Bonds’ homer No. 762 a bizarre mystery

Barry Bonds blasted his 762nd home run at Coors Field on Sept. 5, 2007.

In the six months since, the greatest mystery hasn’t been when, or if, the all-time home run king will play again, but who walked away with the record-setting baseball.

That intrigue ended Thursday at a news conference in Denver where the holder of the ball, Jameson Sutton, was revealed. Sutton will put the ball up for auction. SCP Auctions says it could bring $1 million.

Still, this twisted tale of baseball treasure is worth revisiting.

In the sports memorabilia world, a player’s final home run ball – not the one that breaks the old record, but rather the ball that establishes the new one – is most coveted.

After Bonds connected on No. 756 to move past Hank Aaron, each of his home runs became the new final home run. Every fan who snagged one became an instant celebrity and, at least until the next one was hit, a potential millionaire. When the season ended on Sept. 30, every home run ball that Bonds had hit after 756 had been accounted for, except one: No. 762.

Photo This sequence of screen captures from the television broadcast shows how the confusion started. Bonds’ 762nd career home run approaches the stands as Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday gives chase (top photo). From left to right, Sutton, Frazier and Harmon jockey for position (middle), and the home-run ball hits off Sutton’s glove while he clings to a batting practice ball in his bare hand (bottom).
(Y! Sports)

Weeks before Bonds broke the record, Major League Baseball officials began marking the balls that were pitched to him, and official authenticators were placed in the stands. This wasn’t an uncommon practice. Ever since an FBI sting in the mid-1990s nabbed dozens of high-profile memorabilia counterfeiters, specially marked balls, often with invisible infrared markings, have been used whenever a player has approached a major record or milestone. Mark McGwire’s 70th and final home run ball in 1998 had been marked, and as a result, comic book mogul Todd McFarlane felt confident enough to spend more than $3 million on it.

So why wasn’t Bonds’ 762nd home run ball marked?

MLB declined to comment, but according to various reports, it stopped marking the balls shortly after the record-breaker, and planned to resume during the final two weeks of the season. MLB had taken a similar gamble in 1998, and it paid off because McGwire kept adding to his record on a seemingly daily basis. Last season, however, the aging Bonds got injured and hit his final home run with more than three weeks remaining.

Still, under normal circumstances, the unmarked ball could have been authenticated on the spot by MLB, but due to a bizarre event that unfolded as the ball reached the left field stands, it was not.

In stark contrast to the sea of people attacking each other for Bonds’ record-breaking 756th at a sold-out AT&T Park, only three fans were involved in the scramble for No. 762 at half-empty Coors Field. Robert Harmon, a Rockies fan and season-ticket holder, was one of them, and after a brief scuffle in which all three men went down, a television camera caught him holding up a ball in the palm of his glove.

“Everybody in the stands was coming up to me and congratulating me and taking my picture,” said Harmon, whose scruffy, white beard has made him a recognizable figure at games. “I even had a guy on the phone call me and say, ‘Hey, Robert, nice snag, I see you got the ball!’ Then this other kid runs up and says, ‘We got the baseball’ and I said, ‘No, I got the baseball,’ and the rest is history.”

History is not always pretty. In 2001, two Giants fans ended up in court after fighting for custody of Bonds’ single season record-breaking 73rd and final home run ball of the year. The battle for No. 762 could have followed a similar path – except in this case both fans were actually holding a ball. But because MLB failed to authenticate the ball, two questions remained for months: Who was the second fan who came away holding a ball, and was it the real one?

At first, Harmon and other collectors believed that the second ball had been thrown into the scrum by a prankster sitting behind them, but after studying a slow-motion replay shot from a center-field camera, they discovered that the man who ended up getting the real No. 762 had been holding an extra ball in his bare hand. No one knew why. No one knew who he was. Harmon and his friends had never seen him before and none has seen him since.

Upon close examination, Harmon realized his own ball wasn’t the real one (“I’m positive that it’s not a game ball. It’s like a batting practice ball or something.”), but he had been approached by so many people who thought it was that he embarked on his own crusade to find it.

After months of dead ends and quite a bit of legwork, Harmon learned through an usher in his section that the young man who walked away with the real ball was 24-year-old Boulder resident Sutton, the son of two season-ticket holders.

Sutton, who grew up rooting for Barry Bonds and doesn’t believe Bonds used steroids, said he wasn’t actively thinking about catching the ball, even as Bonds stepped into the batters box.

“I thought it’d be cool if he hit one that day, just to see it,” Sutton said. “I was just watching pitch by pitch … it was like the first inning, and it happened so fast.”

It happened on the 12th pitch of the game – a 99-mph fastball from rookie right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez – and Sutton was still holding a practice ball that a groundskeeper had thrown to him earlier in the day. Why? He didn’t have room in his pockets, and the ground was still wet from an afternoon shower.

As No. 762 approached the seats, television cameras showed Sutton and a larger man running through an aisle from opposite directions and colliding behind the wall, just in front of Harmon.

“He hit me pretty hard on the left,” Sutton said. “I felt the ball hit me above my glove where I was gonna catch it. It happened fast, so it was really hard to tell, but from what I know, he pushed my glove down some … he hit me on the upper arm area, and I fell and went down with them because we all got tackled.”

Harmon, who weighs about 165 pounds, also remembers getting hit by the other fan.

