Can we put price tags on sentiment? Some can

September 18, 1996|By Mike Littwin

THIS IS where we are in America as the millennium approaches.

You have only two choices in life: To be a noble chump. Or to be a big jerk.

First the jerk.

A guy named Dan Jones catches a ball in the stands at Camden Yards. The ball happens to be Eddie Murray's 500th home run. The guy, instantly seeing dollar signs where others see glory, decides not to give the ball to Murray.

He plans to sell it, instead.

This makes him, immediately, for millions of Orioles fans and other decent folk, a jerk. Murray probably doesn't think much of him either. After all, Murray returned to Baltimore after all those years in exile for just such a night.

Doesn't sentiment count for anything any more?

And then we hear the improbable news that Baltimore "businessman" Michael Lasky wants to give this guy $500,000 for the ball, which he will then display in the lobby of a hotel he plans to build downtown.

A couple of quick comments: If I were Dan Jones, I'd be sure to get the $500,000 in cash. And, while waiting, I wouldn't give up my day job.

If Lasky actually comes up with the money, we need a third category to go with jerk and chump. Idiot, I think will do. If he doesn't, and it's just a publicity stunt, then we're right back to jerk.

Now the chump.

A guy named Bryan Johnson catches a ball in the stands at Camden Yards. The ball turns out to be a home run hit by Cal Ripken on the magical night that Ripken breaks Lou Gehrig's consecutive-game streak.

The guy, seeing glory where others might see dollar signs, caught up in the drama of the night, gives the ball to Ripken. What he gets in return is the opportunity to meet Ripken, which may not be as big a thrill as you'd imagine. And then Ripken gives him an autographed bat.

Another guy named Michael Stirn caught a home run ball the night before when Ripken tied Gehrig's record. Stirn sold the ball at auction for $41,000, which he will use, he says, to set up a college fund for his kids.

This makes Johnson, some would say, officially a chump, although some would call him a hero.

I tried to reach him to see which way he saw it. Did he have any regrets? Didn't he want to see Paris before he died? And what was he going to tell the kids when it was time to fork over the tuition?

I left a message, but he didn't call back.

Maybe he's busy, possibly banging his head against a wall.

Ripken makes $6 million a year and that's before endorsements. And someday he will retire a wealthy man, only to go to baseball card shows and sell his autograph for $100 a pop. If he had any decency, he'd make it up to Johnson, who represents the fan in its purest form.

H

And if he doesn't, maybe we should set up our own Bryan-

Johnson-is-the-last-decent-guy fund. Send contributions to The Sun. I'll be sure (wink, wink) to forward the money to him.

After all, Johnson did what you'd do, what I'd do, or at least what we think we'd do.

And then I got to thinking about what a friend had told me. He had been discussing the story with his kids over breakfast.

The kids (they're supposed to represent innocence, if you're having trouble keeping up with the symbolism here) are sure that Jones is a jerk, and what is $500,000 anyway, compared to honor and decency and a few other Arthurian qualities?

On the other hand, the father (is it wisdom or is it greed?) says, "Yeah, honor is a wonderful thing. And $500,000 is a hunk of cash."

Let's get down to cases.

You're sitting in the stands. You're caught up in the moment. You've been shouting "Ed-die, Ed-die" till you're hoarse.

You're rooting for a homer. You're rooting, because you're a fan and you think anything is possible if you wish for it hard enough, for Ed-die to hit the homer to you.

And he does. My God, he does. And you actually catch the ball. And then, interrupting your reverie, somebody says to you, Michael Anthony-like: "I'll give you half a mill for that ball."

What do you do?

Is Eddie Murray's happiness worth half a million to you?

Sports are, of course, as much a business as they are a game. You could say, as you sell the ball, you're doing it for the security of your family. That's what the players say when they turn down a $20 million contract from your home-town team to go to, say, L.A. for $20.1 million.

Why wouldn't you sell the ball for half a mill, or whatever you could get?

Maybe because you believe in heroes.

Or because you think Murray deserves to have the ball.

Or because honor and decency aren't just words to you.

Or because when the guy offered you half a mill for the ball, you thought he said, "I'll give you a dollar bill for the ball."

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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