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Connecting baseball fans to game-used memorabilia

MLB Authentication Program takes a technological leap by providing specific details behind every item
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Before the start of the Orioles-Yankees game in Baltimore in July 2020, a member of the MLB Authentication Program removes baseballs hit into the outfield stands during batting practice. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Before the start of the Orioles-Yankees game in Baltimore in July 2020, a member of the MLB Authentication Program removes baseballs hit into the outfield stands during batting practice. Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Justin Verlander goes into the windup and hurls a 98 mph fastball past a swinging Mike Trout.

The Los Angeles Angels three-time MVP outfielder is in an intense battle with the Houston Astros two-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher.

As the count pulls even at 2-2, Verlander throws his patented slider and Trout, with his textbook swing, takes a Babe Ruth-style hack, fouling the ball straight back to the netting at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

As the ball rolls on the dirt near the backstop, a ball boy with the Angels snatches up the soon-to-be souvenir and delivers it to a Major League Baseball authenticator, stationed next to the dugout. The authenticator never lets the ball out of his sight after Trout fouled it off.

A game-used baseball awaits authentication by an MLB authenticator during a game between the Cardinals and the Phillies in May 2018. Photo: Scott Kane/Getty Images

A game-used baseball awaits authentication by an MLB authenticator during a game between the Cardinals and the Phillies in May 2018. Photo: Scott Kane/Getty Images

The ball is logged, marked with a traceable tamper-proof hologram sticker, scanned into a database and placed into a bag for safe keeping. In just a few innings, that ball – which is tied to two future Hall of Famers – is available for purchase at a team store or kiosk within the stadium. However, due to not having fans in the stands this season, the game-used souvenirs are generally available for purchase on each team’s website.

Having that historic ball tracked and authenticated is all part of the popular MLB Authentication Program that has been around since 2001. The program and what it offers continues to improve. About three years ago, MLB implemented more advanced technology to provide fans a much clearer view of what that ball went through prior to it getting authenticated and bagged.

A person who would purchase that Trout-Verlander ball would have access to knowing that ball was used for four pitches before it was fouled off to the backstop.

“You can literally take the ball and see every pitch that it was thrown at on the video and talk to your friends and say, ‘Hey, I have that ball right here in my hand,’” said Michael Posner, the director of the MLB Authentication Program. “To us, that’s really a tremendous technological leap. There’s no one even close to doing anything like this.”

Prior to the advanced technology, an authenticated ball only had information on who the pitcher and batter were.

“Basically, what we’ve done is tied into existing technology that’s offered to fans through MLB Gameday,” Posner said. “Anyone who’s been able to use MLB At Bat, which in my opinion is the best sports app there is that’s out there, you can get a pitch-by-pitch tracking of everything thrown during a game. We are now able to pull that information and tie it into what the authenticators are doing. So, they’re now in effect counting pitches at the games. When a ball comes off the field, they’re literally tying every pitch that was thrown with that ball to the data that’s in the data base. A fan now can know how hard that pitch was thrown, how much the pitch broke, what type of pitch it was, the count. If the ball is hit, it gives the exit velocity and the launch angle and all the other information.”

A clipboard shows the authentication stickers for the baseballs in a game between the Diamondbacks and the A's in May 2018. Photo: Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A clipboard shows the authentication stickers for the baseballs in a game between the Diamondbacks and the A's in May 2018. Photo: Larry Placido/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The MLB Authentication Program has strict guidelines and is predicated on having a direct witness for an item to be authenticated. Through the program, 8.2 million holograms have been entered into the system as of mid-February. In July 2014, 4.8 million holograms had been logged.

Posner said feedback from fans has been tremendous.

“You now have people who throw hard, Aroldis Chapman, Jordan Hicks. They throw 101 miles an hour, so that’s now calculated to the decimal point in terms of how hard they threw based on the tracking technology we have,” Posner said. “It’s just little things like that that add the value to what they’re getting. Again, it’s, this is my favorite player and this is how hard he hit it or this is how hard he threw it. It’s really a giant leap forward for really connecting the fans to the item that they are holding.”

The MLB Authentication Program doesn’t just deal with baseballs, but plenty of other game-used items, including jerseys, the lineup cards from each club, broken bats, the full set of bases.

“It’s the only true authentication on the market that’s an absolute result,” said Vince Bohbot, The Highland Mint executive vice president. “The way they do it, there’s no cutting corners, which is great. They’ve been very strict about that.”

Adding Authenticators

For the first 18 seasons of the program, there was one authenticator assigned to each MLB game with others on call, if needed. Because of the popularity of the program, a second authenticator was added for every day starting in 2019.

