Are collectors about to go through déjà vu regarding baseball's new found love affair with the home run?
Maybe and maybe not.
Last year the race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to eclipse Roger Maris' home run record was the biggest story of the year for collectors and baseball fans alike. It also triggered an unbelievable market for memorabilia of both the St. Louis and Cubs' stars, particularly for the home run balls they walloped in pursuit of Maris. The $3 million-plus paid for McGwire's 70th home run ball has set a new standard in terms of what collectors would be willing to pay for what they perceive to be a priceless item.
But a South Bend, Ind., private collector asked me last week if the McGwire-Sosa collections would be devalued in what he called "the unlikely event either hits 71 home runs this year." My answer was a simple one: "yes."
Not even the most ardent fan of McGwire or Sosa items would have predicted a rerun in 1999 of the 1998 home run chase.
Truth is, it's been pretty much a Sosa affair this year with McGwire trailing the Cubs' outfielder for most of the season. E ntering the all-star break, Sosa was the National League leader while another unlikely hero - Jose Canseco of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - was matching Sosa home run for home run.
Right behind was Ken Griffey, Jr., of Seattle, the forgotten man in last year's homer histrionics. Griffey, you will recall, hit 56 last year, which in a normal season would have caused a run on any memorabilia involving the Mariners' center fielder. But because he wasn't caught up in the McGwire-Sosa media whirlpool, his accomplishment was generally ignored.
If there is to be another run at the record, collectors should bank the most on Sosa for several reasons, the most notable is he is the youngest of the lot and has been less prone to injury than McGwire, Griffey and Canseco in his career. Sosa didn't catch on fire until June of last year, and by the Fourth of July baseball benchmark, he had swatted 33 home runs, just about where he is this year.
McGwire, however, is considerably behind last year's record pace. Through July 4th of last season, the Cardinals' first baseman had belted 37 home runs, about one-third more than he has hit this year.
Sosa also plays in the most favorable ballpark for another home run assault. When the wind is blowing out, Wrigley Field is the most conducive park in the majors toward multiple home run games. In the past, Griffey could have enjoyed a similar "home field" advantage in the cozy confines of the Kingdome. But that archaic structure is past history for Griffey and Seattle, who move into a new outdoor facility July 15th after the all-star break that is much more pitcher-friendly. As a result, Griffey's home run numbers, particularly at home, are likely to suffer.
Canseco will still be playing his home games at an indoor park at Tropicana Field in St. Pete, but it is hardly the home run haven that either Wrigley or the Kingdome has been. As far as McGwire is concerned, Busch Stadium, even with its fences moved in, can be a tough home run park for anyone, particularly as the heat and humidity of the St. Louis summers' are factored into the equation.
For the Cubs and Sosa, they will play nearly two-thirds of their post-All-Star break games at home. Unfortunately for Sosa, he won't be facing his own team's horrific pitching, or otherwise he could hit 90 home runs. But with the Cubs likely to fall out of the division and wild card race, Sosa will enjoy something that helped McGwire last year.
St. Louis was out of the post-season race early, meaning they weren't in as many tight games, and opponents could afford the luxury of pitching to McGwire. Sosa didn't have that last year, as the Cubs were competitive all year and earned the wild card berth (which made his 66 home runs even all the more impressive). If the Cubs continue to stumble, teams will not be afraid to pitch to Sosa in the second half, giving him plenty of fast balls to try to knock into the stratosphere.
The likelihood that any of the sluggers reaching the new standard of 70 is small, and even if any of them, including Sosa, make a run at the mark it isn't likely to cause the same nationwide fascination of a year ago.
Randy Minkoff is a former reporter, writer, editor and author, with more than three decades of journalism experience and a unique combination of both print and broadcasting. Minkoff is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, and Crain's Chicago Business. He has been syndicated nationally as a radio/TV critic and has also written a weekly column for the Daily Herald. He is the author of Ron Santo; For Love of Ivy, the biography of the former Cub third baseman and his battle against diabetes. A native of St. Louis, Mo., he is a graduate of Drake University School of Journalism.