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Sweat Equity

Spit-stained, dusty, or torn, if it was worn by a professional athlete, someone's dumb enough to buy it.

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While I don't often troll Web auctions looking for useless hooey, I occasionally binge as an act of expensive procrastination. The allure of auction browsing is that it's never the thing you should be doing. After learning that a used jockstrap from Cincinnati Bengal running back Corey Dillon sold recently on eBay for $80, I logged on, curious about similar buying opportunities. At any given moment, eBay lists no fewer than 1,500 items described as "game used" or "game worn," and they seem to have a clear geographic bias toward Chicago: Quentin Dailey's size 12 Pony low-tops, Don Zimmer's dusty cap, Alfrederick Hughes's jersey, worn during his brief stint with the San Antonio Spurs. I'd say these items were reasonably priced, but then again, my credibility is limited: the memorabilia vortex sucked me in and in a flash I'd shelled out $56 for Artis Gilmore's shorts.

Understand that during an impressionable late-70s, hoops-crazed adolescence, I'd have given anything to be Artis Gilmore, to have his colossal Afro and fling hooks over Bob Lanier and Kent Benson. Instead, I now have his shorts. Tossing money at an item so unnecessary must have satisfied some sick desire for a connection to my former idol--or to my own ignominious past. I should be embarrassed, but the shorts just arrived by UPS and I'm giddy. And the act of bidding is so safe, so completely anonymous.

The act of buying, however, is not anonymous at all. It involves an exchange of mailing addresses, a discussion of handling charges. The seller knows what a geek you are. My seller, however, was gentle. He had reason to be, as he plugged an upcoming appearance at the National Sports Collectible Convention, in Rosemont in August. The prospect of gawking at an unending array of scraps from obscure sports figures was too great, and I happily attended.

As I walked among the sharks, perusing a rack of game-used baseball uniforms, I decided I was ready to spend a few bones on a dirt-encrusted Rusty Staub Mets jersey. I would wear it, of course.

"How much for the Staub?" I asked the vendor.

"Oh, that's $2,500. Nice, huh?"

Stunned pause. I'd been thinking $35, maybe $50.

I thought, "Jesus Christ, pal--what kind of f'ing hayseed do I look like?" But I found myself saying, "Yeah, sweet jersey."

Rusty Staub. Rusty was a six-time all-star over a 23-year major league career; a nice player, though not necessarily a fit man. Rusty was oddly proportioned, in the classic designated-hitter/first-baseman sense, and it was his baseball card that you never needed and always pulled. And now a jersey sells for $2,500, simply for having once clung to his fleshy, .279-hitting back.

No one actually seemed to be paying these lofty prices, though. Dealers and patrons haggled everywhere, swapping items of questionable worth and wringing their hands over each deal. After all, how can anyone gauge the true value of U.L. Washington's toothpicks, except by an equivalent number of Tito Fuentes headbands?

The show featured a large number of non-sports items too. A vendor wanted $28,000 for a familiar costume purportedly worn by Christopher Reeve in Superman. When questioned about the item's pedigree, he produced a letter authored by someone considered an expert in the authentication of Hollywood memorabilia. Sanctioning the authenticity of collectibles seems like a more enviable gig than traveling to convention centers selling them. I asked the vendor if he would help a buyer finance the purchase of the Supermanwear. He was seriously not amused. For the most part, the show's vendors were deeply committed salesmen with an unwavering reverence for their goods. They wanted cash or trade, not derision.

As it happens, there is always a collectibles show on the horizon in Chicago. We are the hub of the collectible universe, the dense point from which no cleat or bobblehead can escape. The next Chicago Sun-Times Sports Collectible Convention hits Rosemont in November. I'll be wandering between tables, maybe trying to unload my Gilmore shorts in exchange for a cup of Dave Kingman's tobacco spit, so look for me.

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