SELLING SLUMP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As baseball All-Star Melvin Mora steps onto the lush, manicured green turf tonight, he will serve as a reminder that there are really two forms of stardom: one on the field, one in the minds of corporate bigwigs.

The difference between the two is enormous.

Mora, for the first half of this baseball season at least, has achieved the first. His sizzling .349 batting average for the Orioles has earned him his first trip - and the only one by an Oriole this year - to the All Star Game, which will be played tonight at Chicago in what purists still call Comiskey Park.

The second, and vastly more lucrative stardom, though, is in many ways more difficult to achieve. And Mora is not yet even a blip on the radar screen of companies in pursuit of their next pitch man for Coors Light, Jockey shorts, Viagra, 10-10-whatever and a bottomless pit of other products.

Evidence of that is ubiquitous, from the lack of his face on television hawking merchandise to shops selling sports paraphernalia to stores specializing in sports memorabilia to online purveyors of everything sports.

Even on eBay, where inflation is as common as sweltering humidity in July and people are bidding $100,000 for a tooth and strand of hair from Elvis and $5,000 for a bat used 18 years ago when Barry Bonds was still in the minors, a Mora rookie card is fetching less than a pack of Juicy Fruit gum.

Even a Mora cotton replica home jersey, for which retailers charge $129 to $200, is going for only a cut-rate $82.99 on the world's largest auction block.

The lack of appeal is not surprising, say experts in sports marketing. After all, until this year, Mora has been a metaphor for the faceless utility man, a .249 lifetime hitter, with only 34 home runs and 160 RBI in five seasons. If anything, he was better known for fathering quintuplets two years ago.

Is this a breakout year for Mora, or a fluke? The answer will certainly influence whether he has a side-career as the next salesman for the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes.

Mora's agent, Tom Reich, could not be reached for comment on whether his client has any advertising irons in the fire. But others were willing to weigh in.

"Companies are looking for someone who is a breakout star in his or her sport," says Rich Thomaselli, who specializes in sports marketing for Advertising Age, a leading magazine covering the advertising and marketing industries. "The second thing is someone who has magnetism, an outgoing personality that people are drawn to."

For Mora to succeed off the field, he needs greater success on the field.

"First of all, it has to be sustained for two, three, four years in a row," says Thomaselli. "That's your start."

Despite Mora's phenomenal performance this year, he hasn't yet registered with most people.

"He's known by baseball people," Thomaselli says, "but he's not known by the baseball fan."

Proof of that can be found at the many sport stores in the Baltimore area selling baseball paraphernalia and memorabilia.

The proprietor of Pro-Am Sportswear in Lutherville says she has not received a single request for a Mora jersey this season. And Rick Hubata, owner of the Dugout Zone in Ellicott City, says because of lack of demand, he carries no Mora autographed jerseys in stock.

"I'm afraid he just isn't connecting real close to the fan base," says Hubata. "He's not a big demand. He's a pretty low-profile guy and he's not in the public, at least in a visible way."

William Smith of Lutherville is a self-described baseball fanatic. Early last week, for instance, he purchased a Cal Ripken Jr. jersey, and on Saturday, he was shopping for a Randy Johnson jersey. But Mora wasn't even on his mind.

"Mora's got potential, but this is the first year he's shown it," notes Smith. "The thing with Mora is that he's not flashy; he's low-key. Maybe low-key people don't sell that much."

Merchandise that is in demand bears the names of more familiar Orioles, past and present: Ripken, Eddie Murray, Jay Gibbons and Sidney Ponson.

Even with people paid to know, Mora isn't registering as a full-fledged star.

"Isn't he leading the American League in batting average?" Nicholas Sykes, a salesperson at The Sports Shop in Towson, asks hesitantly. "But nobody cares about that. The only reason I know ... is that someone said it on [ESPN's] SportsCenter."

At least some Orioles fans are beginning to take notice, though. In the last two months, interest in Mora merchandise has picked up, says John Greeley, director of retail operations for the team.

"The last couple of months are the only times we've had any requests," Greeley says. "He got real hot, and when it lasts, people start to look for it."

Even though Mora is relatively anonymous today, that doesn't mean he will be tomorrow. Whether that translates into marketability is unknown.

"Many have tried," notes Thomaselli. "But they just don't have the personality."

Companies, he says, require on-the-field success, but also "the ability to get them noticed ... . An energetic personality that relates well on the TV screen."

And one never knows where the next Joe Montana will be discovered.

Sammy Sosa had played a decade in virtual obscurity until 1998, when he swatted 66 home runs and engaged fellow slugger Mark McGwire in a wild chase of baseball's single-season home run record.

"That catapulted him into the national consciousness," Thomaselli says. "Prior to '98, we didn't know he was such a funny guy and had a dynamic personality."

Few celebrities, of course, reach the stratosphere the way Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods or newly minted basketball phenom LeBron James have. For players like these, money from endorsements can make their income from playing their sport seem like coffee money.

But there's real dough for even the mere mortals. Thomaselli estimates that sports stars like Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Piazza can make $500,000 to $2 million a year in corporate endorsements.

If Mora sustains his current level of play, it is likely some companies will come calling. Most likely, though, he would begin by agreeing to do local TV commercials for car dealers or lawyers. And he may be able to translate his American success to his homeland of Venezuela, or to companies targeting the U.S. Spanish-speaking markets, Thomaselli says.

Right now, Mora must wait.

But at least one observer suggests he shouldn't take it personally.

"People are not backing the Orioles these days," says Chris Rowland of The Sports Shop. "They are just waiting for [the Ravens] training camp to start. That's when our business will pick up."

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