A chunk of New York sports history stolen from Matt Merola, agent to the stars

The former agent of Tom Seaver, 85-year-old Matt Merola, was robbed on Tuesday in Manhattan. (AP)
The former agent of Tom Seaver, 85-year-old Matt Merola, was robbed on Tuesday in Manhattan. (AP)

NEW YORK — Somewhere in New York City today, there is a gold Rolex watch in the possession of some cowards who snatched it out of the hand of an 85-year-old man Tuesday afternoon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Inscribed on the back of the watch’s case are the numbers 41, 44, 30 and 12.

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Those numbers likely mean nothing to the people who stole the watch but everything to the man it was taken from. They were the uniform numbers worn by Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan and Bob Griese, all of whom were represented during their athletic careers by agent Matt Merola.

They presented Merola with that watch as a token of their esteem at his 70th birthday party, arranged by Mr. October himself. And if in the coming days you come across a Rolex watch with those distinguishing marks on its case, especially if you are a jeweler who is being offered it for purchase, call the cops ASAP.

That watch is stolen property and of the highest sentimental value to its former owner.

“Oh, f---,’’ Jackson said when informed about the robbery, which occurred approximately at 3 p.m. on E. 85th St., just steps from where Merola lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment.

“Son of a bitch,’’ said Jackson by phone on Wednesday, who was on assignment scouting minor-league teams for the New York Yankees. “I remember the night we gave Matt that watch, and how much it meant to him.’’

The theft was the cruelest kind of trick that can be pulled on an older person, especially one whose first instinct was to believe the best about people. As Merola was walking back to his apartment, a car pulled up next to him. A man was driving and a woman was sitting in the back seat. The driver rolled down his window and, feigning friendliness, told the elderly gentleman that he had the same watch and invited him over to the car to have a look.

“They seemed like nice people,’’ Merola told Yahoo Sports. “I was trying to think of where I might have known them from.’’

The driver took off his watch and handed it to Merola. Merola took off his watch and handed it to the driver. And before he had time to realize what was happening, the driver had tossed the priceless piece of sports history back to his female accomplice and sped off, leaving Merola with a cheap imitation in return.

“I just can’t believe anything like that could happen,’’ he said.

Fortunately, Merola was not injured in the attack but the psychic wounds he suffered cannot truly be measured. Friends describe him as “heartbroken’’ over the loss of an heirloom that truly never can be replaced.

According to Merola’s clients and friends, the guileless faith in the goodness of people that led to the robbery was perfectly in character. Jackson said he and Merola never had a written contract, nor was there ever a piece of paper binding any of Merola’s clients to him.

“I always told them, we don’t need a contract,’’ Merola said. “We operated on a handshake.’’

And for 50 years, that handshake has been good enough, and Jackson, Seaver, Ryan, Griese and Gale Sayers, another client, have remained Merola’s friends. He and Jackson speak on the phone regularly, and whenever Reggie is in New York, the two go to dinner at Elio’s, a neighborhood Italian restaurant where Merola eats several times a week.

“He’s there so often they should have a plaque for him on the wall,’’ said former New York Mets broadcaster Fran Healy, another longtime friend.

Former New York Yankees great Reggie Jackson waves to fans as he watches during practice Tuesday Feb. 24, 2009 in Tampa, Fla. (AP)
Former New York Yankees great Reggie Jackson waves to fans as he watches during practice Tuesday Feb. 24, 2009 in Tampa, Fla. (AP)

A year or so ago, Jackson, out of concern for Merola’s advancing age, convinced him to give up driving. It was the least he could do for the man who negotiated the deal for the “Reggie’’ candy bar. Merola also turned down the chance to represent Ryan in 1989, when the then-Houston Astro was negotiating the first $1 million-dollar salary ever given to a baseball player.

“You don’t need me for that,’’ Merola told him. “Just go in there, tell them what you want, and you’ll get it.’’ Ryan did and got a four-year deal. Merola never took a penny.

“These guys treat him like a brother, not an agent,’’ Healy said.

In recent years, one of Merola’s close friends arranged for him to receive Meals on Wheels. Not because he couldn’t afford to buy food, but because, like a lot of older people, he would sometimes neglect to -- or forget to -- eat.

Merola accepted the meals -- and then brought them outside and gave them to homeless people he found on the street.

Now, Merola needs someone to do a good turn for him. He turned over the bogus watch to the cops, hoping some fingerprints would turn up that would help identify the thieves. There’s also some hope that security cameras on the street caught the interaction and the license number of the car.

But there’s nothing that will expose the criminals faster than those four numbers on the back of that watch.

They’re numbers every New York sports fan is intimately acquainted with -- Griese’s No. 12 was also worn by Joe Namath, of course -- and hopefully, they’ll help reunite the watch to its rightful owner.

“He was just overwhelmed when we gave it to him,’’ Jackson said.

Imagine how he’ll feel when he gets it back.

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