By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
March 17, 2012
The new ABC reality TV series "Ball Boys" opens with the motto: "Every great moment in sports leaves something behind."
This network series set in a Baltimore sports memorabilia shop tells the stories of what happens to some of the stuff left behind.
That's not a bad premise. Think of it as a jock lover's version of "History Detectives."
But that's not all that's happening in the series, which takes viewers inside Robbie's First Base in Lutherville, where they will meet owners Robbie Davis Sr. and Robbie Davis Jr., as well as workers Lou "Sweet Lou" Brown and Robbie "Shaggy" Reier.
Think "Pawn Stars," too, because the producers of "Ball Boys," Leftfield Pictures, also make that hit reality series set in the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop in Las Vegas. Similar shop, similar cast of characters — I mean, shop owners and workers.
Like "Pawn Stars," "Ball Boys" has a lot going for it on the fantasy level. It holds out the promise that the old score card from a 1920s baseball game found in your grandfather's attic might be worth a bundle. And it offers young men — that hard-to-reach but greatly desired demographic — the fantasy that they can somehow make a living sitting around all day talking about sports most of them never played.
As one of the workers at Robbie's says in the premiere (airing Saturday, March 24), "You can't ask for a better job than sitting around talking sports with your friends all day."
Think sports-talk radio — or a day in your favorite sports bar or barbershop — only the bills are getting paid while you indulge your passion for talking about the games.
The gang from Leftfield Pictures even ups the ante on that fantasy with real Hall of Famers walking through the door of Robbie's whenever the pace starts to slacken.
"This place is a like a sports club," the owner says in a voice-over during the opening. "It's not unusual to see a baseball player or a football player here."
ABC is running two episodes back to back Saturday afternoon to launch the series, and they features such former sports stars as Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and Baltimore Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry dropping in on Robbie's First Base.
The senior Davis describes both as friends. Brown walks through the front door just in time to authenticate his signature on a Cleveland Browns' football helmet that a young man named Garth is trying to sell. Garth got it from his father, a die-hard Browns fan.
The young man's father can't believe his eyes when Brown shows up. The episode ends on a comic note, with Brown trying to help the store's owner train Sweet Lou to be an effective salesman and negotiator.
That's another aspect of the "Pawn Stars" formula at play here: The owners and workers are their own little tribe, and each has a clearly defined role — and we are let in the bantering and camaraderie that takes place among them backstage.
Senior is the old man, the one whom everyone fears. He's also the one with the smarts — the guy who knows how to appraise and negotiate well enough to make a good living off his passion for sports.
Junior is the heir apparent, trying to humor the old man until he gets the keys to the candy store.
The senior Davis tells viewers that Shaggy, one of his employees, "is a walking bathroom book of sports knowledge." Sweet Lou, he says, "really wants to be a salesman, but he's not ready yet," adding, "I love Sweet Lou like a son, but he's a goofball."
The real energy is generated by the sports artifacts that come through the door — the stuff left behind from the great moments in sports. And since this is a reality TV show, of course, their arrival is orchestrated by the producers.
But the series is smart and constructed smoothly enough that it is easy to forget about the ways in which reality is obviously being manipulated. The way to watch this show is to let yourself ebb and flow with the rhythm of the sports memorabilia that finds itself under the shrewd eye of the owner of Robbie's First Base.
It's fun to watch the owner haggle with a guy who reached onto the field at Camden Yards to catch a fly ball hit by New York Yankee Nick Swisher just before it would have been grabbed by Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis for an out. The guy thinks he has something really valuable with that ball.
The owner? Not so much.
But on the other hand, there's a guy selling championship rings from Notre Dame, and Robbie Davis Sr. is willing to dip deep into the till to get a piece of his action. But only because he's hoping for a fast flip to an attractive young woman with lots of dough who he knows is looking for Fighting Irish memorabilia.
And then there's the lineup card from the New York Yankees in the days of Murderers' Row, with autographs from Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth among other Hall of Famers.
Some days, fantasies do come true — even in shops at strip malls in Lutherville.
"Ball Boys" airs at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 24, on WMAR, Channel 2.
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