An Inside Look at How MLB Authenticates Game-Used Gear
MLB’s first team authentication manager explains how the system works.
Even if you don’t hang out at memorabilia shows or spend hours looking at online auction websites, you’re probably familiar with the little hologram stickers that Major League Baseball uses to authenticate its game-used jerseys, baseballs, and other items.
Who applies those hologram stickers to the various items? Who decides which authenticated items get sold and which ones are archived for later use in historical displays in the team’s ballpark? And how do we know that a hologrammed item is truly game-used?
One of the best people to answer those questions, and many more, is Mike Acosta, who until recently was the authentication manager for the Houston Astros. He was the first person to serve in that position for any MLB club and helped develop an authentication program that served as a model for other teams.
Although Acosta is no longer the Astros’ authentication manager (like many MLB employees, he was furloughed last year and laid off this year due to the pandemic), he still serves as the team’s historian and is involved with the Astros Hall of Fame. He recently spoke with me about MLB’s authentication program, and how his lifelong Astros obsession led him to work for the team. Here’s a transcript of our discussion, edited for space and clarity.
Uni Watch: Tell me a bit about your background, and how it led to you working for the Astros
Mike Acosta: I grew up in Houston in the 1980s and was an Astros fan from a very young age. I was in Astro Buddies, which was the kids’ club, which they still have. We went to a lot of games, and it sparked my curiosity, because I also saw the Cubs on TV. And you know, the Cubs’ home games were all in daytime and they had the ivy on the wall on Wrigley, and we had the Astrodome. It was a completely different experience.
I wanted to learn more about that. So when I was about nine, I went to the library and did a lot of research in the microfilm and old newspaper articles. I came across the name Roy Hofheinz [the Astros’ original owner and the prime mover behind the creation of the Astrodome] and and then I found a biography on him. That was a real eye-opener.
After that, anytime I had a project in school, I would center it around the Astros and Hofheinz. I still have an eighth grade report that I did on him where I had to do drawings and all of that stuff. And I was doing other artwork, like drawings of the Astrodome on big poster boards. When I was 12 I even built this little homemade model of the Astrodome. I brought it out in our front yard, and this girl came by and said, “Hey, is that the Astrodome?” I was really excited, because she actually recognized it, so I figured I must be doing something right.
Then jump ahead to 1999, when I was going to school at the University of Houston. I was still obsessed with the Astros, and I got an internship in their broadcasting department, which also overlapped into promotions and sponsorships. Immediately, they saw that I had a lot of knowledge about the team, its history, the Astrodome. They didn’t really have a person like that. I mean, they had some people who had worked for them for a number of years, but the information I was talking about was from before their time. So they got me working on some promotions, fact-checking, looking at baseball cards they were using as stadium giveaways. It was also their last year in the Astrodome, so we had a number of giveaways that dealt with Astrodome history and I got to write the verbiage for some of that stuff. It was very good experience.
UW: Wow — it’s almost like you were born for that job. So after the internship, you got hired full-time?
MA: Yes. I was in operations when I became full-time. Then I was in the ticket office for a while, doing season tickets and group sales, premium seating, plus I was also basically the team historian — I felt like I was doing two different jobs.
Then, around 2008, authentication was still in its infancy with Major League Baseball. That’s when the Astros talked to me about expanding our authentication program. They said, “Why don’t why don’t we take the historian aspect, the authentication aspect, and you devise a whole new program for us by using all that, and everything that you’re currently doing with trying to build archives and all this stuff.”
UW: So you became the authentication manager. Does that mean you were personally authenticating game-used jerseys and all that?
MA: No. MLB hires police officers to serve as authenticators. It’s like that in every city. The idea is that the chain of custody for an authentic game-used item is similar to the chain of custody for police evidence. In the early days of authentication, they used accountants, like from PricewaterhouseCoopers, but some of them weren’t really that into baseball, so they switched to police officers, who tend to understand more about the game.
UW: And up until that time, when the Astros gave you this new role, there wasn’t a dedicated point person with any team for the authenticators to work with?
MA: Right. Authentication was still in its infancy. In many of the cities, it was kind of an afterthought. We were the first team to have an authentication manager.
UW: Has that position now become a standard thing for every team?
MA: Not always with that title, but there is more of a dedicated person with every team. What I am proud to say is that the Astros became the industry standard, an example to follow. It was us, Detroit, and St. Louis — we were told by MLB, “You have the best programs, we wish all the teams would would do it like you do.”
