BASEBALL: Homer unites America

WHEN IT came, the home run that broke the US record was hard, fast and so low that it seemed at first it might not make it over the fence. But, so much energy did Mark McGwire put into the shot, it would probably have punched a hole through in any case.

America has been on the edge of its seat for weeks as it became clear that McGwire would beat the record of 61 home runs in a season set back in 1961 by Roger Maris. Mc Gwire, of the St Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, have both been in contention, but it was McGwire - in a match against the Cubs at the Cardinals' home field - who finally broke through.

He chewed nervously in the dug out before he took the field, almost visibly imagining the pitches. When he walked out to face Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel, a hush fell on the stadium. Trachsel threw him a fastball and, at 8.18pm precisely, McGwire swatted it with tremendous force down the left line. He had almost run to first base before it was clear that he had taken his place in history. The field erupted into fireworks, hoarse cheers and a splatter of flash bulbs for 11 minutes.

The home-run race has helped to restore some lustre to a game that, after the players' strike in 1994, had seen fans turn away in disgust.

McGwire himself is a charismatic but modest figure, whose first impulse after exchanging high-fives and salutes with his team-mates was to hug the members of the Maris family who had come to see him break the record. His use of a medical supplement, which is legal in baseball though not in many other sports, has barely dented his image.

The feat has taken the 34-year-old only 145 games, giving him plenty of time to take the tally well above 62. The legendary Babe Ruth's highest was 59, and when Maris broke that he was booed by many people. McGwire, in a summer when America is enjoying something of a golden glow, has become a towering hero. "I will tell you, the whole country has been involved in this," he said. "People have been saying it is bringing the country together. So be it. I am happy to bring the country together."

Both the bat and the ball were flown straight to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The ball was recovered by Tim Forneris, a 22-year-old groundsman. "Right when it hit off the bat, I knew it was going out and it went right over the sign," Forneris said. "There was a bunch of ground-crew guys on the wall. But I was right on the edge and I said: `That ball is mine'."

Forneris promptly returned the ball to the slugger. That was no mean gesture: an anonymous benefactor had promised $1m (pounds 0.6m) for it, and on the private market it could have fetched twice that. "What are dollars? It's all about experiences. What I have here, I can never change; no one can take it away from me," said Forneris yesterday.

"Baseball is back alive again and for me to be a part of it, it is truly an honour."