The other day, while working on this column, I put in requests to talk to Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, and I prayed to God they would not call me back. Not that I was trembling at the prospect of speaking to a pair of legends-in-the-making. No, I was trembling at the prospect of speaking to the person who scrutinizes my expense reports, because Bonds and A-Rod have begun charging money to talk to people, and a chat starts at $7,500.
I exaggerate, but not much. The Giant and the Yankee will turn pro as conversationalists on Dec. 10 when The Ultimate Experience happens at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Admission to the event, run by the players' merchandising companies, A-Rod Authenticated and Pro Access, is $7,500; it jumps to $10,000 if you bring a child or a date. For that sum you get drinks, hors d'oeuvres and what Scot Monette, A-Rod Authenticated's event organizer, calls "a high-end intimate experience." If that sounds like what Heidi Fleiss got busted for, don't worry. All he means is that Bonds and A-Rod will work the room, schmoozing the customers ("not more than 75," says a Bonds spokesman; "75 to 100" according to the A-Rod camp). If you have a fear of intimacy, this is the intimate event for you.
"Each encounter will last about five minutes," says Jeff Bernstein, managing director of Pro Access. "And I don't expect anyone will bring up controversial topics in an environment like this. If they do, Barry knows how to handle himself."
"I don't want to speculate on the length of each meeting," says Monette. "But when A-Rod looks you in the eye and talks to you for even two minutes--let me tell you, you have had an experience."
As my grandmother used to say, so did the lady who sat on the eggbeater.
But wait, there's more! Each guest will have his picture taken with the players and receive a gift bag containing a watch, autographed ball, cigars, a flip-book, a T-shirt and other items that--by Monette's math--are worth $4,500. The evening concludes with an auction in which attendees can spend thousands more on Bonds and A-Rod autographed bats, balls and life-sized bobbleheads.
The question is, how many life-sized bobbleheads will ante up for this, especially if they can't pretend it's for a good cause? Monette says Rodriguez is giving away his share of the proceeds (probably about $750,000 after expenses), but for Bonds, charity's not an issue at all. "This event," says Bernstein, "is squarely in the for-profit section of Barry's portfolio."
So who will turn out for this autograph show on steroids? The promoters needn't set aside any cocktail weenies for Barry Halper, a minority owner of the Yankees who has donated a trove of memorabilia to the baseball Hall of Fame. "I've spent for some crazy stuff," says Halper, who once owned Ty Cobb's dentures. "But an A-Rod 'experience'? How about he hits a few balls through the infield in the postseason? That's the kind of A-Rod experience I'd like."
If you hate the idea behind this event, there's worse news: Many sports merchandisers expect it to be a success, perhaps even an industry milestone like that moment in the late '70s when Mickey Mantle, seeing the light at the end of the carpel tunnel, realized he sold more autographed baseballs when he charged $50 instead of $5.
"There's a pent-up demand for closeness with athletes," says Bill Fleming, CEO of a sports memorabilia authentification company called TracerCode. "ARod's no slouch, and Bonds is the holy grail for collectors because he's made himself so scarce." But hasn't Bonds's aloofness turned off fans? "It doesn't matter," says Michael Barnes, a St. Louis--based sports marketing agent. "This kind of thing is driven by baby boomers. They're not even from Bonds's generation. They just want to get close to baseball." Todd McFarlane, the comic book creator (Spawn) who has become a serious player in the memorabilia business, says he expects a crowd of "relatively well-off men--women just don't get this sort of thing--who have come to terms with being sports geeks. These guys live in rooms that are already littered with all sorts of memorabilia. Now they want a story, the ability to say, 'One night I met Bonds and ARod.' They will gladly pay the asking price and go home with a smile on their face."