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Prices head sky high as Three Rivers Stadium items are auctioned off

Sunday, January 07, 2001

By Dan Gigler, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

John Sieg jumped in his car in Wisconsin on Thursday, headed to Pittsburgh on a mission. Two days, 628 miles and $300 later, he wheeled his black Honda Civic out of Three Rivers Stadium with a pair of blue stadium seats secured inside the hatchback.

Auctioneer Adam Alexander takes bids at Mellon Arena. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

His license plate, encased in a Steelers signature frame, explained why: BLKNGLD.

Sieg and his wife, Linda, of Madison, Wis., were among an estimated 8,000 people who converged on Mellon Arena yesterday to bid on items from the soon to-be-rubble Three Rivers Stadium, a city and sports icon for more than 30 years.

The Siegs ... Cheeseheads? Forget it. A native of Green Bay Packers football country, Sieg has been to only two home Steeler games over the years. "But I grew up watching football in the '70s," he said, when the team rose to national prominence. "When I played pickup games with friends, it was always Steelers versus the Cowboys. And my team was always the Steelers."

Emotion like John Sieg's fueled yesterday's auction, which became a hybrid of a Steelers game and sheriff's sale. Run by FreeMarkets Inc. and Los Angeles-based Cowan Alexander Equipment Group, the auction was a smash hit the likes of a Willie Stargell upper deck shot.

"The number of people was more than we expected, the excitement was more than we expected and the bidding was higher than we expected," said Doug Wnorowski, a senior vice president at FreeMarkets.

A sharp-dressed, quick-witted Englishman, Adam Alexander, co-partner of Cowan Alexander, stood at the podium and was met with a chorus of boos when he jokingly asked how many Oakland Raider fans were in the crowd.

Sotheby's this was not.

The first auction item, a pair of lower-level, blue, floor-mounted seats, set the tone. Bidding started at $100 and escalated to $875 because of an anxious Bob Jones of Beaver Falls. Wearing a pair of jeans and a WDVE T-shirt, Jones looked like the millionaire next door, which in fact he is. He won $54 million in the Pennsylvania Lottery "Super 6" drawing in November 1998.

Some in the crowd lustily booed Jones for setting the high ante.

"You'll have that," Jones said with a shrug and a smile. He plans to put the seats in his gameroom.

Moments later, Dan Curtis, a college student from Watertown, N.Y., cooly bid $3,100 for home plate from the stadium bullpen -- a gift for his dad. Bidding was high and, in some cases, bizarre.

Examples: A framed photo of Roberto Clemente, $1,300; used bases, $1,550; foul-pole nets, $650; a locker room first-aid kit, $800; and Pirates' locker-room trash cans, $175.

Related coverage

Seats find an unusual resting place


As the adage goes, "one man's trash, another man's treasure."

The Sports & Exhibition Authority said proceeds from the auction, minus costs and the auctioneers' cut, will be used to pay the $5.2 million demolition cost of Three Rivers Stadium, and to fund some city parks and recreation projects.

The most highly sought items were stadium seats, followed by 3-foot-by 3-foot mats of Astro Turf.

Auction-goers who went expecting a Wal-Martesque sale and "blue light specials" often were discouraged and even angered by prices more Nieman-Marcus in range.

John Girty, a Steelers season ticket holder for 12 years, hoped bids for seats would become more reasonable after the initial euphoric rush to bid.

"I'd be willing to pay $100 for four seats," Girty said. "If it's more than that, I'm outta here."

George Yesko of Export raised a makeshift sign proclaiming "IDIOT!" when he heard Astro Turf squares were fetching $250.

John Chiodo of Monongahela laughed about paying $25 for a pair of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana's game shoes at an auction in Montana's hometown, which also happens to be Monongahela.

KDKA radio personality Fred Honsberger predicted that the stadium seats would "go for a song" by day's end, compared to the $875 that Jones paid.

But Adam Smith's free-market theory of demand outpacing supply held fast. Pairs of floor-mounted blue seats went for upwards of $800 late in the afternoon, and rows of four and six wall-mounted seats averaged $300 per lot. Floor-mounted seats commanded a higher price because they are easier to install in a house, they're in better condition and they were easier to remove.

