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Making His Mark With an electrifying jolt, Mark McGwire passed the Babe and caught Roger to set the stage for the record breaker

Sept. 14, 1998
Sept. 14, 1998

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Sept. 14, 1998

Making His Mark With an electrifying jolt, Mark McGwire passed the Babe and caught Roger to set the stage for the record breaker

This is the story of a baseball, a baseball ordinary in size and
weight and composition and nothing else. A baseball that glows
when viewed under an infrared light. A baseball, many believers
would swear to you, that glows even under the brilliant sunshine
of a scorching Saturday afternoon in the last great baseball
city.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1998 issue

"I do miss that ball," said Deni Allen, 22, of Maryland Heights,
Mo., only one minute after surrendering the ball that he held
for three hours last Saturday. Then he lowered his head and
shook it in amazement. "Man," he said, "that thing had some
power."

The ball has magnetic power.

Can you feel the pull? America is a Baseball Nation again, and
Mark McGwire is the head of state, which explains why every time
he marches to bat at Busch Stadium in St. Louis every fan rises
to his feet out of respect and awe. It's why two detectives are
assigned by Major League Baseball to protect him around the clock
when the Cardinals are on the road, even when he merely crosses
the street in front of the team's hotel, as he did in Fort
Lauderdale on Sept. 1 to eat lunch at Chuck's Steakhouse. He is,
after all, a national treasure, and you don't take chances with a
national treasure. So the detectives watched him (without
incident) eat steak and chicken, pound two home runs that night
and then order up the same fare the next day: steak and chicken
followed by a double dip of dingers.

The four-homer barrage that got him to 59--part of a 12-homer tear
in 50 at bats just when we figured the pressure would make
breathing difficult--put McGwire last weekend on the doorstep of a
history known to no man alive. Sixty. No other number carries
more gravitas in the world of sports. Only the legendary Babe
Ruth (71 years ago) and the poignantly heroic Roger Maris (37
years ago) had hit that many home runs in a season. It's such a
godly number that no one since Maris had even come close to it,
not close enough, anyway, to send 600 media members scurrying to
chronicle every tic and blink of one man, as happened for McGwire
last weekend.

The single-season home run record is the most revered mark in
sports. It's engraved on Maris's tombstone. No date of birth or
death, just 61 and '61. The home run is America--appealing to
Americans' roots of rugged individualism and their fascination
with grand scale. They gape at one of McGwire's blasts the same
way they do at Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam and the Empire State
Building.

So 60 and the home runs to follow require special baseballs,
ones that can be identified in perpetuity, avoiding the fates of
the famous home run balls of Bobby Thomson in 1951 and Bill
Mazeroski in '60 that were lost to oblivion. About two weeks ago
Kevin Hallinan, a former member of the joint FBI-New York City
police department antiterrorism task force, and other Major
League Baseball security officials covered some balls with an
invisible ink that glows under infrared light. They also
sequentially numbered the balls, stamping a small numeral beside
the S in RAWLINGS.

The officials ran tests to make sure the flight of the balls
wasn't compromised by the ink. They dipped the balls in water.
Then they dipped them in beer. Then they dipped them in blood.
All to make sure the ink held up. The balls passed every test.

So last Friday night at Busch Stadium, Rueben Puerte, a security
guy for Major League Baseball, put on dark sunglasses, pulled a
white ball cap low on his head and wheeled a black carry-on
suitcase into the first row of seats between the backstop and the
Cardinals' dugout. Inside the suitcase were four boxes of the
special baseballs, a dozen per box and numbered 1 through 48, to
be used only for McGwire's at bats. "Forty-eight?" umpire Steve
Rippley said. "We won't be needing that many."

McGwire has been a home run machine of Swiss precision. Through
Monday he had hit at least one home run for 22 consecutive
weeks, dating to the second week of the season. "What's amazing
is they're making it look easy," said St. Louis second baseman
Delino DeShields about McGwire and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa (page
34), the Alydar to McGwire's Affirmed in this horse race. "It's
not easy, man. That's a freakin' gift."

As McGwire walked to the plate in the first inning last Friday
against Cincinnati Reds righthander Pete Harnisch, Puerte handed
balls numbered 1 through 4 to ball boy Kevin Corbin, who gave
them to Rippley. The umpire threw ball number 1 to Harnisch and
stuffed the others in one of two bags hitched to his belt. On the
third pitch McGwire flied out to rightfield. Rippley noticed the
ball had been scuffed, so he took it out of play, returning it to
Puerte.

