Baseball signed by pope is best of all

A man who played baseball in college loves his autographed ball collection, but one hide stands out.

Published April 17, 2005

LARGO - Leon Toups collects baseballs. They are signed by the famous and not so famous. Mary Ann of Gilligan's Island autographed one. So did General H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

It stands to reason, though, that Toups, a devout Catholic and the proud father of a young priest, should have at least a few signed by religious luminaries.

There's the ball that Vicka, a Medjugorje visionary, signed when Toups and his wife, Lynn, were in Yugoslavia. Archbishop Timothy Dolan from Milwaukee and Archbishop John Foley, a Vatican spokesman, also signed balls for Toups. Most prized, though, is the one Pope John Paul II autographed with a blue Sharpie pen last July.

"I consider him a holy athlete," Toups said.

"He's probably the only saint who ever signed a baseball."

Last week, in his home, where a papal blessing was displayed on a bookshelf with family pictures, Toups brought out the papal baseball. It was in a frame with a photograph of the pope. The strings are pulled out and the ball is in two pieces. What remained were the outward skins of a baseball. As a baseball, it was useless. As a collector's item, it was impressive.

A natural storyteller, Toups, 66, launched into an explanation of the papal signature. Toups is a businessman who attended Georgia Technical Institute on a baseball scholarship and went on to the University of Florida and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's proud of his three children.

Last week, however, the story really was about his son David, a Clearwater Central Catholic High School graduate who was ordained eight years ago and studied for seven years in Rome.

"All of this is because of our son, Father David, being a priest and our being in Rome," said Toups, as he turned the pages of photo albums showing trips to the Vatican, pictures with the pope, and of a private papal Mass in his chapel.

Do you know who George Weigel is? he asked, referring to the pope's biographer. Toups said he asked Weigel to help him get a baseball signed by John Paul II. Weigel said he would, but it never happened.

"After two months, we talked on the telephone and his sons were throwing the ball in the back yard," Toups said, laughing.

David Toups offered to try when his parents were in Rome for the defense of his doctoral thesis. He told his father that he had been told the ball must be flattened to make it easier for the ailing pope to sign. The elder Toups followed through and flew to Rome with the strings already pulled from the official Major League Rawlings baseball. He handed it over to his son. It wasn't until his birthday that he knew his son had been successful.

"He defended his thesis in July," Toups said. "In September, he said, "Dad, I have a gift for you.' "

The pope had signed the ball. In Latin, it said: Joannes Paulus II.

Times correspondent Kathy Saunders contributed to this report.