It's a game. Remember that. And a game where the ball is worth lots of money.
-- Robin Williams, in the movie "Up For Grabs"
One of the reasons baseball is the greatest sport in the world is that its primary playing object is repeatedly sent into the crowd for a souvenir. No one wants a race car's wheel to come flying at them, and screens are raised to keep football's extra points from going into the seats. But baseballs go to fans constantly.
A very important one is about to be grabbed by someone, and that person is going to be inextricably linked with that historic moment. Barry Bonds has 755 home runs, needing just one more to pass Hank Aaron and become the Home Run King. When Bonds hits No. 756, that ball's recipient is going to be a big part of the story.
All you have to do is look through the history of record-homer baseballs to see where this is going. This season marks the 30th anniversary of Rawlings becoming the official and exclusive baseball supplier to Major League Baseball, and the occasion is about to be celebrated with a lot of attention on one Rawlings ball in particular. But who will catch the one that breaks the most hallowed record in sports?
Will it be a fan? And if so, will it be someone like Sal Durante? He was 19 when he caught Roger Maris' homer on the last day of the 1961 season at Yankee Stadium, and a Sacramento man named Sam Gordon had offered $5,000 to the person who caught the ball that would break Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 homers. Durante went to return the ball to Maris, who told him:
"No kid, keep the ball and make yourself some money."
Will it be a member of a club playing in the record-setting game? Two of the most famous home run balls in history were caught by MLB personnel. Tom House, then pitching coach for the Braves, was in the bullpen that night in 1974 when he caught Hank Aaron's 715th homer that passed Ruth for the all-time lead. And Cardinals groundskeeper Tim Forneris snagged the ball that Mark McGwire pulled just over the wall in left at old Busch Stadium on the night of Sept. 8, 1998. He gave it to Big Mac.
I was there that night, doing my best to be part of that moment. My son and I had seats in the first row behind the Cardinals' dugout -- the company seats when I was working then for The Sporting News in St. Louis. But rather than enjoy that prime view myself, my son stayed in that spot while I roamed out to the left field aisleways -- loitering just behind the first row of home run bleachers in case history presented itself. Joe Carter's 1993 World Series walk-off blast had landed right in front of me in left field at Toronto; I was determined to at least be in position again to get this one from Big Mac, but it was not meant to be. It was, however, a pretty good example of the pull that a historic baseball can have. We want to have that connection.
And, yes, as Robin Williams said during the credits of that hilarious "Up For Grabs" documentary, we want to snag a ball that has an insane value. Maybe if you caught this one, you would see that it is returned to Bonds. Maybe you would throw it back onto the playing field, which is highly doubtful. Maybe you would fight for it with other fans and become so attached to it that you spent a year and a half in legal turmoil waiting for a judge to decide whether it belonged to you or someone else.
That is exactly what happened to the ball that Bonds struck on the last day of the 2001 season for his 73rd homer, which stands as the single-season record. "Up For Grabs" -- the fifth best-reviewed baseball movie on the Rotten Tomatoes website -- is a fascinating look at that long and comical battle for possession of that 73 ball. Video showed that it first nestled in snow-cone fashion into the glove of Alex Popov, but Patrick Hayashi is the person who emerged from the ensuing scrum with the ball and was ushered downstairs by Giants security at AT&T (then Pac Bell) Park.
Nearly two years later, Judge Kevin McCarthy of San Francisco Superior Court ruled that the 73 ball be sold and proceeds be split equally among the two fans. "Thankfully there's a middle ground," McCarthy said in his decision. "Their legal claims are of equal quality, and they are equally entitled to the ball. The court therefore declares that both plaintiff and defendant have an equal and undivided interest in the ball. We're in recess."
Shockingly to Popov, who had amassed legal bills reportedly worth more than $640,000, the ball fetched only $450,000 ($225,000 to each man) in the subsequent auction by Leland's in Times Square. Comic strip creator (and future MLB.com talk show regular) Todd McFarlane was the winning bidder.
"Hopefully, the ball hawks have learned their lesson from the No. 73 debacle, which we tried to capture comically in Up for Grabs," said Michael Wranovics, director of that movie. "My advice is to go for it, but if you fail to hold onto the ball, don't let it consume your life. If you don't believe that catching a record home run ball can be a curse, just ask Alex Popov."
Viewers of "Up For Grabs" can see Popov admonishing media after the auction that it was "not about the money." But Durante -- more than four decades after he barehanded Maris' history ball in the Bronx -- knows better. In the movie, he says, "I'm sure everybody knows it was about the money. That's the way it is today."
Without question, there are many fans who believe the batter or more likely the Hall of Fame should own such a history ball, and they are likely to turn it over to the club -- knowing that there will be some kind of goodie package from the player for such an act of kindness. And without question, there are many fans who are going to go after the 756 ball like they are Endy Chavez going after Scott Rolen's shot toward the left field wall last October at Shea Stadium. They will do whatever it takes to get their hands on some history and what would be a potentially stupendous payday.
Just how big is anyone's guess, given Bonds' popularity around San Francisco and his notorious lack thereof seemingly everywhere else. One thing's for sure: It would be worth a mint at least around San Francisco.
"I'm in awe," Phil Ozersky said after catching the ball McGwire hit for No. 70 on the last day of that 1998 season, then a seemingly safe single-season record. When announcer Joe Buck asked Ozersky what he was going to do with the ball that day, the fan, then 26, told him, "Take some time to think about it, let some offers come in."
As Bonds nears his historic moment and fans think about what this ball could be worth, just remember what Robin Williams says: "It's a game." True enough. And unlike any other sport, one in which fans get to catch the playing object as well. This particular playing object is going to be one for the ages for someone.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.