Saturday, February 12, 2011

X Marks the Spot

I've read a lot of news coverage about the aftermath of the Green Bay Packers Super Bowl victory, but none of the stories made mention of what happened to the ball that Scott Wells snapped to Aaron Rodgers on the last play of the game. Apparently, it's only in baseball that the ball that was in play for the final out of the World Series becomes a story, particularly when one of the players decides to keep it. Doug Mientkiewicz took a lot of heat a few years ago for "selfishly" holding onto the ball that gave the Boston Red Sox their first World Series victory in 86 years. He eventually donated the ball to the Baseball Hall of Fame. For this, he was praised by the Hall of Fame's Brad Horn:

Mientkiewicz said 'It's in my possession, so I'm going to make sure it gets to a place that everybody can enjoy it, the Hall of Fame. And that's what we often tell players -- "You can keep these items in your possession and a handful of fans will see them, or 15 million fans who have seen things at the Hall of Fame over the course of our history will see them."

And that sounds like a fine ending to the story. But I don't think that the sentiment stands up to scrutiny. What does it mean to "enjoy" an artifact? Does standing in front of a baseball ensconced behind glass actually give anybody tangible enjoyment? If it does, it is only valuable in terms of building up cultural capital. At one time relics were thought to have the power to heal or grant wishes, but now access to the contemporary relic is all about cultural capital--more specifically, bragging rights. People can take a picture that proves they were in the presence of the venerable, and they can tell others something like: "Hey, I saw the backpack that actor Jeff East wore in Superman: The Movie" (which is actually a claim I can make, having visited the Metropolis, Illinois Superman museum). But the actual act of viewing an artifact of memorabilia is usually less physically satisfying than eating a cheeseburger.

That said, I do appreciate the populist ethos of the above quotation, and the mission of many such curators to make the artifact accessible to a wide audience, to spread around the potential to tap into the cultural capital (though there is undoubtedly a certain degree of "bragging rights" at stake for the museums, as they will often compete with each other for acquisitions). But beyond these institutions, there are the cultural hoarders, those who attempt to acquire items for their private collections, often at staggering costs. And there is likewise usually no special "enjoyment" in the consumption of the item. Right now, you can go to and find the complete lyrics to "The Times They Are a-Changin'"--for free. Or you could pay nearly a half million dollars and buy Dylan's original handwritten lyrics (which aren't as legible as the lyrics on the website). A hedge-fund manager recently chose the latter option (and in so doing, kind of defeated the sentiment of the song). What does he get for his money? Nothing more than the opportunity to tell people that he has something they don't.

Now certainly there are items in our culture that we imbue with a certain value because of what they represent. But doesn't that value become cheapened (figuratively if not literally) the moment that they also become representative of the status of the bearer? And is there truly a way that they truly can be "enjoyed"?

I believe there is a way to solve both of these problems. First, if merit were attached to acquisition, the possession would stand to acquire an even greater value. An Ayn Rand fan would argue that having money equals merit, so those who purchase expensive items are simply demonstrating a pre-existent merit. But although I wouldn't dispute that those who hold money should be able to purchase any legal good or service that they feel can enhance their quality of life, the purchase of exclusivity of ownership strikes me as more of an attempt to flaunt wealth than to enjoy its trappings. For one-of-a-kind items of sentimental value, I think that there should be a separate market, one where everybody is at the same starting line.

And the way to accomplish that is though worldwide treasure hunts. The NFL should take the final game ball from Sunday's Super Bowl and bury it in a strategic location somewhere in the country. Then they should put out a series of books, clues, riddles, maps, whatever it takes to turn locating it into a fun game. If nobody finds it, the market has spoken, and that just means it doesn't have enough value and it deserves to stay buried. But for anyone with enough skill, fortitude, and desire, they could be rewarded with, well, a football. But at least they will have experienced enjoyment in the acquisition, the game will have given even more value to the item, and the owner will be more entitled to brag about its possession.

The Smithsonian probably has a fair amount of material that isn't actually giving much "enjoyment" to visitors. Could such items be made more enjoyable by hiding them and daring the public to find them? If they replace their original Oscar the Grouch puppet with a more recent model, and hide the original in a trash can in a railroad terminal in Brownsville, Texas, could that be a greater service to the American people? Could the state of Minnesota hide pieces of the Metrodome roof in cubbyholes throughout the land of 10,000 lakes?

And although auction houses would stand to lose economically from such a culture, the overall national economic stimulus would probably be greater. Tourism dollars would come flooding in to places that might really need it. Even if treasure hunters were to come away empty-handed, they would still be richer for the experience of being somewhere that they would otherwise have never had the opportunity to visit.

Now if we could just track down the whereabouts of that football...anybody check if Doug Mientkiewicz has it?


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