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 of sports.
"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 longdistance operator himself.