Jim, Pam and … Jeff Ballard? Meet the TikTok sleuth who IDs the game in the background

After an hour of staring at a pixelated, three-second video on his computer screen — mining each grainy detail of a clip cut from the corner of a scene in “The Office” for a clue that might unlock its origins — Ian Araujo sat back in his office chair, shook his head and said, “Oh man, we picked a good one.”

Araujo is a 25-year-old Manitoban, a TikTok creator with more than 850,000 followers, and, for the purposes of this story, an amateur sports sleuth.

On a whim a few months ago, Araujo posted a video about a little hobby he’d had for years: identifying the exact sporting event happening in the background of a movie or TV show. In 110 seconds, he detailed the detective work it took to deduce that the hockey game shown on a TV in a bar scene from the show “Daredevil” was a Feb. 13, 2009, Michigan State-Ohio State game. “I did not think it would be a popular video,” Araujo admitted later, “but it blew up.”

@noproblemgambler Yes this is what I do with my spare time #sports #hockey #marvel #tv #movies ♬ original sound – No Problem Gambler

That spawned a series of similarly viral videos. Requests flooded in from viewers, and Araujo scrutinized whatever each scene offered — uniforms, advertisements, logos, stadium seats, score bugs, chyrons, audio. Some solves took an hour, others took several days, and a few are still unanswered. Araujo traced a scene in “Peacemaker” back to an Arkansas high school football game; tracked down the South Australian soccer match in “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”; found a three-decades-old Bundesliga game in “Lost”; even nailed a North Carolina men’s league hockey game in the video game “Detroit: Become Human”.

And so when I called Araujo this spring and asked if I could ride along for his next investigation, he was game. “I have a bunch of clips I’ve never even looked at,” he said. “You can pick one.” On a video call the next day, Araujo scrolled through the scores of requests he’s saved in a Word document, and I selected “The Office,” Season 5, Episode 1, timestamp 18:30.

Araujo cued up the scene.

As the tape rolled — Jim Halpert (John Krasinski) watching a baseball game on a dormitory TV while visiting Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) at art school — my immediate thought was: Wayyyy too easy. The ballgame in the background was only visible for three seconds, but the pieces were in place for a speedy solve. There was an early-2000s Fox Sports Network score bug with “LAD” as the home team. There was a road team wearing gray uniforms and red caps. There was an on-field meeting with three members of the road team, and one number clearly visible: No. 39. There was red, white and blue bunting lining the railing, suggesting it was a special occasion. And there was broadcast audio.

The episode aired in September 2008, so Araujo and I started searching through 2000s rosters of teams with red road uniforms trying to find the correct No. 39. None were a perfect fit. We threw thoughts back and forth. Which teams have no player names on their road jersey? Is No. 39 a pitcher or a coach? Is this a mound visit or an injured catcher and two coaches?

After a head-scratching half hour, I finally examined the fuller picture.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “The Dodger Stadium seats aren’t red.”

“Well,” Araujo replied, “that throws a wrench into everything.”

The closer we examined the clip, the more problems popped up. First, there’s the audio. You hear the crack of a bat and a broadcaster talking about pop fly in a near-perfect game. Perfect game? The score bug says it’s the first inning with two runners on base. Pop fly? This looks like a mound visit. “It’s the wrong audio,” Araujo said. Then there’s the score bug. The Dodgers aren’t at home. And while the road team appears to read “ARZ,” those aren’t Diamondbacks uniforms.

Araujo had seen this before: scenes where the picture, audio and graphics were all pulled from different games and spliced together for a TV show. It made his hobby harder, but not impossible. He had to focus on what information he did have. Araujo covered the scoreboard, muted the audio and asked me, “If all you had was the picture, when would you say this is from?”

“Honestly?” I said. “Sometime in the 1990s.”

Araujo nodded. I asked how he’d normally go about finding this game now. He grinned. “This is the best part,” he said. Our best leads were blown, but there were others: the bunting; the red seats; the uniforms; the No. 39. The fact it’s a road game splits the possible games in half, Araujo said, then added, “That’s still a lot, considering we have an infinite amount of possible games.”


We’d been digging through internet archives for two hours when we called it a day. It felt like we were farther from an answer than when we’d started. The last thing Araujo said on our call was that he felt the need to apologize in advance that this would be stuck in my head, gnawing at me, until we had an answer. “It’s like an itch that needs to be scratched.” For him, maybe. Not me. I was in Florida for a five-day spring training tour, bouncing to a new camp and a new hotel each day, and I was booked full with interviews for real stories.

