The jerk in the B.U.M. Athletic T-shirt showed up at RFK Stadium several hours before the Cardinals-Expos exhibition, in time for his young daughter and younger son to see Mark McGwire take batting practice. But this day wasn’t going to be about taking the family out to the ball game or buying anybody peanuts and Cracker Jack. This guy had come to see Mc-

Gwire sign, not swing.

From the RFK cage, McGwire did nothing but enhance his own legend. Line drives came off his bat so fast that the balls were easier to hear than see. He blasted several of the coach’s fat tosses into the upper deck—no other player on either team came close all weekend—and two of his shots even caromed off the façade of the stadium roof. Nobody in RFK, and maybe nobody anywhere, had ever seen a baseball hit so far. Imagine some American League slugger reaching the top of the warehouse at Camden Yards. Twice. That will never happen.

But for some in the crowd, like the jerk in the B.U.M. T-shirt, that wasn’t enough. McGwire still owed them something. They were there early not for his stupid human tricks, but because they’d heard about his pregame autograph sessions, a regular routine intended to appease the masses, silence the critics, or both.

After taking his cuts, the superstar walked over to the railing beside the Cardinals dugout, and his arrival created a frenzy in the grandstands. An utterly joyless frenzy, like when a water truck pulls up to a refugee camp. He kept his head down, he signed, and he slowly worked his way through all the arms and pens and pennants and baseballs and bats and helmets and jerseys that were shoved in his face on his journey toward the dugout. The jerk in the B.U.M. T-shirt, however, was not along McGwire’s parade route. “Mark, please! Mark, please! Mark, please!” he begged, each plea louder and angrier and more pathetic than the last. But McGwire, who never smiled, was getting hit with such frantic pleas from all sides. He never even looked to see who was yelling.

With McGwire drawing farther away with every signature, the jerk in the B.U.M. T-shirt bent over the rail as far as physics and physique would allow, stuck his pen and paper in the air, and unleashed his sorriest torrent yet in the direction of his massive moving target.

“My daughter! Mark, my daughter! Please, my daughter!” he cried, shoving a frowning girl about the size of a first-grader into the railing. “Mark, we drove all the way to Pittsburgh to see you, and the game was rained out! Mark, my daughter! We drove all the way to Pittsburgh! Mark, please! Pleeeeease!”

His shameful act went for naught. There would be no ball, no bat, and no autograph from McGwire. There wouldn’t even be eye contact….

From a distance, it sure seems hard to feel sorry for Mark McGwire. Since the retirement of Michael Jordan, he’s easily the most sought-after jock still in uniform; he makes millions on the field and can make as much as he wants off it now. But up close, it’s impossible not to pity him. The behavior of the jerks in RFK will be repeated in other grandstands approximately 162 times this season, or at least before every game McGwire plays in. What salary is worth that?

McGwire stands as one of the last victims of the baseball strike of 1994, when the players begged the fans to understand that baseball is a business, not a game. Somewhere along the line, ticket buyers realized that being a fan can be a business, too. And, especially since McGwire’s 1998 campaign, business is booming.

On Sept. 27, a research scientist named Philip Ozersky caught the 70th and last home run ball hit by McGwire last season. Most fans lucky enough to catch McGwire’s homers during the epic chase of Roger Maris’ record had turned the balls back over to the Cardinals slugger, usually in exchange for a handshake and a photo op. But Ozersky bucked public pressure and held on to his orb, in hopes of a financial score. Four months later, he nailed a grand slam: No. 70 was sold at an auction held in New York’s Madison Square Garden for $3,005,000.

Ozersky’s well-publicized windfall sent the market for McGwire memorabilia, which was already bullish, out of control. eBay, an online auction service, has listed more than 21,700 McGwire collectibles—and that’s just in the last three weeks. Even catalogs from the Ozersky auction are now considered commodities. But we’re not talking just about low-ticket items: McGwire’s Oakland A’s jersey from 1986, his first year in the majors, brought in $35,000 a week ago. And a big batch of McGwire baseball cards fetched $179,999 in mid-March. The seller, a Californian named Kevin Winters, still has more than 20,000 McGwires in his collection—after the sale.

The buyer of the high-dollar batch, a California card collector and dealer named Edward Labate Jr., confesses that he’s hopelessly caught up in the McGwire phenomenon.

“What does Mark McGwire do for me? He makes me a very good living, selling his cards,” says Labate.

Along with cards, items autographed by McGwire are the biggest sellers on eBay. Anything will do. While strip-mining the game for salable items, greedy jerks like those who showed up early at RFK are poisoning whatever relationship real baseball fans and the players have.

“Mark really can’t win anymore,” says Joe Buck, the Cardinals broadcaster, about McGwire’s regular rendezvous with his public. “He really does want to do something with the fans, but there’s an awful lot of mistrust now. He knows that guys are using kids to get him to sign a ball or something, and then they’ll try to turn it into cash. I personally know of a case where some guy got Mark to autograph a jersey, then sold it for $20,000, and I’m sure that kind of thing went on all the time. I see it, and Mark sees it, and it’s just a bad situation.”

The jerk in the B.U.M. T-shirt was living through what he, if not Buck or any sane grownup, would define as “a bad situation”: He was going to go home without any McGwire memorabilia. As McGwire disappeared into the dugout, that reality hit home.

“Goddammit!” he cursed, clenching his teeth and shaking his head side to side. The little girl he’d just used as bait stared blankly toward the outfield, while a boy, maybe 4 years old and sporting a Yankees hat and an Orioles shirt, latched onto his dad’s leg and bawled loud enough to echo off the upper deck. The ball game was still more than 90 minutes away, but their day was ruined.—Dave McKenna