Mark McGwire was reminded again the other night how his life will never again be the same. With a steady rain falling on Pro Player Stadium in Miami, he took his pregame batting practice inside a cage tucked beneath the stands, far from the fans who'd come to see baseball's home run king.

Problem is, McGwire attracts larger crowds for batting practice than some teams do for a game. And with the Florida Marlins drawing some of the smallest crowds in the big leagues, team owner John Henry wasn't about to pass up an opportunity. So when the rain stopped, Henry asked St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa whether McGwire would consider taking a round of batting practice outside.

McGwire did, and as usual, it was one of the best shows in sports, an array of line drives and moon shots that drew both gasps and cheers from the South Florida fans. A few hours later, he gave them another thrill by hammering his 16th homer of the season and eighth in 12 games. After he struck out in the top of the ninth, most of the crowd of 18,747 went home; fewer than 100 of their own fans stayed to see the Marlins bat in the bottom of the inning.

Such is McGwire's life a season after hitting 70 home runs.

A year later, the home run pace has slowed, the batting average has fallen and McGwire is admittedly sick of the microscope under which he lives.

"What happened last year is historic, but this is a new year," he said recently, all but pleading with reporters to treat him like a player instead of a cultural icon. "I don't relive anything. The past is the past. I've never been like that as a person. It's a new year."

McGwire said he doesn't expect to see a summer like 1998 "again in my lifetime." But he doesn't expect anyone to let go of it, either. His home run race with the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa energized a sport and captivated a nation.

Last weekend at Wrigley Field, McGwire and Sosa were together for the first time since the night last September when McGwire hit his 62nd home run to break the 37-year-old single-season record of 61 by Roger Maris. McGwire eventually finished with 70, Sosa 66.

While Sosa clearly revels in the attention, McGwire just as clearly would rather be left alone, but knows that is impossible. As he finished dressing and headed for the dugout last weekend at Wrigley Field for the ceremonial handshake with Sosa, McGwire whispered: "Do you think there'll be a photographer or two out there?"

That afternoon, Sosa hit his 16th home run of the season, while McGwire went hitless in four at-bats. The Cubs became the latest team to employ a radical defensive alignment for McGwire that includes four outfielders and only the first baseman on the right side of second base.

"We keep charts like anyone else," Cubs Manager Jim Riggleman said, "and we found he just didn't hit many balls to second base. . . . I don't know if it'll do any good."

Riggleman knew the strategy was probably no more than a gimmick because as pitcher Kevin Tapani said after the game: "You just can't let him get the ball in the air. It looks like a Little League park when he gets the ball in the air."

McGwire had peppered balls onto Waveland Avenue during batting practice, but when Tapani was asked if he'd watched, he smiled.

"No," he said. "I stopped doing that on the day I'm going to pitch against him. I didn't figure it helps to watch him hit balls 500 feet. You hear enough in the clubhouse when he's done."

At least at the beginning of this season, Ken Griffey and Jose Canseco are setting the pace with 20 home runs. Dodgers outfielder Raul Mondesi and Sosa have 18, and McGwire is at 16.

Not that home run totals in early June mean much. Such races are won with hot spurts. Sosa vaulted himself into contention with 20 in June last season. McGwire broke Maris's record on Sept. 8, but Sosa caught him five days later. McGwire clinched the record by homering five times in his final 10 at-bats, including four in the final two days against the Montreal Expos.

"It's way too early to be talking about anything like that," McGwire said. "I'm glad the hype is on Jose and Griffey instead of me, but there's a long way to go. Griffey has [50] more to go. Think about that. That's a lot of home runs. And if they're in race the last month, the pressure is going to be 1,000 times greater than it was on me [because McGwire and Sosa made hitting 60 home runs look so easy].

"But nothing can be any worse than what I went through the last two months of the season; I don't think there ever has been another athlete to be singled out like I was."

As for McGwire, he has struggled at times. He has become the No. 1 target for every pitcher in the game. Or as McGwire put it: "I get the best of the best every night."

Scouts say he has chased more pitches out of the strike zone than he did last season on his way to a club-record 162 walks. As a result, his batting average is down about 50 points.

Still, he's the player everyone is watching. Two weeks ago, he became just the third player in 38 years to hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium, and with eight home runs in 12 games, no one would be surprise to see a fourth consecutive 50-home run season. Or more.

"He has his little slumps," Cardinals third-base coach Rene Lachemann said. "But he's still going to hit his 50 home runs and drive in his 100 runs. He's going to walk 120-130 times or more. There's nothing wrong with that."

Sosa admits this season is different for him, too, although he seems more at ease in the spotlight.

"Everything has changed for me," he said.

His personal manager, Domingo Dauhajre, told the Chicago Tribune: "Every time we leave a baseball park or a restaurant, there are 10, 11 cars following us. It's 3 o'clock in the morning, and he has five people waiting for him already, wherever we are. If he comes down for a message [at the team hotel] late at night, there will be people waiting for him. When he is invited to a house for dinner, there are 200 people there, waiting to get balls signed."

Still, Sosa seems unruffled by any of it. If McGwire is reluctant to let the word "70" cross his lips, Sosa is not.

"Well, 70 is a lot," he said. "I don't know who's going to break that record. I don't know if we're ever going to see 70 again. My goal is 67 [one more than last season]. But I'm not going to say no one will ever hit 70 again. As for me, I'm feeling much better. I need to be patient. They've been pitching me real carefully. Early in the season, I was a little bit out of control and swinging at anything. I've watched a lot of videotape and gotten back to where I was last season. I feel good now."

One Year Later ...

SAMMY SOSA

THROUGH 49 GAMES

1998

9 home runs

1999

18 home runs

MARK McGWIRE

THROUGH 50 GAMES

1998

25 home runs

1999

16 home runs

CAPTION: "I'm glad the hype is on Jose [Canseco] and [Ken] Griffey instead of me," says Mark McGwire, left, who, unlike Sammy Sosa, dislikes the spotlight.