Major League Baseball Tracks Memorabilia

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Major League Baseball's authentication program was instituted after an FBI investigation revealed massive fraud in the baseball memorabilia market. Teams of authenticators verify which items are the stuff of legend, and those that are fakes.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Hey, the New York Yankees are still alive in the American League Championship Series. They beat the Texas Rangers last night at Yankee Stadium. That sends the series back to Texas with the Rangers leading three games to two. No matter which team makes it to the World Series, the bats, balls, and even bases they use will likely wind up in a display case somewhere, part of the massive baseball memorabilia market. Of course if you're going to buy that stuff, you would want to know if it's real. NPR's Mike Pesca can help.

MIKE PESCA: Conjure up the most amazing moments in baseball history. Jackie Robinson steals home in the World Series, Willie Mays tracks down Vic Wertz's fly to deep center, Carlton Fisk drops his bat to coax a fly ball fair. You think of the athleticism, you think of the presence of mind, unless youre Michael Posner, and then you think what ever happened to that plate, that ball, or that bat.

Mr. MICHAEL POSNER (Manager, Major League Baseball's authentication program): Were there to record history on a nightly basis.

PESCA: Posner is an authenticator, actually manager of major league baseballs authentication program. He's in charge of keeping strait which physical objects are the stuff of legend and which are telling tall tales when they show up on Ebay claiming to be game worn, game used or game slid into. The authentication program was instituted in 2001 after an FBI investigation revealed massive fraud in the baseball memorabilia market.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

PESCA: At Yankee stadium yesterday Posner was on hand to oversee a three-man rotation of authenticators. There was a distinct possibility that the Texas Rangers, could qualify for the World Series. Cosmo Lubrano, like all the authenticators at the game, is a New York City policeman, useful because authentication is really just bagging evidence and establishing a chain of custody. When the Yankees won the series last year, it was Lubrano who recorded the last out recorded.

Mr. COSMO LUBRANO (New York City Policeman, Authenticators): We gave them a couple of seconds and ran out on the field. Mark Texierra, who knows the procedure, I asked him for the ball. He looked a little confused at the time, but he passed it over; put a label on it, handed it right back to him; and that was it. And actually, beginning of the season he thanked me, he remembered, and that ball was actually presented to George Steinbrenner.

PESCA: What these authenticators do is affix a hologram to every item, that corresponds to a bar code registered with the league office. And yes, they thought of what happens if you tried to peel off the hologram.

Mr. LUBRANO: The authenticity gone, it's - sorry, nothing we can ever do again in the future, so that's kind of lost forever.

PESCA: Posner and the authentication program doesnt assign value. The authenticators stay out of things once an item is certified as genuine. If a team wants a base, the team gets the base. If the Hall of Fame wants a uniform, they just need only to ask.

The value of yesterday's items would be determined by such factors as whether Ranger starter CJ Wilsons cutter was buzzing. It was not, as TBS announcer Ernie Johnson chronicled the damage.

(Soundbite of American League playoff game)

Mr. ERNIE JOHNSON (TBS Announcer): He'll be waived, the throw to the plate he is safe.

PESCA: The Yankees scored three runs in the second and added two in the 3rd. In between those innings, the bases were changed, tagged and stored. The same thing happened again in the fourth. Balls deemed scuffed were removed from play by the umpire to be recorded and tagged; aging beasts who would spend their days being admired, but never again return to the wild.

In the 6th inning the Rangers loaded the bases - the third set of bases for everyone scoring at home. If the Rangers were to come back this would be the moment, the value of all those hologrammed baseballs was riding on it. WCBS Radio's John Sterling had the call.

(Soundbite of American League playoff game)

Mr. JOHN STERLING (Radio announcer, WCBS): Here's the two-two, breaking ball, strike three.

PESCA: The Yankees would hang on to win, and the Ranger's champagne would stay corked, un-iced and unchronicled. Yes, even the champagne bottles are authenticated, or if a club chooses to use sparkling wine, the authenticator will even confer his version of authenticity on that too.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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