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You're out of it, pal. You're hungry, and the kitchen's closed. You don't live in St. Louis or Seattle or Chicago, where the story of this American summer of 1998 is cooking, nor in the other big cities where the dailies bring it piping hot to the breakfast table every dawn. You live a 5 1/2-hour drive from the nearest big league ballpark, and your newspaper's serving it up like bulletins from the front in World War I—GRIFFEY HITS 39TH; SOSA'S 36TH LEADS CUBS; MCGWIRE MASHES 2 MORE—followed by a bare-bones sentence or two, and Christ, there's not even SportsCenter to fill your belly because your wife bears a deep grudge against TV and sneers whenever you creep down the stairs at 7 a.m. to turn it on.

But you're a sportswriter, and people assume you know. "What do ya think?" they ask. "Is Maris's record gonna fall? Which one's gonna do it? What kind of guy's McGwire? Who do you like?" You don't know who you like. Never met any of the three men in your life. It's scary, not being able to answer the watercooler question.

So you get this idea. It's too good to be true, but you ask your boss anyway. How about letting you chase the chase? Three cities, three nights, three men—go on a long-ball bender, a four-bag jag. Enter the bubble to feel what it's like to be one of them right now, belting homers and stalking legends. Then become one of the mob up in the seats, rising to snag history. Big Mac in San Diego on Monday, Junior in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, Slammin' Sammy in Chicago on Wednesday, back-to-back-to-back . . . pretty please?

Sure, says your boss. Why not?

Hot damn! You're going . . . going . . . gone!

It's only when you're up in the air at dawn, a week ago Monday, blinking on four hours' sleep and staring at the travel schedule you've scribbled out, that you start thinking, Man, this is lunacy, and what are the odds you'll actually see any of the big boys launch? Two flights, 2,500 miles and 14 hours later you're sitting in a football locker room next to the visitors' clubhouse at Qualcomm Stadium, waiting for the press conference that Mark McGwire holds on his first day in each city when he's on the road. You remember reading about the media horde that swallowed Roger Maris in 1961. Ten to 15 reporters would converge on him before and after each game. That was in September, when Maris had 55, 56, 57. Today is July 20. McGwire has 42. There are 30 of us. There were 50 on the last road trip, in Cincinnati, a writer tells you.

McGwire walks in, St. Louis Cardinals cap tugged low on his head, dressed for battle. He sees the four cameras aimed at a chair and a table holding a half-dozen microphones. He shakes his head in disgust. "I'm not gonna sit down," he says. "This is informal stuff, so. . . ." He leans against one of the lockers, his green eyes blinking like those of a cornered ox as the humans and their hardware close in. Someone takes pity on him, lobs him a lollipop about his team instead of about what everyone's here for. He shakes his head grimly again. "This is for Mark McGwire home run questions," he says. "That's the only reason I'm doing this. I talk about the team after the game."

Haltingly, the questions come. You have this feeling that if you ask the wrong question, he might chomp your head off, and you would absolutely deserve it, so you wait for someone else to ask it. "I don't know how anybody can get used to this," McGwire says. "I don't play the game for this. I'm sick of seeing my mug. I've always believed that the more people know about you, the more they get sick of you. The media sets this up like it's going to happen . . . so how are they going to write it if it doesn't happen? I assume people want this record to be broken. So let's use some sense. Why not wait until somebody gets close to breaking the record? If people want to see something done, it makes sense to do this in a way that won't wear the person down."

Is he having any fun? "Between the lines, I have a lot of fun," he says.

What does he think of Mexican pitchers? He rolls his eyes. The cameras and microphones reap the 20-second snip they need and begin peeling away, and as the crowd dwindles to a dozen men with notepads, McGwire's stiff, mammoth body loosens—the cornered ox is gone. He looks every questioner in the eye and answers earnestly. He wraps an arm around the divider between two locker stalls, lets it have some of his 250 pounds and smiles. "I wish every player could feel what I've felt in visiting ballparks," he says. "The receptions I've received. . . .It's blown me away. It's absolutely remarkable."

