In the fall of 2001, Americans had plenty to fret about: terror attacks, the military actions in Afghanistan and the collapse of the New Economy. But grabbing headlines and creating a furor out in San Francisco was a baseball, an innocent object caught up in what would become a million-dollar media circus and a sorry reflection on the newly united America. That ball, which was Giants slugger Barry Bonds' record-setting 73rd home-run ball, is the subject of Michael Wranovics' entertaining documentary Up for Grabs.
The sordid saga of Ball No. 73 was propelled by the actions of two men present at PacBell Park the day Bonds knocked his whiz-bang homer into the stands. As captured on tape by local news cameraman Josh Keppel, Alex Popov, in a standing crowd beyond the outfield, catches the ball and sinks into a mob of unruly, over-excited spectators. After a minute of mayhem, another man, the preternaturally quiet Patrick Hayashi, appears in the clearing, calmly holding the ball. The ball that, by the way, just might be worth a couple million dollars on the sports-memorabilia market. Hayashi is whisked away by security; Popov cries foul; and the battle lines are drawn.
The ensuing spectacle -- including charges of biting, and each man's earnest declaration that the fight is over principle, not money -- plays out in the media, providing Wranovics' film with a natural, and increasingly bizarre, storyline. He's not alone: The sports journalists that Wranovics interviews tut-tut that two grown men are fighting over a baseball, but as writers they are cackling with glee at the ready-made headlines.
Yet, ironically, the longer the investigation goes on and the more witnesses who come forward, the murkier the facts get. The eyewitness accounts are wholly believable -- after all, these were bystanders with little to gain -- yet contradict each other wildly. Like the Zapruder film, the "Keppel Tape," while clearly documenting the moment, never reveals the truth, but only adds confusion.
Naturally, like all great contemporary American rivalries, this one goes to court, where an enthusiastic judge agrees to settle the dispute while marveling at the extraordinarily fine points of property-rights law this case will turn on. And the judge is right about the case's capacity for endless debate: Up for Grabs is the sort of film that amuses and intrigues, offers a real-life resolution, but remains open for post-screening analysis on topics as juvenile as "I got it first" vs. "finders keepers" but also as multi-faceted as just what is so horribly wrong with our culture of greed and celebrity worship. It's enough to make you feel sorry for the poor ball.