card talk

strauss has the latest from the winter meetings; all talk, no action so far for the cardinals. don't know whether or not i'm gonna like it if rolen gets dealt; depends on who they get back and who ends up as the new 3d baseman. strauss seems to be implying that the cards merely want enough of a return on scotty to keep up appearances; i hope that's not true. also hope the club's rumored interest in pedro feliz is just that, a rumor. . . . .

today's post is a Q+A with michael o'keeffe, who i used to work with 16 or 17 years ago at an alt-weekly here in denver called Westword. mike works today for the New York Daily News as a member of a special investigative reporting unit known as The ITeam; he was one of the bylined authors on the ankiel-bought-HGH story this past september. a few months before that article appeared, michael's book about shady dealings in the baseball-memorabilia industry, The Card, was published by HarperCollins and got strong reviews. the book examines card-collecting's most coveted prize, a near-mint honus wagner card from the early 1900s --- and the apparent tampering that has artificially enhanced the card's condition. despite the strong evidence that the card doesn't come by its near-mintness honestly, people still covet it. it sold earlier this year for the record-breaking sum of $2.8 million.

right before thanksgiving i caught up with mike to talk about his book, the ankiel story, and baseball's PED problem. here's the transcript; thanks to mike for making the time.

Tell me about the I-team.
We have an editor named Teri Thompson, who you probably recall from our days at Westword. And then there's a group of reporters --- two full-time reporters, and another guy who does a lot of work for us named Christian Red, who's really integral to all of this. It's an enterprise team. We try to do stories about things outside of what's happening on the field, and outside the box score. It's kind of evolved into something where we cover the steroid issue aggressively, but we do a lot of other things too.

What are some of the other things you guys have gotten into?
We got into the steroid issue by covering dietary supplements --- what role dietary supplements are starting to play in sports. This was really before the steroid scandal started in baseball. So we were kind of ahead of the curve in terms of that. We were covering ephedra and GHB; GHB is a performance enhancer, it builds muscle. It's an amazing molecule. If you tweak it one way --- you know all those toys that were just recalled? They were made in China, they were these little bead things?

Yeah.
They were made out of GHB. You tweak this molecule one way, it's a plastic. You tweak it another way, it's a de-greaser; people use it to clean car engines and things like that. You tweak it another way, it's a muscle builder. You tweak it another way, it's the date-rape drug. So anyway, those were the kind of stories we were covering. We were covering the effect of dietary supplements in sports. And a month after we started to do these stories, athletes started to die from Ephedra.

How did you get interested in what's going on in the memorabilia industry?
I kind of fell into it; it wasn't a conscious decision. We got a great tip about a story about the Hall of Fame, and these baseballs that had been autographed by five different American presidents. They'd been given to Walter Johnson, the great Washington Senators pitcher. The presidents would come to Opening Day in Washington every year, and because Walter was such a dominant guy, for about 20 years he was the pitcher who'd always start the season for the Senators, and he'd always get the President to sign the ball that they'd toss out to start the season. Eventually his family donated them to the Hall of Fame, and sometime in the 1970s, they were all stolen. [It happened in 1972.] We don't really know much about what happened. But we found out these balls were being offered in auction houses [in 1999]. We wound up doing a story about that and developing a lot of expertise about the memorabilia industry, and we just kept following this thing.

I got into the book that way. They had a press conference here in New York about the Wagner card in the summer of 2000, and I went to it. I went, and somebody from cityside was there too; we both thought, "Aw shit, once again, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing." But they had a nice lunch, so I hung out and listened to this people talk about the card. And I got really fascinated by the idea that a card could be that old and still retain its sharp corners and look really crisp. I knew what my brother and I put our baseball cards through, and they didn't last 15 minutes out of the pack looking like that.

Do you still have any of your old cards? My mom pitched a bunch of my cards, which seems to be the fate of most baseball cards, but I still have a few boxes of them. I assume you've saved at least a few keepsakes?
None. None at all. I have some things I've picked up in the course of covering this issue and writing the book; a friend gave me a couple of Bowman cards from the 1950s, and they're really cool looking. But I don't know what happened to my cards. I assume my mom threw them out, but to tell you the truth I have no idea, and I never really looked back.