After the All-Star break, he says, he pulled the shutters over the looking glass. No more SportsCenter—his finger clicks right past it on the remote control. No more sports pages—he extracts that section from newspapers, folds it and drops it in the trash. No more reading the mail.

You follow him into the Cardinals clubhouse, feeling bad because now you like him, and your eyes feel like cameras. There it is, blaring from the television that hangs from the ceiling and faces all the lockers—an ESPN segment on the home-run-swinging styles of McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa, the crack of McGwire's bat and the bark of his name coming over and over. You watch how swiftly he walks past the screen to retrieve something from his stall and then strides back to remain on the TV's dark side until it's time for batting practice, ferrying his bat to the trainer's room, to the manager's office, to the corridor outside, the look in his eye that of a man on his way to do something very important, although he's really just killing time. You can't help feeling that here's a guy who wishes to hell he could do this without expectations, without the dread of letting people down.

A teammate, pitcher Todd Stottlemyre, watches him hurry by. "It's like a starting pitcher in the seventh inning of a no-hitter," Stottlemyre says. "We don't say anything to him anymore about home runs. We can tell he doesn't want us to talk about it, and nobody's gonna question him, because it's too damn big."

You're startled, as you follow McGwire down the tunnel to the dugout, to hear the cries begin even before he emerges. "McGwire! McGwire!" He walks past the bleating fans, never looks up. Every head, every camera is on him. His face is a mask, eyes gripping a nothingness before him. He lifts his arms overhead to stretch. A woman with a tiny camera taps his armpit with her fingernail, asking him to turn and pose. He never looks at her. She doesn't exist.

Two hours before game time, the leftfield stands are choked with people wearing mitts. The air crackles. Foul territory is thick with writers and photographers and special guests—a hundred, easy. Every few minutes McGwire's eyes meet those of someone he knows. Immediately the mask vanishes, the eyes and lips become animated; you see how grateful he is to be human again. There's Scott LaRose, his comedian buddy who tells you that McGwire cackles so loud at comedy clubs that he brings a towel with him to bite on rather than draw attention to himself. There's George Will and his two sons. "It's not about the pennant races anymore," Will tells you. "It's about the home run race. You'd think I'd want Sosa, because I grew up a Cubs fan, but I'm rooting for McGwire. The base of achievement is there—he's earned this. He's got the swing down, it never varies, so he won't have any long periods of mechanical trouble. But all three of them seem to be nice human beings. There's not a Sprewell in the house."

Three of them? Or is it four now? You look up, and there's San Diego Padres outfielder Greg Vaughn standing 10 feet away. His 34th home run, yesterday, has brought him within two of Sosa, to the lip of the volcano, and since you're here, hell, why not nudge him in too? He gives you a big, warm, no-way-in-hell grin and says, "I won't even think about it. I don't want to hear or see anybody blowin' smoke up my butt. It's so far-fetched, so unrealistic, it hasn't even entered my mind. Man, McGwire's a monster. He's got Nintendo numbers! Junior, he was born to play baseball and be a superstar, and Sammy, he's like a little kid having fun. I love to watch those guys go over the top."

As if to prove he doesn't belong, he goes homerless his first four rounds of batting practice and exits the cage with a sorrowful shake of his head. "Got the worst BP swing in baseball," Vaughn laments. Then, looking over your shoulder, he cracks up. "McGwire just called over to me. Says he wants to rub me, I'm so hot. Imagine that!"

Vaughn trots to McGwire's side, spilling laughter. Nobody back home has ever even asked you about Vaughn, but for pure warmth alone, maybe he's the dark horse you should pull for.

Big Mac walks toward the dugout. He reaches above it to sign a few autographs, looking at no one as he signs, his face a blank. The crush of people mashes a redheaded little boy against the railing atop the dugout. The boy breaks into sobs. His father and a security guard shove and shout to set him free.

