Warning Signs

Somewhere in there, in the dense limbo of the classified section, somewhere between "Beautiful Russian Ladies Want to Meet YOU!" and "Improve Your Sex Life With Penile Enlargement" and "Wendelstedt Umpire School," you'll almost always find the shimmering promise that you, too, can feel like a real major-leaguer. Or feel closer than ever before to the life of a real major-leaguer. Or, failing that, at least feel somewhat in the general vicinity of the forgotten moment in the life of a real major-leaguer when he took a ballpoint pen in hand and wrote his name on some baseballs for $15 per scrawl.

Or didn't do it.
Anyway, the ad says you can have Hank Aaron for 45 bucks. Leo Durocher costs $125, including all the vile memories you can stand of his big mouth. Mike Schmidt's Mike Schmidt on the Official 1980 World Series ball? A bargain at $45. Listen. A rare piece of Joe "Ducky" Medwick, late of the St. Louis Cardinals' storied Gas House Gang, can be yours for just $899, via mail order.

And here's 1998's Deal of the Year: Your very own autographed, post-Super Bowl John Elway jersey--$900. Go ahead. Put it on your MasterCard. You bet we take American Express. Visit our Web site.

And don't forget. Now that Mickey Mantle is dead, any stuff you've got with his signature on it is bound to go through the roof, marketwise. Even though Mickey Mantle's signature is one of the most frequently forged of them all. The Mick. Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth. Teddy Ballgame.

The shadow world of sports-memorabilia collectors isn't so shadowy anymore. Depending on whom you talk to, the traffic in basketballs signed by Michael Jordan, "game-worn" NFL jerseys with the sweat still in them, photo-triptychs of ballplayers adorned with gold-ink signatures, assorted baseballs, footballs and hockey sticks that once touched the hands of the sultans of sport is either a $200-million- to $300-million-a-year business or a $2 billion-a-year business.

One catch: The FBI says 70 percent of the stuff is bogus.
Guess what? The prime targets for athletic signature forgeries are not gullible teenagers. They are star-struck American men in their thirties, forties and fifties furnished with, as Chicago FBI agent Royben Rice puts it, "disposable income." Very disposable. "Sometimes they let their guard down and take leave of their better senses," he says.

Indeed. A year ago, agents of Rice's office arrested six people in a coast-to-coast scheme to dump $2 million "worth" of fraudulent autographed sports memorabilia into the marketplace, and the agency continues to work an elaborate sting called Operation Foul Ball.

But tracking down the scammers can be as tough as kicking a field goal in a hurricane. Most memorabilia sales are small, fast and private, and even when suspicions arise, it's difficult to prove that a sharpie knowingly sold a fake.

Sometimes the author doesn't even know his own work. A March 1997 story in the New York Daily News reported that fabled quarterback Joe Montana was shown a known forgery of his signature at a national sports card show but that it looked so good he couldn't tell the difference.

What chance, then, for Joe Blow, Autograph Hound, whose football career ended in the seventh grade?

"Buyer beware," says David Reynolds, proprietor of The Show, a sports collectibles shop within home-run range of Coors Field. "Be especially leery of mail order," he advises. Also, know your league presidents: A Lou Gehrig-signed baseball is not likely to have Gene Budig's autograph on it, too. And before you buy anything at a card-and-collectible show, he warns, make sure the dealer is reputable.

And how in the name of Don King do you determine whether the guy's car is still running out in the alley?

"Experience," Reynolds answers. Experience, as in owning a collectibles store, developing a network of friends and colleagues in the business and a solid base of satisfied customers. Reynolds is a dyed-in-the-flannel New York Yankees fan from New Jersey who scored his first autograph at the rather advanced age of nineteen, when, in his words, he "ran down" former Yanks shortstop Phil Rizzuto on the 155th Street Bridge connecting upper Manhattan to the Bronx. He got the Scooter to sign the bill of his cap with a blue felt-tip pen.

Since that fateful day, Reynolds has met and dealt with many athletes, including the notoriously impatient Ted Williams (the less said about that, the better) and his hero, Mantle. A few other events would surely go into the highlight reel of Reynolds's life: Couple of years ago, he paid retired Minnesota outfielder Kirby Puckett $22,500 to sign 1,000 pieces of memorabilia in three hours at Baltimore's Camden Yards; he counts the Rockies MVP outfielder, Larry Walker, as a happy customer (Avalanche stuff and a limited-edition display commemorating the night Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's "Iron Man" record); and he once had the thrill of driving Whitey Ford to the airport.

Is this a guy to ask about collectible fraud?
Why not? At least he guarantees everything he sells, from a $15 baseball card autographed by Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal to a 1995 Rockies home jersey signed by every member of the club, which he says he might let go for $3,500, rock bottom.

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