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.