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MLB making genuine effort to fight counterfeiting

Major League Baseball authenticated the ball hit by Mike Napoli for a key double in Game 1 by affixing a hologram sticker and unique code.

major league baseball

Major League Baseball authenticated the ball hit by Mike Napoli for a key double in Game 1 by affixing a hologram sticker and unique code.

From inside Canvas Alley, a narrow strip of Fenway Park real estate that provides ballpark employees field access, authenticator James Maher watched the grounds crew switch out the bases.

It was Game 1 of the World Series, end of the fourth inning. The grounds crew stacked the game-used bases on a wooden bench before Maher.

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He is a tall, burly man who spent 38 years as the chief court officer for Boston Municipal Court and played a small role in the climactic Fenway Park robbery scene in the movie “The Town.”

Maher reached for a roll of World Series hologram stickers and affixed one of the half-inch labels with unique alphanumeric tracking codes to each base. Then, he catalogued each item in a computer file. First base. 2013 World Series Game 1. Red Sox versus Cardinals. Fenway Park. Innings 1-4.

In a sport that markets and sells its history, authenticators ensure fans, players, collectors, and the Hall of Fame receive genuine game-used memorabilia.

Meanwhile, outside Fenway Park, Major League Baseball officials and code-enforcement officers patrolled the streets popular among souvenir peddlers before and after Games 1 and 2, cracking down on any unauthorized merchandise. They checked the authenticity of T-shirts and caps and confiscated fakes.

On Saturday night in St. Louis, MLB and local police will be out in full force, looking for counterfeit goods. During the 2011 playoffs, MLB seized more than 5,000 counterfeit items and more than 80 percent of the haul came from around the Cardinals home stadium.

With concerted efforts inside and outside Fenway Park and Busch Stadium, MLB is safeguarding its history and protecting fans from counterfeiters. From applying holograms to hiring law enforcement, MLB wants to ensure baseball lovers take home authentic products, whether buying a T-shirt that celebrates the Red Sox-Cardinals matchup or bidding for a base in a memorabilia auction. And since everyone wants a piece of the World Series action, efforts to ensure authenticity intensify as baseball prepares to crown champions for 2013.

“MLB’s anti-counterfeiting and authentication efforts are designed to put fans first,” said Major League Properties senior vice president and general counsel Ethan Orlinsky. “Each of these programs gives our customers confidence that, when they purchase MLB products and memorabilia, they are getting the quality and authenticity they richly deserve.”

Throughout the World Series, authenticators will be hard at work, verifying, labeling, and logging memorabilia from every game. Bases, balls, bats, and more.

In Game 1, an authenticator tagged and catalogued the ball Mike Napoli hit for a three-run double in the bottom of the first. He kept a close eye on the ball as it was tossed by an umpire to a ballboy, then to his position inside a camera well. The authenticators, all current or former law enforcement officials, follow a chain of custody procedure similar to that used with criminal evidence. The list of authenticated items from Games 1 and 2 included player jerseys, locker tags, lineup cards, the pitching rubber, home plate, and broken bats.

The FBI’s Operation Bullpen, an investigation into sports and celebrity memorabilia fraud in the mid-1990s, prompted MLB to create its authentication program. Industry experts consulted by the FBI estimated that more than half of autographed memorabilia is forged. The same experts estimated that autographed memorabilia comprises a roughly $1 billion-a-year enterprise with more than $100 million of forged memorabilia corrupting the market.

Operation Bullpen, according to the FBI, dismantled 18 forgery rings and prevented more than $15 million in economic losses due to “the seizure of tens of thousands of pieces of forged memorabilia through 75 search warrants and over 100 undercover evidence purchases.” And the FBI sting showed MLB that it needed to employ the latest technology and methods in counteracting counterfeiters. The authentication program started in 2001.

“Baseball is the biggest memorabilia sport,” said Michael Posner, manager of MLB’s authentication program. “So, as a leader in that category, we had to take the position to protect our fans, to protect the sport and to protect the players and clubs that are being ripped off in a sense.

