home > archive > 2002 > this article
Major League Baseball fans with minor league standards
By C.T. Rossi
Can there be a better measure for American culture than the Great American Pastime itself? For the past three decades, Major League Baseball has, sadly, created more headlines through court cases, strikes and lock-outs than almost anything that has happened on the field; the exception has been the assault on baseball's season home run record over recent seasons.
It has been said that Americans finally "came back to baseball" during the dramatic home run derby in 1998 between sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Both men eclipsed Roger Maris' former mark of 61 - with McGwire winning the home run crown at 70.
But McGwire's reign as home run king was short-lived, as last year San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds leap-frogged McGwire with a tally of 73 round-trippers.
While the statistics of baseball are of interest only to die-hard diamond watchers, what should catch our notice is what happened to the actual home run balls and the people who caught them. McGwire's 70th home run ball was auctioned off by the fan who caught it for $ 2.7 million. It was at that moment that record-breaking home run balls ceased to be novelty items and became horsehide lottery tickets up for grabs in ball park bleachers.
When Charles Murphy caught Barry Bonds' 70th home run ball (to tie Mark McGwire's home run record), he rejected an immediate offer of $100,000 from Houston furniture magnate Jim McIngvale, describing the offer as "ridiculous." Instead Murphy decided to bring his leather and stitching treasure to auction. But Murphy's tactic backfired and the tying home run fetched only $52,500.
Bonds' record-setting 73rd home run ball emerged as a source of great controversy when ownership was disputed by two bleacher denizens. Alex Popov, who initially caught the ball but lost control of it when he was mobbed by other fans, filed a law suit against Patrick Hayashi - who emerged from the scrum with the coveted prize. The two sides have not been able to reach a compromise.
Bonds' 500th home run was less controversial and more profitable. The Bond blast landed out on the ball park confines and in the Pacific Ocean where Joe Figone, in an inflatable power boat, scooped the ball from the water with a hand-held fishing net. Figone, with undisputed ownership, immediately began negotiations with Bonds himself for a home run payday bonanza.
On August 9, Barry Bonds hit his 600th home run. Instead of signaling home run, the umpire should have shouted out, "Let's get ready to rumble."
Jay Arsenault, a 36-year-old carpenter, caught the ball but was instantaneously swarmed by fellow fans. By the time Pacific Bell Park security staff rescued Arsenault from the dog-pile, he was bloody, bruised and beaten - but still in possession of the ball.
In an idealized world, Arsenault's catch might have had some altruistic leitmotif. Perhaps such a sub-plot would feature a sick child inspired back to health by the Bonds' blast - such is the stuff of baseball lore. And it appears that lore is the only place to find such a tale nowadays. When asked what he planned to do with the historic souvenir, Arsenault replied, "Money talks."
However, fate did not leave the story of Bonds' 600th home runner without a sense of irony. Bonds, a player of unquestionable talent but whose brash demeanor has earned him a reputation for being a prima donna, might have hit the ball to his hubristic soul-mate.
With anything but modesty, Arsenault told reporters, "I'm a carpenter and I can't think of a person who deserves this more than me. I've been getting up early and going to work for a long time." A long time? Arsenault is 36 years old. When a reporter asked Arsenault if he had a dollar figure in mind for No. 600, he replied: "I don't know. Got an offer?"
Are there any doubts that the avarice of baseball ownership and baseball players has finally trickled its way down to the very fans themselves? To be at an historic baseball event, to see a game of beauty and grace executed at the highest level is no longer enough. The beauty of baseball, the sense of escape to a more perfect world within the confines of the diamond, is gone.
Today's baseball fan asks the same question that today's baseball club owner and big league player does: What can the game do for me? There was a simpler time in America when the opposite mindset was operative, when the operative thought was whether someone could bring anything to the national pastime of baseball. Like the single-season home run record of Roger Maris, those days are gone forever.
C.T. Rossi writes on contemporary culture and politics for the Free
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.