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Court TV

Decision expected Wednesday on record-setting baseball

By Matt Bean
Court TV

Barry Bonds, shown here in playoff action, hit a baseball last season for his 73rd home run that is the center of an ownership dispute.
Barry Bonds, shown here in playoff action, hit a baseball last season for his 73rd home run that is the center of an ownership dispute.

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (Court TV) -- It took just seconds for Barry Bonds to knock his record-setting 73rd home run baseball into the stands in 2001, but it has taken more than a year to determine who made the catch.

On Wednesday, a San Francisco judge will decide who gets the coveted souvenir: Alex Popov, a health-food restaurateur who first got his glove on the ball, or Patrick Hayashi, who came up with the ball after Popov disappeared in a scrum of fans.

The three-week trial over the ball -- which retails for $14.99 but is valued at more than $1 million by one estimate -- seemed to pit good against evil, judging by the legal rhetoric bandied about.

The case showed "the best of humanity and the worst of humanity," proclaimed Alex's Popov's lawyer, Martin Triano, in his closing argument. Popov is suing Hayashi, who he says clawed and scratched his way to the ball in the minute-long melee.

"To do anything else other than to give the ball to Alex is to reward thugs in the stand," said Triano, preparing at his San Francisco office for the Wednesday verdict.

But Hayashi's lawyers have held fast to the mantra, "It's not a catch if you drop the ball." Don Tamaki, who leads the legal team defending the software engineer, said Monday he thought his client was being bullied. "Mr. Popov is trying to have the court solve something that he was unable to accomplish in the stands," said Triano.

Bonds smacked the October 7, 2001, home run ball into the walkway behind right field in San Francisco's Pacific Bell park. It was the last day of the season for his San Francisco Giants, but just an opener in the fierce legal battle over the prized memento.

After four settlement summits failed, including one with a $9,000-per-day negotiator, Popov's civil suit against Hayashi began October 17, 2002. The trial drew heavily from a videotape shot by a local cameraman positioned in the standing-room-only section of the stadium that day. The video, replayed dozens of times in court, shows Popov thrusting his mitt above the outstretched arms of those around him to grab the ball before disappearing under a blanket of fans.

Eyewitness testimony picked up where the tape left off. According to Popov's opening witness, Hayashi pummeled his way to the ball. But Hayashi's legal team called others in the pile-up who claimed the ball had already sprung loose from Popov's weathered Spalding softball mitt.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy, who convened a summit of expert witnesses to discuss the legal issues, seemed focused not on the conduct of either party in the pile, but on what constitutes legal possession of an object that is "up for grabs." If Popov held the ball only briefly, is that enough for him to own it?

Popov's lawyer says yes. "The law has no test of time," Triano said. But Hayashi's lawyer, Tamaki, argued, "It's not a first-touch rule."

McCarthy's ruling, which will fall into the family of case law dealing with abandoned property and hunted game animals, will set a legal precedent as well as determine the propriety of a piece of baseball history. While cases have determined who owns a fox that has been shot by two hunters, and a whale speared by two ships, never has the law weighed in on the ownership of a foul ball or home run ball hit into the stands.

Popov has said he wants to keep the ball, and plans to hold a "touching party" for friends and family to handle the prized souvenir if he wins. Hayashi, who offered to sell the ball and split the proceeds in pretrial settlement talks (by what percentage he would not divulge), is likely to sell the ball to pay his lawyers' contingency fee.

Neither is likely to see it immediately. Even after McCarthy's decision, the ball will remain in a safe deposit box in Milpitas, California, for at least a few days. Both sides will have an opportunity to comment on his decision, and the paperwork cementing ownership could take time to complete.

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