LARGER THAN LIFE As Mark McGwire makes a run at Hall of Famer Roger Maris' home run record, baseball fans' excitement has become mania. Just follow the bouncing ball.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In yesterday's Today section, a headline with an article about Mark McGwire's quest to set a new home run record incorrectly described the late Roger Maris as a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Maris, who holds the record for most homers in a single season, is not.

The Sun regrets the error.

Computer systems consultant Ken Vangeloff never imagined that he would make the baseball highlights on Chicago superstation WGN, but there he was Wednesday afternoon, clinging to Mark McGwire's 48th home-run ball and giving his first-ever television interview.

No doubt, he was well aware that this was as close as his life was going to get to imitating the World Series.

Vangeloff earned his 15 minutes of fame the hard way, diving into the street outside Chicago's Wrigley Field to smother the ball that the Cardinal first-baseman belted over the left-field bleachers and onto Waveland Avenue. Twenty-some other ball hawks made the same leap of faith, several landing right on top of him.

Now, fans have been fighting for such souvenirs for decades. It's what happened after Vangeloff lifted the ball above his head in triumph that is a prime example of the spell that has been cast over baseball fans by Mark McGwire and the other sluggers who have mounted the most serious threat ever to Roger Maris' single-season home-run record.

McGwire still was 14 home runs shy of breaking the record set when Maris hit 61 in '61, yet an unidentified fan pulled $1,500 in cash out of his pocket and offered it to Vangeloff for the ball.

No joke.

No deal.

"If I had medical bills to pay or something, I might consider it," said Vangeloff afterward, "but I don't need the money."

Let's review: A fan picks a baseball (estimated retail value: $10) off the asphalt outside Wrigley Field -- a nondescript National League baseball with no markings to prove it has any historical significance -- then refuses to sell it for 150 times its par value.

The same thing happened again Thursday in the bleachers at New York's Shea Stadium, when McGwire homered to become the first player in history to hit 50-or-more home runs in three consecutive seasons. A collector reportedly offered Mike Scelsi $10,000 for the ball and was similarly rebuffed.

It must be madness.

It is the cult of the home run, and McGwire is its high priest. Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa is right behind him -- he hit his 49th home run yesterday -- but it is McGwire who is bigger than life and hits them farther than anyone. It is McGwire who has been recognized the past two seasons as the second coming of Babe Ruth and the rightful one to erase Maris and his fluke season from the record books.

Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, wherever -- fans come from miles around just to watch him take batting practice. Put that in the context of sports in the star-crossed '90s. How many basketball fans show up at United Center two hours before game time to watch Michael Jordan shoot around?

In Chicago, the Wrigley experience is just a bonus, because you don't even have to buy a ticket to see a home run up close. Hundreds of fans show up just to stand outside the tiny stadium and wait for the sky to fall on them.

"This is the first time I've come out on Waveland," said 21-year-old local college student Jason Rhodes. "Because of the home-run chase, any ball you get out here would be a treasure. To have one from McGwire or Sosa would be incomparable."

Everybody knows about McGwire, the strapping Southern California kid who played at the University of Southern California and teamed with Jose Canseco to create a minor dynasty in Oakland from 1986-1990, but Sosa might be the more compelling human-interest story.

Sosa shined shoes on the dusty streets of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic to help support his family when he was a teen-ager. He even shined the shoes of former major league star George Bell, the player the Cubs would trade in 1992 to wrest Sosa from the rival White Sox. Now he is the toast of Chi-town, making $10 million a year.

Though well-positioned to break the record, he is all but ready to concede the race to Big Mac.

"He's the man," says Sosa, with no hint of resentment that McGwire remains the focus of the unprecedented multi-player assault on the Maris record. "I would love to see him do it."

Sosa is right there, too. He temporarily took over the home-run lead on Wednesday with his 48th of the season, but McGwire came right back with homers in his next two at-bats to reclaim the lead. He added two more Thursday in New York to draw well ahead of the pace that Maris set on the way to the record in 1961.

Talk about internal conflict. Many fans don't know whether to cheer or boo when McGwire came to town. And the fans at Wrigley didn't know whether to laugh or cry when McGwire's 10th-inning home run on Wednesday knocked the Cubs into second place in the National League wild-card race.

The same thing is true every time the third-place Cardinals run into a contending team on the road. The fans have to deal with the McGwire paradox: They come to see him hit a home run that they don't really want to see.

Thursday's crowd at Shea Stadium abandoned any pretense of competitive bias and gave him a standing ovation after each of his two home runs, prompting a warm response from McGwire.

"I have to thank the fans here in New York," he told the New York media. "It was tremendous, I mean, wow, what a reception. They were rooting me on."

