To have and to hold or gold?

Baseball: Don't go to an O's game without your glove. Cal Ripken's next shot into the stands should be worth a lot of money.

July 27, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Cal Ripken Jr.'s 400th home run could happen tonight, or tomorrow night, but whenever he airmails the homer into the stands, the fan who ends up with the ball will have more than just a piece of history.

The fan will have an ethical dilemma.

Do you 1. give it to Ripken or the Orioles in exchange for a few trinkets -- the right thing to do in some circles? -- or do you, 2. catch the next Metroliner to a New York City auction house and start yelling, "Show me the money!" -- a gesture more in keeping with these big buck, merger and acquisition, millionaires-by-the-bucketful days?

Charity and generosity, or greed? It's anyone's guess. This much is certain, selling the ball will put you in a higher tax bracket.

"My guess would be a good opening bid on the 400th would be $100,000," says Ken Goldin of Goldin Sports Marketing and Licensing in Marlton, N.J. The company distributes Ripken material to cable's home shopping network QVC. "I'm talking about opening bid. That is where I would start the bid."

Anything goes in the auction house. A certain madness takes hold. Prices soar beyond the range of most collectors.

"There's crazy people paying all kinds of money," says Jim Butler, manager of Arundel Cards and Coins, a local memorabilia shop. "Auction fever gets people."

Millionaires and corporations are stepping in and picking up the choice collectibles. A few years ago bidding on the ball that went through Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series started at $8,000. Hundreds of hands went up, small fry who didn't know they were in deep water. The ball went to Charlie Sheen, an actor with a fat wallet. He paid $93,500.

Of course, things haven't improved for the little guy. The collectible market just kept getting crazier and crazier. The first homer at Yankee Stadium, courtesy of Babe Ruth, sold at auction last year for $126,500. Sammy Sosa's final home run ball of last season sold for $172,500.

Then there's the anomaly, $3 million for Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball.

"You can only use history as a guideline and that's a little erratic these days because the price paid for the McGwire ball was so far out of sight," says Marty Appel, spokesman for Leland's, one of the country's largest sports memorabilia auction houses. "Obviously, the market is looking to find its level."

No one can predict the market's comfort zone. That would be like guessing the stock market's peak. You just end up embarrassed. Leland's sold the uniform Lou Gehrig wore on Lou Gehrig Day, July 4, 1939, for $451,000 at a recent auction.

So, sure, you could follow the ball to Manhattan, but you'd probably go home with the cash still burning in your pocket.

"What you're seeing now is there are a lot of corporations and businesses that are spending these huge amounts of money," say Bill Kulick, who does appraisals for the Babe Ruth Museum. "It's whatever the market is bearing. ... No one thought that Eddie Murray's 500th home run ball would be worth a half a million."

If you don't get the 400th home run ball, there's a bigger prize waiting. Cal's 3,000th hit could be worth $250,000.

Pub Date: 7/27/99

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