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?

Such a shift in priorities probably won't happen anytime soon. As a people, we are so captivated by the cult of fame--Jackie Kennedy to Jackie Collins, Eddie Murphy to Eddie Murray--that a day hardly passes when the anonymous fan in the street doesn't fantasize a batting order containing Ruth, Mays, Bichette and himself, or conjure up late-night, world-saving Oval Office meetings with the chief executive of all major celebrities. Still don't believe it? Visit the edges of the syndrome for a minute. Ask John Hinckley about connecting with famous people. Ask the fellow in Omaha, Nebraska, who read a newspaper story about the "ten most eligible single women" in his city--instant celebrities in his disordered mind--and promptly set out to rape two of them, was chased off by a third and was caught by the cops only after accosting a fourth.

How distant in temperament or attitude is this guy from the woman who throws herself on Deion Sanders's car in the stadium parking lot, or the fellow obsessed with collecting the signatures--totems, talismans, signals of his own worth--of every member of the 1996 Colorado Rockies? How have we created a world in which Eddie Murray's home-run ball goes for half a million and Honus Wagner's miniature image on a flake of cardboard is now worth more than he earned in his entire career?

Wouldn't it be nice to think that the next time Dan Jones catches some player's 500th homer, he will hand the ball over to the nearest kid under twelve? So the kid can go home and do what anybody in his right mind is supposed to do with a baseball. Play catch.

Let us speak briefly now of the Texas Rangers, those running, hitting, sliding monuments to perennial frustration. After squandering big mid-July divisional leads in half a dozen seasons, the Rangers have for the first time in their quarter-century of existence reached the American League playoffs.

The question is whether anyone in Dallas has noticed. Big D and environs are Cowboy country--always have been, pardner--and for most of the Ranger years, the locals seemed to care as little about the team as they did a plate of cannelloni up in evil ol' New York or gay rights out in heathen San Francisco. What they do care about is fuh-ball. The peculiar irony of autumn 1996 is that just as Neon Deion, Emmitt and Troy-Boy have fallen on startling hard times, the dogged, long-suffering Rangers have finally risen up to fill the void.

Very good, we say. Baseball, a mysterious, contemplative game, nourishes the spirit in ways the rougher beauties of football cannot, and if the Rangers, October's children at last, succeed in imparting that to a new, expanded audience in Texas, so much the better. If the Rangers can knock off the New York Yankees of imperial legend, great. The precious few in the cheap seats at Arlington have waited long enough to cheer.

But please, all you diamond-studded Dallas folk. If your overdue dudes do go on--here's hoping they will--let's not hear y'all braggin' the thing up too much come Christmas in the lodge at Vail or on the daunting drops of Mary Jane. Do that, and we reckon the ski patrol will lasso your ass and confine ya for the rest of the off-season in a very small room decorated with nothing but H. Ross's dang flow charts.

Would there be time off for good behavior? Kind of. Just enough to watch the Packers take the Super Bowl.

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