Brian Shepard
Sports Writer

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June 19, 2013
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Shepard: Looking at the long ball in a different light

Records were made to be broken, but what about rules?

Maybe if mom said no cookies before dinner it was okay to cheat and sneak one then blame it on your sister, but when Bud Selig said no steroids or human growth hormone in MLB … how many more players will end up caught with their hands in the cookie jar?

After recent allegations surfaced against big-name players like Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera and Nelson Cruz, it just makes you wonder, more than ever, who really is a pure player these days.

Growing up in a generation of avid Little Leaguers whose innocence believed guzzling down jugs of Gatorade would make them play better and video game enthusiasts, whose imaginations always conjured up ballplayers with maximum power to send the ball 585 feet off the scoreboard, I have come to understand how the almighty dinger has torn the sporting world apart from the inside out.

One of my experiences at the ballpark also had a lot to do with it.

On Oct. 7, 2001, at Pac Bell Park (now AT&T Park), the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds blasted a behemoth shot off Dodgers knuckleballer Dennis Springer high into the sky toward McCovey Cove in right field. The ball never splashed into the water (although a decoy did) among the armada of fans in their canoes, sea vessels, paddle boats and inflatable rafts. The actual ball that left Bonds’ bat found the webbing of a glove along the walkway in the arcade section, approximately 5 feet from where I stood, a glove worn by a man named Alex Popov. It was Bonds’ 73rd homer and set what still is the single-season home run record.

Popov wasn’t so lucky though. The second after he caught the ball, he was hounded by a mob of frantic fans and fell to the ground. What should have been a dream-come-true moment quickly escalated into a nightmare. I’m sure money had something to do with it. As boy at the age of 15, I was just trying to survive. Imagine all of your teammates dog piling on you as though you had just won the World Series, except these people weren’t friends and you just happened to be holding a gold nugget. When the mob eventually subsided the ball was in the hands of a man named Patrick Hayashi, but that was just the beginning of a long saga to be continued in court.

Both Popov and Hayashi’s attorneys approached me several months later when I had expressed interest in testifying as a witness to Popov’s catch, which was also caught on camera. Up until that moment, everyone in the case had referred to me as “Dallas” for the Dallas Cowboys cap I had worn to the game. After watching a video of the craziness shot by Josh Keppel, I learned the reason why I had felt a sharp pain in my leg. It appeared Hayashi bit me on the knee during the scuffle. While I can’t say he did in fact bite me, I do recall the pain. I eventually went to the City by the Bay and testified, and as I look back now, the only thing I would have done differently is try a little harder to push myself through the wall of bodies to catch that thing.

More than a year later on Dec. 18, 2002, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Kevin McCarthy ruled that the ball belonged to nobody, and it was to be sold with the money split between Popov and Hayashi. Originally the ball was estimated to fetch millions, but after a lengthy trial and steroid suspicions looming, it brought in just $450,000. That’s nothing when compared to Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball, which sold for $3 million just three years prior.

So you see, I have a much different perspective than most when it comes to hearing the crack of the bat and seeing that ball hang up in the air as it nears the stands. Everyone needs to realize there’s more to the game than just going yard, just like there’s more to life than being rich and famous. In terms of baseball, this generation is definitely one that associates success with slugging power. One of my all time favorite commercials has to be with Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine as they promoted Nike with their “chicks did the long ball” campaign. It’s on YouTube for those who are interested.

Ask a youth today who Ty Cobb or Tony Gwynn was, and they might shrug their shoulders. Mention a hitter like Pete Rose, and they might say, “Oh, the gambling guy.” If Rose hadn’t gambled, would people acknowledge his 4,256 hits? Probably more so, but still not as much as if he had hit 1,000 bombs. Then you bring up names like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Wille Mays or Bonds, and there is no questioning who they are because they had a reputation for repeatedly hitting the ball over the fence.

In 2013, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis currently leads the majors with 28 homers, and to be honest, I’ve never heard of the guy. Phillies left fielder Domonic Brown is second in the National League with 19. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Okay, how about the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera with 19 knocks? Of course we know him, he’s a veteran who has been in the league for 10 years and has more than 300 career homers. Hopefully, he’ll make it into the record books for the right reasons and not leave any doubts among fans. So while chicks may dig the long ball, it has always been persistence with hard work and determination that will help get you there.

To contact Sports Writer Brian Shepard, call 530-477-4234 or email bshepard@theunion.com.


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The Union Updated Jun 20, 2013 12:22AM Published Jun 19, 2013 11:58PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.