St. Louis revels over Mark McGwire: As Mark McGwire nears a home run record, he is appreciated for both his powerful swing and his gentle giant persona.

September 05, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- This is the kind of city where, if you're standing next to your car and fishing through your pockets, someone driving by will stop to ask if you need change for the parking meter.

It's the kind of city where the reigning sentiment is: If I caught it, I'd give it to Mac. It's the kind of city where everyone knows "it" is the home run ball that breaks one of baseball's most storied records, Roger Maris' 61 home runs.

And "Mac" is, of course, Mark McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinal who is taking the city on one glorious ride as he gets thisclose to doing just that.

As the entire global village of baseball fans follows McGwire on his breathtaking chase, the quest seems especially sweet here. Even at a time when players, and even entire teams, pick up and leave town at the drop of millions of dollars, all baseball, like all politics, is local.

"He's going to break it, and the record's going to be in St. Louis," said Jason Estopare, a postal worker. "I am proud to be a South St. Louisian."

Although McGwire has only played for the Cards since last season, the city has been enthralled by the big lug, and not just for his hitting prowess.

"What is important, I think, is the kind of person he is. He's not a jerk like a lot of athletes," said Dee Dunnegan, a nurse. "He's a gentle giant."

"He's a great baseball player, but he's also a great person," said Nita Haggerty, who owns a stationery store downtown. "He's down to earth. He loves children."

You hear all over town what a wonderful person McGwire is, a feeling no less authentic for the fact that most of those professing it have never actually met him. They justknow it somehow.

"In some ways, he's become for this city what Cal Ripken has been for Baltimore. He hasn't played here as long as Ripken has in Baltimore, but in the same way, he's kind of become a man for the masses," said Gerald Early, a professor of English and African-American studies at Washington University here, and a consultant and commentator on Ken Burns' "Baseball" television series. "That can't be said for all athletes."

The love fest between the city and its slugger says much about both.

"We suffer a bit of an inferiority complex compared to Chicago or L.A. or any of the other big American cities that are so much sexier, hipper," said Early, who has lived here for 16 years.

"When he came here last year, he was in his free-agent year, and people thought, he's not going to stay here. But when he decided to, people in St. Louis, with that inferiority complex, were enormously grateful that this star would stay here.

"The news conference he gave after signing his contract was actually kind of moving," Early said. "He started to cry. That touched people. He doesn't come across as an arrogant, overpaid athlete."

As a baseball purist, Early prefers a good pennant race, a tight pitchers' duel, the single-bunt-score of "little" baseball. "I think the home run appeals to the casual fan because you don't have to get into the nuances of the game," he said. "In essence, what people are coming to see is a stunt, a spectacle. To me, that's not a real appreciation of the game."

But get him talking a little more and it's clear even this baseball sophisticate is not immune to the appeal of Mac and his mighty blasts.

"When he comes to bat, the feeling in the stadium is electric. I've never seen that for any other player," said Early, who has been to about a dozen games this year and seen about six McGwire home runs. "I saw the home run that hit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sign that now has a Band-Aid on it. It was one of the most incredible things I've seen."

Many fans here can similarly identify the home runs they've witnessed.

'Lemme touch the ball'

"I was there Memorial Day weekend, sitting way back in the cheap seats, and the ball started to come smack at me. It's coming right at me," said Estopare, the postal worker. "A little girl near me lifts up her glove and catches it. You've seen that one all over TV. The amazing thing is grown men came running down the aisles saying, 'Lemme touch the ball.'

"It was like the ball had some kind of magic and people wanted to touch it," Estopare concluded as he turned over $16.02 to the clerk at a downtown sports memorabilia store for a Mark McGwire baseball hat.

Last night, Estopare had to work, but everyone would have the radio on to listen to the game.

"You should see what it's like when he hits a home run," Estopare said. Apparently it's the happy version of going postal.

These are great days in St. Louis, with Busch Stadium selling out more and more games as McGwire edges up against Maris' record. Especially anticipated are Monday and Tuesday's games against the Chicago Cubs and that team's Maris-chaser, Sammy Sosa.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has been printing full-page McGwire photo tributes for each home run but has fallen behind as the hitter started slamming two a game.

At the 219-year-old Soulard farmers' market, vendors sell peanuts that they swear are McGwire's favorites.

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