ST. LOUIS — They'd come in campers and in station wagons and trucks. They'd come from the suburbs and from surrounding states. Indiana Coach Bob Knight was here. So was Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. And actor Billy Bob Thornton interrupted a project in Arkansas to catch a glimpse of Mark McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris.
McGwire's parents had flown in from Southern California. His son, Matthew, served as bat boy. And on this splendid afternoon, perfect for baseball and history, there was only one hitch: Mark McGwire lost his temper and got kicked out of the game--in the first inning.
Before all of the 47,627 fans had settled into their seats at Busch Stadium, McGwire all but forced home plate umpire Sam Holbrook to eject him from the game for loudly and profanely arguing a called third strike.
Holbrook all but apologized for the ejection afterward, saying he realizes what's on the line for McGwire. But, he added, McGwire forced the ejection by violating baseball basic rules against arguing balls and strikes.
"I warned him three times," Holbrook said. "I listened to what he had to say. The furthest thing from my mind was ejecting Mark McGwire. I bent over backwards. At some point, I had to draw the line. I tried to walk away, and he kept coming back around."
Even McGwire agreed with Holbrook's assessment, saying: "Did I cross the line? Yes, I probably crossed the line. I own up to it."
McGwire tried to cross more than one line. He had to be restrained from going after Holbrook, and at various times, flung aside both St. Louis Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa and third-base coach Rene Lachemann as if they were stuffed toys.
As he left the field, he flung his red batting helmet toward the pitching mound. La Russa had been ejected before McGwire. Pitching coach Dave Duncan was also sent to the clubhouse early for yelling or gesturing at Holbrook.
That quickly, an afternoon that had begun with the electric atmosphere of a playoff game turned both bizarre and ugly. There would be no 55th home run. There would be no memorable matchup with Atlanta Brave pitcher Tom Glavine.
Instead, McGwire remained stuck at 54 home runs, one ahead of Chicago Cub outfielder Sammy Sosa, who didn't homer against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Both McGwire and Sosa seem likely to break the record of 61 home runs by Maris in 1961.
The scene was bizarre because it seemed unthinkable McGwire would be kicked out of a game when so much is riding on these final weeks of the season. It was ugly because fans reacted by littering the field with baseballs, golf balls, plastic bottles, Frisbees and a variety of other debris in the top of the second inning.
The trashing was so bad that umpires ordered the teams off the field for about 10 minutes while stadium personnel cleaned up. Umpire crew chief Harry Wendelstedt had the public address announcer warn fans that the game could be forfeited if more debris was thrown.
"What happened after that was wrong," McGwire said. "Thank God we didn't have a riot. We don't need that in baseball."
Finally, after the field was cleaned up and fans were finished with the booing, the Braves won, 4-3, giving Glavine his 18th victory.
"I think this happened because I'd been talking to Bobby Knight before the game," McGwire said with a smile. "I'm sure he's happy with me."