“If you’re a fan of Dustin Pedroia and you end up buying a Dustin Pedroia autograph that’s fake, you kind of feel cheated by the whole thing, even if the player has nothing to do with it. So, the interaction is very negative.”

After a team wins the World Series, authenticators will place holograms on everything from equipment to champagne bottles. Any attempt to remove the tamper-proof hologram will cause it to break and call into question the item’s legitimacy.

By the end of the World Series, MLB will have a treasure trove of a few thousand authenticated items from the entire playoffs. And that collection likely will include dirt from Fenway Park and Busch Stadium.

Posner noted that “dirt is very popular” in the memorabilia world and that MLB sometimes collects it by the bucket full. Then, the bucket is sealed with holograms.

“On the authentication side, the most important thing from our standpoint is that we know that’s the ball or the item and where it is,” said Posner. “So, no one else can ever come forward and say they have it. It’s very important that we do that because there’s been instances in the past where no one’s really sure what happened with certain things.”

While the authenticators did their work inside Fenway Park, Orlinsky and Boston code-enforcement officers collected counterfeit goods outside. The knockoffs were another kind of treasure trove, one that lets MLB see the latest copycat designs and the new lengths to which vendors will go with fakes.

Orlinsky saw nearly a dozen different counterfeit designs in merchandise hawked by vendors before Games 1 and 2, totaling more than 50 counterfeit products.

There were hats with the Red Sox “B” lacking an official licensing mark, instead featuring cut-out labels. There were poor imitations of the MLB logo and New Era Cap Company insignia. New Era is an official MLB licensee. The stitching between the bill and the crown, the part that touches the forehead, looked ready to fall apart. And most obviously, there was no hologram to be found.

All official MLB merchandise carries a hologram sticker with a unique alphanumeric code and raised red stitching. For World Series merchandise, the hologram features the series logo.

The hologram is perhaps MLB’s most effective anti-counterfeiting measure. It takes counterfeiters time and money to even attempt to replicate holograms, never mind imitations with individual alphanumeric codes.

“The whole idea behind our strategy is we want our consumers to know that MLB and its business partners, its licensees, stand behind the product, said Orlinsky. “So, if something goes wrong, you have a place to go to. Somebody’s going to rectify that problem for you. . . . Often times the question gets posed to us, why do you care, you’re a big money-making machine? Who’s hurt? But there are a lot of victims of counterfeits.”

In other words, the impact of counterfeiting goes beyond lost profits for MLB and its partners, and T-shirts whose colors run when washed. In a statement to the Globe, David Hirschmann, president and CEO of the Global Intellectual Property Center at the US Chamber of Commerce, said: “The fake jersey won’t last but the damage to Massachusetts’ economy will, including to the 1.35 million jobs employed by the state’s innovative and creative industries.”

MLB makes sure the companies that manufacture its official products follow good work practices. Counterfeiters may not, potentially using sweatshops for mass production.

As part of what Orlinsky called a “multifaceted strategy” to combat counterfeiters, MLB educates its fans about the safety measures in place. Fans are told to look for holograms and cut labels and fake logos and poor workmanship, and the league emphasizes the larger economic havoc created by counterfeiters. Complementing consumer education and overt anti-fraud measures, MLB also has covert anti-counterfeiting features in place for both its memorabilia and merchandise.

Primarily, the covert features provide an extra layer of protection against fakes. But in some cases, such as when the league wants to mark a player’s jersey that will be worn again, they are a necessity. The covert system can place a tracking mark on a jersey that is invisible to the naked eye.

But it is often the trained eye that catches the most savvy and crafty counterfeiters. Boston’s code enforcement officers have been searching for problem products since 1999, walking the around Fenway during regular-season and playoff games. They started with about a dozen officers on patrol. Now, since they know what to look for, they go around with two officers.

“There’s very little activity because of the job we’ve done for so long, since 1999,” said Michael Mackan, chief of the code enforcement police. “People have been educated. People learn. [The counterfeiters] lose so much product and they get in such a jam that it’s not worth their while to travel to Boston. They actually root against us. With three World Series, two Stanley Cups, and two NBA championships [taking place] here, we’ve had a lot of practice in Boston.”

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.
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