Sports memorabilia collectors aren't exactly looking ahead with rabid enthusiasm to Barry Bonds' record 756th home run ball hitting the auction market.
Now that Bonds has passed Henry Aaron's career home run mark, memorabilia dealers are resigned to the reality that the historic ball won't be worth nearly what they would have expected a few years ago. And steroid suspicions, which have cast a pall over the accomplishments of the recent crop of home run hitters, are only part of the story.
A market that was already bubbling over thanks to the dizzying pre-steroids hype that surrounded the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase of Roger Maris' single season home run record in 1998 has crash-landed with a loud thump.
The $3 million that McGwire's 70th home run ball fetched that year is now estimated at less than a million. The fastball that Bonds smashed over the fence in right center field at AT&T Park for career homer No. 756 figures to go for about $500,000, according to auction house experts. That's far less than what they would have guessed a few years ago, not to mention $150,000 below what Aaron's 755th went for in the mid-'90s.
The Bonds ball was retrieved by Matt Murphy, a 22-year-old from Queens, New York. Experts say that if he wants to make maximum bank on it, the time to sell is now. As Bonds' retirement nears, speculation will rest on what number homer will be his last. And that ultimate record ball will hold the most long term value, just as Aaron's 755th homerun ball outweighs his 715th, the one that broke Babe Ruth's record.
"When fans figure out it'll end at say, 789, that's the ball to own," says Doug Allen of Mastro Auctions, the biggest sports auction house in the U.S. The expected pursuit of Bonds' record by Alex Rodriguez, according to Allen, isn't a big factor in the value of the 756th ball right now, given that Rodriguez is still 256 homers away. But as he creeps closer over the next few seasons, the Bonds' ball could drop in value. All the more reason for Murphy to get the ball to the highest bidder immediately.
As for lending the ball out to a museum while maintaining ownership, it may be a nice public gesture, but it's not an attractive financial option. Historically, the public just hasn't paid a premium to see collectibles under glass, at least not enough to generate a residual for the lender.
That doesn't mean money can't be made from bats and balls from the recent homer-happy era. But bids figure to come from aggressive investors willing to bet that the market will eventually rebound. To some, the late-'90s hype over home runs had the market overheating, leading to the $3 million sale of McGwire's historic ball.
A few years later, steroid hysteria sent the market on a downward spiral. The question now is whether it's spiraled too much, and whether the passage of time will bring a different perspective, placing the value of Bonds and McGwire's accomplishments somewhere in between the levels of nine years ago and today.
"Once the dust settles, Bonds still goes down as the dominant player of his era. Even without steroids he was going to hit 600 home runs," says Allen. At this year's All-Star Game, he notes, the ball Bonds hit for his 749th career homer was auctioned off with an estimated value of $4,000 from which to start bids. It got no takers. That's negative overkill, according to Allen.
"I said I would have paid $4,000 or $5,000 in a second," he says.