Catch a Falling Star

To the immutable rules of life mandating romantic fidelity, high-quality whiskey and early knowledge of the multiplication tables, it might be wise to attach the following: The moment you turn twelve, stop seeking autographs.

This comes to mind in the wake of an announcement last week that Michael Lasky, founder of the Psychic Friends Network, paid $280,000 for a baseball. Now, you needn't be psychic--or have manufactured a career convincing troubled souls that they are psychic--to understand that 280 grand is a lot of money to fork out for five ounces of yarn and cowhide. It also doesn't take any special skill to see that Dan Jones, the Towson, Maryland, salesman from whom Lasky bought the baseball, is one lucky SOB. Jones happened to be sitting in the bleachers on September 6 when Baltimore Oriole Eddie Murray hit a long flyball right to him. With interest, the annuity into which Lasky put the $280,000 will pay Jones $500,000 over the next twenty years.

That comes to $1,000 per home run.
For those who've been wasting all their time on trifles like setting broken legs down at the clinic, teaching American history to half-literate teenagers or getting serial killers off the streets, here's the earth-shattering news: The ball that Murray hit, Jones caught and Lasky paid a small fortune for was the 500th home run of the outfielder/designated hitter's long career, putting him in the company of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron as the only players to pile up both 500 career homers and 3,000 hits.

Half a million bucks. For a baseball. And that wasn't even the largest sports transaction of the week. At Christie's auction house, a 1919 Honus Wagner baseball card (in mint condition, to be sure) went on the block, and one lucky bidder landed it for $600,000. Poor Michael Lasky. Why couldn't an experienced psychic like him see he was about to be upstaged in the realm of grandiose sporting gestures?

What's wrong here? Has our culture grown so impoverished, our self-esteem fallen so low, that we must tell ourselves that a ball that touched the bat of Eddie Murray for one-fiftieth of a second somehow confers upon the recipient some glow of history or kiss of greatness? What magic power derives from Madonna's discarded brassiere or JFK's cigarette lighter that we no longer find inside ourselves? Why, for God's sake, do fully grown radio and TV reporters (happy to say, I've never seen a print person do it) beg autographs from movie stars in the midst of press conferences?

What in the world does it mean when you turn on the boob tube late at night and behold Ben and Jerry, the guys who make politically correct ice cream up in Vermont, signing scrapbooks and scraps of paper for their "fans," while a grinning interviewer smoothes his precious hairdo? Why does Amy Van Dyken, our homegrown Olympic darling, pop up at every shopping-center opening and college football game in nine counties, where she is cheered anew by the wild-eyed throngs? How long until Gabe Lane gets his own TV show?

The cult of celebrity, our poor substitute for self-worth or unity of purpose, has become the unofficial national religion, and nowhere does it express itself more loudly than in the obsession with sports. Walk into a restaurant where John Elway is unfortunate enough to have been spotted and watch men with silver hair, holders of $150,000- a-year jobs, turn into stammering puddles of gush. Don't they know that "celebrities" only want to hang out with other "celebrities"?

Scan the classifieds in Baseball Weekly and you'll see the ad for a "nationally recognized authentication specialist" who deals in sports memorabilia. In the next column, a home plate autographed by Mickey Mantle is being offered for $900, a cap signed by Joe DiMaggio for the bargain price of $225. An autographed 8x10 glossy of Ken Griffey Jr. is $22 at present (just you wait!), but it will cost you $225 for a photo of the late Roger Maris. We look in vain for Ted Williams's jockstrap (in its authenticated, unlaundered state). Wouldn't that command a cool 500 bucks? How about Shoeless Joe Jackson's bank book from the fall of 1919, or the actual invoices sent to Michael Irving by his lawyers?

The ultimate prize in the sports-memorabilia marketplace would, of course, be worth more than any two decks of Honus Wagner cards down at Christie's: O.J.'s knife. Get him to autograph it in blood and you could purchase Buffalo, New York.

If we could only keep our wits about us, "memorabilia" would still be connected to "memory," which is to say, our own actual experiences. Rather than transforming their basement rumpus rooms into shrines honoring the famous athletes they wished they'd become, celebrities to whom they have no more than a delusional connection, fifty-year-olds might install down there their grown daughters' first pair of ice skates. Ineffably tender things, these, heartbreakingly small.

The men might hang up Dad's venerable old ball glove, a webless, pancake-shaped Charlie "King Kong" Keller model, perhaps, still vaguely redolent of the old man's sweat (certainly of his deathless presence) and stitched back together at the bottom by a length of brown shoelace. Look how fat the unjoined fingers are. How small it is. How'd he catch anything with it? And what tale of real seventh-inning heroism, long forgotten and unre- marked, resides in the ancient, touching stain under which the top knuckle of the index finger once nested?

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