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The modern sports groupie is both high-tech and old-fashioned

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) NEW YORK Chicago at the moment is swarming with millionaires - you can hear the sound of platinum credit cards brushing against mahogany - and Sheila Dent is on the prowl.

She emerges from a top-end hair salon, fingering the spun gold extensions that have literally been sewn, like delicate embroidery, into her scalp. They cost $3,000, and they are fine. The shoes are Manolos, 4-inch daggers that cause her calves to twitch, the skirt is centimeters away from danger and the silicone has been paid in full by a very famous baseball player who is at this very moment napping in a hotel on the higher end of Michigan Avenue.

"I could afford them myself," Dent said of her new breasts. "But he owed me. I'm ready to trade up." In ballplayers, she means.

Dent is a trust-fund baby, college-educated, a self-advertised modern-day Gloria Steinem. She travels in limousines, stays at the Four Seasons and generously finances her girlfriends so they might accompany her on these pleasure hunts. Debby Johnson, Dent's best gal, is in major-league debt, owing nearly six figures to the banks, but a girl's got to support her habit. She has taken goddess classes, developed a mean swing in the Chelsea Pier batting cages, teaches fitness training and is so beautiful it is frightening.

Her body is adorned with gifts from two big-time sports studs: diamonds in her ears, and an emerald bracelet on her right ankle that skims a tattoo of the number 49. Why 49? "It was his high school number," she says. "He changed it when he made it out of Double A."

He is playing tonight across town in the All-Star game. His wife, parents and three children will be in prime box seats, where the TV cameras can capture their adorableness. Johnson and Dent have mapped out their own seats, at the team's hotel bar, where later, when the perfect family is tucked away, there will be no danger of running into the missus.

They are predators, they are dreamers. They are two women in their early 30s who met in a baseball chat room, kindred spirits discovering they shared a single-minded pursuit.

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Connoisseurs of sports and sex are hardly new phenomena; the choreographed bump-and-grind can be traced to Maximus' bedsheets. Wilt Chamberlain and his tales of 20,000 women pushed the dance into the public domain, and now we barely go a minute without hearing about some athlete and his unchecked zipper.

The modern sports groupie is both high-tech and old-fashioned, generally abiding by ground rules not of their making. It's a world where wives are conditioned to look the other way, where adultery is condoned, where women are taught that dating a powerful male athlete is a noble achievement.

Player culpability, an athlete's responsibility, is often a lost art. Jeremy Shockey, the Giants' tight end, ratted out his married teammates when he told Maxim magazine that some had girlfriends in other cities - a claim his teammates were quick to shout down.

Dent plops herself onto a bar stool. Half a bottle of Shiraz later, the game ends and there is a rustle in the Westin lobby. Dent thinks she has it all figured out: She has turned men into sexual objects, into her little trophies.

"Deb was the first one who didn't judge me," says Dent. "I offered to help pay for some of her trips. We look out for each other `cause it can be rough out there, you know?"

___

The risk for both parties goes much deeper than getting caught. There are communicable diseases, planned and unplanned pregnancies, consensual encounters that turn violent, false accusations that become dowries. Lives are ruined, zipper by zipper.

One blackmail scam in recent years involved a con man who hired attractive women. They would meet baseball players in a bar, lure them to a hotel room and slip them a drug that would render them unconscious.

"Then," says an FBI agent who investigated the ring, and lectures players about it during spring training, "she'd open the door for her co-conspirator, they'd undress the player and take pictures of him in what we call compromising positions with other men. The player wakes the next day - other than a headache, he has no idea what happened."

Until the manila folder arrives in the mail. One Yankee confirms details offered by the FBI agent: Inside the folder are copies of the photos, and a typed letter saying they will be distributed to gossip columns unless $250,000 is sent to a certain bank account. "I think the guys pay the money and pretend it never happened," says the Yankee, who did not want to be identified.

___

The NBA, a high-octane synergy of moneyed athletes and hip music, would be the envy of Caligula, especially during All-Star week, when the host city is awash in perfume and pheromones. Even lonely winters on the road offer b-ballers afternoon delights, as Clippers forward Elton Brand discovered. He checks in under aliases, but anonymity is an easy code to crack for those with a purpose.