And yet, there I was before bed that night, buying a Peacock subscription to see a higher-resolution version of the clip. Scratching the itch. I zoomed in on the coach’s cap, the most distinguishable feature of the man in the middle of the mound visit. The logo on the cap looked very simple, shaped almost like a Z, and it definitely didn’t look like any MLB logo. Araujo had just messaged me about a 1995 RangersRoyals game, back when Kauffman Stadium had red seats and Bob Tewksbury wore No. 39 for the Rangers. I texted back: I’ve got bad news. The logo looks realllly minor league or independent league.

At 1:14 a.m., Araujo replied with a 1989 baseball card and four magic words:

I have a lead.

The logo wasn’t a Z, but a script L. The Triple-A Louisville Redbirds used that logo on their caps from 1989 to 1992. So, just like that, we had our window.

By the time I saw Araujo’s texts that morning, he’d matched the red seats, railing and bunting to the Buffalo Bisons’ Pilot Field (now Sahlen Field). He’s a pro. The Redbirds played three series in Buffalo each year. The long sleeves and jacket suggested an early-season game, and the bunting hinted at Opening Day or Memorial Day. Maybe this isn’t so difficult after all.


Early in the investigation, inching frame by frame through the clip, I noticed that the catcher stepping forward gives a brief glimpse of the back of his jersey: No. 25.

While numerical minor league rosters from the 1980s and 1990s aren’t readily available online, Araujo and I went through baseball card databases and ruled out a handful of former Redbirds catchers — Todd Zeile (No. 7), Ray Stephens (No. 8), Jim Puzey (No. 37), Alex Trevino (No. 9) and Jose Fernandez (No. 19) — before finding a mustachioed man wearing No. 25: Ed Fulton.

Fulton played nine years in the minors without ever getting the call to the majors. He was, however, our Eureka moment. He wore No. 25 for the Redbirds from 1990 to 1993, which further narrowed our window. The intersection of Fulton’s career and the script L cap: 1990 to 1992.

Scouring the archives of the Louisville Courier-Journal on Newspapers.com, I pulled the box scores and game stories from each Redbirds road game against the Bisons in that three-year span. Fulton didn’t catch any games in Buffalo in 1990; he started two in 1991; and he appeared in six in 1992.

Thus began the process of elimination, ticking through each pitcher who had thrown to Fulton in Buffalo to check if they wore No. 39 for the Redbirds. This is easier said than done, as posed photos on baseball cards tend to cover the uniform number. But then, flipping through a Skybox team set for the 1992 Redbirds, I struck gold: a staged photo of a smiling, well-lit left-hander delivering a pitch and wearing No. 39. I texted Araujo: I think I have our No. 39.

This was Jeff Ballard. One year removed from being the Orioles’ Opening Day starter, Ballard spent the 1992 season with the Redbirds working with pitching coach Mark Riggins to rework his delivery and regain his footing on the mound. Ballard pitched to Fulton in Buffalo only once. It was a night game at Pilot Field, with 12,477 in attendance as Ballard pitched into the ninth inning and came away with a 4-1 Louisville win. Ballard scattered 10 hits in that start, nine of them singles (“They have to get a lot of singles to do anything to you,” Ballard told The Buffalo News), which is the type of traffic that might necessitate a mound visit from Riggins. We had our hunch: June 2, 1992.


Most of Araujo’s investigations end here. He’d write a short script, compile the evidence and create the video. A few viewers might question this detail or that, but most just watch, flabbergasted. Two weeks after our initial call, Araujo felt he had an iron-clad case. He texted: I am 99 percent sure that the game is June 2, 1992. It’s Ed Fulton, Jeff Ballard and Mark Riggins. Nothing else makes sense to me.

Wanting to exhaust every option for proving or disproving our theory, I took the video to someone whose career exists at the nexus of “The Office” and baseball. I emailed Mike Schur — producer, actor, writer of “The Office” and baseball voice on “The Poscast” with Joe Posnanski, formerly of The Athletic — and asked him in the vaguest terms possible to talk about a very specific baseball appearance in the show. Schur phoned that night.

“I’m happy to help you in your quixotic quest for obscure ‘Office’ trivia,” he said.

