Yankees spit out thieving team-mate


AMERICA AT LARGE: It has happened to every eight-year-old in America, and for all I know, to every eight-year-old in the English-speaking world: you're on the school bus and the kid in the next seat makes you an offer you can't refuse. He turns to you with a cherubic look on his face and sweetly asks, "Would you like a piece of ABC gum?" "Sure," you reply, and with that he pops the pink glob out of his mouth and, to a chorus of giggles and snickers, places it in your outstretched hand.

ABC - Already Been Chewed.

ABC gum has acquired a new cachet in the sporting world of late, with the revelation that bidding for a piece of Bazooka bubble-gum personally pre-masticated by Luis Gonzalez of the Arizona Diamondbacks has topped $3,200 in an ongoing Internet auction.

In a spring training game at Tucson's Electric Park last month, Gonzalez singled, and, after reaching first base, removed the gum from his mouth and tossed it on the grass just beyond the infield. A baseball fan from Minnesota named Jason Gabbert, having witnessed this act, asked a security guard to retrieve the discarded wad, which he carefully preserved.

The item, entitled "Gonzo's Gum", went up for grabs on the Internet a few weeks ago. A bidder - another collector, actually - has already tendered $3,275 for it. Gabbert says the proceeds will go to benefit the athletic programmes at a Minnesota high school.

Now, at first blush it might be noted, with the possible exception of Monica Lewinsky's, there's probably no used gum you'd less rather handle than that of a baseball player, since the odds are that in addition to the usual ingredients it probably contains trace elements of Copenhagen snuff, chewing tobacco, sunflower seeds, and last night's beer.

On the other hand, as anyone who's bothered to familiarise himself with the memorabilia market of late will attest, there is only one certainty to the collectibles market, and that is that people will buy anything.

The same week Gonzo was spitting out his gum, the New York Yankees unconditionally released outfielder Ruben Rivera after he was caught pilfering a bat and a baseball glove from the locker of team-mate Derek Jeter.

Rivera, a reserve outfielder who would have been paid a $1 million salary this season, had sold the glove to a Seattle memorabilia dealer named Jason Jones for $2,500 (pretty small potatoes, considering the market for used gum). Upon learning the glove had been stolen, Jones returned it to the Yankees. Rivera himself gave back the bat, but it wasn't enough to save him with his team-mates.

In an unprecedented step, the Yankee players convened a team meeting, which produced the consensus opinion that they were no longer comfortable having Rivera as a

team-mate. The Yankees, in effect, voted the culprit off the team, a move made all the more extraordinary by the fact that the banished player is the first cousin of the team's ace closer Mariano Rivera.

On the surface, the message was clear enough: baseball players have made half a dozen trips to drug rehab and been welcomed back with open arms. Players have been indicted for everything from tax evasion to manslaughter to sex with a minor and continued to receive the support of their team-mates, but a thief in their midst was one thing they would not tolerate.

"When something happens like this, I can't think of anything other than it is upsetting," said relief pitcher Mike Stanton, the Yankees' union player representative. "We look at this as our home and these guys are our family. Heck, we spend more time here than with our real families."

"The clubhouse is a very sacred place; it's like our home," explained Yankees manager Joe Torre. "I've always felt that whatever team is in that clubhouse is like family, and that's the way I try to conduct things. Trust is very important, and anything that is going to threaten that type of balance is a negative."

On another level, though, the question must be asked: was Rivera sacked for invading the privacy of Jeter's locker, or was he in fact given his walking papers for committing an even more egregious sin: undercutting the market by selling an item of equipment the player in question (Jeter) might have, and eventually surely would have, disposed of more profitably himself?

At the time of l'affaire Rivera, Yanks' pitcher (and future Hall of Famer) Roger Clemens said that over the years items had regularly disappeared from his locker, but that he had never suspected a team-mate. "These days, you can't even throw your underwear away," said Clemens. "You have to cut your number out of it, because they'll grab it. It sounds strange, but it happens. I guess it's meaningful to some people."

From Roger Clemens' used underpants to Luis Gonzalez' used gum probably isn't such a great leap after all, but the latter has something going for it that the former probably does not: it comes with a certificate of authenticity.

The auction for Gonzo's Gum closes at midnight next Monday, but the winning bidder still has to worry that the market might subsequently be flooded.

"Thirty-two hundred dollars?" my daughter pointed out yesterday morning. "You know, for the right price, I'll bet he just might spit out another one!"