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Worth Its Weight in Horsehide: Barry Bonds' disputed home run of 2001 resides in a safe-deposit box during court proceedings.


The new documentary 'Up for Grabs' shows how a baseball turned into an apple of discord

By Richard von Busack

LESS THAN a month after our lives had been changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001, less than a month after we learned that all Americans were in the same boat, two typical Americans got it on for a session of bloodthirsty litigation known as Popov v. Hayashi. In the end, the case could only be shelved next to The Treasure of Sierra Madre as an account of bootless greed. The documentary Up for Grabs by Michael Wranovics is the definitive account of this farce. It's a breezy, funny, smartly edited and hugely entertaining tale of a local battle over a home-run ball.

The disputing fans were Berkeley restaurateur Alex Popov (pronounced Pope-ov) and former area man Patrick Hayashi. On Oct. 7, 2001, both were among the fans enjoying Barry Bonds' free baseball-distribution program. Bonds had homered a record 72 times. We see all 72 homers in a quick montage: a rapid change of angles as the ball is hit as a ball ought to be hit, in stadiums all over the country. Baseball is the rare spontaneous moment on television, even among the glut of reality shows. I hadn't revisited that season since it happened, and it struck me again what a solace Bonds' streak had been in the aftermath of the terror attacks. Wranovics is too unsentimental to make that point, so I'll do it. (At the beginning, the film alludes to the current steroid scandal, although it adds that this movie isn't about Barry Bonds, it's about the ball.)

Then came ball No. 73, which disappeared into a scrimmage of fans. Hiyashi apparently caught it, but soon afterward, Popov begin to claim that he had gotten to it first. He claimed that Hayashi had snatched the ball away with what he, Popov, describes here as "primal acts." News cameraman Josh Keppel—auteur of what was later known as the "Keppel Tape"—caught the moment. He also seems to have filmed Hayashi allegedly biting the alleged leg of an alleged bite victim who'd allegedly got in his way. The fun began in earnest when Popov rounded up some 20 witnesses. Indebting himself to the tune of $164,000, Popov hired lawyers to sue his rival, and the court case dragged on. What went unheard was Bonds' own Cassandra-like warning that in the end only the lawyers would win.

As we wait for the verdict, the fans are interviewed. The ones who put forth Solomon's solution include newscaster Wayne Friedman. Up for Grabs features a roster of Bay Area sports commentators: Ted Rowlands blowing a take and saying "Fuck me" on-camera, the Chronicle's Gwen Knapp, Lori Aratani and Mark Purdy of the Merc, Lisa Beckett of Channel 11, the dapper, ivory-toothed Mark Ibanez, Jon Miller and KNBR's Duane Kuiper and Mark Krukow. Stomach-turning scenes of the end of the World Series 2002 are here for those who can bear to revisit such agony. There is a nugget of substance under this squabble. Wranovics tracks down one Sal Durante, who caught Roger Maris' then-record breaking ball in 1961. Durante's own conduct shows what the game was at its best. Popov v. Hayashi, unfortunately, shows what the game can be at its worst.

Up for Grabs (Unrated; 90 min.), a documentary by Mike Wranovics, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the April 20-26, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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