What American boy hasn't dreamed of playing baseball in the big leagues, of someday making it into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.? I sure did. I've been in love with baseball my entire life. Though I was born and raised in Collinsville, Ill., my allegiance has always been just across the river, with the St. Louis Cardinals. After all, that's the team of such giants as Stan "the Man" Musial, Dizzy Dean, Lou Brock, and--these days--future Hall of Famer Mark McGwire. Two summers ago, the whole country watched as he and Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa battled to the wire to see who would break Roger Maris' all-time record for home runs in a single season. I watched, too. And I had a very special vantage point.
Growing up, I dreamed of playing for the Cardinals in Busch Stadium, where they play their home games. Mostly I had to settle for playing catch with my brother, Tino, in the backyard.
In reality, I wasn't that good a player. The closest I'll ever get to the Hall of Fame, I finally admitted to myself, is as a visitor. But in 1992, I did make it to the big leagues when I got a summer job as an usher at Busch Stadium. Then in 1996, I was lucky enough to land a job as a groundskeeper. Sure, the work was tough--cleaning the dugouts and bullpens after a game, dragging the infield between innings, keeping the pitcher's mound and all the bases in good shape--but it was also a big thrill. I got to go down onto the field and even hang out with some of the players. That's how I met Mark McGwire, when he came to the Cards from the Oakland A's the following year.
He's a big guy--six feet five and about 250 pounds--and he was so friendly that I liked him right away. He finished that season with 58 home runs, just three shy of Maris' record. Something told me that if anyone could pass Maris, McGwire would be the one to do it. And I hoped I'd be there to witness baseball history.
In the spring of 1998 I graduated from college and started working for a consulting firm, but I couldn't quit the grounds crew that easily. I'd been at Busch for six straight seasons, and it almost felt like I was a part of the team. So I stuck to working night games, and if there wasn't anything pressing that needed to be done, I'd climb onto a little platform near the visiting team's bullpen in left field and hang over the wall to watch the game.
I paid extra attention to Mark McGwire. He'd come out to the on-deck circle and stare down the pitcher as if he were a man on a mission. Then he'd step up to the plate. I'd watched him pound home run after home run, the balls usually went soaring right over my head into the upper deck. That year, as McGwire edged closer to the record, my fellow groundskeepers started to join me at my spot.
Everyone was focused on the home-run race between McGwire and Sosa, but nobody was as thrilled as my family and me. My brother, Tino, a schoolteacher by day, worked nights on the grounds crew, too. My mom was always at Busch, since she was a concierge at the Cardinal Club. And if Dad missed a game on TV or radio, he'd always check the box score in the paper first thing in the morning.
During those nights out on my perch in left field, I'd talk to my co-workers about McGwire breaking the record. "What would you do if you got the record-breaking ball?" we kept asking one another. Actually, there wasn't much of a chance the ball would come our way. The only possibility of any of us getting it would be if the ball went through a foot-and-a-half slot between a giant ad and the top of the left-field wall. Any ball higher would go into the crowd or hit the signs and bounce back to the field. Any ball lower would hit the wall and probably be a double. But if the ball did land near one of us, whoever got it could do what he wanted with it.
"Yeah, like heck you would," one guy said. "You're nuts, Forneris."
But I knew in my heart what the right thing to do was.
On Tuesday, September 8, 1998, I was on my perch in left field with Tino and three other guys. The Cards were playing the Cubs that day. The day before, McGwire had already tied Maris' record, with a homer that came close to the left-field pole. Would this be the magic night for McGwire? If so, we on the grounds crew would be busy. We were part of something called Operation 62. If the record-breaker was hit, the field was going to be showered with confetti, and we would have to hustle out and clean it up quickly so the game could resume.
When McGwire first came up to bat, Steve Trachsel threw three pitches, all balls. As Trachsel wound up a fourth time, the whole park seemed to buzz with electricity. He let go, McGwire swung, made contact...and grounded out to the shortstop.
Then in the fourth, with two men out and no one on base, McGwire stood at the plate again. Trachsel's first pitch was a sinking fastball. McGwire tore into it, and the ball shot like a bullet toward left field. As the line drive streaked toward the wall, I leaped from my perch. The ball caromed off the giant ad, dropped through the foot-and-a-half slot, and fell behind the wall onto the field-level concourse. I hit the ground the same time the ball did. It was about 50 feet away. As I sprinted toward it, I heard the other groundskeepers behind me. I got to the ball first, and scooped it up, shoving it into my pocket without even looking at it. Tino was the first guy I saw when I turned around. "I have the ball!" I told him. He said, "I know!"
Together, the gang of us raced under the stands to the clubhouse. All of a sudden, I remembered--"Hey, guys," I said, "Operation Sixty-two!"
We ran back onto the field to clean up the mess of confetti and streamers. Once our job was done, I went to the dugout and found the equipment manager, Buddy Bates. "Here's the ball," I said, handing it to him.
After the game there was a ceremony. They called me up to the mike. "Mr. McGwire," I said, "I think I have something that belongs to you."
"Thank you, Tim," he said. His big hand shook mine, and the happy look in his eyes was priceless.
After that, I got a lot of letters. Some folks wrote to tell me that I should have sold the ball, but most congratulated me. My family and I were given trips to Disney World and New York City, and I got to be on David Letterman's show.
Best of all, we were given lifetime passes to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Once I thought I'd only go there as a tourist, but I was wrong. Just last August, my family made the drive from Collinsville to Cooperstown, and right there in a display case next to home-run ball No. 62 are my picture and name. I gave the ball back to Mark McGwire, he gave it to the Hall of Fame, and now we're both in there together. I made it after all.