McGwire's Classy Climb to a Hallowed Summit:

To understand how high a man has climbed, it is essential to know how far he has fallen.

After all, Mark McGwire is the shiny new all-time single-season home-run leader with 62, thanks to an un-McGwire-like minipop of just 341 feet in St. Louis Tuesday night. It's ironic that his shortest homer of the year created the biggest boom. It is truly the stuff of magic, because this over-the-top success is only slightly removed from the debacles and disappointments of the first order.

Just four years ago he hit a pathetic nine home runs. Incredibly, it was only seven summers ago that he hit just .201 and looked for all the world like a faded star in desperate decline.

And now, this: the shot just below the Konica sign in left field that capped a stunning three days. On Sunday, he homered to tie Babe Ruth's one-time mark of 60, set 71 years ago. On Monday, he homered to tie record-holder Roger Maris's mark of 61, set 37 years ago. On Tuesday, he homered to take top spot on the pedestal.

In the 21 days leading to the amazing 62nd, he hit 15 homers.

Immediately, the speculation started on how high he will bump up the crossbar. Will he fall apart after this season of stress and perhaps add only a couple more homers - despite his season-long performance in which he has been averaging one every two games? Or will he - buoyed by the burden of the ages lifted from his broad shoulders - slap another dozen or more into the cheap seats?

The answer, of course, is yes - or maybe in-between.

That it was done in St. Louis was one of many perfect touches. After all, the town is one of the most cherished baseball cities in the land. It deserves this, just like Tampa Bay and Phoenix and Seattle don't. They have no storied histories yet like those of St. Louis, the fabled home of greats like Lou Brock and Stan Musial.

Indeed, that it happened in the right city is symbolic of the way that Mc-Gwire - and everyone else - handled the dazzling event. Everybody and everything was perfect.

McGwire has been inordinately kind to his chief competitor, Sammy Sosa, and vice versa. He hugged him a lot. McGwire has been genuinely kind to the entire Maris family, and vice versa. He hugged them a lot. And, in the process, he resurrected the memory and elevated the stature of the long-beleaguered Roger Maris, who had a singularly miserable time during his record year. McGwire singled out his parents, his son, the owners, friends. He saluted everyone. He hugged as many people as were huggable.

There were enough tears to float the USS Hornet. He even thanked his ex-wife. This was Fantasy Island without the island.

The classy St. Louis ownership presented him with a Cardinal-red 1962 Corvette in honor of ... are you keeping up? There has never been a classier car.

Arguably the classiest fans in America properly went nuts over McGwire - and over Sosa, in town with the visiting Chicago Cubs. "What a country," marveled Sosa. "God Bless America," marveled McGwire.

Glory be and hallelujah, marveled the classy fans.

Incredibly - if we are not out of incredibles - the person who got the ball, Tim Forneris, was a member of the Cardinal ground crew. What did he ask for a ball that was rumored to have the potential value of $1 million? Absolutely nothing. He stepped to the microphone and said simply, "Mr. Mc-Gwire, I think I have something that belongs to you." He promptly turned it over and received a handshake.

That, in candor, may have been the evening's true highlight. Any lesson there for the rest of us?

It is fitting that baseball, immersed in its own history and always drowning in truisms and clichs, would produce a bigger-than-life throwback to more simple days. When he was waiting to hit No. 62, McGwire pointed out a fact that we might never have figured out for ourselves: "I'm one swing away." He told us, "It has been a long, tough road." His secret to success, he disclosed, is "I look for a good pitch to hit." McGwire clued us in that "I believe things happen for a reason." Some announcer somewhere joined in with the flash: "History was made here tonight."

Yet this is the appeal of what McGwire did. He took us back to the days of Ruth and Maris, saying with old-timey idealism, "I don't play the game for records. I play the game because I love it."

Then an emotionally spent McGwire readjusted his cap for the 937th time and concluded, "It was a sweet, sweet run around the bases."

Yes it was, Mark, for all of us.

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