In what became the ultimate game of musical chairs, plenty of souvenir seekers were left without seats.

Pam McVerry, 31, of Canonsburg, claimed she successfully bid on a section of eight seats. She was announced, by number, as one of the winners for a price of $600.

After a two-hour wait in line to get to the cashier, McVerry was told there was no documentation that she was a buyer.


From trash to treasure

Actual prices paid at
yesterday's auction

Stadium Seating Chart Plaquard$1,600
Framed Roberto Clemente photo$1,300
New York Yankees banner from outside of stadium$1,000
Baltimore Orioles banner from outside of stadium$1,200
Framed photo of Downtown, circa 1929$650
Locker room first-aid kit$800
Pirates locker room trash cans$175
U.S. flag that flew at the stadium$650
Foul pole net$650
Game-used bases$1,550
Home plate from the bullpen$3,100
Framed Roberto Clemente photo$1,300
First set of lower level floor-mounted stadium seats$875


McVerry talked to everyone she could, but nobody at the auction seemed to be able to provide much help.

She suspects the same seats were sold more than once and another buyer got to the cashier first.

She called the auction "total chaos," and complained that only two cashiers were available for 8,000 potential customers. She said the stadium auction was unlike any estate sales and regular auctions she frequents.

Such problems may have arisen out of the system of recording bidders in the thick crowd.

Each bidder was given a yellow-numbered paddle to raise to attract an auction spotter to indicate a bid. Spotters relayed the information to Alexander using portable microphones. The bidding for seats was cut off several times at $250 or $300 per lot, and spotters were often crowded around by bidders flashing their paddles.

The system, often resembling the hectic activity on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, left spotters with the undesirable task of writing up the first few bidders who caught their attention, thereby shutting out other bidders.

"We've never done anything like this before," Alexander said. "I don't think anyone has done anything like this before." Cowan Alexander is more accustomed to auctioning off art, antiques and business properties.

Sherman Hostetter, proprietor of Hostetter Auctions in Beaver Falls, and a favorite spotter with the crowd, said that Cowan Alexander and FreeMarkets did well, given the situation.

"It has been unbelievable," Hostetter said. "When they cut the bidding off, it creates a frenzy, but it's also keeping the prices lower."

Don Cowan, Alexander's partner, tried to make problems as smooth as the silk shirt and tie he wore.

"There is a much bigger demand for assets than there are assets available," he said. "We had 200 pieces of turf, cut the high bidding and asked how many people would meet it. When 400 people raised their hands, it became a matter of who we could pick out."

Some bidders complained of "hidden charges," because winning bids were subject to a 7 percent Allegheny County sales tax and 10 percent auction fee, the industry standard.

For example, a successful $300 bid for seats cost a total of $351.

However, those that got what they came for were immensely satisfied.

Becky Broskey of Perrysville was on her cell phone with her sister Tammy in Phoenix, Ariz., when she made good on a $200 bid for six wall-mounted seats.

"Tell her we got the turf!" her friend Joe Saflin shouted after another successful bid just moments later. The items of Steelers lore will be waiting for Tammy, who anticipates moving back to Pittsburgh in the near future.

But the happiest man in the house might have been Don Galla, of Hagerstown, Md. A power-company lineman and ultimate-Steelers fan, Galla was decked out in a spiked Steelers hat, Steelers leather jacket, "Immaculate Reception" sweatshirt and striped Steelers pants -- all to go with his scruffy beard and a kid-at-Christmas glow in his eye.

"I'm usually bare-chested and painted-up at the games," he laughed while waiting in line to pay for his bid on 14 seats. Some seats he'll resell, but the rest will go in a Steelers shrine at his home, next to his statue of "Mean" Joe Greene, and photos of him with Bill Cowher and one of himself wearing Andy Russell's Super Bowl ring.

Paul Krivacek of Venetia, a Pirates season ticket holder who can't wait for the first game at PNC Park, beamed when he picked up his four-seat purchase.

"They'll go in the gameroom," Krivacek said. "I have three little ones and they'll get to sit on a piece of history."

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