It was show-and-tell day for Sammy Gordon’s second-grade class, and the guest of honor was Sammy’s cousin Philip. A research technologist on the Human Genome Project, Philip Ozersky is helping to decode human DNA. But as intrigued as Sammy’s classmates might be by the secret of life, what they really wanted was to hear about No. 70. “It’s like I have two jobs,” says Ozersky, 26. “I have my work, and then there’s the Ball.”
That would be the baseball that Mark McGwire ripped for his record-setting 70th home run on Sept. 27; the ball that landed at Ozersky’s feet in a left field party box at St. Louis’s Busch Stadium; the ball that Ozersky sold for a mind-boggling $2.7 million at auction on Jan. 12. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” says the soft-spoken St. Louis native. “This baseball brought a nation together.”
It also brought Ozersky into a new tax bracket. On hand for the auction at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, Ozersky kept his cool when the bidding, which began at $400,000, quickly climbed into the millions, ending when an anonymous phone bidder hit $2.7 million and obliterated the long-standing auction record for a baseball—$126,500, for Babe Ruth’s first homer at Yankee Stadium.
It wasn’t the first time that baseball has been good to Ozersky: He started dating his girlfriend, coworker Amanda Abbott, 25, after they sat in the very same box at a late-season Cardinals game in 1997. The youngest of four children, Ozersky grew up playing sports; in fact, he was in pain from a partially dislocated left shoulder—a touch football injury—on the day he made his miracle grab. When Mark McGwire strode to the plate last September, Ozersky put his beer down and stood to applaud. Seconds later, McGwire sent No. 70 bouncing off the box’s back wall. “I turned around, and it was in front of me,” says Ozersky, who dived on the ball. After the game, he was offered autographed memorabilia and the chance to meet McGwire in exchange for the ball, but politely declined.
That night, Ozersky celebrated with Chinese takeout and slept with the ball beneath his bed. (He kept it in a safe deposit box after that, but twice lent it to museums for display.) As for his $2.7 million haul, Ozersky’s after-tax plans include paying off his student loans, finishing up the payments on his 1994 Ford Probe and helping his parents retire. Ozersky and his girlfriend, who now share a rented brick ranch house in the St. Louis suburb of Olivette with a friend, will soon be hunting for new digs, and Ozersky will donate some of his windfall to charity. He has also got himself a new, unpublished phone number and an agent to help him sift through his half-dozen endorsement opportunities. “I have to share him more than I did before,” says Amanda, a research technician. “But hopefully that won’t last much longer.” All in all, Ozersky is taking his new fortune in stride. “Money can’t buy you happiness,” he says. “It can, however, make your life a little easier.”
Mary M. Harrison in Olivette