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Sorry, Tom Brady, but I’d stiff-arm old ladies to get that ball

John Romano | Thank heavens that a kindhearted Bucs fan got Brady’s historic football because most of us would have done a dash for cash.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates his touchdown (and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s (12) 600th touchdown pass) by giving the ball to fan Byron Kennedy (who eventually gave it back) during the first quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans (13) celebrates his touchdown (and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s (12) 600th touchdown pass) by giving the ball to fan Byron Kennedy (who eventually gave it back) during the first quarter of the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 26
Updated Oct. 26

TAMPA — I’d like to believe we’d all be as gracious as Byron Kennedy.

I’d like to believe when faced with the choice between instant wealth and eternal karma, the vast majority of American sports fans would choose to be selfless and pure.

I’d like to believe you and me would return the football from Tom Brady’s historic 600th touchdown pass — just as Kennedy did at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday — because it was the right thing to do.

I’d like to believe that but, let’s face it, we all know better.

I’m not sure if you can put a value on inner peace, but I’ve seen the price tag on high-end memorabilia. And, honestly, I’m going with the sure bet. Hand me that ball, and I’m looking like a chubby Tony Soprano running from the FBI.

Call it greed, call it capitalism, call it whatever you like. If players can choose free agency over a hometown discount when it comes to contract time, you can choose eBay over sainthood.

It’s been this way forever, you know.

Back in 1927 when Babe Ruth was sitting at 59 home runs, the hot dog vendors at Yankee Stadium announced to patrons in the stands that hat merchant Truly Warner would offer $100 for No. 60.

Joe Forner, a 40-year-old truck driver from the Bronx, was about 10 rows back in the rightfield bleachers and came up with Ruth’s historic shot despite, he later claimed, being clawed by other fans.

Three quarters of a century later, fans in San Francisco fought over Barry Bonds’ 73rd home run ball, first in the bleachers and later in court rooms. Alex Popov claimed to have caught the ball, but said it was wrestled from his hands. Patrick Hayashi ended up with possession.

Two years later, the ball was sold for $450,000 and a judge ordered that Popov and Hayashi split the proceeds.

So what did Kennedy lose by agreeing to return the ball to Brady for a bunch of signed memorabilia, season tickets and $1,000 gift card from the team store? Some collectibles experts say the Brady ball could have fetched as much as $500,000 on the open market.

It’s probably best that Kennedy was approached by team personnel almost immediately after receiver Mike Evans handed him the ball following the touchdown. While Kennedy says he never considered selling the item, I’m guessing it would have been a harder decision if someone from Sotheby’s Auction House had his cell phone number.

Does this make Kennedy, a resident at Largo Medical Center, the most openhearted sports fan in history?

Well, it at least puts him in the conversation.

There have been others who have retrieved historic balls and given them back for various reasons. Tom House was a relief pitcher with the Braves when Hank Aaron hit No. 715 into the bullpen at Fulton County Stadium, and he immediately delivered the ball to Aaron during the celebration at home plate.

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Likewise, a Cardinals groundskeeper caught Mark McGwire’s 62nd home run in 1998 and turned the ball over to the Hall of Fame.

A couple of weeks later, when McGwire hit No. 70, a 26-year-old genetic researcher named Phil Ozersky caught the ball. The Cardinals offered him an autographed bat, ball and jersey in exchange. Ozersky agreed but also wanted to meet McGwire. When McGwire declined, Ozersky opted to keep the ball.

Within months, he had sold it for $3.05 million.

That, to me, is the best of both worlds. Ozersky kept his honor and dignity, but kept the windfall, too. After selling the ball, Ozersky donated more than $200,000 to the Leukemia Society, the American Cancer Society and to the Cardinals Care foundation.

Still, that’s not my favorite story of a fan catching a historic keepsake.

New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris poses with fan Sal Durante in the locker room at Yankee Stadium after hitting his 61st home run of the season. On the final day of the regular season, Durante caught Maris' fourth inning home run into the rightfield seats as Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.
New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris poses with fan Sal Durante in the locker room at Yankee Stadium after hitting his 61st home run of the season. On the final day of the regular season, Durante caught Maris' fourth inning home run into the rightfield seats as Maris broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record. [ Associated Press (1961) ]

When Roger Maris was chasing Ruth’s single-season home run record in 1961, a 19-year-old auto parts driver from Brooklyn named Sal Durante went to Yankee Stadium with his girlfriend and another couple. They paid $2.50 each for their seats in the rightfield bleachers.

After Durante caught the ball, police quickly hustled him out of the stands. Durante said he would be happy to give the ball to Maris, but wanted to meet the Yankee outfielder. He was brought to the clubhouse where he and Maris talked and posed for pictures.

When Durante handed the ball over, Maris signed and dated it and then handed it back. He told Durante to sell the ball because, whoever bought it would eventually re-gift it to Maris.

Durante eventually sold the ball to California restaurateur Sam Gordon for $5,000. Gordon put the ball on display in his various restaurants and then, sure enough, returned it to Maris.

So I guess there are people as gracious and honorable as Byron Kennedy.

Who knew?

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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