Tim Forneris started his night behind the left field wagon gate. He ended it in USA Today.
On Sept. 8, 1998, he caught Mark McGwire’s 62 home run at the St. Louis Cardinals’ Busch Stadium. The home run broke Roger Maris’ single season home run record.
Some estimated it would be worth near $1 million. Forneris returned it to McGwire for free.
“My parents and I, like we had talked about it, and that is what was really weird,” Forneris said. “And I was like, ‘If I got it, I’d give it back.’ Because, I mean, I had nothing to do with it.”
McGwire’s 62 home run was a line drive that snuck between the top of the left field wall and advertising which hung down from the upper deck.
Members of the Busch Stadium grounds crew were behind wall to clean up celebratory confetti on the field. Forneris beat his co-workers to the ball, and they all ran through a tunnel toward the Cardinal clubhouse.
Halfway he remembered they had forgotten to clean up the confetti.
“If you ever watch that home run, as McGwire is actually touching home plate you will see the left field the gate bust open and all of us coming out,” Forneris said.
After play resumed, Forneris gave the ball to Cardinal equipment manager Buddy Bates. Following the game, a ceremony was held, during which Forneris presented McGwire with the ball.
The world now knew who Tim Forneris was.
Media from all over the world were at the ballpark. Post-game, reporters prodded for quotes as stadium security moved Forneris between the KMOX and WGN radio booths.
Next came a formal press conference. ESPN and other national outlets had reporters in the room, but they were all denied the first question. Forneris chose his friend, a local radio intern, instead. A McGwire question was mixed with jokes about playing basketball together at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, IL.
During the following days, critical pieces about Forneris’ giving the ball away appeared in national papers, such as the New York Times.
Forneris received mail from all over the country. Some praised him for not trying to make money off the ball. Others criticized him for giving the ball back to McGwire for free.
Dave Cline of St. Louis was at Busch the night McGwire broke the record. A 14 year old at the time, he thought Forneris’ actions were noble.
“You really didn’t want to see what people were writing about him. You really couldn’t avoid it either. I mean people, I think, were a little unfair to the guy,” Cline said. “You know it was a nice thing that he did in the end.”
Neither the St. Louis Cardinals nor Mark McGwire paid Forneris for returning the ball. He did get a call from a woman from Chrysler offering another kind of reward: a mini van.
“I’m like, ‘This is a buddy playing a joke on me, with like his girlfriend,’ ” Forneris said. “You know, like I don’t know her voice.”
The offer was real. Chrysler representatives met him at Mike Shannon’s Steaks and Seafood and gave him a brand new mini van. He still drives it today.
People recognized Forneris in public. He met Cardinal-great Stan Musial, attended black tie baseball awards shows, was given trips to Disney World, a lifetime pass to the Baseball Hall of Fame and appeared as a guest on David Letterman.
“As a Cardinal fan, the coolest thing out of it was Jack Buck knew my name, and would always ask me how I was doing and stuff like that,” Forneris said. “And that’s pretty cool. He is such a class guy, and he was Cardinal baseball.”
He has not made money off the ball or his story. He often does interviews when they are requested, but doesn’t look for opportunities to promote his name.
“I think it shows the kind of guy he is, a guy that is more concerned about giving back and about doing the thing that he thought was right,” 31 year old Stefan Helm of St. Charles said.
Forneris is now 36. He resides in St. Louis and works as a public defender. Even there, his role in the summer of 1998 is acknowledged. A judge has called him into chambers after a trial to confirm he is the Tim Forneris who caught 62.
McGwire and Forneris’ paths remain intertwined. Forneris is still a part of the Busch Stadium grounds crew, and McGwire is the Cardinals hitting coach.
They posed together for a picture on the field last October after the Cardinals won game seven of the World Series.
This past November, Forneris had to define their relationship while doing an ESPN 30 for 30 interview
“The guy from ESPN asked me, ‘Would you consider him a friend?’ I mean, no. Like an acquaintance, because of this situation,” Forneris said. “I mean it is not like we go out, and drink beers and hang out together. But yet, there is still this thing that kind of is overriding, that you are a friend through this circumstance.”