NOT THAT LIFE was all bobby socks and shared malteds in the late 1990s, but it was a more innocent time. Back then our home run heroes were still larger than life, as opposed to just large, and baseball's establishment was blissfully unaware that players were consuming more chemicals than a Chinese agribusiness syndicate. (We believe you, Bud. Sure we do.) The quickest way to get wealthy, other than in a stock market that never went down? Catch a home run ball. During the glorious Summer of '98—you may remember Mark McGwire, who was still making public appearances then, advancing on Roger Maris's mark—the memorabilia market was gripped by irrational exuberance. Anyone with a chunk of historic horsehide could parlay it into life-changing riches. Big Mac's 62nd homer was thought to be worth $1 million before the Cardinals groundskeeper who snagged it gave it to McGwire for free. The record-setting 70th was gobbled up at auction by comic-book titan Todd MacFarlane for $3 million.
Times change, markets crash and, with enough steroid scandals and milestone turnover, even baseball collectors lose interest in exorbitant souvenirs. As Barry Bonds continues his ascent up Mount Aaron (he has 751 home runs, four shy of Hammerin' Hank), there's little buzz over the fate of the ball he swats for 756. The lucky ticket buyer or McCovey Cove kayaker who ends up with Bonds's 756th—he's on pace to hit it at home on Aug. 6—shouldn't expect a windfall. In May, Dallas-based memorabilia dealer Heritage Auctions announced it would pay $1 million for the ball, but the offer was withdrawn. The company said it was concerned about someone getting hurt in a scrum for the ball, but other experts suspect Heritage realized it had way overbid. The going appraisal has the ball worth, at most, half of what Heritage offered. "This is a $400,000 to $500,000 ball," says David Kohler, president and CEO of SCP Auctions. "Maybe 10 years ago it was a million dollar ball, but not today."
The value drop is due largely to Bonds himself—the steroids taint, the lingering possibility of a perjury or tax-evasion indictment, the toxic personality that turned off fans long before the drug accusations. There's even been a grassroots movement urging whoever winds up with number 756 to throw it back. Most Bonds memorabilia is a tough sell: His rookie cards, once worth as much as $60, now trade for around $20, and the ball he hit to pass Babe Ruth last year fetched only $220,100 on eBay. Even Mike Gutierrez, Heritage's consignment director, admits, "Barry Bonds isn't well liked."
Neither, it seems, are home run records, at least not like they were when McGwire and Sammy Sosa were after them. Milestone fatigue has set in, and rare is the day when someone is not joining a formerly exclusive club. This year alone Sosa has hit his 600th home run and Frank Thomas his 500th. By the end of September, Ken Griffey Jr. may have his 600th and Alex Rodriguez will definitely have his 500th. While Maris's 61 developed an aura of untouchability over 37 years, McGwire's single-season record lasted all of three years, until Bonds hit 73 in 2001. (MacFarlane bought that ball for $450,000.) "[Maris's record] was still folklore," says Gutierrez. "Now everyone's hitting home runs and there's no folklore."
Already, fans and collectors are looking to the end of Bonds's reign as home run king. Rodriguez, in his 14th season, is ahead of Bonds's career pace and looms as the Great Clean Hope, the steroid-free slugger who will take the crown from Bonds's ever-expanding head. "Whoever ends up with 756 should put it on the market as soon as possible because every home run after that will be the new record," says Kohler. "And if A-Rod breaks it, that will probably be worth more."
Anti-Barry sentiment aside, maybe this is a welcome return to sanity. Even MacFarlane has come to his senses: He freely admits he spent "way too much" on McGwire's 70th, which some collectors now value at less than $500,000. "The number of balls people will spend $1 million on is zero," he says. "I'm a freak, and I buy crazy stuff. If an auction house really offers one million and you have that ball, you run to that auction house."
The man MacFarlane enriched in 1998 feels the same way. Phil Ozersky, the Washington University genetics researcher who caught McGwire's 70th, was at Busch Stadium last Saturday when the Giants were in town. Ozersky, who pocketed $2.7 million after his auction-house commission, has traveled the world. He bought a big house in the St. Louis suburbs for himself and his wife and two children, and he has donated $250,000 to charity. "I benefited financially, but a lot of other people benefited too," he said. Ozersky's advice to whoever catches number 756? "Do what's right for you," he said. "I definitely am happy with what I did." That's good to know, but for better or worse, no fan may ever catch $2.7 million worth of happiness again.
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