Publish date:

The Education Of Sammy Sosa Having learned that his personal goals and those of the team can be reached with a single stroke, the Cubs slugger produced the greatest home run streak the game has ever seen

Sammy Sosa used to wear a millstone around his neck. It was a
gold pendant approximately the size of a manhole cover, hung
from a chain that seemed fashioned from a suspension-bridge
cable. The bauble was inscribed with a drawing of two crossed
bats and bore the numbers 30-30, inlaid with diamonds. The
Chicago Cubs outfielder wore it when he drove to Wrigley Field
in his sports car, the one with the SS 30-30 license plates.
Then he would place the pendant in a safe before games. "Did he
play with it on?" says Chicago first baseman Mark Grace, shaking
his head. "No way you could run with that on."

Sosa had commissioned the Liberace-style accessory in 1993,
after he became the first Cub to hit 30 home runs and steal 30
bases in a season, a milestone he reached thanks to 26 frantic
stolen base attempts (20 of them successful) in the last two
months. Never before, it seemed, had anyone been so ecstatic
about finishing in fourth place.

What a piece of work! And the pendant, too--unintentional symbol
of a vacuous career--was something to behold. Numbers? Sure,
Sosa had them. So did World B. Free, Eric Dickerson and Imelda
Marcos. Partly a creation of Wrigley Field's cozy dimensions,
the notoriously undisciplined Sosa through his first nine
seasons racked up nearly as many strikeouts as hits and
approached his defensive responsibilities as if he thought
"cutoff man" was a John Bobbitt reference. At week's end he had
played 1,159 games without getting to the postseason--more than
any active player except the Devil Rays' Dave Martinez (1,502)
and the Indians' Travis Fryman (1,166).

Last season was vintage Sosa, beginning in spring training, when
in response to a question about the possibility of his hitting
50 home runs, Sosa replied, "Why not 60?" His was most probably
the worst year ever by anyone with 36 dingers and 119 RBIs.
Behind that impressive-looking facade, Sosa hit poorly with
runners in scoring position (.246), was virtually an automatic
out on any two-strike count (.159), whiffed more times than
anyone else in the National League (174), had a worse on-base
percentage than Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine (.300 to
.310), and again ran with such recklessness trying for 30-30 (he
didn't get there, finishing with 22 steals in 34 attempts) that
manager Jim Riggleman was once forced to scold him in the dugout
in full view of the television cameras. Oh, yes--and the Cubs
finished 68-94.

"I think there comes a time in every player's career when he
plays for the team and doesn't worry anymore about getting
established or putting up numbers," says Chicago shortstop Jeff
Blauser. Sosa's time is now. Buoyed by the best lineup that's
ever surrounded him on the Cubs, Sosa has put together a monster
first half as rich in substance as it is in style. At 29 and in
his 10th big league season, Sosa has at last begun to take more
pitches, hit the ball to the opposite field and realize that the
only piece of jewelry that really matters is a championship
ring. Only his numbers are gaudy now.

At week's end he was hitting .339--82 points better than his
career average--and had cut down on his strikeouts, increased
his walks and launched one of the most outrageous power streaks
the game has known. From May 25 through June 21, Sosa slammed 21
home runs in 22 games. In four weeks he exceeded the career
seasonal highs of every one of his teammates except leftfielder
Henry Rodriguez.

What's more, in June's first 21 days Sosa hit more home runs
(17) than any man ever hit in the entire month, blasting Babe
Ruth (1930), Bob Johnson (1934), Roger Maris (1961) and Pedro
Guerrero (1985) from the record book while closing in on the
record of 18 for any month, held by the Detroit Tigers' Rudy
York (August 1937).

He popped home runs like vitamins last week: three on Monday,
one on Wednesday, two on Friday and two on Saturday. Of course,
he hit all of them at Wrigley, where in the last three years he
has hit twice as many as he has on the road (71 to 35). So hot
was Sosa that Grace jumped on his lap in the clubhouse last
Thursday, rubbed against him and yelled, "Gimme some of that!"
And that was before Sosa hit a 375-foot missile on Friday with a
splintered bat and a 461-foot lunar probe Saturday--the June
record-breaker--that crashed a viewing party atop an apartment
building on Waveland Avenue. Just call him Babe Roof. "I think
he ruined the barbecued chicken," Blauser says.

Says Grace of Sosa's June explosion, "I've seen a lot of things
in this game, but I've never seen anything like this. The game
of baseball has never seen anything like it. I really don't have
words for it."

