ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The ball David Ortiz hits for his 500th career home run will be one of the most sought-after souvenirs of the baseball season.
Ortiz, of course, will want it. The Red Sox would welcome the opportunity to display it at Fenway Park and, of course, any fan would love to catch it.
Before ownership of the ball is determined, the first step will be to authenticate it. Major League Baseball has a plan in place to make sure that happens — and quickly.
Three boxes of marked baseballs, 36 in all, were shipped to Tropicana Field and will be used if Ortiz reaches 499 home runs this weekend. The balls each have a unique letter and number combination and an additional “covert marking” to further identify them.
“I can’t tell you what that is,” said Michael Posner, who has directed MLB’s authentication program since 2001. “But we’ll know if it’s the right ball.”
Only 26 players in history have reached 500 home runs. Ortiz joining that group will be a special occasion for baseball.
“It’s a magic number,” Posner said. “Our job is to make sure the ball is properly identified. The last thing you want is some kind of dispute about the ball.”
Once the historic home run lands, Ortiz will trot around the bases and a team of experts employed by MLB will move in to authenticate it.
MLB employs 4-5 authenticators per team. They are independent contractors with at least 10 years of law enforcement experience and are further vetted by MLB. They work closely with teams to make sure balls, bats, gloves, and other pieces of equipment are legitimate and truly “game-used” before they are sold to collectors.
MLB started an authentication program in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing the single-season home run record. It has become increasingly sophisticated since.
Once a player comes off the field after the game, the authenticator greets them in the dugout or clubhouse and places a numbered and traceable hologram sticker on the item. The item is then registered in a searchable database.
MLB policy is to authenticate only items from the field of play.
“We can’t be 100 percent sure once a ball goes in the stands,” Posner said. “But for important milestones, such as 500 home runs, we have a procedure.”
Once Ortiz reaches 499 home runs, every plate appearance he makes will be carefully monitored. The home plate umpire will receive five or six of the marked balls and they will be put into play in sequence.
Ortiz and Red Sox interim manager Torey Lovullo have already been told what will be going on. The opposing teams also will be notified. The pitcher will have to throw out the ball he is using once Ortiz comes up.
Fans will not be allowed to change their seats in an attempt to catch the ball when Ortiz comes to the plate. The sections in the outfield will be “frozen” by security to prevent overcrowding and the potential of injury.
“If a fan catches the ball, we’ll look for the proper marking and bring the person to a more secure location and further authenticate the ball. It’s a two-step process,” Posner said.
MLB successfully authenticated Albert Pujols’ 500th home run last season and the home run Alex Rodriguez hit earlier this season to pass Willie Mays on the all-time list.
Once the ball is deemed authentic, the Red Sox will get involved. A team representative will negotiate with the fan to return the ball to Ortiz in exchange for tickets, autographs, a photograph, or something else. Clubhouse manager Tom McLaughlin will work with Ortiz to come up with a suitable exchange.
“We’re not involved in that,” Posner said. “Once the ball is authenticated we step away.”
Nothing is guaranteed, but most fans are willing to work with the player to come up with a swap.
Along with the ball, MLB will authenticate anything Ortiz requests. Players who reach significant milestones will typically get their batting gloves, cleats, uniforms, and hats authenticated.
Once Ortiz reaches 500, the Hall of Fame will coordinate with the Red Sox to have some memorabilia donated for display at Cooperstown.
“A lot of people will be interested in that ball,” Posner said. “The players I’ve spoken to appreciate what we do. Everybody wants to know it’s the right ball.”
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.