62! McGwire blasts into history Home run record falls to Cardinals slugger in 4th inning

September 09, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS -- Mark McGwire lifted the weight of the baseball world off his bulging shoulders last night, hitting his historic 62nd home run of the season at sold-out Busch Stadium to break Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season record.

McGwire hit a low line drive over the left-field fence in the fourth inning to write his name boldly in the baseball record book and complete a four-season face-lift of the sport that began with Cal Ripken's successful assault on Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record in 1995.

Baseball is all the way back, thanks to Big Mac.

The excitement generated by his six-month home run odyssey built to a peak during a five-game Busch Stadium homestand that ended with last night's 6-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs. He hit No. 60 against the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday to equal Babe Ruth's legendary 1927 performance and joined Maris in the record book with his 61st homer of the year in Monday's opener of the much-anticipated two-game series that also featured fellow record-chaser Sammy Sosa.

No. 62 came just five at-bats later, barely enough time to build up any suspense, especially with nearly three weeks left in the season, but McGwire was elated and relieved.

"I don't know how much the [Gateway] Arch weighs," McGwire said afterward, "but I feel like it has been lifted off my back."

Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel will forever be linked to McGwire for serving up the pitch that disappeared into one of baseball's biggest nights. He delivered a first-pitch fastball on the inside part of the plate and watched along with the crowd of 49,676 as McGwire turned a $9 baseball into a priceless museum piece.

It traveled just 341 feet, making it McGwire's shortest home run of the year, but nobody cared. It went out. Everyone went wild.

The celebration began as soon as he left the batter's box and was in full bloom by the time he circled the bases and arrived at home plate.

He was so excited that he nearly missed first base -- which would have negated the homer -- but went back and touched it before continuing one of the most famous home run trots of all time.

"Absolutely incredible," McGwire said. "I'm almost speechless. I have been talking about this since January and I get to 61 and it's one swing away and I hit a ball that all of the sudden disappeared on me. I tell you what, I totally believe in fate and I believe that is what happened here this week and I thank the man upstairs."

Everyone wondered how McGwire would top the emotional scene that took place after No. 61 on Monday, when he hoisted his 10-year-old son into the air and wished his father a happy and coincidental 61st birthday, but it wasn't a problem.

The red-clad St. Louis fans rose in unison to give the big first baseman a thunderous ovation that did not subside for nearly 10 minutes.

McGwire has always seemed a little bigger than life -- at 6 feet 5, 250 pounds -- but even he now is dwarfed by his stature as a professional sports icon.

He hugged almost everyone on the field. His son. His teammates. Even opposing players. Then he climbed into the stands for a surprisingly private and poignant moment with the Maris family. He embraced each of the six Maris children, but will have to wait to see Maris' widow, Patricia, who was hospitalized again yesterday with heart palpitations.

Sosa jogged in from the outfield to congratulate McGwire and join him in an exaggerated version of the high-five ritual that McGwire goes through with his teammates after every home run. They touched fists, then each feigned a punch to the other's midsection before embracing for the ultimate photo opportunity.

McGwire was handed a microphone and made a brief and emotional address to the crowd.

"You're the best," he told the Cardinals fans, the volume of their continuing ovation making his comments almost inaudible.

He turned finally toward right field, where Sosa -- just three homers from equaling Maris -- had returned to his position to finish the inning.

"Sammy Sosa," he shouted. "It's unbelieveable."

What a contrast to Oct. 1, 1961, when Maris hit his 61st. He circled the bases with his head down and made one reluctant curtain call for a half-full house of about 24,000 fans at Yankee Stadium.

McGwire has been the toast of every town that he has visited during the latter stages of his record run. Maris was considered by many to be unworthy of Ruth's record, enduring criticism from the media and abuse from the stands. The pressure got so intense that he started to lose his hair in late September.

It hasn't been all bouquets for McGwire either. He has had to defend his terrific home run total against charges that it has been inflated by a baseball-wide shortage of good pitching or, worse, diminished by the recent revelation that he uses the testosterone-enhancing drug androstenedione.

None of that seemed to matter last night, as he hugged his son again and again and bathed in the glory of an achievement that no other living player has experienced. Ruth's record stood for 34 years. Maris' record lasted 37. McGwire's record is still to be determined, because the Cardinals have 18 games remaining on their schedule.

The home run ball did not reach the seats, rendering moot the $1 million bounty that had been placed on it by an Illinois memorabilia dealer. It flew under the signs that front the standing area above left field and was retrieved by Cardinals groundskeeper Tim Forneris, who had it delivered almost immediately to McGwire. McGwire has said that he will send it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

As for the future of the record, McGwire had one wish:

"I hope my son grows up some day and breaks the record."

Home run chase

.... Yesterday Total

McGwire 1 .... 62

Sosa .. 0 .... 58

Pub Date: 9/09/98

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