LARGO — The man who drove up to the pawnshop in an SUV in October had a sad story.
He was a real estate investor suffering from the dismal economy and needed to part ways with a beloved souvenir — his baseball signed by the legendary Babe Ruth, said sales clerk Lisa Matassa.
The signature was beautiful, and a certificate of authenticity showed it was the real deal. Matassa's boss offered the man $1,500.
It wasn't until March that employees at Pawn Mart at 12499 Seminole Blvd. found out the ball was bogus.
A snowbird who wanted it for his son asked that it be recertified. So Pawn Mart sent the ball off to PSA/DNA Authentication Services in California, the company that had penned the first certificate.
Except, it hadn't. It was a fraudulent document made to accompany the forged baseball, Largo police said.
The man who sold the ball gave a copy of his thumbprint and used his real driver's license during the transaction. Police quickly identified him as 40-year-old Marc A. Szakaly, 40, of 5052 Balsam Drive in Land O'Lakes.
After a five-month investigation that led Largo police Detective Dianne LaFrance all across the state, Szakaly was arrested Wednesday and charged with organized fraud. He was released Thursday from Pasco County Jail on $50,000 bond.
Police said they discovered Szakaly sold at least 35 phony autographed baseballs to pawnshops as far away as the Panhandle and the east coast of Florida over the past year. He sold about eight or nine each in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, said Largo police spokesman Lt. Mike Loux.
Pawn dealers spent $500 to $3,000 for the balls.
"Every single one was a forgery, not just the balls, but the letters too," said PSA/DNA president Joe Orlando.
Ruth, the longtime New York Yankee also known as "The Bambino," was among the first players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His is one of the most widely sought autographs off all celebrities, Orlando said.
"That's the symbol of all autograph collecting … he was an amazing athlete and he really represented the American dream of going from virtual poverty to becoming the most famous, not just baseball player, but most famous person in America," Orlando said.
He also had a distinctive signature considered aesthetically pleasing to collectors. Balls with Ruth's signature in excellent condition can fetch well over $100,000, and mid-grade balls can go for $10,000 to $20,000 and up, Orlando said.
"If we're talking about the ball your dog used as a chew toy, something like that, we're still talking a few thousand dollars," he said.
Orlando said it appeared Szakaly would "rough up" newer balls to make them look old, and that if he had tried to sell balls in mint condition, it's likely the ruse would have been discovered sooner.
"I think the idea here is he was trying to stay under the radar," Orlando said.
Largo police worked with the Office of Statewide Prosecution and 19 law enforcement agencies in 15 Florida counties to bring the organized fraud charge, Loux said. It's unclear if the baseballs were sold outside the state. Authorities are still investigating.
"We're confident there's a lot more of them out there," Loux said.
Orlando said there are three rules that buyers should always rely on when dealing in expensive memorabilia: check the seller's references, make sure the item was really certified by a reputable expert, and avoid deals that seem unbelievably good.
"If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is," he said. "There are no steals anymore."