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May 19, 2005



Who's got the ball?
Eureka native to discuss his film
about that famous Bonds homer


OPENING LOCALLY THIS WEEKEND is an award-winning film about one baseball, two men and the distance between them. It is not a stirring tale about a great game of catch, or even the game of baseball for that matter.

Up for Grabs is a docu-comedy, coproduced and filmed by Eureka native Josh Keppel, about two stubborn San Francisco Giants fans, each claiming to be the rightful owner of slugger Barry Bonds' "million dollar" homerun baseball. Driven by some intoxicating mix of greed and ego rather than the spirit of good sportsmanship, the men waged a 14-month court battle that is chronicled with a dose of humor and a dash of scorn by first-time director Michael Wrancovics.

[Josh Keppel]"This is not like some serious investigation, we're kind of making fun of the whole thing," said Keppel, who will be in Arcata this weekend in conjunction with the opening of the film at the Minor.

Keppel, whose footage the battle for the ball became the basis for a court case, got his start as a videographer at KVIQ-TV in Eureka and eventually moved to San Francisco, where he works as a cameraman for NBC affiliate KNTV in San Jose.

"I think that this is one of the most exciting premieres for me because this is my hometown," Keppel said. "I can't wait."

Following both evening screenings on Saturday, May 21, Keppel will host an audience Q&A about his four-year venture making Up for Grabs.

The whole thing started on Oct. 7, 2001, when San Francisco Giants phenom Bonds hit his record-setting homerun at the final game of the season in PacBell Park.

"That morning was also the first day the United States started dropping bombs on Afghanistan," Keppel said. "So our news director says, `We don't care about Barry Bonds, we don't care about baseball, we're at war. You can still go to the ballpark but we want you to do a story on heightened security,' because this is just three or four weeks after 9/11.

"So, we were at the ballpark doing our security story and I said to [reporter Ted Rowlands], `Hey, Barry's coming up. It's the bottom of the first. Let's get up there and try and get a shot of him.'"

What Keppel got was more than he bargained for.

[man holding baseball]Climbing onto an empty wooden bench reserved for still photographers, Keppel, 29, rose above a veritable sea of humanity to film Bonds' record-setting homerun ball as it scorched through an overcast sky and landed not far from where he was perched in the right field bleachers, a standing room only section known as the arcade.

A dog pile developed near Keppel's feet. Ravenous fans rooted around on the floor like hungry animals looking for the "million dollar" homerun baseball, Bonds' 73rd of the season. Who could blame them? When Mark McGwire set the single season record in 1998 with homerun No. 70, that ball sold for $2.7 million.

[Scene from Up for Grabs]

Keppel kept the tape rolling while the scrum writhed and barked for almost two minutes before a smallish man appeared, standing quietly amid the melee, cautiously holding the ball in his hand and smiling. The man was Patrick Hayashi, a San Jose resident. Keppel zoomed in on the man and the sports memorabilia goldmine made of leather and twine. Moments later Hayashi was carted away by security.

At that point Keppel and Rowlands thought that was a wrap. They soon realized that the story was just beginning.

While Hayashi was taken to a secure room in the bowels of the ballpark, another, fairly disgruntled man, Alex Popov, a restaurateur from Berkeley, told security that he had caught the ball and was robbed by the mob.

"The videotape does show Alex catching the ball. I think everyone agrees with that," Keppel said, "You can only see this for two-thirds of a second, like 19 frames. Then he goes down in the pile."

Exactly how Hayashi wound up with the ball -- whether he stole it or found it -- remains a mystery.

Ultimately both men claimed to be the owner of the ball, which stayed locked in a vault.

At the center of the lawsuit they waged in San Francisco Superior Court was the footage that Keppel shot, which later become known as "the Keppel tape."

The subsequent 90-minute documentary illustrates the pettiness of the feud, which serves as a larger framework for some Americans' skewed priorities in the wake of 9/11.

A man interviewed outside of a sports bar summed up his thoughts of the Popov vs. Hayashi case this way: "Give the man back his damn ball. We've got wars to fight, we've got Osamas to kill. Let's get on with it."

And while almost anyone could sympathize with Popov's plight at first, his behavior escalates into something so odious and deluded that it is hard to trust his side of the story and harder to feel sorry for him.

Meanwhile Wrancovics shows no mercy in allowing awkward on-screen moments to play out, showcasing those cringe-inducing portions of interviews that usually wind up on the cutting room floor.

"Probably the nearest thing to this [film] is a Christopher Guest film, like Best in Show, only it's real," Keppel said. "This isn't necessarily a movie for baseball fans, it's for anyone who likes smart, funny films."

Up for Grabs, which will run for one week at the Minor, closes with a surprising court settlement that the filmmakers have asked reviewers to keep secret so not to spoil the ending for potential moviegoers.

And while Keppel concedes that it would be nice to have a little bit of cash come his way for his filmmaking effort, the process was never about the money.

"It's funny, our goal all along was just to get this into theaters, that's always the driving force behind anything you are doing," Keppel said. "Something like less than 1 percent of independent films get into theaters.

"It's a huge accomplishment."


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