“He hip-checked me out of the way. I was like three steps away and then boom! I mean, he body-checked me and literally picked me up off the ground and moved me over.”

The other fan, it turned out, is a notorious ballhawk from San Francisco named Jake Frazier, a 26-year-old Giants fan who works “in the medical marijuana business” and attends about 100 games a year, both at home and on the road.

Frazier has caught thousands of batting practice balls – some in stylish, behind-the-back fashion – and more than 25 game home runs, including three from Bonds. He’s also known for crashing into people and reaching in front of them for balls – so known, in fact, that other ballhawks in the Bay Area (and beyond) now describe themselves as getting “jaked” whenever anybody denies them.

Frazier admitted he treats his hobby like a blood sport, but denied bumping into Harmon.

“He was bringing up the rear,” the 240-pound Frazier said. “I didn’t hip-check him out of the way. I just beat him to the spot. He’s an old-timer, dude. If I hip-checked that guy, he wouldn’t (expletive) be standing up … it’s a baseball, man, it’s a prize. You have to be aggressive.”

The scramble for No. 762 began after the ball deflected off the heel of Sutton’s glove and bounced into the aisle.

“I didn’t have a free hand,” said Sutton, who let go of his practice ball when he saw the real one in the aisle. “I had to drop it to reach and get the Bonds ball, and I was more than happy to do that.”

Then there was the issue of fan interference.

As Bonds rounded the bases, Rockies left fielder Matt Holliday protested that a fan had reached out of the stands and touched the ball. The home run stood, and although stadium security briefly gathered around Sutton while the umpires reviewed the play, he was allowed to keep the ball and return to his seat.

Frazier ended up getting a dose of Sutton’s best stuff – all 175 pounds of it – and no one seemed happier than Harmon.

“Jake bangs into me, knocks me out of the way, and gets in front of me,” he said, “and then this other kid crashes into him. Finally, somebody jaked Jake.”

Frazier had an excuse for his failure: “I’m always stoned to the bone during games. I’d been smoking big weed about 10 minutes before that (expletive) guy hit that ball, so they had a little advantage on me.”

So, what about the ball? Does Sutton still have it? Does he want to sell it? Would he even be able to sell it since it wasn’t authenticated?

“I think that guy’s out of luck now,” said Tyler Snyder, a 21-year-old community college student who knows a thing or two about the authentication process.

Two years ago, Snyder caught Bonds’ 714th career home run in Oakland – the longball that tied Bonds with Babe Ruth for third place on the all-time list.

“Within five seconds they had me surrounded,” he said. “All the Oakland cops wanted to see it, so I just pulled it out of my glove … and then the MLB authenticators came right then and looked at it and marked it. They put a little sticker with the serial code number on it, like a six-digit number or something like that. They got all my information.”

Photo Robert Harmon displays what he thinks is Bonds’ 762nd home run in this screen capture taken of the broadcast.
(Y! Sports)
When Sutton snatched No. 762, however, the authenticator was nowhere to be found. According to a police officer working security in the left field pavilion that night, the authenticator refused to mark the real ball because there was “too much confusion.”

Consequently, the young man who grabbed the real No. 762 was never approached by an MLB official, whisked away by stadium security or interviewed on TV. Instead he returned to his seat, watched most of the game and disappeared before the final out.

“I’ve seen a couple things online where they were looking for who has it,” Sutton said, “but I didn’t know how risky it would be to have my name out. … You know, there could be people trying to find me to steal it or hurt me to get it, so I was just keeping quiet.”

Sutton placed the ball in a safe deposit box and tracked Bonds’ stats for the remainder of the season. He knew that another home run would greatly reduce the value of his ball, but says he never rooted against Bonds.

“I thought it would be cool if he could keep adding to his record, but he never did, and that’s when I was like, ‘Damn.’ ”

Of course, No. 762 is only the final ball for now, and no one’s sure if it will end up that way. Bonds has said he wants to play again in 2008, but he might not have a choice; the 43-year-old slugger may soon be heading to trial where he’ll face potential jail time if convicted for lying to a grand jury about his alleged steroid use.

Mike Heffner, president of Lelands, the sports auction house that sold Bonds’ 73rd and final home run ball from 2001, has expressed interest in No. 762.

“If it’s his last home run and it is the record that everyone’s shooting for, it should be worth a million dollars.”

The opportunity to make some money could not come at a better time for Sutton and his parents. Sutton is unemployed. His stepfather Dave lost a lung to cancer several years ago and recently developed pneumonia in the other. He had to take a leave of absence from his job at a real estate firm and his wife Deb, an interpreter for the deaf, has taken her own leave to be with him. Days after Sutton snagged No. 762, he turned down a $5,000 offer for the ball from a family friend. Now, in order to convince a stranger to pay a whole lot more, Sutton faces the challenge of proving that his unmarked ball is, in fact, the ball.

His best option may be a lie-detector test.

“That could do nothing but help the value of the ball,” Heffner said. “I would recommend that … if the person comes forward and wishes to sell it that that be one of the stipulations.”

Is Sutton willing to comply?

“A hundred percent,” he said.

Zack Hample, author of “Watching Baseball Smarter” and a ballhawk himself, caught Barry Bonds’ 724th career home run. Find out more about his book and baseball collection at www.zackhample.com.