The struggle over ownership of the baseball that San Francisco Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds slammed out of the park in 2001, establishing a new season record of 73 homers, is the subject of Michael Wranovics’ wry, winning documentary, which follows the battle through a sixteen-month court case that eventually ended in a Solomonic decision and an auction that proved a distinct disappointment from the standpoint of profit, if not irony. “Up for Grabs” works so well because it’s more than just a tale of a couple of guys squabbling over a valuable souvenir; in Wranovics’ hands the story becomes a jovial commentary on the cult of celebrity in modern America and a wonderful metaphor for today’s crass commercialization of the sports industry.
What makes the film so engaging is, first of all, Wranovics’ tenacity in following up the byways of the story and honing in on its absurdities, and secondly the fact that the episode featured one especially fascinating participant, who becomes in effect the star of the picture–Alex Popov. Popov, a big fellow with a salesman’s smile and self-confidence, claimed to have been the first to catch the Bonds ball even though, after a scuffle, a reticent little guy with a streak of gray in his black hair named Patrick Hayashi came up with it and was awarded ownership. Popov, armed with a TV news videotape that apparently bolstered his claim as well as a whole bunch of witnesses, sued Hayashi, beginning a long, drawn-out court proceeding that didn’t end until 2003. At first Popov’s case seems strong, but as Wranovics follows the events as they unfold, things become much less clear. There’s talk of a second ball that Popov was supposed to have brought with him to the park. Bias against Hayashi’s appearanceand ethnic background emerges. And journalists and fans alike–as well as Bonds himself–offer divergent, increasingly annoyed opinions about how both men are tarnishing the game by dragging the matter through the courts.
Wranovics’ treatment of all this is astute and amusing. The first-time filmmaker is fortunate to have stumbled onto a great story, and especially to have encountered a guy like Popov, who thinks of himself as a showman and legal expert rolled into one and gradually morphs into a villain you’d love to see get his comeuppance, while the retiring Hayashi is content to remain in the background. The plentiful news footage is also a distinct plus, nicely incorporated into the new material. And the interviews Wranovics secured with broadcasters, media observers and even the judge and some of the lawyers provide context and sharp observations. Best of all are his inclusion of the very different circumstances that attended Roger Maris’ shattering of Babe Ruth’s record four decades earlier–something that points up the contrast between past and present sports culture better than any talking-head commentary could–and the ending, in which poetic justice is added to the more ordinary kind (especially since, with the revelation of the steroids scandal in the intervening years, the nature of Bonds’ own accomplishment has come under a cloud–though that’s something the film avoids making any comment on).
Technically, of course, “Up for Grabs” isn’t the slickest package in the auditorium, but it makes up for its raggedness with its sly humor and deadpan concentration. If as a whole the movie isn’t itself a cinematic home run, it’s a solid base hit. And the concession stand will undoubtedly be willing to supply peanuts and hot dogs for all the fans, maybe even for a little less than you’d pay at the park.