Getty Images

The 2022 Major League Baseball season provided plenty of historic moments. The Mets threw a combined no-hitter in the regular season, as did the Astros. Angels rookie Reid Detmers threw one on his own. A few months later, the Astros threw the second no-hitter in World Series history. There was also Albert Pujols hitting his 700th career home run and Aaron Judge's American League record-breaking 62nd of the season. It was all the way back in April, but Miguel Cabrera got his 3,000th career hit as well. And there were corn stalks and confetti and, well, we'll get to those. 

For most, those moments were thrilling to watch. For Michael Posner, MLB's senior director of authentication, it's simply a continuation of hard work. Posner, whose love of baseball souvenirs began when he was a kid getting a picture with Tim Teufel at Mets spring training in the '80's, heads up an operation that works with 230 independent contractors from Authenticators, Inc. The authentication team covers every single affiliated game from spring training to the minors to the World Series. 

What do they do? This team is tasked with making sure there's an MLB stamp of approval on all game-used paraphernalia. Sometimes it's even items that are adjacent to game-used and, again, we'll get to that. Let's just say it's a baseball, though. Members of the authentication team witness what happens with each baseball that is put in play and then comes out of play. Once the ball is done for the game, it is authenticated and given unique markings so everyone can be sure it is the real thing. 

Posner spoke with CBS Sports on multiple occasions -- including, coincidentally, before the Astros' World Series Game 4 no-hitter -- and his enthusiasm about the process is palpable. Below is a detailed look at how the MLB authentication process came to be, and how the current operation runs.

The Wild West

To find the origin story here, we have to go back a few decades to the 1980's and especially the 1990's. There we'd find what was, as Posner called it, the "Wild West" of sports souvenirs, including a litany of fake autographs being sold as the real thing to fans. In fact, things were so bad that the late, great Tony Gwynn once noticed a gift shop at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium selling "Tony Gwynn autographs" that weren't actually his signature. 

Enter the FBI and "Operation Bullpen." 

The investigation started in Chicago in the early 1990's surrounding memorabilia said to be from Michael Jordan (the Chicago portion of the operation was called "Foul Ball"). Through the course of said investigation, agents realized this was a national problem hitting all sports. Then came the Gwynn/San Diego tie. From the official FBI site

In 1997, the FBI in San Diego utilized information from Operation Foul Ball and other sources to institute an undercover operation designed to infiltrate the nationwide memorabilia fraud network. Together with the U. S. Attorney's Office and the Internal Revenue Service, an undercover scenario was devised in which an Undercover Agent would pose as a distributor of American memorabilia in Asia. This scenario enabled the FBI to purchase evidence without causing the sale of forged items to the public. It also made the criminals more likely to openly discuss the counterfeit nature of the memorabilia, because it was 'going overseas' beyond the reach of U. S. law enforcement agencies. To support this "cover story", the FBI established the Nihon Trading Company in Oceanside, California. The goal of this undercover operation was to infiltrate the forged memorabilia market and obtain recorded statements from those individuals who were identified as forgers, authenticators, and distributors of fraudulent memorabilia.

When the dust was settled, Operation Bullpen resulted in 63 convictions and more than $4.9 million in seizures, "including 5 homes, cash, bank/investment accounts, jewelry, a Ferrari, a boat, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle." The FBI says 18(!) forgery rings were dismantled. Restitution was paid to more than 1,000 victims of fraud. 

MLB in particular got a shoutout from the FBI in the official report: 

As a result of the attention brought about by Operation Bullpen, advances have been made within the sports industry to combat forged signatures and the fraudulent sales of items as 'game used'. Major League Baseball (MLB) unveiled their own memorabilia authentication program in conjunction with the culmination of Phase I.  

That's our jumping off point for the current system in place by Major League Baseball with Posner at the helm. 

Current operation

The result of everything the league went through during Operation Bullpen is a system where everyone involved with Major League Baseball is on the same page. The players don't want people profiting off their names with fake memorabilia and the league doesn't want scammers using its brand.

