Bonds' business decision may force Hall into buying mood

5/29/2007 - MLB

On the lower level of the conversational mall, the latest Barry Bonds news sets up as an almost classic addition to the Bonds Lore of Churlishness. You can already see writers and critics squirreling away that epic Bonds line in explaining why he isn't worried whether the Hall of Fame has enough of his memorabilia -- "I take care of me," he said -- for future use when and where it'll hurt the most.

What can you say? When Bonds puts one up on a tee for his detractors, he absolutely leaves no doubt.

But let's talk about the next level up, which is this: The Baseball Hall of Fame is on the fringe of an era in which it needs a new business model. The HOF -- like it or not -- is going to have to get into the memorabilia rat race, paying for its stuff at market prices when necessary, if it wants to remain the repository of the most important artifacts of the game. It has to become a full-bore hunter and collector, not the polite sanctioning-body-of-history visage that served it so well for so many decades.

And Bonds, oddly enough, might be the scowling me-firster who has just initiated that discussion.

Say what you will about Bonds, but the man is under no obligation to toss the Hall of Fame a bone just because it looks hungry. When Bonds obliquely threatened not to donate any of the goodies related to his pursuit of Henry Aaron's all-time home run record, he made it obvious that he was looking out for his own interests -- his business interests.

It's a key word, business. The Hall might be, as it often explains, a "not-for-profit educational institution," but it's a business all the same. It has a big-time budget, corporate sponsorship and the like. It charges admission ($14.50 for adults visiting the museum straight up) and asks for donations. And it certainly knows the value of memorabilia; otherwise, it wouldn't sell things like "Fiddle, the cow HOF plush," for $18.99, nor an MLB crib mobile for $45.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course -- it's business. Money is the lifeblood of the Hall, just as it is for any business trying to keep the lights on and the AC running.

But Bonds' magnificent selfishness is business, too. And though he might be the first to publicly sound so ambivalent about giving his stuff to the Hall of Fame, he won't be the last. Some other players undoubtedly will scorn Bonds' attitude and find his words repellent, but at some point they'll also look at the hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of dollars Bonds is reaping for himself and his heirs, and wonder just how far their largesse should extend.

That's the Hall's new predicament. The skyrocketing values of memorabilia are slowly putting a different spin on the equation. At some point, it's going to be a stretch to think baseball players are simply going to hand over the prize jersey, bat or glove from some epic occasion. It's sort of like the guy in the stands who catches the next historic home run ball. What's he going to do, just walk it up to Bonds? Not likely. Not anymore.

The Hall has done a marvelous job over the years of bringing baseball history together. Anyone who saw the brilliant traveling exhibit "Baseball as America" can attest. And it's true: There is something magical about seeing the jersey actually worn by the player who accomplished something great, or the bat with which he struck a momentous hit, or the glove used to pitch the perfect game, or whatever. As HOF vice president Jeff Idelson put it, "A cap, bat or jersey -- anything can tie a visitor to a specific event."

Idelson and others work hard at making that happen, establishing contacts all around baseball, knowing the right people, incorporating the players' own ideas into the HOF displays that showcase their moments in the sun. But Bonds' keen awareness of the value of his own stuff -- his personal Web site, for example, advertises a Barry-signed but never used baseball glove for $5,000 -- is the harbinger of a new day in this whole collection game.

The Hall's future budgets almost certainly are going to have to include major money to buy the kind of memorabilia it can't obtain as a gift or on loan, and that's a depressing but clear departure from the past. The days of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa basically threw everything they wore at the HOF for keepsakes, are long gone -- and gone, too, are the days when Bonds himself donated very generously to the Hall from some of his former milestones.

Whether Bonds needs the money (he noted that he is already able to provide financially for the next three-plus generations of his family, so we'll guess not) is irrelevant. It's the attitude that the HOF has to come to grips with, however sadly. The attitude is this: It's business, baby. The rest is just talk.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland", published by HarperCollins, is in its third printing. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.