"Thank you for staying in St. Louis, Mark."
"I work with abused children, and I just want to thank you for what you're doing."
How many in that line carried the invisible scars? At least a dozen people felt compelled to tell this baseball player whom they'd never met that they were abused as children. "What's sad is you see they're holding a child," McGwire says. "And you just pray that this parent is stopping the cycle. Because if you were abused as a child, you're more likely to abuse children yourself."
After he's finished, McGwire slips on his wool peacoat and is escorted by four security guards out a private exit, through the hotel kitchen, up a dark stairwell and to a door that opens to daylight and his green BMW, which someone has pulled curbside with the engine warm and running. Even after all the subterfuge, here are four kids waiting with baseball cards and markers. McGwire signs. As he speeds away toward his outlying hotel, he is told that people began lining up at 1:30 a.m. for his autograph. "No way!" he booms, as if this is the most preposterous bit of news he's ever heard. "I can't believe it."
The next night McGwire is seated at the dais at the St. Louis baseball writers' dinner when he gets up to use the rest room. It's as if he just announced, "Simon says...." Many in the crowd push away from their tables, too. McGwire enters the rest room, slips into a stall. When he is done, he opens the stall door and can't believe his eyes: The room is packed shoulder to shoulder with men all pretending to have heard nature's call at the same moment.
"I've never seen or heard about St. Louis falling for a player like they've done for this guy," said Brian Bartow, the Cardinals director of media relations, who's been with the team since 1987. "Not for Musial, not for Gibson, not for Ozzie—nobody."
There is an undeniable element of novelty to McGwire's appeal. Two generations of fans have grown up in St. Louis without seeing a premier power hitter in their hometown. Only three men have hit more than 35 home runs in a season for the Cardinals—Rogers Hornsby, Johnny Mize and Stan Musial—none since 1949. In the second half of last season Cardinals fans were so eager to watch McGwire take a few hacks, even against out-of-shape coaches, that the club opened the Busch Stadium gates and concessions two hours before game time for batting practice, a policy that will continue this year. Some fans began requesting seats in the upper deck in the outfield; one leftfield section was regularly filled with fans wearing hard hats in tribute to McGwire's range.
"We've had great players, but we've never seen a guy like him come here in his prime and then want to stay here," says Marty Prather, a charter member of the helmeted Mac Attack Pack.
Last Aug. 8, McGwire stepped into the batting cage for his first practice at Busch just as the visiting team, the Phillies, was gathering on the sideline for stretching exercises. "We didn't even stretch," Philadelphia first baseman Rico Brogna says. "Everybody just stopped and watched."
The National League had not seen a 50-home-run hitter since Cincinnati's George Foster hit 52 in 1977. McGwire became St. Louis's traveling exhibit. In Chicago fans jammed Waveland Avenue outside Wrigley Field as McGwire's batting-practice shots fell like hailstones in September. In Denver, McGwire hit a ball out of Coors Field and into the players" parking lot.