The most zealous of the believers—the 500 or so who had waited more than an hour in the 85° swelter for one last look—let out a roar when Mark McGwire walked out of Gate A of Three Rivers Stadium on Sunday in Pittsburgh. They pressed against metal barricades with such force that the yellow-shirted security crew had to hunker down and push back on the barriers to keep them from toppling over. McGwire wore sandals, jeans, a batik shirt and the last thing you'd imagine from someone whose life has been a petri dish for six months: a smile.
McGwire had two choices. To his right, the sanctuary of the St. Louis Cardinals' bus, with his teammates waiting in its cool interior behind the deeply tinted windows. Straight ahead, the zealots who have turned Cardinals games into revival meetings, a chance to worship the almighty long ball and have their faith in baseball restored. The gospel according to Mark.
So strong is his evangelistic appeal that even New Yorkers—those gentle souls who have adopted the middle finger as the city bird and fuhgeddaboutit as the city motto—warmly welcomed him when he came to Shea Stadium last week. Fans at Shea hadn't squealed over a visitor like that since the Beatles played there.
Then Pittsburghers did something for McGwire that they had not done for Clemente, Stargell, Parker, Bonds or anyone else in the 28-year history of Three Rivers Stadium: They bought every ticket to back-to-back regular-season games. They also defied baseball convention by demanding that a visiting player take a curtain call.
Now, from behind the barricades, they wanted more. What to do? Actually, McGwire had made the choice two weeks earlier. He headed straight into the maw of the crowd, grabbed a pen and began signing autographs. "There was a time when I wasn't in a good mood, probably said some things I shouldn't have said," says McGwire, who at one mass press conference chided reporters to "worry about your families," not his home runs. "People say Sammy [Sosa] is having fun. When did he start getting the questions, late June? It started in December for me. You have your good days and your bad days. But I listened to a bunch of my friends, and they all were saying, 'Just have fun.' I just decided about two weeks ago I was going to enjoy this. And I am. I'm not very quickwitted, and I was getting the same questions over and over again. I actually talked to some of my friends who are comedians, and they helped me with some lines."
Question: "Mark, are you going to break the record?"
McGwire: "Oh, yeah [dramatic pause, invoking his batting practice pitcher], as long as Dave McKay is pitching."
McGwire has an advantage that neither Roger Maris nor Hank Aaron enjoyed when they set the season and career home run records, respectively: Everyone is pulling for this giant of a man who displays a picture of his son, Matthew, 10, in his locker at home and on the road. McGwire's pursuit of Maris's 61 home runs has become a joyride for everyone, including himself.
That was never more evident than last week. Beginning on Aug. 19 in Chicago, when for three innings he trailed Sosa for the first time this year, McGwire blasted six home runs in 19 at bats. That five-day burst gave him 53 home runs, two more than Sosa through Sunday. McGwire needed nine home runs in St. Louis's last 32 games to break Maris's record. In his worst 32-game stretch this year, which ended with the start of his five-game surge last week, he hit seven.
Now that it appears Maris's mark is back on the endangered list, baseball officials are scrambling to come up with a plan to manage number 62. They've discussed an on-field ceremony immediately after the historic shot, the deployment of plainclothes security personnel in the outfield seats to verify and protect the person who catches the home run ball, and the possibility of marking a supply of balls with a stamp that can be viewed only with an infrared light—as they did when Aaron was zeroing in on number 715—to avoid bogus claims.