Every so often, there is a film that perfectly captures what it means to be an American; a film so jarring in its accuracy that we recoil with the horror that someone has gotten it so right. Michael Wranovics’ stunning new documentary, Up for Grabs, is, at this time, one of the most insightful, entertaining films of the year; a work of biting humor that provides an unflinching look into the greed, self-absorption, and fanatical lust for fame that has come to substitute for actual living in these United States. Ostensibly a film about the battle over Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run ball, it is also a stunning look at what drives the American spirit; the very manner by which we have taken fame from an idle curiosity to a sense of entitlement bordering on legal right. Over the two-year period that this fight took place in the media’s glare, it seemed pathetic and sad, but condensed to 90 high-strung minutes, it almost becomes operatic in its tragic dimensions. There are no sympathetic heroes and tear-filled climaxes, but the grand gestures of the protagonists reach levels usually unseen in standard non-fiction. In many ways, the people involved act as if they are in an old-fashioned melodrama, playing their parts with self-conscious gusto and determination. And as we are fully immersed in our 24-hour, obsessively chronicled (but not at all analyzed) culture, they are no doubt performing for an unseen audience that they believe hangs on their every move. Usually, and pathetically, we do.
It all started on a crisp Autumn day in October 2001, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants smashed his record-setting home run on the last day of the season. As soon as the ball left the bat, the mad scramble began, and only Alex Popov seemed to have the best position to secure the prized piece of history. His glove towered above the rest of the crowd, and as cameras later proved, the ball landed firmly in his glove before he tucked it to his chest and fell to the ground. The crush of fans created a chaotic scene, and before anyone could know what was happening, Patrick Hayashi held up the ball and looked vacantly into the nearest camera. No one around him knew that he had it, but guards quickly stepped in and rushed him away to a secure location for the inevitable first press conference. But how had Hayashi gained possession when Popov so clearly caught it? Hayashi claimed that he found it on the ground, while Popov filed the counter-claim that he had it stolen from him while trying to keep covered on the ground. Instead of a nice human-interest story for the 6 o’clock news, we had the beginnings of a nightmare, only no one could have known how bad things would actually get.
Had these two men been anything other than mad dogs of selfish ego, they would recognized the logic in sharing the ball, splitting the proceeds at auction, and moving on with their lives. But as that would have ended the dance in the spotlight, the two men instead hired lawyers, P.R. agents, and used a compliant press to push their respective agendas–for Patrick, that he was an innocent bystander who fairly found the ball and was unfairly branded an opportunistic bully, and for Alex, that he got there first, only to be stripped of what he earned through pluck and luck. Much of
America paid attention, despite (or because of) the fact that two less sympathetic figures could not have been brought in from central casting. As we view the footage of the event, we can see that yes, Alex caught the ball and yes, Patrick was scrambling on the ground (and yes, he did bite that kid on the leg to get him out of the way), but unanswered questions remained: what about the rumor that Alex had actually been holding one of the many “sucker balls” that were often brought to big games to fool fans? A patron even steps forward with a picture that he says “proves” that Alex was indeed holding such a ball, which he’d gladly sell for $100,000, of course. And who did the pushing? And what was with Alex’s glove? And don’t we all have something better to do?
One of the wonders of the film is how well it conveys the idea that it takes but hours to convert a minor affair into a full-fledged cultural event, complete with attorneys, headlines, and endless rounds of interviews. And while Patrick is far from honorable, it is Alex who is the true villain of the piece; a man so full of his own importance that he uses his status as “the man who caught #73” to pick up chicks (not surprisingly, some bubbleheads actually take the bait). He conducts tours of the assorted media kingdoms like a man astride a white steed; a monarch visiting the poor, starry-eyed subjects who look to him for comfort and meaning. Needless to say, he has a generous slab of arm candy to make him appear even more glamorous (it’s telling that she chose to have her identity concealed after filming completed), and he’s never anything less than a well-tailored man on the move. He’s pompous, unreasonable, and childishly brash, but he soldiers on because no one ever tells him the truth. But even if they did, he’d likely dismiss their complaints as simple jealousy.
The judgment in the case is more tense than it has any right to be, but as I didn’t remember how this thing turned out (other than the fact that Todd McFarlane bought the ball at auction), I was genuinely riveted. Correctly, the judge ruled that there was in fact joint ownership, and the two men would split down the middle whatever they received from the ball’s sale–yes, exactly what should have been done from the outset. Now, two years after the incident, the ball had no doubt lost some of its appeal as a piece of memorabilia, but Alex (as expected) believed it would set a new record, eclipsing the $2+ million bid for Mark McGwire’s 70th blast back in 1998. Had Alex not been so myopic and obsessive, he might have realized that his day had passed, and that if you really want to make quick money in this country, you can’t let the people change the channel. Despite a pre-auction “ball touching party” organized by the deluded Alex and enough hype to choke a stable of horses, the ball went for a paltry $450,000, far below even the most conservative estimates. For most, the $225,000 would have set off fireworks and round-the-clock celebrations, but as Alex had over $600,000 in legal fees, he was immediately sent into a state of bitterness and depression. Moreover, he became even more self-righteous, actually blasting reporters for turning this “historic event” into a matter of money. It should surprise no one that the auction didn’t end things for Alex, as he refused to pay his legal bills (citing incompetence), which brought forth yet another lawsuit. I can only imagine that Alex will be in court about something related to this case for the next decade, followed of course by a messy suicide and “what ever happened to…” special on E!
An additional lecture about the sorry state of professional sports in this country is, needless to say, unnecessary, for few save the hopelessly naive believe the actions of overpaid prima donnas remain anything other than gladiator-style entertainment. Spectator sports continue to be fun and dramatic, but the athletic element is no longer relevant, as drug use, massive contracts, and TV deals long ago turned this shit into an ugly business. And we know that fans are creepily obsessive, violent, and as prone to greed as the performers themselves, so this isn’t an “us versus them” type of document. No, this is mere reportage–a desperate message from the front charting the decline not of innocence (even though the young man who caught Roger Maris’ 61st gave it back to the slugger, which would be inconceivable today), but of our ability to conceive of any human action that escapes the corrosiveness of commerce. Despite doth protesting too much, these men–like each and every one of the fans at
PacBell Park that day–cared little for history, or community, or even mere reflection. These were happy young entrepreneurs; seized by the need to buy, sell, and make a profit, regardless of the circumstances or impact on others. It’s on a lesser scale, of course, but what other philosophy is behind feeding the poor into the meat grinder of
Iraq for oil profits and corporate reconstruction contracts? Or deregulating to such an extent that clean air, food, and water has been reduced from an absolute minimum to an optional indulgence? That’s it, then — Do it quick, do it now, and by all means, do it for dollars. Do it as much as your greedy little heart desires.