UW: What was your job description? Like, the elevator pitch version.
MA: My job was to anticipate, plan ahead, and be there on-site, almost like a first responder, if something was to happen on the field. Like if we had a no-hitter, then we had a plan in place that started in the seventh inning. And when stuff like that happens, it can be very chaotic, it’s unorganized, it’s spur of the moment, there’s a lot of emotion involved. So you try to plan ahead.
When [Astros second baseman José] Altuve hit the home run against [Yankees reliever Aroldis] Chapman [to win the 2019 ALCS], we were ready. Our bullpen catcher, Javier Bracamonte, knows and understands the program that we have in place and had gotten the baseball from [Yankees outfielder] Brett Gardner. So I'm out there behind second base with the authenticator. As soon as we got the home run ball, I gave it to the authenticator and I said, “Put it in your backpack, just hold onto it.” I don't want to be walking around on the field with a baseball in my hand or anything like that.
For the playoffs, I would send a one-sheet to our clubhouse manager, to the other clubhouse guys, to the authenticators, to MLB. And it'll say, here's our pregame, in-game, and postgame plan. I would keep a spreadsheet of the uniforms that we were using, the batting helmets, the bats we were authenticating throughout the postseason, to track them. So I knew, okay, this bat was used in Game One, Game Two, it was cracked in Game Three. We were just very detail-oriented and proactive and ready for milestones.
UW: Tell me more about the chain of custody you mentioned earlier.
MA: The authenticator can’t put that hologram sticker on a jersey until he literally sees it coming off the player’s back. He doesn’t have to put the hologram on it right then and there, but he has to know it came from the player. If the jersey goes into a laundry bin, he keeps an eye on that. So when the clubhouse attendants bring the jerseys to the laundry area, that’s where we actually would take care of our process, because the authenticator had witnessed all those jerseys go into that laundry bin, so we had a chain of custody.
When [Justin] Verlander was pitching Game Two of the  World Series, we had an authenticator in the clubhouse, and of course it’s a no-brainer that we’re gonna authenticate his jersey that night, because it’s his first World Series game for the Astros. So Verlander comes back into the clubhouse. All the authenticator has to do is have a line of sight on him. But for some reason, I think the authenticator went to the restroom or something, so he wasn’t in the clubhouse watching when Verlander took the jersey off. And Michael Posner, who runs the authentication program for MLB, says, “Well, that’s a really nice team-issued jersey now.”
UW: Because, based on your chain-of-custody protocols, you can no longer call it “game-used,” so now it’s just “team-issued”?
UW: During a typical home game — not a World Series game, not a special event game, just a typical regular season game — where would you be located?
MA: In the camera well, next to the dugout, and there’d be an authenticator in there with me.
UW: And what would you be doing?
MA: Well, for starters, every inning we’re trying to get every baseball that’s taken out of play. Even if it’s, you know, the fifth pitcher in the starting rotation or whatever, people really like having a piece of the game. I always said the best thing you can do is give a kid a ball from a Major League game.
So I would give some baseballs to the team store and we’d sell them during the game. We would send them up there in the fourth or fifth inning. But we would also separate out some of the baseballs and give those to the ticket office, or to sponsorships, or season ticket holders, things like that. I’d try to take care of the other departments.
UW: Who’d bring you the baseballs?
MA: The ball boy.
UW: And then the authenticator applies the hologram?
MA: Right. Early on, the baseballs were just generic game-used, with no other details. But then I said, “Our authenticators are right there by the dugout, and they can see who’s pitching and who’s at bat — can we authenticate that?” So we started doing that, and now we’ve gone from having to manually enter that information to using the technology that’s in the ballpark, where it’s giving you the speed of the pitch, what type of pitch. And if the ball is put in play, the system knows the exit velocity, the launch angle, what the result of the play is, just based on what pitch number it is — pitch No. 17, pitch No. 24, or whatever. It’s a very neat interface. Also, the technology allows you to track all the pitches on that baseball. Because sometimes we’ve had, you know, 15 or 16 pitches on one ball, and the ball has been used for a double, and then a strikeout, and so on.
UW: What about broken bats — does every single one of those get pulled aside and authenticated?
MA: Unless the player specified something else, yes. We did have some guys who’d want to keep their bats.
