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Whack! Baseball’s Flagging Image Is . . . Outta There!

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earlier this season, Rob Burdick gave Mark McGwire a cap from The Abbey, a cozy neighborhood restaurant in Seal Beach, Calif. McGwire wore it during nationally televised interviews, and now Burdick sells more hats than hamburgers.

Mike and Rob Burdick, proprietors of the restaurant, are friends of McGwire, the player poised to claim one of baseball’s most cherished records: the single-season home run mark. Roger Maris of the New York Yankees set the record of 61 in 1961. McGwire, of the St. Louis Cardinals, has 59.

“It’s unbelievable,” Mike Burdick said. “I watch ESPN every day, and I can’t remember anybody wearing anything. But he’s bigger than life right now.”

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Thanks to “The Great Home Run Chase,” baseball can revive its claim as America’s national pastime. As McGwire and Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa--he has 57 homers--approach Maris’ record, baseball fever finally has become epidemic, not just a marketing slogan.

Is it incurable? Baseball officials must pray so, as they greet new fans and welcome back fallen-away ones with excitement an advertising agency could never dream of stirring.

“This is the most incredible marketing engine baseball has had in a long, long time,” said Andy Dolich, an entertainment industry executive and former award-winning marketing director for the Oakland Athletics. “If they don’t utilize it in every way, shape and form possible, they should all be sent to the woodshed.”

Rejuvenating the Game From Coast to Coast

In Seal Beach, Burdick’s phone rings off the hook, with calls from fans in Missouri and Tennessee and Maine who want to wear the gray cap McGwire wears.

In Charleston, S.C., the Post and Courier featured two “Great Chase” stories Thursday, shoving aside coverage of the South’s revered Atlanta Braves and the South’s revered sport, football.

In New Orleans, a city without a major league baseball team, Jon Harris, a spokesman for Pepsi, which is running a promotion tied into the home run derby, said he dined this week at a bistro--not a sports bar--where patrons nonetheless peeked at a television set whenever McGwire or Sosa appeared on screen.

In St. Louis, McGwire’s heroics will propel one of baseball’s most successful franchises to a season attendance record, with the Cardinals selling standing-room tickets and running out of those.

And in Chicago, Sosa’s home base?

“The home run chase, if it weren’t for [President] Clinton and Monica [Lewinsky], would be the lead story every night,” said University of Chicago economist Allen Sanderson, who teaches sports business.

McGwire packs ‘em in like a fireworks show on the Fourth of July, with drives so long and so explosive that fans show up two hours early to watch his practice swings and cram into otherwise lousy seats during the game, hoping to catch a home run ball.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, who normally can’t average 20,000 fans a game, drew 115,651 for a three-game series when the McGwire road show hit town last month. For one of those games, the Pirates sold seats they had been unable to sell for playoff games earlier this decade.

“People who probably didn’t follow the St. Louis Cardinals are buying Cardinal caps and McGwire jerseys,” said Sean Brenner of Team Marketing Report. “It’s getting people in every National League city to buy tickets to games there’s no way they would have gone to otherwise. It’s probably helping create some new fans, people getting used to turning to the sports pages every day to see what happened in last night’s game.”

If, that is, fans can wait till morning. When McGwire hit his 58th and 59th home runs Wednesday in Miami, television conveyed magical images of children joyously diving onto and scrambling under a tarp in search of the precious baseballs.

“There’s a wonderful residual effect when it’s fun to go to the ballpark and people are talking about it,” said Mike Veeck, son of legendary baseball owner-promoter Bill Veeck.

As president of one of America’s most successful minor league teams, the St. Paul Saints, Mike Veeck presented pigs trained to deliver balls to home-plate umpires, an attraction that admittedly pales in comparison to presenting that giant redheaded slugger.

“McGwire could be hitting all these home runs in a vacuum, but it wouldn’t be as much fun,” Veeck said. “What makes it fun is for schmoes like me to sit around and go, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ ”

McGwire, Sosa More Than Great Players

The protagonists do not fit the contemporary image of the surly, greedy ballplayer. After he was traded by Oakland to the Cardinals last year, McGwire wouldn’t sign a contract to stay in St. Louis until his son decided he liked the city. McGwire since has donated $1 million a year to combat child abuse there.

Sosa, who grew up in poverty in the Dominican Republic, nicknamed himself “Sammy Claus” to distribute Christmas gifts to children in the U.S. and his homeland. He blows a kiss to his mother after each home run.

“What’s making this so big is the personalities,” Fred Claire, former Dodger executive vice president, said. “Both of these players, whether they were chasing records or not, are players who really have a sense of enjoying the game. That’s big.”

No one enjoys the game more than Cal Ripken Jr., and America celebrated with him three years ago, when the Baltimore Oriole icon broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played. But Ripken--he’s now past 2,600 and counting--merely showed up for work and crossed another day off the calendar, providing neither the glamour of the home run nor the tantalizing daily uncertainty--did McGwire hit one today? Did Sosa?--along with the countdown to 61.

