BEHIND THE OFFICES and cubicles decorated with famous sports photographs and autographed balls at Steiner Sports' New Rochelle headquarters is a back room stuffed with millions of dollars' worth of sports memorabilia. Scores of bats once used by Paul O'Neill, Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada and other Yankee stars are piled high on shelves. Mets travel bags sit in a mound in a corner. Clothing racks sag from the weight of game-used warm-up jackets and jerseys. Then there's the bucket on the floor with the Major League Baseball Authentication Program hologram and the label that says "Home Game #01, 4/3/2005, Red Sox @ New York Yankees.
" The bucket is three-quarters full of tan dirt, but for Steiner Sports and the Yankees, it is pure gold. For $99, Steiner will sell fans a framed collectible featuring their ticket stub, a replica lineup card from that game and a thin Lucite rectangle full of dirt from the Yankee Stadium pitcher's mound. "It's personalized, it's unique, it's something nobody else will have. It's a great way to commemorate your kid's first game," says Steiner Sports president Jared Weiss. "We've been maligned for selling dirt. But our dirt has been authenticated by MLB.
" All those cracked bats, scuffed travel bags and stained jerseys - not to mention the bucket of dirt - represent a new and growing source of revenue for sports clubs: More and more professional and college teams are selling their game-used equipment and other collectibles to fans, either directly through Web sites and team stores or through sports-memorabilia companies like Steiner Sports. "Following a team through the course of a season is a commitment - it's like having a girlfriend. People want something to show for it," says Steiner Sports chief executive officer Brandon Steiner, whose corporation has deals with 5,000 athletes and holds exclusive rights to create memorabilia for the Mets, Yankees and Syracuse University. Team officials agree that their fans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for their collectibles. "This is a way to make ourselves more available to more people," says associate Notre Dame athletic director Boo Corrigan, whose school is in the final stages of signing a deal with Steiner Sports. "This is one way we can keep people attuned to our program.
" Team executives say they're getting into the memorabilia business to protect their fans from the forged autographs and phony items that have turned collecting into a risky business. The FBI estimates that most of the autographed items on the market are forgeries. The FBI's ongoing investigation into sports memorabilia fraud, dubbed Operation Bullpen, has led to dozens of arrests and convictions - former heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner was among those arrested - since 1997. "We were finding unauthorized memorabilia on the market and it was leading to all kinds of issues and problems," says Yankee president Randy Levine. "There were forgeries. There were counterfeits. There were things we didn't want sold.
" There was also lost revenue: Many clubs that once simply threw away their old gear or donated it to charity have decided they want a slice of the $2-billion-a-year-and-growing collectibles industry. "It's got the potential to be a significant revenue stream," Notre Dame's Corrigan says. "It can help offset our costs for buying new equipment or to pay for scholarships.
" The NFL and many of its teams have offered game-used gear through their Web sites for years, with the proceeds going to charity. Madison Square Garden announced earlier this month that it was launching "Madison Square Garden Collectibles," a line that will include autographed photos, game-used Knicks, Liberty and Rangers jerseys, pieces of the Garden basketball court and other items fans can purchase at the Garden's Double Teamed store. Major League Baseball, however, has been the real pioneer in sports memorabilia. In January 2001, MLB launched its authentication program aimed at protecting collectors from rip-offs, says Noah Garden, baseball's executive vice president for commerce and sponsorship. Representatives from the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche attend scores of big-league games a year - usually games with potential milestones - and when the 500th home run or 3,000th hit is reached, they immediately attach a tamper-proof hologram with a nine-digit serial number to game-used items such as bases, bats, balls and jerseys. Deloitte & Touche officials also attend signing sessions, attaching their holograms to autographed pictures. "What we saw was that because people had absolute assurance it was authentic, they were willing to pay higher prices," says Dave Howard, the Mets' executive vice president of business operations. Every one of MLB's 30 teams is now peddling memorabilia, and most found there were limits to both supply and demand. Even with a 162-game season, there are a finite number of bats, bases and lineup cards to offer the public. There are an even smaller number of fans willing to spend $1,500 on Derek Jeter's World Series shoes or $2,000 for Pedro Martinez's locker room chair. Hoping to get more bucks for their bats and balls, the Yankees went into business with Steiner Sports before the 2005 season; the Mets followed suit this year. Steiner's 50,000-customer base that stretches from New England to Taipei made the team a natural partner for the Mets and Yankees. The deal with the Yankees isn't a huge money-maker for the club - Steiner says the team hasn't cleared seven figures annually yet - but he expects his company eventually will help the team, and its crosstown rivals, expand their memorabilia markets with reasonably priced ballpark collectibles. Even if they are made with dirt. "People want something that will help them connect to their favorite players and teams," Steiner says. "They want something that will feel closer to the great moments in sports."