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Lifelong Chicago Cubs fan Colin Sullivan prepared his entire life for this moment. The instant he picked up the home run ball and chants of “throw it back” erupted from the Wrigley Field bleachers, Sullivan, 31, had a plan.
Prior to the game, Sullivan — a teacher in the Chicago suburbs — managed to snag a ball during batting practice. With an assist from his brother, Sullivan pocketed the real ball, grabbed the batting practice ball and chucked it back onto the field to satiate the ravenous fans.
It was the perfect crime, or so Sullivan thought. Shortly after picking up the home run ball, Sullivan was approached by what looked like a security guard wearing a Cubs jacket. Sullivan didn’t realize it in the moment, but he was in possession of Francisco Lindor’s first home run as a member of the New York Mets.
Sullivan admitted to his scheme, telling the man he swapped the balls, and that he still had Lindor’s home run ball.
The man stared at Sullivan stone-faced before responding, “I know you do.”
How did the man know Sullivan was telling the truth? In this instance, it was obvious. The batting practice ball literally said the word “practice” on it. When the ballboy grabbed the ball and gave it to the Mets, the team knew something was off, and decided to track Sullivan down.
What would have happened if the balls weren’t clearly marked and a much more prestigious milestone were on the line? Could the league truly know the ball it received was actually the right one?
It could. It does. And it’s all due to the work of MLB authenticators.
Tony Gwynn inspires MLB authentication program
San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn is unofficially credited with kick-starting the league’s authentication program, which launched in 2001. Gwynn reportedly came across merchandise being sold in Qualcomm Stadium that featured his autograph. Problem was, that wasn’t really Gwynn’s signature. It was a fake.
The FBI opened an investigation based on Gwynn’s complaint, and determined three-fourths of all autographs on the market at that time were fake. MLB recognized this was a major problem, and powered up its authentication program to ensure items sold by the league were the real thing.
“The main goal of authentication at that point was to get rid of certificates of authenticity, which if you have a printer, you can forge … and create something that would allow fans to verify the item independently,” Michael Posner, the league director of authentication and memorabilia for Major League Baseball, told Yahoo Sports.
Posner has plenty of experience with MLB’s authentication protocols. Posner started with the program in 2003, and has been with MLB ever since. He’s seen millions of items get authenticated over the years, from standard items like jerseys and baseballs to the 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 on them. Fans can use those holograms to confirm the item’s authenticity and learn additional information about the item. If, for example, you have a baseball that was put in play, you can look up the specific pitch that was thrown and get the exit velocity from the hit by going to MLB’s authentication site. Once a hologram is placed on an item, it can’t be removed without leaving a visible mark. It’s the league’s way of ensuring the product a fan receives is the one they purchased.
The league’s authenticators — which are made up of current and former members of law enforcement — aren’t responsible for determining which items get authenticated. That’s often left to the team, which will hand authenticators a list of items to be authenticated when they get to the ballpark. In the case of a significant player milestone — like Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto collecting his 2,000th career hit — the player can decide what items he wants authenticated.
The process isn’t always that cut and dried. In the event of an unforeseen milestone — like Arizona Diamondbacks rookie Tyler Gilbert throwing a no-hitter in his first career start — an authenticator meets with the player as they are coming off the field to figure out what items the player and team want to be authenticated.
“We look at it as evidence collection, which obviously law enforcement is trained in,” Posner says. “It’s literally react, witness and report. So, all of the authenticators are active and former law enforcement.”
The job requires copious amounts of note-taking, reporting and data entry, which turns off some of the individuals MLB tries to recruit.
“It’s not the most glamorous job in the world when you look at the tick tock of what they do on a night-by-night basis,” Posner adds.
Trouble with the long ball
MLB authentication relies on line of sight. The only way an authenticator can confirm an item is the real thing is by confirming it with their eyes. This presents issues with home run balls, like the one Sullivan caught in Chicago.
“Generally, it’s very hard for us to do a home run baseball because of the way the rules are set up,” Posner says. “They are pretty much an exception, not the rule.”
MLB authenticators weren’t involved in Sullivan’s case. They wouldn’t have been able to confirm the ball was the real thing due to their policies and procedures. Sullivan was approached by a member of the Mets staff, who likely realized Sullivan had the real ball after the one turned in 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 back on the field without any fan or player in the bullpen touching it, the authenticator can act.
There is, of course, one major exception when it comes to home run balls. If a hugely significant milestone is at stake — like Miguel Cabrera’s 500th career home run — MLB authenticators have a process in place to track those balls.
Once a player approaches a significant milestone, authenticators place overt and covert marks on certain baseballs. When that player comes up to the plate during a game, the ballboy and umpire switch in the marked balls for that at-bat.
Those marks allowed authenticators to retrieve and authenticate Cabrera’s 500th home run.
“Because we have these markings on the ball, we’re able to retrieve the ball,” Posner explains. “We’re going to know which number ball we’re looking for, so that kinda winnows the field of the ability of someone to bring in a fake ball. And then we have this covert mark on it which you can not see with the naked eye. It will not work under black light. It’s a process that’s very secure and we’ve been using it for a while.”
Cabrera certainly appreciated getting the ball back, and said he would display it in his home.
Authenticated for a good cause
The work done by MLB authenticators isn’t always done solely to benefit the league or its fans. MLB auctioned off authenticated items from the Field of Dreams Game between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox in August, with proceeds benefitting MercyOne Dubuque’s Cancer Center. The auction raised over $200,000 for the hospital. Aaron Judge's game-used and MLB authenticated jersey accounted for nearly $34,000 of that total.
Authenticators were able to gather signage, numbers used on the manual scoreboard, stalks of corn and many other items from the event, which Posner called, “One of the most special events I‘ve worked.”
The event wasn’t without limitations, as home run balls hit into the corn — like the one Tim Anderson hit to end the game — weren’t able to be authenticated. Posner wasn’t too upset about that, saying it adds to “the magical nature of a game like that.”
Sullivan’s ruse might have worked under different circumstances, but he didn’t walk away from the situation empty handed. Sullivan exchanged the home run ball for a ball signed by Lindor. It wasn’t a bad consolation prize, all things considered.
In the process, he learned a valuable lesson: If you’re going to try and pull one over on the league, you’ll have to do better than using a batting practice ball.
And if you’re the lucky soul who happens to snag Cabrera’s 3,000th career hit, MLB authenticators have already caught you.