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Friday, Jan. 4, 2002

SPORTS SCOPE

Auction house strikes out with bogus Ichiro bat


A good friend of mine collects sports memorabilia and contacted me last month with an interesting tale.

This guy is a big fan of the Oakland Athletics and is always on the lookout for something unique to add to his ever-growing collection.

While surfing around the Web in early December, he had happened upon a sale of sports memorabilia being run by an auction house named MastroNet in the United States. That in and of itself is nothing unusual, but what he found up for sale was.

"Incredible Ichiro 2001 Autographed First Major League At-Bat Game Used Bat" proclaimed a full page advertisement in their 412-page Sports and Americana Premier Catalog Auction.

Included in the listing for the item, with an opening bid of $7,500, was, " . . . Offered is the bat which started it all, the very first bat Ichiro took to the plate for his first and second at-bats of the 2001 season, April 2, 2001, on Opening Night vs. the Oakland A's, the bat which literally began Ichiro's major league career."

Now my friend is a wily kind of guy. Not one to be taken advantage of easily in matters of business or anything else. So he was skeptical from the minute he laid eyes on this alleged gem.

There were two red flags in his opinion. First, the auction had run for several days without a single bid.

Even at $7,500, the chance to own this bat from Ichiro's first game would have appeared to be an incredible bargain.

Secondly, the bat listed was not from a Japanese maker.

It just so happened that being an A's fan, my friend had videotaped the first game of the 2001 season between Oakland and Seattle and still had the tape handy.

After sitting down at home with a cold one after another day at the office, my friend pulled out the tape, put it in his VCR and put his feet up. What he saw next didn't surprise him at all.

Ichiro striding to the plate to face A's starter Tim Hudson in both his first and second at-bats (and every other one that night) with his trusty black Mizuno bat in hand. In just a few moments, my friend had exposed this "incredible" item as just what it was -- an incredible fraud.

Being the type of person who is bothered by this type of thing, my friend contacted the company that had the bat up for auction, informed them of his findings and even offered to send a copy of the tape for them to review.

MastroNet took him up on his offer -- while continuing to let the auction run for several days -- and eventually withdrew the lot, after seeing the evidence with their own eyes.

What's most disturbing about this incident is how this outfit ever let the bat be put up for sale in the first place.

When referring to the item listing, one would have been very reassured that the bat was indeed authentic.

" . . . After his second at-bat a clubhouse member took the offered bat out of play, and tucked it away until after the game. . . . After the game, that same clubhouse member had Ichiro autograph the bat.

"The 34-inch, 30-oz. TPX M110 Louisville Slugger Pro Stock model bat is uncracked and exhibits rack and ball marks on the barrel, a number "51" in silver ink on the knob, and some blue ink lifted off one of the baseballs he slapped around on that first night."

What is even more amazing is the fable that the person who consigned the bat with MastroNet came up with.

"It is interesting to note that Ichiro used a Louisville Slugger during his first few major league games. Apparently, he used up all his Mizuno bats during Spring Training, and would not receive his next shipment until April 9th. The bat has been signed and inscribed in silver pen by Ichiro, "Ichiro #51 'gamer' Oakland A's O. Night."

Sounds like a great story, until you realize it was just a great lie.

What troubles me is that the entity that was supposed to have the best interests of its customers at heart -- the auction house -- crowed about how the bat had been verified by three of its own experts, only to be proven shockingly wrong.

"An incredible relic from baseball's most exciting superstar! We can't remember the last time a verifiable 'first at-bat' bat of a superstar of Ichiro's magnitude has come up for auction. Its documented provenance is impeccable. An historic bat of truly international proportions!"

It then listed the name of three of its in-house "experts" and how they had all submitted "Letters of Authenticity" on the bat.

When I first heard this story, I immediately thought of Pete Rose and how he was purported to have sold the bat with which he broke the all-time major league hit record of Ty Cobb to several different collectors.

The point is that even though there are a lot of honest people in the business, there are many dishonest ones as well.

In the past, authorities have estimated that up to 75 percent of sports memorabilia is not authentic. It is a sad indictment of the society we live in today.

People look up to their sports heroes and want to feel close to them, but there are so many sharks in the water, that it makes taking part hazardous to your pocketbook.

There are many gullible collectors out there -- including Japanese -- who want to believe everybody is honest, but this just isn't the case.

Wanting to give MastroNet the benefit of the doubt -- and the chance give its side of the story -- I contacted the Chief Operating Officer of the Illinois-based company, Laura Harden, for comment.

After requesting a telephone interview, I instead received a terse, two-paragraph statement via e-mail.

The Ichiro Suzuki bat was pulled from our recent auction with the agreement of both the consignor and MastroNet, Inc. Although I am unable to go into specifics, it was concluded that the bat offered was not the bat used for his first and second at-bats in the 2001 season, which was also corroborated by video.

I hope this information will be sufficient, I am sorry that there are no additional details that I can provide.

Harden, who once worked for the famed auction house Sotheby's, obviously realized she had a hot potato on her hands and therefore felt inclined not to touch it again.

In the very same auction, MastroNet sold game-used bats it says belonged to Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken Jr.

MastroNet was founded in 1995 and proclaims the following on its Web site: "We offer only the finest and highest quality sports memorabilia and with our network of leading authorities, we are able to stand behind the authenticity of all the items we offer."

This is a stark reminder that when it comes to sports memorabilia, the buyer had better beware.



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