Sept. 14, 1998
By Greg Shea
In the greatest home-run race in the history of baseball, Mark McGwire was just the opening act.
It’s unfortunate that the country didn’t stick around for the rest of the show.
Sammy Sosa knotted up the race with McGwire by hitting two home runs Sunday onto Chicago’s Waveland Avenue to give him 62 for the year. Sosa topped Roger Maris’ 61-homer season and tied McGwire in a wild 11-10 Chicago victory over Milwaukee.
This time, though, 62 had quite a different feel.
There were no specially marked baseballs. No networks picked up the game. No high-fives from the opposing team. No balls returned from the fans. No microphone for Sosa to thank the crowd. No red ’62 Corvette. No Disney commercials.
A riot even broke out on the street in the scramble for the baseball.
Roger Maris’ son called the Cubs’ clubhouse. Commissioner Bud Selig couldn’t make the game, but, hey, he phoned. It was the least he could do.
Sosa accepted three curtain calls from the fawning Cubs’ crowd and handled himself with remarkable grace. Even amidst the fact he’ll continue to play second fiddle to McGwire.
“I just hope Sammy gets the attention he deserves,” said Mark Grace, who hit the game-winning homer in the 10th inning. “Not only has he hit 62 homers, but he has carried us. He is without a doubt the MVP of the National League.”
It’s hard not to feel for Sosa, who has handled the home-run chase with humility and humor all year. If one guy deserves the glare of the media spotlight, it’s him.
He’s a guy who has openly rooted for McGwire. After McGwire hit his 61st homer, Sosa hugged him and told him to wait for him. Mac has obliged, going 1-for-14 since hitting 62 and leaving Sunday’s game with minor back spasms.
Still, Sosa’s gestures of class went beyond baseball. It did more for sportsmanship than 10 million post-game handshakes. It was a lesson to children everywhere. Parents pointed Sosa out as the valiant competitor, who lost with dignity.
Thing is, he hasn’t lost.
Say what you will about McGwire’s homers, but Sosa’s mean something. The 62nd homer was part of a come-from-behind victory that kept the Cubs one game up in the wild-card race. McGwire’s 62nd? Do you even remember who won the game?
Yet people will continue to root for McGwire. He’s the headliner. Sosa is the party-crasher at an exclusive country club.
Let’s face it, people don’t crowd around to watch Sammy Sosa hit batting practice.
McGwire was the favorite, along with Ken Griffey Jr. Sosa, coming out of nowhere to challenge for the record, wasn’t even a darkhorse candidate. McGwire speaks fluent English, is great with the media and is a role model for middle America. Sosa is a foreigner who, frankly, doesn’t speak English as well as the country would like.
McGwire grew up in California, where his folks never had trouble making ends meet. He attended USC, a well respected university. If he didn’t make it as a baseball player, rest assured that he would not be on welfare.
Sosa, though, isn’t a guy who grew up in the lap of luxury. More like luxury sat on him. He grew up in San Pedro de Macoris of the Dominican Republic. As a child he sold oranges and shined shoes. He learned to hit by swinging a bamboo stick at an empty bottle tied to a string. There were no silver spoons at the Sosa household.
McGwire is the anointed one, the chosen slugger. Sosa is the tagalong.
“It’s unfortunate that the Maris family wasn’t here,” Grace said. “Mark McGwire got so much more because he was the first to do it. Now, it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, Sammy has 62 homers, too.'”
Still, the moment had emotional impact for Sosa. After he took his second curtain call, he sat in the dugout and let it sink in for a moment. It took him a bit before he returned for his third. The cameras focused on his face. Sweat dripped down his face — with the hint of a tear or two.
“I don’t usually cry, but I cry inside. I was blowing kisses to my mother, I was crying a little bit,” Sosa said. “I have to say what I did is for the people of Chicago, for America, for my mother, for my wife, my kids and the people I have around me. My team.”
It wasn’t a self-pitying moment, but it could have been. Sosa threw a hell of a party Sunday.
Too bad he had few people to share the cake with.
Copyright Real Fans, Inc., 1998.