On McGwire's next three plate appearances, Harnisch and reliever
Scott Sullivan threw a total of 13 pitches, all with ball number
2. McGwire made contact with none of them, walking once and
whiffing twice.

A crowd in Pittsburgh, watching the game on the Three Rivers
Stadium video scoreboard while the Pirates played Sosa's Cubs,
booed Harnisch for walking McGwire. A yuppie bar on the East Side
of Manhattan, as it had for weeks, turned down the music and
turned up the TV volume whenever McGwire batted. At Busch Stadium
an autographed McGwire bat was auctioned off during the game and
fetched $1,825.

In the stands, about one out of every five people, from infants
sucking on pacifiers to white-haired grandmothers, wore a shirt
with MCGWIRE on the back. A sports-challenged tourist from
Burkina Faso who happened upon the stadium might have guessed it
to be the scene of some huge family reunion. Which it was, of
course.

St. Louis is the epicenter of the game's revival. It doesn't
know about the NBA's hipness; there hasn't been an NBA franchise
in the city since 1968. The NFL hasn't played a postseason game
in St. Louis since 1982. The townsfolk have a genuine love for
baseball. They embrace a Cardinals' history rich in everything
but power. Now suddenly here is McGwire with a chance to whack
67 homers, the total hit by the 1982 world champion Cardinals.
The world watches.

"What are all of them here for?" McGwire said grumpily to
teammate Pat Kelly after choosing not to speak to the horde of
reporters last Friday. "They could have waited for another home
run or two."

"Because," Kelly said, "you could go off for two or three home
runs any night."

The ball has healing power.

About two weeks ago a fan left a voice-mail message for
Cincinnati manager Jack McKeon, whose Reds had walked McGwire 11
times in six games before the weekend. "Please pitch to
McGwire," the fan pleaded. "This is what we need. This is what
the country needs to help with the healing process and all the
trouble that's going on in Washington. This will help cure the
ills of the country."

Last Friday, President Clinton said, "I'm sorry," for carrying
on an affair with a 21-year-old intern. Nine hundred
eighty-seven companies posted 52-week lows on the New York Stock
Exchange. And just days away loomed the fourth anniversary of
the day that then acting commissioner Bud Selig canceled the
World Series because of a players' strike. So watching McGwire
take his ferocious cuts at history soothes like homemade chicken
soup. It's all the easier to know he's worth rooting for, a
gentle man who last Thursday spent his only off day in a month,
from 11 in the morning until seven at night, filming a
public-service announcement designed to help stop sexual abuse
of children.

"I have run into fans on the street who said they hated the game
of baseball because of what we did to it [during the strike in
1994]," McGwire said last week. "And it's because of what I am
doing and Sammy's doing and other great players that the fans are
coming back. They're excited about it. All I can say is thank
you."

It was 93[degrees] last Saturday when McGwire batted in the
first inning. Umpire Larry Poncino put ball number 2 back in
play, tossing it to 21-year-old lefthander Dennis Reyes. It was
the same ball Sullivan had used to fan McGwire on three pitches
the night before, but it didn't feel right to Reyes. "It was too
white," he would say after the game. "It didn't have enough mud
rubbed on it for me. I have small hands. If the ball is too
white it feels slippery." Reyes threw the ball back to Poncino,
who took it out of the game. The umpire gave Reyes ball number
3. Reyes missed the strike zone with his first two pitches. The
crowd booed madly.

Reyes then threw a fastball that tailed back over the inside
half of the plate, about thigh-high, and McGwire sent it sailing
over the white hat of one of Major League Baseball's 40 special
agents in the outfield seats, a detective from St. Petersburg,
Fla., who resisted the urge to throw a hand up. Everyone else
did, though no one caught the ball. It bounced to the ground.
Fans threw punches. Some were knocked down. Arms were bloodied
on the concrete. Then Deni Allen grabbed the ball while it was
bouncing and tucked it into his stomach. A police sergeant from
New York City, another of the special agents, immediately
covered him. Other agents swooped in. "In 30 seconds," said one
fan in the section, "they had him whisked out of there. Gone. It
was amazing."

Two armed police officers stood by Allen's side the rest of the
afternoon, in the press box and in the bowels of the stadium,
until the moment he handed the ball over to McGwire. In return
Allen accepted two autographed bats, an autographed cap and the
chance to take batting practice. "The ball belongs in the Hall of
Fame," McGwire said after it was returned to him.

"So," said McKeon, "I did my part for the healing process. We
pitched to him. I'd feel a lot better if someone said pitching to
him helps the stock market."

