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|| News Item: Posted 2002-08-31

THE BALL: Photographing a controversy
By John Burgess, Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Inside a locked metal box. Inside a thick gray vault. Inside a yellow stucco building. In a town named Milpitas, Calif. There lies a baseball. No one may play with this ball. No one may touch it or see it.
--Gary Smith, The Ball (An American Story), Sports Illustrated

Photo by

John Burgess and his daughter Emma.
So begins Gary Smith's bizarre tale of the legal battle between two fans over the ownership of Barry

Bonds' record-breaking 73rd home-run ball. A video shows the Ball landing in the mitt of Alex Popov moments before the crowd converges and crushes him for 45 long seconds. When the scrum slowly peels away, a diminutive Asian man named Patrick Hayashi stands holding the Ball. Popov stood with nothing but a lawsuit.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge David Garcia decided it would be locked away in a safe deposit box near Hayashi's home and the keys delivered to the court until the date of the trial-one year to the day after Bonds sent it sailing onto the arcade in right-center at Pac Bell Park.

After reading Smith's epic (July 22, 2002) I knew the story was going to be important. I've squeezed a couple hundred assignments from Sports Illustrated into my weekends while shooting the past 10 years for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. Most of those assignments had little lead time, but on this one I had three weeks and a story in my hand.

But there were still plenty of challenges ahead.

First there was the problem of access to the Ball. It was going to be tricky with two sides who pretty much hated each other and the key in the hands of the court. My editor in New York, Nate Gordon, and I decided the first phone calls should come from someone in a skyscraper back east rather than a freelance photojournalist who works for a medium-sized newspaper.

We heard Judge Garcia was a baseball fan, and we both envisioned a cover photo with a judge in his robes standing over the ball in a vault. Garcia quickly nixed that idea, but Nate convinced him to allow the shoot as long as the lawyers worked out an agreement about the logistics. Therein lies the rub.

The agreement came in the form of a modification to the Nov. 27, 2001 preliminary injunction that locked away. Hayashi's lawyer wrote the first version, in which he would pick up the key from Judge Garcia and meet Popov's attorney and me at the bank where Patrick Hayashi would access the safe deposit box with his hand print.

The order also stipulated the photos could only be used in Sports Illustrated and no other media would be allowed to shoot that day. (In fact, all the photos with this story are of a stunt ball from Big 5) I was the only one allowed to physically touch the ball, and only if absolutely necessary. The photograph was to be completed as expeditiously as possible. The key was to be returned by Hayashi's lawyer by noon the next day.

Alex Popov and his lawyer balked, however, at Hayashi attending the bank shoot without Popov. They also objected to Hayashi's lawyer handling the keys to the safe deposit box overnight, fearing might be switched. Nate Gordon and I worked the phones trying to convince Popov not to block the shoot. We thought Popov would be the easiest to convince since it was in his best interest the story got out to the world. But he held fast to his objections.

Nate is the kind of editor we all hope for, especially in a story with complex negotiations. With a couple of days to go Nate and Popov's lawyer worked out a new agreement where the key would be picked up from the judge by a neutral party: The key to the box containing a $1.5 million baseball was going to be mine, all mine, for 24-hours.

Nearly everyone who has heard the story jokes about what they would have done with the baseball. (Sell it and donate the money to Little League being the most appealing). Even the lawyers joked about switching the balls when I pulled out my stand-in official Major League baseball while shooting Polaroids later at the bank.

Photo by John Burgess

Photo by John Burgess

The test ball on a Corinthian column. (We were not allowed,in any way, to show a picture of the actual ball.)
The order also stipulated the lawyers, necessary bank employees, an assistant and I were the only people permitted at the shoot. I would pick up the key for the sole purpose of shooting The Ball and the key could "not be photographed, filmed, copied or duplicated..." Now that makes sense.

While working the judge and the lawyers, Nate and I also sought to secure permission from the Bank of America. Their normal policy does not allow photography in their vaults for fear of revealing security secrets. We assured them shooting stills would enable them to work with us to alleviate any fears.

Bank manager Sherry Winfrey was gracious and cleared our access as long as the corporate VP of Security, Jeff Dell, could attend the shoot and view the Polaroids. The editors in New York really liked the story so I had to come up with a couple of cover ideas as well as the opener inside the vault for the story.

Brainstorming with friends yielded several ideas for the cover: Two hands grappling for the Ball (but would the lawyers let two people touch it?), the scales of justice with the Ball on one side (and what on the other?), bank guards standing over the Ball, etc.

I turned my garage into a studio for test shoots using the stunt ball. When he saw the e-mailed versions, Director of Photography Steve Fine really liked a shot of on a miniature Greek column (I had asked myself, where do we keep our most precious objects?) However, he thought the ornamentation of the Corinthian design was too complicated.

So, back online I found images of the three different styles of Greek columns (for those who've been to Greece you can't forget Corinthian, Ionic and Doric) and e-mailed New York again.

For the next five days my whole world revolved around finding an Ionic Greek column with an upper base 3 1/2 inches wide. The idea was already approved so I really had to find one. The original Corinthian column took about 15 minutes to find after talking to the visual manager at the local Macy's.

Photo by John Burgess

Photo by John Burgess

The test ball on an Ionic column. (We weren't even allowed to show a picture of the magazine page if the ball was in it.)
Looking for the Ionic column I scoured at least 50 craft, statuary, flower, and architectural supply stores and found hundreds of columns, but none that fit the bill. With just three days left I finally realized I could commission an artist to make what I couldn't find. Local ceramacist Joel Bennett, whom I had photographed years before, thought he could reproduce a miniature version of a 3-foot model I found at a local craft store. I needed a backup in case it didn't work out so I continued my search down in San Francisco, to no avail.

