Broken bats, used baseballs — Orioles' store sells it all

What would you pay for an authentic broken bat or Orioles' lineup card?

Sometime around the sixth inning of Orioles home games, a precious commodity is carried in a cardboard box from inside Camden Yards out to Eutaw Street.

The box is filled with a dozen or more baseballs. Not just any baseballs, but balls used in that day's or night's game, often bearing fresh scuff marks and dirt that seem to add to their legitimacy and fan appeal.

The balls are delivered to Orioles Authentics, a store that will end its first regular season of operation next week having recorded several hundred thousand dollars in sales.

The new store's popularity is a testament to fans' desire to deepen their association with the game and its heroes — and their willingness to pay for that privilege.

"The coolest mementos you can buy" is how season-ticket holder John Cecil of Catonsville described the items Monday before the Orioles game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Cecil and his wife, Kate Masters, had just paid $250 for a broken, black Louisville Slugger bat bearing the engraved autograph of catcher Caleb Joseph, their favorte player.

The store clerk said the bat, authenticated by Major League Baseball, was cracked in an Aug. 14 game against the Oakland Athletics. On Monday, the bat was still sticky with pine tar.

For most of Major League Baseball's 146 years, fans had to be content with the long odds of vying — with thousands of others — to catch home runs or foul balls from their stadium seats. Today, they can purchase game-used balls or even buy the jerseys off players' backs.

Or they can purchase — in stadium stores or online — dirt from the infields of major-league stadiums. A pen with the Orioles logo is filled with "authentic dirt from Oriole Park at Camden Yards." It sells online for $19.99.

The Kansas City Royals sell bottles of water from the famous fountain at Kauffman Stadium for $14.99.

The Orioles' most popular items include game-used jerseys from Adam Jones, Chris Davis, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and Wei-Yin Chen.

A ball from the first game in which catcher Matt Wieters collected a hit is on sale for $119.99 at the club's online store. A ball used by Machado during July's All-Star Game home run derby is offered for $199.99.

Not all items are for sale. Sometimes, players seek to keep baseballs — such as milestone home runs — that enter the stands. Fans typically are asked to surrender such a caught ball in exchange for other autographed memorabilia from the player.

At the store on Monday were broken bats from Machado ($1,000), Davis ($350) and Wieters ($350).

Masters and Cecil previously had purchased a lineup card — signed, as they all are, by Orioles manager Buck Showalter — from the unusual May 2 game against the Tampa Bay Rays that was moved to Florida because of the Baltimore riots. It cost $150.

Proceeds from the store's sales go to the club's charitable foundation. Among the recipients are the Jackie Robinson Foundation and organizations supporting cancer research. The club declined to provide a sales figure from the store's first year, although it said sales amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.

The Orioles are among 17 big-league teams now selling "authentic" balls, jerseys or equipment either at or near their stadiums.

The Orioles' version is popular enough that fans sometimes engage in bazaar-style negotiations for the same item.

"These are often consumers who are quite familiar with that market," Orioles spokesman Greg Bader said. "It's typically a set price that can go higher, based on how many parties are interested. Between the staff and potential customers, there is often a price negotiated."

The club's procedures fall under a larger program called MLB Authentication. Contract employees — mostly off-duty or retired law enforcement officers — attend every game to verify that the items put up for sale are the real deal.

Authenticators, who are paid by the hour, worked all 2,430 games of the major league regular season and verified hundreds of thousands of items.

"The MLB Authentication hologram ensures that our game-used and autographed collectibles are truly authentic," said Michael Napolitano, Major League Baseball's vice president of consumer products — hard goods. "The MLB Authentication Program gives our fans confidence that they are buying genuine memorabilia. This leads to a deeper trust and connection to the sport."

Last year, in a scene that won't be repreated this year, a Howard County police officer watched as the Orioles leapt up and down and sprayed each other with champagne to celebrate the division title.

When it was over, the officer and a colleague scooped up empty Cook's champagne bottles, affixed each with a Major League Baseball hologram, and plugged a corresponding serial number into a database.

In online auctions, the bottles fetched $50 to $100. The corks sold for $25.

jebarker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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