So your initial interest in this story was somewhat clinical --- you were just fascinated by how that particular card had been so well preserved. Did you immediately suspect there was something amiss with that?
No, I had no idea. I really didn't. My idea was that I wanted to go back and talk to everybody who'd ever owned that card. As these guys were sitting there talking about this card, I got interested in how a card like that could stay in such good condition for so long. So I thought, let's go backwards and try to talk to everybody who's ever owned it --- imagining that some of them were gonna be dead, some of them I wouldn't be able to find, but to trace it back as fully as possible. I thought at some point we would find someone whose grandfather owned it or something like that, and he'd put it in a Bible or thrown it in a drawer and then just forgot about it for 40 years or 50 years, and that's why it was in such good shape.

Right. There'd be no reason to preserve it deliberately until it actually became an artifact, and it wouldn't have been viewed like that until 40 or 50 years after it came out, presumably.
Yeah. It wasn't worth anything in 1910 or for many years after that.

So you were simply trying to solve the mystery of how this particular specimen happened to come down through the years seemingly unscathed.
Exactly. So I started to ask people about this card, what they'd heard about it. Bill Madden, who's a sportswriter here at the Daily News, has got an amazing card collection. He's one of these guys who kept everything, and he's got a very valuable collection, a very extensive collection. He knew a lot of people for me to talk to, and he kind of steered me in the right direction. And we started to hear these rumors that the Wagner card wasn't what people said it was.

The guy who I was told would have all the answers to my questions was Bill Mastro. So I went to Chicago and met with him, and we talked for a long time. I found him to be a very charming guy, a fun guy to be with. But when I started to ask him about these questions, he got really angry --- way more angry than the situation merited --- and threw me out of his office. So I got into my rental car and I was driving away, and I was thinking: "I don't know what the hell I got, but I got a story here."

interview continues after the jump --- click "Read More"

What is it about trimming a card that's considered so terrible? If you're a vintage automobile collector, restoring a car doesn't diminish its value; it increases it. A historic home that gets gutted and restored increases in value. But with baseball cards, doing anything to improve the appearance of the artifact decreases its value. Why is that?
That's a very good question, and I think if you ask 10 different collectors and dealers you'd get 10 different answers. What I've been able to cobble together is that up until the late 1970s or early '80s, it really wasn't much of a problem. I talked to Bill Heitman, who wrote a book called The Monster --- really a pamphlet --- one of the ultimate guides to collecting the T206 series. And he told me, "Back in the day we would trim cards and cut them from sheets and strips all the time. It really didn't matter." But I think what happened is that when cards started to become more valuable --- late '70s, early '80s --- there were a lot of forgeries, a lot of counterfeiting that was going on. People would start to improve cards, clean them up. It got to a point where there was so much fraud that people wanted to go back to a philosophy of no trimming and no modification at all. Even within that, there are different levels of what's acceptable. These guys use nylons, pantyhose, to clean gum stains off of cards. People think that's ok. The really issue is if you're adding or subtracting something from the card. So if you're adding wheat paste to build up a floppy corner, that's not good. But if you're just removing a little bit of gum that was stuck to the card, that's not such an awful thing to do.

I think one of the issues here is that cards were disposable items. They weren't meant to be saved. So unlike fine art or a piece of furniture or an automobile or an old home --- people had an interest in maintaining their automobiles and their homes. There wasn't really any interest in maintaining the quality of a card until 25 years ago or so. Going back to the Wagner --- the fact that a card has survived over the course of generations or decades and has maintained its sharp edges and bright appearance and everything else means something to collectors.

A number of my readers seem to be collectors of memorabilia. Since there does seem to be a lot of fraud in this industry --- and since so much of the business is now conducted online, where you might not even see the item you're bidding on until you own it --- what are the red flags that people should look for to avoid being scammed?
We could spend hours talking about that. I'm hardly an expert when it comes to collecting or authentication; there's a lot of people who know a lot more about this than I do. So I'm just gonna give you a primer. Autographs would be one area to watch out for; there seem to be a lot of forgeries, and I think people need to be very careful when they're buying anything that's claimed to have been autographed. Just for shits and giggles, I'll go online with a guy I know who really knows his stuff when it comes to autographs, and we'll go on EBay and go through the stuff, and about 75 percent of it will be fake --- it's no good. So autographs are a big one to be careful about.

The whole idea about letters of authentication --- people really need to be careful with those. A lot of times they're not worth the paper they're written on.

