Last year the focus was on the Cardinal, this year it is on the Pope.

The 20th anniversary National Sports Collectors Convention is set to begin July 19th at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Ga. and will run through July 25th.

The event is actually being held about two weeks earlier than last year's convention in Rosemont, Ill., just northwest of Chicago, when more than 34,000 paid customers visited the more than 900 exhibits at the convention. Sponsors say they expect both of those numbers to be exceeded at this year's convention.

The focus last year was on baseball, specifically Mark McGwire who was enroute to causing a national frenzy with his assault on Roger Maris' home run record. The St. Louis Cardinal first baseman wound up breaking the record and triggering a wild spending frenzy for McGwire items.

While the Cardinal was the center of attention last year, this year's event promises an even more unusual collector's item. A baseball autographed in 1987 by Pope John Paul II will be auctioned off on the third day of the convention, July 21. The bidding, according to Beckett Collectible Auctions, will start at $10,000 and begin at 8:30 p.m. at the Atlanta Hilton and Towers. Already, pre-bidding on items began last July 1. Beckett officials say the Pope John Paul II autograph is one of only three outside of the Vatican.

The "popeball" is part of Beckett's 50-lot auction which will also include a Babe Ruth game-used bat, Muhammad Ali fight robe, 1961 New York Yankees team signed baseball and a Michael Jordan autographed Upper Deck Game Jersey card. A Jordan game jersey sold for more than $23,000 at a live auction last year in Chicago.

McGwire-fever still hasn't died down, as the ball he hit 538 feet at the Seattle Kingdome in June, 1997, will also be auctioned off. It is expected to bring a big number because of the Kingdome's recent closing for baseball last month.

These national conventions and others held regionally around the country are often fueled by the name list of superstars willing to sign autographs. Orlando Cepeda, in the past fairly reclusive toward signings, will be among seven hall-of-famers who will be in attendance. Cepeda, the former Giant and Cardinal (there is that theme again) will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the following week in Cooperstown.

Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell will highlight the basketball celebrity guests.

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.