Before the pitch was thrown to Mark McGwire, the guy in left field did something strange.

He actually took a few steps closer to the plate."I had been playing Mark deep, but I said to myself, `If he hits it hard in the air, it's going to be gone,' " said Glenallen Hill of the Chicago Cubs. "But a lot of times those power hitters get jammed and bloop a hit in front of you. So I moved in."

Over in right, Sammy Sosa followed the traditional strategy. The warning track was practically nipping at his heels, even though McGwire rarely sends his prodigious blasts toward that part of the park.

"Mark is the man," Sosa had said over and over, despite hitting 58 homers himself.

On Tuesday, at 8:18 p.m. CDT, Hill learned what Sosa already knew. Sure, it was a hit of un-McGwire proportions - a low laser of a line drive that barely cleared the left-field wall - but it was good enough for No. 62.

The specially marked ball thrown by Steve Trachsel was an 88-mph fastball, streaking toward the plate about shin high. McGwire didn't have a 2-iron handy, so the 341/2-inch bat did just fine.

"I've never seen anybody hit that ball out the park," Chicago catcher Scott Ser-vais said.

Big Mac bolted out of the batter's box like a sprinter from the blocks, the eyes that appeared sleepy in his first at-bat squinting intently toward left field.

Usually, the St. Louis Cardinals' slugger knows right away whether he's slapped the ball far enough to put it over the fence, but this time his eyes betrayed a sense of doubt.

Suddenly, with McGwire just a few steps from first, the white ball vanished from view, slipping over the green wall. The doubt on McGwire's face suddenly turned into pure, unabashed joy - and he briefly forgot the cardinal rule of baseball.

Don't forget to touch first base.

"I thought it was going to hit the wall," McGwire admitted. "Next thing you know, it disappeared."

When McGwire leaped into the embrace of first-base coach Dave McKay - the same Dave McKay who has served up so many homers in batting practice - the slugger stumbled past the bag, neither foot managing to make contact.

But McKay wouldn't let the Cardinals slugger get away, yanking him back toward the object he had to touch in order to make this historic home run official. Technically, that should be an out under Rule 7.09 Not on this night, of course.

Once McGwire finished the chore of touching first, the celebration could formally begin. He switched to his familiar jog, loping the last 270 feet to immortality, stopping along the way to slap hands with three members of the Chicago infield - Mark Grace at first, Mickey Morandini at second, Jose Hernandez at short.

Gary Gaetti, an ex-teammate in St. Louis, was worthy of a hug, as was Servais, the last man to touch THE man before he broke Roger Maris' record with an emphatic stomp on home.

McGwire was quickly swallowed by a mob of teammates, the men who have watched these feats of strength for nearly six months. Somehow, in the middle of all this pandemonium, 10-year-old Matthew McGwire slipped into his father's grasp to emerge from the middle of the heap, easily hoisted into the air by those Bunyonesque biceps.

Behind the left-field wall, a member of the ground crew, Tim Forneris, scrambled for the ball in the darkness, oblivious to the delirium above him in the stands. He would soon deliver it to McGwire's hands, denying those collectors who had announced earlier in the day they were willing to pay $1 million for it.

"It was Mark's ball," Forneris said. "He lost it and I found it for him."

In center field, a couple of fans plunged from the stands as if jumping into the nearby Mississippi River. Perhaps they wanted to run alongside McGwire, just like those two men who made it to Hank Aaron's side when he hit No. 715, but the ploy failed.

Over in right, Sammy Sosa applauded the man who beat him in the race to 62, while members of the St. Louis bullpen trotted past, not wanting to get left out of the celebration.

Shortly, Sosa would follow them. The blue-and-gray-clad outfielder got one of McGwire's bear-hugs, cleats dangling above the ground. Fireworks exploded overhead. Streamers fluttered in the breeze on a pleasant evening. Flashbulbs transformed Busch into a mini-Las Vegas strip.

McGwire and Sosa bashed their arms together, and McGwire gave Sosa a mock punch to the stomach. Sosa reciprocated with his trademark: kissing his fingers, tapping his heart, holding up his fingers in a V in honor or the late Harry Caray, an announcer who worked for the Cardinals and Cubs.

McGwire climbed into the stands, wanting to squeeze the children of the man whose record he had broken. Randy Maris couldn't hold back the tears.

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Club 60

Home runs month-by-month

... Year Mar. Apr. May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Total

Mark McGwire 1998 1 10 16 10 9 10 7 0 *62

Roger Maris 1961 0 1 11 15 13 11 9 1 61

Babe Ruth 1927 0 4 12 9 9 9 17 0 60

*With 18 games left to play