McGwire spreading the magic

Saturday, July 4, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

mcgwire
Eager fans line up for Mark McGwire's autograph.
(AP photo)
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The gates opened promptly at 5:05 p.m., and by 5:07 Frank Hodits had established squatter's rights in the upper deck overlooking left field. He leaned against the railing behind the red reserved seats at Cinergy Field, confident Mark McGwire could clear the six rows in front of him.

He carried a worn glove and an evergreen enthusiasm, signs of a fan not yet disaffected by labor strife and grouchy ballplayers. However grim baseball gets, there is something about a big slugger that still stirs the imagination.

"This is my night," Frank Hodits said. "I'm bringing my little boy tomorrow."

Mark McGwire may surpass Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs this season, but his greatest gift to the grand old game is not his home run total but his hype. The St. Louis slugger hit no home runs in Friday night's 6-3 loss to the Reds, but the opportunity to view his batting practice led thousands of fans to pass through the gates fully two hours before the game.

McGwire is baseball's biggest drawing card -- both figuratively and literally -- a ponderous mass of muscle Cleveland's Jim Thome has compared to the Empire State Building. Pitchers are wise to walk him, but they do so at the risk of being booed in their home ballparks.

This is what happened to Mike Remlinger Friday night, when he walked McGwire intentionally with first base open in the top of the third inning. The strategy was sound, but the result was not what the people had come to see.

Worth the drive

McGwire has been hitting balls so far and so frequently this season that Don Schroeder looked at the schedule Friday morning in Fostoria and reached for his car keys.

"This was kind of an impulsive thing," Schroeder said, watching batting practice with his 11-year-old son, also Don. "We live 150 miles from here and I was telling my son on the way down here that there have been a couple of historic things that happened in this ballpark: Hank Aaron tying Babe Ruth; Pete Rose setting the hits record.

"Now, he has a chance to tell his children he saw Mark McGwire the year he broke the record. If he stays healthy, I think he's going to hit it."

Despite 37 homers in 84 games, McGwire cautions that projections are premature. He is uncomfortable that his exploits are overshadowing his team. Yet he has to know that his hitting serves a greater purpose than the purported pennant race in the National League Central. He is putting people in the seats who had previously found reasons to sit home.

Friday's crowd of 41,302 included 9,338 day-of-game tickets, the Reds' largest walkup sale since 1994. Yes, there were fireworks. No, they were not the main event.

If he stays healthy ...

"If McGwire breaks the record, we can say we saw him play this year," said Ken Whittington, who traveled to Cincinnati from Charleston, W.Va. with his stepson, Wesley Miller. "And if he stays healthy, I think it's in the bag."

Miller, 13, lamented that he had forgotten to bring the glove he had set out so carefully before leaving for the ballpark. He saw McGwire taking grounders at first base, and worried that Big Mac might skip batting practice. He later watched McGwire step into the batting cage with the same wide-eyed wonder young boys will always bestow on ballplayers.

McGwire, observing baseball custom, bunted at the first pitch from coach Dave McKay, and then smashed the second delivery toward the dense throng in the upper deck. Mike Haake, 18, fielded the ball after someone else had fumbled it, and held it up for a TV crew with one eye on the field, in case McGwire should send another shot his way.

Out of 21 practice swings, McGwire hit 13 balls into home run territory. Haake's ball was the only one to reach the red seats.

"I asked for today off," said the young fan from Florence, on leave from Builders Square. "Because this is something that you only see once in a lifetime."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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