While Sosa wore out pitchers and thesauruses alike, the big
payoff was that the Cubs were still hanging within four games of
the first-place Houston Astros in the National League Central at
week's end. For the first time in his life Sosa was hearing his
faithful flock of rightfield fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P!" More
telling, when reporters asked him about possibly outgunning Ruth
and Maris over the full season, Sosa rolled his eyes in
embarrassment and said quietly, "Oh, god. I'll just let you
people take care of that. I don't want you to put me in that
kind of company."

Why not 60? This time Sosa said, "I'll let you know after the
year is over."

Grace says, "He's done 30-30, been player of the week, player of
the month, an All-Star, but now I think he knows there's nothing
like having a good season and winning."

Sosa has reached a comfort zone. That it took so long in coming
should not be such a surprise. Not when you consider that he
didn't play organized ball until he was 14. Not when you take
into account that he grew up selling oranges for 10 cents and
shining shoes for 25 cents on Dominican street corners to help
his widowed mother make ends meet. Not when you learn that home
for him, his mother, four brothers and two sisters was a
two-room unit in what once served as a public hospital. Each
night when he put his head down on that wafer of a mattress on
the floor, he didn't dream of playing baseball in a tailored
uniform on manicured fields. He dreamed of his next meal.

The scout invited two kids to a field in San Pedro de Macoris
for a tryout in 1985. Sosa was the one in the borrowed uniform
and the spikes with the hole in them. He was 16 years old and
carried only 150 pounds on his 5'10" frame. The scout made a
mental note that the boy looked malnourished.

The scout timed him at 7.5 seconds for 60 yards. Not great. The
kid's swing was, by his own admission now, "crazy"--all long and
loopy. But the scout liked the way the ball jumped off his bat,
and he liked the way the kid did everything on the field
aggressively. So the scout, Omar Minaya of the Texas Rangers,
eventually made his way to the Sosa home ("No bigger than the
average one-bedroom apartment or large studio," Minaya recalls)
and came up with an offer of $3,500. Sosa took it. He gave
almost all of it to his mother, Lucrecia, allowing himself one
modest extravagance: He bought himself his first bicycle.

The following year he was at the airport leaving for some place
called Port Charlotte, Fla., without knowing a bit of English.
As he looked over his shoulder, the last thing he saw was
Lucrecia crying.

Only three years after that--only five years after he took his
older brother Luis's advice to play baseball--he was in the big
leagues. By the time he was 23, Sosa was playing for his third
team, the Cubs. The Rangers and the Chicago White Sox each chose
not to wait to see if he would acquire polish, trading him for

"When he first got here [in 1992], you could see he had great
physical skills, but he was so raw," Grace says. "He didn't know
how to play the game. He didn't understand the concept of
hitting behind runners. He didn't understand the concept of
hitting the cutoff man to keep a double play in order. So many
little things he just didn't know."

This much he did know: If he was going to support his mother and
family, it wasn't going to happen with the bat on his shoulder.
"It's not easy for a Latin player to take 100 walks," Sosa says.
"If I knew the stuff I know now seven years ago--taking pitches,
being more relaxed--I would have put up even better numbers. But
people have to understand where you're coming from.

"When I was with the White Sox, Ozzie Guillen said to me, 'Why
do you think about money so much?' I said, 'I've got to take
care of my family.' And he told me, 'Don't think about money.
Just go out and play, and the money will be there.' It takes a

Says Minaya, "You've got to understand something about Latin
players when they're young--or really any players from low
economic backgrounds. They know the only way to make money is by
putting up offensive numbers. Only now is Sammy at a mature
stage. Only now is he becoming the player he always could have

Midway through last season the Cubs provided Sosa, already a
millionaire, with $42.5 million of added security by way of a
four-year extension, a contract that astonished many observers.
Sosa had never scored 100 runs, had never had 175 hits and had
made fewer All-Star teams in the '90s (one) than Scott Cooper.
Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox refused to add him to the
All-Star team in 1996 even though Sosa was leading the league in
home runs at the break. Equally unimpressed fans had never voted
him higher than ninth in the balloting. Even this year he is
running only sixth among National League outfielders.

"We saw a five-tool player who was coming into what are the
prime years for most guys, and who probably couldn't find the
trainer's room because he's never [hurt]," says Chicago general
manager Ed Lynch, explaining the thinking behind the extension.
"The one important variable was Sammy's maturity as a player. We
were banking that he would continue to improve."

Upon signing his new deal, Sosa did not buy a bicycle. He bought
a 60-foot yacht that he christened Sammy Jr. By then he also
owned, he says, "eight or 10 cars"--he can't remember exactly,
though he is sure he has a Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari, a Viper, two
Mercedes, a Hummer, a Navigator and an Expedition. Lucrecia is
now living in the third house her son has bought for her, each
one bigger than the last.

Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland gave Sosa a video to take home
after last season, though he did so without great expectations.
"I don't think he knew I existed last year," Pentland says.

The video included batting clips of three players: the Braves'
Chipper Jones, Grace and Sosa. The tape showed that all three
tapped their front foot on the ground as a trigger mechanism for
their swing. But while Jones and Grace tapped their foot as the
ball was halfway to the plate, Sosa would tap his when the ball
was nearly on top of him, resulting in a wildly hurried swing.
"We needed to come up with some way for him to read and
recognize pitches sooner," Pentland says, "and that way we'd be
able to slow him down."

A few weeks later Pentland called Sosa in the Dominican
Republic. "All I care about are two stats: 100 walks and 100
runs scored," Pentland told him.

"And one more," Sosa said. "I want to hit .300."

Sosa spent much of the winter working on hitting the ball to
rightfield. Meanwhile, the Cubs traded for or signed veterans
Blauser, Mickey Morandini and Rodriguez, their first bona fide
lefthanded power threat since Rick Monday a quarter of a century
ago. Since the season began, centerfielder Brant Brown and
utilityman Jose Hernandez (22 home runs combined) have emerged
from part-time roles as full-time surprises, and Grace, who bats
behind Sosa against righthanders, was third in the league in
hitting at week's end.

"There was too much pressure last year," Sosa says. "Pressure
from the contract, pressure to do it all. I felt if I didn't hit
a home run, we wouldn't win. I was trying to hit two home runs
in one at bat. Now I don't feel that anymore."

Said Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona last Friday
after a 9-8 win over the Cubs, "Sosa's scary, especially when he
puts the ball in the air in [Wrigley]. He doesn't chase pitches
the way he used to. And the guy behind him scares me, too. I
went out to talk to my pitcher, and the guy on deck [Grace] was
smiling at me. He was dying to get up there. He was basically
telling me, Go ahead and walk him. I'll drive him in. It's pick
your poison."

Not once in 16 straight plate appearances against Philadelphia
last weekend did Sosa swing at the first pitch. (Last year he
had 84 one-pitch at bats; almost halfway through this season he
has 16.) Two strikes aren't deadly for him anymore, either. In
those counts, through Sunday, he had improved to .232 with 13
home runs, four more than he hit in such situations all of last
year. The tried-and-true strategy for retiring Sosa--getting
ahead on the count and making him chase pitches farther and
farther off the plate--no longer applies.

"And he's not missing mistakes," says Phillies catcher Mark
Parent, a former teammate of Sosa's. "That's the big thing for
all good hitters--McGwire, Griffey and those guys. They don't
swing at bad balls, and they hammer mistakes. They make you pay
for every mistake. That's what Sammy's doing.

"The other day, [Mark] Portugal tried to sneak a fastball by him
on the outside, and boom--home run, rightfield. You didn't have
to worry about those homers to right in the past, because he
pulled off those balls. But he ain't pulling off now."

Every day before batting practice Sosa and Pentland meet in the
batting tunnel under the rightfield bleachers at Wrigley.
Pentland flips him baseballs to hit. He tosses them not on a
line, as normally occurs with this drill, but in a high, slow
arc. That way Sosa must wait, with his hands back, before
finally unleashing his swing and belting the ball into a net
where the right side of the field would be. The drill teaches
patience. Sosa at last understands. The 30-30 pendant is a relic
now, no longer found around his neck but in a display case at
his home in the Dominican, like some artifact from another era.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER COVER Watch out Mark McGwire! Here comes Slammin' Sammy Sammy Sosa is on a record home run binge [Sammy Sosa batting]


COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHEN GREEN On the rise Sosa's defense and his grasp of baseball's nuances took time to develop, but the finished package was well worth the wait. [Sammy Sosa fielding]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHEN GREEN Patience is a virtue Daily drills under the stands at Wrigley Field are helping Sosa learn how to be a more disciplined hitter. [Sammy Sosa in batting practice]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEPHEN GREEN Fan-friendly Sosa, tossing a ball into the rightfield bleachers before a game, is that rare player who understands that fans matter. [Sammy Sosa at Wrigley Field]

Sosa's 1997 was probably the worst year ever by someone with 36
dingers and 119 RBIs.

This much he knew: He wasn't going to support his family with
the bat on his shoulder.

"Good hitters make you pay for every mistake," says Parent.
"That's what Sammy's doing."