Even if the letter comes from a professional appraiser, quote unquote?
A lot of times --- and we've done stories on this --- players write a statement that says, "I used this glove in such and such a year," and it turns out to be wrong. Like Ferguson Jenkins. He had a glove a few years ago that he claimed was from his Cy Young season, which I think was 1970 or 1971, and the glove itself wasn't actually made until about 5 or 6 years later. That model was not created until several years after Jenkins' Cy Young season. Now, I don't think Ferguson Jenkins was trying to pull a fast one; I think he just made a mistake.

We had another story, and this one made it into the book, about --- who's that outfielder for the Dodgers who made the great catch in the World Series against Dimaggio?

Al Gionfriddo.
Gionfriddo. Now here's a guy who was a marginal player, but he'll always go down in history for making that great catch. A long time ago --- more than a decade --- he donated the glove that he used to make the catch to the Hall of Fame. And then he wound up trying to sell another glove that he claimed he'd used to make the same catch on Mastro Auctions. And the Hall said, "No, we have the glove." Mastro said, "This is the glove." Ultimately it was purchased by Gionfriddo's wife, so I think the marketplace spoke about who they believed.

There was also a story in the book about a glove worn by Dimaggio himself, which he purportedly wore during his rookie year [i.e., 1936] --- but the glove had lacing between the fingers, and they didn't make gloves that way until after World War II.
Yeah, right. The one thing people can do in terms of protecting themselves is to get involved in these chat rooms and forums. The Internet has helped bad guys sell bad stuff, but it's also helped people educate themselves. There's a lot of people who are knowledgeable who you could at least run things by.

What are the best chat rooms for this?
There's Network 54 and there's Game-used Universe for game-used memorabilia. Don't be too nice to them, because some of those guys on Network 54 were pretty mean to me.

Reading this book, I got the sense of parallels between card-collecting and the steroid scandal. In both cases there's a certain amount of cheating that's going on; it seems to be an open secret. But because a fair number of people are profiting from the cheating, either directly or indirectly, nobody really wants to put a stop to it. So you end up with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge type of situation. Were you conscious of those parallels at all when you wrote the book?
We were aware of those parallels, and at one point in the book I think we even make that connection. I think there are a lot of people who have got a lot invested in this, and if you were to pull the curtain back and show everyone that the Wizard is just a little man like everyone else, there'd be some collections that would lose a lot of value. We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars. Some people might take some big hits. There are people in the hobby who are trying to clean it up. Of course everyone's perspective is unique, and one person's good guy is another person's bad guy. In my view, Robert Lifson at Robert Edwards Auctions is one of the few people who runs an auction house who even talks about these things. He tells his clients. You go to his website, and he has notices posted there that say, "We're seeing a lot of this or that [type of memorabilia], and it's bad stuff, it's not authentic, and we want to make people aware of it. The other guy is Dave Grob of Memorabilia Evaluation and Research Services, who is now requiring auction houses to use certain practices to make the hobby more transparent or accountable. There are others; I don't want to make it sound like those are the only two. But those are the two guys who I think have been the most out front on this. But there's a lot of fraud and a lot of corruption in this hobby, and I don't think it's just with the guys who are selling crap on EBay. There are a lot of problems in some of the big auction houses. The FBI is looking in to some of this, and I think the next year or so is going to be an interesting time for the hobby.

I'd be curious to know if law enforcement has begun asking any questions because of your book. Another question I have is what effect your book has had on the Wagner card. You all but proved that the card has been tampered with. Has its value decreased at all as a result?
We do know that law enforcement officials have looked at our book and used it to educate themselves about what the problems are in the hobby. Whether the book has impacted the value of the Wagner card, I don't really know. I doubt it. It sold in February 2007, about two months before the book came out --- but after news of the book was out there --- and it sold for a record amount of money, $2.35 million. Then the book came out, and then the card sold again for like $2.8 million or something like that. So our book hasn't slowed it down; it keeps going up.

