Merengue song. A Sinatra ballad. 'Happy Birthday to You.' To these sounds of summer in 1998, add an old-time favorite: 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.' And listen to the crowd roar.


October 04, 1998|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

Early in the game, on the best night of the best summer ever, a father asks his son for a special favor.

Alex Gossett is only 5, and his father wonders how much the blue-eyed Kentucky boy will remember of his first major-league baseball game.

Will the impressions last - the fireworks (Alex covered his ears), the thunderous crowd, the sight of another father hoisting his son in the air?

Andy Gossett takes no chances. The favor he asks of young Alex as the St. Louis fans cheer is not a command. It is a plea.

"Don't ever forget this."

Yes, Alex, remember. Press each day in your memory like a flower in a scrapbook. This was a keeper, a carnival of the unexpected, a season in which the sublime and the ridiculous were teammates.

Craziness abounded. The president of the United States confessed to an "inappropriate relationship" with a White House intern and faced impeachment - and his job-approval rating increased. Two more countries conducted nuclear tests. The stock market peaked, then zigzagged all summer, like a balloon with the air let out.

And then, like a gift from the heavens, the sky rained baseballs.

A man hit 66 home runs, crushing a record that stood for 37 years, and he finished second. We watched, intrigued at first, then amazed, and then enchanted as the home run chase teased our imaginations and became intertwined with our lives.

On the day that Alex watched his first baseball game, a baby was born in St. Louis. Her first gift was a Cardinals jersey with No. 25 on the back.

A Missouri couple celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. As is their custom, they kissed after a home run.

In Chicago, two teen-age girls saw a Dominican Republic flag flying atop Wrigley Field and were so proud they almost cried.

And in a nearby nursing home, a dying man was reminiscing about Babe Ruth when he suddenly stopped to watch a baseball game on television. The adult children of the late Roger Maris were leading the Chicago Cubs crowd through "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

"Wow," he said.

Let's relive it, replay the days of the best summer ever, and savor once more the noble efforts, big and small, from those both famous and unknown. We will begin not when the calendar tells us to, but when summer actually begins in America, on Opening Day.

It is March 31, at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The middle of the country, the middle of the game. Fifth inning, bases loaded.

Mark McGwire swings.

Keep your eye on the ball, Alex. It's about to take an unforgettable ride.

And so are we.

Mark McGwire hits a grand-slam with that swing in the St. Louis season opener. He homers again in the second game, the same day a federal judge dismisses the Paula Jones lawsuit against President Clinton. Another home run in the third game. And the fourth.

It's barely April, but the countdown is on.

In a country that has always considered itself bigger, stronger and, yes, better, the home run stands as our enduring athletic symbol. Boys and girls dream of the game-winning homer. Babe Ruth saved baseball from the Black Sox scandal with his massive clouts.

Is McGwire his heir? He hit 58 home runs last year, and already fans debate whether Big Mac will break the most cherished record in sports - the 61 home runs hit by Roger Maris in 1961.

Not long after the season begins, LeRoy and Gladys Pruneau embark on an annual family ritual. The Pruneaus - call him "Zeke" - live in Crystal City, Mo., a town of 5,000 about 30 miles south of St. Louis, boyhood home of Bill Bradley, former basketball star and U.S. senator. The Pruneaus' nephew has Cardinals season tickets; he allows them to select a handful of games.

Their choices include a September game against the Chicago Cubs. If you're a Cardinals fan, there's nothing better than a late-season game against the hated Cubs. It's a grudge that dates back to 1892.

Zeke has loved the Cardinals for almost as long. He's 81, a retired electrician, and when he was 9, he listened to the radio as Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched the Cardinals to the 1926 World Series title, the team's first.

His wife, Gladys, 78, grew up on a farm. Zeke waited for her to leave high school, then "we just went off and got married." They were married again, on Sept. 17, 1938, this time by a priest.

"I prefer that one," Gladys says. "It seems more appropriate."

How old-fashioned.

This baseball season has opened in the company of a four-month-old sex scandal involving the president. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of a sex-enhancing drug, Viagra, giving late-night comedians material to last through the millennium. It's a tabloid time.

"When we were growing up, heaven forbid, we couldn't even say somebody was pregnant," Gladys says. "Now they talk about anything and everything."

Lifelong Democrats, the Pruneaus voted for Clinton twice and want to believe his denial - "I did not have sex with that woman." Gladys has her doubts, but she's distracted. She's leaving soon for a vacation in Ireland. And she can't wait.

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