Unsurprisingly, the program has grown exponentially in sophistication from the early stages. From the league itself, a quick description of the program: 

The Major League Baseball Authentication Program is the most comprehensive league-wide memorabilia authentication initiative in professional sports. Since its launch in 2001, it has become the industry standard for autographed and game-used sports memorabilia authentication. Designed to distinguish officially authenticated MLB memorabilia from other items on the market, the program offers an objective third-party authentication system that guarantees genuine memorabilia for all MLB fans.  

As noted earlier, there are 230 employees tasked with authentication. They cover every single spring training, minor-league and major-league game from the start in February all the way through the final World Series game, and even some Arizona Fall League games. 

Just to use the baseballs themselves as a vehicle to illustrate the process, here's what I witnessed during Game 4 of the World Series: Every time a ball is removed from play, excluding those that go into the crowd, it was thrown to the first-base dugout. There, one person grabs the baseball and rolls it through a horizontal tube to the two-person team essentially sitting in the front row right next to the dugout. Those are our authenticator and witness. The person closest to the tube grabs the baseball and applies a hologram sticker (hold that thought!). A matching serial number from the sticker matches the entry into a computer/tablet device. 

The key to authenticated memorabilia is the tamper-proof hologram sticker created by OpSec, U.S. 

An up-close look at one of MLB's tamper-proof hologram authentication stickers. Major League Baseball

There are five points to each sticker:

  1. Unique two-letter hologram prefix
  2. Unique serial number for each item that when combined with prefix allows collectors to cross-reference product against the database on MLB.com
  3. Validation Code containing three randomized letters
  4. QR Code containing hologram prefix and unique serial number
  5. Major League Baseball silhouetted batter logo indicates item is part of the Major League Baseball Authentication Program

These can't be replaced. If the sticker is removed -- like in an attempt to put it on a fraudulent item -- traces of tampering will be left on the original item and the sticker essentially disintegrates. It isn't quite "Mission: Impossible" levels of disintegration, but it is rendered unusable once removed. 

The person logging the serial number is also logging what exactly transpired with the baseball, so any buyer will know exactly what that ball went through, so to speak. Here's an example from the 2021 World Series: In the top of the fifth inning, Ozzie Albies led off with a walk, then scored on a two-run Dansby Swanson home run that pushed the Braves' lead to 5-0 and essentially put the World Series away. The ball that Albies saw during his walk has been autographed by him and it was up for auction last month

Due to the authentication process in place, MLB can verify and log every single baseball in this fashion, excluding those that end up in the hands of fans via foul ball, home run or thrown into the crowd by a player. Sometimes these are given to a player, sometimes to the Hall of Fame, sometimes to the team and sometimes -- as noted above -- they are sold to fans. 

"One player, I'm not gonna mention his name only because I'm not sure what he would want that, but he hit a home run [and] we were able to get the ball -- it bounced off of something and came back on the field during the World Series," Posner said. "So it met all of our criteria to actually authenticate. And we gave him the ball. He was almost in tears when he gave it to him and then we got a picture a couple months later of the ball on his mantle. You know, being displayed for everyone...the ball I hit for home run in the World Series. Like, 'that's a big deal to me.' Like, 'I get it.' So you know, when we can do that, that's really when we shine the best." 

They still have a deal with Derek Jeter, too (here's the Jeter auction page). 

"I can't think of another league that went into business with one of their players to get their memorabilia in fans hands. It was important to everybody involved because of the fraud issues and the player certainly wanted to have the fans have an experience. He wants fans to know that they're getting the real thing. That's kind of what the genesis of this whole program is, right?" Posner said.

"We go back to Tony Gwynn walking into the team store, then Qualcomm Stadium and being like, 'these aren't my real autographs.' So we've come full circle in doing a deal with one of the premier players in the history of the sport. Kind of shows how serious everyone is about it to protect the fans and protect the integrity of everything that's going on in the industry. And Derek certainly understood it. I mean, if anyone's gonna understand it, it's Derek. And I think that's really kind of shown the way of kind of how a lot of different entities can operate, you know, to really protect history and protect fans with their purchases."  

