“That goes right into a trophy case,” Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck said.
It’s a little more complicated than that. A batboy picked up the ball and flipped it to Wendell West, who stood by the entrance to the tunnel leading to the Nationals’ clubhouse. West held a clipboard and a large roll of tamper-proof hologram stickers, each containing a unique alphanumeric code. He carefully applied a sticker to Sánchez’s first-pitch baseball before returning his focus to the field, because his job as a third-party authenticator requires him to keep his eyes on the action at all times.
“It’s impossible to authenticate a baseball unless you’re standing there,” said Michael Posner, the director of Major League Baseball’s authentication program, which was created in 2001 to combat counterfeit memorabilia and distinguish officially authenticated MLB items from other collectibles on the market. “I can look at a ball and kind of tell you if it left the infield or not, just because I’ve been doing this for so long, but at the end of the day, that’s not a good enough standard. The standard for anything, regardless of what it is — game-used equipment, autographed jerseys — is it needs to be directly witnessed.”
A minute later, West repeated the same process with the baseball that Springer tapped between the mound and third base for an infield single. West tracked pitches on his clipboard throughout the game. Between innings, he used a handheld scanner to log the alphanumeric code for any item that came into his possession in an MLB database. The codes are linked to information in MLB’s Gameday app, which provides a detailed record of the item’s on-field use. By the time Sánchez exited the game in the sixth inning, the ball Springer hit for a single was photographed and listed on MLB’s live auction site. The first-pitch baseball was earmarked for the Nationals’ archives.
The MLB authentication program was launched as a result of “Operation Bullpen,” an FBI investigation that determined roughly three-quarters of the autographs on the market in the late 1990s were counterfeit. In the early years of the program, accounting firms Arthur Andersen and Deloitte provided authentication services for the league. In 2006, Authenticators Inc. was created, and authenticators for the program were required to be active or former law enforcement officers with a minimum number of years on the force.
“It was important to have higher-level people doing it,” said Posner, a collector who was burned one too many times by fake signatures and often compares the authentication process to evidence collection. “The average authenticator has 24 years of law enforcement experience, and you can’t apply for the position. When we have an opening in D.C. or Baltimore or wherever, we will reach out through local law enforcement contacts, interview candidates and make sure they’re a fit before bringing them on.”
Every team is assigned five or six authenticators, who work as independent contractors. There are two authenticators present at every regular season game and four during the postseason — one in each dugout and one in each clubhouse to witness and authenticate game-used equipment that may be discarded during and after the game.
There’s a checklist of items that West, a retired D.C. police officer, and his peers authenticate for every game, including balls, bases, lineup cards, locker name tags and batting helmets. Before the game, teams may communicate any special or unusual items they’re interested in having authenticated. With Friday being the first World Series home game in the District in 86 years, the Nationals’ list was longer than usual.
Authenticators are also apprised of milestones that players could reach in a game. During Game 2 in Houston, for instance, the ball that Astros pitcher Justin Verlander used to become the first pitcher to record 200 strikeouts in the postseason was tossed out of play and authenticated.
“We had it waiting for him when he was done with the game,” Posner said. “If a guy sets a record, that’s his ball.”
By the end of Game 3, the Nationals’ four authenticators had collected 293 items, including the baseball that Suzuki flipped to West after Sánchez struck out Zack Greinke to end the top of the fourth inning. Game 4 yielded 241 additional items, most of which will be auctioned or sold by the teams. Occasionally, the Baseball Hall of Fame will request a piece of memorabilia.
The witnessing standard of the program limits which items can be authenticated. Balls that leave the field of play are rarely authenticated and never given the highest designation of “game-used” memorabilia. Posner has seen videos of fans catching home runs and then switching the ball with another one. Even home runs that land in bullpens or on the train tracks above the left field stands at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, as Juan Soto’s fourth-inning blast against Gerrit Cole in Game 1 did, fall short of the game-used designation because they leave the authenticator’s sight.
“We did our due diligence,” Posner said of Soto’s home run ball, which will be displayed in Cooperstown. “That ball’s hit up there, it’s the only ball up there, it does have a World Series logo. Our authenticator went up there and watched the stadium operations person collect it. It’s actually a pretty strong case of circumstantial evidence, but not enough to make it the game-used standard."
To date, MLB’s authentication program has verified roughly 8.5 million items, including stadium urinals, outfield wall pads, lightbulbs from ballpark closings, water from the fountains of Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, champagne corks and infield dirt.
As of Sunday night, you can add a game-used “Baby Shark” doll to the list. As NBC Sports Washington reported, Posner’s team was eyeing the good-luck charm that Gerardo Parra began hanging from the railing in front of the Nationals’ dugout at home and on the road in Game 3 of the NLCS.
“When a team’s on a streak, you honor that streak, so we don’t want to do anything that’s going to affect that streak,” Posner said Friday when asked about the possibility of authenticating the toy. "[Parra] was thrilled that we’re planning to do it.”
“Baby Shark” was finally authenticated with a hologram sticker as Parra took the field for warmups before Game 5. Posner suggested there’s a chance the lucky sunglasses Parra and Sánchez began wearing in the dugout in June could be authenticated before Game 6 or 7, if necessary. So long as the authenticator assigned to the Nationals’ dugout in Houston witnesses them wearing the sunglasses, the shades will be logged in the database as game-used.
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