SBJ/May 4 - 10, 1998/No Topic Name

Chasing the elusive ‘61’ is profitable

So maybe it is early for baseball types to be talking about the number.

But 61 sells – all by itself.

One month into the baseball season, fans were buzzing over the chance that Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, Ken Griffrey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners or, well , just about anyone else with a healthy hunk of timber in hand might flirt with the flagship of baseball’s single-season records, Roger Maris’ 61 home runs.

The Mariners weren’t promoting the idea. Nor were the Cardinals. McGwire, who hit 10 before the end of April, seemed bemused that reporters were asking him about the record chase so early in the year.

But the story chugged on, leading national sportscasts and driving interest and attendance.

As for how much money will be churned by this steamship wheel, the beneficiaries aren’t sure yet. But all who are touched by the hunt know that they will benefit, and all they need to do is hang on for the ride.

Because both the Cards and Mariners are expected to be playoff contenders this season and both cities have turned out well for baseball winners in the past, it’s difficult to project a financial impact for either club.

But there is no question there will be one.

In St. Louis, where McGwire made a late burst for the record last season, and then homered in each of the Cardinals’ first four games this year, the club already has seen a tangible connection between home run fever and spinning turnstiles.

The Cardinals had a walk-up of about 7,500 fans for their first Sunday game of the season, outpacing the typical non-promotional weekend walk-up by about 50 percent. Was April sunshine a factor? Probably. But so was the fact that McGwire was swinging for a record, looking to break Willie Mays’ mark by homering in the season’s first five games.

If that record were worth extra 3,000 fans on a Sunday, what would home-runs 45 through 60mean?

"What Mark McGwire does is definitely a huge factor. The end of last year bore that out," said Josie Arnold, the Cardinals’ director of ticket operations. "Our team was out of it September last year and we’d still draw a good crowd. And I’m sure it was because of him."

The Cardinals drew 31,886 fans per game for 14 home dates last September in spite of the fact that they were out of the playoff race. That’s fewer than they drew in September of ’96, when they won the NL Central and attracted 35,660 per game for the month, but it dwarfs September 1995 when, out of the race and without McGwire, they managed only 21,846 per game.

Through this season’s first 10 dates, the Cards were averaging 34,511 per game, an increase of about 16 percent over last April.

McGwire’s connection to attendance can’t be proven, and Cards President Mark Lamping was taken aback by the thought of McGwire meaning 10,000 fans per game across a protracted period. "That’s really big number to carry off for very long," Lamping said.

But St. Louis’ Regional Commerce & Growth Association does have research that tells it that each fan drawn to Busch Stadium means about $100 to the region. So if McGwire was the reason the Cards drew 10,000 more per game in September of ’97 than they did in September of ’95, as many expect he was, his value to the region for the month was – hold on here – about $14.5 million.

And that’s without hitting homer No. 51 until Sept. 14.

"I can’t possibly estimate an economic impact of any one player," said Stephen Taylor, the growth association’s economist. "But I know form living and working here that he’s the reason that people were going to the ballpark in September. They wanted to see those [home] runs."

That sentiment doesn’t stop at the St. Louis city limit.

In San Francisco, the Cardinals’ second road stop of the season, the Giants promoted McGwire’s return to the Bay Area with a splashy newspaper ad campaign trumpeting "Bonds vs. McGwire" and offering fans in the Oakland area two for one ticket coupons.

"When you talk about the Cardinals coming to town, it’s really Mark McGwire coming to town," said Mario Alioto, the Giants’ vice president for marketing and sales. "We’re going after that huge segment of the audience here that knows Mark McGwire. You have to take advantage of that marquee player coming to town."

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