlfriend's baseball glove, and the ball came loose when other fans clawed, punched, and in Hayashi's case, perhaps bit their way to the bottom. Popov's version of the event appears to be corroborated by Zapruder-like video footage and a number of eyewitness accounts, but Hayashi refused to cough up possession so easily, and the case wound up in court more than a year later. When the judge ruled a split decision, giving them equal claim over the ball, he echoed the common-sense sentiments of many observers, including Bonds, who felt the two should just sell the ball and divide the proceeds evenly.
A wave of schadenfreude swept through the sporting world when the Bonds ball finally went up for auction and collected a mere $450,000, which didn't even cover the legal fees. Wranovics suggests that all the petty legal wrangling diminished the ball's value, but he probably understates the negative feelings that are also associated with Bonds and the fact that McGwire's seemingly unbreakable record had been topped so quickly and decisively. But Wranovics succeeds in drawing out two contrasting and somewhat misunderstood personalities in Popov and Hayashi: If anything, Popov's lust for the spotlight, no matter how ugly his notoriety, outpaces his greed, while once Hayashi's lawyers waive their fees, he quietly nets himself a tidy profit and moves on with his life. In the annals of baseball history, their battle will remain a curious little footnote, but sometimes footnotes are more compelling than the main text.