“Teams are authenticating more, there’s more going on during the game, like the pitch tracking,” Posner said. “That has caused us to have to staff up, so now we’re up around 200-plus authenticators around the country who on any given night there’s at least two of them at every game on the schedule – sometimes more depending on what’s going on.”

The authenticators are typically stationed in or next to each dugout: one assigned to the home side, the other to the visitors. The San Francisco Giants have their two authenticators in camera wells down from each dugout.

An MLB Authenticator authenticates the 2019 World Series on-deck circle with an MLB authentication sticker after Game 5 of the 2019 World Series between the Astros and Nationals. Photo: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

An MLB Authenticator authenticates the 2019 World Series on-deck circle with an MLB authentication sticker after Game 5 of the 2019 World Series between the Astros and Nationals. Photo: Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

“So that at any time if either team needs a jersey to be handled, that authenticator is always either in the dugout or in the clubhouse of that respective team so we won’t miss any jerseys,” said Giants director of authentication Gavin Werner. “Additionally, by having that second authenticator, we’re able to have someone positioned on the visiting side now during the game, so now any balls that get thrown into the visiting side dugout, we’re able to authenticate.”

Prior to having a second authenticator in the opposite dugout, if a ball was tossed on the other side of field and the lone authenticator lost visual contact with the item, the ball was no longer able to be authenticated. The licensed authenticator has to have visual confirmation at all times.

However, this season without fans, home run balls are approached differently by authenticators.

“We have a process in place where after batting practice finishes in every ballpark, someone does a clean sweep of the stands to take out any balls that were hit there,” said David Hochman, senior manager, business communications at Major League Baseball. “Then, during the game, if a ball is hit into the stands, an authenticator can watch it, track it down and authenticate.”

Before every authenticator is cleared for duty, the person goes through an extensive background check. Each authenticator is a current or former law enforcement officer.

“The system itself is so much like dealing with a chain of evidence collection, because it’s so similar it makes a lot of sense to have people who are familiar with those procedures,” Posner said.

MLB uses the third-party company Authenticators, Inc. to schedule the authenticators for every game.

Giants Run a Unique Program

The Giants were one of the first MLB teams to embrace the authentication program. When Barry Bonds was chasing Hank Aaron’s career home run record in 2007, that really kick-started the program for the Giants.

“I think what’s really unique about the Giants program is when we designed the program, we did it with the players and fans in mind,” Werner said. “The way that it stands today is the players are tied into this program both from a financial standpoint but also just from an execution standpoint. We work very collaboratively with everyone across the spectrum from players to coaches to fans. We’re just making sure that we’re representing this program in the correct light. In doing so, I think we’ve developed one of the gold standards, not just within MLB but across all sports authentications.”

The Giants use a model where players can provide the team with game-used items. Every jersey, cap, helmet and bat are purchased by the Giants, so the club technically owns those items. Cleats, batting gloves, mitts, catcher’s gear or other personal items are purchased and owned by each player.

If a Giants player gives an item that he bought to the team, the player will get a kickback. Players are equal partners in all sales if they give an item to the team.

One of Werner’s favorite parts of the program is being able to be included in a special moment for a player, whether it be their MLB debut or logging a significant milestone.

“What we do at the Giants is we take into consideration all the players on the field, not just our guys, and we want to approach this program with the utmost respect,” Werner said. “So, if a guy makes his debut and it’s going to be a pitcher, I’ll go ahead of time and I know that this is a rookie that’s on the roster. I’ll talk to Buster Posey, our catcher. ‘When this pitcher comes in, I would like to have his very first pitch thrown out of the game.’ Buster will catch that first pitch. He’ll look over and toss it right to the authenticator – I’m usually sitting down there with the authenticator. We hologram that, put it into a nice ball cube, have a label printed up that says what their name is, major league debut, first pitch ever thrown and then after the game we’ll present them with that ball.”

The Giants will commemorate a pitcher’s first career strikeout and a position player’s first career hit.

Prior to a game, Werner will talk with his authenticators about who to watch for if a player might make his major league debut. Werner makes sure ball cubes are premade, so as soon as a ball comes off the field, it can be sealed and preserved in a cube.

The opposing players are given the same golden treatment as the home side. If an opposing player notches his first career hit, the ball will be retrieved – if it stays out of the stands – and an authenticator will deliver it directly to the visiting team’s equipment manager.

The Giants had a unique case during an interleague series in May 2019 against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Vladimir Guerrero Jr. coming into San Francisco, he hit his first home run. Being that he was the number one overall prospect, when he hit that home run it was just a very significant milestone that I was being contacted by people at MLB, from the Toronto Blue Jays,” Werner said. “I was being contacted from various third-party vendors that have game-used contracts – they all wanted a piece of the game, whether it was a base or baseball or anything associated with that first home run.”

