Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa did more than just captivate the nation with their record-breaking home run chase this summer.

They got this dad out of a real jam.What Swingin' Sammy and Big Mac did for the sport is unquestioned. Everywhere, dads and moms, sons and daughters were tuning in to baseball.

It became a nightly vigil in our house to see which of these undisputed good guys would break Roger Maris' single-season home run mark, then see just how far they could go and who would end up on top.

My second-grader, who previously tolerated the sport only for its mascots, snow cones and cotton candy, showed a genuine interest in baseball for the first time - much to my delight. In a matter of weeks, Emily mastered the basics of the game. Terms that were meaningless before - pitch count, strike zone, blind umpire - were now part of her vocabulary.

And my marriage is still going strong despite having a game on TV every night for seven consecutive weeks.

But beyond McGwire's affection for his son, Sosa's loyalty to his mom, the sportsmanship and mutual respect, and the lesson of success with grace, the historic duel had a more profound and meaningful impact on this family man.

It let me dodge the Kenneth Starr report.

Another columnist suggested recently that parents had an obligation to answer kids' questions about President Clinton's once-secret activities. But if your kid doesn't ask questions, you can't very well answer them now, can you?

That, in fact, is how Emily and I began our nightly McGwire-Sosa ritual.

My wife was glued to the latest on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal when our oldest walked into the room, curious that something other than a cartoon could be so riveting. Nervous that she'd ask about something embarrassing, I quickly distracted her by mentioning the first thing that popped into my mind.

"So, how about that home run race?"

"What do you mean, Dad?"

I gladly flicked on another of our three TVs and explained.

As the pressure on Clinton escalated, I countered by directing Emily's attention more and more to McGwire and Sosa. And thankfully, they held it. The only politicians she cared about were St. Louis "President" Tony La Russa and his fence-clearing secretary of state.

We became deeply immersed in the drama of the National Pastime. By the time McGwire was in position to hit his 62nd, Emily was planning her evening around baseball. Homework and chores were done early so nothing would interfere.

Well, almost nothing. As McGwire stood in the on-deck circle before slugging No. 62, I sent Emily out to turn on the water sprinklers. By the time she came back, McGwire was stepping on third base.

"I can't believe I missed it," she shouted, throwing her body on the floor as if diving for a sinking line drive.

It was then that I realized how much it all meant to her. The ruse I'd concocted out of insecurity had turned my daughter into a baseball junkie.

We watched all 134 replays of Mc-Gwire's 62nd home run together, but it just wasn't the same. In the weeks that followed, when either player's at-bat was near, I made sure Emily knew in plenty of time.

But the fun was not without its price. Our dinner time baseball talks turned into probing inquiries on subjects I was not prepared to handle.

McGwire's admitted use of androstenedione started it off. I struggled to define "nutritional supplements," then fielded bad-hop questions about drugs, why some people use them and why Major League Baseball would let Emily's hero use a controversial substance her own mother doesn't approve of.

The way baseball relatively ignored Sosa's 61st and 62nd homers brought up issues of fairness and equality. We tackled the whole Maris mess and why some journalists - guys like Emily's Dad - didn't give Roger his due.

And then the NBA lockout reared its ugly head. Greed, selfishness, right and wrong - all the issues baseball had helped me avoid - were suddenly begging for a fatherly explanation. It's a good thing NBA players don't have interns.

Baseball's final weekend passed without a single presidential question crossing the lips of my new baseball buddy. But now that it's over, I tread weak-kneed through the back door each evening and offer, with a hopefully contagious case of football fever, "So, how about them Utes?"