Ripken ball is sign of the times

Victory lap driver gets No. 8's autograph, then puts it up for sale

November 03, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

In an evening of scripted sentimentality, it seemed a wisp of spontaneity: Cal Ripken waves goodbye to the fans as he is driven around the field in a convertible after his last game, then hops out and obligingly scribbles his name on a baseball for the driver.

But the episode was hardly spur of the moment. The driver had stashed several balls in the glove compartment of his vintage car, hoping to get one signed. And just three weeks after the Oct. 6 game, he offered the keepsake for sale on an online auction that ends today.

He's accepting inquiries on the car, too.

The driver, Dion Guthrie, said he's merely taking advantage of an opportunity. "It's like anything else. People sell things. You are at the right place at the right time," he said. "It's entrepreneurship."

But others, noting the Orioles' no-autograph rule for people participating in the ceremonies, take another view of the episode: opportunistic.

"I don't begrudge the guy getting the autograph for his collection. But when he turns around blatantly three weeks later to turn a handsome profit, I have a problem with that," Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka said.

Furthermore, the team and a representative of Ripken dispute Guthrie's characterization of the ball as Ripken's "last career autograph." The player inked several more autographs on his way to the dressing room, including one for a Canadian man who has offered his for sale, too, on eBay, the Internet auctioneer.

The Orioles have warned bidders that they won't authenticate Guthrie's ball, causing at least one potential buyer to withdraw his bid, Stetka said.

Selling the ball was an idea that came to him after the game, at the suggestion of a relative, said Guthrie, 63, business manager for Local 1501 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

He volunteered his 1961 red Corvette for the ceremony when he learned the Orioles had contacted a vintage car club to which he belongs. Guthrie said he drove his car from his home in Joppatowne and put the vehicle at risk.

His reimbursement was a pair of tickets to the sold-out game, which he used to bring his grandson.

"I was there from 2 p.m. until after midnight," Guthrie said.

He usually gets paid when his car is used in a movie or commercial, he said. The vehicle appeared in the John Waters movie Hairspray as well as Wendy's television commercials.

In his description on the eBay auction, he brags that the autograph was not only the player's last one but the only one from the day because the team prohibited autograph seeking.

"The magic of `The Ball' is that no other event will ever change the fact this is the last autograph from Cal Ripken's amazing career," the product description reads.

Guthrie defends his assertion, saying the other autographs signed that night came after Ripken had stepped from the field, meaning he was technically retired. As for the Orioles' no-autograph rule, he said he interpreted the rule as applying only during game time and not afterward.

He wouldn't have put Ripken on the spot if he hadn't asked him in advance, as the two were making their way around the field, Guthrie said. "He said, `Sure, no problem.' "

The auction ends this afternoon. Bidding had passed $14,400 yesterday, which Guthrie said is significantly below a minimum price that he declined to reveal. If he doesn't get his price, he plans to wait five years in hopes the ball will be worth more after Ripken is inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Scott Bowers, an unemployed factory worker from Ontario, Canada, managed to sneak into Ripken's news conference after the final game and got Ripken to sign a ball. Bowers offered it for sale on eBay, in part, to let people interested in Guthrie's ball know there is something that was signed later that night, Bowers said.

John Maroon, a spokesman for Ripken, said the player also signed a number of items for teammates and others as he left the park.

"It seems like most people who seek an autograph from Cal do it for the love of the moment. Cal has always signed autographs as a way to connect with the fans," he said.

Mike Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum in Baltimore, said sports memorabilia collecting has taken an ugly turn as prices rose over the past decade.

The ball Mark McGwire hit in 1998 to set a single-season home run record of 70 was sold for $3 million. After Barry Bonds broke that record this year, a scuffle for the ball that he hit for No. 73 broke out in the stands and has spilled over into a courtroom. A man who claims to have gotten the ball first is suing the fan who ended up with it, accusing him of biting him and stealing the ball during the fight.

"It's unbelievable. People used to collect autographs for the love of the game or for hero worship, not to sell it later," Gibbons said.

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