Corks, lineup cards, oddball items -- Orioles fans want it all

October 13, 2014|By Jeff Barker | The Baltimore Sun

For some fans, it's not enough in this memorable, extended Orioles' season to merely watch the games. They yearn to preserve the all-too-fleeting moments — to touch them — by buying pieces of the season.

They want to own the one-of-a-kind lineup cards that manager Buck Showalter displayed in the dugout during the American League Division Series and in the championship series that continues tonight against the Royals in Kansas City. Monday's game was rained out in the best-of-seven series, in which the Orioles trail, 2-0.

Fans want to own the ball J.J. Hardy hit for a home run in the division series sweep of the Detroit Tigers. Bids for the ball, plus the jersey the shortstop was wearing, surpassed $1,400 last week on a Major League Baseball site the Orioles use for auctions.

"This allows a fan access to something they have never been a part of — it connects them to their favorite team," said Michael Posner, a Major League Baseball executive who oversees the program that ensures the authenticity of the items.

Under "MLB Authentication," scores of contract employees — mostly off-duty current or retired law enforcement officers — attend every game to verify that the auctioned items are the real deal.

Authenticators, who are paid by the hour, worked all 2,430 games of the major-league regular season and verified about 650,000 items, Posner said.

But the postseason is special. A Boston Red Sox lineup card from the 2004 World Series — Boston's first title in 86 years — went for about $165,000, Posner said.

Authenticators, who will be on hand tonight at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, have doubled staff during the postseason because of heightened fan interest.

Among the four Baltimore-based authenticators is Howard County police oofficer Perry Sauers. As the Orioles leaped up and down and sprayed each other with champagne to celebrate their division title last month, Sauers quietly watched from a corner of the clubhouse.

When it was over, he and a colleague scooped up dozens of empty Cook's champagne bottles, affixed each with a Major League Baseball hologram, and plugged a corresponding serial number into a database.

Then they went after the corks. Sauers said the corks were too wet to hold the sticky hologram, so the clubhouse manager allowed him to run them through the team's dryer.

In online auctions, the bottles are fetching $50 to $100. The corks are selling for $25.

Authenticators have few limits on what they collect and verify.

In 2013, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz destroyed a dugout phone with his bat over two strike calls at Camden Yards.

"Pieces were flying," said Rick Rutherford, a former Baltimore police captain who authenticated the smashed-to-bits phone. The authenticators' golden rule is that they must witness the item in use.

A bottle of bug spray famously used to aid former New York Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain during a 2007 playoff game — he was swarmed by insects — was authenticated too.

So was a signed photo of first lady Michelle Obama, who attended a 2010 game at Camden Yards.

Proceeds from the items' sales go to a variety of causes.

Many authenticated items are auctioned or raffled for charity, Orioles spokesman Greg Bader said.

"We save some that have important historical value so that they can be displayed at the ballpark or at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards," he said.

Authenticators position themselves in various spots around ballparks. At Camden Yards, there is usually one in the camera well adjacent to Baltimore's dugout.

"Best seat in the house," authenticator Regina Richardson, a Baltimore police officer, said Friday night as she sat on a folding chair in the well during the first game of the ALCS.

As the Rawlings baseballs were taken out of play, a batboy would race over and hand them to her. She would jot a note about each ball — including the name of the pitcher and batter — and use a hand-held scanner to catalog it.

In the third inning, she got a chance to authenticate a broken bat. But it almost came at a price.

With the bases loaded, Kansas City outfielder Alex Gordon's bat splintered as he hit a double. The barrel end helicoptered at high speed just over Richardson's head and into the stands, where it left a fan dazed.

"I had my eyes closed," a stunned-looking Richardson said.

The authentication program began in 2001. It was precipitated in part by Operation Bullpen, an FBI investigation in the mid-1990s that uncovered an alarming amount of forged autographs and phony memorabilia.

"It seems like a pretty good idea," said Orioles season-ticket holder Russ Lease, a collector of Beatles memorabilia who says forged signatures are all too common in the business. "A baseball could come from anywhere," he said.

The bigger the occasion, the more likely it is that scam artists will be present.

"I remember going down to Baltimore [in 2001] for Cal Ripken's last game," Posner said. "It was the first big event that happened in the league in which authentication made its imprint."

Each hologram is created with a unique letter-number combination. Owners of verified items can go to a website and get histories of their product.

Major League Baseball considers the system tamper-proof.

"If you peel the hologram off, it will actually destroy itself," Posner said.

jebarker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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