Originally created 01/19/98

Fans flock to buy McGwire signature



ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire comes to town today, and it's as if people are waiting for the messiah.

The St. Louis Cardinals' slugger is scheduled for a two-hour autograph session at the team's Winter Warmup at a downtown hotel, and the first 150 available signing slots, at $35 each, were sold before the doors opened on Saturday and Sunday.

Another 150 autograph tickets will be sold this morning and organizers expect them to be long gone by the time the event begins at 9 a.m. One fan said he'd be waiting outside at 5 a.m.

"I talked to a guy who got here at 6 a.m. today and he was too late," said Greg Scott, 28, of St. Louis. "It's like a rock concert, I guess."

St. Louis has had McGwire mania since the slugger, who hit 58 home runs last season, was traded from the Oakland Athletics in late July. Thousands of people arrive two hours early for every game, just to watch him hit tape-measure shots in batting practice.

McGwire's signature (limit one) is by far the most sought-after item at the three-day charity fund-raising event, and by far the most expensive. The price tag is $75 for signing a bat or jersey.

Not far behind McGwire in demand were autographs from Dennis Eckersley, although he now pitches for the Boston Red Sox, Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Bob Gibson, and future Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, at $25 each.

On the other end of the spectrum, the fee for Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, infielder David Bell, pitcher Manny Aybar and catcher Tom Lampkin was $5, and former Cardinals pitchers Danny Cox, Ken Dayley and Rick Horton were signing for free.

GIVING BACK:

The Baseball Assistance Team, which helps former players, team employees and family members who are having difficulties, honors Bob Gibson at its annual dinner Tuesday.

Joe Garagiola has been the most public face of BAT, which pays for operations and other medical treatment, sometimes even the rent.

"We've helped 150 people over the years," Gibson said, adding that even younger retired players often run into difficulty.

While the commissioner's office and the players' association have been supportive, Gibson said BAT must increase the involvement of current players.

"A lot of the current players aren't quite aware," Gibson said. "It's really difficult because they have agents watching over their money like it's theirs. At one point, we'll be too old to do it, and the younger guys will have to keep this going."

Bucky Dent, Jim Eisenreich and the late Frank Slocum also are being honored at the dinner, expected to raise about $350,000 for BAT.

COLD SHOULDER:

Last year, baseball used a warm-weather schedule the opening week of the season.

This season, the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles are among the teams opening at home. And the Mets play night games against Philadelphia on April 2 and Pittsburgh on April 3. Baltimore plays night games against Kansas City on April 1 and 2 and Detroit on April 3.