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No. 62 Is an American Milestone

September 9, 1998

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ They streamed from the stadium into the streets like revelers at some exuberant Midwestern Mardi Gras _ a red-shirt river of No. 25s, saluting baseball’s new home-run king and America’s latest athletic immortal.

His name is Mark David McGwire. He is 34 years old, 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, makes $9.5 million a year and, after Tuesday night, has hit 62 home runs in a single season.

As far as baseball is concerned, now he belongs to the ages.

``The whole country has been involved in this,″ a choked-up McGwire said after he sent a line drive over Busch Stadium’s left-field fence and into history. ``So be it. I’m happy to bring the country together.″

No. 62 came at 8:18 p.m., off an 88-mph fastball from a Chicago Cubs pitcher named Steve Trachsel, who stood still on the mound as flashbulbs popped, fireworks exploded and 11 minutes of triumphant chaos unfolded.

Watching from the box seats were the sons and daughters of Roger Maris, the New York Yankee who broke the fabled record of Babe Ruth in 1961 by hitting 61 home runs. McGwire climbed into the stands to hug them and share the moment their father couldn’t; he died in 1985 at 51.

``I wanted to embrace him for what he did and kind of share in the moment,″ Roger Maris Jr. said.

The historic ball landed where no fan could get it. It was retrieved by ground-crew worker Tim Forneris, who later presented it to McGwire in a postgame ceremony.

``Mr. McGwire,″ Forneris said, ``I think I have something that belongs to you.″

Across the stadium, from the most expensive box seats to hot-dog vendors in the outfield, they all said it: The national pastime, an odd game in which the object is to get back to where you started, is a contender once again.

``Now there’s a reason to come back to baseball,″ said Sherry Irby, a pharmacist from Florence, Ala., who drove all night with her husband and two young sons to see McGwire. They set up shop on cardboard mats in the outfield standing-room-only section.

``Good role models are few and far between for kids,″ said her husband, Ken. ``The country’s been kind of in the doldrums with the Lewinsky thing. We needed something to cheer.″

And cheer they did, for days: St. Louis fans, opposing teams’ fans, people who aren’t fans at all, entranced with the excitement of the record. They cheered from the bars of St. Louis to the seats of Busch Stadium and beyond.

The home-run race being run by McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, who has a 58, has heralded a resurgence of the game, scorned by many since its players went on strike in 1994. Attendance is up 3.3 percent this year and on a steady rise.

``Baseball sort of lost its way. Mark McGwire is doing a great job for the game,″ said Bob Edmiston, 87, who has been attending Cardinals games since 1920. He came to the stadium in a McGwire jersey and scarlet shorts.

But what is it about the home run that has captured the American imagination across the generations? It is dramatic, violent, visual, an expression of power, a high-ticket item in a sport many insist is far too unplugged.

``We’re in an age of instant gratification. And a home run is instant gratification,″ says Melvin Philip Lucas of Cornell College in Iowa, who teaches a course on baseball’s role in American history.

Milestones are especially crucial in baseball, a game of statistics with fans who care that so-and-so bats .306 against left-handed pitchers named Frank on partly cloudy Tuesdays in May.

``There’s something in the pursuit of records that only baseball can deliver,″ said Bud Selig, the game’s commissioner.

Behind it all has been McGwire, the aw-shucks California giant who has consistently tried to deflect the attention toward baseball itself. He can’t, of course, not in a world of 64-ounce Big Gulps, Wal-Mart Supercenters and McDonald’s super-size fries, McGwire is bigger, faster, better.

``He’s really the home-run hitter of our era,″ said Roger Maris Jr.

Other home runs have transcended baseball _ Bobby Thomson’s that won the Giants the 1951 pennant, Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winner in 1960 and Ruth’s shot in the 1932 Series, in which it’s said he pointed his bat into the stands and put the ball right there.

Beyond being the national pastime, baseball _ deservedly or not _ crosses into the fabric of American culture more than most sports, becoming the repository of many an American’s metaphors of innocence and timelessness.

``Baseball is associated with legend _ both sport and American culture,″ says Bill McGill, co-editor of Spitball, a literary baseball magazine.

It has been a memorable week in St. Louis, one of the oldest baseball towns. Fans dissected each pitch to McGwire. Words like ``prodigious″ and ``prowess″ were weary after weeks of hard work.

Thousands drew breath en masse each time McGwire connected. Batting practice turned into a fireworks show. Random fans caught home-run balls and held news conferences for the national media minutes later. Opposing pitchers hinted they wouldn’t mind giving up No. 62.

``This is something phenomenal in our lifetime,″ said Tony La Russa, McGwire’s manager.

For McGwire, it has been a surreal blend of glory and pressure, intensity and determination. Behind the right-field fence just after the game, he tried to make sense of it all.

``My next goal: sleep,″ McGwire said. But not just yet. A moment later he was off to the field again, the recipient of a beautiful red Corvette convertible _ a ’62, of course.