The Authenticators

Lots of stuff goes on in the world about which most of us are unaware. Stuff like this:

Nearly a decade ago, embarrassed about reports of widespread fraud in the $1-billion-per-year sports memorabilia industry — dominated by baseball and filled mostly with fakes and forgeries, according to an F.B.I. investigation — Major League Baseball did something about it.

Now every game has at least one authenticator, watching from a dugout or near one. The authenticators are part of a team of 120 active and retired law-enforcement officials sharing the duties for the 30 franchises. Several worked the home openers for the Yankees and the Mets, helping track firsts at the new stadiums. They verified balls, bases, jerseys, the pitchers’ rosin bag, even the pitching rubber and the home plate that were removed after the first game at Yankee Stadium.

Nothing is too mundane to be authenticated, if deemed potentially valuable. Cans of insect repellent used to combat the midges that swarmed the 2007 playoffs in Cleveland were authenticated. So were urinals pulled from the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis and office equipment from since-razed Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Phillies are cutting the clubhouse carpet from last season into authenticated 18-by-24-inch mats.

Yes, the reason given for this is to combat forgery, but the reason there are forgeries is because people have come to develop a fetish for totems and relics which I simply fail to understand. Famous home run ball: sure, that’s pretty cool. Player autographs? I’m on record not understanding the purpose of those things, but yeah, I get why there’s a market.

By the time we get down to midge spray and carpet squares, however, society has totally lost me.

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  1. Mark Armour said...

    I would rate autographs acquired in person to be higher on my list than Famous Home Run Ball.  An autograph is supposed to authenticate an encounter.  I guess a HR ball is authentic if you actually caught the ball, put it in your pocket, and kept watching the game.

    For the record, I have a very small number of autographs and no famous Home Run balls.

  2. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Good question, Sara.  While at first blush it seems like those should be completely defensible in terms of their historical significance, there’s probably more Berlin Wall and Moon in circulation than, say, bottles used to apply bug spray on Joba Chamberlain, so they lose in the rarity competition. 

    Hmmmm . . . I think I’ll ponder this question while cradling my game-used Gorman Thomas bat and staring at that childhood picture of me on Al Kaline’s lap.

  3. Chris H. said...

    As I’ve gotten older I’ve really abandoned memorabilia in general.  I found I’d look at it maybe—MAYBE—once a year, experience a pleasant memory, and then ignore the darned thing the rest of the time.  Meanwhile it’s taking up space, gathering dust, and becoming a part of the overall clutter increase.

    I’ve since purged a lot of my crap.  I need a darned good reason to hang onto something now, and while my wife and I might disagree on what constitutes a “good reason,” in general if it’s not a book or a DVD or somesuch, it’s not staying.

  4. RoundRock15 said...

    I was at a restaurant in Hollywood a few years ago, and Kevin Smith was seated across from me, having dinner with his daughter (I think?). 

    Back in those days, a lot of people would mistake me for Kevin Smith, and I thought it amusing that here we were, sitting right across from each other.  I still failed to see the resemblance.

    Then, two teenage girls came up to me and asked me to sign pictures… of Kevin Smith.  Which I did, because I’d rather they didn’t disturb him while he was spending time with his daughter.  I wrote my own name, though, and in parentheses I wrote “Not Kevin Smith At All, As It Turns Out.”

  5. Matt S. said...

    During one Mets game last week (before last Friday) the announcers pointed out a ball boy giving the umpire special balls when Sheffield got up. They explained that the balls had a hologram on them to authenticate them if Sheff hit one out (for his 500th). This helps explain that, I guess. What a strange world this is.

  6. Wade said...

    Yeah.  The hologram balls.  I assume that any fouls hit up in the seats prior to ‘NUMERO 500-O’ are hastily tracked down and repossesed.

    Can’t be too careful…

  7. Mark Armour said...

    Were I in charge, at the moment Sheffield’s ball was heading for the seats I would drop another 100 balls around the area and watch everyone scramble.

  8. Wade said...

    Or if not, the lucky person who caugh the foul ball would have an UNauthentic authentic 500HR ball OR an authentic not-quite-500HR ball, complete with misleading hologram.  I’d be like the upside-down plane stamps in their whimisical rarity.

    We’ll start the bidding at a nickel…

  9. Chipmaker said...

    Each milestone ball has a unique serial number. MLB doesn’t need to track down the fouls, just the home run ball, and verify its serial.

    The big deal ten years ago was the massive flood of fake AUTOGRAPHS in the memorabilia market. There was an FBI investigation, I cannot recall the codename, that spilled a lot of beans. So when the leagues and cardmakers and memorabilia dealers worked toward cleaning up (and tightening up) the ‘graph market, they decided to expand the mandate to everything. Thus, authenticated insecticide cans, which, yes, has to be a new low.

    Moon rock in circulation? None. NASA lets some go around to museums or for research, but it still is all accounted for. Not even Neal, Buzz, and the rest of the moonwalkers got to keep any.

  10. Millsy said...

    My favorite was when they started putting little pouches of “Game Used Dirt” on baseball cards.  That was probably 10 years ago.  I guess once they had done “Gamed Used Cleat”, “Official Stadium Chair Piece”, and “Game Used Bases”, they had to come up with something new.  Anyone up for paying $20 for a pouch of dirt?

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