McGwire strides to the plate for BP. You park yourself right at the rope that keeps noncombatants back from the cage. Everyone's on his feet. A couple of grounders, ohhhh, a couple of fly balls, ahhhh, and then the thunder, whoooooah! Twenty-two compact swings in all, seven bullets into the sea of begging bare and leathered hands. Just before McGwire finishes, a boy runs out to the cage in a Cardinals uniform with McGwire's name and number on the back—Mark's son, Matthew, reporting for duty as batboy and Nation's Luckiest Child. Big Mac grins, slaps five and hugs the boy, then heads back to the clubhouse.

You go up into the stands, buy a soda and a hot dog, and grab an empty seat near the Cardinals' dugout. Along the way, in three conversations, you hear men explaining to their women about Ruth's 60 and Maris's 61 and the history afoot here tonight. Big Mac approaches the plate in the top of the first to a standing O. He's not a Cardinal anymore. He's on everyone's team.

Lord, those thighs. In McGwire's knock-kneed stance, they scream to burst out of his pants, and as he takes those swift little warmup swipes, his 33 ounces of northern white ash becomes a toothpick. With distance, up here in the crowd, you can see the appetite for legend that he's feeding. He's the caricature that a children's artist would draw of a home run slugger; he's Bunyan swinging an ax, the gentle giant whose charity for abused children everybody you'll meet tonight is amazingly quick to point out. Camera flashes pop all around the concrete bowl. McGwire lashes a white-blur single to left, Little Mac gallops out grinning to collect his daddy's shin guard, and you're thinking, Damn, wouldn't it be nice if your son could be beside you to see this, and how can you not root for this guy?

Bottom of the second. Vaughn launches number 35, which goes 433 feet to dead left. Look out, people tell you. Here comes Vaughny. Sitting on the third base side, watching that home run descend, you know where you need to go—on the double.

Up in the leftfield seats, everybody wants McGwire to take the record and smash it over one of those thighs. Junior? "Great player, the best, but . . . a little arrogant . . . kinda smug." That's what you're hearing. Sammy? "He won't last." Big Mac is their choice because of the kids he's helping. Because of his humility and respect for the game. And most of all: "Because he's so extravagant, so monstrous," says Daria Zanoi, a 24-year-old nurse who examines sexual-assault victims, of all things, and who's giving McGwire the I'm-not-worthy bow as he steps in and singles once more. "It's like he should be on his own team because he doesn't match anyone else. I just want him to break the record, nobody else. That would make it even more special."

Second deck, that's too obvious. For Mac's third at bat, in the fifth, you guess first row, lower deck, pure rope, and man your battle station. Fool! There she goes—good god, they really are as long as you've read!—a 458-foot bomb into the second tier in left center, the second-deepest one since distances were first recorded in this ballpark. You jump to your feet with everyone else, jam your notepad under your arm and pound your hands together, hardly believing your good luck. You've got to find who snagged that baby, but when you get up there, it looks like a hospital tent at Shiloh. A silver-haired man is holding a wet folded paper towel to an ugly red welt high on his forehead. A seat away, a man with a Padres hat tugged over unruly blond hair is wincing and fingering a humdinger of his own on his left cheek. "We're victims of McGwire!" cries Bob Colwell, a 46-year-old machine operator from Ocean Beach, Calif.

"McGwire did this?" you ask. "To both of you?"

"To both of us!" shouts Colwell. "Can you believe it? I'm up here during batting practice explaining to her"—he jabs a thumb at his girlfriend, Dawn Mariani, a dispatcher for the San Diego police—"about Roger and the Babe, and she's barely listening, she's reading Sphere by Michael Crichton. All of a sudden I see McGwire hit one that's coming straight for me, and it's like a scene from The Natural, it's surreal, and I'm wearing a glove, which I haven't worn in 20 years, thinking, I've got a chance! I reach up, but everybody bumps me, and it hits the top of my glove and then hits my cheek, and there I am bumming out, bleeding profusely, when I turn and . . . there's my honey holding the ball! Thank God, thank God! Then what happens? Lightning strikes twice! The home run McGwire just hit? It comes right up here again! And this guy, who I didn't know before tonight"—the factory worker reaches across Dawn to thump attorney James Conway on the back—"this time he gets nailed! Do a story on us! Victims of McGwire!"

