SOME PEOPLE WANT an asterisk placed next to Mark McGwire's home run record because he took a dietary supplement, which, they say, gave him an unfair advantage over his predecessors, Ruth and Maris.

Fine, but let's don't stop there.Place an asterisk by Walter Payton's NFL rushing record because he ran on synthetic turf, sometimes on indoor fields. Jim Brown didn't. He was lucky to get a dry day.

Put an asterisk by Wilt Chamberlain's records. He played in an era when the only other 7-footers were in the circus.

Place an asterisk by Donovan Bailey's world record in the 100-meter dash. He did it on a surface so hard (and therefore fast) that it was barely legal according to track and field's own rules. Jesse Owens set his records on cinder tracks, which is to say dirt.

Give Jerry Rice's records an asterisk. He played in an era when the forward pass was the preferred mode of travel in the NFL. When Don Hutson played, coaches weren't sure which was worse: passing or getting kicked in the groin. And was it fair that Rice got to play with the two best passers ever to play the game?

Place an asterisk next to Tiger Woods' victories for using clubs with titanium shafts and graphite heads. Ben Hogan used woods that were really wood.

Place an asterisk next to Brett Favre's records. He was once seen in a weight room. Johnny U. never lifted weights.

Dan Marino gets an asterisk, too, for his career passing marks. Whoever realized you could play until you were 78?

Place an asterisk next to Dan O'Brien's world record. He accepts money for competing in the decathlon, which he does full-time. Jim Thorpe had to work for a living and train in his off-hours. He lost his Olympic decathlon medals because he once received $25 a week to play baseball.

Place an asterisk next to Dale Murphy's home runs. After a game, he went home at night and slept. This gave him an unfair competitive advantage over his peers.

Place an asterisk next to Pete Sampras' victories. He always controls his temper, and John

McEnroe and Jimmy Connors never did that. They went into such heavy funks that it cost them a few victories.

You can get carried away with this asterisk stuff. It's difficult to know where to stop.

McGwire used a substance that aids his performance within the rules of the game (and we're not here to debate whether baseball should update its rulebook or whether it's morally wrong to take such a substance). It helped him add muscle and strength. It was part of his era. But so are relief pitchers.

In Ruth's day, relief pitchers were rare. If a manager called for relief help, it was to finish up a hopeless loss and maybe get somebody a little work. Nowadays, there are relief pitchers for relief pitchers - set-up specialists and closers. Bottom line: Batters face fresh pitchers the entire game. There is no teeing off on some rag arm the way you could in Ruth's era.

Whoever said that records were set on level playing fields? That has never been the case in any sport, and baseball is no exception.

In Ruth's time - and even in Maris' time, for that matter - baseball players didn't lift weights. Now most baseball players lift weights. They are considerably stronger, better trained and fitter than players of yesterday. They're also better rested. Ruth traveled by train, McGwire by plane.

If you want to level the playing field, require McGwire to take the train.

While you're at it, shorten the fence. McGwire has to hit the ball farther than Ruth to claim a home run because today's ballparks are huge. Says BYU baseball coach Gary Pullins, "If someone had asked me who was going to break Maris' record, I would have said a power hitter playing for the Braves or Rockies, whose ball-parks lend themselves to homers. But Busch Stadium is a big yard. It's phenomenal what he's done there. There are not many cheapies he's gotten there."

Of course, if you really want to level the playing field, you're going to have to do something about the ball. "Certainly, the ball is wound a little tighter and is livelier," says Pullins. "The ball Ruth hit was just dead."

Putting record setters on a level playing field is a dizzying business.

It's much easier to measure players by judging them against their own era. For instance, when Ruth retired with 714 career homers, second place had fewer than half that total. When Ruth was hitting fiftysomething homers each season during the 1920s, he was out-homering entire teams. When he set a season record of 54 homers in 1920, the previous record was 29 (set by Ruth). The modern equivalent would be 110 home runs.

But, of course, that won't happen. The game has changed since then, and so have the records, the athletes and their playing fields. McGwire has hit 62 home runs so far this season, which he did under the circumstances of his time, just as Ruth and Maris did. That's a record, and hold the asterisk.