They can't authenticate everything

On that note, most of the big home run balls, for example, don't get authenticated. There are simply too many baseballs to track and it's impossible to "pre-authenticate" or anything like that without knowing the number of balls that will be used in any given game. This means that big homers, such as Bryce Harper's Game 5 NLCS shot or Yordan Alvarez's Game 6 World Series blast, will not be officially authenticated by Major League Baseball. The fans who end up with those balls will either hold onto them or take matters into their own hands in trying to sell them while convincing would-be buyers that it's the real thing. MLB will not intervene in those cases because it can't be sure it's the real ball. 

We've all seen fans switching out baseballs on home runs when they want to throw them back on the field, namely, but not exclusively, in Wrigley Field. If that's happens, it's out of MLB's hands. 

There was an exception to this, according to Posner, in 2020, when the pandemic kept fans out of the stands. That season, they were able to to do a sweep after batting practice and run down big home run balls with spotters. It enabled them to do things like this: "Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Cycle Package - HR, Triple, Double, Single - 4 games - August 21-24, 2020." 

Now with fans back in the stands, the authenticators simply cannot confirm that the ball in question (like Judge's 62nd, for example) is the real deal and are instead forced to turn them away.

Big moments and marked balls

Speaking of the truly historical moments, MLB is able to get in front of the biggest milestones. We've seen the league switch out the baseballs when certain hitters come to bat, such as Pujols and Judge this past season. 

As for how the MLB authentication team marks the balls, well, they wouldn't say -- nor should they -- but we'll discuss that in a second. 

Here are the milestones that got special, covert markings since the beginning of the program. 

500th Home run

  • Sammy Sosa - April 4, 2003
  • Rafael Palmeiro - May 11, 2003
  • Ken Griffey Jr. - June 20, 2004
  • Frank Thomas - June 28, 2007
  • Alex Rodríguez - Aug. 4, 2007
  • Jim Thome - Sept. 16, 2007
  • Manny Ramírez - May 31, 2008
  • Gary Sheffield - April 17, 2009
  • Albert Pujols - April 22, 2014
  • David Ortiz - Sept. 12, 2015
  • Miguel Cabrera - Aug. 22, 2021

600th HR

  • Barry Bonds - Aug. 9, 2002
  • Sammy Sosa - June 20, 2007
  • Ken Griffey Jr. - June 9, 2008
  • Alex Rodríguez - Aug. 4, 2010
  • Jim Thome - Aug. 15, 2011
  • Albert Pujols - June 3, 2017

3000th Hit

  • Rafael Palmeiro - July 15, 2005
  • Craig Biggio - June 28, 2007
  • Derek Jeter - July 9, 2011
  • Alex Rodríguez - June 19, 2015
  • Ichiro Suzuki - Aug. 7, 2016
  • Adrian Beltre - July 30, 2017
  • Albert Pujols - May 4, 2018
  • Miguel Cabrera - April 23, 2022

258th Hit (single-season record)

  • Ichiro Suzuki - Oct. 1, 2004

700th HR

  • Albert Pujols - Sept. 23, 2022

62nd HR (AL single-season record)

  • Aaron Judge - Oct. 4. 2022 (they also marked the balls for 60 and 61)

In discussing the Pujols and Judge chases from this season, Posner said both players were cooperative to the point that they were honored to be taking part in the process to document history. 

"They both understood the magnitude," said Posner. "These are two huge milestones we're talking about it's amazing that they happened basically the same week almost. And I'm still marveling at all that, that it just kind of came down that way. So you have two guys that really understand their role in the history of the sport. Pujols obviously has a much longer story to tell as one of the greatest of all time...and he's very good at using the program in general about authenticating his bats and stuff like that."  

