Longtime Chicago Cubs fan Colin Sullivan has prepared his whole life for this moment. The moment he retrieved the home run ball and ‘throw it back’ chants erupted from the stands at Wrigley Field, Sullivan, 31, had a plan.
Before the game, Sullivan – a teacher from the Chicago suburbs – managed to catch a ball during batting practice. With some help from his brother, Sullivan pocketed the real ball, caught the practice batting ball, and sent it back onto the field to satiate hungry fans.
It was the perfect crime, at least that’s what Sullivan thought. Shortly after retrieving the ball from the home run, Sullivan was approached by what looked like a security guard wearing a Cubs jacket. Sullivan didn’t realize it at the time, but he was in possession of Francisco Lindor’s first home run as a member of the New York Mets.
Sullivan admitted his ploy, telling the man he traded the balls and still had Lindor’s home ball.
The man looked at Sullivan’s stone face before responding, “I know you do.”
How did the man know Sullivan was telling the truth? In this case, it was obvious. The practice batting ball literally said the word “practice” on it. When the ball catcher grabbed the ball and gave it to the Mets, the team knew something was wrong and decided to track down Sullivan.
What if the balls hadn’t been clearly marked and a much more prestigious milestone was in play? Could the league really know that the ball they received was the correct one?
It could. It does. And this is all due to the work of MLB authenticators.
Tony Gwynn Inspires MLB Authentication Program
San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn is unofficially credited with launching the league’s authentication program, which began in 2001. Gwynn is said to have discovered merchandise sold at Qualcomm Stadium along with his autograph. The problem was, it wasn’t really Gwynn’s signature. It was a fake.
The FBI opened an investigation based on Gwynn’s complaint and determined that three-quarters of all autographs on the market at the time were fake. The MLB recognized this as a major issue and stepped up its authentication program to ensure that items sold by the league were real.
“The main purpose of authentication at this point was to get rid of the certificates of authenticity, that if you have a printer you can forge… and create something that would allow fans to independently verify the article.” , Michael Posner, the authentication and memorabilia league director of Major League Baseball, said Yahoo Sports.
Posner has a lot of experience with MLB authentication protocols. Posner started with the program in 2003, and has been with MLB ever since. He’s seen millions of authenticated items over the years, from standard items like jerseys and baseballs to more unusual selections like dirt and corn stalks.
How do fans know they are holding the actual item in their hands? Authenticated items contain a uniquely numbered hologram. Fans can use these holograms to confirm the item’s authenticity and gain additional information about the item. If, for example, you have a baseball that was put into play, you can search for the specific pitch that was thrown and get the kick out speed by going to the MLB authentication site. Once a hologram is placed on an item, it cannot be removed without leaving a visible mark. It’s how the league makes sure the product a fan receives is the one they purchased.
League authenticators – which are made up of current and former law enforcement personnel – are not responsible for determining which items are authenticated. This is often left to the team, who will provide authenticators with a list of items to authenticate when they arrive at the stadium. In the event of an important milestone for a player – such as Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto with his 2,000th career hit – the player can decide which elements he wants to authenticate.
The process is not always so cut and dried. In the event of an unforeseen step – like Arizona Diamondbacks rookie Tyler Gilbert throwing a hit on his first start to his career – a credential meets the player as he leaves the field to determine what elements the player and the team want to be authenticated.
“We see this as evidence gathering, which law enforcement is obviously trained in,” Posner said. “It is literally reacting, witnessing and reporting. Thus, all authenticators are active and former law enforcement. “
The job requires a lot of note-taking, reporting, and data entry, which discourages some of the people MLB is trying to recruit.
“It’s not the most glamorous job in the world when you watch the ticking of what they’re doing night after night,” Posner adds.
Problem with the long ball
MLB authentication relies on line of sight. The only way for an authenticator to confirm that an item is real is to confirm it with their eyes. This causes problems with home run balls, like the one Sullivan caught in Chicago.
“Usually it’s really hard for us to home run in baseball because of the way the rules are set,” Posner says. “They are pretty much the exception, not the rule.”
MLB authenticators were not involved in Sullivan’s case. They would not have been able to confirm that the ball was the real thing due to their policies and procedures. Sullivan was approached by a Mets staff member, who likely realized Sullivan had the real ball after whoever surrendered had the word “practice” on it.
Authenticators can occasionally authenticate home run balls, but only in situations where the balls never leave line of sight. If a ball hits a wall and ricochets off the field without any fan or player in the pen touching it, the authenticator may act.
There is, of course, one major exception when it comes to home run balls. If an extremely important milestone is in play – like Miguel Cabrera’s 500th career home run – MLB authenticators have a process in place to track those balls.
Once a player approaches a milestone, authenticators place obvious and secret marks on certain baseballs. When this player approaches the plate during a match, the ballboy and the referee interchange the balls marked for that at-bat.
These marks allowed authenticators to recover and authenticate Cabrera’s 500th home run.
“Because we have these marks on the ball, we can get the ball back,” says Posner. “We’re going to know what ball number we’re looking for, which kind of opens up the field of someone’s ability to put in a foul ball. And then we have this mark hidden on it that you can’t see with the naked eye. It will not work under black light. It is a very secure process and we have been using it for some time.
Cabrera certainly enjoyed collecting the ball and said he display it at home.
Authenticated for a good cause
The work done by MLB authenticators is not always done solely for the benefit of the league or its fans. MLB auctioned off authenticated Field of Dreams items between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox in August, with the proceeds going to MercyOne Dubuque’s Cancer Center. The auction raised over $ 200,000 for the hospital. The jersey used by Aaron Judge and authenticated by the MLB accounted for nearly $ 34,000 of that total.
Authenticators were able to put together road signs, numbers used on the manual dashboard, corn stalks, and many other items from the event, which Posner called “one of the most special events on which I worked”.
The event was not without limits, as home run balls knocked into the corn – like the one Tim Anderson hit to end play – could not be authenticated. Posner wasn’t too upset about it, saying it adds to “the magical nature of a game like this.”
Sullivan’s ruse might have worked in different circumstances, but he did not come out of the situation empty-handed. Sullivan traded the home run ball for a Lindor signed ball. It wasn’t a bad consolation prize, all things considered.
In the process, he learned a valuable lesson: If you’re trying to shoot one against the league, you’ll have to do better than using a practice batting ball.
And if you’re the lucky soul who manages to land Cabrera’s 3,000th career success, the MLB Authenticators have already caught you.