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In Home Run Chase, Fans Enjoy Many Happy Returns

WASHINGTON POST

Tim Forneris moonlights as a groundskeeper at Busch Stadium in St. Louis to make ends meet. So when he saw the ball, that ball, Mark McGwire’s record-setting 62nd home run headed his way--a ball potentially worth more money than he had ever seen in his life--Forneris knew exactly what he would do with it.

He gave it back to McGwire. For nothing.

In doing so, he continued a trend of goodwill seldom seen these days in the stands--or on the field. Perhaps even more stunning than the pursuit of baseball’s single-season home run record by both McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa is the altruism of fans such as Forneris, who have scrambled to get their hands on baseballs hit into the stands and streets by the two players, only to return the valuable souvenirs for next to nothing.

Of the 10 combined home runs hit by Sosa and McGwire since both reached 60 home runs, only three have been kept by fans, one of which was returned to Sosa by a sports collector who purchased it for $10,000.

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Fans are even slugging it out--literally--for the privilege of surrendering a home run ball to the players. In Chicago, two men tussled behind Wrigley Field for Sosa’s 63rd home run ball and now are battling for custody of the ball in court. Neither man, according to their lawyers, wants to sell the ball. Both merely want the honor of giving it back to the Cubs right fielder who hit it.

The mood for all this altruism was set by Deni Allen--who retrieved McGwire’s 60th home run and gave him the ball immediately in return for a thank you, a round of batting practice and four Cardinals season tickets. His action, some theorize, made it more difficult for subsequent fans to pocket the baseballs for personal gain.

“It’s a paradox, no doubt about it,” said Michael Welch, a sociology professor at Notre Dame University. “But what you really have at work here is a kind of social momentum. . . .For some people there’s a real strong obligation to act in a way that is socially responsible and acceptable. In the end, they feel good about themselves and their ability to contribute something that is seen as noble and good, to share center stage briefly with this transcendent hero.”

But according to the 22-year-old Forneris, who caught McGwire’s 62nd, he never thought of personal gain.

“When I picked up that ball, I’m telling you, my hands went completely numb,” Forneris said this week. “All I could think was: I got to get this ball back to Mr. McGwire. If I hadn’t given it back, I think that would have left a hole in my heart. I don’t think I could’ve looked myself in the mirror. Giving that ball back is worth more than a million dollars to me. I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.”

If he could’ve changed anything, he says, he would’ve been a little bit smoother in his presentation of the baseball to McGwire after the game two weeks ago. “Mr. McGwire, I think I have something that belongs to you,” is all he said, which, in retrospect, he fears might have made him seem kind of “goofy.”

Never has America witnessed a baseball season such as this one, in which two likable hitters keep sending baseballs over the fences in record numbers, and fans keep retrieving the balls for them. Nearly everyone, it seems, has gotten caught up in its charms.

Mike Hill, the Cubs’ director of security, said that a homeless man caught Sosa’s 59th home run behind Wrigley Field. That ball couldn’t have fetched as much as Sosa’s subsequent home runs, but it likely was worth a lot more on the open market than the man asked Cubs officials for in exchange for his bounty.

“The guy didn’t have a place to stay,” said Hill, “and all he wanted was a couple of baseballs signed by Sammy.”

When Fabian Perez Mercado, a bakery worker from Tijuana, Mexico, pounced on Sosa’s 63rd home run in the upper decks of San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, he held up the ball, kissed it, and had his wife and two young children kiss the ball before returning it to Sosa in exchange for Padres’ playoff tickets.

“Viva Dominican Republic! Viva Mexico! Viva baseball!” the exuberant Mercado said, pointing skyward in a theatrical gesture as he handed the ball to Sosa.

Steve Ryan, a Chicago sports collector, paid $10,000 to buy Sosa’s 62nd home run from the fan who caught it, then gave it back to Sosa in exchange for a game jersey. With everyone else handing their baseballs over, Ryan said he felt compelled to do the same.

“We got Sosa’s 23rd home run ball and sold it for $5,000,” said Ryan, referring to the ball Sosa hit in June to set the major league record for most homers in a single month. “So, who knows how much we could’ve got for that ball? Probably $50,000. Maybe $75,000. But I live in Chicago. My kids love Sammy. How do you put a price on that?

“It’s odd,” said Allen, a marketing representative from St. Louis who earns $25,000 a year. “It’s wonderful. Whether it’s ignorant or not is questionable. But I have to tell you the question of money never entered my mind. I got to take batting practice with Mark McGwire and I was actually on the field before the game where he hit the 62nd home run. My buddies got to come down on the field with me and a couple of them just love Sosa and they got a chance to talk to (both of) them. One of them was telling Sammy a joke and I looked over and just saw Sammy cracking up. My grandfather got a chance to meet [legendary Cardinals baseball announcer] Jack Buck. I got to meet [Cardinals Manager] Tony La Russa.

“Probably the best thing is that me and my friends and my family got to go to the center of the sports world for a minute,” Allen said. “That experience and the memories I was able to give to my friends and family is worth more than any amount of money to me.”

That fans view Sosa and McGwire so positively has everything to do with the inclination to turn over the balls to them. With the millions that McGwire donates to children, and Sosa’s humanitarian efforts to help his native Dominican Republic, both athletes are seen as selfless and humble.

As Allen put it: “I do think that a lot of people feel that they would actually disgrace Mark McGwire if they didn’t give the ball back to him, like it would hurt his feelings almost. And I think most people just aren’t willing to do that because he seems like such a genuinely nice guy with all the work he does for kids and stuff. Now if it were a guy chasing the home run record who was cocky or real commercial or trying to get a lot of endorsements, I think you would see more people pocketing the balls and holding out for more and more money because that would be the aura of the situation.”

Any of the balls hit by Sosa and McGwire since the players eclipsed the 60-home-run mark could easily command five figures in the hot sports memorabilia market, said Ryan, the collector. That kind of money, of course, has encouraged a more mercenary spirit in some fans.

John Grass, of St. Louis, initially offered to return McGwire’s 63rd home run, which he snagged during a doubleheader at Busch Stadium. Security officials hustled Grass, a groundskeeper for St. Louis area public schools, to an office near the Cardinals’ clubhouse.

After the game, the Cardinals’ first baseman met with Grass.

“So you want a couple of autographed bats and balls?” Grass recalls McGwire asking him.

“No,” Grass answered.

“No?” McGwire asked.

“No,” said Grass, producing a piece of paper on which he had scribbled a list. “I want this.” The list read: 17 autographed bats; 17 balls; four Cardinals season tickets; two autographed jerseys from Cardinals legend Stan Musial; two autographed balls from rookie outfielder J.D. Drew; an all-expenses-paid trip to Cardinals spring training in Jupiter, Fla.; and arrangements for Grass and his 20-year-old son to throw out the first pitch at the Cardinals’ remaining home games.

McGwire turned him down, and Grass, who has been criticized by fans on talk radio shows and in editorials, is looking to sell his ball to the highest bidder after the season, maybe in the low six figures.

“I knew I didn’t want no couple of balls and a couple of bats,” said Grass, 46. “Look, I make $30,000 a year if I work a lot of overtime. You go to the ballpark and you pay three dollars for a bottle of water and four dollars for a little cup of beer. If there’s any greed at all it’s not from me. I grew up loving Ken Boyer and the Cardinals and I’m still going to go to the game and root for them as loud as anybody. But I owe my family a lot more than I owe Mark McGwire.”


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