Around the time Season 5, Episode 1 aired, Schur was leaving the show to develop “Parks and Recreation.” He was there for shooting on-set scenes — centered on a company-wide weight-loss competition at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company — but not for the art school scenes. Before seeing a second of the baseball game in the clip, he already had an educated gut feeling: “MLB is incredibly stingy with their rights, so my guess is going to be that this ends up being a college baseball game, something that’s license-able but not MLB.”

Then Schur pressed play and immediately said, “Wait, this is a Dodgers game. Right? It looks like Arizona against Dodgers.” It sure looks that way, doesn’t it?

As Schur fell down the same rabbit hole Araujo and I had already been in, I pulled him out and filled him in on our findings, bit by bit. The show, I explained, was lying to his eyes and ears. Ignore the audio and the score bug. What did the rest tell him? “This looks like a game from the mid-80s,” Schur said. “The catcher is wearing an old-timey backward batting helmet instead of the hockey helmet. The font and cut of the uniforms make it look much older (than the 2000s). I’d guess the latest this could be is the Phillies uniforms of the ’90s.” I floated our theory: Louisville Redbirds vs. Buffalo Bisons, June 2, 1992.

“If you hadn’t told me anything about this, I would have pitched to you that — especially if this is Buffalo — it’s a Triple-A playoff game in September, which is why the bunting was out,” Schur said, not completely sold. “Which would then explain why they’re in long sleeves looking like they’re cold.”

“Right,” I said. “If this were an April or May game, I’d be all in.”

The weather was a detail that had given us pause all along. Araujo had found a weather report for June 2, 1992, in Buffalo, which showed 68 degrees at first pitch and dropping into the low 60s by the time Ballard exited. “Not the hottest day,” Araujo said, “but certainly not the coldest either.” Would the pitcher really wear a long-sleeve turtleneck undershirt while he pitched?

Schur fired a new theory past me.

“This catcher just took a foul ball to the head,” Schur said. “You can see in the first frame, the manager in the red jacket is looking at his catcher with concern. He’s saying, ‘Are you OK? Can you stay in the game?’ My guess is No. 39 is not the 6-foot-3 Jeff Ballard, it’s a team doctor or athletic trainer checking on his catcher. The catcher is stepping back and stepping forward trying to see if he’s OK. He just took a foul ball to the head. That’s what happened.”

After a half-hour on the phone, Schur had us back at square one, and the only thing that was certain anymore was that this would be stuck in his head, too. Schur didn’t hold the answer, but he knew who might. Somewhere, he said, there’s an expense report that lists the tape licensed for each episode and the time code where it’s used. Schur offered to try tracking down that manifest. “Let me send a couple emails to whoever was working in post-production on the show at the time and see if there’s a quick way to do this,” he said.

I called Araujo to debrief. He had the video scripted but was holding off to see if we could get a firm answer; being this close to one made it worth waiting a little longer. By the way, Araujo said, while researching recently he came across a game that Ballard had pitched for the Orioles. It was at the Skydome in Toronto. Ballard was wearing sleeves.


“I didn’t mind wearing sleeves. I threw a lot of games in sleeves.”

The friendly voice on the other end of the line belongs to Jeff Ballard, former big-league lefty for the Orioles and Pirates and, crucially, No. 39 for the 1992 Redbirds. Ballard, 58, was born and raised in Billings, Mont., and returned there after retiring from baseball following a 1995 car accident. Not only did he not mind pitching in sleeves — and the best ones back then were turtlenecks, he says — Ballard played for the Buffalo Bisons for parts of 1993 and 1994 and can attest to the fact night games at Pilot Field, right next to Lake Erie, were cold and windy affairs even in the early summer. “It’s chilly by the lake in Buffalo,” he said.

When shown the clip from “The Office,” Ballard cross-referenced photos from that year and determined the hair could be right, the shoulders, the body type. It’s hard to say definitively. But, he said, “It’s definitely Mark Riggins (in the middle). And that looks like Ed Fulton, from my memory.”

What bugged Ballard most was the height question. But, he said, he could be standing farther down the mound than the other two. Ballard’s right leg is bent, so he’s not standing straight. So, he said, “It’s easy to explain the (height) difference.”

Fulton was 6-foot; Riggins 5-foot-11; Ballard 6-foot-3. In the clip, they look roughly the same height.

“I wish I could 100 percent tell you it’s me, but I can’t,” he says. “It’s very possible.”

After analyzing the video for a few minutes, Ballard chucked.

“This is crazy if it’s me,” he said, “because I was also on Seinfeld.”

