And to think, it was such a perfect catch.

The ball shot off Mark McGwire's bat and, for the first time since he and Sammy Sosa started hitting historic home runs, somebody in the outfield stands actually snared one clean.

"This was my moment, my time," John Grass said from his home south of St. Louis. "I saw it all the way."

Well, maybe not all the way.

*

Warning: This is this first story about "the Great Home Run Chase" that doesn't sing.

There are no chills, no flashing lights, no curtain calls.

For the first time, there is a loser.

By now, John Grass has probably figured out he's it.

He's a regular guy. Tends lawns for some St. Louis-area schools. Lives with his wife, three kids, one grandson in a three-bedroom brick home.

He went to a Cardinal doubleheader Tuesday at Busch Stadium with tickets he bought at a grocery store. Toted an old mitt. Got lucky. Caught a home run ball.

Just so happened, it was McGwire's 63rd, a record at the time.

Officials hustled Grass to an office near the Cardinal clubhouse after the game. In walked McGwire. Grass showed him the ball, a wondrous thing.

McGwire smiled. His previous two landmark home runs were graciously returned to him by the folks who had caught them. He knew the routine.

"So you want a couple of autographed bats and balls?" McGwire asked.

"No," Grass said.

"No?" McGwire repeated.

"No," said Grass, pulling out a piece of paper. "I want this:"

* Seventeen autographed balls for his family and the family of a friend who had bought the tickets with him.

* Seventeen bats.

* Three McGwire jerseys, three caps, three gloves, three photos.

* Four season tickets in the left-field seats.

* Two autographed jerseys from Stan Musial.

* Two autographed balls from J.D. Drew. (Don't ask).

* An all-expense-paid trip for four to Jupiter, Fla., for Cardinal spring training.

* Arrangements for Grass and his 20-year-old son to throw out the first pitch at remaining home games this year.

"I don't want to be greedy, I'm not asking for any money," Grass said to the slugger. "I just want a little something to make my family happy."

"See ya," McGwire said.

And today John Grass sits, still holding the ball, still holding the list, wondering how it all became so complicated.

His friends tell him he is doing the right thing. They have since even persuaded him to change his mind and ask for money, besides the other stuff. "Hey, the owners are always asking for money, the players are always asking for money. What's wrong with a fan doing it?" he asked.

Yet he goes on talk-radio shows and is ripped by callers who say he is mercenary.

Strangers find his unlisted number, phone his house, politely ask to speak to him, then scream, "GIVE MCGWIRE THE BALL BACK!"'

Although he returned to the ballpark the next day and was treated fine, his children tried to persuade him to stay home, worried that he would be mobbed by angry fans.

And to think, he was so excited when it happened, he lay awake in bed all night, the ball nestled between him and his wife.

The next morning, so worried that something would happen to his prize, he took the ball and glove with him into the bathroom when he showered.

Now, he sighs.

"I have one heck of a headache," Grass said. "Whatever I do, I am not going to keep this ball."

*

What would you do?

Judging from the response to the historic homer question posed here last month, as many readers would sell it back as give it back.

Because of what has happened since then, it's clearly time for another question.

What would you do now?

The balls McGwire hit to tie and break Roger Maris' 37-year-old record of 61 were returned to him for souvenirs, tickets and some batting practice.

The ball Sosa hit for his record-tying 63rd home run Wednesday night was returned Thursday morning by Fabian Perez Mercado, a bakery worker from Tijuana, for five caps, two jerseys, two balls, two gloves, one bat and 21 Padre playoff tickets.

That was the highest price paid yet by either club, but much of the loot was the Cubs' idea. Mercado wanted to return the ball and only wanted to see some playoff games.

Except for the Cub fan who sold Sosa's 61st homer to a collector for $7,500, the entire thing has been pleasant, civil . . . and it made you wonder.

Could "The Chase," which has stormed through the country breaking down barriers and stereotypes of all sorts, be strong enough to triumph even over greed?

Could fans really be willing to serve as role models for the money-minded baseball industry instead of imitating them?

Then a regular guy comes along and gives an answer some of us don't want to hear.

"I am not trying to milk this," Grass, 46, said in a phone interview. "I'm not trying to get everything I can get. This ball is part of the biggest thing in sports history, and what's wrong with me benefiting from it in some small way?"

He loves baseball, played in the backyard with his boy, loves it so much that in May he bought bleacher seats for every home game this month.

Paid $6 apiece for them, and has turned down several hundred dollars each night to give them up.

"I knew back in May that this could be history, and I wanted to be part of it," he said. "Not for the money, but for the history. I love baseball."

He says he even loved his meeting with McGwire, says he was a nice man, even though McGwire took one look at the list, shook his head, and handed it to Walt Jocketty, Cardinal general manager.

Jocketty said it had to be approved by a Cardinal owner who had just left town.

"I want to do it now, I don't want to go home with this ball," Grass told them. "Somebody should do something quick."

The Cardinals never did.

And now the price has gone up by an undisclosed sum that Grass says will supplement his pension.

"I've got somebody out there talking to people for me right now . . . maybe a sheik or somebody will want it," he said. "I wish I could have given it to the Cardinals right then, but I guess they didn't want it."

He said he thought the previous two men who'd caught the historic homers gave up too easily, and at least one person agrees.

Deni Allen, the St. Louis man who caught No. 60, has already publicly expressed regret for being blinded by the lights and not selling the ball for thousands.

Grass said, "Those guys got caught up in the moment. I wasn't going to let it happen to me. The Cardinal people were trying to snow me over . . . telling me that I better hand it over, that the minute he hits number 64, it becomes just another $9-ball."

Grass, however, had already thought this over.

"Hey, the ballclubs charge us $3 for water, and $4 for beer, and Mike Piazza turns down $80 million to play," he said. "You want call somebody greedy, it's them, not me."

The ball Mark McGwire hit for his 63rd homer now is in a safe-deposit box at John Grass' bank. He passed word from a local TV station to David Letterman that when he takes it out and hands it over, he would gladly do it on national TV.

Letterman's people said they would get back to him.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Offer

What McGwire and the Cardinals proposed for home run ball No. 63

* 2 autographed bats

* 2 autographed balls

The Demands

What John Grass wants in return for home run ball No. 63

* 17 signed bas and 17 signed balls or family, friends.

* 3 signed jerseys

* 3 signed caps

* 3 signed gloves

* 3 signed photos

* 4 season tikets (bleacher seats)

* all-expense-paid trip for four next spring to Jupiter, Fla., site of the Cardinal's spring training facilities.

* 2 autographed jerseys by Hall of Famer Stan Musial.

* 2 autographed balls by rookie J.D. Drew.

* to hve first pitch thrown by him and his son at two of the Cardinal's remaining home games.

* CUBS WIN

Sosa doesn't get a homer, but team gets an important victory. C11

* GIVING BACK

Sosa made a young fan's day when he gave him his bat in San Diego. C11

Cincinnati at

Chicago, 12:15 p.m.

St. Louis at

Milwaukee, 5 p.m.

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