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Bids to start for Nos. 755, 756

August 28, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Matt Murphy didn't know how many friends he had until he emerged from a scrum at AT&T Park in San Francisco on Aug. 7 with his Mets jersey ripped and bloodied -- but with Barry Bonds' record-breaking home run ball No. 756 firmly in his grip.

That's when Murphy began to understand that there's nothing quite like owning a piece of baseball history. Except, perhaps, selling it.

Within hours of catching the history-making ball that could fetch $500,000 during an online auction that begins today, the 21-year-old Queens, N.Y., college student was hit with a barrage of phone calls, e-mails, text messages and knocks on his door.

Murphy, who had stopped in San Francisco while traveling to Australia for a vacation, was besieged by "about 50 financial consultants, 50 lawyers and others who said they were working on my behalf -- without me even knowing about it.

"Some were family members of people I used to know, but haven't heard from in a long time," said Murphy, who subsequently hired an agent from the William Morris Agency to sort through offers from new and rediscovered friends.

Murphy said that it didn't take long to determine that selling the newly minted piece of baseball memorabilia made more sense than finding space for it on the mantle. Murphy will pay an estimated 35% tax bill on his share of the proceeds. He agreed before the game to divide any profit from the ball's sale with a buddy who accompanied him to the game and had made a reciprocal promise to share the wealth.

Still, Murphy expects to have more than enough to pay down a few small debts, buy a car and, perhaps, put money down on a house. "It won't be squandered," Murphy said.

But he'll have to wait a couple of more weeks to learn what he'll clear from selling the bit of history.

Mission Viejo-based SCP Auctions has negotiated exclusive rights to auction off No. 755, the ball that Bonds hit to tie Hank Aaron's home run record, and No. 756, the ball that broke Aaron's record. SCP and Sotheby's, its New York-based partner, will today begin an auction that runs through Sept. 15. The firms expect the price tag for No. 756 to reach $500,000.

"That's what I said before the home run record was broken and I still think that it's going to happen," said David Kohler, SCP president and chief executive. "Granted, we have a vested interest, but there are a lot of people talking about these balls."

What the balls will fetch is up in the air, in large part because of continued but unproven allegations of steroid use by Bonds. Longtime collector, broker and memorabilia show operator Mike Berkus, for example, reported widespread apathy among collectors during the National Sports Collectors Convention that was underway in Cleveland as Bonds closed in on Aaron's record.

Typically, Berkus said, collectors would have been clamoring for related memorabilia as the record was challenged, "but not a single person, be it a dealer, auction house operator, consumer, collector or fan among the thousands we came into contact with ever mentioned the name Barry Bonds."

Collectors also have reason to balk at paying a premium for either ball because Bonds has continued to hit home runs. The San Francisco Giants slugger hit No. 761 Friday and plans to play in 2008. The uncertain market, however, didn't stop sports auction houses from courting the lucky guys who caught the baseballs.

"They're good and they're quick," Murphy said. "They can find out where you are, your phone number and how to reach you. I don't know how they do it."

Adam Hughes, a 33-year-old La Jolla plumber who caught No. 755 at Petco Park on Aug. 4, said that he made a few telephone calls, including one to Sotheby's, that led to a meeting with Kohler. "The Padres and the Baseball Hall of Fame also expressed some interest," Hughes said.

The brochure that SCP recently mailed to collectors, which apparently was published prior to SCP winning rights to the record-breaking ball, lists a $60,000 minimum bid for No. 755. But auctioneers and collectors said that SCP also has an unpublished reserve that could soar to $300,000 or more. The minimum bid serves simply as a starting point, but collectors said that SCP and Sotheby's won't sell the item if it fails to reach the reserve. If that happens, the firms would pull the balls from action and try to auction them at a later date.

Collectors who've bid on items in the past acknowledge that it's difficult to determine prices because an avid fan -- or a person seeking publicity from winning one of the balls -- could push the price sky high. "All it takes is two guys who want the same thing," said one memorabilia collector.

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