Tell this to the fan who just caught a home run, and there might be a sagging of shoulders — that ball, which required acrobatics to catch and hand-to-hand combat with other fans to retain, doesn’t actually have any historical significance in the eyes of Major League Baseball.
Without the telltale MLB authentication hologram sticker and accompanying six-number, two-letter code, that ball is just a ball. No different from one you purchase at the souvenir shop, which is precisely the problem.
Home run balls can’t usually be authenticated, as an official authenticator — sitting in an on-field camera well near the home-team dugout — can’t physically eyewitness the catch and the struggle to retain the ball that often follows.
The league’s authentication program started in 2001 after a late 1990s FBI investigation discovered 75 percent of all autographs in the market were fake. And since three-quarters of the sports memorabilia business was baseball, MLB decided it needed to lead the push to eliminate phony merchandise.
The program now has about four authenticators for all 30 teams in the league, making for about 150 in total around the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. At least one is present at all 2,430 regular-season games as well as postseason, spring training, All-Star week, the World Baseball Classic and other team- or league-sponsored events.
There are home run balls that are authenticated, like the fan who caught former Twins slugger Jim Thome’s 600th home run in 2011 at Detroit’s Comerica Park. When special milestones are on the horizon, authenticators specially mark every ball used leading up to the hit, so when the fan catches it, security can descend upon him and begin the process of placing the hologram and haggling with the fan about a trade so the ball can reside in an appropriate place instead of a fan’s living room.
Authenticated items that mark milestones are often returned to players, given the team for its archives or even forwarded to baseball’s Hall of Fame. Many of the items are sold to fans — the Twins have a kiosk where fans can by game-used items from the actual game they are attending. Some items are used for promotions for season-ticket holders or fundraisers.
MLB is the only major sports league with such a vast and comprehensive authentication program. It has collected about 4.8 million individual unique items, averaging about 500,000 new authentications each season. Michael Posner has been at the helm of the program since 2003 and said its only limitation is human reality.
“You don’t know when that next moment is going to happen, whether it’s a perfect game, player hits four home runs, a player makes his debut,” Posner said. “So everything the authenticator does is based on what they witness.”
It may seem overkill, but the authentication program takes even dirt seriously, Posner said. The program has outlined a detailed five-step process on how to handle, authenticate, seal, ship and open a bucket of dirt from an All-Star Game. Posner equated it to how a detective collects evidence from a crime scene.
Which is actually pretty fitting, considering all authenticators who become contract workers with the league are current or former law enforcement officials who were recommended by their local departments.
Steven Bantle, a 50-year-old from Ramsey, is a sergeant in charge of the Minneapolis Police Academy and is one of two active-duty police officer authenticators with the Twins. The other two are retired from the police department.
“As police officers, we all take an oath, and the expectation is that we’re honest people and have integrity and aren’t going to fudge anything,” Bantle said. “We’re going to document things as we see them.”
Bantle used to manage stadiums and arenas, and his last assignment was at the Metrodome where he built a good relationship with the Twins. When a lieutenant in the department he knew well decided to leave one of the first authenticator jobs, he recommended Bantle to take over.
But Bantle said it isn’t exactly a coveted appointment on the police force. Many officers don’t know the job exists, even though Bantle said the hourly fee he is paid does help supplement his income.
“Most people don’t understand it either,” he said. “You tell someone you’re an authenticator, they have no idea what you’re talking about. And it takes a little explanation.”
Basically, Bantle and the other Twins authenticators divide up all the team’s games and events. On an average game day, Bantle will arrive an hour before the first pitch to check in with both teams’ officials about any milestones to watch for, or any specific items the teams or MLB wants authenticated to keep or sell.
Then it’s just a matter of watching, applying stickers and inputting detailed information about each authenticated item into the system, so whoever ends up with the authenticated memorabilia can look up its official history on the league’s website.
But while authenticators might just sit and watch, the Twins’ side of authentication has a more mobile job. Venika Streeter is the one who has to venture into the stands to negotiate with the fan who catches a landmark home run, whether it be authenticated as was the case with Thome in 2011, or if it’s just a personal item a player wants for his own collection. Explaining the authentication program isn’t always so easy.
“There’s no authentication on it. There’s no autograph on it. There’s nothing,” she tells the fan. “So even if you try to resell it, now that people know about this program, they’re not going to believe that you actually have this milestone baseball.”
While most players will trade an autographed ball or other equipment, some fans demand meet and greets, pictures, tickets and more. Depending on how important or authentic the ball is, it can be a lot to ask.
Twins curator Clyde Doepner has collected baseball memorabilia since their first game in April 1961 — long before the authentication program started. And while Doepner, 70, has hologram-less memorabilia in his collection backed instead by players or his own written validation, he said the authentication program and its integrity makes his job significantly easier.
“I go 100 percent by the holograms — I mean the holograms are the highest level of proof you can get,” he said. “I wish everything I had had a hologram on it because it kind of cuts out any discussion now or in the future about its validity.”
While the authentication program can become very wrapped up in the minutia of the process, the overall goal is fairly simple — preserve history.
“Regardless of how we’re doing on the field sometimes, the people want to hear about the history of the game because it reminds them of the time when life was a little simpler and everything was good,” Doepner said.