The Ball rests inside a clear plastic cube in the hands of a man wearing a black suit and a face like he's auditioning for the Secret Service.
This baseball was just any baseball until Eddie Murray hit it into Camden Yards' right-field bleachers for his 500th homer. Then it rolled down a rabbit hole into a strange universe where reality is whatever you can afford to make it.
The Ball arrives at the Harbor Inn at Pier 5 by Brinks armored truck for the benefit of the evening news. It sits in the center of a circle of television cameras, onlookers, local officials, having attained by mid-afternoon yesterday the aura of the Hope diamond.
A Brinks guard carries it from the truck in a canvas satchel, walks slowly down a red carpet trailed by seven TV news cameras. As if the ambient roar of the American Public Relations Machine is not loud enough, a five-piece band plays "When the Saints Go Marching In."
It is a wondrous baseball, a baseball more valuable than any baseball the world has ever seen. A $500,000 baseball.
Michael Warren Lasky, Baltimore entrepreneur, ruler of the Psychic Friends Network, erstwhile sports handicapper and lately community philanthropist, offered that much for the ball and then made it part of a fund-raising campaign for the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Oncology Center.
Lasky says he never checked with baseball memorabilia experts. A half million seemed right, an offer sure to be accepted by Daniel B. Jones, the 30-year-old Towson man who caught the ball on Sept. 6.
Wait, you're a businessman and you never checked the value before you made the offer?
Lasky answers one question with another, sounding like he stepped out of a David Mamet play: "What is value? What is value?"
Indeed. American sports always challenge our understanding of the word.
Here we have a free agent .280 singles and doubles hitter -- who'll start the bidding at $3 million a year? Here we have a lefty closer with control problems -- who'll say $1 million a year?
Here we have a baseball, but not just a baseball. Perhaps more than any other piece of memorabilia, a baseball can represent a moment of collective memory, one for the records.
What's it worth? Half a million?
"Absurd," says Ron Oser, who runs a sports memorabilia auction house in Philadelphia. "This is just out of the realm of reality."
Michael Heffner, director of acquisitions for Leland's of Manhattan, one of the country's largest sports memorabilia auction houses, sees the Lasky offer this way: "I think it's crazy, it's insane."
Murray is the 15th player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs. The most money anybody ever got for a 500th homer ball was Mickey Mantle's, a mere $24,000 just a few years ago.
How much is a great moment worth?
Value, says William Mastro, a collector and dealer in Palos Park, Ill., is "a total package. It's not a numbers game." It's the magnetism of the player involved, the drama of the moment. It's what someone is willing to pay.
What should you pay, say, for a piece of the perfect game thrown by Yankee right-hander Don Larsen against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 World Series?
Mastro says there are about three of those balls still floating around. One would fetch about $10,000, he says.
For the ball from Cy Young's 400th win in 1905 -- they used one baseball per game in those days -- the highest bidder paid nearly $26,000 at Robert Edward Auctions in Hoboken, N.J. last June. Pete Rose's 3,000th hit sold for about $15,000 at Leland's in 1993.
Imagine owning Bobby Thomson's home run, the "shot heard 'round the world" that won the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. No one does, as far as anyone knows. After it disappeared over the left-field wall at the Polo Grounds it never surfaced on the memorabilia market.
Heffner guesses the Thomson homer ball might bring $25,000 to $30,000.
"It was one of the most memorable moments" in baseball, he says, "but it was Bobby Thomson who hit it."
Not Willie Mays or Ted Williams or Cal Ripken Jr.
Ripken hit one out of Camden Yards on Sept. 5 last year, the day he tied Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played. The homer had nothing to do with the record, but the guy who caught it sold it for $41,700. Now, in view of Lasky's purchase, a Maryland memorabilia dealer is asking $1 million for the ball. He says it's a new market out there.
Five collectors interviewed for this story say the Lasky-Jones deal will have no broad impact on memorabilia prices. It's just too outrageous, they say.
But the mavens have been wrong before. Local collectors were expecting the Ripken ball to go for maybe $7,000 to $10,000.
At Leland's in Manhattan four years ago, the experts figured maybe a few thousand dollars for the ball that New York Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson hit through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in game six of the 1986 World Series, the baseball that rolled under Buckner's glove into the outfield as the winning run scored in one of the most dramatic comebacks in series history.
They started the bidding at $8,000. Hundreds of hands went up. It ended by telephone when actor Charlie Sheen offered $93,500, the most ever paid for a baseball.
Until now. Until Lasky -- almost as much as Murray himself -- set an American sports record.