Auction Figure

Comic-book mogul finally makes the big leagues

The price for the baseball had reached $1.4 million.
The man who would eventually buy it, for much more, is watching two videotapes which document the auction action from perspectives separated by three time zones.

One is a tape of a live CNN broadcast from inside Madison Square Garden, where a thousand spectators and a few serious bidders had gathered to witness the battle for the right to purchase the crown jewel of sports memorabilia.

The other tape was recorded on the same day, at the same time, in the same Tempe office where Todd McFarlane, 37, watches both recordings in synch.

The video made in his office on auction day stars McFarlane--the Valley's own comic-book artist, action-figure king, maverick multimillionaire and self-avowed "arrogant psycho"--seated in a high-backed leather chair, staring fiercely into a speaker phone.

"Go one-five," he said.
Moments later, on the CNN tape, a voice announced that the secret phone bidder had bumped the offering price for Mark McGwire's 70th home-run ball--his final of the 1998 season--to $1.5 million.

"Everybody dropped out right there except me and that tie guy," McFarlane recalls.

In the New York footage, that "tie guy," Manhattan necktie magnate Irwin Sternberg, raised a trembling hand. McFarlane of today watches the other screen, where McFarlane of six months ago dug his thumbs into his temples, then said:

"Hit him with one-seven."
The McFarlane of today says he was struggling not to dwell on the prospect of paying $2 million for a spheroid that, had it soared a few feet to the left of a foul pole, would have been simply a strike instead of a relic.

The home-run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa last summer was spellbinding not just for the supernatural focus and grace of the two hitters, but also the dilemma it presented to those fans who snagged the home-run balls once they left the field of play.

Once these fans emerged victorious from the inevitable scrum for possession of these pieces of history wrapped in rawhide and string, Major League Baseball security officers would descend and usher them to safety, where an MLB representative would offer them a deal: The fan could keep the ball, and potentially sell it for a lot of money, or he could give the ball back to McGwire or Sosa, in exchange for his handshake and one pair of season tickets.

The man who caught McGwire's 62nd home-run ball of the season--the one that broke Roger Maris' single-season record, set in 1961--gave it back to the St. Louis Cardinals slugger. He was pegged by some a virtuous hero and by others a silly fool.

Home-run balls are egalitarian in nature. They land in the cheap seats, the bleachers, not the pricey box seats ringing the infield or the luxury suites high above. The man who came up with McGwire's 64th home-run ball said he needed a car that didn't break down, and kept it to sell, as did the owners-by-chance of six of the eight home runs McGwire hit after breaking Maris' record.

On January 12, four McGwire balls, including the final, number 70, launched during his last at-bat of the season in Busch Stadium, went on the block.

McFarlane, a baseball nut since his Little League days and a man with money to burn since he founded what would become a business empire in 1991, intended to buy them all.

The auction began with the ball that established the new record, home run No. 70.

Predictions of its fetching price hovered at $1 million, and a pack of bidders rushed to hit that mark, then dwindled until only two remained: McFarlane, bidding by phone from his office in Tempe, and the tie guy, who was among the excited throng in Madison Square Garden.

McFarlane had the odd number.
He bid one-seven.
Sternberg, who said later he had sworn to his business partner he would bid no more than $1.4 million, bumped the bid to one-eight.

McFarlane bid one-point-nine.
"I could tell he was slowing down at this point," McFarlane says, watching the replay of the CNN broadcast. "I could tell he was in over his head."

The man seated in front of Sternberg turned around in his chair and appeared to encourage him.

"I heard told later what that guy said was, 'Christ, I'll give you the extra hundred thousand. Go for it!'" McFarlane says.

Sternberg raised his hand, indicating a bid of $2 million for the baseball.
On the CNN tape, the crowd explodes in cheers, celebrating the bloodlust of acquisition.

On the tape of McFarlane in his office, the cheers roared from the speaker phone, distorted into a long burst of white noise.

"At this point, I was like, 'Uh-oh, this guy's got a rush going. The crowd's behind him because he's in the same room, and I'm the bad guy because I'm the mystery man on the phone, and if he gets the ball, he's the hero,'" says McFarlane.

"He got his minutes of fame there, and it cost me. I think he stayed in a lot longer than he ever intended, just because he was caught in the moment."

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