John Casey was a baseball fan long before Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa started chasing baseball's single-season home run record. This season has the Chicago engineer's heart racing.

``I was a huge fan to begin with, but this is probably the most exciting year I've seen in my life,'' he said during a recent Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field as he waited _ in vain _ for Sosa to homer.

Many others share Casey's renewed excitement for the game, according to a poll conducted for The Associated Press by ICR of Media, Pa. Nearly half of all Americans are paying more attention to baseball because of the home run race, the poll indicated.

Even non-fans are coming down with home run fever. More than 60 percent of those polled said they usually don't pay much attention to baseball, but nearly one-third of them are following the bid to surpass the 61 home runs that Maris hit for the New York Yankees in 1961.

Among women, 37 percent said their interest in the game has increased because of the record chase.

Sosa hit his 56th home run on Wednesday. McGwire hit two home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals that day, boosting him to 59 for the season. Only Maris and Babe Ruth (60) have hit more.

The Cubs and Cardinals did not play Thursday.

``The state of baseball is excellent,'' said Tim Van Lier, manager of a plumbing store in Northbrook, Ill. who was at Wrigley Field on Tuesday night with more than 38,000 others to watch Sosa chase the homer record and the Cubs battle for a playoff spot.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said in an interview that the accomplishments of McGwire and Sosa ``have just riveted the nation.''

He added that the home run race is ``a very dramatic part'' of the game's recovery from the strike, which resulted in cancellation of the 1994 World Series and delayed the start of the 1995 season. To continue regaining the support of former fans, he said, ``the most important thing to do is what we have the last year or two, which is keep the focus on the field.''

The AP poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans are as interested in baseball as they were before the players' strike, while 24 percent were less enthusiastic. Last spring, almost half said their interest in going to see a game was lower because of the strike.

Through Sunday's games, average attendance in 1998 was 29,226. That's up more than 3 percent over last year, but still about 7.5 percent lower than the 1994 pre-strike average of 31,612 per game.

In the long run, the poll suggested team owners may have a hard time drawing new fans to games.

While 37 percent of those polled said they followed baseball, only 11 percent chose baseball as the sport they enjoy following the most. Nearly 40 percent chose pro football, while about 20 percent chose pro basketball and another 20 percent selected figure skating. About 6 percent chose pro hockey.

Another ominous sign was that young adults were three times as likely as older adults to complain about the length of baseball games. They are drawn to more fast-paced games like pro basketball.

``People are not patient enough to watch nine innings of baseball,'' said 34-year-old Christy Jones of San Francisco, who was attending an Atlanta Braves game.

Selig said baseball officials are continuing their efforts to speed up play.

The telephone survey of 1,006 adults, conducted Aug. 26-30, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.