Rush hour comes to the 1000 block of Waveland Avenue on the
North Side of Chicago at 12:21 on a gray Saturday afternoon.
Idling tour buses from Peoria and St. Louis belch blue-black
exhaust onto a street chockablock with men in baseball caps
drinking lunch, babies in strollers, an old man madly strumming
a banjo, ticket scalpers, ticket seekers, Cardinals fans in red
satin jackets and Cubs fans in blue T-shirts. On the sidewalk
people stand eight deep in front of a three-story apartment
building from which young men hang out of windows and off a
narrow portico, armed with long-handled fishing nets, baseball
gloves, beer bottles and wild-eyed excitement. Suddenly, from
behind a rusty chain-link fence atop the 15-foot-high wall of
bricks that separates Waveland from Wrigley's leftfield
bleachers, someone shouts, "He's up! Move back!"
A roar goes up from both sides of the wall, piercing, anxious,
more common to amusement parks than ballparks. The roller
coaster has just pointed its nose down the highest hill. Mark
McGwire has just stepped into the cage to take batting practice.
There are at least 200 thrill seekers on Waveland, including one
man who just finished his pre-batting practice stretching
exercises; another who came here 14 years ago to take his mind
off his dying father; and another who begged out of work, jumped
into his car and laid rubber nonstop for Waveland--from
Sarasota, Fla., 20 hours to the south. The men and women turn
their eyes heavenward, 200 amateur astronomers waiting eagerly
for something wondrous to appear.
Then it does. A small, white dot begins rising over the ancient
roofline, which is all of the park that is visible from the
street. Impossibly, it is still climbing as it passes over the
drop-jawed bleacherites, who crane their necks and point. Much
of the crowd on Waveland surges toward the projected landing
site. Women retreat. The white dot grows larger. Scores of
hands, only a few of them gloved, shoot upward.
Now this is a rush. Ladies and gentleman and children of all
ages, viewed from Waveland, McGwire's batting practice is the
greatest show above earth. And the show on the ground, with its
cast of dubiously employed offbeat regulars that could have been
created by the Seinfeld writers, isn't bad, either.
Greatness can best be appreciated in the right setting. Think
Tiger Woods at Augusta, King Kong in Manhattan or Bill Clinton
at Krispy Kreme. Little Wrigley never seemed more friendly or
confined in its 84 years than when McGwire was hitting there
last week. A sign outside the ballpark on the corner of Clark
and Addison seemed to promote the four-game weekend series
better than the feature film for which it was intended: HE'S AS
BIG AS WRIGLEY FIELD. SIZE DOES MATTER. As Mets pitcher Masato
Yoshii said of McGwire, "He is like Godzilla."
"This is sheer excitement," said Andy Mielke, a 32-year-old
Waveland regular, as McGwire was about to step into the batting
cage. "This is as good as it gets."
Remember this the next time you're on line for nachos while
Jordan jogs through layup drills or Favre lobs footballs with
the third-string quarterback: We are talking about warmups here.
Until Augusta invites fans to shag Tiger's Titleists 350 yards
downwind on the practice range, there is nothing like it in all
"I'm absolutely dumbfounded by it all," says Cubs first baseman
Mark Grace of the excitement McGwire generates with each BP
swing. "He's amazing. It's not just the guys on Waveland who
love him. They probably love him a couple of streets down, too."
This pregame show travels. In St. Louis fans line up at the two
Busch Stadium gates that open early expressly for those who want
to see McGwire take batting practice. In Philadelphia a Drexel
University physics professor was summoned to calculate the
distances of McGwire's blasts, four of which landed in the upper
deck. In Milwaukee last year some Brewers sprinted like firemen
from their clubhouse to the field when word reached them that
McGwire was crushing one ball after another completely out of
County Stadium. And a year ago McGwire parked one in a lot
outside Coors Field, in a spot otherwise reserved for the cars
of Colorado players--568 feet from home plate. (Memo to Rockies:
Leave the Mercedes home on July 6, the date of the All-Star home
run hitting contest.) Everyone is McGwired up about BP but the
long-distance operator himself.