As an example of how things go with the marked baseballs that disappear into the stands, let's talk about Judge's 62nd. 

In real time, we watched a fan named Cody Youmans of Dallas catch Judge's home run cleanly in left field at Globe Life Field. There's video of him being escorted by ballpark security and MLB personnel after his catch. Youmans was then taken underneath the ballpark to meet with the on-site members of the authentication team, who were tasked with checking and double-checking the markings on the ball to certify that was, indeed, the baseball MLB checked in for the Judge at-bat. Once that is done, they went through their normal authentication process. 

The biggest issue, generally, is convincing the fan that they will absolutely get the real baseball back. Understandably, a lot of fans are worried they are going to lose out on the real ball and the probability of life-changing money. From MLB's perspective, however, it just wants to make sure the ball is properly authenticated. Stealing the ball from the fan would be a PR disaster. The personnel on hand just need to convince the fans that this process is for their own good. 

In the end, it's a much bigger win for the fans who come away with the history-making baseball. Getting that MLB authentication just makes it that much more a sure thing for those putting the baseballs up for sale -- or those putting it on display in the living room.

As for the markings themselves, no, you can't know what they are or how MLB goes about marking them. There have been erroneous reports that a black light is involved but there's nothing like that. There was also a "report" floating around that a fan had Judge's home run No. 59 and MLB refused to comply with authenticating the ball. First off, there were no covert markings on any balls before Judge was looking for his 60th home run. Secondly, as noted, MLB doesn't authenticate after the fact, for reasons we've already explained. 

Over the years, the authenticators have made adjustments to the covert markings to make them less noticeable.

"I have had players who have said they can pick up the rotation of the ball and the ball looks different to them because there's a little bit of a marking, which is why we've tried to adjust it for that. But it wasn't necessarily a complaint," Posner said. "I think they were just showing off that they have really good vision, because I don't I don't even know how that's possible. I would say we've we've made some things a little bit different over the years so that the markings are not as dark." 

I asked if it was possible for a player to have one of those epic, 15-pitch at-bats and send them scrambling in fear they'd run out of marked balls for a particular game and, yes, there's an outside chance that could happen. 

"I can't give you the exact numbers," said Posner. "But we do everything on a nightly basis. We'll get there early. We do the markings of whatever we have to do. We're working closely in conjunction with baseball ops, so that everything is done within the same parameters that they would do for normal game. So instead of the balls going into the ball bag, they're just going to the authenticator to be marked, and then the authenticator will maintain possession of those. To your point, if he fouls off 10, 20, whatever, if he does go through a bunch, then they'll go through a process again, working through the local baseball ops contacts to get more balls that are getting ready for that game and get that mark."

In the opposite scenario, if a batter goes down quickly in every at-bat that night, the pre-marked balls disappear.

"Once the game is over, all those baseballs are retired, never to be used so that they're in line with any of the use protocols that we would have for any other regular season game," Posner said.

Other big moments without marked balls

There just isn't enough technology available to specially mark and track every single baseball before it is put into play. Not only that, but the workforce needed for such an operation wouldn't be feasible. There would have to be witnesses for every ball put into play and you'd need two or three umpires standing at home plate just to check the markings every time a new baseball was introduced. 

"Probably not anytime soon, just because of what of all the things we would need to have in place for it to work without any issues," Posner said when I asked if things would ever get to the point of marking every ball ahead of time. "It's tough, because you need to be able to read a very specific area of the field. And the only way to do that is with something remote. Right? I can't walk out there for every pitch. So we'd have to basically install something into the field to do it and be able to read into the distance...There's probably something we can figure out to do it but I have yet to see it and I don't think it exists quite honestly." 

That means a lot of the time, the authentication team is scrambling after a big moment to get their job done. The no-hitters, for example, are obviously a big deal and come without much notice, as opposed to a record home run.

