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When Mark McGwire's name (and possibly those of Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa) becomes enshrined in the record book this season as having smashed Roger Maris' mark of 61 home runs in 1961, the baseball gods should put an asterisk next to it. Because two expansion teams made pitching even lousier? Nope. Because Coors Field existed? Nah. Because the balls were juiced? Please. The St. Louis Cardinals slugger has one big advantage over Maris and the great Babe Ruth, a leg up even over players just a few years ago. No, it's not enough money to fill a pool. It's something called creatine, a powdery nutritional supplement that athletes of all skill levels and bank-account sizes are taking these days to bulk up and enhance performance. And McGwire is the General Nutrition Centers' No. 1 customer. He's an avid user of the product, having ingested enough of it to increase the size of his biceps to almost two feet in circumference. We're talking here about a little bigger than a Personal Pan Pizza, and more than double the size of my puny arms. Creatine could very well be the biggest story in all of sports today and in the years to come. Many athletes and trainers are hailing it as the best legal way to beef up your muscles. And so far there hasn't been much in the way of scientific studies showing that creatine, say, makes men sterile or gives them breasts. All the more reason to stay away from it, some experts argue. "What we don't know about creatine should scare us more than what we do know about creatine," Mark Juhn, a sports medicine physician at the University of Washington, told Sports Illustrated in an article which shed light on creatine mania earlier this year. "There are no studies that prove its innocence. If you're perfectly healthy to begin with, why take any chances? You have to ask yourself, Is it worth it?" For McGwire, perhaps it is. If he keeps up his current pace, he could hit as many as 70, or if he gets really hot, 75 home runs this season. When he passes Maris' total, he deserves a healthy round of applause. Then, when the time comes to update the Baseball Encyclopedia, the editors should do one of two things: either put an asterisk next to McGwire's name, or start a new records list, beginning with 1997 or 1998, to denote the Creatine Era. What would be so bad about that? If creatine is here to stay, and long-term studies prove it's safe and effective, they might as well group the players of the late 1990s and the future under a new label. Indeed, baseball players of the 19th century are rarely compared with those of the 20th. Why shouldn't players of the 21st century, and the years leading up to it, start a new category, too? The demarcation couldn't be much clearer. As more and more athletes ascribe their superhuman achievements to creatine, there's no doubt that an increasing number of high school and college athletes will make the supplement a mainstay of their diets. And it's likely that the games will change in more ways than just the record books. Quarterbacks will get more concussions. Hockey checks will be even fiercer. Basketball players might have a lower free-throw percentage (if Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O'Neal are any guide). You could even have baseball pitchers, traditionally the worst hitters in the game, capable of smacking a dinger whenever they approach home plate. Or, in three or four years, a group of scientists could publish a study linking creatine use to something like liver damage, heart disease or lower testosterone production. More studies producing similar results would follow. The Food and Drug Administration and its counterparts in other countries would ban creatine, pushing it into the underworld of muscle enhancements, right down there with steroids. The consequences would be tragic, with some of this era's greatest icons hobbled, humbled and hospitalized. Just like that, the Creatine Era would be over. Sports would return to the way they were B.C., Before Creatine. No baseball player would hit 61 home runs, not for several decades, not until the next purportedly "safe" nutritional supplement hits the big time. And the baseball record book of the future would duly note that Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' home-run record while religiously using a now-illegal drug. It could happen.

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