"To do what people expect day in and day out is not an easy
task," he says. "There are times when the coach might not throw
a great BP. Or I just might not have a great BP. And people
don't want to accept that. It's stressful. So sometimes I'll
just take BP off, just to give myself a break.
"I mean, people applaud you when you walk into the cage. They
boo when you bunt. It's unreal. It's happening everywhere. The
thing is, I never try to air it out. I try to work on the same
stroke I use in games."
Like it or not, McGwire has revolutionized batting practice,
turning daily drudgery into guaranteed entertainment while
"donating" $13,500 worth of baseballs (retail value) over the
season to fans across America. Fifty years ago Ted Williams
would bark at batting practice pitchers, "Don't tell me what's
coming. I want game conditions." Forty years ago pitchers threw
BP between starts. Twenty years ago Billy Williams asked
lefthanders to throw him nothing but breaking balls.
"Now nobody asks for curveballs," says Williams, the Cubs'
dugout coach. "They all want a nice 60-mph, four-seam fastball
right down the middle. Batting practice is for building
Great batting practice sluggers who turn meek once the game
starts are known as five-o'clock hitters. Those players--such as
Billy Ashley, Mark Parent and Jeff Manto of recent vintage--put
on shows that prompt teammates to wonder aloud, "What time is it?"
Dick Allen, Jose Canseco, Kirk Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Dave
Kingman, George Scott and Darryl Strawberry are among the best
BP showmen of all time. Strawberry, for instance, hit a metal
advertisement on the back wall of Yankee Stadium's rightfield
bleachers before Game 6 of the 1996 World Series. The dent it
left--about 50 feet up and about 500 feet from home plate--is
still there. "That's the longest ball I think I've ever seen
hit," says Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who played
with Mickey Mantle.
None of them, though, ever became a batting-practice attraction
on the magnitude of McGwire. "Mark hits the ball farther than
anyone in the history of the game," says St. Louis coach Dave
McKay, who estimates that he has thrown about 8,000 home run
balls ($72,000 worth) to McGwire. "It carries like a golf ball."
Wrigley is the perfect stage. Waveland is the 42nd Street of the
sports world: No other address offers so much action. (Rms with
vu: A two-bedroom will set you back $1,400 a month.) The oak
trees on Waveland actually lean away from Wrigley's barrage,
like beachfront palm trees bent back from prevailing winds.
Sheffield Avenue, Waveland's rightfield sister street, on which
Babe Ruth's "called" shot in the 1932 World Series landed, is
the next busiest thoroughfare. A distant third is Lansdowne
Street in Boston, which is steadfastly guarded by Fenway Park's
37-foot-high Green Monster and 23-foot-high extension of netting.
In Chicago any leftfield shot of 380 feet or more threatens
bodily, vehicular and architectural harm on Waveland. In a 1976
game Kingman hit a ball onto the porch of a house three doors
down Kenmore Avenue, which runs perpendicular to Waveland. At an
estimated 550 feet, it is believed to be the longest ball ever
hit at Wrigley. McGwire introduced himself to the neighborhood
last September by slamming one BP ball off a house and
shattering a wooden staircase baluster with another. As if in
tribute to McGwire, the replacement baluster remains unpainted.
The group of about 10 Waveland Avenue regulars who call
themselves ballhawks circled last weekend's St. Louis series as
soon as the ink was dry on the Cubs' 1998 schedule. "We're
Weather Channel junkies," says one of them, a salesman who
wishes to remain anonymous because of his frequent daytime
detours to Waveland Avenue. "We sit there going, 'Southwest
winds! Southwest winds! Yes!'"
The ballhawk from Sarasota, a Chicago-born employee at a
supermarket distribution center, hobbled over to his manager
last week and said with a wink, "My back's hurting. I think I
need a week off." With that, Dave Davison zipped off to Wrigley.