Who owns it now?
We don't know. Brian Siegel, who's this businessman who now lives in Las Vegas, he sold it to some sort of mystery collector in February. An auction house called SCP Auctions was a minority owner in the card, but according to the press release it was a mystery collector. This person then supposedly sold it this summer to someone for $2.8 million, and both the buyer and the seller are unknown. Now I've heard that the latest owner is gonna announce some kind of exhibition with this card. He's gonna show it somewhere. I've heard that it might be in Las Vegas. They're gonna put together a gallery with a great collection, and this card will be the cherry on top. But I don't know if that's really true or not. I don't even know if it was really sold. That's one of the problems with this hobby. People say, "Such and such a piece went for a record amount of money" --- well show me the cancelled check, then. I don't know if these sales really took place or if it's just marketing and hype. The fact of the matter is, those of us in the public can only take SCP Auctions' word for it that this card sold. We don't know who's got it. No one has come forward and said, "I bought the card and I bought it for this reason." And it's an interesting development because in the past, in the 1990s, people would buy it for attention. Now people buy it and they want to go underground.

What'd you think about what happened with Barry Bonds' 756th homerun ball? If I remember correctly, the results of the online voting were that the ball would be emblazoned with an asterisk and sent to the Hall, winning out over the option of launching the thing into outer space.
I thought it was great. I recall being horrified years ago when companies like Upper Deck would take jerseys from guys like Babe Ruth and cut them up and put a thread or two into a special set of Babe Ruth cards and use that as a premium. I mean, how many Babe Ruth jerseys are left? I was kind of horrified by that. But I think this was good. Mark Ecko is the guy who bought the ball and let people make this decision, and I think it was a good way for the public to express itself. And I thought it was pretty funny the way he did that. And the fact that it is going to the Hall of Fame is great, I think, because it's a historic artifact. But the people have spoken. It's kind of the best of both worlds.

I appreciate the fact that, however people may feel about Bonds and the steroids era 100 years from now, this ball is going preserve how many people feel about it today. So in a way, putting that asterisk on the ball makes it a better historical artifact than if they'd just left it alone. It makes a statement.
I think you're right.

That ball sold for less than a million bucks, or about 1/3 of what the Honus Wagner card cost. To me, the ball is far more valuable than the card. Did the price surprise you?
I wasn't that surprised by the money it went for. There are other pieces that have sold for a lot more money; Mark McGwire's record-breaking ball --- when was that, 9 years ago or so? --- went for $3 million. But that was kind of an extraordinary situation. That was a guy, Todd McFarland, bidding against himself. He really wanted that ball more than anything else. I thought the $750,000 that the Bonds ball went for was in line with what I thought it would go for in my uneducated opinion.

I don't remember who auctioned the McGwire ball, but I think at the time the economy was very strong. There was a lot of dot-com money still out there, and people were spending crazy money on crazy things. I think that's what influenced that price. But that's the only thing that comes close to the Wagner card in terms of price. If you look at the top 10 prices for memorabilia for any kind of sports collectible, the McGwire ball and the Wagner card are gonna be up there pretty close to each other, but everything else is gonna be a lot further down. There aren't a whole lot of things that have gone for more the $2 million. I can't think off the top of my head of what else has gone for that much. There may not be anything.

Since we've moved over to talking about Bonds and the asterisk --- talk to me a little bit about Ankiel, and the broader context of what's going on in baseball on the steroids front.
Ankiel and Barry Bonds and some of these other athletes who've been in the press as either getting performance-enhancing drugs from pharmacies or whatever, I think this represents a real fundamental change in sports are gonna be policed. It's clear to me --- and I think it's clear to a lot of people --- that professional leagues cannot police themselves. As the Daily News reported a couple of years ago, as our I-Team reported, the FBI had told Kevin Hallinan, who's the head of security in major-league baseball, that baseball had a problem with steroids. And baseball, for whatever reason, looked the other way. Hallinan denies that he really got a strong warning from this guy with the FBI. But I'm not sure how strong a warning from the FBI has to be before you take it seriously and do something about it. So I think what's gonna happen here is that we're gonna see --- the police blotter is gonna become a permanent part of the sports page. We're gonna see athletes being named like this more in the future. I think maybe we're gonna see athletes arrested --- and not for perjury but for being part of an illegal steroid ring, either as people who have purchased steroids or for playing a part in the distribution.

