TORONTO — When Reese McGuire lashed a double off the right-field wall at Rogers Centre last week to collect his first major-league hit, the ball became somewhat of a baton.
It was retrieved by Cleveland Indians centre-fielder Greg Allen and relayed to second baseman Jason Kipnis. He handed it to shortstop Francisco Lindor, who tossed it into the Toronto Blue Jays dugout before greeting McGuire at the bag.
“He congratulated me and said, ‘It’s the first of many,’ and gave me a little hug,” recalls McGuire. “It was a cool moment.”
The ball’s journey wasn’t complete, though. Blue Jays teammate Marcus Stroman picked it up and passed it to a clubhouse employee, who in turn sought out an independent contractor. That person inspected the ball, placed a silver sticker on it, logged some information into a tablet device and finally, the precious keepsake was en route to its final destination — McGuire’s locker.
Such a chain of events will occur thousands of times during a baseball season, but with rosters expanded, the frequency is heightened in September as many rookies get their feet wet. The Blue Jays, in particular, have witnessed plenty of firsts over recent weeks while integrating youth onto the roster: Ryan Borucki’s first win, Rowdy Tellez’s first hit and Danny Jansen’s first home run are just a few examples.
The mementos from all of those milestones were verified and documented by official authenticators, who are among the more unique employees associated with MLB. Each is an active or former law enforcement officer who’s obtained a rank of captain or higher during at least 10 years in their local jurisdiction. The role requires them to essentially act as ballpark detectives.
“The main reason we hire that way is because the whole idea of authentication is evidence collection,” says Mike Posner, director of MLB’s authentication program.
During the latter half of the 1990s, San Diego Padres star Tony Gwynn visited a memorabilia shop in the team’s stadium and discovered it was selling items with a fake signature purported to be his. The FBI soon became involved and launched a sting operation known as Operation Bullpen. Turns out, about three-quarters of all baseball autographs sold at the time were forged.
“We as a sport realized, ‘Hey, our fans buy a lot of memorabilia and they’re getting defrauded on a regular basis,’” Posner says. “‘We need to do something to protect our fans, protect our players, protect our clubs and protect our history.’ So, the idea of authentication was born.”
MLB began the program in 2000 and it has become the most comprehensive initiative of its kind in pro sports. The league works with a third party, Authenticators Inc., that contracts individual employees — 160 across the U.S., Canada and some international destinations, with about four assigned per team. They arrive at each ballpark about two hours before first pitch to meet with team officials and find out if any players are approaching a milestone or could be making a debut. During games, authenticators sit by the camera well near the home dugout.
The types of items that they verify range from balls and bats to bases, dirt, jerseys and even lineup cards. In total, approximately 750,000 to one million unique pieces are authenticated from MLB games each year. Authenticators keep a close eye on mementos, watching as they travel from the field to the dugout to ensure nothing has been meddled with or replaced. A highly engineered, tamper resistant hologram is then affixed to every item, along with a serial number that acts as a certificate of authenticity. Descriptive information, such as the date, batter and pitcher is assigned and can be searched on MLB’s website. Foul balls and non-milestone home runs aren’t authenticated.
An authenticated ball from Ryan Borucki’s first major-league win. (David Singh)
The entire process benefits not only fans — who sometimes purchase game-used memorabilia from team auctions — but also players.
“By placing the tamper proof hologram on the item, you’re putting that stake in the ground,” says Posner. “Take Rowdy Tellez — he’s got a bunch of doubles in a bunch games, he’s setting all sorts of records. Well, who knows in 20 years if someone may come forward and say, ‘I have the ball or I have the bat he used.’
“By authenticating it now, Rowdy can say, ‘No, this is the actual item and it was authenticated right there on the spot, the moment that history happened.’”
Tellez, who registered his first hit during a sixth-inning pinch-hit appearance, had the ball, lineup card and a few tickets authenticated from the Sept. 5 contest.
“Say you catch a big fish, everyone’s going to say, ‘I need proof, I need a picture that you caught that fish,’” Tellez says. “Here, we have our balls. That’s how I view it.”
McGuire agrees. During his time in the minors, the catcher would hang on to a few relics, perhaps a ball here or some batting gloves there. But those would often get tossed about. His first big-league hit, though? That’s a different story and has already been handed to McGuire’s parents for safe keeping.
“When the moment finally happens, you just want to have something to look back on it, besides just photos,” says McGuire. “Actual tangible things that you can show people 10, 20, 30 years from now and have a little kid [hold the same ball I hit] on Sept. 6, 2018. That’s something special.”