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Fan gives home run ball to Thome

Fan gives home run ball to Thome

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CHICAGO -- Sell it, keep it or give it back?

That is the question that is left to every fan that comes away with a milestone home run ball. With the news that Barry Bonds' record-breaking home run ball recently sold for $750,000, the stakes are as high as ever.

So when Jim Thome's 500th home run ball bounced into Will Stewart's hands, it should have been a tough decision for the 28-year-old accountant. Instead, he admitted the choice was easy.

"I feel it is a part of Chicago baseball history," said Stewart, right after handing the ball back to the White Sox slugger during a postgame press conference.

Thome's ball was not expected to fetch anywhere near the value that Bonds' or Mark McGwire's home run balls have brought in, but Stewart likely did pass up a big payday by returning the ball to Thome.

The game was actually Stewart's first ever at U.S. Cellular Field. The Austin, Texas, native flew into Chicago early Sunday morning for an accounting conference and decided to take in a game on the South Side before getting to work.

He bought a ticket in the left-center-field stands online, not knowing that Thome was nearing the historic home run mark. After coming straight from the airport, he found out about the slugger's home run chase when he got to the ballpark. When the big fly was hit, Stewart turned out to be in the right place at the right time.

The ball actually landed a few rows behind Stewart, but the ball bounced off another fan's hands and right to him. Unlike the case with other historic home run balls, Stewart was not mobbed by other fans looking to claim the prize.

"I remember seeing the same ball flight -- he had hit a couple of balls to the part of the field earlier -- and it was like, 'Uh oh, here we go again,'" Stewart said. "Then, 'Wait, it's actually going back. We have a chance on this one.' It was elation just to see the White Sox won the game, then, 'Oh my God,' I turned around and there was the ball."

Thome has said for days as he approached the mark that he wanted the ball back and planned to drive with his father to deliver it to the Hall of Fame.

While Stewart is passing up whatever the ball could earn at an auction house, he isn't coming away empty-handed. After the game it was announced that he would receive a number of signed pieces of memorabilia and two season tickets for the 2008 season.

In another truly altruistic move, Stewart elected to donate the two season tickets to the charity of Thome's choice. The tickets will be auctioned off during the Joyce Thome Benefit for the Children's Hospital of Illinois, an event named in honor of Thome's late mother.

"As I'm from Austin, Texas, and not from the great city of Chicago and not able to use the season tickets, I've asked to donate the season tickets to your charity for use," Stewart said. "That's the best thing I can think of to give back to the city of Chicago."

The White Sox will fly Stewart out from Texas with a group of his friends to sit in Thome's box during one of the White Sox-Cubs games next season.

As for any celebrity, Stewart seemed content just to be part of history.

"It's very random, very unexpected," he said. "I'm just happy."

Alex Gyr is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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