Special for Infobae of The New York Times.
The baseball that Aaron Judge felt screaming into the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for his 60th home run of the season was different from his other 59 home run balls this year.
The baseball that Aaron Judge hit into the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, September 20, and which became his 60th home run of the season, was different from the 59 other balls he homered this year .
It was a special ball, prepared just for him, and the rest of the balls he will try to hit this year will be equally distinctive. They won’t have an extra bounce or raised laces or anything that could affect your flight patterns.
But they will be marked with something so secretive and subtle that Major League Baseball (MLB) refuses to reveal exactly what it is.
It’s all part of MLB’s authentication program, an elaborate system designed to ensure that memorabilia and game memorabilia are verified as authentic. The program first came into action for Judge in the ninth inning of the New York Yankees’ victory on Sunday, September 18, at Milwaukee, in his first trip to the plate after hitting 59 home runs.
From then on, all the balls Judge will be thrown for the rest of the season, as he seeks to surpass the Yankees and American League record of 61 home runs (set in 1961) in a single season held by Roger Maris , will contain two special marks.
One is an encoded template visible to the human eye. The other is a covert mark that requires special technology to be seen. The ball that was retrieved by a fan and given to Judge following the Yankees’ dramatic win Tuesday night against Pittsburgh was examined and verified as the correct ball.
“It had the right markings,” said Dean Pecorale, the MLB authenticator who gave his stamp of approval to the ball and other items Judge had asked to be authenticated.
The same goes for Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger who has 698 career home runs. As he nears the 700 mark, MLB executives have attached the same kind of covert branding to every ball that will be thrown at him for the rest of the season to ensure no ill-intentioned character can falsely claim he has in his possession a ball that established an important record.
“That allows us to verify some of the biggest moments in baseball history,” said Michael Posner, senior director of MLB’s e-commerce and authentication department. “How often does a player hit 700 home runs or set the American League home run record, beating greats like Ruth and Maris?”
The basic program, in which former law enforcement officers observe items used in a game as they walk off the field and affix a coded holographic sticker to them, isn’t just for record-setting events. It’s in operation for every Major League game and has been for two decades. It simply increases in intensity when a major record or milestone approaches.
In addition to the secret markings on the balls, MLB has assigned an additional authenticator to track Judge and Pujols. Pecorale, a retired New York City cop whose first authentication at Yankee Stadium came in 2011 when Derek Jeter hit his 3,000th single, had a task Tuesday: Judge.
“There was a time when players didn’t really understand the program,” Pecorale said. “But most understand it now. Aaron definitely gets it. He looks for us”.
The MLB authentication team was established after a ring of fake autographs and memorabilia was uncovered with the help of Tony Gwynn, a Hall of Fame outfielder for the San Diego Padres. Gwynn, who could spot a fake autograph as quickly as hitting a slider, noticed in the late 1990s that some items purportedly signed by him were forgeries.
That led to an FBI investigation called Operation Bullpen, which determined that nearly three-quarters of the autographs on the market were fake. The investigation resulted in dozens of convictions and led to MLB creating its authentication unit so that teams and players could verify their memorabilia and, in some cases, convert it into a good amount of money, at least a portion of which is often used for support charities.
The system relies on some 230 retired law enforcement officers, holographic stickers and a chain of custody that could stand up to the most skeptical criminal judge. Typically, two authenticators take up positions, one next to each dugout in every stadium and every game. When a ball goes out of play, it goes to a tokenizer, like Billy Vanson, another retired New York City cop who worked Saturday’s game between the New York Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Citi Field. Vanson spent most of his 25-year career in the 108th Police Precinct.
Today, his “precinct” is a camera pit next to the Mets’ dugout. The out-of-play ball is thrown to Vanson, who attaches a holographic sticker to it and records exactly when it was used, before putting it away in a bag.
“As an authenticator, you see the game in a completely different way,” Vanson said Saturday. “You have to pay close attention.”
When the stakes aren’t as big as Judge’s home run record, an out-of-play ball authenticated in the third inning of a regular game can be bought from the team store by the time they hit the seventh inning. Using the information encoded in the hologram, a fan can identify the pitcher, the batter, the types of pitches and the speed of each.
During Saturday’s game, a fan paid $250 for the second base bag. After the third inning, when bases are routinely changed, an authenticator met maintenance personnel in the tunnel and affixed the decal to the back of the used base. They then gave it to a team executive, who handed it to the fan in the stands. Before the game, Vanson also authenticated Pete Alonso’s shin guard, at the Mets player’s request.
That is the daily routine. But when players like Judge and Pujols are close to reaching a major milestone or record, the secret marks are applied to two dozen balls for exclusive use in those players’ at-bats.
“We mark the balls before the game with a combination of letters or numbers and a covert mark that cannot be seen with the naked eye and does not work under a black light,” Posner said. “It is something very specific and it is not easy to have the technology to see it.”
The coded balls are given to the ball boys, who give three at a time to the umpire at home plate. The umpire tosses them to the pitcher in sequence, and they’re picked up once Judge and Pujols have finished their at-bats (that will continue for the rest of the season, regardless of whether they break the records).
After Judge’s 60th home run, a Yankees security guard met the fan who caught the ball and took him to meet Judge. The ball was handed to Judge, who in turn passed it to Pecorale. Secret markings were verified, thus proving that the ball was authentic (in exchange, the fan received four autographed baseballs and a signed bat).
At that point, the work of the authenticators is done. They don’t care if the player keeps the item, sells it at auction, or sends it to the Hall of Fame.
“We’re agnostic about all of those things,” Posner said. “The important thing is to record the story in the moment. No one can falsely claim that they have the batting gloves from that 62nd home run. They will be able to tell, but if they can’t show the hologram with the correct numbering, we’ll know they’re not telling the truth.”