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A bright outlook for Bonds futures

Hint of scandal may hold memorabilia prices down for now, but memories fade

August 09, 2007|Alana Semuels and Andrea Chang | Times Staff Writers

A lot of collectors are balking at paying big money for Barry Bonds memorabilia right now, but wait 100 years or so. By then the whiff of scandal so conspicuous today won't hurt sales of gear connected to the most unloved slugger in baseball. It might even help.

Think Shoeless Joe Jackson or Ty Cobb and imagine how distant generations might regard the allegedly surly, ostensibly fan-unfriendly, steroid-rumor-tainted San Francisco Giant -- but don't do it around Sally Levine, co-owner of Memory Lane, a memorabilia store in Manhattan Beach.

"We're tired of him," Levine said. "We want him to go away. And now the record's gone, maybe he will."

Bonds hasn't been very good for business. Levine had a framed and autographed Bonds baseball bat in stock for 2 1/2 years. It started out at $1,895; she unloaded it a few months ago for $995.

"It was like having an autographed O.J. Simpson photograph," Levine said.

She wasn't impressed by Bonds' besting Hank Aaron's career home run record Tuesday night, hitting No. 756 in the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals, though some collectors were. The average selling price for a piece of Bonds memorabilia on EBay shot up more than 600% after he belted the record-breaker out of AT&T Park, the online auction house said, to $378.20.

But experts said serious buyers of sports stuff weren't expected to bid prices up as they have for other record setters.

On Wednesday, for example, Bonds' gem mint rookie trading card was worth about $40, according to Beckett Media, which tracks sports memorabilia values and sales. The asking price for Mark McGwire's rookie card climbed into the hundreds of dollars after he set a season home-run record of 70 in 1998. (The value of McGwire mementos fell sharply in the eyes of collectors after he failed to answer questions about steroid use during a 2005 hearing before Congress.)

The ball McGwire hit sold for $3 million. Bonds eclipsed McGwire's season record in 2001 with 73.

So what about Bonds' home-run record ball? Should the man from New Jersey who caught it put it on the market?

"Notoriety -- good or bad -- can sell things," said T.S. O'Connell, editor of baseball hobby magazine Sports Collectors Digest.

It just might take some time.

Joe Jackson, one of the best known members of the Chicago "Black Sox" team accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, is revered by collectors today, according to Grant Sandground, senior price guide editor at Beckett Media. Ditto for Cobb, a Hall of Famer whose reputation as a racist and misogynist with a volatile temper lives on.

Sometimes honesty is the best policy. The volume of trade in Jose Canseco cards increased after the publication of "Juiced," his account of his use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone.

When a tainted sports star accepts responsibility, Levine said, memorabilia sales don't suffer. She pointed to former Cincinnati Reds All-Star Pete Rose, who in 2004 admitted to betting on baseball games and is ineligible for the Hall of Fame.

"Yes, Pete's guilty, but he's also going out and trying to remedy his situation," she said. "He's taking it like a man."

Rose's 1963 Topps rookie card sells for $1,000.

There's hope for Bonds keepsakes.

"The current day-to-day events can change the price of the memorabilia, but once you get to an item that's 50 or 100 years old, there's no current event that's going to affect the price," said Jared Weiss, president of Steiner Sports, a manufacturer of sports collectibles in New Rochelle, N.Y. "It just becomes about acquiring a piece of history."


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