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Court TV

'Million-dollar' Bonds ball sells for $450,000

By Matt Bean

Patrick Hayashi, center, and Alex Popov, right, are seen battling for the historic baseball.
Patrick Hayashi, center, and Alex Popov, right, are seen battling for the historic baseball.

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NEW YORK (Court TV) -- Two baseball seasons, one fierce legal battle and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees after Barry Bonds' record-setting 73rd home run in 2001, the baseball has finally landed in the hands of a single undisputed owner: Comic book creator and producer Todd McFarlane, who paid $450,000 in an auction that closed Wednesday night.

The ball was once estimated to be worth as much as $1.5 million.

McFarlane's purchase, televised live on ESPN from the network's ESPNZone bar and restaurant in Times Square, was a symbolic denouement to an extended legal battle that had ended months earlier. 

San Francisco Giants' slugger Bonds crushed the home run into the right field bleachers of Pac Bell Park in San Francisco on October 7, 2001.  Alex Popov, the owner of a Berkeley, Calif., health food restaurant, was the first to get a glove on the ball. But Popov claimed in an October 24, 2001, lawsuit that the historic horsehide was torn from his mitt by Patrick Hayashi, who emerged from a scrum of fans with the ball in hand. Hayashi, a software engineer from Sacramento, said he found No. 73 rolling free in the minute-long melee.

In December 2002, a San Francisco judge ordered the two men to sell the ball and split the proceeds, setting up Wednesday's auction.

Though visibly disappointed with the final price, both Popov and Hayashi expressed pleasure that the ball would be joining McFarlane's prestigious collection, which includes Mark McGwire's historic 70th home run baseball and Sammy Sosa's 66th.

"Hopefully he'll do a tour with the collection so everybody can see the Barry Bonds baseball," said Hayashi after the auction.

Popov, who had always maintained he wanted to keep the ball, not sell it, said, "It was about history. It wasn't about money."

When asked if he was surprised by the price, which topped out at $517,500 with fees, McFarlane told ESPN, "I knew it wouldn't go for a fraction of what the other one did," referring to McGwire's 70th, which he purchased for $3.2 million.

A prized souvenir lands in court

The courtroom tug-of-war between Popov and Hayashi took place against the backdrop of a city seized with playoff fever, as the Giants marched toward an eventual 2002 World Series berth. Bonds' record-setting home run derby was one of the sole bright points in the team's disappointing 2001 season, and Popov and Hayashi were girded for a fierce legal battle.

Central to the case was the Keppel Tape, footage of the home run and ensuing scuffle shot by local news cameraman Joshua Keppel from only feet away from where the ball landed.

The footage shows Popov thrusting his mitt up to glove the ball before disappearing under a swarm of fans. A minute later, a grinning Hayashi brandishes the ball for Keppel while Popov looks on, shocked.

Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy, presiding over the unusual property law trial, considered arguments based on old whaling laws, precedent-setting fox hunting cases, and laws about abandoned property. He even convened a summit of experts, during which the case law was applied to the legal quandary: Just what constitutes possession of a baseball that lands in the stands?

In the end, McCarthy issued a December 28, 2002, ruling worthy of King Solomon. Since Popov did briefly have control of the ball, and since Hayashi ultimately ended up with it and could not be shown to have caused Popov to lose it, both men, said McCarthy, had "equal claim under the law." 

Ball for sale

Once courtroom adversaries, Popov and Hayashi now found themselves on the same side of the bargaining table.

It was an uneasy truce: During the trial, Popov had alleged that Hayashi bit, scratched and clawed his way to the ball, and even brought in a teenager to testify that he'd been bitten in the knee. The witness proved unconvincing, and McCarthy summarily struck down the assault portion of the suit.

But the unlikely duo had much at stake from their court-ordered partnership.  Neither would say how much their legal tabs amounted to, but Popov, who reportedly paid his lawyer by the hour, hinted that his debt was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while Hayashi cut a deal with his legal team for a contingency fee based on a percentage of the ball's sale.

With the ball's estimated value of $1.5 million in their sights, Popov and Hayashi set out to do exactly what Barry Bonds and everyone else in San Francisco seemed to suggest during their aborted squabble: Sell the ball and split the proceeds.

With the aid of a sports memorabilia agent, Mike Barnes, Popov and Hayashi chose an auction house, Leland's, and launched a media blitz aimed at jacking up the ball's price.

Meanwhile, the ball had been freed from its prison during the trial -- a safe deposit box in Milpitas, California -- and was ushered by a white-gloved concierge to parties held by both men.

Popov had long promised to hold a "touching party" if he won the ball. And on June 14, he had his chance.  At a restaurant near Pac Bell park, Popov and a sparse crowd milled about a table lined with press clippings, a television showing the Keppel tape, and the Spalding softball mitt that first touched Bonds' home run.  Popov snapped photos of his friends with the ball in a makeshift photo studio complete with a curtained backdrop and gold lame tablecloth.

Earlier that day, Hayashi held an understated barbeque with friends and family.

Those brief moments with the ball reflected the two men's contrasting styles. The aggressive Popov worked as a de facto paralegal during the trial to defray costs, and could often be seen scurrying around before trial connecting A/V cables and shuffling through court documents. Hayashi kept mostly to himself and let his lawyers do the talking.

Throughout the postcourtroom travels, the ball was shuttled from party to party, and eventually to New York. On Wednesday, as it sat on the auction stage in a glass case lined with black velvet, the two former adversaries traveled around Manhattan in a limousine from one media appearance to another until it was time for auction.

Experts contacted by when the ball first hit the market hinted at a variety of reasons why the ball might not have reached its expected $1.5 million value: The market for collectibles dropped along with the economy, the record could soon be broken, and the hype surrounding the ball largely diffused with the delay in selling it. 

As a player, Bonds also doesn't carry the cachet McGwire did. "In terms of its significance to history, [Bonds' home run] is huge, but in terms of its value as a collectible there are lots of other factors, primarily player popularity, that come into play," said Joe Orlando, president of Professional Sports Authenticators.

A 38-year-old player with years left under his belt, Bonds isn't likely to stop setting records soon. In 2002, his 600th career home run also touched off a brief legal battle between four fans who later agreed to split the ball. And just this week, Bonds stole his 500th base to become the only player to hit 500 home runs and steal 500 bases in a lifetime.  

Nicholas DePace, a cardiologist from Philadelphia who lost Wednesday's fierce bidding battle with McFarlane, noted afterwards, "The only reason I didn't push him higher is because I thought the record could be broken in the next five or 10 years."

Popov was more optimistic. "We really believe this record is going to last forever," he said, adding he was thrilled to join the exclusive club of those who have caught record-setting balls, including Sal Durante, who gloved Roger Maris' 61st home run in 1961 -- "the 61 in '61."

Durante, who lives in Staten Island and attended Bonds auction, reflected on that historic day at Yankee Stadium. "I just went for the game that day," he said. "I wasn't thinking about catching a baseball."

With Hank Aaron's all-time home run record of 756 not far away, Popov v. Hayashi could some day be revisited. When asked Wednesday if the two former adversaries plan to attend that game together, Hayashi joked, "Absolutely. In the same section."

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