Someone might catch a baseball this weekend worth up to a million dollars, a baseball that carries more historical significance than any ball ever hit in this century-old game.
Baseball's historic home-run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa is a spectacle reviving the game, as well as serving as the ultimate PowerBall contest for the fans. The two sluggers, particularly McGwire, are now so close that any day now a fan could be in possession of one of the game's most revered artifacts - the record 62nd home-run ball.The catcher will then face the decision of either returning the ball to the record-setting batter or holding on to it and waiting for the bidding to start.
"That ball is like a winning lottery ticket," said Kevin Hallinan, baseball's executive director of security and facility management.
St. Louis' McGwire had 59 home runs heading into Friday night's home game against Cincinnati, and the Chicago Cubs' Sosa hit No. 57 Friday night to start a weekend series in Pittsburgh. The single-season record is 61, set by the New York Yankees' Roger Maris in 1961.
Some collectors have suggested the record ball's value could soar to somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. Not bad for a fan sitting in the cheap seats.
"This is not a normal situation. It's hard to put a figure on it, maybe $500,000 or more," said Barry Halper, a minority owner of the New York Yankees who owns the nation's largest private collection of baseball memorabilia, estimated to be worth $42 million.
The market might have been set a couple years ago when the owner of The Psychic Friends Network paid $500,000 for the baseball that Eddie Murray stroked for his 3,000th career hit. That ball's value pales in comparison to this one.
There already is a hard offer of $250,000 from the Shop At Home Network for home-run ball No. 62, but that might be the opening bid. CNBC was rumored to be preparing a megaoffer.
Officials for the shopping network said it would use the ball for "business purposes," then eventually donate it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Professional Sports Authenticator, of Newport Beach, Calif., will pay $10,000, and it doesn't even want the ball. That group just wants to "authenticate it," using coding and genetic markers to certify the ball, thus protecting future buyers or collectors against fraud.
Pepsi-Cola doesn't want the ball either but will give the lucky person a year's supply of its soft drink as a prize just for catching it.
The odds of being the one to come up with the baseball are better than winning a state lottery. All you have to do is attend a game either McGwire or Sosa plays, have the historic ball hit into your vicinity somewhere in the outfield seats (preferably left field, since both bat right-handed), fight off dozens of other would-be get-rich-quick schemers, then come out of the pile still breathing.
"Tom House, where are you when we need you?" added Hal-li-nan, referring to the former Atlanta Braves relief pitcher who caught Hank Aaron's historic 715th career home run in 1972 in the Fulton County Stadium bullpen. House then presented the ball to Aaron without bidding or hassle. The record-tying 714th ball, which tied Babe Ruth's record, was hit in Cincinnati one game earlier. It also was an easy recovery; Riverfront Stadium security guard Clarence Wil-liams quickly returned that one to Aaron. Aaron still owns 715, but has lent it to the Braves Museum at Turner Field.
Just being inside the stadium when the historic shot is launched will have benefits as well. Ticket stubs, the official ones printed by the team, could be valuable.
Ticket stubs for the game in which Maris hit his 61st home run to break Babe Ruth's record at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 1, 1961, are worth $1,200.
Other memorabilia, such as baseball cards, also are rising in value.
"A lot of people are asking about McGwire cards, mostly his rookie card," said Kim Larson at Lou's Sportscards in Bellevue. "Last December, a McGwire (rookie) card sold for $30. Right now, $135 is a very good deal, and I believe it's going to go up way more. A Sosa card, at the beginning of the year, you could not give away. It was probably $8. Now it's $25, and I believe it will go up way more."
Anything signed by McGwire has to be worth plenty, because he has not done a card show in more than 10 years and limits what he signs.
While money offers for souvenirs are coming from various sources, don't count on any from McGwire. "There is not a piece of memorabilia worth a dime," he said.
Halper, the New Yorker who would like the ball for his collection, also is among those who won't pay for it. Instead, he has offered to give McGwire a bat and uniform worn by Maris in exchange for the baseball. That's not likely.
"Frankly, I think the bat and the uniform are worth more," Halper added. "You can see the ball like any other ball, but a uniform is colorful, you can put it on a mannequin. You could pay a half-million for the uniform, if it's the only one used by the player. Some guys, when they know they're going to have a historic game, change uniforms every inning."
Officials at the Baseball Hall of Fame would love to have the ball but also won't pay for it. Jeff Idelson, executive director of public relations for the Hall, said its budget for buying historic artifacts "is zero. We do not have the financial wherewithal to compete in the open market."
This year's two-man home-run chase provides a scenario unlike any other. McGwire's and Sosa's exploits over the next four weeks could affect the value of each home-run ball after the record is broken.
"What if," Halper asks, "Sosa hits the (62nd) home run first? Then McGwire comes back and passes him? Which one is more valuable?"
That presents a decision for the catcher of the 62nd. Should he or she sell the ball quickly for the best offer or wait, knowing it is possible the ball ultimately will not represent the record? McGwire could hit another half-dozen after 62. Sosa could as well. Will all the home-run balls after No. 60 be valuable, and which one will be the most valuable?
"If, in fact, that's the case, where this continues after the 62nd home run, then we may want to continue," said security chief Hal-li-nan. "We pretty much have the plan in place."
Hallinan will have security in the outfield seats to make sure order is maintained. Also, he will keep people with reserved-seat tickets out of the bleacher sections, which is a switch. Generally, it's the bleacher bum who is denied entry into the uppity reserve sections. He also will make sure no one sits or stands in surrounding aisles.
Once the ball is hit into the section, ushers will let the fans sort out who finally maintains possession. Then that fan will be swept from the area and the ball will be certified. The Commissioner's Office is considering marking the balls with an infrared code to ensure greater authenticity.
Baseball has never seen anything like this. This is all too crazy.
"Oh, yeah, it's crazy," said Sharon Pannozzo, the Cubs' media-relations director, "but it's a fun crazy."