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Revisiting Operation Bullpen

Sports Collectors Digest Editor Bert Lehman takes a look at the impact Operation Bullpen has had on the autograph hobby since the FBI busts.

Sometimes it is painful to look back at events you’d like to forget. It often brings back bad memories and leaves you wondering how the chain of events could have happened in the first place.

For the autograph hobby, the Operation Bullpen busts by the FBI in the late 1990s would be one of the events that is painful to look back at. It brings back plenty of bad memories and still has many people wondering how the hobby let itself get into that situation.

Those are the exact reasons why the hobby can’t forget about Operation Bullpen. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them.

The June 9 issue of Sports Collectors Digest includes an exclusive interview with Brian Biegel, the director of the documentary “The Counterfeiter.” The documentary debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and premiered on ESPN on May 17.

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Biegel was interviewed by Kevin Nelson, author of a book about Operation Bullpen. In the interview, Biegel shares why he decided to do a documentary about the autograph forging scandal, as well as his thoughts on Greg Marino, who became a masterful autograph forger.

I watched “The Counterfeiter” when it premiered on ESPN. I’m not going to share everything that was included in the documentary because I don’t want to ruin your viewing pleasure if you haven’t seen it yet, but I would like to share some of my thoughts.

I felt the documentary was informative for being only 23 minutes long. It included extensive interview time with Marino, as well as a couple of the FBI agents involved with Operation Bullpen.

Marino explained how he first got involved in the sports collectibles hobby and how he learned to forge the signatures of some of the all-time great players in sports and entertainment.

The documentary also painted a picture of how the home run battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998 was instrumental in eventually bringing the forgery ring down.

After watching “The Counterfeiter” and hearing the FBI agents talk about all the fake McGwire and Sosa signed items being pumped into the industry, one can only think that those involved had to know that they would be caught sooner or later. A lot of the signed items were specific to the home run battle, and McGwire told the FBI he didn’tsign those items.

I don’t have a lot of autographed items in my collection, but I do have some. These items include 8”-by-10” photos, cut signatures, and game-used bats. Of the autographed items in my collection, I did not see the majority of the signings in person.

This is why I was interested in watching “The Counterfeiter” and why I feel it is important to look back at painful times from the past.

As the documentary pointed out at the end, Operation Bullpen did open the eyes of those involved in the autograph hobby and made them realize changes needed to be made in order to ease the minds of collectors. Better authentication of autographs was one of those changes.

The results of Operation Bullpen also helped make collectors realize that a Certificate of Authenticity doesn’t guarantee that an autograph is real. Collectors need to do their research about the companies that provide certificates of authenticity. If an authentication company isn’t reputable, there is a greater chance the item is not real.

I think the results of Operation Bullpen helped make authenticating autographs more stringent. More guidelines were put in place by authenticators and the reputable authenticators saw the need to promote these new guidelines to collectors.

The use of modern technology to authenticate items when they are originally signed was another result of Operation Bullpen.

That is what you have to do when something bad happens, whether it be in your personal life, profession, or hobby – you have to learn from the experience, make changes so it doesn’t happen again, and then move forward.

Even though the Hobby isn’t prefect, I believe it has learned from Operation Bullpen and it has moved forward.