Up For Grabs
Years ago, comedian Dana Carvey had a funny and incredibly insightful line about a grapefruit.
He said that you could put a grapefruit on TV, 24 hours a day, where people would see it as they were flipping through the channels (this was back before TiVo, [shudder]). Then, after everyone had seen it, you could take the grapefruit, display it at any shopping mall in the country, and, sooner or later, John Q. Consumer would be nudging his companion as they walked by and whispering, in a slightly awestruck voice, "Honey! That's the grapefruit that's on TV."
It is American popular culture that is ultimately the subject of Up For Grabs, a documentary by director/writer/co-editor Michael Wranovics about the legal battle over the baseball Barry Bonds hit for his record-setting 73rd home run in 2001. The movie claims, in an opening title card, to be "about the ball," but the baseball, like Dana Carvey's hypothetical grapefruit, is really just a prism through which the absurdity of 21st century American mass media is refracted. Playing like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, every frame of Up For Grabs is gloriously, painfully real.
The film begins with footage of Bonds hitting his record-setting 73rd home run, footage shot by San Francisco news cameraman Josh Keppel, who happened to be standing on the arcade walkway above the leftfield wall at San Francisco's Pacific Bell (now SBC) Park, mere feet away from where the ball landed. The opening credits run as the scene unfolds, unedited and with no context given. This is the last time that a non-baseball fan could possibly be confused about the subject matter, however, as Up For Grabs proceeds with a primer on home run record history, beginning with Roger Maris, continuing on to Mark McGwire and moving on through to Barry Bonds. Sal Durante, who caught #61 off the bat of Roger Maris, is interviewed, as are the fan who caught Bonds' #71 and the fan who dropped #72 (Dodger outfielder Marquis Grissom recovered the ball, which apparently made its way back to Bonds).
By the time the stage is set for #73, only a willfully ignorant filmgoer could be unaware of what's at stake (after all, we are told, McGwire's record-setting #70 from 1998 was sold for a cool $2.7 million). When the moment finally comes, as Keppel's videotape shows, the ball is initially caught by a man named Alex Popov and, after several moments of chaos, ends up in the hands of a man named Patrick Hayashi. Immediately, Popov begins his cries of "I wuz robbed!" (and, initially, you can't blame him). Long story short, Popov sues Hayashi, and the case goes to court.
The details of the case unfold in a way that doesn't need to be discussed here; if you're familiar with the dispute then you already know them, and if you aren't familiar with the dispute then you're bound to be delighted at the way the film collects the stories of Popov, Hayashi and several other eyewitnesses, many of whom offer conflicting stories and all of whom know what they saw, damn it. Again, if you don't know baseball, don't worry; one would have be completely ignorant not only about sports but about the news media, fame, the legal system and the influence of money on any and all of the above not to find something resonant in Up For Grabs.
From Popov to Hayashi, from the dentist eyewitness clearly (and harmlessly) enjoying his tiny sliver of the spotlight to the Confucius-meets-Ed Wood delight of a former umpire who takes the stand at the trial, the film is packed with as many interesting characters as any work of fiction that's shown up on screen in several years. In fact, I would dare say that Up For Grabs deserves a place alonside The Natural, Field of Dreams and Major League among the most memorable of modern baseball movies. Unfortunately, the film is playing on a very small number of screens (only two here in Los Angeles, for example), so it may be quite a chore to find it. Well, it's worth the effort. Up For Grabs is an indispensable time capsule of American life in the early 21st century; after all, what could possibly be more quintessentially American -- modern American -- than an American citizen named Popov creating a relative media frenzy by taking an American citizen named Hayashi to court over a supposedly priceless baseball that, had it never been hit by anybody famous, would be worth about five bucks?