SAN FRANCISCO — Two fans locked in a tug of war over which of them legally owns Barry Bonds' record-setting 73rd home run ball agreed Monday to find a new umpire.
As their civil trial was set to open--one year to the day after Bonds' blast at Pac Bell Park sent fans scrambling into an elbow throwing free-for-all--Alex Popov (he caught the ball and lost it) and Patrick Hayashi (he picked it up and won't let go) agreed to let a mediator make the ownership call. The ball is valued at more than $1 million.
Both sides were instructed to find out if former Contra Costa Judge Coleman Fannin would be available to help settle the case and report back to court. Lawyers said late Monday that Fannin had agreed to mediate and would meet with the parties Wednesday.
Mediators are often quicker and less expensive than trials.
But naming a possible mediator was all either side could agree upon on a day when America's pastime once again shifted from the ballpark to the courtroom, where the only pinstripes were on attorneys' blue suits.
Surrounded by reporters in a cramped hallway outside Superior Court Presiding Judge Ronald Evans Quidachay's courtroom, Popov repeated his claim over the hunk of horsehide, which Hayashi is keeping in an East Bay bank safety deposit box.
Each man questioned the other's motivation for wanting the ball. Popov suggested his adversary was a get-rich-quick opportunist. Hayashi called Popov, a 38-year-old Berkeley restaurant owner, rigid and said he refused to compromise.
The pair said they both were prepared for trial.
"I'd just like this piece of baseball history returned," said Popov, adding that he wanted to return the ball to San Francisco. "I caught it, and it was forcibly removed from me. And I want it back."
Hayashi insists that during the scrum, he looked up from the bottom of a pile of bodies to see the ball lying next to him. Popov says he had the ball in his hands before it was illegally seized by the 37-year-old Hayashi.
"I caught the ball. I controlled it. I took it to my torso and took it all the way to the cement," he said. "There is not a single witness who can say I dropped that ball."
Popov told reporters that two weeks after the incident, he called Hayashi and left a message at his home, offering to settle the matter "over a couple of beers," but that the call was never returned.
"I didn't want to sue," he said. "My golf handicap has gone up five or six strokes because of this."
Hayashi acknowledged receiving the message. "He told me my cause was going nowhere, and offered me $5,000 for the ball. This is a historical ball. And it's a very simple story. He made it complex."
Attorneys say several organizations, including the San Francisco Giants baseball team, have offered to arrange that the ball be auctioned off. Bonds has reportedly said he thinks that would be a fair resolution, said Michael Lee, Hayashi's lawyer.
Martin Triano, Popov's lawyer, told reporters that his client resisted a suggestion by Hayashi that the ball be auctioned off and both men split the proceeds.
"It's like having a family heirloom stolen," he said. "Would it be fair if you didn't get it back and had to split the proceeds of its sale with the person who stole it from you?"
If the case goes to trial, both sides will summon a phalanx of witnesses that includes umpires, scorers, fans and legal experts.
At one point, reporters asked Popov if he would be willing to discuss a resolution without lawyers present. When he agreed, half a dozen television cameras turned and rushed toward Hayashi, who was standing with his lawyers just 10 feet away.
Wincing in front of the bright TV lights, Hayashi said he was willing to talk when Popov offered him "a national apology" for comments made about him in the press.
"I'm open to negotiations," he said. "I'm very flexible."
He suggested the pair split the proceeds from the sale of the ball.
"I value that ball just as much as he does. If it goes to trial, I will be the owner of that ball."
Popov said Monday that he has so far spent more than $100,000 in legal fees, "money that could have gone to" Hayashi.
The case has turned heads even among courtroom veterans.
"I was talking to a friend the other night at the Giants game," said lawyer Jack Friedman. "We agreed Barry Bonds probably leads the league in home run balls ending up in litigation."