"You have two people [at regular-season games], so like the Mets had that combined no-hitter at the beginning of the season this year," he said. "And they had been, they had a really good protocol that they had set up for when Johan [Santana] did it. And that was a big deal. It was the first one in team history and they kept getting close and you think of all the pitchers they had so they were really, really, really ready for that to happen. So when it happened again this year, they just went to the bulk and we're like, 'OK, we're doing the pitching rubber. We're doing the home plate, we're doing the dirt.' They already collect every ball so that was easy. They knew what to do with that. They got all the players involved, and they did some stuff with that and it was really basically just moving the other person over and setting them up earlier on. Usually by the fifth or sixth inning, you start to go into the mode of 'All right, gotta be ready.'" 

The World Series no-hitter, while one of the most notable no-hitters in baseball history, wasn't nearly as much of a fire drill for the authentication team as a regular-season no-no would be. They were already ready to mark every single ball from the World Series game anyway, so they were prepped.

Four Astros pitcher and catcher Christian Vázquez celebrate their World Series no-hitter with their authenticated ball. USATSI

"If this had happened during the regular season game it'd be two authenticators there and nobody else from my team or myself would be there, so they'd be scrambling a little bit to divide and conquer, Posner said. 

"We had four authenticators, and then there were actually four people from my group, including me, there. So between the eight of us, we were able to divide and conquer what we needed to do and get everything done. And because it was World Series, we had already scheduled to collect every ball... We already were collecting bases. We were already doing jerseys for both sides. So it really just became, around the sixth inning or so, kind of starting to be like 'OK, he's coming out. Let's make sure we know where [Cristian] Javier is,' he took his jersey already, so that was fine, but the cap and some of the other stuff got set aside, just in case. So there was a little bit of thinking ahead. But otherwise it was then coordinated, which I wouldn't normally do in real time, with the Hall of Fame and some other things, like 'OK, what do you guys need? How do you guys want to do this? What's going on?' And then we made sure we did some things that we wouldn't normally do, like, I believe they got Christian Vazquez's PitchCom receiver. There was a couple other things that we did that were interesting and unique to the event which was made easy by the fact that we had more people and we were already doing such a robust collection. So we got everything we wanted to get and, you know, have that preserved for whatever history or whatever other uses we didn't before."

"We were ready to go once the last out happened," Posner said. "I was standing in the dugout with the authenticator and we had the plan. He went right out the last out ball. Yuli [Gurriel] knew what was going on. Yuli's like 'here's the ball, bring it back when you're done with it.' We authenticated it and presented it back to the team, did the whole thing. I'm very proud of how easily we able to handle it. But again, it's not a normal situation." 

The players understand and embrace it

Of course, the final out of the World Series is always a big deal. The players are cooperative. They know it's part of the job and the authenticators aren't intrusive on the celebration. 

In 2016, Anthony Rizzo had one of the more famous final outs, catching the throw that helped the Cubs break a 108-year title drought. As he ran toward the middle of the field to celebrate with his teammates, cameras caught him seamlessly slip the baseball into his back pocket. The last two seasons, we've seen Freddie Freeman and Kyle Tucker record the final putout for the Braves and Astros, respectively. Back in 2006, it was Yadier Molina.

"The players know where they're, they know why we're there. They know what we're doing. And so it's not a big deal," Posner said.

"I did it with Freddie Freeman last year. We did it this year with Kyle Tucker, 2016 with [Anthony] Rizzo and it's like 'hey, Anthony, we're here for the last out.' He hands the ball, we put the thing on, they take the picture. They're the happiest they've ever been in their life. It's really kind of fun to see it. Yadier Molina hugged me he was so happy in 2006. I told him I was there, the whole thing, he give me a big hug and I was like, 'Oh, you don't have to do that. But here's the ball, congratulations.' But they get it; they understand the whole purpose of it.

"When the Cubs won the World Series, we had an authenticator stationed just down the steps in the dugout in Cleveland. And as the players came off, they handed over their items. So the glove that Rizzo was wearing, the glove that Kris Bryant used to make that last play happen, that ended a curse of however many years. It was all authenticated and the players were aware of it, they understood it, they weren't freaked out by it. They left it and then they didn't have to worry about those items disappearing at some point and now they have the ability to connect the history with something that they have in their possession." 

