In the wee hours of last Friday--on the day his youngest child
turned one--the hero returned home. Sammy Sosa had just flown in
from San Diego, where the Chicago Cubs had won three of four
games from the Padres. He rode the elevator to the 55th floor of
his building, on Navy Pier in downtown Chicago, a contented man:
He was rich; the Cubs had a one-game lead over the New York Mets
in the National League wild-card race; he had 63 home runs, the
same as the other guy; and his new glasses, with heavy black
Harry Caray-style frames, had been receiving excellent reviews.
Sosa reached his apartment. It was nearly two in the morning,
and he was expecting a sleeping household. He opened the door,
and there they were, very much awake: his mother, his wife, an
aunt, his four brothers and two stepbrothers, his two sisters,
along with other family members and friends. Most of them were
fresh arrivals, visitors from the Dominican Republic. In the
bedrooms Sosa kissed his four sleeping children. In the kitchen,
in the refrigerator and on the counters and in the pantry, he
saw prime meats, ripe fruit, fresh vegetables. He hugged his
In time, Sosa made it to the north end of his sprawling
apartment. The three air-conditioning units in his bedroom were
on full blast. He turned on the oscillating fan to circulate the
frigid air. He's a man of simple tastes. Sleeping in a cold room
is one of his joys.
When he woke up late Friday morning, Sosa knew what was coming,
and so did the rest of his adopted city: the final home stand of
the Cubs' absurdly entertaining season. At Wrigley Field on
three consecutive afternoons--Friday, Saturday and Sunday--the
Cubs would be playing another relic of the Midwest, the
Cincinnati Reds. At stake was a berth in the playoffs for the
Cubs and the most glamorous record in American sport for Sosa:
most home runs, season. Sosa ate a heaping plate of beans, rice
and avocado and went to work.
Fans streaming off the El at the Addison Street-Wrigley Field
stop saw a sign posted by the Chicago Transit Authority: THERE
MAY BE SLIGHT DELAYS WHEN SAMMY SOSA'S AT BAT. In the Cubs'
dugout, another newly minted baseball philanthropist and his two
young sons sat and chatted with Sosa. The father, Steve Ryan, a
40-year-old professional sports-memorabilia collector, had paid
$10,000 for Sosa's 61st home run ball so that his sons could
meet their idol when their dad gave the ball back to the man who
had launched it. Fabian Perez Mercado, the fan who caught ball
number 63--a grand slam in San Diego that tied Sosa with the St.
Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire in the home run race--gave that
ball to Sosa too. Ball number 62, meanwhile, sat under
court-ordered lock and key as a judge tried to sort out who it
rightfully belonged to after one Chicagoan claimed another had
stolen it from him in a mad scramble on Waveland Avenue.
In the Wrigley bleachers, things were more interesting. Two
women lifted their shirts and tried their best to distract
Dmitri Young, the Reds leftfielder. It didn't work. Of course,
Young didn't have much to do on Friday, not with Sosa at bat,
anyhow. He stood practically on the warning track, leaving all
sorts of room for Sosa to try to bloop a single, but on this day
Sosa never even got the ball out of the infield.
His best chance came in the fifth. Cincinnati was leading 4-3
when Chicago second baseman Mickey Morandini led off with a
double. Sosa came to bat and a thousand camera flashes went off
in the bright afternoon. "I just need a base hit here," an
old-school Bleacher Bum called out. "We're in the middle of a
pennant race." The count was full when Reds starter Steve Parris
threw a mistake, a hanging curve. Sosa swung hugely and missed
hugely. Strike three. For the day Sosa went 0 for 4, and the
Cubs lost 6-4. His response to the game was beautifully sane. "I
will go home, have a couple of glasses of wine with my wife and
watch Mark hit a home run," he said. Which was what happened.
While Sammy and Sonia sipped their wine, McGwire hit his 64th.
On another channel the Mets lost to the Florida Marlins. The
Cubs were still one game ahead.
There's no player in baseball who mentions his wife, mother,
siblings and cousins in interviews more often than the
29-year-old Sosa does. His older brother Juan lives with Sammy
during the season and serves as his unofficial batting coach.
(Juan's main job is to remind Sammy to keep his head back over
his right foot to prevent overswinging.) Sammy's father, a
highway worker, died of a brain aneurysm at age 42, when Sammy
was seven, and it was Juan who encouraged Sammy to give up
boxing in favor of baseball, encouraged Sammy to show up at
various team tryouts in their hometown of San Pedro de Macoris
and encouraged Sammy to shorten his looping swing.
Juan has another unofficial job: He's the family's
representative-at-large to the city's Hispanic community. He
plays in a softball league in Chicago--through Sunday he had six
homers--and watches the Cubs' road games on TV at a Dominican
social club on Chicago's West Side. The other night, when the
Cubs were still in San Diego, Juan was at the club. It was a
scene. A merengue band was rehearsing, a group of grown men
drank beer and argued about whether President Clinton was going
to heaven or hell and several young kids ran about. The game was
on two television sets, but the announcers' description of it
could not be heard above the din. Then Slammin' Sammy came to
bat, and everything went silent. Suddenly, four or five arms
were draped around Juan's shoulders. Sammy whiffed, the arms
disappeared, and Juan ducked his chin into his chest. The music
and the arguments resumed.