When you say arrested, do you think that will be followed up by prosecutions and jail time?
Yes. We saw Marion Jones get prosecuted, and it looks like she's gonna do some jail time. Bonds has now been indicted. We've got a whole rash of athletes now who are being linked to these various anti-aging clinics and pharmacies. I think it's become clear that the way to clean up sports isn't through drug testing, although that might be a tool. But drug testing is gonna become more effective if you gotta do it all the time [ie, including the off-season]; it might be random all the time. Of course unions, players associations, rightfully will look at that as a violation of individual privacy and due-process rights, and so there's a lot to weigh there. If you're talking about collective bargaining, it's going to be very difficult to convince athletes to turn over blood samples, or to turn over hair samples, for this aggressive kind of testing that you really need to do. They'll have to tell their teams and their leagues exactly where they are in the off-season. If you go hunting in Patagonia, you have to be available to be drug-tested. So that's a real huge burden to put on people's privacy and due process, and I'm not sure players associations are ever gonna go for that. So I think what we're gonna see more of is a partnership between police and leagues. Leagues are gonna share information with police, police are gonna demand information from leagues --- I think we're gonna see a lot more of that.

What is your response to the point of view that's prevalent on the Internet, where so many readers are younger than we are --- this point of view seems more prevalent among younger people --- that none of this really matters; that it's all just a witch hunt; that since everybody's doing it, nobody really gained an advantage; that people should essentially be able to take whatever performance-enhancers they want.
I have mixed feelings about that. The Libertarian in me says they're right, and the realist in me says that just as the war on drugs is never gonna stop people from using marijuana or cocaine, the war on steroids is not gonna stop people from trying to get an advantage. So let's just open the gates and let people do everything that they want. But the problem with that is that you have future generations who think that steroid deaths are part of the cost of doing business. We don't know what the long-term effects of some of these drugs are, and I think that's dangerous. It's a dangerous position to go to when so much of this is unknown.

I'm not real comfortable with the war on drugs to begin with, and most of the people who are getting arrested for steroids aren't athletes. They're guys who are car salesmen; cops; a lot of firemen; guys who either have very physical jobs or they like to look good as part of their job. What we see a lot of times is like cocaine or marijuana or methamphetamine or any of the street drugs, sometimes the punishment really outweighs the crime. Guys lose their homes or their jobs; their families get broken up because of an arrest for steroids. I'm not sure that's what we wanna do in enforcing these laws. Sports are just a small part of this; they're really just the tip of the iceberg.

I never thought of it as a problem outside of sports; you never hear about those cases. And in general, the media don't portray this as a broader societal problem. It's presented very narrowly, as a sports problem. But I can see how a fireman would want to have a physical edge, to give him a little extra strength or stamina or help him bounce back more quickly. I guess because athletes are celebrities, they are the users and violators who get all of the attention.
Yeah. I'm very conflicted about this, and I don't think there are real easy answers. But I think the point that younger people might make on the Internet is one worth considering.

For me it comes down to the competitive angle. I think the war on street drugs is not entirely analogous to the war on steroids --- at least as it pertains to sports --- because there's an element of sportsmanship and fair play involved. If you're gaining an unfair advantage in sports, it's not a victimless crime. To the extent that you give yourself an advantage, you're disadvantaging people who are competing with you for a scarce set of rewards.
That's a valid point too.

But who knows --- once the Mitchell report comes out, we may find that an incredibly high percentage of guys were in fact using these things, and so it would all even out; you couldn't say anybody really got an advantage. What's your sense about what that report will contain? And when it comes out, what the hell's gonna happen?
I don't think anyone really knows. I don't think even George Mitchell has a good sense of what the blowback will be. I don't think anyone will until the report actually is released. I do think it's gonna be a pretty credible report. I don't think it's just gonna be a whitewash of the problems. People worry that because of his ---- well, we all have bias. This is an issue we talk about all the time in journalism. We all come from a set of expectations. I wonder if, with the emphasis on players, management's responsibility in all of this is going to be overlooked, or not emphasized as much as it should be. But I do think this is a serious inquiry and that Mitchell is gonna be very responsible.

You make a good point --- and that's the place where I could agree with the argument that there's a witch-hunt element to this. The players are paying all the price for the steroid abuse, while all the enablers, from the clubhouses all the way on up to the commissioner's office --- the agents, the network executives --- all of those guys have guilt here. They all profited, and they in essence created the environment in which it was deemed ok to use steroids. But they're probably not gonna pay any sort of penalty.
We don't know that. Maybe Mitchell will focus on that. It's hard to say at this point. But that's my fear, just based on his background. He's coming at this from a management point of view, and maybe there are biases hard-wired into his brain. But I think he is doing this with an open mind, and he might surprise us and be very harsh on management. I wouldn't be surprised if he was. I wouldn't be surprised either way.

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