In 2011, when Pujols joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson (Pablo Sandoval would join them the next year) as the only players to hit three home runs in a World Series game, he was ready for Posner after the game. 

"I remember standing by his dugout, and standing by his locker in the clubhouse after the game. And he literally walked right over to me and before he even talked to the reporters he handed me his shoes, his pants, his jersey, his hat, his batting gloves and a bat," Posner said. "He totally understood what my role was because I've known him for a long time. And he literally knew, he's like, 'I hit three home runs in the World Series. How many other people have done that?' And that was important and and he got everything authenticated right there. So the players get it and they understand what we're doing, why we have this and what's available to them at any given time."  

A lot more than just balls and autographs

When we were talking in the dugout before Game 4 of the World Series, Posner pointed out that I could probably find him after the game going around the infield and collecting dirt. They even seal it like evidence from a crime scene, just to make sure it's as authentic a product as they can possibly provide. 

Sure enough, there's already dirt from the Minute Maid Park infield during Game 6 of the World Series up for sale

Remember how Kyle Schwarber's stolen base in Game 1 of the World Series won everyone free tacos from Taco Bell? That base got markings and a sticker too.

Posner also had a first this season. As the Astros won the World Series championship, the first team to clinch the title at home since 2013, he grabbed handfuls of confetti falling from the roof.

"I'm like, 'well, this is a new thing, I'm gonna do this,' so I just scooped it up off the ground and threw it in the bucket and then sealed the buckets." he said. "So there's a sealed hologram bucket of confetti sitting in the warehouse. That's gonna be turned into product." 

Remember the bug spray the Yankees used to try to help Joba Chamberlain avoid some of the midge attacks? Yeah, Posner and his team authenticated the cans. At the Field of Dreams Game this year, they authenticated corn stalks. No, not individual cobs of corn. Entire stalks! 

"The bug spray thing is kind of lore and I guess that's going to be my baseball obituary," he said with a laugh. "I was responsible for the authentication of the cans of bug spray. You know, you never know what's gonna happen in the game. And the way I look at it is. usually it's a baseball or a base that is surrounded by but sometimes it's something cool. It can be dirt. It can be outfield wall padding. It could be stalks of corn from Field of Dreams game, which I thought was kind of a cool thing that we're able to do.

Posner's team authenticated the first pitch of World Baseball Classic in 2006, complete with the autographs of the pitcher and hitter, before sending it to Hall of Fame. But they also got creative, like with a team flag from a celebration.

"You don't really know what it's going to be until the moment happens and then you go, 'Okay, people are gonna remember this. I want to record this in a way that at least we understand what it is where it is, and it's part of the story that becomes that baseball game,'" he said.

And, of course, there are all the uniforms and hats and gloves and bats and batting gloves and everything else. Not all of it goes up for sale. Sometimes it's for the players. 

"You talk to someone like Aaron Judge about this, it was important for him to be able to give his mom the home run balls he was able to get or give her a jersey or something at some point so that she can display it in her home because he feels that she's a big part of being a ballplayer," Posner said.

We can close with the late, great Vin Scully, who signed off his final game on Oct. 2, 2016. 

"Credit the people from the Dodgers for thinking of this with Vin Scully's last game," said Posner. "We had an authenticator go off to his booth after he signed off, and we authenticated his microphone, his headset, workbook, maybe his pen. You wouldn't do this in a normal night. But I think everyone on the planet who has anything to love about baseball, certainly knows Vin Scully and certainly understands the value of just saying, here are the things from his last broadcast. They're never being sold. I don't know what went to the Hall of Fame, what went to the Dodgers, what's with the Scully family, but the idea is that we just record history. 

"Look, if the Smithsonian could do it, they would probably be doing the same thing with a space shuttle launch or something like that. We have the ability to do it, so we do it."