This is the story of a baseball, a baseball ordinary in size and weight and composition and nothing else. A baseball that glows when viewed under an infrared light. A baseball, many believers would swear to you, that glows even under the brilliant sunshine of a scorching Saturday afternoon in the last great baseball city.
"I do miss that ball," said Deni Allen, 22, of Maryland Heights, Mo., only one minute after surrendering the ball that he held for three hours last Saturday. Then he lowered his head and shook it in amazement. "Man," he said, "that thing had some power."
The ball has magnetic power.
Can you feel the pull? America is a Baseball Nation again, and Mark McGwire is the head of state, which explains why every time he marches to bat at Busch Stadium in St. Louis every fan rises to his feet out of respect and awe. It's why two detectives are assigned by Major League Baseball to protect him around the clock when the Cardinals are on the road, even when he merely crosses the street in front of the team's hotel, as he did in Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 1 to eat lunch at Chuck's Steakhouse. He is, after all, a national treasure, and you don't take chances with a national treasure. So the detectives watched him (without incident) eat steak and chicken, pound two home runs that night and then order up the same fare the next day: steak and chicken followed by a double dip of dingers.
The four-homer barrage that got him to 59—part of a 12-homer tear in 50 at bats just when we figured the pressure would make breathing difficult—put McGwire last weekend on the doorstep of a history known to no man alive. Sixty. No other number carries more gravitas in the world of sports. Only the legendary Babe Ruth (71 years ago) and the poignantly heroic Roger Maris (37 years ago) had hit that many home runs in a season. It's such a godly number that no one since Maris had even come close to it, not close enough, anyway, to send 600 media members scurrying to chronicle every tic and blink of one man, as happened for McGwire last weekend.
The single-season home run record is the most revered mark in sports. It's engraved on Maris's tombstone. No date of birth or death, just 61 and '61. The home run is America—appealing to Americans' roots of rugged individualism and their fascination with grand scale. They gape at one of McGwire's blasts the same way they do at Mount Rushmore, Hoover Dam and the Empire State Building.
So 60 and the home runs to follow require special baseballs, ones that can be identified in perpetuity, avoiding the fates of the famous home run balls of Bobby Thomson in 1951 and Bill Mazeroski in '60 that were lost to oblivion. About two weeks ago Kevin Hallinan, a former member of the joint FBI-New York City police department antiterrorism task force, and other Major League Baseball security officials covered some balls with an invisible ink that glows under infrared light. They also sequentially numbered the balls, stamping a small numeral beside the S in RAWLINGS.
The officials ran tests to make sure the flight of the balls wasn't compromised by the ink. They dipped the balls in water. Then they dipped them in beer. Then they dipped them in blood. All to make sure the ink held up. The balls passed every test.
So last Friday night at Busch Stadium, Rueben Puerte, a security guy for Major League Baseball, put on dark sunglasses, pulled a white ball cap low on his head and wheeled a black carry-on suitcase into the first row of seats between the backstop and the Cardinals' dugout. Inside the suitcase were four boxes of the special baseballs, a dozen per box and numbered 1 through 48, to be used only for McGwire's at bats. "Forty-eight?" umpire Steve Rippley said. "We won't be needing that many."
McGwire has been a home run machine of Swiss precision. Through Monday he had hit at least one home run for 22 consecutive weeks, dating to the second week of the season. "What's amazing is they're making it look easy," said St. Louis second baseman Delino DeShields about McGwire and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa (page 34), the Alydar to McGwire's Affirmed in this horse race. "It's not easy, man. That's a freakin' gift."