Baseball: Mighty Big Mac homes in on legend

St Louis Cardinals slugger prepares for what may be a record-breaking showdown with Chicago Cubs rival

IN THIS magical late summer of American sport, one image and one place stand out. The place is Busch Stadium, home of the St Louis Cardinals baseball club, with the city's great Gateway Arch gleaming high beyond it in the hot late afternoon sun. The image is of kids, hundreds of them, all wearing a red Cardinals shirt emblazoned with the number 25 and carrying a fielder's glove, waiting outside the gates for that night's game.

The instant they open, at 4.50pm precisely, the yelling multitude race for a section in the third tier, away over deep left-field. It is called Big Mac Land and it does not celebrate a certain type of hamburger. It is named in honour of the Cardinals first baseman - Mark McGwire according to his birth certificate, No 25 according to the game programme, but for an entire and awestruck nation, just plain and simple "Big Mac".

The kids go to that remote spot so early because batting practice is coming up, and that's where Big Mac has a habit of hitting home runs. And who knows, just maybe they'll catch one. More importantly, he hits them there in the real games too. In fact, Mark McGwire has hit so many in ball parks around the country this summer that within the next few days, within a week or two at most, he will erase the most famous record in American sport. Back in 1961, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, earning a nation's ingratitude for removing Babe Ruth's 60 in 1927 from the record books. In 1998, McGwire is on statistical course to smite 69.

The record has such resonance because the home run is part of the American soul. It is a stupendous feat of the human eye and human brute force. In the 0.4 seconds a 90 miles-per-hour pitch takes to cover the 60 feet from the mound to home plate, the batter must size up the trajectory, decide whether to hit it, and then bring a three-inch wide cylindrical bat onto the ball and despatch it at least 100 yards on the full toss within the arc - to use cricketing terms - between midwicket and cover. The achievement is simple, unarguable and, for a statistics-obsessed nation, the ultimate truth. You can't fake a home run. You can't edge one. You can't finesse one. You just belt one.

The heroes of the trade are called sluggers, and legends encrust their deeds. Take Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" in the 1932 World Series, when he is said to have pointed to the place in the crowd where he planned to deposit the next pitch for a home run, and duly did so. No matter that camera footage from the time doesn't support the story. It is part of sluggers' lore, like the Babe's belly and Mickey Mantle's boozing. And now McGwire is shaping up to be the greatest slugger of all: greater than Maris, greater than Hank Aaron, even though he is unlikely to top Aaron's record of 755 career home runs. Greater, by some measures, even than Ruth.

For Mark McGwire was designed by the Almighty to hit home runs. His forearms are like other mens' thighs, his thighs like wine vats. In his huge hands the bat is like a five cent fly-swat, which he flicks lazily back and forth as he crouches waiting for the pitch. In his batting helmet, with his cropped red hair and goatee beard, he looks like a Norse god - though set against McGwire's 6ft 5ins and 250lbs, even Thor would be a pygmy by comparison. And when he hits one, it goes. A McGwire home run does not merely clear the fence, more often than not it reaches the altitudes of Big Mac Land.

The record has been in his sights from the moment he homered in each of the Cards' opening four games. Thereafter, the statistical markers have fallen like leaves in autumn. On 5 May in New York he hit his 400th career homer, in the fewest at-bats in Major League history. He's become the first man in history to hit 50 homers in three consecutive seasons. He's broken the National League record (it was 56). He's broken his previous personal best (58 in 1997), he's already hit more home runs in a season than any right-handed hitter (Maris and Ruth were both lefties).

There was a sticky patch in August when pitchers - not unreasonably - wouldn't throw the ball anywhere near him and earned jeers even from their own crowds for doing so. For a fortnight or so, McGwire was becalmed in the high 40s. But then he broke free. Consecutive two-homer nights this week lifted him to 59 and, with 23 games left and barring injury, it's a matter of when, not if, the record falls. And all America is willing him to succeed. In the court of public opinion, the pitcher who deliberately walks him now is instantly convicted of cowardice and high treason.

