Behind scenes with Major League Baseball's authentication process
MLB has taken steps to insure its official items from games, players are authentic
MLB authenticators attend games to tag, bat, balls, jerseys, bases, other items
Counterfeiting big business, resulting in $600-700 billion in lost revenue worldwide
|Authentication in other sports|
It's the top of the first inning in Game 2 of the NLCS in Philadelphia, and Roy Oswalt is getting ready to throw his sixth pitch of the game. The Philadelphia Phillies' righthander has a 1-0 count on San Francisco Giants second baseman Freddy Sanchez with one out and the bases empty. Oswalt struck out Andres Torres to lead off the game, giving the electric Citizens Bank Park crowd an energy boost they've taken into this at-bat.
After a hitting at least 92 on the radar gun with his first five pitches, Oswalt hurls an 85 mile-per-hour change-up to Sanchez. This time, the ball completely misses its mark, smacking the dirt behind home plate before bouncing into catcher Carlos Ruiz's glove. It's an innocuous pitch to the 46,000 people in the stands and the millions watching on TV, but it's an important one for the Major League Baseball Authentication Program.
Ruiz hands the ball to home plate umpire Dan Iassogna, who gives the scuffed-up ball to a waiting Phillies batboy. The batboy runs back to the dugout to clean it, then hustles over to MLB authenticator Dennis Watson, who's sitting in a small field box between the first base camera pit and the front row of seats behind home plate. This is the first of dozens of baseballs Watson will receive for authentication on this night. And baseballs are only the tip of the iceberg for all the items MLB's authentication program certifies as being officially game-used.
Watson's task near the Phillies dugout is mirrored by authenticator Robert Bonds on the Giants' side. Watson, Bonds and Sam Turner, this game's lead authenticator, comprise the three-man team that will document all Game 2 memorabilia -- from baseballs to the bases to the lineup cards. Some goods are kept by MLB for sale on its online store. Many go to retailers and other third-party entities which sell authenticated MLB memorabilia. Some special items are sent to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The list of items which can be authenticated has no limit. Every baseball that remains in the field of play is documented. (Foul balls and home runs that go into the stands are kept by fans.) Broken bats, lineup cards, bases, rosin bags and any other field item is ripe for authentication. Even dirt from the pitcher's mound was collected after Roy Halladay's no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. "Everything is game," said Howie Shelton, program manager for MLB's authentication program.
By the time of Major League Baseball's postseason, the authenticators who are still working have had a season's worth of games to document collectibles.
Each of the 2,430 regular-season games is attended by at least one authenticator. (Each postseason game typically has three.) One never knows when a game will become etched in history, which was made evident during the past regular season when there were five no-hitters or perfect games. It was the most no-hitters since 1991, when there were seven. The unpredictability of a historical game makes the presence of an authenticator so vital.
"Everything we do is based on what happens [in a game]," said program manager Mike Posner, who noted anywhere from 450,000 to 600,000 items from the 2010 season will have been authenticated. "We're not there trying to authenticate something just to authenticate it. We're there to record the history."
And history is recorded by the authenticators, a group of 130 volunteers who live in the cities of the teams they cover. They're hired from an independent entity called Authenticators, Inc. A law enforcement background is required for the job which takes a healthy chunk of discipline.
Most of Sam Turner's work for Game 2 of the NLCS is done beforehand. He'll consult with Shelton, Bonds and Watson to make sure they're on the same page for what items the home team has requested to be authenticated. Twenty-two of MLB's 30 clubs participate in the program, and they'll usually tell Posner and Shelton what they desire. That information is passed to the on-site authenticators. (Only when so-called "jewel" events such as the All-Star Game does MLB dictate what should be authenticated.)
Once Turner has reviewed the items needed for Game 2, he goes to the groundskeeper's room. Three large cases located in the side of the room opposite the entrance hold the three sets of bases to be used in the game. Each set is used for three innings, so all nine bases need to be recorded.
Turner takes out a roll containing 500 holograms and applies a tamper-proof, uniquely-numbered and lettered hologram to the upper-lefthand corner on the bottom of each base. The holograms are protected in such a way that they self-destruct by tearing if someone attempts to peel them off for re-use. Once it's applied, Turner digitally scans the second part of the hologram, which remains on the roll. That scan feeds the hologram's unique letter and number combination into an online database which catalogs all of MLB's authenticated products. This is what makes it possible for consumers to go to MLB.com, enter an item's number on the authentication page and view a description of it.
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