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HR watch brings back memories of summer ’61 Ken Griffey Jr. wins Monday night’s Home Run Derby. For more All-Star coverage, see Page D2.

SHARE HR watch brings back memories of summer ’61 Ken Griffey Jr. wins Monday night’s Home Run Derby. For more All-Star coverage, see Page D2.

I REMEMBER 1961 WELL. I had a baseball mitt, a Yankees hat and the whole summer off school. Life didn't get any better. I was a little bit worried about the threat of nuclear war and a lot worried about the Yankees winning the World Series.

Back then there was no such thing as work stoppages or contract holdouts, there was just baseball. And in that year, baseball was on everyone's mind. The race between Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, to see who would break the record for most home runs in the season, was going full speed. I checked the boxscores every day. I got a crew cut just like the M&M Boys and was feeling pretty good about it. Late in the season, my all-time favorite, Mantle, faded and Maris went on to hit 61, claiming the most famous sports record of all.

My guy didn't win the home run title, but it was a wonderful summer nonetheless. I practiced my swing and oiled my glove and struck poses in front of the mirror so I looked just like the Mick after swinging the bat.

With baseball's All-Star Game tonight, much of the talk will be about the race to break the single-season home run record for the first time in 37 years. It's been that way all season but the All-Star break is a good time to take inventory. It's likely McGwire - or Ken Griffey Jr. or Sammy Sosa - could also get 60 or more in 154 games. Then they won't even have an asterisk to deal with.

All of which has me actually checking the boxscores once again.

There is some speculation as to whether it's a good thing for baseball to have McGwire and his buddies storming the record books. Whether weight-lifting techniques, muscle-building supplements, livelier baseballs or a lack of good pitching provide unfair advantage. But for the most part, fans and media seem to favor someone setting the mark, whatever the reason.

Certainly McGwire isn't facing anything close to the kind of opposition Maris faced. Back then the writers were after more than a story, they were after Maris. He was surly and boorish. Many writers and fans didn't want him to break Babe Ruth's record, especially since he never got more than 39 home runs in any other season.

By comparison, it would be hard to find a reason not to cheer for McGwire. He is neither brooding nor taciturn. He weeps when he talks of children. He put $1 million of his own money up to establish facilities in St. Louis and Los Angeles to help child-abuse victims. By all accounts he is a fine role model.

And he hits home runs we will tell our great-grandchildren about. We're not talking looping bloopers into the short right field stands at Yankee Stadium. We're speaking of towering home runs that make your eyes bulge. After he drilled a 545-foot blast off the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sign at Busch Stadium this year, they placed a large Band-Aid to mark the spot.

Following home run chases and measuring home runs is only natural. America was built on comparisons. That's why they're planning a skyscraper in Chicago bigger than the one in Kuala Lumpur. It's why Allen Iverson will want a $150 million contract when he becomes a free agent next summer. It's the reason you pick your best friend and your favorite color in grade school. Rating and ranking things is ingrained into the lifestyle.

Nobody makes more lists than Americans. We're obsessed with knowing what are our favorites and who are our best. We have to know who is the smartest, prettiest, strongest, fastest and sexiest - and who's next in line. We love asking if Muhammad Ali was better than Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard better than Rocky Marciano. We even do computer matchups to determine the answers. It's why we stay up late debating whether Joe Montana, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw or Roger Staubach was the best quarterback. It's why Mike Powell actually broke Bob Beamon's "unbreakable" record in the long jump.

So naturally we have to keep track of who hits the most home runs.

I want McGwire to go ahead and break the home run record for personal reasons. I want him to continue because it's one of the few times since I was a child that I've cared about major league baseball. Back then I would turn on the radio on warm evenings to find out if Maris had hit another one out. Now McGwire has me checking Sports-Center. Fair enough. After all, 1961 was the best year I can ever remember.