Irwin Sternberg's sanity was questioned from coast-to-coast yesterday.
After all, only the night before, Sternberg, a Baltimore native, had expressed a willingness to spend $3 million for nothing more than a baseball. Of course, that qualified him as only the second-craziest person in America. An anonymous spendthrift outbid Sternberg by around $100,000 to acquire the ball Mark McGwire hit for his monumental 70th home run last September.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Sternberg, president of Stonehenge Ltd., a New York tie manufacturer, defended his mental competency.
"When we went to this auction last night we went with an agenda and a purpose in mind," he said from an airplane carrying him back home from a business meeting in Little Rock, Ark..
Sternberg, a relentlessly positive man who grew up in Pikesville, explained that he had intended to use the McGwire ball to help sell a line of ties, some of the profits of which he earmarks for the Jimmy V Foundation, a cancer research foundation named for Jim Valvano, the late basketball coach of North Carolina State.
Sternberg had hoped to display the McGwire ball in department stores where his Jimmy V ties are sold to help raise awareness of the foundation.
"We wanted to use the ball as a true symbol of hope and inspiration," said Sternberg. "Jimmy Valvano's motto was never give up and that's what Mark McGwire stands for too. If you don't give up, you too can reach the American Dream."
Sternberg, 53, sees himself as a striver in the same mold. A one-time "terrible student" whose parents had to beg to get him into the University of Baltimore, he now heads a multimillion-dollar company that has made charitable works a profitable business strategy. Sternberg's ties help raise money for such diverse causes as the Johns Hopkins Children Center, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
He viewed acquiring the McGwire ball as a public relations bonanza worth the $2.5 million he went to Madison Square Garden prepared to spend. But, he admitted, his adrenalin carried him away, and he found himself bidding nearly a half-million higher.
"The room was on fire, it was electric," he said. "People were rooting for me. Every time I bid, there was this amazing spark of excitement." After the bidding reached $1.6 million, there was only Sternberg and an anonymous bidder on the phone.
"When you are competing with a blind opponent, and you can't see into their eyes and see where they're going, that's difficult," he said. But he finally sensed his rival's determination. "No matter how high I went, he was going to go higher." Sternberg settled for another ball, signed by Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, and a crystal replica of the Yankees' 1998 championship trophy. He ended the night disappointed, but he insists, compos mentis.
Others might have to make that determination for themselves. Had he acquired the ball, Sternberg said, he'd planned to give it away for nothing in a contest or raffle next year to someone who had purchased a Jimmy V tie.
Pub Date: 1/14/99