America Watches the Giants Swing

In a Homeric quest, two players close in inexorably on one of the great records in sports.

In America's midlands today, in the streets of the urban sprawls on the East Coast, and on the bicep beaches of California, they weren't talking Yeltsin or Nasdaqs. Clinton's fiascos disappeared. Irrelevant. What you heard was Mc-Gwire and home runs.

It was The Story. The Fairy Tale-Turns-Real. The image of the day was not politicians yammering or even hurricanes threatening. The image was the goateed giant with the redheaded bird on his chest, swinging for the fences, stirring a kind of communal frenzy among the American baseball multitudes with each swipe of the bat. It was frenzy because Mark McGwire's home run outpourings in Florida this week lifted him to 59 for the year and made it almost inevitable that sometime in the next few days he will become the mightiest of all home-run hitters, surpassing the 61 of Roger Maris, the 60 of Babe Ruth.

But in Chicago, Sammy Sosa is still there on the edges, still pursuing with his 56. So it is still a race, electric with suspense. Sammy homers. The Giant retaliates, not once but twice. He does it with such force and predictability that his march toward the record has set off a kind of coast to coast pilgrimage among all of those millions who are captivated by the fun and games of America. This is history in front of them every night on television, and the watchers have become part of the event. Sammy is still in the battle, but today it is Mc-Gwire. McGwire with those enormous muscles and now no longer any denials about what he's after. McGwire is shooting for the record with each swing. In Florida he all but dug a trench in the ground to assault a dirt-scraping pitch he would have ignored two weeks ago.

Tasting the record, McGwire is swinging on any provocation, and that wayward pitch in Florida flew nearly 500 feet. The Florida fans thundered their admiration - and their thanks. McGwire's home runs made them all bit players, the cast-of-thousands in the evolving epic. It went that way around the country. In Florida, McGwire again. Two more times.

It is somewhat nuts, but it is also irresistible.

Why is that?

It may be that every now and then in the crunch of daily events the world - or at least the part of it called the US - needs some honest-to-goodness, unblushing fantasy story, something over the rainbow, to take the public's mind off the mine fields and fast-lane chaos of daily life. It should be something without villains. It should have only heroes, matching their strength and will against the calendar and against baseball legends.

But fairy tales are supposed to be make-believe, and this one is not. This one has genuine heroes, McGwire, the powerful Californian who gave millions to charity; Sosa, the Latin American athlete of modest heritage, impulsive and popular, a great player still humble enough to call McGwire his personal hero and to tell him from long distance, "don't get thrown out of any more games, Mark. Keep swinging."

So America is enthralled by this make-believe come alive, a historic battle and race in which there is no harm and plenty of comic relief. In Florida, where the thousands came to see not the stumbling Marlins but McGwire and the home-run show, they booed jocularly when McGwire hit a single. Don't waste your time and ours, they were saying, on puny stuff like singles. Give us a blast. Be superman.

Standing on first base, McGwire laughed. They were connected, all right, the giant and his public. It didn't matter that they were supposed to be rooting for the Marlins. This is history, man. Get it on Superman. So Superman got it on. Two home runs one night. Two home runs the next. Around the country, television and radio announcers broadcasting their own games interrupted the action to break the news. McGwire was on a tear again. It was, they said, unreal.

YOU couldn't tell that to the abused pitchers who were serving up the 500-foot homers. But yes, it seemed to fly in the face of all rules or probability. Somebody said, "amazing, isn't it?" The somebody was McGwire himself, who had finally dropped his reserve and some of his earlier grouchiness about being grilled every day. He said he was tired of talking about home runs. Then he got edgy about defending himself when the business of his taking some additive substance, legal in baseball, became a controversy.

But the home runs in Florida, bringing him to the very threshold of one of the most august of all sports records, pulled McGwire out of his surliness and gave him permission to be as jubilant as the crowds. Mc-Gwire homers. McGwire pumps his arm running the bases. He's not supposed to do that. If you want to be technical, it's a violation of the ballplayers' code of ethics. Home-run hitters are supposed to be respectful of the pitcher who threw the home-run ball.

The pitcher often responds to the arm-pumping act by throwing one into the home-run hitter's ribs the next time at bat. But McGwire raises his arm anyhow and makes a fist, because he was once a kid, and as a kid he knew all about Babe Ruth and Roger Maris, and now he is about to break into the lodge. So he celebrates, and the pitcher doesn't object. The pitcher doesn't want to get booed either, by walking McGwire.

And if he throws one into McGwire's ribs the next time up, his hometown crowd is going to riot. Which means that practically everybody is now a certified actor in the drama of Mark McGwire and his pursuit of the record. That includes the chroniclers of the drama. It's going to be bedlam in St. Louis this weekend when the Cincinnati Reds play McGwire's Cardinals, and McGwire is now so close to what everybody is bound to call immortality. The press boxes and the broadcast booths will sag under the weight of baseball's historians and the TV gadgetry.

But all of that may be prelude. If McGwire doesn't break the record this weekend, if all of those network cut-ins to record the moment draw blanks, the weekend circus is going to be tame alongside early next week in St. Louis.

After Cincinnati leaves St. Louis, the Chicago Cubs come in, with Sammy Sosa leading the menagerie. So it will be McGwire and Sosa, with that grail of 61 home runs shining someplace over the city's Golden Arches. It would be almost too much, except that the whole country is watching, and there is no such thing as excess when a fairy tale comes alive.

Be grateful that you're not scheduled to be a starting pitcher in St. Louis.

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