It may seem hard to believe that America's national pastime could need saving.

After all, baseball is as American as apple pie, turkey on Thanksgiving and July 4 parades. It's as institutional as the president throwing out the first pitch of the season and Babe Ruth visiting sick children in the hospital.But then along came another American institution - a strike. And in 1994, it canceled the World Series for the first time, leaving the fans seriously doubting they would ever return.

Now, they are back. The feeling is good, the mood upbeat, the future bright.

Baseball has been brought back, returned from a '60s time warp. And it has been carried by none other than a Paul Bunyonesque figure so large that his locker contains cans of Popeye Spinach.

Mark McGwire hit his 62nd homer of the season Tuesday night in his 145th game, something the legendary Ruth couldn't do in 154 games or Roger Maris in 162 games.

And if that weren't enough, McGwire is being credited with saving the game, unifying the country, taking the nation's mind off sex scandals and even helping the global economy, because the stock market soared on that very day.

His encore? "Sleep," he said.

He should need it after completing the Superman-like deeds of Tuesday.

"I will tell you, the whole country has been involved in this," the red-bearded man with 20-inch biceps said afterward. "People have been saying it is bringing the country together. So be it. I am happy to bring the country together.

"I just think it puts baseball back on the map as a sport. It is America's pastime, and you just look at everybody coming out to the ballparks, and you look at all the great players in the game, and it has been an exciting year."

What McGwire has done is exciting beyond compare in the annals of this century-old game. Way beyond compare.

Ironically, McGwire's home run was his shortest of the season - "only" 341 feet - but it cleared the 8-foot-high left field wall and was retrieved by a 22-year-old grounds-keeper at St. Louis' Busch Stadium named Tim Forneris, who returned the ball to McGwire in a post-game ceremony held at second base.

"He lost it and I got it back for him," said Forneris.

The ball and McGwire's bat were flown immediately to Cooperstown, N.Y., the most American of tiny towns, where the baseball Hall of Fame is located.

It will be positioned next to the ball and bat that Ruth used to hit 60 home runs in 1927, and the ball and bat that Maris used to break Ruth's record with 61 home runs in 1961.

Maris' record was broken by McGwire on Monday, his 61st home run coming on his father's 61st birthday.

"I believe in fate," McGwire said.

So before Tuesday's game, McGwire fondled the bat of Maris, brought to St. Louis from Cooperstown. In a private, touching moment, he put the bat to his chest and looked to the heavens.

"When I touched his bat before the game, I knew tonight was going to be the night," McGwire said. "And I can now say I can rest my bat alongside Roger Maris' in the Hall of Fame, and I'm damn proud of it."

McGwire's home run set off an 11-minute celebration that halted the game against the Chicago Cubs and included McGwire hugging the grown children of the late Maris, whose unpopular feat of breaking Ruth's record left him disconsolate and without a spot in the Hall of Fame.

"Their father is in my heart," McGwire said. He also hugged his 10-year-old son, who lives with his mother Kathy, the couple having divorced years earlier. And he bear-hugged Chicago right fielder Sammy Sosa, who sprinted in to congratulate McGwire.

Sosa had been shadowing McGwire for the last two months and has 58 homers himself.

"When he hugged me, it was a great moment I am not going to forget," Sosa said.

Later, when Sosa got to first base with a single, he and McGwire talked briefly, as they had the night before when McGwire tied Maris' record.

"When I went to first base, I said to him, `Maybe you can go home now and relax, and take it easy and wait for me,'" Sosa said.