They have spread like a rash across the sports landscape, destroying the relationship between the players and the public and threatening the peace among he 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 palace 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 ire 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 Spectra Vision 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. Haifa million bucks for a ball. If the apocalypse is not upon us, surely it is near.