ON SEPT. 27, 1998, Philip Ozersky, a research scientist at the Washington University medical school in St. Louis, decided to take a break from his usual fall Sunday routine. A Rams season-ticket holder, he hadn't missed a game in three years, but he gave up his seats to go instead to see the Cardinals play the Expos at Busch Stadium. He thought he might see history made that afternoon, but he didn't expect to be a part of it. In the seventh inning Mark McGwire blasted his 70th homer of the year to set the single-season home run record. The hit was a line drive into the leftfield luxury boxes; the ball bounced out of the hands of two of Ozersky's coworkers and into his own.
After Ozersky caught the ball, Cardinals officials pressured him to hand it over in exchange for a signed bat, ball and jersey from McGwire. His only request was to meet McGwire first, but they told him no. "If McGwire had been nice and down to earth about it, I probably would have given it back," says Ozersky.
At the time, Ozersky was making $30,000 a year and renting a three-bedroom house with his girlfriend, Amanda, and another friend, but all that changed quickly. Three and a half months after the catch, the ball was auctioned off for a record $3.05 million. It now belongs to comic book artist and entrepreneur Todd McFarlane, who collects record- breaking baseballs. (How much would the ball fetch now, after the steroid scandals cast doubts on McGwire's achievement? "Some would argue it would be worth a tenth of what it was worth [originally]," says Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's Auction House, which conducted the sale in 1999. "But the proof is in the pudding. Let it come up for sale and then we'll see.")
Ozersky donated some of the money to charity, including $70,000 to the Leukemia Society, $70,000 to Cardinals Care, the team's foundation, which supports community youth, and another $70,000 to the American Cancer Society. He was also able to buy a vacation home in Florida, where his father, Herbert, lives in the winter; take his dad and his brother David to see the Rams play in the 1999 Super Bowl; and buy an engagement ring for Amanda, who became his wife in 2000.
Ozersky, now 35, still works at Washington on a research project called Wormbase, a database of genetic information gathered from worms, which scientists hope will facilitate medicinal research for humans. He has two daughters, five-year-old Leah and two-year-old Madeline.
At least once a year, Ozersky gets calls from reporters to talk about his experience. McGwire, meanwhile, has kept a low profile since his disastrous congressional testimony in 2005. "Whether [ McGwire] used steroids or not, it still took a lot of talent to do what he did," says Ozersky. "The record isn't tarnished in my book. I'm happy with the way things worked out."