McGwire already had bettered a number of Ruth's achievements
this year (fastest to 400 career homers, most consecutive
50-home run seasons and most home runs over two and three
consecutive seasons), but 60 made it clear that McGwire is the
closest thing to Ruth we've ever seen. "I really believe he's up
there watching," McGwire said.

Hallinan was sure about that, too. Cincinnati pitchers had thrown
McGwire 33 pitches over two days. Yet when Hallinan looked into
the box of a dozen baseballs, he saw 11 balls in their proper
places and only one missing. Written on the bottom of the box in
the lone empty square was the number 3, Ruth's number. "Spooky,"
Hallinan said. "I got goose bumps. The Babe lives."

The ball has redemptive power.

The night McGwire hit number 60, Jeff Idelson, a public
relations official with the Baseball Hall of Fame, went to sleep
in his hotel with the bat Maris used to club his 61st home run
tucked under the covers with him. After all, it too is a
national treasure.

Sadly, that wasn't the case 37 years ago. Maris's record was so
deflated by commissioner Ford Frick's announcement that a record
set after 154 games would be devalued with an asterisk that only
23,154 people showed up to see No. 61 at Yankee Stadium. No one
paid much attention to the bat. Twelve years passed before Maris
quietly donated it to the Hall of Fame.

Patricia Maris, Roger's widow, and her six children, ages 33 to
41, flew to St. Louis on Sunday, four days before what would have
been Roger's 64th birthday. On the way there her heart started to
flutter. She wound up in a hospital instead of at the ballpark
but was doing well enough that her kids went to Busch Stadium.
There they saw McGwire face 17 more pitches on Sunday--he lost
balls numbered 5, 6 and 7 on fouls, including a line drive that
missed the foul pole by about 15 feet--but no home runs. The stage
was not yet set for number 60.

That night, on the eve of a two-game set with Sosa and the Cubs,
McGwire ate dinner with his family, including his father, John,
who would turn 61 the next day. "Wouldn't it be something?" Mark
said, as they talked about the possibility of tying the record on
his father's birthday.

"If I could do 61," John said, "you could do 61."

One key person was still missing, however. McGwire's 10-year-old
son, Matthew, arrived at Busch Stadium from California on Monday,
14 minutes before the first pitch. He raced to the clubhouse,
donned his batboy uniform and hustled to the Cardinals' dugout,
getting there after the Cubs had batted. Mark was reaching into
the bat rack to get his bat just as Matt got there. He smiled at
his son and said, "I love you." Then he bent and kissed him.

At 1:21 p.m., McGwire stepped into the batter's box and one
minute later propelled a pitch from 38-year-old righthander Mike
Morgan into the history books. The ball, number 8, flew
dangerously close to the leftfield foul pole, but McGwire threw
his arms up in celebration even before the ball banged off the
club-level facade. The man knows his homers, having hit 448 of
them. The 37-year chasing of Maris was over.

Some Cubs congratulated McGwire as he ran around the bases. Sosa
clapped his glove in rightfield. McGwire touched home plate and
pointed to his father in the stands behind the backstop. "Happy
birthday, Dad!" he yelled.

"Last year I gave him a card," Mark said with a laugh after the
game. "Now you tell me, is all that fate, or what? The man
upstairs has a plan for me, I guess."

The ball has magical power.

Number 61 fell into the hands of Mike Davidson, 28, of St. Louis.
"In my hands it felt like a million bucks," Davidson said later.
But like the fans who caught McGwire's previous five home runs,
he chose to turn it over to McGwire rather than sell it. The
spell of 62 has made Good Samaritans of would-be opportunists. Is
that magic? You decide.

McGwire made real the fabled numbers of 60 and 61, the only man
to do so in his lifetime. From here on out every baseball thrown
his way is a record waiting to happen. Every baseball glows.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO The Record What it means to Mark McGwire-an to America [Mark McGwire raising arms after hitting home run]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO LIFTOFF McGwire sent Morgan's fastball screaming down the leftfield line for the homer that tied Maris. [Mark McGwire hitting baseball]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER UP FOR GRABS Davidson (in his number 25 McGwire jersey) emerged from the scramble for 61 with the ball he later gave to his hero. [Mike Davidson and other fans struggling to retrieve baseball]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO UNABASHED JOY McGwire pumped and bumped through a gantlet of teammates as he and they celebrated his big blow. [St. Louis Cardinals players congratulating Mark McGwire]
The single-season home run record is so revered in this country,
it's engraved on Maris's tombstone.