For major milestones, MLB trusts but verifies
By David Waldstein
The baseball that Aaron Judge sent screaming into the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for his 60th home run of the season was different from his other 59 home run balls this year.
It was a special ball, prepared just for him, and the rest of the balls he swings at this year will be similarly distinct. They will not be juiced with extra bounce, nor will they have raised laces or anything else that could affect their flight patterns.
But they will be marked with something so secret, and so subtle, that Major League Baseball will not reveal exactly what it is.
It is all part of MLB’s authentication program, an elaborate system designed to ensure that game memorabilia is verified as genuine, and it was first put into action for Judge in the ninth inning of the New York Yankees’ win Sunday in Milwaukee, which was his first trip to the plate after he had reached 59 home runs.
From that point, all the balls that Judge swings at for the rest of the season, as he looks to pass Roger Maris’ Yankees and American League single-season record of 61, set in 1961, will contain two special markings.
One is a coded stencil visible to the naked eye. The other is a covert marking that requires special technology to see. The ball that was retrieved by a fan and given to Judge after the Yankees’ dramatic win Tuesday night against Pittsburgh, was examined and determined to be the right ball.
“It had the correct markings,” said Dean Pecorale, the authenticator for MLB who put his stamp of approval on the ball and several other items that Judge asked to have authenticated.
The same goes for Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger who has 698 career home runs. As Pujols closes in on 700, MLB officials have attached the same kind of covert marking to every ball that will be pitched to him for the rest of the season to ensure that no nefarious actors can falsely claim they have a milestone-setting ball.
“It allows us to verify some of the biggest moments in baseball history,” said Michael Posner, MLB’s senior director for authentication and e-commerce. “How often does a player hit 700 home runs or set the American League home run record, passing the greats of Ruth and Maris?”
The basic program, in which former law enforcement officers witness game-used items as they come off the field and affix a coded hologram sticker to them, is not just for record-setting events. It is in operation at every major league game, and has been for two decades. It just cranks into overdrive when a major record or milestone is within reach.
In addition to the secret markings on the balls, MLB has assigned an extra authenticator to shadow Judge and Pujols. Pecorale, a former New York City police officer whose first time authenticating at Yankee Stadium was in 2011 when Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit, had one assignment Tuesday: Judge.
“There was a time when players didn’t really understand the program,” Pecorale said. “But most do now. Aaron definitely gets it. He comes and looks for us.”
MLB’s authentication squad was established after a widespread racket of phony autographs and memorabilia was uncovered with the help of Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Fame outfielder for the San Diego Padres. Gwynn, who could spot a counterfeit autograph as quickly as a hanging slider, noticed in the late 1990s that some items purported to be signed by him were forgeries.
That led to an FBI investigation, Operation Bullpen, which determined that roughly three-quarters of all autographs on the market were fake. The investigation resulted in dozens of convictions and prompted MLB to begin its authentication unit so that teams and players could verify their memorabilia and in some cases turn it into a solid amount of cash — at least some of which is used to support charities.
The system relies on roughly 230 former law enforcement officers, hologram stickers and a chain of custody that might stand up to the most skeptical criminal court judge. Typically, two authenticators take up positions, one next to each dugout at every ballpark for every game. When a ball is taken out of play, it goes to an authenticator, like Billy Vanson, another retired New York City police officer, who worked Saturday’s New York Mets-Pittsburgh Pirates game at Citi Field. Vanson spent most of his 25-year career at the 108th Precinct.
Now his precinct is a camera well next to the Mets’ dugout. The ball that comes out of play is tossed to Vanson, who applies a hologram sticker and records exactly when it was used before putting it in a bag.
“You watch the game in a completely different way as an authenticator,” Vanson said Saturday. “You have to pay very careful attention.”
When the stakes are lower than Judge’s home run binge, a ball taken out of play and authenticated in the third inning of a normal game can often be purchased at the team store by the seventh. Using information encoded on the hologram, a fan can identify the pitcher, the batter, the kind of pitches thrown and the velocity of each one.
During Saturday’s game, a fan paid $250 for second base. After the third inning, when the bases are routinely changed, an authenticator met the grounds crew by the tunnel and applied the sticker to the back of the used base. It was handed to a team official, who presented it to the fan in the stands. Before the game, Vanson authenticated Pete Alonso’s shin guard, at the Mets player’s request.
That is the daily routine. But when players like Judge and Pujols are within range of a major record or milestone, the secret markings are applied to two dozen balls for use exclusively in those players’ at-bats.
“We mark the balls before the game with a combination of letters or numbers and a covert marking that you cannot see with the naked eye, and will not work under a black light,” Posner said. “It is a very specific thing, and it is hard to possess the technology to see it.”
The coded balls are given to the ball people, who deliver three at a time to the home plate umpires. The umpires toss them to the pitcher in sequence, and they are taken out of play after Judge and Pujols have finished their at-bats. (That will go on for the rest of the season, regardless of whether they have passed their milestones.)
After Judge’s 60th home run, a Yankees security guard met the fan who caught the ball and took him to meet Judge. The ball was handed to Judge, who turned it over to Pecorale. The secret markings were verified, proving the ball was authentic. (The fan received four autographed baseballs and an autographed bat in the exchange.)
At that point, the authenticators’ job is done. They do not care if the item is kept by the player, sold at auction or sent to the Hall of Fame.
“We are agnostic to all of those things,” Posner said. “It is about recording history in the moment. No one can falsely claim they have the batting gloves from that 62nd home run. They can say it, but if they can’t produce the properly numbered hologram, then we know they aren’t telling the truth.”