So who got number 43? you ask. They point to the row behind, where a thick 49-year-old high school football coach named Robert Byers Jr., from Moreno Valley, Calif., took it on the ricochet off Conway's noggin. "As I watched it coming, I just kept telling myself what I always tell my receivers," Byers says. "Soft hands, soft hands. I just turned down an offer of $700 for this ball."

Big Mac goes 4 for 4, with a walk. Cards win 13-1. What you want to do right now is go get a cold one with James and Robert and Bob, but there's no time for that. Junior's waiting back on the other side of the country, and the only way to get there in time for batting practice tomorrow in Florida is to take the red-eye, but it's 11 p.m., too late to catch the last flight to the East Coast out of San Diego, so you've got to drive two hours up I-5 to catch the 1:55 a.m. out of L.A. and change planes in Dallas.

You can die in the dinger wringer. This occurs to you an hour north of San Diego, after your second Coca-Cola's gone and the rumble of the lane dividers has just snapped your eyes open for the third time and your body realizes it's gone 24 hours without sleep. You roll down the windows, crank up the radio, scream with The Who and Jethro Tull at the top of your lungs for the next 45 minutes—that's how you reel into L.A. International and live to see Griffey swing his black bat.

Only nine of your kind surround Junior when he looks up, stick of red licorice poking out of his mouth, eyes cool, voice distant. You can touch the tension again, glimpse the cliff edge these three sluggers must walk. If they play along with your questions, if they ignore teammates' glances in a clubhouse where code dictates that no player steps above the other 24, if they reveal their deepest cravings for immortality, they're inviting free fall and ridicule from within and without should they fall short of 61. If they don't play along, if they ask to be left alone when they hear the same question for the 23rd straight day, or if they give the Dogpatch Gazette reporter's question the glare and bark it deserves, they risk ruining their reputation forever even as they lay claim to the most acclaimed individual sports record in America. How's Junior going to play this game before the game?

"I don't like to talk about myself," he says. "Hard to believe, isn't it? I'm not going to talk about home runs. I just want to win. I'm not going to talk about McGwire and Sosa. They don't help this team win. It's hard for people to believe that Roger Maris's record isn't important to me, but it's not." Nine of you clutch empty notepads, all your questions about McGwire, Sosa, Maris, home runs and Griffey himself just blown away in the top of the first, so now what do you do? Play cat and mouse, of course, ask Junior 20 questions about why he won't talk about McGwire, Sosa, Maris, home runs or himself. In no time Junior's sitting on an equipment chest, feet propped up, grinning and spinning the nine of you wherever he wants, in no hurry at all to leave. He's the cat, you're the mice, and as long as that's clear, he's enjoying the attention—for now.

A journalist uses the word chase. Junior won't have it. "Only thing I wanna chase is my kids," he says. Nobody's going to pigeonhole him as a home run hitter when he's clearly the finest all-around player in the game. Nobody's going to make him pant after a goal that 270 million others have set for him.

"That's all people want to talk about," he says, "but 50 home runs will probably win you only 12 games a season. I think more about the little things, like playing defense, getting guys over—that might win you 40 games. I think about wanting to be the last guy on the field at the end of the season, spraying free champagne all over my teammates. I just wasn't brought up to talk about myself. Growing up, my dad [former Cincinnati Reds star Ken Griffey] would probably bop me on the head if I bragged. He's got three rings, and I want a couple for myself. If someone doesn't like me because I don't want to talk about myself or home runs, that's their problem."

