Put a Cork in It

The well-meaning fools who caught home-run balls and then returned them to Mark McGwire got nothing on me. Last summer, I bought two corkballs for the home-run king. Please sit still to read what happened, then let's hope this is the last of the McGwire-and-ball stories.

Last January I had a chance to talk to McGwire for St. Louis magazine. He was still new to St. Louis, and I offered the story of corkball as a splash of local color. It's a game like baseball, I said, played with a miniature ball and bat. It was invented in St. Louis by brewery workers who played using the cork "bungs" once used to hold beer inside wooden barrels.

McGwire, a Californian, had never heard of the game. But he seemed interested in the lore, and I joked that I'd bring him some corkballs sometime.

Then came late July, when I had reason to talk to him again, this time for the Cardinals' Game Day magazine. The interview fell during that stretch when McGwire's home-run pace labored a touch, and it was unclear whether he'd challenge Roger Maris. He had not yet hit 50 home runs. It was not yet Sept. 1. And by his standards, it was no time to be talking about home-run records.

To arm for the occasion, I went to a sporting-goods store and bought two corkballs for $3.95 apiece. (I considered a catcher's mask for myself.) I might have bought him a bat. But at $15.95, I decided he could afford to buy his own. Better yet, let him saw off his own rake handle or broomstick. That's what corkball bats should be.

I met him, by appointment, in an office outside the Cardinals clubhouse at Busch Stadium. His back was toward me as I approached, and when he turned, I saw the cold, steely face of an oscillating fan. It was that weary, half-blank, downturned-mouth look he shows sometimes on television.

Fair enough. I pulled two boxed corkballs out of my pocket, and he brightened a bit. He acted as though he remembered our conversation of last winter. McGwire says "wow" a lot, and he said "wow" then. I refreshed his memory about the game of corkball, while he took one of the balls out of its box and gripped it. During our interview, he shuffled and stacked the two small boxes in his hands, the way you might aimlessly play with two domino tiles.

When I left, McGwire said, "Hey, thanks for these. I'm going to use these with my son, during the winter."

That's what he said. And that's my story.
* In this year of the home run, let's revisit 1956, during which our town's Chuck Berry recorded one of the strangest mistakes in rock & roll history. In the otherwise-sparkling "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," Berry sings: "2-3 the count, with nobody on/He hit a high fly into the stands." The batter, of course, would be retired on such a count. Our own Johnnie Johnson played piano at that session in Chicago, and estimable bassist Willie Dixon was there, too. Yet nobody corrected Berry. Ten years later, in 1966, Berry moved from Chess Records to Mercury and re-recorded his hits. But once again the "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" was handed the same lyrical fate.

Not to worry. Chuck Berry became a Hall-of-Famer anyway.
* Sports action paintings that are lifelike and near-life-size brighten an abandoned four-family flat in the 5600 block of Lotus Avenue, near the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood (see photo). The art, which depicts Olympic athletes in assorted sports, is the work of students from nearby Stowe Middle School. The paintings are done on plywood boards that cover the windows of the building. Not far away, on a vacant storefront in the 1600 block of Goodfellow, is more action work from the same artists. Julie Mordica was the adult sponsor of the project.

* I'm a fan of the Post-Dispatch's Prep Sports Show, which airs at 11 a.m. Saturday on KTVI (Channel 2). The show, new this fall, celebrates amateurism, which is always welcome in this top-heavy, pro-sports market. The program features video highlights and interviews, presented with the tacky graphics and music of an infomercial, which gives the show a homey appeal. My criticism?

1. Too many adults on camera. With so many vibrant athletes and their classmates to interview, why give camera time to coaches, teachers or parents?

2. Overblown language. On the first show we learned that Alton High football coach Bob Shannon and John Burroughs coach Jim Lemen are "legends" and that a softball pitcher's talent had reached "epic" levels. Yowee. Even in the frenzy of climax, I'm sure the late Curley Howard limited his number of "Woo-woo-woos." Let's hope the show's writers know how to pace themselves.

3. Platitudes. In its kickoff program, the show advised, "Winners never quit, and quitters never win." Man. If you can't find the holes in that bromide, or think young people can't, send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

The Prep Sports Show is tossing itself pitches it can hit, which is a good way to begin. As the show matures, maybe we'll see in-depth interviews and enterprise reporting.

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