Faithful readers may remember that my last column was about the young man who decided to sell the record-breaking home-run baseball hit by Barry Bonds. I found the story rather telling as it dealt with human nature, our proclivity to place sports figures on pedestals (often undeservingly), and an undercurrent of the value of authenticity and integrity. Even casual sports fans are aware of the mild controversy surrounding Bonds and his suspected use of performance-enhancing drugs.
A few interesting things have happened since then. First, the auction was successful. In fact, it was far more successful than most people-even experts in this sort of thing-predicted it would be. The ball ended up selling for a whopping $752,467. Interestingly, it wasn't purchased by a fan of Barry Bonds. In fact, I'm not even certain that the purchaser was a baseball fan: it was bought by fashion designer Marc Ecko.
But Ecko had a plan. Having had numerous conversations with friends about Bonds and the questions surrounding his performance, he decided to buy the ball to make a statement. Or rather, to let the public make a statement.
After the purchase, Ecko created a Web site (www.vote756.com) to get the public's opinion on what he should do with the historical ball. He presented fans with three options:
Send the ball directly to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Send the ball to the Hall of Fame, but only after having it permanently branded with an asterisk.
Put the ball in a rocket in send it into outer space, essentially banishing it forever.
People voted. Boy, did they vote. More than 10 million people visited the site and offered an opinion.
When Bonds heard about Ecko's plans, he remarked (among other things): "He's stupid. He's an idiot. He spent $750,000 on the ball and that's what he's doing with it? What he's doing is stupid." Ecko responded by creating a T-shirt for Bonds that said, "Marc Ecko paid $752,467 for my ball, and all I got was this 'stupid' T-shirt."
Still, the whole affair has been both amusing and insightful. Personally, I'm pleased that we're having a very public discourse that examines whether we should care that much about either these athletes or their achievements, and I think it brings needed attention to the larger issue of integrity. Did Bonds use performance enhancing drugs? Probably. If so, should we feel differently about the achievement? Definitely.
On the other hand, even with the drug use, his performance is astonishing. A friend who worked in major league baseball described it this way: "Everyone pitches around him. They either walk him on purpose or put pitches in the most remote areas of the strike zone. He might see one, maybe two, good pitches in an entire game. And when he does, he hits them out of the park. That's remarkable."
Hmm. I see the point. But ultimately, the rules of the game state that using performance-enhancing drugs isn't allowed. If we can't compete fairly, then we probably shouldn't be competing at all. It's no wonder the Little League World Series is so popular.
For his part, Ecko has managed to become intrinsically tied to this story, this record, and this piece of history. He put his money where his mouth is and then offered to let the people dictate what should be done with this piece of history. Not surprisingly, the fans have spoken and selected option two: the ball will be branded and the asterisk will forever be part of the history of this ball.
Ecko was thoughtful on the matter, saying, "This was never about the record. I saw the purchase of the ball as an opportunity to open a national conversation using new media-the Internet, blogs, videos-to allow America's oldest sport to have America's most modern conversation. The people should be the arbiters of what is historically significant about this artifact. The opportunities for expression, and our participation in the public square, are endless."
In the end, bringing people to the conversation and having that conversation in the public square were the motivating factors behind Ecko's efforts to build the site. If there's a better use for the Web, I'm at a loss to tell you what it is.
Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a fullservice advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.