SAN FRANCISCO – While most Giants’ fans lamented their team’s heartbreaking loss in Sunday’s seventh and deciding game of the World Series, two others continued their legal battle yesterday over possession of a baseball hit last year by Barry Bonds.
The ball, which sailed into the packed right field arcade for Bonds’ 73rd homerun of the season and set a Major League record, is estimated to be worth more than one million dollars.
Alex Popov, 38, the owner of Berkeley restaurant Smart Alec’s, claims that he caught the ball, only to lose it in a violent pileup last year at Pac Bell Park on Oct. 7. Patrick Hayashi, 37, a former Silicon Valley worker, emerged from the scrum with the keepsake. Hayashi says Popov dropped it, and that he then found it lying on the ground.
And so the battle over Bond’s ball continued yesterday in San Francisco before Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy, who will decide the ownership of what may be the world’s most valuable piece of cork wound in cowhide.
The morning session focused on the testimony of two witnesses, Jeff Hacker, 50, of Palo Alto, and Byron Roethler, 29, from Fremont. Both men were at the game and both ended up in the pile of human bodies scrambling for the baseball.
“I couldn’t move, and I was on top of Mr. Popov so I guess he couldn’t move either,” Hacker testified. “I recall my hands and knees being squashed. It hurt very much.”
A key piece of evidence, a video of the incident filmed by KNTV cameraman Josh Keppel, clearly shows the ball landing in Popov’s mitt as he is engulfed by the crowd. Hacker and Roethler both testified to seeing the ball in Popov’s outstretched glove.
At issue is whether Popov ever had control of the ball.
In the video, the ball hits the webbing of Popov’s glove, then appears precariously perched at the tip of the glove, before Popov drops out of the camera’s view. How he lost the ball is unclear.
At Major League baseball games, it is a long-standing tradition that fans keep any ball hit into the crowd. It is also common, the witnesses said, for the fan making first contact with the ball to lose possession and for a mad scramble for the souvenir to ensue.
“More often than not, the first fan to touch the ball does not hold onto it,” said Roethler, who claimed to have attended hundreds of games in his life and watched thousands on television. “It usually gets away and rolls on the ground. Then the fans all go for it. But once a person gets it and shows possession, the fans back off.”
Holding the ball in the air for others to see, Roethler said, usually establishes possession. When asked by defense attorney Michael Lee if he had ever tried to take a ball from someone after the fan had held it up, Roethler said no. “I’d consider that stealing,” he said.
Through further questioning of the witness, Lee reiterated the defense’s argument that rather than Hayashi stealing the ball, Popov had simply dropped it.
“Did you see any hitting going on in the pile?” Lee asked.
“No,” said Roethler.
“Was the crowd violent?” Lee asked.
“No,” said Roethler. “I was actually quite surprised at how civil the crowd was, given the circumstances. There was no violence. It was very jovial. Everyone was excited about the situation.”
Hacker also said that the crowd had not been violent. He added that when Hayashi had held up the ball, Popov congratulated him.
“Once I was able to get on my hands and knees and look around, I saw [Hayashi] holding the ball and looking at it in a rather quizzical way,” Hacker said. “Popov saw him and appeared to say, ‘Dude, you got the ball!’ Then they high-fived. He looked happy, so I thought they had come together.”
Popov and his lawyers, however, maintained that Popov had the ball first, and lost it only after being attacked by a “mob.”
“You had all these people acting in accord. It was a mob mentality,” said Popov’s lawyer Martin Triano during a break outside the courtroom. “There was nothing jovial about this scene. It was a case of last man standing, but the property law in California does not say you have to survive a mugging to claim what is yours.”
Popov added that by granting ownership of the ball to Hayashi, the judge would be setting a precedent that would make being a baseball fan a potentially dangerous endeavor.
“This is a moral argument,” he said. “What is proper fan behavior? The games should be played at a place where friends and family can safely enjoy the experience of catching a baseball.”
With the trial now in its second week, it is still unclear how the rules of baseball possession will be legally defined. It is certain, however, that after the Giant’s narrow World Series defeat, one of the two men will suffer a second, heartbreaking loss.
When asked which would be a bigger disappointment – losing the ball, or losing the championship – Popov said the ball.
“I love the Giants,” he said. “But the Giants always have another season. There’s only one ball.”