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Up for Grabs

Throughout history, there have been a number of great rivalries, some fun (“blondes vs. brunettes”), some serious (“Hatfields vs. McCoys”), and some somewhere in between (“PC vs. Mac”). However, many of the greatest rivalries stem from the sports world—Ali vs. Frazier, Celtics vs. Lakers, Dodgers vs. Giants—with genuine angst and emotion that spills over to the fans. On October 7, 2001, when Barry Bonds crushed home run #73 towards McCovey Cove at PacBell Park in San Francisco, an absurd new rivalry was born: Popov vs. Hayashi.

What's a baseball doing in a safety deposit box?

Webster’s dictionary defines a rivalry as a “competition; the act of competing as for profit or a prize.” In the case of Alex Popov vs. Patrick Hayashi, the prize was a record-setting baseball, and the potential profit was millions. Who caught it, who had it, who owned it, and who would profit from it? These questions, and much more, are well-chronicled in a hilarious documentary, ‘Up for Grabs,’ written and directed by Michael Wranovics, about the ensuing legal battle between Popov and Hayashi for custody of Bonds’ record-setting baseball. The documentary, co-produced by Michael Lindenberger, also featured cameraman Josh Keppel (the film’s Director of Photography), who had captured news footage of the catch by Popov and the possession by Hayashi, on tape. Dave Ciaccio handled post-production.

Director and producer, Mike Wranovics

Michael Wranovics has been a San Francisco Giants fan since he was 8-years-old. “I love baseball, and I’ve been hooked since my big sister took me to my first Giants game at Candlestick Park.” Wranovics, a Stanford MBA graduate who previously worked in the high-tech world, decided to take up filmmaking after the dot-com boom went bust. “I had always loved documentaries, and a light turned on after I saw Errol Morris’s ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ he says. “That film made me realize how a story could be told within the documentary format, with all of the drama and suspense of a scripted film.”

Today, partially as a result of ‘Up for Grabs’, Wranovics is in the sports business. “When I began work on ‘Up for Grabs,’ I had never made a film of any kind. I just thought I'd take a crack at it and learn on the go,” says Wranovics. “In the early stages, all I knew about the case was that Hayashi ended up with the ball, that the ball had supposedly been in Popov’s glove at some point earlier, and that both of these men had hired lawyers,” he continues. For Wranovics, the entire filmmaking process was one of discovery, and he learned about the “Keppel Tape,” the “bite,” the “sucker ball,” and a couple of guys in Vegas who wanted $100,000 for a snap shot they possessed, as the story took shape before his eyes.

The film’s elements of drama and suspense comically unfolded through the unscripted behavior of its protagonists, the “extrovert versus the introvert”, which was an initial draw for the filmmaker. “I was very intrigued by the contrast between Alex and Patrick. One guy could not get enough of the spotlight while the other had no interest in it whatsoever,” recalls Wranovics. “It was always clear who the star [Popov] of the film was going to be because of his love for the camera,” he continues. While Patrick remained a mystery, Alex’s aggressive, ‘win-at-all-costs’ behavior was reminiscent of the ‘Ugly American’. “Patrick seems to have come from a very different culture, one that does not encourage confrontation or attention-seeking, and I think audiences recognized those cultural differences in the two characters,” he says. As the film progressed, Wranovics sensed a change of audience perception with Hayashi. “I think some non-Asian Americans in the audience may have pre-judged Patrick early in the film due to their natural ability to more easily relate to Alex, but I definitely think that changed as they got further into the movie,” according to Wranovics.

Defendant Patrick Hayashi showing off the prize

During the court case, Hayashi received multiple offers from the Popov team to settle the case out of court, but he pressed for a trial, which resulted in the court exonerating him of any wrongdoing, and affirming his interest in the baseball. He was represented by attorney Donald K. Tamaki, a self-described Oakland A’s baseball fan, who was part of the legal team that successfully overturned the convictions of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, for their refusal to be interned during World War II.

Following the trial and auction (which fetched $450,000 for the ball), Hayashi completed his MBA at San Diego State University, and is currently teaching Financial Accounting at a university in Thailand. “I have always been interested in contributing to the knowledge in the world, and teaching is one way of achieving this,” says Hayashi. “I came to Thailand to experience a foreign country and better understand how the world is changing. It has been a very valuable experience to see such change first hand,” he says.

Hayashi, a Sansei (3rd generation) from Sacramento, is the son of Japanese American parents who were held in American concentration camps during World War II. “I have always been interested in the early Japanese American history since my mother, father, and grandparents were a part of it. I always feel obligated to do the best I can to honor my grandparents for the sacrifices they made,” he continues. “It must have been difficult for my grandparents to leave their home country and move to a new country, so foreign, so different. It is one reason why I choose to experience living overseas, to try and go through the process that they went through.”

Plaintiff, Alex Popov, demonstrating his catch during courtroom testimony

Initially released in 2005, ‘Up for Grabs’ has received many critical accolades and high praise within the industry, almost resulting in an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ based on the film. “I remember after one of our screenings at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Mike Reiss, one of the original producers and writers of ‘The Simpsons,’ came up to me to say how much he enjoyed the film, gave me his card, and told me that he was considering creating a Simpsons episode based on ‘Up for Grabs’,” recalls Wranovics. “Patrick Hayashi's role was to be played by Bart, and Popov was going to be played by Mr. Burns,” he continues. Reiss invited Wranovics to ‘The Simpsons’ offices on the Fox studio lot, where he met all of the writers, and sat down to watch the first 30 minutes of the film before the crew had to get back to work. Says Wranovics, “the episode never came to fruition, but it was pretty cool to have all of these Simpsons writers laughing as they watched our little documentary.”

Currently, Wranovics is working on a sports-related venture called “The Basketball Project”, but baseball was his first love. “I have such fond memories of just being at the ballpark as a kid. Even windy old Candlestick. There was no place I’d rather be,” he recalls. When asked if he’s ever been caught up in an ‘Up for Grabs’ moment, ironically, according to Wranovics, “I’ve never caught a ball at a game.”

* * *

‘Up for Grabs’ will be screened at the Japanese American National Museum on Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 2:00 p.m., with a question and answer session with the filmmakers, immediately following. The film was awarded the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2004.

© 2009 Japanese American National Museum

baseball film