To American League pitchers, Mark McGwire is the Jesse James of sluggers. When he leaves town, the hurlers huddle together in shock like befuddled deputy sheriffs. What now? Will he rob the bank, the train or the stagecoach? Where do we put the gold shipment next time?

This month, the Red Sox have been McGwire's favorite homer victims. Just like the Tigers in May and the Indians in June. The rookie first baseman, who has 37 home runs in Oakland's 101 games (on pace for 59 in the 162-game schedule) lit up Bruce Hurst on the Fourth, then tied firecrackers to Oil Can Boyd the next day. A week later, he said hello to Calvin Schiraldi.

"We're kind of confused on how to pitch this guy," said Boston veteran Dwight Evans. Join the rest of the world. The Red Sox have changed pitches, speeds and locations. McGwire has merely changed directions. Left field bleachers. Center field wall. Right field fence. The theory that McGwire will be figured out "the second time around" isn't holding water. The Red Sox have seen him four times, including seven games this month, and McGwire hits them better the more he sees them.

In fact, McGwire's hitting everybody better. His average has climbed to .294, he's on an 11-game hitting streak and he has 37 RBI in 30 games to take the American League RBI lead with 83; not bad for a player dubbed Marco Solo for his bases-empty homers.

"It looks like he hits every kind of pitch the same -- waaaaay back," said Hurst. "He's a pure slugger right now. Yet he looks real comfortable on everything. He obviously has strength, but he's got a quick bat, too, which is rare for a big man. He can swing late and still hit it out."

"He looks like a right-handed Don Mattingly. Same short, quick swing," said Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer. "Except McGwire is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds."

Such thoughts put the whole league in a funk. Roger Clemens said he has to go after the big kid with low smoke because that's the way he pitches everybody. But sooner or later he knows McGwire is going to torch him. "He can hit the low ball and the 90-mph fastball, too. He can hit one off anybody anytime."

"He's a low breaking-ball hitter. He likes the ball down more than up and soft more than hard," said veteran Bob Stanley, as confident as if the words had come to him carved on a tablet. At the moment, that's the general wisdom.

Right fielder Evans, having seen the results of this strategy -- passing over his head at high altitude -- isn't so sure. "He hits the high fastball, too. Last time, we pitched him up and he just went to right-center -- with power."

When pitchers look for weaknesses, they often start by finding a trademark in a hitter's stance. What he does differently gives away what he cannot do. For the most part, McGwire is a strange hybrid. He uppercuts slightly, finishes with his weight balanced or back and fires his front hip open to launch his swing -- all Ted Williams power hitting gospel. Yet he finishes high, right hand off the bat, and has been taught golf theory by his dentist father since he could walk; those are Charlie Lau contact hitting touches.

McGwire's real quirk is a crouch so distinct that he seems about to sit on a stool. Unusual for anyone, rare in a slugger. "Looks like {teammate Jose} Canseco gave away his crouch and McGwire found it," said Clemens.

"He sure bends over. So, he's going to get hit," said Evans. "The only thing to do is bust him inside. We hit him twice in one game. And we weren't even trying to throw at him. He just stays right there."

The second pitch hit McGwire in the helmet earflap. While the benches cleared, he just jogged to first, eyes down. "I like his makeup. Nice kid," said Stanley of McGwire's first big league beaning.

Will turning the other cheek mean fewer balls at McGwire's head? "No," said Stanley bluntly. "If he goes out to the mound, there won't be too many guys hit him, 'cause he'll break you in half."

Fans of Roger Maris or Babe Ruth can't be resting too easily these days. McGwire's 37 homers figure out to a 59 pace, but, in a sense, that's not so. McGwire did not become a regular until (trivia question for the ages) Rob Nelson was sent to Tacoma on April 20. Even then, it took McGwire until the Athletics' 28th game to find his stroke -- with five homers in three games in Detroit. Once he got in the lineup, he's been homering at a 66-plus clip -- one every 10.3 plate appearances.

If he should be lucky enough to play all of the A's final 61 games, and stay as hot as he's been since April 20, he'd project to 63 home runs. True, paces are often a joke. When Reggie Jackson was McGwire's age, he was ahead of Maris at the all-star break, then didn't even win the homer title. Ended up with 47. And has only hit 40 once (41 in 1980) in 18 seasons since then. History says it's now or never for McGwire. Even if, like Jackson, he's a 500-homer man.

In fact, it may be now or never for any player in our lifetime to hit 62. Since Ruth retired, only two men -- Hank Greenberg and Maris -- have had a realistic last-week chance for the game's most nation-riveting record.

Every logical analysis, every precedent, says McGwire is nearing the end of his flirt with a record chase. He's just missed two games with flu and hurried back into the lineup, still drained. Pitchers are knocking him down, even beaning him. And everybody's probably going to start jamming him soon. His team's in a pennant race -- more pressure. Oakland is a poor homer park with vast foul territory.

When sluggers go cold, they stop completely. Pete Incaviglia had 11 home runs in Texas' first 24 games. He hit six homers in the 12 weeks after. A stat freak would tell you the odds are better that McGwire will hit less than 50 homers than that he'll hit more than 60.

Still, McGwire has the magic of mystery about him. No rookie has hit more than 38 homers and McGwire, already with Al Rosen's AL rookie mark equaled, will certainly obliterate that record.

The feeling here is that McGwire will have the best homer year of his whole career this season. With the help of a rabbit ball, a cool home park, a relatively media-free town, a pennant race to distract him and a lineup with Canseco, Carney Lansford and Jackson to protect him, McGwire will become the second player since Greenberg in 1938 to hit 55 homers in a year.

Come Oct. 1, we'll still be hoping for a hot streak like his five homers in two games against Cleveland. But he won't catch either Ruth or Maris. What McGwire is trying to do is outside baseball's laws. And 13 pitching staff posses are hot on his trail.