As for major milestones, MLB trusts but checks
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Specifically for the New York Times Infobae.
The baseball Aaron Judge felt screaming into the left stand at Yankee Stadium Tuesday for his 60th home run of the season was unlike his other 59 home runs this year.
The baseball that Aaron Judge hit into the left field stands at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, September 20, which became his 60th home run of the season, differed from the 59 other balls he hit that year.
It was a special ball prepared just for him and the rest of the balls he will try to hit this year will be just as distinctive. They don’t have an extra bounce, raised laces, or anything that might interfere with your flight patterns.
But they will be marked with something so mysterious and subtle that Major League Baseball (MLB) refuses to reveal exactly what it is.
All of this is part of MLB’s authentication program, a sophisticated system designed to ensure memorabilia and game memorabilia are verified as authentic. The program was first used for Judge in the ninth inning of the New York Yankees’ win in Milwaukee on Sunday, September 18, on his first trip to the plate after hitting 59 home runs.
From there, all balls are thrown to Judge for the remainder of the season as he attempts to surpass the Yankees and American League record of 61 home runs (set in 1961) in a single season held by Roger Maris becomes two contain special characteristics.
One is an encoded template visible to the human eye. The other is a covert mark that requires special technology to be seen. The ball, retrieved by a fan and handed to the judge after the Yankees’ dramatic win over Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, was examined and confirmed to be the correct ball.
“It had the right markings,” said Dean Pecorale, the MLB authenticator who gave his seal of approval to the ball and other items the judge requested for notarization.
The same goes for Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals hitter who has 698 career homers. As he nears the 700 mark, MLB executives have applied the same type of covert branding to every ball thrown at him for the remainder of the season to ensure no malicious character can falsely claim he has one Ball in his possession set an important record.
“This allows us to verify some of the greatest moments in baseball history,” said Michael Posner, senior director of MLB’s e-commerce and authentication division. “How often does a player hit 700 home runs or set the American League home run record and beat the likes of Ruth and Maris?”
The basic program, in which former law enforcement officers watch items used in a game as they leave the field and place a coded holographic sticker on them, isn’t just for record-breaking events. It’s operational for every major league game and has been for two decades. It just increases in intensity as a major record or milestone approaches.
In addition to the secret markings on the balls, MLB hired an additional authenticator to track Judge and Pujols. Pecorale, a retired New York City police officer whose first authentication came at Yankee Stadium in 2011 when Derek Jeter performed his 3000th single, had one job Tuesday: judge.
“There was a time when players didn’t really understand the program,” Pecorale said. “But most understand now. Aaron definitely gets it. He’s looking for us.”
The MLB authentication team was formed after a ring of fake 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 fake autograph as quickly as a slider, noticed in the late 1990s that some items allegedly signed by him were fakes.
That led to an FBI investigation called Operation Bullpen, which found nearly three-quarters of the autographs on the market were fake. The investigation resulted in dozens of convictions and resulted in MLB establishing its authentication unit so teams and players could verify their memorabilia and, in some cases, convert it into a good amount of money, at least a portion of which is often used to support charities.
The system relies on some 230 retired law enforcement officers, holographic stickers, and a chain of surveillance that could withstand even the most skeptical criminal judge. Typically, two authenticators occupy positions, one next to each dugout in each stadium and each game. When a ball goes out of play, it goes to a tokenizer, like Billy Vanson, another retired New York City police officer who worked at Citi Field in Saturday’s game between the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Vanson spent most of his 25-year career at the 108th Police Department.
Today, his “territory” is a camera pit next to the Mets’ dugout. The out-of-play ball is thrown to Vanson, who puts a holographic sticker on it and records exactly when it was used before pocketing it.
“As an authenticator, you see the game very differently,” Vanson said on Saturday. “You have to be very careful.”
If the stakes aren’t as high as the judge’s home run record, an authenticated ball in the third inning of a regular game can be purchased from the team shop when they reach the seventh inning. Using the information encoded in the hologram, a fan can identify the pitcher, the batter, the type of pitches, and the speed at which they were pitched.
During Saturday’s game, a fan paid $250 for the second base bag. After the third inning, when bases are routinely changed, an authenticator met maintenance personnel in the tunnel and applied the sticker to the back of the base used. They then gave it to a team leader who presented it to the fan in the stands. Prior to the game, Vanson also authenticated Pete Alonso’s shin guard at the Mets player’s request.
That’s the daily routine. But when players like Judge and Pujols are about to hit a major milestone or record, the secret markings are placed on two dozen balls used exclusively in those players’ bats.
“We mark the balls before play with a combination of letters or numbers and a covert mark that’s invisible to the naked eye and doesn’t work under black lights,” Posner said. “It’s something very specific and it’s not easy to have the technology to see it.”
The coded balls are given to the ball boys, who give three each to the umpire at home plate. The umpire throws them to the pitcher one at a time and they are picked up once Judge and Pujols have finished their at-bats (this will continue for the rest of the season regardless of whether they break the records).
After Judge’s 60th home run, a Yankees guard met the fan catching the ball and brought it to Judge. The ball was passed to Judge, who in turn passed it to Pecorale. Secret markings were verified, proving the authenticity of the ball (in return, the fan received four autographed balls and one autographed racket).
At this point, the authenticators’ job is done. They don’t care if the player keeps the item, sells it at auction, or sends it to the Hall of Fame.
“We’re agnostic about all of these things,” Posner said. “The most important thing is to capture the story in the moment. No one can falsely claim they have the batting mitts from that 62nd home run. They’ll be able to tell, but if they can’t show the hologram with the correct numbering, we know they’re not telling the truth. “