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Keeping it real

Baseball authenticators a tough team to beat

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / October 22, 2008
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Once the first inning of every playoff game ends, Major League Baseball's authentication program goes into effect. During Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Fenway Park, groundskeepers rushed onto the field and replaced the bases. MLB authenticator and 37-year Boston police veteran Jim Carr waited for the bases in Canvas Alley, the field-level walkway with direct access to the diamond.

Carr laid the bases in a row and tagged each one with a specially designed hologram. He repeated the process after the second inning, then carted the two sets of authenticated bases to a closet deep beneath the ballpark.

The closet contains a treasure trove of memorabilia, everything from bases to balls to lineup cards to broken bats to the Korbel champagne bottles popped when the Red Sox clinched the American League Division Series. Every piece of memorabilia is registered as authentic in an MLB database by the coded hologram that disintegrates when removed, preventing the transfer from one piece to another.

When the World Series starts tonight, the treasure trove of more than 2 million pieces of authenticated memorabilia will grow again as baseball works overtime to safeguard its history and protect its fans from counterfeiters.

"Baseball sells its history," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer. "We want to ensure what our fans get is, in fact, authentic and genuine."

In the age of eBay and in light of ticket and merchandise fraud committed during the Super Bowl and NBA Finals, MLB recognizes that innovative measures are needed to keep counterfeiters away, whether they are attempting to sell fake memorabilia or unauthorized T-shirts and caps. To that end, MLB has instituted the authentication program, pushed hologram technology, and paid law enforcement to inspect merchandise vendors during the playoffs. Profits from the sale of legitimate merchandise go to the 30 MLB teams. Profits from game-used memorabilia can go to teams, individuals, charities, licensees, and MLB.

"Baseball is the only league that has an authentication program like this and has it for the entire season," said Mike Posner, who manages the program. "We have the ability to be on the spot when history occurs. For the World Series, we have three or four authenticators with specific roles to make sure we record that history properly."

When it comes to souvenir merchandise available from stores and street vendors, MLB has seized more than 4 million counterfeit units in the last five years, including 2,000 pieces since the start of the 2008 postseason. The seized merchandise is valued at approximately $160 million. But MLB's nonstop pursuit of counterfeiters is about more than the protection of its fans, merchandise, and money-making trademarks. It is also about curbing the kind of fraud that leads to annual losses of more than $250 billion and approximately 750,000 jobs in the United States.

According to law enforcement officials and MLB executives, the money lost to counterfeit goods often goes toward funding other illicit activities, including terrorism. Given the widespread impact of counterfeiting and intellectual property rights violations, President Bush signed the Pro-IP Act into law Oct. 14, allotting more resources to uncovering counterfeit operations and instituting stiffer penalties. It was good timing to raise awareness. For MLB, each playoff round raises the stakes.

"We are working 365 days a year on this sort of stuff," said Ethan Orlinsky, senior vice president and general counsel of MLB Properties. "But we tend to focus on areas and situations that are likely to attract more counterfeiters, which is why during the postseason we are at each one of the events. Counterfeiters tend to prey on innocent victims who are likely to make impulse purchases at or near the games they're attending, a keepsake saying, 'I was there.' "

Drawing a walk each game

As acting captain of the Boston code enforcement police, Chris "Tiger" Stockbridge patrols the area around Fenway Park, walking from Kenmore Square to Lansdowne Street to Yawkey Way in search of vendors with counterfeit goods. The Red Sox cover the cost of code enforcement during the regular season. MLB picks up the tab during the playoffs and sends a league representative with Stockbridge and his partner for part of the patrol.

Some nights, the streets are quiet and Stockbridge strolls around offering friendly greetings to legitimate vendors. They offer tips on where to find counterfeit merchandise. Some nights, he plays a cat-and-mouse game as vendors hawking illegal goods set up shop as soon as he walks past. On the night of Game 5, MLB - in cooperation with Stockbridge and his partner - seized 28 shirts from a legitimate vendor outside Fenway who received a box of bad merchandise. With recent championships for the Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots, Stockbridge has seen an increase in illegal activity.

"We're a victim of our success," said Stockbridge. "Boston sports teams are hot right now, so counterfeiting is hot. It's at an all-time high. We hadn't seen Celtics stuff on the street for years. All of a sudden, during the Celtics run in the playoffs, we were working with investigators from the NBA and Boston Celtics."

In his right breast pocket, Stockbridge carries a card decorated with five holograms: official MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and NCAA merchandise indicators. For law enforcement and fans, the holograms serve as a quick and easy reference for distinguishing real goods. For the 2008 playoffs, MLB introduced a hologram that fans could see and touch, with a raised red baseball stitch. MLB and OpSec Security Inc., which designs holograms, continually add new overt and covert details. OpSec plans to incorporate the sense of smell (baseball glove leather) and sound (several notes of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame") into its designs.

"Baseball wants to stay one step ahead all the time," said Jeffrey Unger, president of brand protection with OpSec Security. "They push us constantly to really enhance what we're doing. This [raised red stitch] was the outcome of about a two-year research and design effort."

Added Orlinsky, "Counterfeiting is an incredibly lucrative business. The more we force counterfeiters to spend to replicate what we do, the more likely they're not going to do it."

Full-scale enforcement

MLB first encountered significant levels of counterfeiting activity in the mid 1980s. When the FBI's Operation Bullpen investigation in the 1990s revealed a network of memorabilia forgers, MLB increased its anti-counterfeiting efforts to include the authentication program.

Today, MLB engages more than 90 law firms and investigative agencies in all the major cities and countries where baseball does business and counterfeiters operate. Agencies and law enforcement working in conjunction with MLB regularly conduct raids in China, Japan and Korea, as well as various locations in Europe, Latin America, and the US.

MLB will go to great - sometimes humorous - lengths to protect its end.

When Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria hit his first postseason home run during the ALDS, he had his bat authenticated with a hologram placed on the bottom of the handle. Longoria continued to use the bat with the hologram throughout the ALCS against the Red Sox. MLB authenticated the can of bug spray used on Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain during the 2007 American League playoffs and included the item in an online auction of postseason memorabilia. It went for $673.

Players often request everything from their equipment to their uniforms to dirt from historic games be authenticated, knowing the program protects them as well. During the course of the season, Jason Varitek will have all his catcher's gear authenticated.

"In markets such as Boston, where baseball has a long, storied tradition, people take a more significant interest in the game and in the merchandise," said DuPuy. "It creates more value, and wherever there's value, there are people who are willing to exploit that."

For the Red Sox, authenticators have tagged everything from autographed jerseys to the hand warmers used during last year's World Series to bricks and bleacher seats removed from Fenway Park. Memorabilia from the 2008 playoffs will be auctioned off online after the World Series. The bases Carr tagged may resurface there, ready for Boston bidders who want the real deal.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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