OAKLAND, Calif. — The stadium was nearly empty now. The game was long since over. He sat in a small director’s chair behind home plate, watching the tiny TV monitor.

“This is the first time you’re seeing it?” a TV man asked.

“Yeah,” said Mark McGwire, his eyes locked on the screen. “Wow.”

He did not limp. He did not need a shave. Mark McGwire did not steal all of Kirk Gibson’s act from Game 1 of this World Series — just the important part: Bottom of the ninth. Game on the line. Home run.

Wow.

“Did you know it was gone the moment you hit it?”

“Well, I better have,” McGwire said. “Look, I got my hands raised over my head on the way to first base. I’d better pray it goes out, right?”

It went out. Over the left-center wall. A 2-2 pitch with one out in the ninth that provided glory, heroics and a 2-1 Oakland victory in Game 3 of this World Series. It was a home run of substance, a shot in the dark that changed the complexion of this Fall Classic as much as Gibson’s blast did Saturday night. It’s a World Series now.

It almost wasn’t. Here were the Athletics, “The Bashers,” all muscle and grit, being pussycatted once again — this time in their own stadium. They had already lost the first two games of this series, including a shutout in Game 2. Now this. One run? That’s all they could muster in eight innings? One run? Where was Jose Canseco? Where was Carney Lansford? Where — for that matter — was Mark McGwire? The cleanup man who had hit 32 home runs and 99 RBIs during the regular season, the man who batted .333 during the American League playoffs, was yet to get a hit in this World Series, 0-for-9. Where was he?

Look. There he is. Watch the screen. Fastball from reliever Jay Howell, his former teammate, now throwing for the Dodgers. Swing! And . . . it’s . . . outta here!

“That has to be the top feeling,” said McGwire, smiling again at the replay. “You know when that newspaper comes around and asks you what you most want to do in your life? I said hit a home run that would win a game in the World Series. And there it is.”

On the screen. Over and over.

Wow.

Now, OK. It is true, this World Series may be becoming a highlight film of slow-motion victory trots around the base paths. But make no mistake. The Athletics needed McGwire’s home run desperately. Until that point, they were nothing short of lucky to be still alive in this series. The Dodgers had ample opportunity to win this game in the sixth inning, when they loaded the bases with nobody out, yet unbelievably, did not score: Mike Scioscia fouled out. Jeff Hamilton grounded into a fielder’s choice at the plate. And Alfredo Griffin grounded to first.

And still — with the sold-out Coliseum roaring for some offense — the Athletics could not unleash the muscle. Canseco, Mr. Rippling Biceps, began the ninth with a high pop- up.

But then came McGwire, the southern Californian who set the league on fire last year. He took a few, fouled off a few, and then . . . rip.

Like Gibson, he watched the homer go. Like Gibson, he raised his hands over his head.

He did, however, make it around the base paths a little faster. How did you feel watching that home run versus watching Gibson’s Saturday night?” someone asked Tom Lasorda, the Dodgers’ manager.

“When I watched the home run Saturday night, I felt great,” he said. “When I watched this one, I felt terrible.”

Stupid question, stupid answer. But the fact is, Lasorda may have something to worry about. If that home run, that victory — and remember, the first World Series win is the hardest — can serve to inspire the Athletics’ lagging offense, then the party could be over for LA. Gibson is still ailing, Mike Marshall left Tuesday’s game with a stiff back, John Tudor was hurt early

and left the game in the second inning. Lasorda’s bullpen was taxed, and he has to come right back tonight and Thursday.

We’ll see soon enough. They may not be overlaying McGwire’s home run with Robert Redford from “The Natural,” but the fact is, he has now nullified the effect of Gibson’s blast. That homer gave one game to the Dodgers. This one gave one game to the Athletics.

A home run of substance. A shot in the dark. And so they sat, watching it over and over, deep into the night, slow motion, fast motion, the instant replay of glory, and then, perhaps because he couldn’t think of anything better to ask, the TV man said: “Mark, which was better? Hitting that homer tonight or your wedding night?”

McGwire paused. “I’d have to say this. You dream about hitting a home run in the World Series your whole life. I mean, you dream about getting married, too. But if you want to, you can get married. Hitting a World Series home run, well . . . you never know.”

Forgive him, Mrs. McGwire. Wherever you are.

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