Umpire said to sell Ripken game items Practice puts players in awkward position

Inside the Orioles

September 06, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- There supposedly exist no gray areas when major-league umpires are confronted with issues of integrity.

Balls and strikes aren't subject for debate. Ubiquitous judgment calls are not appealable. Instant replay is not an option.

That said, the controversy now facing American League umpire Al Clark raises issues more serious than many, including Major League Baseball, may be willing to admit. The flap began last month with disclosure of Clark's alleged involvement with a memorabilia clearing house. Clark, it was said, obtained baseballs from New York Yankees pitcher David Wells' perfect game in May and provided a certificate of authenticity to dealers.

Clark denied any role in the project and said his signature on the certificates was a forgery. The issue has faded, though MLB insists an investigation is ongoing.

According to Orioles sources, the investigation has yet to reach Camden Yards, where the issue may be more appropriate than Yankee Stadium.

Whether Clark is involved in the improper resale of baseball memorabilia is uncertain. However, club officials maintain that Clark has regularly approached third baseman/future Hall of Famer/cash cow Cal Ripken to sign items ranging from bats and balls to "flats" (posters, magazine covers, photographs) that could command thousands of dollars on the market. Whether commercially motivated or not, the practice reeks of conflict of interest while putting the game's highest-profile player in an uncomfortable position.

Suspicion that Clark trafficked in memorabilia from Ripken's record-breaking consecutive game No. 2,131 has surfaced. USA Today reported in Friday's editions that a collector's magazine ran an advertisement claiming that Clark provided baseballs from the historic game along with a letter of authenticity.

The balls were signed by the crew that worked the game -- Clark, Larry Barnett, Greg Kosc and Dan Morrison. Price: $2,499.99. (Barnett, who worked the plate, got permission from MLB to have Ripken autograph a lineup card from the game. rTC Barnett gave the card to his alma mater for auction.)

According to a club source, Clark has co-opted Orioles employees in approaching Ripken. "It's not even subtle. Sometimes it's grocery bags full of stuff," said a club source.

What does a player -- any player -- do when approached by an umpire for an autograph? One might think a rejection could result in retribution. Conversely, does acceptance merit a favorable call?

Coincidentally, Clark ejected Ripken for only the third time in his career on July 20 when Ripken argued a called third strike. An otherwise trivial incident takes on additional gravity given Clark's practice.

Publicizing the issue hardly benefits Ripken. There are many within the Orioles clubhouse who believe second baseman Roberto Alomar is subject to a ridiculous standard because of his transgression against umpire John Hirschbeck in September 1996. Alomar dares not argue. Doing so would only resurrect his image as a national villain.

Instead, Alomar's only recourse is to smile, complain briefly and allow others to press his case.

MLB may turn a blind eye to such a double standard, but recent suggestions of umpire booty trafficking and shakedowns for autographs warrant increased scrutiny.

Ripken said yesterday that he has not been approached by MLB regarding its investigation and would have no comment until he became better informed about the situation. Ripken, who signs freely for fans, fellow players and apparently umpires, does so because he assumes those who ask have "honorable" intentions. Others are less trusting and wonder why baseball allows the practice to continue.

Ripken's stature and his respect for the game ensure him good standing with umpires. Likewise, his position as a player makes it difficult, if not impossible, for him to issue a cease-and-desist order regarding autograph requests. It shouldn't be necessary.

Integrity supposedly is a non-negotiable matter of black and white. In umpire's parlance, this issue appears "on the black."

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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