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THE INSIDE TRACK | THE HOT CORNER

A consumer's guide to the best and worst of sports media and merchandise. Ground rules: If it can be read, played, heard, observed, worn, viewed, dialed or downloaded, it's in play here.

January 12, 1998|LARRY STEWART

What: "Real Sports With

Bryant Gumbel"

Where: HBO

When: Tonight at 10 (first showing)

If you're involved in a shady, dishonest and deceiving sports endeavor, watch out for Jim Lampley and "Real Sports." In September, a Lampley segment on "Real Sports" exposed professional sports handicappers, called touts or sports advisors, for the cons that most of them are. Lampley's target in this month's "Real Sports" show is the sports memorabilia business. HBO calls the segment "Operation Foul Ball."

Citing an FBI spokesman, Lampley reports that 70% of the autographed merchandise in this $750-million-a-year industry is fake. A forensic expert says it's more like 20-30%, but the expert is given three bogus autographed baseballs and identifies only one as a fake.

Viewers learn that often the forensic services are in on the scam, so a certificate of authenticity does not ensure an autograph is real. U.S. attorney David Rosenbloom says the best way to make sure an autograph is genuine is to see the person sign it.

Randall Marshall, a former Cincinnati Red batboy who spent 1 1/2 years in jail for forging autographs of such players as Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, says, "If there was a Hall of Fame for forgeries, I'd be in Cooperstown right now."

"Operation Foul Ball," produced by Trent Gilles, is one of four segments on this edition of HBO's award-winning show. The second segment, with Mary Carillo reporting, deals with drinking and disruptive behavior by fans at sporting events. For this report, HBO taped fans' behavior at six football games in five cities. It's not a pretty sight.

In another segment Larry Merchant talks with Duane Thomas--yes, he's talking these days--about his two tumultuous years with the Dallas Cowboys (1970-71). Thomas not only didn't talk with the media, which isn't unusual, he also didn't talk to his coaches or teammates. "He'd have this stocking cap and he'd pull that stocking cap over his eyes and he would sit just like this during team meetings," former Cowboy coach Tom Landry said. "Then we'd go out on the field and he would never make a mistake. It was incredible." Asked why he was the way he was, Thomas says, "I'm still trying to figure it out."

The last segment is an uplifting piece done by James Brown with Elizabeth O'Donnell, a former member of the Ice Capades who runs an organization that enables thousands of blind, deaf and physically and mentally handicapped people--mostly children--to skate.

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