At Carolina Panthers home games, fans are forbidden to remove
their shirts and vendors call out "Cold beverage!" instead of
"Beer!" At Chicago Cubs home games, shirt removal is compulsory,
the better to show off a Ruthian beer gut. So we ask you,
America: Which sport is truly your national pastime?
Baseball is back, and that has much to do with shirtlessness and
Chicago and the delightful space ranger who plays rightfield for
the Cubs. Ask the four shirtless 17-year-olds who loitered
behind the Cubs' dugout on Friday night at Three Rivers Stadium
in Pittsburgh, each with his chest painted with a letter of
Sammy Sosa's surname. When the O, Will Lamb, wandered off to the
bathroom, his three friends self-consciously maintained their
order, careful not to make an ass of themselves. "I'm rooting
for Sosa and McGwire," said the A, Jason Weaver. "Both of them
are such good guys."
Said Joe Rivosecchi, who had an S on his chest, "Yeah, it's not
like Albert Belle is about to break this record."
Between the two estimable men competing for the single-season
home run record, the 29-year-old Sosa is somehow the more human,
no? While Mark McGwire ingests creatine and androstenedione,
Sosa is popping body-enhancing Barneys and Freds: A box of
Flintstones chewables sat on a shelf of his locker in Pittsburgh.
Here's a man who makes $10 million a year but doesn't play golf.
"I tried one time to golf, and I hit everything foul ball," he
explains. "I hit it over trees, over houses." Who cannot relate?
Of course, in baseball Sosa is hitting everything fair ball,
everything long ball, having homered in 15 consecutive series
through Monday, 58 times in all. Barring injury, he will get to
62 but probably not before Mac Daddy gets there, which didn't
seem fair. "Let me ask you this," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace
said on Friday night, after Sosa hit his 57th in the Cubs' 5-2
win over the Pirates. "What are we supposed to do if Sammy hits
his 62nd when McGwire already has, like, 64? Do we mob him, even
though 62 is no longer the record? Do we just stay in the dugout
and clap, like it's any other home run? I honestly don't know."
Odds are the Cubs will mob him, in the way that Sosa is mobbed
on his rare walkabouts in airport terminals and hotel lobbies.
"Some of the stuff he hears, it would floor you," said Sosa's
agent, Tom Reich, intriguingly, after dining out with his client
in Pittsburgh. "Some of the people who approach him got balls.
And I don't mean baseballs."
Of course, they got baseballs, too. The fan at Wrigley Field who
caught Sosa's 56th home run (hit on Sept. 2 in the Cubs' 4-2 win
over the Cincinnati Reds) personally returned it to Sammy after
the game. Sosa signed the ball and gave it back. "It was a
woman," he explained gallantly, "from the rightfield bleachers."
Sosa treats Wrigley's rightfield bleacherites with a reverence
he otherwise reserves for his adopted homeland, the United
States. Last week, after Sosa, a native of the Dominican
Republic, said "God bless America" for the 1,689th time,
breaking the record held by Kate Smith, someone asked him, "Who
are you, Don King?" Sammy replied, "Don King says, 'Only in
America.' I say, 'God bless America.'"
While McGwire can appear constipated in press conferences, Sosa
has used them to hone his lounge act. "If somebody wants to have
an interview with me," he says with a shrug, "it's a free
country." He likes to mix cliches as if they were paints,
creating colorful new images. Of a Pirates pitcher who struck
him out on Sunday, Sosa said, "I have to take my hat off and
hand it to him." Even when he says nothing at all, he seems to
be sharing a confidence. "To tell you the truth," he said on
Friday, as a dozen journalists leaned in a little closer, "today
is a new day."
Sosa is always vowing "to tell you the truth." His other
favorite phrases are "I'm not gonna lie to you," "Believe me
when I tell you" and the all-purpose "You don't wanna know,
buddy." (Q: "How fun will it be to go back to the Dominican this
winter?" A: "You don't wanna know, buddy.") On rare occasions
Sosa will decline to answer a question by saying, "That's
personal," though when he was asked last week to name his first
love, he replied, without hesitation, "Cartoons."
It would be easy to see Sosa as a cartoon were it not for the
three-dimensional depth of his emotions. Having shined shoes and
sold oranges and played baseball with a tree branch and a
rolled-up sock as a child in the Dominican town of San Pedro de
Macoris, Sosa is sincere when he says of the U.S., "I love this
country. Whatever happens to me now, I think it's a gift."
Believe him when he tells you, "Every day is a holiday for me."
On Monday, an actual holiday, Sosa and McGwire met in St. Louis.
All year Sosa has been calling McGwire "the Man." Of course he
calls everyone "the Man." Last weekend alone, he called
Dominican president Leonel Fernandez--who telephoned him last
week--"the Man." He also made the improbable claim that "Mickey
Mantle and Roger Maris, they were the Man." In the Dominican
Republic, said Sosa, "I am the Man."
Which raises the question, Why isn't McGwire this glib in
interviews? Sosa blushes, bounces his eyebrows and ventures,
"I'm a little bit more Rico Suave than him." At that, 25 cynical
scribes--and Sosa himself--laugh for a solid minute.
His teammates do, too. Sosa spews out fun like a bus does fumes.
"I feel he's a nice little treat that's been given to me at this
stage of my career," says 40-year-old Cubs third baseman Gary
Gaetti, who spent the first five months of this season with
McGwire and the Cardinals. "I have no problem talking graciously
about either of these men, because they're both great people."
"Look, as we all know, enough terrible s--- happens every day in
this business," says agent Reich, "so you have to enjoy the high
notes, and this is as high as it gets."
Indeed, on Sunday evening in Pittsburgh there already was an
elegiac quality to Sosa's season, a sense of
things-will-never-be-like-this-again. As the Cubs prepared to
get out of town, only 30 reporters were gathered at Sosa's
locker. (Some 700 would await him in St. Louis.) As that number
dwindled to a dozen or so--a reeking scrum of B.O. and dandruff,
held together by giveaway golf shirts--Sosa shook hands with
each of them. He said "Gracias" to the guy from Univision and,
in short, showed gratitude to everyone on the media B-list,
those assigned to follow Sidebar Sammy instead of Cover Boy
"My life," Sosa reflected at one point, "is kind of like a
miracle." For a moment everyone in his orbit--armadillo-skinned
agents, 40-year-old third basemen, sneering sportswriters--felt
the same way. It made you want to take off your hat and hand it
to Sammy Sosa.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER EYES RIGHT A rapt Sosa watched number 56 sail toward his beloved bleacherites. [Sammy Sosa after hitting ball]