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The Gospel According to Mark

Can Mark McGwire also smack the verbal ball out of the park? But of course. "I hope he grows up to be a ballplayer," Mark later said of Matt, "and breaks the record."

The many sons and daughters of the late Roger Maris were also at Busch, and McGwire treated them with unstinting respect, crushed them with hugs, whispered secrets about God and history and Roger's batting average in heaven to each one. To his credit, Roger Jr. allowed last week that while he admires the Cardinals' slugger, he was not necessarily overjoyed that his father's 37-year-old home-run mark had been broken. Maris the Elder paid for the record with sweat and blood, after all: In 1961, New York's knowledgeable, hard-hearted baseball fans wanted none but their golden boy, Mickey Mantle, to top the Babe. They booed Roger.

Later in the evening last Tuesday, longtime Cardinals announcer Jack Buck fell all over himself praising McGwire. A groveling acolyte in the presence of a saint, Buck looked small and frail when he begged a hug from his hero. Then management wheeled out The Car, a Cardinal-red '62 Corvette. McGwire hugged Matt and then he hugged Cardinals legends Lou Brock and Stan Musial. He hugged manager Tony LaRussa (whose mother had just died) and catcher Tom Lampkin. Once more, he hugged every Maris in sight. And when the boy groundskeeper who had retrieved The Ball from over the fence returned it to him (thankfully there was no bloody melee over a souvenir that might have fetched a million dollars), McGwire hugged him, too.

He did not hug commissioner Bud Selig. But you got the feeling that if Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had been in the stadium, this generous, good-hearted giant would have grabbed them up, too, in a huge, enclosing, three-way hug. What is history, after all, if not the embrace of, say, fact and judgment?

The most astonishing thing is that this most astonishing baseball season is not yet done. By all rights, Sosa and McGwire will put the home-run record out of sight for another four decades. How many can each of them hit? Seventy? Seventy-two? As McGwire would say, that's for the man upstairs to decide.

Meantime, to those who claim he stole the record in a grim political season, the revitalized baseball world can say only this: Hail to the thief!

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