The Man With the Million Dollar Balls

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Stan Honda / AFP / Getty

Todd McFarlane holds Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball. McFarlane bought the ball for $2.6 million.

Back in 1998, It seemed crazy when Todd McFarlane — a brilliant but eccentric comic-book artist turned action-figure mogul — paid $3 million for the ball Mark McGwire hit for his then record-breaking 70th home run. It seemed even crazier when he paid about $500,000 for Barry Bonds's record-breaking 73rd home run ball in 2003. Steroids scandals were by then casting shadows over home run records, and McFarlane was riding the memorabilia market down. But it doesn't seem so crazy now that McFarlane Toys is the official distributor of action figures for all four major American sports. McFarlane also has individual deals with Bonds as well as outspoken Bonds critic Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox. And he credits his baseball collection with opening the doors that helped him land those deals.

Now that Bonds has set a new record, 46-year-old McFarlane is getting his checkbook ready. But he says 756 is not even close to a million-dollar ball, and is not his primary target. Before Bonds hit his record-breaking homer, McFarlane talked with Michael Grunwald about the ball he really wants, what he really thinks about Bonds, and his love of the chase.

TIME: At your press conference in New York after the McGwire auction, you said you were the guy with more money than sense. I guess you had a bit more sense than you were letting on.

McFarlane: Well, the McGwire ball bought me some meetings. People tend to equate money with success: Hey, that guy spent $3 million for a baseball! Bring him in! It's like buying into a poker table. But then it's what you do once you're at the table. Anyway, I could have spent the money on a couple of Super Bowl commercials, but you think anybody would still be asking about them years later?

So, are you fired up about Number 756?

No, the ball that's interesting to me is the last one Barry hits. That becomes the new number they print in the record books. 756 is cool, but 62 was cool when McGwire hit it, and I put my money on 70. This one is a pretty good ball. It's a helluva-story ball. It's a conversation-starter ball. But it's not the ball. If you're going to spend gobs of money, why not wait until the end?

Does the steroids controversy matter?

It matters to some people. Does it matter to me? Not really. I try to take the emotion out of this. We're in the eye of the storm of this controversy. But I'm thinking 20 years in the future, this doesn't matter. You can bellyache all you want, public: it's still going to be in the record book. Get over it! It doesn't matter what you think; what matters is what is. There's not going to be an asterisk. There's going to be a number in a book. I know people who don't think Bush was really elected president, but there he is. You don't have to accept it personally. He'll still be in the history books.

But if people think Bonds is a cheater, will that hurt the value?

I believe Barry is our current-day Ty Cobb. People didn't like Cobb for various reasons. He's sort of notorious. But 80 years later, notorious is cool. His memorabilia is going up. Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher of his day, but what do we know about him? What do we know about Cy Young except for the trophy? What do we know about Eddie Collins? They were nice guys — and it's too hard to write books about nice guys. Fifty years from now, Bonds is going to be the cool badass dude. The future generations are going to say: Why does Grandpa get a bleeding ulcer every time I mention his name? Eventually, we get away from the emotion. Right now I hope it gets me a cheap price.

That press conference was eight years ago, but I seem to remember that you had plenty of emotion. You were a huge sports fan.

Well, yeah, this wasn't just about drawing attention to my business. I've got two brothers, and I got to give them bleeding ulcers: Hey, I got the ball! That's the fun part, the immature part: You get to be a boy in a man's body. Hmm: Who's got the McGwire ball? Why, that would be me. Who's got the Bonds ball? Uh, me again! I can't hit all these homers, but isn't that kind of cool? That's the warped logic that gets me through the day.

What do you think of Bonds?

I told him, Bar, do not give your enemies the satisfaction of coming three home runs short. Go one past the record, then quit. Then whatever your critics say, whatever four-letter word they use to describe you, it's still Barry Bonds, four-letter-word all-time-homer-king... You know, my son asked me if Barry cheats. I said, well, everybody's got an opinion. You met him. Didn't you like him? Wasn't he nice to you?

Curt Schilling doesn't seem to agree.

Every now and then Curt opens his mouth and I say Curt, I've got to service both of you guys. I don't want Barry to think I'm whispering in your ear! Easy! Easy! Let me duck! The two athletes I spend the most time with are like the Hatfields and McCoys.