McGwire/Sosa

With the mutually gracious home run hitting competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa still roaring on (at this writing, each has hit 63 big ones), companies are lining up to sign the two stars to various endorsement contracts. But several young fans, who caught McGwire’s home run balls, gave the public a rare display of non-commercial behavior in the heat of profitable temptation.

Until the 63rd McGwire home run ball was caught by a man in his Forties, seven young Americans responded in the following ways:

— Tim Forneris, 22, granted, a St. Louis Cardinals groundskeeper, who retrieved the 62nd home run baseball, and gave it back to McGwire. It was Mark’s ball,” Forneris said. “He lost it and I gave it back to him.” “Life is all about experiences. They can’t take this away from me. It’s better than a million dollars in the bank.”

— Mike Davidson, 28, who caught McGwire’s 61st home run baseball, and gave it back to McGwire. Davidson said that “It would mean more to him and baseball than it would to me.” Davidson said that a million dollars “would be more aggravation…than just giving the ball to Mark McGwire for him to appreciate.”

— Deni Allen, 22, who caught the 60th home run baseball, and gave it to McGwire. Allen said that “Money’s not part of the equation for me.” He said “I’m going to give it back to Mark. The ball is his. That’s the right thing to do, both for Mark and for major league baseball.”

— Billy Bamman, 14, who caught the 59th home run baseball, and gave it to McGwire. “I felt it was the right thing to do,” Bamman said.

— Michael Hayes, 20, who caught the 58th home run, and gave it to McGwire. “He deserved it,” Hayes said.

— Michael Pitt, 17, who caught the 57th home run, and gave it to St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa, who gave it to McGwire. Pitt said “He hit it. I caught it. It wasn’t mine.”

— Jason Duncan, 11, who caught the 56th home run, and gave it to McGwire. Duncan said “It wasn’t mine. I didn’t earn it. It was his ball so he should have it.” (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, 9/4/98) “It was a hard decision to make,” Duncan said. “But I knew it would mean a lot to him, so I gave it to him.”

All these fan catchers knew that these baseballs were worth money — in some cases tens of thousands of dollars each. They probably came to the outfield stands hoping to catch the historic hits. They still came to the same anti-commercial conclusion.

No doubt, McGwire set the tone when he declared weeks ago that he would not pay for the record-nearing or record-shattering baseballs which, by the way, were coded for his times at bat. But there were plenty of marketeers in such collectibles who would have provided a market. The young people said “no thanks.”

The fan who caught the 63rd home run, John Grass, a 46 year old groundskeeper for a local school district, wanted to negotiate with McGwire. He told the press: “He makes millions of dollars. I don’t think there is anything wrong with something coming to me.” Finders who are keepers don’t have to be commercially greedy to say what Mr. Grass said. But it is refreshing to have the other fans returning their catch to McGwire who then turned most of them over to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The McGwire-Sosa home run sprint, breaking the records of Babe Ruth and Roger Maris that have held for decades, made me even more amazed by the performances of those two ballplayers of yesteryear.

Why? Because of three differences in playing conditions -¬≠the pitching mounds were ten inches higher in the olden days, the strike zone was larger and the ball was not as lively. These differences made it tougher on hitters then. Nonetheless, with easier hitting conditions for today’s hitters, not to mention a diluted pitching corps due to expansion teams, it took until 1998 for today’s batters to break their record.

Moreover, today’s players are in stronger shape due to their daily conditioning and what they ingest. Babe Ruth had a beer belly, often stayed up late carousing before the next day’s ball games, had a gormandizing diet and drank. Nonetheless he was the home run king for many years. Those were tough players.

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