Strikes you as odd, then, Junior's answer to one of the last questions: Which of the Reds, whose clubhouse he rattled around in as a boy, impressed him most as a player? "George Foster," he says.

"That surprises me," says the questioner, obviously expecting Junior to say Pete Rose, Joe Morgan or Johnny Bench. "Why Foster?"

"Fifty-two home runs," Junior replies.

"But with all their great players. . . ."

"None of the others hit 52 home runs in a season," says Junior.

There's no BP buzz at domed Tropicana Field. Maybe it's because everything, from the grass under your feet to the canopy overhead, is artificial. Maybe it's because the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are going down the toilet without a gurgle, and maybe it's because an appearance at the ballpark here is just an outing, not a subpoena from the heart. A half-dozen signs and the loudest applause are for Junior, but it's just polite, backside-buried-in-the-seat clapping from the 30,298 in the house.

Still, everyone you approach is thrilled when you raise the question. Yessir, here's your tip for the awkward and lonely of this land, those whose every pickup line has failed. Sidle up to any stranger and ask, "Who you pullin' for? Big Mac, Junior or Sammy?" Everyone wants to chime in, even when your press credential's in your pocket and your notepad's stashed away. Everyone, when he finds out what you're doing, howls, "Oh, man! Can you take me?" Everyone's dying to get into the clubhouse to meet the mashers, not realizing how much better it is out here. Everyone's mainlining SportsCenter. Everyone knows all the ins and outs, can't wait to point out that of the three, Junior's surrounded by the most dangerous hitters, making him the least likely to be pitched around, while Big Mac's got the least cover and a history of second-half declines, and Sammy sits at the mercy of the wind direction at Wrigley Field. Everyone wants to know who you're pulling for, but you say you're not going to decide until your escapade's done.

Now you've got another tip, for those who haven't decided yet whom to lay their money on. If Maris's record is going to fall to the man whose muscle tissue stays loosest before he walks to the plate in the dry-mouth months of August and September, then it's going to fall to Junior. That's what you know after you catch his first at bat from field level. Griffey gazes into the crowd from the on-deck circle, makes eye contact with people shouting to him and then rags on a photographer: "I know you got a better camera than that." Then he sweet-swings a run-scoring double down the leftfield line.

Whew, you almost blow it. Just before the fourth, you go grab a slice of pizza and rush back in when you realize Junior's fixing to hit. Crack! Number 40 goes screaming over the 407 sign in center, and the fans finally come off their cans to scream too. You drop your pizza box and almost pinch yourself—counting Vaughn you're 3 for 3!—and head to the rightfield seats with five innings left because when you're on a roll, you never know.

You plunk yourself down next to a 32-year-old man wearing glasses, a blue cap and a glove, who is flanked by an eight-year-old nephew and a nine-year-old son at his first big league game. The man is an Air Force staff sergeant named Ralph Thomas who pored over seating charts for this game as if he were preparing for war. Had to be seats where Griffey's natural swing would most likely send a ball, he tells you, but also seats near enough to Junior's centerfield position to make the thing he had been telling his son R.J. for weeks come true: that when you sit near the great ones, some of their greatness jumps out and comes into you. It took them nine hours to drive here from Panama City, Fla., through torrential rains and frightening funneling clouds, but nothing was going to stand between them and Junior's siege of Maris, and when they finally arrived, too late for batting practice, dammit, the boy sat there in his Griffey hat and Griffey shirt staring wordlessly at his man in centerfield for 10 long minutes, letting the spiritual transfer occur.

"See how Junior's smiling?" Sergeant Thomas points out to his son. "See how he throws everything on a line, even when he's just playing catch before the inning starts? Remember Rule 1 and Rule 2?"

"Have fun and always try your best," replies the boy.

"That's right!" says the father. "Junior never forgets those two things!"

Maybe it's as simple as that, you're thinking. Maybe you should root for Junior because of Rule 1 and Rule 2.

