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BILL PLASCHKE

McGwire's 62nd Sets a Mark of Excellence

September 09, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

ST. LOUIS — It was the longest 341-foot home run in history, sailing from a grainy pale bat into the hearts of a nation.

Although the big man stumbled around first base, he eventually touched them all; his son, his teammates, his town, our towns.

With his 62nd home run Tuesday night, a brilliant white streak through a sea of murky red, Mark McGwire did a number on America.

One swing, one line drive, one dizzying trip around the diamond, a father hugs his son, a hero hugs the former hero's family, a slugger hugs his rival.

One swing, and suddenly all things seem possible.

Courage under pressure. Dignity under fire. Greatness that does not come at the expense of class. A competition in which there are no losers.

The facts can fit in one sentence.

The St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' allegedly unbreakable single-season home run record Monday with his 62nd homer in the Cardinals' 145th game, a bases-empty shot in the fourth inning against Chicago Cub pitcher Steve Trachsel.

The moment, however, will be replayed for years.

"It was absolutely incredible," McGwire said, eyes filling with tears. "I told myself, when it happens, I think I'll be floating. And I sure as heck was floating."

After six months of home runs, he didn't know this one was gone. Imagine that.

While the ball was shooting toward the Busch Stadium left-field fence, McGwire was sprinting 12 heavy steps toward first base.

"I thought it was going to hit the wall," he said.

It surprised him when the line drive sank over the left-field fence, directly underneath an advertisement for an office supply company, his shortest home run of the season. Imagine that.

"The next thing you know, it just disappeared on me," he said.

When he realized it was gone, he leaped in apparent shock in front of first base, so quickly and awkwardly that he missed the base. In a wisely unpunished violation of the rules, first-base coach Dave McKay grabbed him and pushed him to the bag.

"McKay jumped up and said, 'Uh, Mark, you've missed one big thing--first base,' " McGwire said. "I've never done that before."

And nobody caught the ball. Imagine that.

All this talk about million-dollar souvenirs and fans holding McGwire hostage and guess what? It plopped into a tunnel underneath the seats and was picked up by a groundskeeper who dutifully handed it to his hero.

"I want to be like Mark McGwire," Tim Forneris said.

This red-haired, goateed, balloon-armed hero soon showed why, after all the bumps and turns of this crazy summer chase, maybe it is not a bad thing to want to be like Mark McGwire.

After he crossed home plate, he grabbed and lifted his 10-year-old son Matthew, who lives with his ex-wife in Orange County. Then, after being mobbed by teammates, he turned and grabbed Matthew again, hugging and kissing him alone in a tender moment behind home plate.

Moments later Cub rival Sammy Sosa--stuck on 58 homers after not connecting in this two-game series--ran in from right field. McGwire hugged him, and together they exchanged Sosa's two-finger trademark celebration gesture.

Then came perhaps the most tender part of a most touching 11-minute trot.

McGwire ran down past the Cardinal dugout, through 37 years of history, and climbed into the stands to hug five children of the late Roger Maris.

"I touched your father's bat today, I touched it with my heart," he told them.

Several Maris family members wept.

Since he broke Babe Ruth's single-season record of 60 in 1961, their father has been denied the respect he deserved.

In one giant gesture, McGwire wanted to make it right.

"It's Mark McGwire's day, Mark McGwire's moment, and for him to greet our family and give us a hug . . . that's something I'll never forget," Roger Maris Jr. said.

McGwire ended his historic journey Tuesday as he had started it last spring, when he was surrounded by snowbirding Cardinal fans in the small Florida town of Jupiter, peppered with questions about whether he could actually break the unbreakable.

He faced those fans. This time, he grabbed a microphone and shouting, "I dedicate this to the whole city of St. Louis."

The 49,987 in attendance--nearly 7,000 more than capacity--roared.

They did not leave, or quiet, until the postgame celebration ended nearly 90 minutes after the final pitch, after McGwire toured the field in a 1962 car, around 11:15 p.m local time.

McGwire's homer came only two plate appearances before he and the team would be leaving town for five days.

That he hit his historic home run just in time, he said, was not coincidence.

He said baseball's best city deserved to see baseball's best record, and he was right.

"When I drove to the ballpark today, I honestly and truly wanted to hit it in this city," he said.

Now, like that sinking fourth-inning line drive, the painful weight of this city's expectations has disappeared.

Afterward, when McGwire wasn't fighting off tears, he couldn't help but laugh.

"I don't know how heavy the [Gateway] Arch is, but I just got that off my back," he said.

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