The Immortal MARK They came from afar to worship at his cleats, and with one crack of the bat their hero made history.

September 10, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- We still want heroes.

We want the old-fashioned kind, with a friendly nickname like "Big Mac" and a combination of fictional properties: Tom Sawyer's red hair, Popeye's swollen forearms and Paul Bunyan's majestic shadow.

We want them to say the right things at the right times, to embrace their foes, to point their index finger toward the heavens and humbly thank "the man upstairs."

We want them to hug their mom, to wish their dad a happy birthday, and to scoop their 10-year-old son in a bear hug and give him a smooch -- preferably in front of 50,000 baseball fans and a national television audience.

We want them to make us feel good.

And we want them to hit home runs. More than have ever been hit before.

Too much? Of course it is, about three paragraphs too much. But everything about Mark McGwire and the scene he created here Tuesday night is over the top.

That's when McGwire slugged his 62nd home run of the season, a line drive that sneaked over the left field wall like a golf putt disappearing into the cup. In one swing, he broke the most hallowed and memorized record in sports -- the 61 homers hit by Roger Maris in 1961.

Scot Johnson was there Tuesday night. Of course he was. History beckoned him.

All he had to do was hitchhike from Maine.

"I was with some friends on vacation, and that's when I got the brainstorm," he says.

A television reporter in Flint, Mich., the 25-year-old Johnson left Sept. 1 from Maine, catching a ride to Boston. Then Boston to New York. Then New York to Cleveland. ("I got real lucky. I met a guy in a coffee shop going to visit relatives in Cleveland.") Then Cleveland to Cincinnati. Then, finally, Cincinnati to St. Louis.

He arrived on Saturday, and located tickets for games on Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, Johnson stood near a statue of Cardinal great Stan Musial, holding this sign: "I hitchhiked from Maine to see this game. I need one ticket."

"I wanted to be part of it," he says. "That's why I'm here. It's the best story in America."

St. Louis, a city with 104 years of baseball history, developed a serious case of McGwire fever. Symptoms included: good luck signs on everything from the tallest buildings downtown ("We're banking on Mark!" NationsBank) to a suburban Long John Silver ("Go, Mac Go!"); quirky songs stitched together by radio stations honoring McGwire's prodigious home run shots ("Calling Air Traffic Control" was the name of one); and commemorative T-shirts, coins, baseballs, pennants and newspapers. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch became a daily Mark McGwire scrapbook.

But McGwire wasn't the only star of this prime-time summer special. There was another hero on the field -- Sammy Sosa, the exuberant, ever-smiling, chest-thumping Chicago Cubs outfielder who has hit 58 home runs so far this season.

Despite their rivalry, Sosa served McGwire two ways: He simultaneously kept the pressure on, nearly matching McGwire homer for homer, while his good humor and obvious joy in the chase kept McGwire loose. This pairing was so successful that they were credited with everything from reviving baseball to healing racial animosity. When the two embraced Tuesday night, it was a remarkable sports moment. Nobody lost.

No wonder Jerry Mocaby wanted to be there. Hours before the game he stood outside the stadium with his finger in the air, the international sign language for, as he put it, "I need one ticket or I'm slitting my wrists."

Mocaby, 42, lives in South Bend, Ind., 400 miles away, but there wasn't any doubt that he would witness the historic home run.

"To say that I was there is just a big deal. If you're not there, nobody can hear you."

This was a classic case of hero worship. Callers to KMOX, the 50,000-watt St. Louis radio station, extolled McGwire's virtues 24 hours a day. Loving father. Role model. Responsible citizen. One announcer began his show with a dedication to McGwire: A bagpipe version of "Ode to Joy." Said another: "There's only one story in St. Louis." And another: "God bless Mark McGwire."

Ozzie Smith was there Tuesday night. The former Cardinal shortstop, whose number the team retired two years ago, is the previous holder of this city's hero torch. He wouldn't miss this game.

"Anytime you can be part of baseball immortality, it's a great feeling," says Smith.

How far would you go to witness history? Would you call your boss, take the day off and drive to St. Louis from Holland, Mich., just because you look like McGwire's twin brother?

Jeff Mundy did. And the McGwire look-alike caused more than a few double-takes as he walked around Busch Stadium, seeking a ticket. Of course, it seemed as if half the male population of St. Louis was now sporting the same Vandyke style beard that McGwire favors.

"We're closing on a house, but my wife said she wanted me to go," Mundy said. "I've always admired him."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.