Auction Figure

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."

The volley continued. Two-point-one million. Two-point-two. Three. Four. Viewing the tapes, a pattern becomes evident: Each time, Sternberg deliberated before bidding, waiting until the auctioneer announced, "Going once . . ."

Each time, he raised his hand at the last second, and the crowd roared. And each time, McFarlane immediately fired back, shouting into the speaker phone at one point, "I'm in! I'm in! Two-five!"

The young woman on the other end of the phone, who was working her first auction, couldn't hear him clearly over the cheers, McFarlane says.

"She was going, 'Are you in? Sir, do you wish to make another bid?' and I'm yelling back, 'Two-five, two-five,' because I knew I needed to get that bid in quick to make this guy think I was still in my comfort zone. Which I definitely was not."

This time, Sternberg waited until, "Going twice . . ." before he bid $2.6 million.

McFarlane immediately tacked on another hundred grand.
Finally, Sternberg backed down and let the gavel fall. Final price: $2.7 million.

McFarlane says he would have gone no higher than $2.9 million.
"Three million was the psychological barrier for me, although with commissions and fees it wound up coming in a few pennies over three anyway," McFarlane says.

McFarlane apparently scared off the competition for the remaining three McGwire balls; he acquired them with scant opposition for an additional $300,000 combined.

For the next four weeks, he kept his identity secret, preparing.
He spent a week at a Baltimore Orioles fantasy baseball camp in early February, then traveled to New York City for the American International Toy Fair, where he was to introduce several new lines of action figures based on the rock band KISS as well as characters from his top-selling comic-book series Spawn.

In a shrewd marketing flourish, McFarlane unmasked himself as the mystery bidder during a news conference in the lavish Plaza Hotel. The event garnered dozens of major newspaper articles and network television spots on the eve of the trade convention. McFarlane was self-deprecating before the cameras. He told the assemblage that buying the "Three Million Dollar Ball" and its lesser brethren had drained most of his life savings.

Asked about the banner behind him, which proclaimed the baseballs as "The McFarlane Collection," he replied, "It sounded better than 'The Guy With More Money Than Brains Collection.'"

In reality, McFarlane has plenty of both.
Since 1991, when he led a revolution within the comic-book industry (he and four other of Marvel's best young comic artists defected to form the first independent comic company ever to compete successfully with Marvel and DC), McFarlane has built an entertainment empire.

Forbes magazine recently estimated his wealth at $130 million, a sum that can easily survive a $3 million indulgence. Even so, McFarlane has already recouped most of that investment in the form of free advertising (one minute of commercial airtime during this year's Super Bowl also cost $3 million) for his Spawn comic books, action figures, movies and HBO series.

Plus, he gets to keep the baseballs.
After the auction, McFarlane continued buying up every McGwire and Sosa record-advancing home-run ball he could, until he cornered the market. "The McFarlane Collection" now holds all the balls save those given back to the hitters or donated to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

This summer, McFarlane took a museum-quality, multimedia display of his collection on a tour of ballparks around the nation. (The McFarlane Collection was displayed at Bank One Ballpark June 14-16.) The tour is a benefit for the ALS Association, a charity which combats amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease.

One of McFarlane's stipulations for the tour was that he be allowed to take 20 swings in pregame batting practice with every home team.

"Just a little taste of the dream," he says.
McFarlane played college ball for Eastern Washington University, then a season of semipro in Canada. He once got an invitation to spring training, but washed out in the first day.

He's practically morose on the subject.
"I guess ultimately, in that area of my life, I failed. That's the personal cross I have to bear. In that area, the one in which I most wanted to succeed, I wasn't good enough.  

"I go to a lot of games, and there's a lot of times when I sit there and think, 'Man, to play baseball in front of 30,000 people for a living.'

"Would I give it all up for that? You bet."
Sadly, yet obviously, McFarlane can't bid for home-run power and a second chance. But he can buy batting practice with the pros, as many fantasy baseball camps as his nerve-grinding schedule allows, and proof positive to the world that it is he who has the biggest balls of all.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address:

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