I picked up Bennett's piece the night before the shoot and it was perfect. There would be no time to kiln-fire it, so dropping it during the shoot was out.

With the column in hand I turned to figuring out the vault shoot. I'd convinced the bank manager to stay open late and there would be five people (two on lawyer time) watching me work, so the shoot had to move smoothly and quickly. Back in my garage/studio I built a 5 inch X 5 inch by 2 feet long safe deposit box of wood and painted silver.

Out of black cinefoil I constructed a giant snoot which, along with a 3-degree spot grid, would narrow the beam of the light so it would only fall on the Ball. I would light the steel safe deposit boxes with a bounce onto the ceiling of the vault (or so I thought). It would look nice, but another element was missing.

Steve Fine had thought it would be cool to have a glowing golden corona around the Ball. I turned to my friend William Duke, a photo illustrator for Money, Modern Maturity, etc, for a master class in lighting objects. He had attended the Art Center and I was a hack photojournalist.

After a couple hours in his studio I was back in my garage with a Nikon SB-28 strobe wired with a photosensitive slave and an amber gel pushed to the back of the box. To hide the flash I tried a diffusion gel cut to fill the box in front of the light. The resulting spread of light was golden, but uniform and dull. Well past midnight on the day of the shoot I found the glow I wanted by simply using the flash direct and hiding the light behind the Ball using a wide-angle lens. A beautiful black square separated the Ball from the gold (see example) and I was ready.

Photo by John Burgess

Photo by John Burgess

The test ball in the test box in the garage.
The morning of the shoot I was loading my truck with every piece of equipment I owned when I received a call from Patrick Hayashi's lawyer alerting me I had everyone heading to the wrong branch of the Bank of America. It seems there was a mix-up in New York about which branch in Milpitas held our ball.

When I pulled myself off the floor, I started making calls to branch managers, lawyers and bank vice-presidents giving new directions and apologizing profusely. One little thing could screw up the whole shoot and three weeks of preparation, but everyone rolled with the last-minute change.

The vault in the new branch would be half the size of the other, and the room to set up the studio for the column shot was big enough to hold everyone if the lawyers didn't breath much. The cover idea went smoothly but we did have to shoot three different sides of the Ball (each showing a different mark to verify this was the 73rd home-run ball) with two different background colors in three densities. With a digital camera this would have taken 10-15 minutes but with an Mamiya RZ-67 medium-format camera it took 45 minutes of constant shooting.

I'd used up about half the time allotted for the shoot, but I was confident about the plan for the safe deposit box shoot. Once inside the vault I pulled the drawer out and placed the stunt ball on the lip of the box with the door open.

Photo by John Burgess

Photo by John Burgess

A test in the bank. (Again, the real ball is not allowed to appear anywhere but Sports Illustrated.)
My able assistant Scot Tucker and I set up the main light with the snoot for and bounced a strobe off the ceiling as planned. The first Polaroid showed the boxes were nearly black. (see example) I powered up the light and tried again with no noticeable change. After the panic attack subsided, I noticed the ceiling lights sent a highlight reflection down the row of boxes. It seems the brushed steel of the boxes absorbs light and reflects only a highlight the actual size of the light source.

While Scot ran to the truck for two more lights and the biggest softboxes in my bag (thank goodness I brought everything I owned) I showed the Polaroids to my audience. I hoped explaining the problems and the solutions we were trying would bring them into the process and keep them from cutting me off when the two hours allotted for the shoot was up.

I shot a Polaroid with one softbox and I finally was able to breath easy. We squeezed the two softboxes together to form a bank of light behind my head with the snoot just off my right shoulder. All this equipment barely fit into the 6-foot wide vault and limited me to wide-angle lenses.

Just as I had tested, I placed the strobe with the gel inside the box, confident I would be shooting real film in moments. The next Polaroid, however, revealed a hideously strange splatter of color around the Ball. This time my nemesis was dull gray paint. In retrospect I should have brought a washable silver paint.

As it was, I was back with the latest Polaroid explaining the concepts of slaves and reflectivity of paint to the onlookers, while Scot cut a diffusion gel to cover the light. Sweat poured off the both of us when it wouldn't push into the box without bending. The smell coming from two big guys was driving our audience to fresh air outside of the vault.

Photo by John Burgess

Photo by John Burgess

Another test in the bank. (If you squint real hard, this sort of looks like the REAL ball, doesn't it?)
The next Polaroid stunk too, so we searched for something else to diffuse the light. Scot pointed out the tissue paper rolled around the gels. He cut and I schmoozed and joked about the odor as we passed the two-hour deadline.

Amazingly, the next Polaroid revealed a nice golden glow with an interesting highlight. The tissue paper also had a mottled look mimicking the back of the box. Close enough. We finally started shooting film to the applause of the bored crowd. I shot the scene varying the light density falling on the steel door as well as the light in the box, and our two-hour shoot ended after nearly three. Any one of the five people staying late could have walked out and killed the shoot.

We get lucky sometimes, and I ended up with five patient, accommodating souls. Our VP of Security agreed to the image as long as we changed the numbers on the safe deposit boxes so no one would know which one held the golden Ball. In the end the shot on the column didn't make the cover, but I'll have a fun story to tell the grandkids.

(John Burgess has been a freelance photographer for Sports Illustrated the past 10 years while working for The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, CA. He currently teaches a course in photojournalism at Santa Rosa Junior College. John can be reached via email:

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