Up For Grabs

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/01/05 22:21:26

"When Barry Bonds is the voice of sanity, something's gone wrong."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

At the end of the 1961 baseball season, Sal Durante was lucky enough to catch Roger Maris’ record-breaking 61st home run. He promptly requested to be allowed to return it to Maris, thinking that the athlete would like to have a keepsake of his most famous accomplishment. Maris, in turn, wanted Durante to keep the ball, perhaps sell it for a little reward money - a nice gesture to a fan.

Anecdotes like this do not exist in the modern age.

“Up For Grabs,” an occasionally repetitive but always entertaining documentary from rookie filmmaker Michael Wranovics, follows the aftermath of Barry Bonds’ record-breaking 73rd homer. As you probably know, landing an important piece of sports memorabilia as this can earn a lucky fan a pretty penny on the open market - sometimes with auctions reaching into the millions. One reporter puts it this way: “It’s like winning the lottery, except you think you earned it.” Those last five words are crucial, especially in this tale. You see, two fans lay claim to the ball, both insisting that not only do they own the ball, but they deserve to own it.

Yes, the story is about two grown men fighting over a ball, which would be both ridiculous and sad - if not for the fact that it’s so very, very fascinating. Here we have a mystery (what exactly happened that day?), a courtroom thriller (participants discuss the legality of “almost possession”), and, above all, that human failing known as greed (both men will only be satisfied with a full share of the expected auction money).

Let’s start with the mystery. As the film opens, we’re treated to an in-depth analysis of news footage of the home run. A camera crew was lucky enough to be right where the ball landed, and by all accounts, it looks like Alex Popov snagged the ball in midair with his glove. He’s then tackled by a horde of fellow fans; the ball winds up in the hands of Patrick Hayashi, who, it seems, is caught on camera biting a teenager in the leg in an attempt to grab the ball. Witnesses recount how they’re certain Popov’s the one who grabbed the ball, and Hayashi’s just some sneaky opportunist. Open and shut, right?

Well, not quite. Other witnesses are soon brought in to tell of a “sucker ball” - that is, a ball with the word “sucker” written in magic marker that chaos-lovers throw into the stands during moments like this to cause a little extra confusion. We’re told that Popov wound up with a sucker ball. Open and shut, right?

Not even close. Problems arise with that version, too, and faster than you can say “Rashomon,” the fact that we have the whole mess on videotape doesn’t do a darn thing to help clear up which fan actually got the ball. (Wranovics obviously enjoys this conundrum, and well he should; there’s a devilish glee to be found in having such an unsolvable riddle despite such overwhelming evidence.)

Even if Popov did catch it and Hayashi did promptly snag it from him, what does that prove? Do children have the best logic of all (more than one interviewee brings up the precedent of “finders keepers, losers weepers”)? If so, is that justice? Wranovics smartly allows debate on all sides, never forcing a bias here.

That’s because he’s having too much fun letting the characters do their own thing on camera. We get much more access to Popov than to Hayashi, and while you’d think that such a move would land us supporting Popov, the man grows so unlikable over the year we’re with him that you begin to want him to lose, just to teach him a lesson. Indeed, both men are deserving of a good shaking, with more saner folks reminding us that they would’ve been so much wiser (and richer) had they just agreed to split the auction take in the beginning, instead of dragging things out for a year, piling on court and lawyer fees in the process.

And so “Up For Grabs” is, above all, a keen parable of the madness of greed. The sports memorabilia business is one that has created for itself a dark mindset, fans willing to do anything for some quickie fame and free money. Wranovics tells his parable with a great sense of wit and a bit of bemusement; like the viewer, he’s just a guy who marvels at the absurdity of a great human interest news piece. Lucky for us, he brought his camera.

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