He arrived last Thursday, just in time to be reunited with other
members of the Waveland crew: Johnny Rosenstein, a 32-year-old
editor who had traded a night off with a colleague; Mielke, who
says he works "in music, entertainment and lots of stuff" and is
such a compulsive ballhawk that he traveled to Florida in search
of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' first spring training home run
ball--and got it; Craig Gernhardt, a lanky, hyperkinetic
37-year-old flower-shop owner who plays Waveland the way Kramer
would (he wears flip-down sunglasses, crashes into utility poles
and fire hydrants, and once took a ball off the eye, resulting
in a geyser of blood); the legendary Gary (Mo) Mullins, who
claims to lead all Waveland ballhawks with more than 3,100
lifetime home runs caught; and Luke Rose, who commutes 92 miles
round-trip from his suburban home to Waveland and otherwise
spends his time doing security and carpentry work at Cabrini
Green, Chicago's most notorious housing project. He is the only
regular who does not wear a glove.
"I started coming here in 1984," Rose says. "I looked at it as
my sanctuary, because my dad was dying in the hospital, and I
needed a place to go. I came here for the atmosphere, not to
catch any balls, and I loved it. It's like a family now. We'll
fire up a barbecue while the game is going on."
Alas, on Thursday, batting practice and the cookout were called
off because of rain. McGwire did hit a dinger in an 8-3 St.
Louis loss, but it was a Luc Longley of a line drive (hardly
getting off the ground) that leftfielder Jose Hernandez never
saw. "Jose asked me where it was, and before I could answer, you
could hear it clang off the chain fence," shortstop Jeff Blauser
said later. "I'm just glad it wasn't a ground ball."
The skies cleared on Friday afternoon. Waveland didn't. The
crowd of about 75 included some playing hooky from school and
work, like the salesman who occasionally ducked into his car,
turned up the radio to block out the crowd noise and made a
sales call or two. Inside the Cubs' clubhouse, pitcher Jeremi
Gonzalez asked, "What time are the Cardinals hitting?"
"Twelve-fifty," Billy Williams answered. "And don't go out
there, son." Laughing, Williams turned to a reporter and
explained, "He's starting today."
McGwire took 22 batting practice swings, knocking one ball into
the centerfield seats, two into the leftfield seats and six onto
Waveland, including one that pruned some limbs from an oak tree
and one that Davison snared. "That's sick," McGwire said when
told of Davison's 1,230-mile journey. "But at least he got one
to take back."
McGwire also crushed a home run that actually counted, the 399th
of his career, in his 4,712th at bat--leaving him a virtual lock
to reach 400 faster than anyone else in history, supplanting
Ruth, who needed 4,841. "That's the one we want," Mielke said.
"McGwire's 400th. On the fly. No scuff marks from the street.
That's the jewel."
Cubs pitchers left McGwire with almost no chance on Saturday.
They walked him four times in five plate appearances, keeping
McGwire (36 walks in St. Louis's 30 games through Sunday) on
track to outdo the Babe again. His projected 194 walks would
shatter Ruth's 1923 record of 170. At week's end McGwire was
second in the National League in home runs (12) and leading the
majors in satisfied customers (innumerable). In his first two
days of batting practice into a light northeast breeze at
Wrigley, McGwire swung at 46 pitches; he hit 22 home runs,
including 17 that landed on Waveland. He hit 11 into the street
on Saturday alone--the rest of the Cubs and Cardinals combined
After each batting practice most of the street-festival
participants ducked into the ballpark to watch the game. The
real ballhawks remained happily outside. "We're so lucky to
experience what very few people can," Gernhardt says. "You
didn't pay a penny to see the game, and yet you can hold part of
the game in your hand. I ask you, what can be better than that?"
The ballhawks set up lawn chairs and a picnic table underneath
the leaning oaks at the the corner of Kenmore and Waveland. They
kept an ear to the crowd and an eye to the sky, giving thanks
that McGwire had come their way.