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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Tim Forneris, You're a Better Man Than I Am

September 11, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

As the baseball flew over the fence, oh, how I wanted to be him! To be a man among men. To hear America cheer. To feel the spirit of St. Louis--fans on their feet in the grandstand, broadcasters bawling in the booth, a ballpark so atwitter that you probably could hear chirping from the little red birdies on the Cardinals' shirts. Never in my life had I so longed to be in another man's shoes.

Tim Forneris' shoes, I mean.

A 22-year-old Busch Stadium groundskeeper, Forneris was working--well, more like loitering--just beyond the left-field fence, underneath a billboard for Target department stores, when the Popeye-armed baseball basher, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, came to bat, swinging for a Roger Maris record-breaking, ghost-busting 62nd home run.

Steve Trachsel, an unlucky Chicago Cub, which is probably redundant, pitched the ball. It was a vanity ball, marked for Mark, to be used solely when McGwire batted. That way, there would be no mix-up later, if someone claimed to possess the authentic "62" ball (assuming McGwire didn't knock the cover off it). There would be one and only one, like a Hope diamond or a Maltese falcon.

Big Mac swung. Those hands of his, in which a baseball bat resembles a drumstick, summoned up all of their might. (If ever that bat slips from his hands, McGwire could surely hit a ball 400 feet just using his bare wrist.) He made contact. He hit the Cub pitcher's pitch toward the left-field wall, behind which stood Tim Forneris.

"If it's gone, it's mine," Tim remembered thinking.

The ball fell shy of the seats, where paying customers waited with panting tongues and outstretched limbs, eager as monkeys at a zoo. It did, however, clear the fence. It was a homer, a four-bagger, a round-tripper, a dinger, a tater, a circuit clout--Lord, I love that ballgame lingo.

And young Forneris was right--it was his.

For about a minute.

*

A souvenir baseball is a popular memento. And I do think it's adorable, going to a game and catching a foul ball, particularly if you don't catch it off your cranium and go home with a lump the size of a grape.

I love the idea of telling your kid, or your grandkid, "See that baseball? I caught that baby back on Sept. 8, 1998, after the great Mark McGwire hit a foul ball. Yeah, I elbowed a little old lady out of the way. Spilled a whole cup of beer all over her shawl."

At least you earned it.

What I don't understand--and never will--is this business of having a souvenir baseball thrown to you.

You know what I mean. You go to a game, and at some point a player hits a worthless ball into foul territory. Yet 50 fans suddenly lunge toward whoever retrieves it, gesturing wildly and yelling, "Throw it here!"

I just don't get it. Why would a fan want a baseball thrown to him by a 14-year-old ballboy?

"See that baseball? I got that baby back on Sept. 8, 1988, after the great Mark McGwire hit it 45 feet and some pimple-faced kid with TIMMY 98 on his uniform picked it up off the ground."

A souvenir ball is what separates the national pastime from football or golf, where those cheapskates expect you to give their precious balls back.

That's what made the McGwire "62" ball so heaven-sent. It could literally fall into your lap.

And you could keep it.

We are a memorabilia obsessed culture. I once went into an antique store, where among the items for sale was a pair of Lucille Ball's false eyelashes. Now, I loved Lucy as much as anybody, but not to the point of wanting a genuine set of Lucy's lashes. Judy Garland's ruby slippers, maybe. Leonard Nimoy's fake ears. But eyelashes?

McGwire's ball, I'd have kept.

*

And that is what separates me from Tim Forneris. He got the game's most valuable ball--the MVB--and he gave it away!

Me, I would have grabbed it and run. I'd have ducked out the outfield exit, like Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees," and disappeared. I'd have made everybody nuts: Who's got the ball? Where'd he go?

I'd have waited for eccentric billionaires to up their offers. I'd have counted on McGwire to offer me a million bucks, which all baseball players carry in their pockets. I'd have milked it for all it was worth.

Not our Tim.

He gave the ball back to McGwire.

What a thing to do. I am so disappointed in this kid. Who does he think he is, being a better person than me?

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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