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.

LARGER THAN LIFE

August 22, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

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.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

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.

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