“You can anticipate this,” Sanderson said. “It’s not a one-night thing, like somebody throwing a no-hitter.

“And the casual fan can understand this. It’s not like trying to explain the infield-fly rule. It’s an important statistic, it’s an easy one to grasp, and it does have some history to it.”

The historical link is simple yet critical. McGwire and Sosa shoot to break the record set by Maris: 61 in ’61. Maris broke the record set by Babe Ruth, widely regarded as baseball’s greatest and most colorful player. Ruth hit 60 home runs for the Yankees in 1927.

“In the 1920s, no one was doing a 180, behind-the-back slam-dunk in whatever the precursor was to the [National Basketball Assn.],” Dolich said.

‘History Really Matters in Baseball’

Yet baseball endures, feeding comparisons and conversations across generations. As television stations scramble to locate and replay grainy black-and-white footage of Maris and Ruth, the shame of a sport reveals itself, the residue of its eagerness to appeal to a younger generation slipping toward football and basketball.

In 1996, when baseball officials sold television rights to Fox and demanded that the network sell the sport to a younger demographic, Fox Sports President David Hill said: “If anybody talks about a dead guy during a broadcast, I’ll sack him. I’m sick of dead guys. Whenever I turn on baseball, all I hear about is dead guys.”

Maris has been a dead guy for 13 years, Ruth for 50.

“Baseball is benefiting from one of its overlooked virtues: History really matters in baseball,” said NBC broadcaster Bob Costas, perhaps the most passionate baseball fan in America. “There’s a framework of history that gives performances meaning and drama and that doesn’t exist in any other sport.

“He is the most celebrated athlete of our time, but nobody really knows what [NBA star] Michael Jordan’s career scoring average is. Everyone knows what 61 home runs means.”

Fox showed McGwire and the Cardinals last Saturday and the network got its highest rating for a regular-season game. Major league merchandise sales increased 10% over the last quarter, spokesman Pat Courtney said. Two dozen licensees inquired about selling shirts, caps, pins and the like to commemorate “The Great Home Run Chase,” spokeswoman Carole Coleman said.

Pro Player, a sports apparel company, estimated it could sell $2 million in McGwire T-shirts and caps.

National sponsors rushed to implement promotional blitzes. As part of its campaign, Pepsi is promising a lifetime supply of its beverage to the fan catching the ball hit for the record-breaking home run--and the fan need not surrender the ball, spokesman Harris said.

Bob Cohen, McGwire’s agent, said he has been approached about “everything from A to Z . . . sponsorship, memorabilia, appearances.” The “30 to 40" endorsement proposals for McGwire, Cohen said, included “plates, medallions, good crystal . . . someone wanted him to sponsor a boat.” McGwire will not evaluate any offers until the season ends, Cohen said.

Can baseball capture the magic and preserve it for another season?

Television ratings remain relatively low, so far below those of pro football that ESPN has preempted some September baseball games to show early season NFL games.

An Associated Press poll released Thursday showed that major league baseball ranked below pro football, pro basketball and figure skating in popularity. In the same poll, one in four Americans indicated less interest in baseball now than before 1994, when baseball management forced a player strike that lasted into the 1995 season, canceling the ’94 World Series. Attendance, although up from last year, continues to trail the pre-strike level.

Chance to Promote Pastime’s Traditions

Dolich urged major league officials not to squander a golden chance to develop an unprecedented national Latino advertising campaign, using Sosa to speak to a huge potential audience scarcely tapped outside--and sometimes inside--Florida, Texas and Southern California.

“You’ve got this magnificent opportunity to talk to a marketplace maybe you haven’t talked to,” Dolich said.

“But baseball should also be creating its own advertising and marketing program about the tradition of the game, not just about Mark and Sammy but about the greatness of the game as the ultimate attraction for fans of all types, shapes and forms.”

Said Costas, “The almost desperate attempt baseball makes to deny its real virtues, to be more like basketball and try to hip itself up, is almost pathetic. Baseball ought to sell its own virtues, a modern game that draws meaning from the past.

“Babe Ruth and Roger Maris gave meaning to what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa are doing in a way that other sports cannot match. Some day, some kid who is 15 years old today will be given meaning by and measured against what Mark McGwire or [former pitcher] Nolan Ryan did.”

The ‘Mac Meter’ Is Running

Back on Main Street in Seal Beach, The Abbey has become something of a shrine to McGwire. In the front window hangs a huge “MAC METER” banner, displaying his home run total and the number he needs to break the record. The new shipment of caps should arrive any minute.

“We didn’t start being a sports bar until he started wearing these hats,” said Mike Burdick.

Burdick smiles. He smiles a lot these days. His first two shipments of caps sold out, a total of 150 at $12 apiece. He placed a rush order for 1,000 more, which he plans to sell for $15 each.

And what luck. ESPN is calling, and the cable sports network might want to dispatch a camera crew to The Abbey.

As Burdick stands on the sidewalk, talking on his cellular phone, a woman walks by and speaks softly to him, drawing another smile from him as he continues his conversation with ESPN.

“You don’t even have to have good food now,” she says.


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