“I think I was somewhat drawn to this because of my interest in baseball,” Michael Wranovics, director of “Up for Grabs,” the documentary about the legal battle for ownership of the ball that sealed San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds’s 2001 home run record at 73, explained in a recent Dallas interview. (The case eventually dragged on for sixteen months.) “But it was more my interest in human beings and their behavior–two guys chasing after a pot of gold that they couldn’t quite get their grasp on. And I’d come out of the dot.com boom and bust, which had such a huge impact in San Francisco, and so I was drawn to it for that reason as well. It hit close to home.”

Wranovics was, at the time, a distinct newcomer to filmmaking. The Berkeley native, armed with a Stanford MBA, had spent nearly eight years in the high-tech industry before deciding to get out of the rat race and go after his dream. “I actually decided I was going to be a filmmaker, and wasn’t in love with the high-tech world anymore, so I basically decided to take a shot at filmmaking. My desire was always to make movies,” he said. “So I decided at a time like this, when things weren’t going so well in high-tech, maybe I could step aside and see what it was all about. And so I was actually writing a screenplay…a psychological thriller. I was a couple months into that, and then Bonds hit No. 73, and I was aware that there would be a lot of fans out there trying to get rich quick. And then when I read in the paper the next morning that there was a dispute over who owned the ball, and two guys who basically survived this crazy scramble out in the bleachers and were claiming that they owned it, and then you had all these interesting witnesses and a video shot out there from ten feet away, I just thought this could be a really good story. So I followed it, and when the ball got locked up in the safe deposit box, that was it. I dropped everything…I haven’t written a single word on that script since starting ‘Up for Grabs.’ It was, like, if a judge is imprisoning a baseball, there’s just got to be something there.”

Wranovics continued: “When I first read that article–it was titled ‘Man Loses Fortune at Bottom of Pile’–I figured there was a story there no matter what. Even if they were able to settle, these guys’ lives were going to change either way. But I had a feeling this fight was going to last, especially after I spoke to Alex Popov [the man who claimed the ball had been ripped from his glove by Patrick Hayashi]. He was so determined, and was so sure he was going to win his case, that he wasn’t going to settle and would go all the way. I figured there would be suspense, because we don’t know what the outcome will be or how much the ball will go for, but I also thought just because all this is happening over a ball, there would be funny moments. And there were a lot of colorful characters. So I had a good feeling about it. But, as I said, when the ball got locked away by a judge, that’s when I felt there had to be a story here.”

So Wranovics set aside his unfinished script and began making contacts. “Most people were happy to participate,” he explained, and he also found it relatively easy to secure access to news footage from the local NBC outlet, including the tape that cameraman Josh Keppel had shot from nearby apparently showing the ball landing in Alex Popov’s glove. “NBC was very nice to let us use it without charging,” he said. “Josh Keppel was the main reason for that. From very early on we were talking to him about what we were doing and requesting footage. Josh is very well thought of at NBC, and they were nice enough to let us have it. But Major League Baseball also owns that footage because it was shot in a ballpark–which is something I hadn’t known about, so we had to pay for that–not NBC, but Major League Baseball. About a third of our budget went towards Major League Baseball footage, even though it’s a tiny amount of the film. It’s not a baseball movie, at least it’s not intended to be. But you couldn’t really tell the story without having some baseball footage in it. So we just decided we were going to have to pay the piper.”

Of course, Wranovics knew that he might not be the only one chasing the story. “There are a lot of documentary filmmakers in San Francisco,” he said. “So I figured others would jump on this. I just figured, God, it’s going to be a race, and I was just going to have to make a better movie. But they didn’t emerge until the trial began, which is well after I had all these contacts and had done all these interviews and put all this stuff together. So when they realized that, they sort of backed away. Fortunately we didn’t have to compete [with anyone].”

The bigger challenge for the director was learning how to make a movie from scratch. “In my situation, where I had never made a film before, I didn’t know the first thing operating a camera, or what kind of camera I would need. So little by little I was learning on the fly and relying on really good people who were helping”–crew that he found “on the internet–I went to classified ads and just found people who’d be interested in helping make a movie.” Eventually he and his crew shot some 250 hours of film as the case dragged on: “It’s all as it was–we were following it as it happened, no re-enactments or anything like that. It’s the way things went down.” But there were definitely moments of uncertainty. “I’ve been watching movies all my life,” he said, “documentaries in particular–I’m a big fan–and so I just felt I knew something about documentaries and how to tell a story. I was probably a little reckless in doing so. At times I had to sleep on my sister’s couch. I didn’t think the film was going to get completed at certain points. I was hanging by a thread. It took a lot longer to get to the ending than I ever imagined. And it was very hard for me to raise funding because I didn’t have a track record. And documentaries were not hot at all at the time that I started. ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Bowling for Columbine’ hadn’t even come out yet. But I just had a feeling that documentaries had a place in theatres, and as long as it was an interesting story and was entertaining, it would just happen. I think my ignorance made it possible to do this. If I’d known everything that I should have known, I probably wouldn’t even have gone after it. But luckily I didn’t. I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to break in as a filmmaker, and so I risked a lot to do it.”

Being a first-timer did lead Wranovics to make some mistakes, though, one of which shows in the final product when Alex Popov’s girlfriend decided she didn’t want her face to be shown in the film. (It’s blurred out in the scenes where she appears.) “I’m a rookie filmmaker,” he explained, “so that was a mistake that I made–not getting [her] release signed at the start. But Alex and his girlfriend had been very supportive of the project all along. I think what happened was when things didn’t work out the way they expected, this film begins to become more of a nuisance than they originally planned. This was supposed to be the path to victory, this was a slam-dunk case–‘the ball’s going to go for millions, and I’m going to be a rich man at the end of this and will have proven the ball was mine all along.’”

But Wranovics did most things right–including tracking down Sal Durante, who caught the ball with which Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1963 and showing how all he’d wanted was to give the ball to the slugger. (Maris thanked him but told him to sell it for the $5,000 that had been offered for it.) “I felt that that was a really important contrast,” he said. “He didn’t look for fame or fortune out of it. Even though he did know there was this prize that was being offered, his instincts were just to give the ball to the guy who hit it, and just the thrill of meeting Roger Maris was a big deal to him, and the fact that he got to be there and experience history….We never would have filed a lawsuit back then over something like this. But here it was about an automatic move to make. It’s just what people do now.”

He said ruefully, “You could almost add a subtitle, a tag-line: ‘Only in America.’”