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Why Cal Ripken’s $45,909 Baseball Was A Good Buy

December 4, 1995

Every so often a story comes along that doesn’t live down to the seedy details that first emerge or the greedy expectations we add later. The story of Cal Ripken and the $45,909 baseball is one of those.

Admit it. When reports surfaced this weekend that a private collector paid that much for the home run ball Ripken hit the night he tied Lou Gehrig’s record, you shook your head. Forty-five thousand, nine-oh-nine! And then you figured no one would ever see that baseball again. At least not until the next auction.

Instead, with a little forbearance, the baseball could wind up in the Hall of Fame where, in true movie-ending fashion, everybody wins: Ripken; the fans; the guy who caught it, then caught flak for selling it, and swears he will use the money to send his two young sons to college; the swell who bought it and expects to make money on it; even the sports memorabilia business itself.

And couldn’t the trade use an uplifting story right about now? Competing for space on the same page was a story about baseball hero Duke Snider being fined for evading taxes on more than $100,000 he accepted to show up and sign cards at such shows for nearly a decade.

The story of the $42,000 baseball should end much happier than that, though it didn’t seem to be the case at the beginning.

On Sept. 5, while playing in his 2,130th consecutive game, Ripken homered into the left-field seats at Camden Yards, and Mike Stirn, a 32-year-old carpenter from nearby Sykesville, Md., caught the baseball.

Within minutes, a man sitting nearby offered Stirn $2,500 in cash for it. He barely had time to say no before the Orioles, fearing for Stirn’s safety, arranged for him and the baseball to exit the park safely. But he admitted the temptation was great.

``I’m not too well off,″ Stirn said the next night, as he watched Ripken break the record on TV. A lifelong Oriole fan, he had bought a share in a season-ticket package, but because work was slow, he could afford to keep tickets for only the record-tying game.

``My family’s without health insurance,″ Stirn said at the time. ``I could be tempted pretty good.″

That same night, another fan named Bryan Johnson caught another Ripken homer and gave the baseball to Cal for nothing. Besides being roundly praised, Johnson received a bat inscribed: ``Bryan, Thank you very much for the ball. It means a lot to me. We both share the same memory. Home run on 9-6-95. Cal.″

That got Stirn thinking.

``I called the Orioles on Sept. 7 and wanted to swap the ball for two autographed balls, one for each of my boys, and a four-figure donation to the American Cancer Society,″ Stirn said. ``My mom died from cancer 10 years ago.″

Ripken, it turns out, was content with the home run ball he had. The club felt buying the baseball from Stirn would set a undesirable precedent. Both passed.

``We didn’t want to get in the business of determining the prices on milestones,″ Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka said.

Stirn turned next to Mr. Memorabilia Auction Shows and Sales, based just down the road from his house and run by Robert Urban.

``Most people think of people like me the way they do lawyers,″ Urban said, ``a necessary evil.″

And though he is used to being treated like a lawyer, Urban admits the response to the auction stunned him.

``It wasn’t the money,″ he said, ``as much as the hundreds of obscene phone calls.

``People were outraged. They looked on it as violating Cal and the things that he stood for. And around here,″ he added in a lowered voice, ``Cal is a kind of god. ... Somehow, when news of the auction got out, the story about the ball being offered to Cal for a couple of autographed balls and a donation didn’t come out with it.″

But along came a Maryland businessman who didn’t need to know details, only that another famous baseball _ the one that passed through Bill Buckner’s legs and let the Mets rally to win in the 1986 World Series _ fetched $80,000 at another auction not that long ago.

Even so, the growing flap over the baseball gave the new owner second thoughts. A former high school ballplayer and Oriole fan, he began to think about putting it somewhere besides a safe-deposit box so more people could see it.

Ripken apparently has that effect on people. The businessman finally reasoned that a display in the Hall would fulfill a commitment to the public while still protecting his investment. Keep your fingers crossed he feels that way for a couple more years.

``I wouldn’t mind seeing it there for some period of time, but since Ripken isn’t in the Hall yet, I’m not even sure they’d want it right now,″ said the businessman, who declined to be identified.

Considering all the trouble, someone asked whether the baseball was a purchase of the head or the heart.

``At 45 grand,″ the businessman said, ``it would be most accurate to say the wallet.″

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