Sergeant Thomas sure is smiling, too, because nine hours of coming and nine more of going back are nothing compared to the impending joy of ramming his eyewitness account of number 40 down the gullet of his boss, Capt. Roger Scott—Cardinals fan extraordinaire, Big Mac lover and namesake of Roger Maris himself, a former Cardinal!

"Can't wait, can't wait," Sergeant Thomas keeps crowing as the Mariners lock up an 8-3 breezer. "Cap'n's always sticking McGwire articles and pictures on my desk, and I do the same to him with Griffey stuff—but now I got this. I told him Junior would catch McGwire by the end of July! McGwire can't take the media and the pressure. And like I told Cap'n, doesn't matter if the ball goes one inch over the fence or three miles over—you can't add that extra distance to the next hit. Love telling Cap'n that—nothing he can say!"

The five ladies at poolside must think you're daft the next morning, Day 3, swimming those 46 laps in that little L-shaped hotel pool before you hightail it to the airport to fly to Chicago. It's the only way you know to knife through the fatigue, now that you're too juiced and jet-lagged to sleep. Slammin' Sammy's next. The wild card in the deck. Holding at 36, he has jacked just one in the last 11 days, but just might hit 20 in the next month, as he did in June.

As your plane wings toward O'Hare and everyone around you is reading about the home run chase, you're wondering: Could you possibly go 4 for 4? Then you land, and the dark skies start spitting rain on your rental-car windshield, and a flutter runs through your belly. No, God, please. What if you and Sammy get washed out?

You enter the clubhouse 3 1/2 hours before the Cubs-Montreal Expos game and find Sosa swaying to Latin music. "I'll take care of you," he tells you. "Just wait." You take a stool at a table five feet from his locker, back turned to him, delighted that you're going to speak to him alone and that this all seems so easy, just like the p.r. man promised . . . till Sammy shoos you away, tells you to go camp somewhere else. Over an hour you wait, and when you finally get the nod, Sammy opens a magazine of local real-estate listings. Uh-oh. . . .

Even for Sammy, who's never been a household name, the novelty's gone. He answers your questions lifelessly, eyes rarely lifting from photographs of houses with circular driveways and swimming pools. He says the media don't bother him. He admits it's nice to be part of the big story. He admits he's been overswinging again lately, his evil habit of old. He admits he doesn't know what position Roger Maris played. He says 18 minutes is enough. You resist recommending the brick colonial. What right do you have to be miffed? Jeez, isn't each one of these guys entitled to his own little way of hiding right in front of everyone's eyes?

When you exit the clubhouse, the sky's clear, the temperature's perfect, the sun's showering pinks and golds on the earth's most beautiful ballpark, and you decide, what the hell. It's the final night of your tater tear, so why not go drink beer with those bare-chested kids in the first row of the rightfield bleachers?

They're a whole different herd from the people you've met in San Diego and St. Petersburg. Everybody's got wit, everybody's got beer, everybody's got a desperate clear-eyed love for his team and an astonishing intimacy with it. Everybody's trying to decide whether he'll betray rightfield—family—and sneak over to left when Big Mac comes to town next month, and mulling how to stash an extra ball somewhere so that if Mac sends one into his palms, God willing, he'll have something to hurl back on the field when the mob chants, as it always does, "Throw it back! Throw it back!"

Nobody, nobody, thinks Sammy's got a prayer to bust Maris's record, not even the Sosa Boys, each of whom wears a letter of Sammy's surname in dripping blue paint across his bare chest. "Wore Sammy's number in high school," says Jake Abel, who's a letter S. "Got two dogs, named Wrigley and Sammy. But Griffey's gonna do it."

"Sammy won't even break Hack Wilson's team record of 56," declares Chris Ramirez, a bartender and rightfield diehard. "Sammy thinks about it a little too much."

