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MLB wants to make sure fans get the real deal

Program aims to stop fake memorabilia

Deloitte & Touche accountant Cory Boss spent Game 3 of the World Series, collecting a couple dozen balls used in the game, four bases, a commemorative home plate and pitching rubber used for the first pitch, and both the Red Sox and Cardinals line-up cards signed by the team managers.

Before returning the items to Major League Baseball, Boss and two other Deloitte accountants attached holographic stickers bearing unique identification numbers to the collectibles to authenticate them as the real deal. They went to the players' clubhouses during the game to label the special World Series nameplates on the lockers.

"Who said being a CPA was boring?" said Boss, 27, who works in the accounting firm's St. Louis office. He doesn't get paid extra for the task, he said, but "it's certainly a desirable assignment."

Boss is one of about 150 Deloitte & Touche accountants nationwide trained to authenticate official baseball memorabilia at major league games and private signing sessions. There are one to three of them at any given game, putting stickers on everything from game balls to champagne bottles the Red Sox would use to celebrate a historic World Series win. They go to players' homes to witness and authenticate the signing of bats, pictures and gloves.

Deloitte says the program is in the interest of players, fans and major league baseball. Fans spent $2.7 billion in 2002 on licensed baseball merchandise, according to a report by Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. That's more than they spent on National Football League or National Basketball Association licensed merchandise. Add in signed memorabilia sold at trade shows or on online auction sites like eBay and the tally climbs even higher.

The problem for baseball is that a good deal of the items are fake -- so much so that the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched Operation Bullpen in the 1990s to investigate forged sports merchandise. The FBI concluded that 75 percent of autographs out there were fake.

So the league decided to take action. Fans were reluctant to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for collectibles they couldn't confirm were genuine.

"Fans were losing trust in baseball," said Colin Hagen, MLB's vice president of licensing.

In 1993, the league began putting holographic stickers on hats, T-shirts and other merchandise sold in the postseason. In 1999, it expanded the program to all official league merchandise.

Then, in 2001, the league teamed up with accounting firm Arthur Andersen in a separate effort to authenticate balls, bats, bases, and collectibles autographed at private signings. Deloitte & Touche took over the task two years ago. Since the program began, more than 600,000 signed and game items have been logged into a database fans can use to verify their authenticity, said Hagen.

Given the buying frenzy among Red Sox fans right now, the league is particularly vigilant about counterfeit activity. The hotter something is the more likely it is to be counterfeit. And Red Sox paraphernalia has never been hotter.

A perennial favorite of fans, Red Sox merchandise is flying off shelves these days. Fans are converging on the Souvenir Store on Yawkee Way in droves. Knit tocque hats, the locker room caps, and some Sox vs. Cardinals designs are sold out.

Sales at the store on Saturday and Sunday were four times bigger than any other single day this year, said Steve D'Angelo, vice president of Twins Enterprise Inc., which owns the Souvenir Shop and is a licensed maker of MLB hats. D'Angelo said retailers are ordering Red Sox gear at nearly five times the rate they're ordering Cardinals merchandise.

Rick Becker, vice president of sales and marketing at VF Corp., another major league licensee and the maker of brands such as Nautica, North Face and Wrangler, said the demand for playoff and World Series merchandise this year is twice as big as it was during the Subway Series when the Yankees faced the Mets.

"This only happens once every 86 years," said Fred Vona, who plunked down $450 for three Red Sox jerseys bearing the World Series patch -- one for his daughter, his wife and him. "You have to go with the best to break the curse."

And to be the best, it has to be authentic, Vona said.

Wearing a 1918 World Champs Red Sox hat with the holographic sticker on the lid, collector and fan Philip Dunlavey couldn't agree more. Whether it's merchandise or a signed ball, Dunlavey wants to know it's the real thing.

He's got balls signed by baseball greats Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. If he decides to sell them, he'll have to prove their authenticity. Today's memorabilia will be easier to track, he said, and that stamp of authenticity is valuable on the open market.

"I tell my daughter that's her college education," he said.

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com. 

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