How different from 37 years ago and Roger Maris, haunted by two Yankee immortals, the dead Ruth and his own, far more popular teammate Mantle, with his rascal's grin and hell-raising lifestyle. Many fans openly pulled for Maris to fail, and to this day he is regarded as something of a one- season wonder. But not even McGwire's recent admission he takes the steroid- like drug androstenedione (legal in baseball but banned in many sports) has dented a nation's love affair with him.

He draws sell-out crowds wherever he plays. The homer count is a regular feature on the nightly network news. He has borne round-the-clock media intrusion with grace and stoicism, and amid the hubbub is pleasantly modest: "I kind of amazed myself I hit that one out," he remarked almost ruefully after his first homer on Wednesday night in Miami - a prodigious 497ft blast from a pitch he picked up like a golf drive, from some 3ins off the ground. " `How the heck did you hit it?' the Marlins catcher asked me the next time I came up. I told him: `I have no idea.' "

But, amazingly, McGwire is not the only one in the chase. He may have caught the country's imagination, but at his shoulder, tracking him like the distance runner hanging on the leader's shoulder with a couple of laps left, is Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs.

The two epitomise the universality of baseball in the Americas - the brawny dentist's son from affluent southern California, and the poor black kid from the Dominican Republic who arrived in the US in 1986, weighing barely 10 stone. Since then, Sosa has fattened up and muscled up. Most importantly, he's learnt to wait for the pitch to hit, and this year everything's come together. He already has 56 homers, and has Maris firmly in his sights. If he hits a magic streak (homers, like London buses, tend to come in bunches) he could yet overhaul McGwire. Either way, it'll be the biggest day for the Dominican Republic since it gained independence in 1924.

But first things first. Next Monday and Tuesday, the Cubs and the Cardinals meet in St Louis for the final two of their 11 encounters this season. The games, traditional derbies in the National League central division, have been sold out for ages. This time ,though, they could be historic, if either McGwire or, less probably Sosa, chooses the moment to seize Ruth's inheritance. But one thing is certain. Big Mac Land will be bursting hours before game time, packed with kids stretching out their gloves and praying the big man will belt one their way.

HISTORY MAKERS AND CHASERS: FOUR MEN AND AMERICA'S MOST CELEBRATED SPORTING RECORD

BABE RUTH

60 home runs in 1927

The most famous baseball player in history and probably the most celebrated figure in American sport. Set a record of 60 home runs in a season, which stood for 34 years until it was eclipsed by Roger Maris in 1961. Joined the New York Yankees from the Boston Red Sox, who have never won the World Series since and are said to have been under the "curse of the bambino" ever since letting him go.

ROGER MARIS

61 home runs in 1961

Broke the legendary Babe Ruth's record in 1961 when he hit 61 homers in a single season. Record has stood ever since, but Maris never received widespread acclaim. Proved to be little more than a one-season wonder and was never quite forgiven either for beating Ruth's record or for eclipsing his more popular New York Yankees colleague, Mickey Mantle. Died of cancer in 1985 at the age of 51.

MARK McGWIRE

59 home runs and counting

Aged 34. The son of a dentist, he went to the University of Southern California and was an established Major League player by the age of 24. Has the best home run strike-rate in baseball history and hit 58 homers for the St Louis Cardinals last year. Has been on course to break Roger Maris's mark for most of the season and went into last night's game needing just two more home runs to break the record.

SAMMY SOSA

56 home runs and counting

Aged 29. Born in the Dominican Republic, where he sold oranges and shone shoes to help his mother feed a family of six. Early in his career he had a reputation as an undisciplined, maverick player, but this season has finally lived up to his potential. Having recently caught up with McGwire's home runs tally, he has fallen behind again this week as his rival hit two homers in successive matches.

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