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Bonds’ Ball Lands in the Courtroom

From Associated Press

The outlook seemed just brilliant as the ball soared Popov’s way. Barry Bonds had crushed the homer; Popov gloved it in the fray.

But other fans were determined, and struggled for the ball. It was Barry’s 73rd, and worth a million, after all.

When the pile of men was lifted, and Alex Popov rubbed his eyes, he resolved to get a lawyer--another fan had grabbed his prize.

Somewhere in this favored land a catch is just a catch. Bleacher bums are smiling somewhere, and not fighting over cash. Somewhere men aren’t suing o’er an orb of scuffed cowhide.

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But there is no joy in this tale, which a judge will now decide.

For at least a precious moment, Popov might have managed the catch of a lifetime. But Patrick Hayashi, one in the crush of fans, hauled in the historic baseball.

And so began the he said-he said lawsuit over who should keep the record-setting ball.

In Popov v. Hayashi, it’s the law of the bleachers (where fans are obliged to scrap for every ball) versus the law of the land (which might give Popov the ball, if he can show he caught it cleanly).

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“Watch out for these lawyers, they’re going to destroy the game,” quips Jeff Brand, dean of the University of San Francisco law school and former owner of the minor league Reno Silver Sox.

The case has prompted plenty such “what-have-we-come-to?” refrains so common in litigious America.

“You go to catch a ball like that, you pretty much know it’s every man for himself until the cops come,” says major league umpire Jeff Nelson.

On the job, Nelson says he probably would have called Popov for an error. The baseball rulebook says a catch “is legal if the ball is finally held by any fielder.”

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Then again, ballplayers don’t get mobbed by competitors, and “possession” has an entirely different meaning off the field. If the law of the jungle prevails, no old lady or little kid would ever get a ball, unless the strongest guy at the park had a soft heart.

In fact, warns Stanford law professor Bill Gould, clubs could be liable if they don’t protect fans who hold a ball from the clawing mob.

“You can’t allow these matters to be resolved through assault,” says Gould, who helped settle the Major League strike in 1995 as president of the National Labor Relations Board.

California law entitles you to own something if no one else owns it and it’s in your physical control, even if for a second. In other words, the case may turn on whether Popov is a good fielder.

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Popov says he knows he caught it clean. No, the ball fell out before Popov hit the ground, insists Hayashi, who says he found it amid the scrum.

“I was robbed,” says Popov.

“I got (the ball) fair and square,” says Hayashi.

Thanks to a local TV crew, a few facts are beyond dispute.

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Popov clearly snagged the ball on the fly. As Bonds trotted the bases around Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Dennis Springer, Popov fell beneath a mass of fans, the ball lodged precariously in the webbing of his glove. A long minute later, with security guards still yanking people off the pile, Hayashi sheepishly revealed the ball to KNTV cameraman Josh Keppel.

Popov, 37, owns Smart Alec’s Intelligent Food eatery near the University of California, Berkeley campus. He grew up a San Francisco Giants fan in nearby San Jose, where he played five years of little league ball.

Hayashi, 36, is an electrical engineer and marketer at a Silicon Valley high-tech company. He says his father was a die-hard Giants fan--and may even have been “watching over me” that day--but he likes the Oakland A’s as well.

“I used to be an anonymous person, with a good life,” says Hayashi, “and now I have to defend myself against terrible accusations.”

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Popov’s suit claims Hayashi bit a third fan as he burrowed for the ball.

Major League Baseball is keeping away.

“We don’t want people fighting and all that stuff, but that’s just reality,” says MLB spokesman Pat Courtney. “They want the ball.”

And for good reason.

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Michael Barnes the Missouri-based agent-lawyer who brokered the sale of Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball, estimates No. 73 is worth more than $1 million.

Hayashi says he hasn’t thought about whether he might sell the ball--but he’s already contacted Barnes, who helped fetch $3 million for McGwire’s ball in 1998.

Barnes says he urged Hayashi to sell, and quick. If someone opens the 2002 season on pace for 80 homers, No. 73’s value could drop faster than a Texas Leaguer.

That seems plausible, given the San Francisco Superior Court has the ball under lock and key and a legal fight likely to last months set for court later this month.

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“If that ball hasn’t been sold, you’re going to have real hesitancy from buyers,” says Barnes. “It’s an awful lot to risk.”


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