McGwire at home

There are no such mixed feelings in St. Louis, where McGwire is bigger than the Gateway Arch.

He's been there only a year. The Oakland Athletics traded him to the Cardinals last July when it became apparent that they did not have the money to sign him to a new contract. He was expected to stay a few months, then sign with a team in Southern California to be closer to his young son, but life on the Mississippi apparently appealed to him and he agreed to a long-term deal with the Cardinals.

That decision instantly endeared him to the provincial populace of St. Louis. His performance this year has turned him into a local icon on the order of Stan Musial or Dizzy Dean.

The Cardinals already are out of the playoff picture, but there still are three or four good reasons to go to Busch Stadium, depending on how many times McGwire gets to the plate.

"There are some things that are really funny about the McGwire experience," said St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz. "In the ballpark, it's hysterical to see people leave after one of his at-bats. The other day, in a pouring rain, all these people are standing in the rain. As soon as his at-bat was done, people just fled to the exits. It's almost as if the 24 other players weren't even there."

The home-run chase has become such a local obsession that a McGwire at-bat can bring half the city to a momentary halt.

"You go in any bar or restaurant where the game is on TV," Miklasz said, "and no matter what's going on, when he comes up to bat, everything stops. No waiters calling out orders. No glasses clinking. All that just stops until the at-bat is over."

McGwire, who might have commanded a bigger contract from " the Disney-backed Anaheim Angels, has never second-guessed his decision to remain in St. Louis.

"It's just a great baseball town," he said.

Media crush

Despite exploding fan interest, McGwire isn't much for public adulation. He was content to stay in the background when Jose Canseco was the big dog in Oakland, but that isn't possible anymore.

Every city brings another horde of reporters and camera crews. Every press conference brings the same questions that he has been answering since he made his first serious run at the single-season home run record last September:

"What does it feel like to hit a home run?"

"It's hard to hit home runs, but when you hit the ball well, it feels really effortless."

"Do you think you can break the record?"

"I'd have to say I do have a shot, but it's going to be tough."

"What do you do on your day off?"

"I really don't want to get into that."

"Where did you get your size?"

"My dad is a big man."

"What does HE do on his day off?"

Laughter. Even from McGwire, who knows that as he creeps closer and closer to the record, it will only get worse.

The flip side

In the Cubs locker room, Sosa holds court for a smaller group of reporters, effectively deflecting some of the media attention by deferring to McGwire.

He sounds sincere when he tells everyone he believes that McGwire is the man to break the record, that he himself would happily trade the Maris mark for a trip to the playoffs. But he keeps on swinging for the fences.

Someone draws a contrast between the strain that the suffocating media coverage appears to be placing on McGwire and the apparent ease with which Sosa handles his -- albeit smaller -- share.

"I love it," Sosa laughs. "What a country."

He is surprisingly glib for a man who only now is mastering the English language. He also is very much aware that this is the moment in time when his image as a superstar athlete is being sculpted, and he is savvy enough not to leave that to chance.

"He really has decided in his mind, 'I'm going to show people I'm a good guy,' " said Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mike Kiley.

Sosa pulled himself up from nothing to be a national hero in the Dominican Republic and spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to fund charitable programs for children in both the United States and his native country.

McGwire is doing the same, recently committing $1 million a year his Cardinals contract to charities benefiting abused children. Makes it hard to decide who to root for, but Sosa is willing to play Solomon on that score.

"My thinking is, I'm trying to make it to the playoffs and Mark has a shot to break the record, but his team is not as likely to make the playoffs as our team," Sosa said. "If it happens [that way] that would be fine with me."

Smart guy. Not only is he saying just what he is supposed to say to cast himself as a team player, he is doing a masterful job of keeping the pressure off himself at a critical point in the home-run chase.

So who will it be?

"If it comes down to that, it probably will be whoever gets hot at the end," says McGwire.

With 34 games left, both players are right on pace to challenge Maris, who broke Babe Ruth's single-season record when he hit 61 homers in '61, the first expansion year. Seattle Mariners star Ken Griffey also has been in the hunt, but has fallen significantly behind over the past few weeks.

"I don't know who's going to do it," McGwire adds, "but whoever does it, it will be a great feat."

If it were a popularity contest -- anywhere but Chicago -- the fans almost certainly would choose McGwire, who has been chasing Maris for the past two seasons.

"Mac is my man," said 21-year-old James Eash, who traveled all the way from Wichita, Kan., to stand outside Wrigley Field. "I wouldn't mind if Sosa did it, but Mac has put in so much effort, that would be even more special."

Pub Date: 8/22/98

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