Authenticating Strasburg balls and dirt
As I was talking with Michael Posner on Monday afternoon, he was staring at a couple of buckets of dirt in his office
Ok, not just any dirt. Genuine, authenticated dirt from the first Major League mound that Stephen Strasburg ever pitched off of. The dirt had the holograms to prove it.
Ok, the dirt didn't actually have holograms, but the buckets did. In fact, the holograms were over the seal of the buckets; if the seal is ever broken, so too would be the holograms.
"There's a full chain of custody on this dirt, so it's not just dirt from any old Little League park," said Posner, the manager of Major League Baseball's authentication program. "This is legitimately authenticated as the dirt from the ground of Stephen Strasburg's first game, and will carry a chain of custody all the way through. We take our dirt very seriously."
Posner, of course, laughed as he said this, but he wasn't joking. He's usually the traffic director for the decade-old authentication program, only venturing out for things like All-Star Games and the World Series. But he came to Washington for Strasburg's debut, which was attended by three authenticators.
They authenticated scads of items for the Nationals, who had requested a variety of specific objects. They authenticated balls. They authenticated bases. They authenticated Strasburg's jersey and cap. They authenticated the lineup cards from the dugout walls, and the manager cards that are exchanged at home plate. They exchanged Strasburg's rosin bag; "usually they're taped up at the end, which provides a good surface for the seal," Posner said, when I asked how one holograms a rosin bag.
Two of these items were destined for an MLB.com hosted auction; the ball that was used to record Strasburg's second strikeout, and the bag that served as first base for the fourth through sixth innings. The proceeds will be divided among several parties, including MLB.com and Strasburg himself; its the first time the authenticating group has helped facilitate an auction like this for a player making his MLB debut.
Strasburg triple-inscribed that ball on the night of his debut, putting "MLB Debut," "14 Ks" and "1st MLB Win" on the ball; Posner told him he was not to use the same triple inscription on any other ball, to preserve its uniqueness. As of this writing, that ball -- which will be awarded to the high bidder as of Tuesday night -- has already passed $12,000.
Posner, though, is less interested in the dollars and cents than in the history, the idea that he and his authenticators -- current or ex-law enforcement officials chosen on an invitation-only basis -- can vouch for items from the field directly to the display case. Authenticators were stationed in the camera well directly next to the Nats' dugout, which is how he can guarantee, for example, that the ball used for Strasburg's 12th strikeout was also used for his 13th and his 14th.
"We look at it as the opportunity to record history," Posner told me. "Who among us wouldn't love to go back in time and designate for historical purposes the last pitch of Don Larsen's perfect game, Babe Ruth's first at-bat, the ball that went between Bill Buckner's legs.
Many of these items, of course, went to Strasburg himself. Some will be kept in archives by the Nats, and some went to the Hall of Fame. MLB authenticators are at every Major League game, but the Strasburg game -- dirt and all -- took things to another level.
"This is kind of the first time anything like this had happened," Posner said of the Strasmas hype. "We're agnostic to value, to ownership, to all of these things. Our prime diretive is what did you witness? This is what you witnessed. Now record the history."
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