A few nights before our call, Ballard and his wife, Kristen, came across Seinfeld Season 3, Episode 20: “The Letter.” Ballard said, “This is the one I’m in, honey!” The episode features Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) refusing to remove her Orioles cap while sitting in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium. There are a few clips of game action interspersed throughout the episode. (I’ll do the detective work here before Araujo can. The clips are taken from two games: July 6 and July 7, 1991. Ballard and the Orioles won the latter, 5-3.)

In the final scene, Ballard is shown delivering a pitch to the Yankees’ Kevin Maas, who hits a foul ball. “Boy,” Jerry Seinfeld (Jerry Seinfeld) says, “the Yankees cannot buy a hit tonight!” Ballard didn’t realize he was in the show until he saw the episode years later, after he retired. “I’m like, ‘Hey man, where’s my money?’” he said. The Seinfeld episode aired March 25, 1992. A little over two months later, he was pitching for the Redbirds in Buffalo. Move over, Keith Hernandez. Step aside, Wade Boggs. The most famous MLB player in TV shows just might be Jeff Ballard.

“I just seem to be a magnet for the background of these shows,” Ballard says, laughing. “If this is me, I can tell my wife, ‘I was in The Office too!’”


The search for verifiable proof of a 30-year-old game shown for three seconds in a 14-year-old episode of a since-ended TV show involved constant dead ends and detours. I phoned Fulton and Riggins, to no avail. I had a Louisville Bats (né Redbirds) spokesperson pass the video around the press box, but nothing came of it. Schur got back to me last week. He heard back from someone in post-production, and they had no clue how to find the show’s licensing information anymore.

Some loose ends you have to leave dangling.

Here’s an example: The NYB call letters in the lower-right corner of the frame. WNYB-TV carried some Bisons games in 1988 and 1989, which led to a brief dalliance with 1989 — the first year of the Redbirds’ script L cap — as our target season. One of the two Redbirds road games in Buffalo aired on WNYB in 1989 was Opening Day. Araujo found home footage from that game, and it looks almost perfect. The bunting. The logos. The sleeves. But the Redbirds pitcher and catcher aren’t wearing Nos. 25 or 39, and the numbers on their uniform are skinny and have a white border. I bought a Buffalo News subscription to learn more about the Bisons’ TV rights deals of the 1980s and 1990s. By 1992, WNYB had been sold to a Christian TV network and Empire Sports Network had taken over broadcasting Bisons game. I called up Pete Weber — the Nashville Predators broadcaster, who called Bisons games from 1983 to 1995 — and he confirmed that timeline. The June 2, 1992 game would likely have been on Empire Sports Network, he said.

I sent Weber the video. He called back a few hours later. “I think you nailed it,” Weber said. “I really do.” When this much about the picture is confusing or incorrect, why not the call letters?

@noproblemgambler Reply to @rufflesundressed This is maybe the biggest rabbit hole I’ve gone down so far #sports #baseball #mlb #milb #theoffice #tv ♬ original sound – No Problem Gambler

When I asked Araujo how he goes about closing the book on a case like this, when he’s tracked down a comically obscure game but can’t explain every little detail.

“There’s always the thought, Well, that’s my white whale then,” Araujo said. “What if someone watches my video and goes, ‘My dad has a tape of that.’ Or someone who works in social media for a team that was in the same league goes, ‘I could find that.’ There might be someone who watches my video, and it sparks something for them, and they’re able to crack it.”

Araujo wouldn’t consider that a total loss. After sinking this much time into a video, he wants to be right, “but it’s also cool to have an audience interested enough to fact check you.” They’re putting in effort, too. Then it’s not one, two or three people scratching the itch; it’s thousands.

By the way, Araujo said, you’ve got to check out this request another viewer sent in: “I haven’t figured it out. But that’s what makes it interesting.” It’s a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial. There’s a basketball game on TV in the background — a blurry possession on one end of the court, a fast-break layup on the other. Araujo had spent all week studying it. The only words he sees are NEW JERSEY along the baseline. After looking at all the Nets, NCAA and AAU footage he can find, he’s still stumped.

“I’m convinced it’s a fake game,” Araujo said, excitedly. “I’m convinced they’re all actors.” He sent over the video. The chase was back on. One case closed, and the next began.

(Top image: John Bradford / The Athletic; Photos: Diego Gonzalez, Alberto Contreras, Stephen Monterroso / Unsplash)

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