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Man who caught Maris' 61st returns to Bronx

Man who caught Maris' 61st returns to Bronx

Man who caught Maris' 61st returns to Bronx
NEW YORK -- This first-time visitor to the new Yankee Stadium brought his own ghosts with him.

Sal Durante, who earned iconic fame by catching one of baseball's most historic home runs, got a personal tour of Yankee Stadium on Friday, nearly 50 years after his moment of glory. Durante will forever be linked to Roger Maris and the date Oct. 1, 1961, when Maris broke Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs on the final day of the season.

Decades later, Durante is instantly recognizable, his hair grayer and thinner but still eerily reminiscent of the 19-year-old who caught Maris' famous 61st home run. At one point on Friday, Durante stood under a likeness of his fleeting moment with Maris in a corridor of Yankee Stadium, and instantly recalled the moment that changed his life.

"I have pictures like that," he deadpanned. "He really didn't have much time to talk. There was so much media around."

Even now, the media is walking with Durante, hanging on his every word. Durante and former batboy Frank Prudenti, who worked for the Yankees during the '61 season, were squired around the stadium by veteran tour guide Tony Morante on Friday, and they took their time taking in the sights of the suites, the museum, the home clubhouse and Monument Park.

Along the way, Durante told his story, how he had decided to go to the game at the last minute, and somehow found himself irrevocably enmeshed in Yankees lore. Durante had switched seats with his fiancee Rosemarie right before the Maris at-bat. He also recounted how he stood up on his chair and caught the ball one-handed without bobbling it.

Within seconds, Durante said, stadium security personnel were next to him. He told them that he wanted to give the ball to Maris, and they led him on a procession through the bullpen to meet the player. Durante spent the rest of the game somewhere in the bowels of Yankee Stadium, and he recalled a light moment with Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto. Rizzuto, the late former shortstop and broadcaster, bounded up to Durante that night and said, "Congratulations. I'm glad you're a paesano."

The heart of his interaction came with Maris, though, and Durante lived up to his word in offering the player the ball. Maris declined, though, and said that Durante should try to make some money off it. They both got their wish weeks later, when restauranteur Sam Gordon gave Durante $5,000 for the ball and then handed it over to Maris.

Durante said he made just $60 a week at the time, which meant that $5,000 represented nearly a year-and-a-half's wage. He wound up giving half of the money to his parents. He made another historic catch just four weeks later. Durante and Rosemarie will celebrate their 50th anniversary next October, right after recognizing the Maris milestone.

"Roger deserved it, and he did it on his own skill," said Durante of the single-season homer mark, since exceeded by Sammy Sosa three times, Mark McGwire twice and, most famously, by Barry Bonds. "Roger, I still think, holds the record."

Durante hasn't kept much from his brush with history, and he briefly took inventory Friday. Standing mere feet away from the locker used by Maris and later Yankees captain Thurman Munson, Durante ticked things off as if they were in his pocket.

He has a cigarette lighter that was given to him by Maris, an item emblazoned with the Yankees insignia that he's kept for 49 years. And he has a baseball signed by Maris, the pitcher who coughed up the famous homer, Tracy Stallard ... and by himself. The unlikely trio had been asked to sign the balls for a publicity stunt at the World's Fair in Seattle, and Durante could never bring himself to part with it.

Durante, who drove a school bus in later years before recently retiring, kept coming back to the theme of life's little surprises. He had only gone to two games that season, and he got to see Maris tie the record and break the record. And as if it wasn't great enough to see the latter shot, he had all but felt it coming and moved directly into its path.

"That was the only one I ever caught," said Durante wistfully. "But in Ebbets Field, one hit my hand and bounced away."

Durante would see it all on this trip, from the team's World Series trophies, to the luxurious expanse of the clubhouse, to the plaques and monuments set aside for the team's great players. He's moved on in his life -- from Brooklyn to Staten Island -- but he'll always be the young kid with the pompadour and the crooked grin.

Toward the end of his visit on Friday, Durante stopped to pose for pictures with the Maris plaque and retired number in Monument Park. There are no immediate plans for him to return, but Durante will never be too far away.

"This is an amazing part of history," said Durante of the upcoming Maris anniversary. "It's just a great feeling, and especially for me to reach 50 years. That was my goal, to try to live 50 years for the anniversary. It's going to be a great feeling."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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