"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° 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.