SBJ/September 7 - 13, 1998/No Topic Name

MLB goal: No round-trip riot

A person who strode into the left-field stands at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and dropped $500,000 into the crowd might be prosecuted for breaching the peace.

Mark McGwire was set to do something similar to that last week as he stormed toward history.

And all that St. Louis Cardinals management could do about it was prepare to navigate through potential disaster — a breach of the peace that would not only be tolerated, but celebrated.

Baseball's most stirring story in years carried with it one disconcerting sidebar: The staggering value placed on the home run ball by memorabilia collectors was raising troublesome crowd-control issues at ballparks hosting the historic chase.

In St. Louis and Chicago, where the Cubs' Sammy Sosa was making his own spirited charge, stadium managers huddled with representatives from Major League Baseball, contemplating ways to keep fans in the path of the ball from paying for the catch with blood.

"We're very much concerned about the safety of our fans,'' said Joe Abernathy, vice president of stadium operations for the Cardinals. "You take our usual concerns and then you add to that the Mc- Gwire frenzy and the value of that ball and, man, we're going to have to be at the top of our game to assure the safety of the people out there."

As McGwire sprinted toward Roger Maris' single-season home run record of 61, knocking down landmarks two at a time, the Cardinals scurried to implement a plan. They knew they'd need one. They just didn't know they'd need one so soon.

Representatives from the baseball commissioner's office visited St. Louis on Aug. 29 and 30, studying the layout of the park and movement of patrons as McGwire came to bat. The goal: to put together a plan to prepare for the ceremony that will follow the momentous homer, as well as make sure clubs do all they can to keep the frenzy from boiling beyond control. That plan would then follow McGwire to other cities if the record remained intact beyond the current home stand, which runs through Sept. 8.

"They're treating it a lot like they treat the postseason,'' Abernathy said. "When they come in for the postseason, they like to run the show. That's the way they're looking at this. They're very much in the loop."

The Cardinals originally hoped to have a plan in place by last Thursday. That deadline grew in importance when McGwire hit his 58th and 59th homers on Wednesday night.

As the Cards worked on their plan, the Cubs were grappling with issues specific to Wrigley Field, the most significant of which is its proximity to public streets. Major League Baseball's executive director of security and facility management, Kevin Hallinan, met with Cubs brass in Chicago on Wednesday.

"Obviously, we'll be increasing security, and we'll protect whoever catches the ball," said Mike Hill, director of event operations at Wrigley Field. "We're still meeting. Nothing has been finalized yet."

The Cardinals' preparation was to focus on the use of ushers, security guards and St. Louis police, with an emphasis on alertness each time Mc- Gwire comes to the plate. The club plans to increase staffing from about 300 to 320, with the bulk of the increase coming on the police and security side.

The Cardinals also will station four response teams — made up of Cardinals management, MLB employees, police and ushers — in areas where it's likely Mc- Gwire's 62nd home run will land.

"Each of those teams is responsible for getting to the landing zone as quickly as possible,'' Abernathy said. "They'll settle people down and pull people off the pile, if there is one, so that we can minimize any danger of injury. Then it becomes a matter of providing security for that individual.

"We plan to put him in protective custody."

From there, the ball will be authenticated. Though MLB officials would not detail their plans, they figure to be similar to those implemented when Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th homer. All balls in that game were marked and then read by infrared light.

Talk of the ball's potential price tag hasn't helped the Cardinals, Abernathy said. A local newspaper ran a story that said the ball could fetch $1 million to $2 million. Neither has PepsiCo's promise to reward the lucky catcher with a lifetime supply of the soft drink and tickets to the World Series for the next five years. Or the Shop At Home Network's offer of $250,000 for the ball — as long as it's acquired without violence.

There is slim precedent for this sort of memorabilia-driven event. Milestones like Cal Ripken's consecutive-game streak, Don Larsen's perfect game and Nolan Ryan's no-hitters didn't produce one distinctly valuable ball. Pete Rose's 4,192nd hit did, but the ball didn't leave the park. Aaron's 715th home run was distinct, but it landed in Tom House's glove in the Braves' bullpen.

The one clear precursor was provided by Maris, whose home run was caught by Sal Durante, a 19-year-old delivery man from Brooklyn. He sold it to a restaurateur for $5,000 and a couple of trips to California.

That, however, was before the memorabilia craze hit its stride.

"It's a crap shoot estimating what this ball is going to be worth,'' said Mike Jasperson, an analyst with Beckett publications. "It's really hard to say because you've got nothing to look back on. So I can't say for sure what the price will be. What I do know is that the guy who catches it should hold on to it for 48 hours."

Like most of the Cardinals' front office, Abernathy is hoping that the spirit of the chase gets the better of the quest for a dollar.

When Abernathy phoned Pro Player Stadium to gather information from the Florida Marlins' experience with McGwire mania, he was reminded that all four Marlins fans who retrieved baseballs returned them to McGwire.

"Man, yours weren't worth a million dollars,'' Abernathy reminded his counterpart in Miami. "When it's that No. 62 that you're talking about, can you predict what every human being is going to do given the opportunity to get close to that kind of money?

"We can hope. But we can't expect anything."

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