UW: Okay, so every baseball gets authenticated, every broken bat gets authenticated. But what about jerseys? Who decides which jerseys or other uniform components, like caps or pants or whatever, get authenticated after a game? Also, what if a guy hits, like, two grand slams in a week, and you want to pull both of those jerseys for authentication — he might not have any jerseys left to wear, right?
MA: The clubhouse manager would order his set of uniforms for the players, and then I would order an additional set. So if we pull something for authentication, because the player hit a big home run or hit a career milestone or whatever, he would have an immediate jersey to swap in. That would just go between myself and the clubhouse manager — we would text each other during the game, so he’d know the ones we were going to pull and tell his people. And then when I would go into the clubhouse after the game, my first destination would be the laundry room. And at that point, I would know the authenticator was going to place himself where he needed to be and then the clubhouse guys already knew what we were doing.
UW: Just to make sure I understand, let’s say a player has a three-homer night. And you’re like, “Oh, that’s a big night, I want that jersey, because he’s never done that before.” Does it matter if the jersey he was wearing that night was one of the ones that the equipment manager ordered, or one of the ones that you ordered?
MA: No, that doesn’t matter. It’s just extra inventory, but it comes from a different team department, a different budget line.
UW: And when you’re ordering your inventory, you’re using the same specs that the equipment guy uses? Like if one guy wants a longer sleeve or whatever?
MA: Yes — same exact jerseys, ordered from the same exact source.
UW: I just interviewed Steve Vucinich from the A’s, he told me that most players go through two or three jerseys in a season. But you’re saying that the real number might be four or five, or maybe even more, because some might get pulled for authentication, not just due to wear and tear.
MA: Yeah. I would order probably four of our home jerseys for certain guys. It gets pretty expensive, but the margin of the resale more than makes up for it.
UW: What if I just hit those three home runs, and it’s the best game of my career, and I want to keep the jersey for my trophy case?
MA: I would say okay, because we always wanted to take care of the players. And if anybody above me said, “Hey, did you get that jersey?” — you know, because they wanted us to sell it or whatever — I would say, “It’s okay, we made the right decision. We gave the jersey to the player.” Meanwhile, we’d get some other things, like the bases off the field, or we got his batting gloves, or something like that.
That was something I wanted to establish early on, to make sure the players didn’t develop the misconception that I was hanging around the clubhouse just to grab their jerseys so we could sell them. Baseball teams are in business, of course, and there is a bottom line. But in my opinion, giving the player a jersey that you might sell for $5,000 or even $10,000 is still a far better value. Even though the team owns the jersey, it’s just goodwill, and good business, to do that.
UW: Would you travel with the team on the road during the regular season?
MA: There was really no need for that, except in rare cases when a player was approaching a super-big milestone, because I would have my counterparts in the other cities.
UW: What are the some of the most unusual or surprising things you’ve authenticated?
MA: Something I heard about, because I wasn’t down there myself, is that when Mike Fiers threw a no-hitter in 2015, the plate umpire wanted his cup authenticated. Mike O’Connell, who was the authenticator for that game, told me. And I said, “You’re kidding me.” He’s like, “Yeah, he wanted me to do his cup!”
UW [incredulous]: And then you guys would take it?
MA: No, no, the ump kept it. But he wanted it authenticated. So that was probably the weirdest thing. [For the record, the plate ump for that game was John Tumpane. If you ever see his game-used cup show up on the memorabilia market, now you know why. — PL]
As for other unusual things, I’ve always thought authenticating dirt from the field is kind of unique. Grass dies, but dirt will last forever. So if it’s a big moment, we would take dirt from the batter’s box, or sometimes we would take it from the infield.
UW: What about clubhouse-celebration stuff, like champagne corks?
MA: We’ve authenticated corks, and also champagne bottles. But back around 2015, Major League Baseball decided that they were not going to authenticate alcohol-related products anymore. That didn’t stop us from collecting the bottles, or putting them on display, but they wouldn’t have the hologram.
UW: How about those goggles that the players wear during the celebrations?
MA: Those are super-popular with the players. The players were keeping them, but the clubhouse manager usually made sure I had at least one pair that I could put on display or whatever, but they were the fastest thing to disappear into the clubhouse.
UW: What about unglamorous equipment, like a pine tar rag or a rosin bag or something like that?
MA: Yeah, we would do the rosin bags. We did the stick that the players use to put a grip on the bat, and the spray cans they use for grip as well. I felt that, you know, those were interesting pieces — not to sell, but they’ll look good in a display case.
