The guy who didn't sell Values: Bryan Johnson gave a valuable memento to Cal Ripken and has reaped the things money can't buy.

September 25, 1996|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

Bryan Johnson could have sold the ball. He thinks about it, you know, when the bills need to be paid and the dreams need to be stoked and the little voice in his head won't stop whispering: Maybe you should have, maybe you should have.

The money could have helped pay back his college loans, or at least made a dent in them. It could have eased his girlfriend's struggle to build a house. It could have offered freedom when, at age 34, he longed to take chances, like leaving his government job and starting a business of his own. Maybe you should have.

If Johnson had any regrets, if his decision hadn't been sincere, that little voice would surely be tormenting him today: How could you not sell the home run ball hit by Cal Ripken on the night he broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record?

But Johnson, who caught the ball and returned it to Ripken after the game, sleeps very well at night, actually. So what if a Towson man sold Eddie Murray's 500th home run ball for $500,000 yesterday? A year after Johnson's unselfish gesture, he still doesn't doubt he'd do it again -- little voices notwithstanding -- and he still offers the same explanation.

"It seemed right," Johnson says during an interview at his Pasadena townhouse, his Cal-blue eyes bright and unblinking. "I don't care that Ripken is a millionaire, or a multimillionaire. The fact is, I thought having this would mean more to him, and more to his kids, than anything I could have gotten out of it. And so for that, it made it right."

Difficult? Yes. Painful at times? Sure.

But right.

If all he cared about was money, Johnson might never have gone to the 2,131st game at all.

"It was a tight time financially," says Johnson, who buys a 29-game plan to the Orioles each year. "I remember thinking maybe it made more sense to watch the game on TV and sell the tickets, because people were offering hundreds of dollars. And then I thought, how can I do this? Being a lifelong baseball fan, how can I not be there?"

So he kept his season tickets (he goes to about eight games a year, selling the rest -- at face value, of course -- to friends) and went to the game with his girlfriend, Kathleen.

It happened in the fourth inning. He'd never caught a ball before, but this one was headed straight for him, and he knew it. It rocketed toward his left-field section, bounced off someone's palms a few rows behind him, and the next thing he knew he'd made a back-handed catch with his bare left hand and there were people all over him.

In the stands

Instinct, that's all it was -- then holding on for dear life. One guy tried to pry Johnson's fingers off the ball, a few people grabbed for his wrist and someone attempted to break his grip by #F smacking a knee into his arm. (The fellow didn't seem to care that Johnson's other arm was already in a cast from a bike accident.)

The questions started the moment he pulled away from the tumble of bodies, the chant Don't give it back! Don't give it back! already ringing in his ears. Before ushers could rush him to privacy, a man appeared at Johnson's side, brandishing a wad )) of hundred-dollar bills and offering $2,000, $3,000, then $5,000. "How much do you want?" the man kept asking. "What do you want?"

He didn't want anything, Johnson said then -- and says now, and probably will say for years to come, because this is the part people seem to miss, the whole point of his story, the reason he has no second thoughts, because he did what he felt was right. He didn't want to sell it, so who cares what other balls sell for? He only wanted to give this ball back to Ripken, the person who deserved it.

Sometime around 2 a.m., he finally did.

Ripken took the ball, looked at the black mark where the bat had hit it, and smiled. He made a joke about Johnson's cast. Then he took a black Louisville Slugger from his bat rack and signed it in silver ink. Thank you very much for the ball We both share the same memory.

"Then he said something like, 'I hope you got something good out of this,' or 'I hope they took care of you,' " says Johnson. "I just smiled and said 'Sure.' I didn't ask for anything. I wasn't looking for anything."

Important rewards

Did he get anything?

He got the stuff that matters to him. His father told him he was proud. "I guess I raised you right," he said to his son. Strangers wrote letters, thanking him for doing the right thing. People spent months tracking him down to send photographs in which he is holding the ball high above his head, looking slightly stunned as the crowd cheers around him. "I love those photos," Johnson says. "That's the memory, right there."

His mechanic gave him a discount (21.31%) for car repairs; a local podiatrist offered free foot care; a neighbor watched the catch over and over in slow-motion, in case Johnson was worried that he hadn't caught the ball fair and square.

People do things like that for you, says Johnson, "and it gives you a high you can ride for years."

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