They have spread like a rash across the sports landscape,
destroying the relationship between the players and the public
and threatening the peace among the paying customers. They have
placed a price on fans' passion for our most popular games and
turned athletic venues into the floor of the New York Stock
Exchange. The world will be a better place when we transport
them all to a cannibal island and throw salsa on them.
If you have attended a game lately, any major college or
professional game, you know who they are: the autograph pests
and collectibles creeps, those incessant sports stalkers who
won't be happy until Mickey Mantle's remains are exhumed and
sold at auction. Some athletes and coaches aptly refer to them
as "green flies" because they are always buzzing around the
parking lots where the players put their cars and the lobbies of
hotels where teams stay. They have forced many players to exist
on room service and SpectraVision while on the road. Even a
generous sort like Cal Ripken Jr. has to hide out in a secret
hotel under a false name lest he be swarmed by the pests.
If you are a 10-year-old hoping to catch a glimpse of your hero
Derek Jeter outside Yankee Stadium, these louts are more
dangerous to your well-being than street gangs. They will knock
you down, step on your face and beat you with their three-ring
binders if they have a chance of adding another Wade Boggs
autograph to their vast collection of laminated Wade Boggs
autographs. These people generally have no great admiration for
the athletes; this is strictly business. When asked if they know
a player's number, they respond with the market value of his
trading card. They watch QVC, not ESPN. The typical collectibles
geek has had one date and took her to a card show.
Most of the time these people live for nothing more than the
next edition of Trading Cards magazine (publisher: Larry Flynt
Publications Inc. of Hustler fame), but last week was a special
time in their so-called lives. While most baseball fans were in
awe of the achievements of Paul Molitor, Hideo Nomo and Roger
Clemens, the collectibles crowd was more excited about the news
out of Baltimore: Dan Jones, a salesman from Towson, Md., who
had caught Eddie Murray's 500th home run, on Sept. 6, agreed to
sell the ball to a man named Michael Lasky, who obviously has
too much money. Lasky's offer: $500,000. One auction house
official estimated the ball's worth at $10,000 to $20,000.
Once that bizarre deal was struck, the value of some of the
truly important hardballs in history--for example, the one Hank
Aaron hit for his 715th home run or the one Joe Carter clouted
for his World Series-winning shot--was instantly unimaginable.
Indeed, the record selling price of a baseball collectible was
broken even before Murray's ball could change hands. Last
Saturday in New York, three days before Lasky and Jones were to
complete their transaction, a Honus Wagner baseball card was
sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $580,000, plus a
$60,500 premium to the auction house. Someone else at the
auction paid $2,185 for Jack Dempsey's hand wraps, which,
according to the description in the catalog, "have never been
washed." That means they have something in common with many of
those whose lives revolve around collectibles.
Suddenly all the low-level collectibles clowns looked into their
Star Trek toy boxes and saw gold. If Murray's ball is worth half
a million, surely a collection of Boggs's balls could bring in a
few dollars. The zeroes had a new hero, and his name was Michael
Lasky. Naturally, Lasky says he is not a baseball fan. He wanted
to put the ball on display at a Baltimore hotel he owns.
The irony in Lasky's offer is impossible to ignore. Lasky made
his fortune from the Psychic Friends Network. The network is
best known as the place Dionne Warwick went after her singing
career went south. She is joined by such Hollywood hobos as
actor Gary Coleman and comedian Rip Taylor, who, in one TV spot,
says of the network, "All it takes is a telephone and an open
mind." It works best when that mind is so open that the
customer's brains fall out.
Perhaps Lasky just wanted to give something back to the lost
souls who made him rich, and Lord knows the collectibles crowd
is a good place to find them. Unfortunately for the real sports
fans, he poured more blood into shark-infested waters at
ballparks around the country. Now what happens when another
player is poised to hit home run number 500? What if a healthy
Mark McGwire is going for 62 next season? At each ballpark he
visits, the bleachers will look like the set of a Mad Max movie.
Fans will no longer bring just their gloves to games in hopes of
catching a home run ball. They'll arm themselves with machetes
and mace. Or, as Charlie Sheen (proud owner, for $93,500, of the
ball Bill Buckner booted in the 1986 World Series) did in
Anaheim this season, wealthy prospectors will buy up every seat
in the bleachers in hopes of getting a priceless horsehide.
Armored cars will replace equipment vans. An already
out-of-control sideshow will become more volatile. Half a
million bucks for a ball. If the apocalypse is not upon us,
surely it is near.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of cash register with sports-related items in drawer]