''Up for Grabs" is a rarity for documentaries. The movie is a full-tilt farce, and were it not completely true, it'd be a piercing satire that Preston Sturges might have polished into a resonant screwball. As it is, this smartly assembled comedy articulates irritation with and bewilderment at its subject: the legal battle for possession of a baseball.
In defense of the litigants, two barely likable Californians, it's no ordinary baseball. It's the one Barry Bonds swatted out of Pac Bell Park for his 73d home run back in 2001. He'd already broken Mark McGuire's single-season record and was now just topping the stat with cherries, the most valuable of which is not the record-breaking one (that was No. 70) but the last one of the season. When No. 73 flies into the stands, it is caught by Alex Popov, who, in the ensuing melee, loses his grip on it, only to suffer the indignity of having another fan, Patrick Hayashi, claim the multimillion dollar ball as his own.
Fortunately for the director of ''Up for Grabs," Michael Wranovics, and for us, a television news cameraman was up in the stands with a reporter to capture what transpired. The footage is played like the Zapruder film, and Popov, frustrated with Hayashi's refusal to relinquish the ball, or refusal to even discuss relinquishing it, does what any steamed American would do. He hires a lawyer, and the two men find themselves in a custody battle that, briefly, made the entire Bay Area, if not the nation, smirk.
The ensuing carnival mocks common sense, acquiring a surreal air incongruous with the altered political state the country was in. The nonsense began less than a month after Sept. 11 and about a day after American troops invaded Afghanistan. Still, Popov presses on with his case and its increasing lack of monetary urgency: The longer the matter takes to get to trial, the more the ball's worth diminishes.
Wranovics has amazing access to Popov, an aging, moneyed frat boy. It was the cryptic Hayashi who seemed destined for villainy. But you come to realize that Popov, who when we meet him seems wronged and victimized, is possibly a sociopath and definitely a jerk. At one point he says he's going to his lawyer's office, and his willowy girlfriend, who admits that she'd rather not spend any more time with him there, drops him nearby. Moments later, we see Popov walk into a bar and proceed to use the case to pick up women.
The movie is zanily garnished with minor players, such as the excellent sports writer Gwen Knapp, who covered the story for the San Francisco Chronicle and discusses the case while, in the background, her cat climbs on the furniture. We also meet some of the folks who were standing near Popov when No. 73 sailed into their lives. One of those guys, a dentist, is a wisenheimer who conducts an interview while working on a patient. Yet despite the auxiliary silliness, Wranovics knows what the story is and tells it shrewdly.
No. 73 is compared with other milestone baseballs. We meet, for example, Sal Durante, the man who caught Roger Maris's 61st homer when he was 19. And, surprisingly, each man seems to have a claim to legal possession. The judge in the trial -- and his reasoning -- appears to be the oddball icing on this only-in-Northern-California cake.
Actually, maybe the icing is that mystifying Major League Baseball umpire who's called as a witness. Or perhaps it's the flummoxed young fan whose leg Hayashi chomped: ''After seeing all the evidence," he says from the witness box, ''I have no doubt he bit me." Wow. That's actually as good as anything Sturges ever wrote.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.