UW: So if you’re not going to sell all that stuff, it’s in an archive somewhere?
MA: Yeah. We would save it, and I would put it into whatever exhibit I was working on, and then save it again when that display got taken down. I always tried to keep a decent set of what I call props.
UW: Sometimes there’ll be a situation — I think maybe this happened with Craig Biggio? — where it’s a milestone game or the last game of a player’s career, and they’ll have him change jerseys throughout the game, like every other inning or whatever, so there will be more game-used jerseys from that game. Did you ever have a situation like that?
MA: Yeah, Biggio is a real good example of that. For his 3,000-hit game, he wore three different jerseys that night — one for the Hall of Fame, one for the team, and one for him. And then for his final game, he wore seven jerseys, because he was giving them to family and close friends.
The only other one I had like that was when when Pudge Rodriguez broke the record for games caught in 2009. It was on the road in Arlington, so I had gone up there, and I facilitated him switching his uniform. “Hey, if you do want to do this, the Hall of Fame wants to get something from the game.” And he was great to work with — really nice guy.
UW: So that was your idea, to have him wear multiple jerseys in that game?
MA: Yes. But for Biggio, he was always more hands-on with his own stuff, and he had the foresight to to plan ahead, so he came to our clubhouse manager and said, “This is what I’d like to do.”
UW: We’ve all seen the hologram stickers. When were they introduced?
MA: In 2001. Major League Baseball produces them. They have these security features on them to where they disintegrate if they’re damaged or tampered with.
UW: Did you have access to them? Like, did you have a sheet of hologram stickers in your desk drawer, or are the authenticators the only ones who have them?
MA: People who work for the team cannot be issued a roll of holograms — they’re issued only to the authenticators. Now, occasionally I did put a hologram on an item, because I was helping the authenticator and he was right there when I did it. But as far as actually housing them, and being issued a roll, that doesn’t happen, and that just goes back to the integrity of the program.
UW: So the holograms come in rolls, not sheets?
MA: Yeah. Five hundred to a roll.
UW: Do the authenticators have a uniform?
MA: At first they wore basic shirts with the MLB logo. And then Major League Baseball started to branch out and help with authenticating things at Star Wars conventions, and they actually experimented with the NFL…
UW: Yeah, I was gonna ask about that. The other leagues don’t have a hologram program or anything similar, right?
MA: Yeah. So MLB realized that, and they branched out and created an entity that’s owned by MLB, called Authenticators, Inc., which has its own logo. So they wear that now. That way, if the authenticators go and work for a different league, they’re not running around an NFL locker room while wearing the MLB logo.
UW: Clubhouse access has been so restricted last year and this year. How has that affected authentication? Are authenticators still allowed into the clubhouse?
MA: There is one designated authenticator allowed in the clubhouse. The others can access other areas.
UW: Who is handling what you used to do?
MA: The Astros passed some of the authentication stuff to one of the retail guys.
UW: Are you a collector of authentic memorabilia yourself? And I don’t mean necessarily baseball, just sports memorabilia in general.
MA: I have a few Astros jerseys that I’ve acquired over the years. And I have a big Astrodome-specific collection — light bulbs from the scoreboard, a painting that used to be in Judge Hofheinz’s office, seats from every level, employee uniforms, some Astroturf, tickets from the 1968 All-Star Game.
UW: When the Hofheinz estate recently auctioned off a bunch of items, I saw your name come up a few times on the list of winning bidders. What did you come away with?
MA: I got a pair of Hofheinz’s glasses, a 1972 dugout jacket with Hofheinz’s name embroidered on the inside. I also got two books full of construction photos of the Astrodome as it was being built. Oh, and a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings, and then there are some early renderings of what a domed stadium might look like.
UW: You’re still working for the Astros as a consultant, right?
MA: Yeah, I’m still the team historian. I’m just under contract instead of being a full-time employee. And I work on the Astros Hall of Fame and other historical projects.
UW: is there any chance they’ll restore the position and bring you back when the world is a little more back to normal?
MA: I don’t know. I was told that I’m eligible for rehire, so we’ll see.
And there you have it. Big thanks to Mike for sharing his recollections and expertise (not to mention that amazing eighth grade class project!). Here’s hoping he gets rehired soon.
Paul Lukas has been writing about uniforms for over 20 years. If you like his Bulletin articles, you’ll probably like his daily Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.