Putting some numbers on memorabilia

Fan prizes last HR bal

MLB makes sure bases are authenticed

October 07, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Of the 48,807 fans at Camden Yards watching Cal Ripken's final game, few were as anxious as Bob Oler.

He's a homer - born and bred in the Baltimore area -- and raised on Orioles baseball.

But he is also the guy who, on Sept. 23, caught a home run hit by Ripken - the last one hit by the Iron Man. That's the kind of keepsake that gets passed down from father to son. That gets bragged about at family gatherings.

That could be worth $50,000.

"I'm rooting for Cal to get a hit - just as long as it doesn't go over that fence," Oler said.

A 33-year-old director of operations for a local waste reclamation firm, Oler attended the Sept. 23 game with friends and his brother. In the bottom of the fifth, with a man on first, Ripken stepped to the plate and knocked the ball straight toward Oler.

"I felt like I was on an island. I got my glove up and it came down on a perfect plane right to me," Oler said. His brother caught the moment on videotape. The final scenes are a bit jumbled.

Silenced in that moment were the legions of friends who have ribbed Oler for years about his habit of bringing his battered Wilson A2000 infielders glove to games, hoping to catch a ball that strayed over the walls. His last catch was a foul ball in 1998.

An amateur collector of sports memorabilia, Oler had much more modest expectations for his collection this year. He hoped to get another ball, a store-bought "2131" ball autographed by Ripken during one of the players marathon signing sessions after a game. He brought the ball to several Orioles games, both home and away, and finally got Ripken's signature the week before last.

"All the stars seem lined up for me," he said.

An Orioles representative called him last week, politely suggesting that Oler hand the ball over to Ripken or the Hall of Fame during a ceremony after the game. Oler thought about it, but decided to hold on to the keepsake for the time being.

"I think it's the most prudent thing for my future," Oler said.

The record amount paid for a baseball is the $3 million that comic book executive Todd McFarlane paid in 1998 for the ball Mark McGwire hit out of the park to set a single-season home run record of 70. The record was broken Friday by Barry Bonds, presumably paring the value of the ball considerably.

Michael Heffner, a managing partner of Leland's auction house, a leading sports memorabilia auctioneer, said the McGwire price was priced well above market. He estimates Ripken's final home run ball could sell for up to $30,000. Had Ripken hit another one in last night's game, the value would drop to about $10,000, he estimated.

"It's a tough thing to put a value on. Cal wasn't really known as a home run hitter," Heffner said.

Elsewhere in the stadium last night, Major League Baseball was taking steps to assure the authenticity of other artifacts of the game.

William E. Curran, an accountant with the local office of Arthur Andersen, the business services firm, was positioned under the stands near the third base line, watching carefully between innings as the bases were changed.

The bases, which were being preserved for posterity, were each examined by Curran, who then affixed a nickel-sized adhesive hologram to the underside of each. Each of the silver holograms carried a serial number, which the league registers and makes available online for collectors.

It's part of a program baseball began this year to combat rampant counterfeiting in the memorabilia industry.

About 50,000 hats, bases, bats and other items have been marked and cataloged by Arthur Andersen accountants this season from milestone events, said Colin Hagen, senior director of licensing for Major League Baseball.

Curran, a sports collector himself, said, "It's a thrill to be down here."

Ripken agreed before the game to donate a jersey, glove and cap used in the game to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. Hall of Fame vice president Jeff Idelson flew in for the game, to receive the items in a post-game handoff. A Ripken display is planned at the Hall of Fame for later this year.

Ripken plans to donate other artifacts from the game and the final season to the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore and the Ripken Museum in his hometown of Aberdeen.

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