"That's exactly why he's never hit a grand slam," chimes in Linda Eisenberg, a 48-year-old rightfield regular for 20 years. "Not one. He can't resist swinging for the fences. He's better about it this year, but still. . . . See that bare spot he dug out with his spikes? That's so he'll remember where to stand. He and [shortstop] Manny Alexander share a brain. That's why we're always asking Sammy how many outs there are. We're doing it to make sure he knows."

"Aw, don't ask them," says Ramirez. "That's the anti-Sammy faction. Man, is it true? Did you really see McGwire and Vaughn hit one on Monday and Griffey hit one last night? And they pay you for that job? Don't worry, Sammy's gonna hit one for you, too. How 'bout a beer?"

Here comes Sammy to take his position, bolting out of the dugout like a pitchforked bull, veering sharply at the warning track and acknowledging the bleacher bums' Sam-my! Sam-my! chant with a fist thump on his heart and a kiss to his fingers. It's been 16 days since the second-place Cubs have been home, and when Ramirez cries, "Ahhhh, it's good to be home, Sammy!" the rightfielder turns immediately, nods and flashes him a clenched fist.

Amazing, how everything changes up here. With words out of the way, Sammy's pure heart comes shining through—he's the faithful mute using hand and body language to keep up a steady patter of appreciation for the legions behind him. Clenched fists, heart thumps, peace signs, finger kisses and hip wiggles come in relentless sequences, conveying a message after each event on the field that everyone around you understands, and always, the big forefinger stabbing up or the pinkie and the thumb when the mob cries, "How many outs, Sammy?" Shouldn't he be the one you pull for to make history?

In the fifth Sammy singles home the run that knots the game at 2-2, and George Shields, a grad student sitting one row down and two seats over, turns and tells you, with embers in his eyes, that he would cut off his finger, honest to god, if it meant these Cubs would get into the '98 World Series. You buy rounds for the Sosa Boys, along with Ramirez and his two pals, union laborer Marty Crowley and air-conditioning mechanic Jeff Cline. "Don't worry," Ramirez keeps telling you as the sixth and seventh innings pass. "Sammy's gonna wait till his last at bat to give you your homer."

Sammy steps to the plate for his last poke in the home eighth, Cubs up 5-3. You look across the stadium to the poor guys sitting on their hands up in the press box and ask yourself why—if you ever cover a ball game again—you would do it from there. It's nuts here tonight, fans heaving balls at Expos players, fans racing on the field and dodging the diving tackles of security guards, fans raining beer cups on the field. Now there are runners on the corners, wind blowing to right, fans waving fish nets and thumping HIT IT HERE, SAMMY T-shirts, packed house on its feet, and you right there with them, thinking, No, these sluggers have already given you three homers and a combined 9 for 14—you can't ask for more.

Then more comes. Across the night sky it comes—impossibly, Sammy's 37th, straight at you. You're watching it, feeling the beer splash across your neck and the regulars closing around you like a fist. Shields throws up his hand in front of you—there's the finger he swore he'd trade for a shot at the Series—and the ball smacks off the heel of his palm and bounces into the green mesh basket along the lip of the wall. Now it's a dogpile of flesh at your feet, everybody you've been drinking beer with diving and clawing and grunting. Crowley, the union laborer, wants it most. He goes headfirst into the basket, legs flying up before you, wrenches it from the Sosa Boys and comes up whooping.

You? You just stand there like a happy idiot as Ramirez pounds you on the back and bellows, "You did it! Three nights in a row! This is incredible! You sure you're not coming back tomorrow?"

No . . . no, you're not. You're on an 8 a.m. flight home the next morning, looking like something the cat dragged in, wondering who it is you finally want to break the record. Your eyes begin to sag, and a smile comes to your lips as it dawns on you.

You've got the record. Nobody on the planet's ever going to see all four of the men assaulting history hit home runs on three straight nights—just let 'em try. Go to sleep, you tell yourself. . . . You've got it. . . . You've got it in the bag.