Take the home-run money and run
Catching Mark McGwire's 70th home-run ball made Phil Ozersky a rich man. His advice to the lucky fan who snares Barry Bonds' 756th: Take...
The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — Catching Mark McGwire's 70th home-run ball made Phil Ozersky a rich man. His advice to the lucky fan who snares Barry Bonds' 756th: Take the money.
"Do what's right for you," Ozersky said while taking in Bonds' chase for Hank Aaron's home-run record from the Busch Stadium press box. "But I definitely am happy with what I did.
"I benefited financially, but a lot of other people benefited, too."
A lot has changed for Ozersky since he cashed in on a lucky bounce that left the prize ball in his grasp on the final day of the 1998 season. Comic book auteur Todd McFarland paid $3 million for the ball and Ozersky, then a 26-year-old genetic researcher at Washington University in St. Louis, took home $2.7 million after paying a $300,000 auction commission.
Ozersky is married now, with two young daughters, ages 4 and 2. He has traveled the world and moved into a larger house in the St. Louis suburbs.
But the windfall hasn't gone to his head. He's still working the same job at the school's genome sequencing center and married the woman who accompanied him to a luxury box just above the left-field wall in old Busch Stadium. He chose his new residence largely because his sister lives across the street and has a 13-year-old daughter who can baby-sit.
And rather than pocket all of the money, he has spread the wealth, donating $250,000 to charities including the Cardinals' own Cardinal Care.
"I think I've done a pretty good job of keeping grounded and not changing life too much of how I expected it to play out," Ozersky said.
The Cardinals had wanted it all, sequestering Ozersky in a meeting room and trying to persuade him to just hand it over to Big Mac. There was an impasse when Ozersky asked to meet McGwire and the Cardinals' representative said he'd have to relinquish the ball first.
"I was really adamant about just wanting to meet the guy and they were like, 'The Cardinals and McGwire don't negotiate,' " Ozersky said. "It was pretty testy, and they basically made the decision for me.
"If I had met McGwire, I might have gone 'duhhh' and given him the ball. I might have gotten caught up in the moment."
Other lucky fans during McGwire's season, which shattered Roger Maris' 37-year-old home run record, did get caught up. Tim Forneris, a member of the Cardinals' grounds crew, handed over No. 62 and got a trip to Disney World and a minivan.
In 2004, a Southern Illinois man caught Ken Griffey Jr.'s 500th home run ball at old Busch and gave it to the Cincinnati Reds' star, no questions asked. His reward was being lavished with memorabilia plus a trip to the All-Star Game.
"I don't think McGwire would have done that for me," Ozersky said. "He would have been, like, 'Thanks.' "
Several years later, Ozersky has memorized the sequence of events. He remembers the improbability, given that most of McGwire's home runs were majestic shots and only No. 62 and 70 among his record drive were liners over the wall. Never mind he was one of about 100 people in the box.
"It came in, hit a guy on the hand — black and blue mark — bounced up, hit a girl in the hand, and I started to turn and saw her eyes looking one way," Ozersky said. "So I turned, and the ball was there."