A sports collectible to sink your teeth into

April 15, 2002|By KEVIN COWHERD

BEFORE WE GET to this business of a ballplayer's chewed bubble gum fetching thousands of dollars in an online auction, a word about baseball memorabilia from a simpler time.

One day, when I was a young boy living in southern New York, my uncle took me to a game at Yankee Stadium. As we walked near the players' entrance a few hours before the game, I spotted the great Mickey Mantle and asked him for an autograph.

At first, Mantle looked at me the way you'd look at a fingernail in your soup.

Finally, he took the pen and piece of paper I thrust at him and scribbled something that might have been his signature, but was so illegible that it could also have passed for his dog's signature.

Anyway, I so treasured that autograph that the very next day, I lost it at school, probably tossing it in the garbage with my lunch bag. But when my friends gasped, "You lost Mickey Mantle's autograph?!" my answer was: "So what? I'll just get another one at the next game."

Oh, it was easier to be a baseball fan back then, that's for sure. Now we actually have the chewed bubble gum -- yes, chewed -- of Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Luis Gonzalez being auctioned off today as memorabilia -- amid some controversy, too, which you may have heard about.

As of yesterday, the gum -- sitting in a Plexiglas display case looking like something from Cartier (except, I suppose, for the drab gray color and the teeth marks) -- was going for $4,000.

But let's begin at the beginning, shall we?

The idea for the gum auction came from a man named Jason Gabbert, who is 32 and owns a sports memorabilia store in Wood Lake, Minn., 130 miles west of Minneapolis.

Gabbert was at a Diamondbacks spring training game last month in Tucson when Gonzalez singled and spit out his gum.

You or I notice a ballplayer spit out his gum and think nothing of it. Or maybe, if we're fussy about these things, we think: Ewww, gross.

But not Jason Gabbert. Apparently, Gabbert sees a player hock a piece of gum and thinks: Dude, major collectible!

"The guy next to me said: `How'd you like to see that up on eBay?'" Gabbert recalled when I reached him on the phone. "I just thought it would be something cool to have on your shelf."

Right. Something cool. To have on your shelf.

So Gabbert asked a security guard on the field to get the gum for him. The guard, understandably, said something like: "Are you nuts? I'm not picking that thing up."

But eventually, says Gabbert, the guard kicked the gum over to him, and he pounced on it like it was a gold nugget.

Soon after, Gabbert came up with the idea of auctioning the gum as this bizarre chunk of memorabilia on his store's Web site (www.nocontraction.com), with the proceeds to go to the local high school.

"I thought: `This will be a cool fund-raiser. We'll get some goofball to actually bid on it,'" he said.

In fact, Gabbert says, quite a few goofballs bid on it, pushing the price above three grand.

But then, as they say in the tabloids, controversy reared its ugly head.

First the security guard back in Tucson denied ever giving the gum to Gabbert. And the guard added that Gabbert had then picked up another piece of gum and said: "This will do."

So what we had, sports fans, was a gen-u-ine issue of authenticity: Was it actually Gonzo's chewed Bazooka or not?

Gabbert professed to being grievously hurt by the guard's accusations. "I don't know why he's lying," he told me. He seemed even more hurt when an Associated Press story last week noted he'd previously been convicted of forgery, making counterfeit drivers' licenses and possessing credit cards that were not in his name.

Did the AP get your criminal record right? I asked him.

"Yeah," he said glumly. "But that was a long time ago. I just really don't understand why that's an issue."

Gabbert swears he's not trying to rip anyone off. "The gum has no intrinsic value," he said. "The whole thing is asinine."

Fortunately, this being the greatest nation on Earth, a way was found to defuse the issue of authenticity and still make a pile of dough for the high school.

According to Gabbert's Web site, Gonzalez "kindly provided another piece of gum," which was "chewed in the presence of media representatives" at Colorado's Coors Field.

This newly chewed gum was then shipped to a radio station in Tucson, where it will remain until the bidding is finished today.

Then, when a winner is announced, he or she will be the proud recipient of a Plexiglas display case featuring the old gum and the "new" gum mounted side by side.

Is this a great country or what?

"It's still Gonzo's gum," Gabbert said. "It's just that one [piece] was chewed one day and one was chewed another day."

Right. And someone is willing to pay four grand to own them.

Me, I can't help feeling cheated when I think about that long-ago encounter with Mickey Mantle.

If the Mick had only spit out his gum instead of scribbling his name, man, I could be banking some serious money right now.

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