A friend once explained the sports writing business this way: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”
Martin Mauricio Ortega was OK with the first part, but apparently not the second.
The one-time Mexican media executive and part-time memorabilia seller is the only suspect named so far in the overheated investigation into who stole Tom Brady’s Super Bowl jersey. When news broke, I figured it was the same guys accused of deflating his footballs, trying to make a buck after all the trouble that stunt caused them.
There’s already plenty of damning video out there, much of it helpfully provided by NFL broadcast partner Fox . Clips show someone who looks like Ortega walking into the New England Patriots locker room after the game at NRG Stadium in Houston, then walking out almost 15 minutes later with a black plastic bag under his arm.
Maybe more damning still, Ortega spent the week leading up to the game showing off his collection of autographed helmets and jerseys up and down Media Row. He wasn’t even pretending to work.
Small wonder his co-workers were among the first to rat him out.
“He said that he was not there to work: ‘There are people to do that,'” recalled Ariel Velazquez, who covered the game for another Mexican daily.
Ortega worked as a director and occasional columnist for the popular tabloid La Prensa, and was credentialed by the NFL since at least 2005. That may explain how authorities who raided his home also solved the mystery of the disappearance of another of Brady’s jersey from the 2015 Super Bowl and what is believed to be Denver defender Von Miller’s helmet from the 2016 game.
By the time there was a knock at Ortega’s door, the Houston police, Texas Rangers and even the FBI – along with their Mexican counterparts – had joined the gumshoes from the NFL and the Patriots’ security departments in looking for him.
If that sounds like much to-do over a few glorified T-shirts and hard hats, well, you don’t know much about the sports souvenir trade. Brady’s game-worn, grass-stained 2016 model is valued at a cool half-million.
Yet what vexed Lone Star State law-enforcement officials even more than the five-finger discount was that it happened at a danged football game, regarded by many of the locals as no less sacred a place than a church.
“It is important that history does not record that it was stolen in Texas,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick thundered in a statement soon after the jersey disappeared.
“Whoever took this jersey” he cautioned at the end, “should turn it in. The Texas Rangers are on the trail.”
If only someone had thought of that back in 2005, when Russian president Vladimir Putin asked Patriots owner Robert Kraft for a look at his Super Bowl ring before deftly slipping it into his pocket. It hasn’t been seen outside of the Kremlin since.
Whether all that tough talk actually had an impact on this case isn’t known. Some facets of the investigation remain hush-hush. A Mexican government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, the official said only an agreement was reached for an unspecified victim in the U.S. not to press charges in exchange for the jersey’s return.
From what we’ve learned about him thus far, though, Ortega was no wilting rose.
He ordered La Prensa staffers back in Mexico City to cover for him by writing at least six Super Bowl stories under his byline. He showed another reporter a jersey signed by Kurt Warner that he said he planned to sell back to the 2000 Super Bowl MVP for a tidy $8,000 sum.
Ortega also talked with a Denver deal about auctioning off a jersey worn by the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing and cleats from San Francisco superstar Jerry Rice. Media reports said his basement was full of similar stuff. Perhaps hoping to head off any more questions about his collection, Ortega resigned from La Prensa on March 14, citing “difficulties related to the health of a family member” and dropped out of sight.
It’s a sad story, to be sure, but there’s still hope of a happy ending.
If nothing else, the whole episode reminded us that Brady, who works like a dog and gets paid like a sultan, is worth every penny. After a frantic search of his locker turned up no jersey and no clues, he didn’t pitch a fit. He coolly said he’d keep an eye out for it on eBay, then shrugged and added, “What can you do? I’ll take the ring and that’s good enough for me.”
Then, when he learned the jerseys were headed his way, Brady released a statement thanking the cops involved and vowing to “make something very positive come from this experience.”
We assume that means he keeps the shirts and some charities will benefit handsomely. Hard to come up with a more fitting conclusion than that.