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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.

In Reynolds's view, maybe 10 percent of the sports stuff out there is bogus. He also believes there are enough reputable dealers and stores in this sporting world--including one right here at 1825 Blake Street--that with a little caution and the latest edition of Mark Allen Baker's The Baseball Autograph Handbook, the average fan probably won't turn the deed to his house over to a stranger in exchange for the very, very ball Babe Ruth hit in Chicago that time he called his shot.

"It's like buying anything else that's collectible," Reynolds says. "Do a little research."

The folks at Upper Deck Authenticated, a leader in the sports-memorabilia business, have an even better idea. If you can't witness the autograph process yourself but absolutely, positively want to pay $550 for an actual Miami Dolphins football helmet signed by Dan Marino, or you're willing to shell out $1,199 plus tax for the company's marquee item, a number 23 Chicago Bulls jersey briefly touched by Michael Jordan's felt tip, the company will insure your purchase through its patented five-step authentication process.

Don't ask. The athlete and a company rep both attest to the act of signature. There's a registered serial number. And a secret hologram. And...well, the Autograph Cops want to make sure you get what you pay for in the way of synthetic superstar proximity, reports group marketing manager Chris Gorman.

The FBI's gotta love it. If not the guy with the pencil-line mustache who just happens to have the very football involved in the Immaculate Reception and will now let you receive it for, say, $15,000.

On the other hand, why not ask the metaphysical question? In a world of wish fulfillment and fantasy--and watching sports is nothing if not those things--does it really matter if the relic you buy is fake? Isn't it the aura and the feeling that count, the illusion of proximity to a hero that moves you? Real or fake, it's still an illusion.

Now, most people wouldn't dole out a couple of billion for the Hope Zircon, and the last time I checked, counterfeit Picassos were not in vogue. But a phony Stan Musial-signed bat has the same wood in it as the real McCoy--and the same fragile dream. I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch Stan the Man hit the ball out of the park in the stadium of memory (games 365 days a year!) than curl up with his name.

Speaking of memories, most of Chicago remains in mourning this week for Harry Caray.

The famous baseball announcer, whose phlegm-inflected shouts of "Holy cow!" and "Cubs win! Cubs win!" resounded through the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and over the airwaves for fifteen years, died last Wednesday following a heart attack. The most generous Chicagoans say he was 77. Of course, these are the same people who count Republican votes in that city.

Caray was a sports broadcaster for sixty years. As such, he loved the St. Louis Cardinals in the depths of his soul for 25 years (until a falling-out with the owner ended the affair), the Oakland A's for one mad fling of a season, and the Chicago White Sox for eleven years of midlife. He married the Cubs, the most unfortunate franchise of the century, in 1982, and it was as their tireless cheerleader--aided by the reach of national cable TV--that he became an American icon. His comic mispronunciations and meandering reveries were even more famous than his fierce hometown loyalty, and every time he led the Wrigleyites in his inimitable rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," tone-deaf TV baseball fans from Waukegan to Washington state happily joined in.

Harry Caray was born in St. Louis. He was baseball's big kid, and the nation's. But whether by osmosis or design, he also became the soul of Chicago--gruff, stubborn, loyal to his kind, likely half-soused and possibly lovable. To say he was "unique," as so many people are saying, does him a disservice, I think. His real gift, bumptious and Budweiser-fueled, was that he reminded Cubs fans precisely of themselves--the ever-hopeful, forever disappointed masses bellowing in the bleachers.

Not a bad legacy for a guy who never did learn to say "Villanueva" and had trouble, except on his best days, with "Sandberg.