"I'm in my hotel room, relaxing, when this woman calls. She was like, `I see you're coming to my city in March. I want to make a date.' Damn. I don't even know her, and she's looking three months ahead for a hookup," says Brand.

There is another woman, he says, who has taken devotion to a higher, more frightening level. She sends mountains of faxes and E-mails, detailing intimate desires and threats. The authorities are involved, he says; maybe she'll just go away.

Steven Ortiz, assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University, has studied the culture of groupies and its primary enabler - male entitlement.

" `Groupie' is a male term used to objectify, sexualize, subordinate or stigmatize women in the hypermasculine world of male sports," says Ortiz, who has interviewed the wives of 48 professional athletes for a book he is writing.

"Being with a celebrity provides entry to a world that is otherwise off-limits," says Ortiz. "There are some women who are so desperate to be a part of these worlds that they will often allow themselves to be treated like sex objects."

Men who obsessively follow female athletes are generally referred to, simply, as stalkers, and according to law enforcement officials, are far more likely to be treated unkindly. Two WNBA players have restraining orders against male fans. Female tennis players - including Serena Williams and Martina Hingis - attract a fair share of psychotic Lotharios.

Meanwhile, the women get more daring in their pursuits.

___

Sitting in front of his locker at Shea, Cliff Floyd nods toward the floor, where an ankle-high stack of correspondence remains unopened. "Pictures so explicit, I don't even want to tell you about them," he says. "I get maybe 20 a month. Some guys might respond. They rationalize it, like she might be a future wife. Sure. She might also be a stalker and drug you and do whatever."

He no longer tells his girlfriend about the, um, fan mail. "We both know the trust level has to begin at 100 percent," he says, "and that's where I plan to keep it."

Some female fans have innocent infatuations, harmless hobbies. There are, for instance, several women who have trailed Todd Zeile from team to team. They share pictures on Web sites devoted to all things Todd and, during batting practice, wave license plates proclaiming their love.

From her home in California, Nikki, a self-proclaimed Zeilot, says she has followed Todd since his days as a Dodger "because he is truly one of the nicest people I've ever met. Todd does not disappoint the fans."

The adoration is minuscule compared with the high heat aimed at some of Zeile's former Yankee teammates.

"The money, the exposure - there's a strange dynamic surrounding celebrities," says Zeile, who recently signed with the Expos. "The more unaccessible you become, the more aggressive people are in trying to get near you. Especially this team. You can see they try to keep a safe distance from the fans."

___

It is a Sunday afternoon in Boston, Zeile is still a Yankee. The Bombers are the first of any professional sports team to employ two ex-cops as full-time security guards. On the road, the club has explicit deals with five-star hotels in which rules for other guests are laid out, including no cameras in the lobby.

"People check into our hotel assuming they have the right to have access to the players," says Jerry Levering, director of team security. "There are a few of our very popular players who refuse to go out at night. We have the standard pool of groupies - men and women - that follow us from city to city. I recognize who they are and make sure they're not a threat to the players."

The Yankee caravan is surrounded by an impenetrable ring of force, but there are at least 300 fans blocking the sidewalks that circle the Ritz.

"You'd think the Beatles were in town," says one Yankee. He does not know it, but Ringo Starr, incognito in a baseball cap, has just walked through the lobby, unrecognized. Outside, a pudgy man wearing a Jeter shirt tramples two kids so he can pound on the team bus. A woman, her mascara running in sticky rivulets, her yellow hot pants as sheer as gossamer, says she paid $500 for a room the night before - not that it did any good.

"I even asked the room service waiter to help me out, but he refused," says the woman, who gives her name as Jill. "I had a list of guys I would have settled for."

As the bus pulls away from the curb, leaving crying, sweating, delirious fans in its fumes, Jill leans against a pole and admits she has trained diligently for this sort of moment. At the University of Maryland, where she majored in finance, she was a Black-Eyed Susan - a name for the hostesses who help the school recruit potential athletes. It's very important, explains Jill, to have life goals. "Guaranteed," she says, "in five years I'll be married to a Yankee."

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