In a situation like that, the Giants authenticate as many items as they can. The home run, unfortunately, was not authenticated because it left the ballpark.

There are only one or two other teams that Werner knows of that make the effort to give visiting teams the same treatment as the home side.

Because the authentication program has been around so long in San Francisco, there are plenty of very loyal, avid collectors who reach out to the Giants on a regular basis.

“If a player gets a hit, we may get an email or a phone call within minutes of that player making that hit as the person is on the phone saying, ‘I just saw this on the TV. Do you guys have this ball?’” Werner said. “Or they’re in the stadium sometimes and they know where the balls come up and they will stand there and try to figure out who’s grabbing the baseball so they can be the first one in line to buy that Hunter Pence double or whatever ball that it was.”

Since home run balls in San Francisco very rarely stay in the field of play – such as off a foul pole – not many long balls get authenticated.

“We may get one or two a season, and to be able to get one of our marquee players just added to the value of that,” Werner said.

For instance, the most expensive home run baseball ever sold at Oracle Park was a blast by Posey that went for $5,000.

A normal game-used ball starts at $40 for the Giants. High-end collectors are willing to spend quite a bit of money for a game-used item. But the Giants as well as Major League Baseball are trying to attract the attention of the casual fan who might want to take home a memory from the game they attended.

Without fans in 2020, the only way to acquire game-used items this season is through auctions.mlb.com or team websites.

Exclusive Deal with ‘The Captain’

The MLB Authentication Program had a big addition this year, a partnership with New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter. MLB is the exclusive partner for Jeter’s memorabilia and for his licensing around the world.

“The only place you can go get a ‘HOF 2020’ inscribed Derek Jeter baseball is on the MLB Auctions site,” Posner said.

With Jeter memorabilia selling well right now, having MLB be the partner and authenticator for Jeter-signed items gives collectors peace of mind the product is real.

“The fans know that he actually signed, not just the autograph, but also the inscription, (and) this is the only place you can get it,” Posner said. “That makes a world of difference for people because the fakes are going to cost just as much money as the real stuff. People are going to try and maximize what they’re doing, otherwise it isn’t worth their time to do the forgeries.”

Jeter items are available on the MLB Auctions website at auctions.mlb.com.

Highland Mint: Creating a Piece of History

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Anyone who has purchased an autographed photo of their favorite MLB player that is flanked by a pair of commemorative coins or a small coin-sized container of dirt from their favorite stadium might not have taken a look at who manufactured the product: The Highland Mint.

The Melbourne, Florida-based company, which is one of just a handful of companies licensed through Major League Baseball to produce and sell game-used items, does a little bit of everything. It has held an MLB license since 1992.

The Highland Mint, which is licensed by all four major sports, used to create products and wholesale them out to retailers. According to Bohbot, in about the past five years, MLB teams have created their own authentication departments and sell items at their stadiums.

“What we’ve decided to do is support the teams that way, so every couple of weeks we have an authentication here and we’re doing something for every stadium,” Bohbot said. “It’s not just dirt. It could be a base we’ve authenticated. It could be a jersey. It could be a bat. Whatever they send us and we create unique products with that.”

MLB is trying to expand its operation from just mainly collecting baseballs and bats for authentication. One area that’s really picked up traction in the last few years is on-field dirt from all of the MLB stadiums.

“We’re hoping this year we’ll be able to open our online dirt store where fans will be able to buy a small, let’s say 4-inch bottle of dirt from their favorite ballpark,” Posner said.

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Even though the MLB Authentication Program has been around since 2001, it’s still relatively unknown, especially for the casual fan heading to a game.

“You have those avid collectors who are very involved and are willing to spend $5,000 on a game-used baseball. But the average fan that’s coming to watch their first game, they don’t know that they can take home something that was physically used in the game from that night,” Werner said. “I think that’s the biggest opportunity as a program is just to continue to reach out to our fans and make them aware of the existence of this program.”

Posner and Major League Baseball are always looking to improve its authentication program. How it can get better in the next few years is yet to be seen, but the opportunities excite Posner.

“Maybe a player’s wearing a jersey during a hitting streak or a home run ball goes into the stands and we can’t authenticate it,” Posner said. “Those are the things that we’ll continue to see where technology goes. I didn’t think we’d be doing this ball tracking three years ago. I thought it was going to take a bit longer to get there, so sometimes these things pop up. Someone comes up with something, and we’re always looking.”