Swinging for history Homers: Mark McGwire is on the verge of breaking Roger Maris' record. If and when it happens will depend on how he is pitched.


Major-league home run king Mark McGwire has baseball's single-season home run record at very close range -- so close that every game he plays now has the potential for huge historic significance.

It could happen this weekend or later this month or not at all.

Busch Stadium will be bursting at the seams tonight with fans hoping for another multi-homer McGwire miracle like the ones he worked on Tuesday and Wednesday night in Florida. He hit four home runs in the space of 10 at-bats to draw within just two big swings of equaling Roger Maris' 37-year-old record of 61 homers in a season.

If he stays hot, the chase could be over in a hurry. If opposing pitchers continue to challenge him the way they did at Miami's Pro Player Stadium, McGwire could be looking back at the old record by the time the St. Louis Cardinals wrap up a five-game homestand against the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs.

But don't bet on it.

There appears to be little doubt that McGwire will eventually push Maris out of the record book, but there is plenty of room to wonder if he'll get anything to hit during the three-game series that begins tonight against the Reds.

The Cincinnati pitching staff has made a point of staying out of his way this year, pitching around him in nearly half of his plate appearances against the Reds and -- so far -- holding him homerless in six games.

McGwire has gone to the plate 25 times against the Reds. He has only two hits in 13 official at-bats, but his on-base percentage is .560. He has received 11 walks, five of them intentional, and has been hit by a pitch.

Perhaps this weekend will be different. The Reds did challenge fellow Maris chaser Sammy Sosa during a three-game series at Wrigley Field earlier this week, allowing him to hit his 55th and 56th home runs, but they have succeeded in shutting down McGwire all season. Why change now?

"I've never worried about that," McGwire said Wednesday night. "I have other people who worry about that for me. I just try to get a pitch to hit and then react to it."

Manager Tony La Russa worries about it. He spoke out at midseason when it became apparent that McGwire's run at the record might be endangered by a reluctance on the part of opposing pitchers to throw the ball in the strike zone.

McGwire's walk total (145) is staggering. He's on pace to challenge Babe Ruth's record of 170 in a season, but it hasn't prevented him from drawing within one big swing of joining Ruth and Maris as the only players in major-league history to hit at least 60 homers in a season.

La Russa thinks McGwire -- and maybe Sosa -- could finish with 70 this year, but only if teams such as the Reds make a legitimate attempt to get them out.

"They were real careful against him the last time," La Russa said, "but Sammy Sosa had 11 at-bats against them. My guess is that they'll challenge him as much as Sosa."

If not, they may get booed off the field at Busch Stadium, where fans have been waiting all year for McGwire to move into history.

McGwire and Sosa got the day off yesterday. The scheduled off day for both the Cardinals and Cubs gave baseball fans a quick breather before the chase resumes tonight in St. Louis and in Pittsburgh, where the Cubs open a three-game series against the Pirates.

The media crush in St. Louis will be unprecedented. Major League Baseball has received 700 credential requests for the remainder of the home run chase, with media interest reaching a peak when Sosa and the Cubs arrive at Busch for the last head-to-head series between the Cubs and Cardinals, Monday and Tuesday.

"Man, when Sosa comes to town, it's going to be amazing," said teammate Brian Jordan. "The media may be playing the outfield. he gets to 61, I might put my family out in the outfield to try and catch that ball."

The fate of the McGwire home run balls is another issue. Each of the four home runs that he hit in Florida were returned to him by young fans, all of whom accepted personalized souvenirs from McGwire in exchange for balls that they could have sold to collectors for four-figure prices.

"I'm glad there are people like that in the world," said McGwire.

The next three balls may not be so easily obtained, not after a collector paid an estimated $500,000 two years ago for the ball that Eddie Murray hit for his 500th home run. McGwire has been a critic of the memorabilia craze and is unlikely to join in a bidding war for the balls.

"I know there are a lot of people offering a lot of money," McGwire said, "but the right thing to do is put the [62nd home run] ball in the Hall of Fame."

McGwire doesn't like to look that far ahead. He pointed toward heaven after he hit his 58th homer on Wednesday night, as if to give thanks and also keep the whole thing in perspective.

"I've said time and time again, only one person knows what's going to happen," McGwire said. " When it happens, it happens. Let's just take what each day gives us."

Homer watch

Mark McGwire

Homers: 59 Games left: 23

Tonight: Vs. Reds, 8: 10

Reds starter: Pete Harnisch (10-6, 3.38)

Sammy Sosa

Homers: 56 Games left: 22

Tonight: At Pirates, 7: 05

Pirates starter: Jason Schmidt (11-10, 3.94)

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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