Register Tuesday | June 25 | 2019

Getting Hold of It

<i>Up for Grabs</i> could be the best baseball movie of its generation—and, possibly, a major-league bummer

The autumn of 2001 was a trying time for America. For one thing, there was that torrid legal battle between two grown men over a baseball. On the last day of the season that year, in San Francisco, Barry Bonds hit his record-setting seventy-third home run into the arcade of what was then Pac Bell Park (now called something like the SBC-Fox-Disney-Time-Warner-AOL Stadium).

In anticipation of this historic inevitability, McCovey Cove, the marine area just beyond the outfield, was a riot of kayaks and baseball mitts. TV cameras prowled the bleachers. Fans jittered ravenously. Everybody knew that the ball would be worth, approximately, a shitload of money. So when one guy caught it, but another walked away with it (thronged, of course, by stadium security), you can imagine that some hell broke loose.

For today's aspiring documentarian, hell breaking loose is useful stuff. So when Mike Wranovics read the headline, "Things Get Ugly in Battle for Ball-Man Loses Fortune at Bottom of Pile," in the paper the next day, he immediately got busy on his first film-which has turned out to be one of the best movies about baseball in a long while. No, you don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy Wranovics' scrappy documentary, Up for Grabs. Just don't start here if you hope to become one.

Yet instead of bunting with the sanitized mythology that baseball movies have been regurgitating for years, Wranovics hits a defiant drive. He knows what a movie about having balls needs to have.

Because the film concentrates on the publicly invidious relationship between the ball's claimants (Alex Popov and Patrick Hayashi), the filmmaker has said in an interview that his project "isn't really about baseball." His point is well taken, but too defensively modest. Wranovics is an obvious fan, and an amateur filmmaker in the most appealing sense; certainly, Up for Grabs has something essential to say about modern sportsmanship. Yet instead of bunting with the sanitized mythology that baseball movies have been regurgitating for years, Wranovics hits a defiant drive. He knows what a movie about having balls needs to have.

Thus, as Up for Grabs elucidates the rancorous possession problem at its story's core with existing TV footage, supplemental interviews, and easygoing analysis, it recasts the cherished American national pastime as a spirited, highly competitive sport of media-baiting litigation. Mercifully, the director hasn't wrought a ponderous manifesto: Up for Grabs is just an eagerly assembled debut documentary, and it radiates a first-timer's heedless charisma. With a bemused attitude that never wholly descends into cynicism, Wranovics demonstrates what it really means to be a good sport.

He's a consummate spectator, keen to canvass the many witnesses abetting Popov and Hayashi's conflict. Foremost among them was TV cameraman Josh Keppel, who managed to capture two significant moments: Popov catching the ball and Hayashi holding it, along with a less clear view of the melee that ensued. (Keppel half-jokingly likens his tape to the Zapruder film, and in fact, Up for Grabs relies on enough of his footage that it credits him as director of photography and co-producer.)

The cast also features a reporter who'd been assigned to cover ball-game security that day, in the wake of America's military campaign in Afghanistan, but who intuited that "the more important story was the Bonds home run;" some mouthy, non-partisan fans offering their two hilarious cents; the presiding judge, who found the Popov/Hayashi case intriguing for its property law implications; the lawyers; Barry Bonds; Sal Durante, who long ago caught Roger Maris's sixty-first single-season home-run ball; the young man whose leg Hayashi is said to have bitten while grabbing the Bonds ball from Popov's glove; and the dentist who offered to make a mould of the bite mark in an attempt to match it to Hayashi's mouth.

If you don't remember how the affair was resolved, I won't spoil it except to reiterate an observation made to Wranovics by the auctioneer who finally sold the ball off: In the end, "it sold for what it was worth."

But Wranovics doesn't neglect his principals; in fact he presents them most shrewdly, by allowing them to present themselves. Popov gets much more screen time than Hayashi, but this is plainly a function of each man's relative appetite for the camera's attention, not some preconceived directorial scheme. Wranovics would sooner sympathize than moralize, but he still manages to maintain a healthy distance from both parties, engaging us by complicating our own sympathies.

At first, Popov comes across as open, outgoing and legitimately aggrieved-Hayashi's reticence, by contrast, reads suspiciously. But after the legal gymnastics get underway, Popov begins to bask in the attention. He calls the watchful camera a chick magnet, boasts to a woman in line at the ballpark, "I'm the guy who caught it," and seems like a Will Ferrell character. Now Hayashi can emerge as the picture of decency and self-discipline, without really doing anything. When the narrative requires the two of them, without their lawyers, to pose together for a series of photo-ops (remember, this all actually happened), you don't know what to think. But you may feel a little queasy.

Beleaguered aficionados will at least consider it a great relief that the movie isn't about doping. But Wranovics has no time to dwell on players' peccadilloes because he rightfully is too preoccupied with those of the fans, punch-drunk on the anti-social allure of easy-money memorabilia. It is to the director's credit that now, paradoxically, a story that seemed to take longer than forever to play out, and wasn't worth a single minute more of media attention when it finally ended, fits so comfortably into an entertaining hour and a half.

If you don't remember how the affair was resolved, I won't spoil it except to reiterate an observation made to Wranovics by the auctioneer who finally sold the ball off: In the end, "it sold for what it was worth." And if you'd still like to take away an American-Dream allegory, one is available. Wranovics, a former marketing executive whose job had bored him to resignation, knew he wanted to be a filmmaker, but he didn't really know how to do it until being grabbed by the prospect of Up for Grabs. Even then, the way wasn't clear, as some wary investors suspected, and he went broke more than once figuring it out. But he got the movie made. It's good for many reasons-perhaps the most heartening of which is that it didn't cost him his love for the game.

Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.