Sonia watches most of the Cubs' games at home, even when the
team is in Chicago. She's 24 and has four children, two girls
followed by two boys, all under the age of six, and they need
their mother, particularly the youngest, Michael. Sonia has a
beautiful singing voice, and when Michael gets fussy she calms
him by singing the theme from Titanic. She was 17 and working as
a dancer on a Dominican TV variety show when she met Sammy. He
was 21 and playing minor league baseball. They were at a dance
club in Santo Domingo when Sammy noticed her from a distance. He
had a waiter bring her a note: "If you will do the honor of
having one dance with me, it will be the start of a beautiful
friendship." Sammy Smooth. She had no idea that Sammy was a
baseball player, but he had other qualities. "I like guys who
are big, tall and dark," she says. "I looked at him and said,
'Oh, wow--what a man.'"
On Saturday, Sosa was not the man. The breeze was blowing in at
Wrigley, except when Sosa was at bat. He struck out swinging in
his first three times up. For his finale, he grounded into a
game-ending double play. The Reds won 7-2. In New York the Mets
beat the Marlins 4-3. The wild-card race was even.
There are still at least three people involved with the Cubs who
know firsthand the torture Chicago went through at the hands of
the Mets in 1969. That was the year the Cubs had a 4 1/2-game
lead on Sept. 1 and finished the season trailing New York by
eight games. Yosh Kawano, the equipment manager who has been
with Chicago since '53, was around then. So was Billy Williams,
the Cubs leftfielder in '69, now a Chicago coach. Those guys
don't have much to say about '69. "The Mets were a team of
destiny," Williams says. Then there's Ron Santo, the Cubs' third
baseman in '69, today one of the team's radio announcers. Santo
despises the Mets, has for 29 years. He has been passing down
the history to the newly arrived in Chicago ever since.
Some, like Sosa, care little about history. He believes the 1998
Cubs are a team of destiny and harbors no animosity toward the
Mets--or anyone else, for that matter. Some of his teammates think
more like Santo. "The Mets have that New York arrogance, they
always do," one veteran Cub said the other day. "They'd have it
if they were fielding a Triple A team." (Things are heating up:
On Friday, in the home clubhouse at Shea Stadium, a Mets reliever
was watching the Cubs-Reds game on TV when a Cincinnati infielder
bobbled a ground ball. "Pick it up with your bare hand, moron!"
the reliever had yelled at the screen.)
Why all the tension? Because it's late September and the Cubs and
the Mets are playing games in which every pitch has meaning.
That's why September exists.
Sunday at Wrigley was Sammy Sosa Day. It may be true that
poststrike baseball has a tendency to wallow in sentimentality,
but Sunday's pregame ceremony was truly moving. For one thing,
it was the final home game of the Cubs' season. There was the
venue, Wrigley Field, teeming with life. Every seat was taken,
everyone was paying attention. Michael Jordan was in the house,
claiming graciously that Sosa's game is harder than his. On the
field was Juan Marichal, a Dominican who was starring in the
majors when Sosa was born, pleased that a countryman is now
linked to Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. A congratulatory letter
from McGwire was read. Then came Ed Lynch, the Cubs' shaggy
general manager, wearing a rumpled sport coat, microphone in
hand, his words reverberating off the outfield wall and upper
deck, praising Sosa for having "the greatest season in the
history of the Chicago Cubs." This may actually be true,
although it could be argued that Hack Wilson had a better season
for the Cubs in 1930 when he hit 56 homers and knocked in 190
runs. As Lynch spoke of Sosa's accomplishments, Ernie Banks, Mr.
Cub himself, stood nearby waving a tiny Dominican flag. It was
all fitting and good and a reminder that no sport does little
moments the way baseball does.
When Sosa spoke, he thanked his God, his teammates, his fans,
his adopted city, his family. He concluded by trotting out his
favorite slogan, "Bezball been berry, berry good to me!" He then
ran around the field, waving his cap. The Reds were applauding
him, the grounds crew was applauding him, the ball hawks on
Waveland were applauding him. The Bleacher Bums were bowing to
him. McGwire chose that moment to hit number 65. Meanwhile,
Wrigley's primitive scoreboard showed that the Mets had taken an
early lead over the Marlins.
Given where the Cubs were a year ago, it seems preposterous that
they are even in a wild-card race. Chicago has a spectacular
closer in Rod Beck, but getting to him is a daily adventure. The
Cubs are where they are because of unexpected seasons from two
players: Kerry Wood, the 21-year-old rookie righthander with a
13-6 record and a 3.40 ERA, and Sosa. There's nothing in Sosa's
history to suggest that he would have an MVP-caliber season,
much less put on one of the best hitting performances of the
last 60 years (chart, page 48). Before 1998 he had a .257 career
batting average. This year he had hit .305 through Sunday.
Entering this season, Sosa had hit a homer every 17.8 at bats.
This year he had maintained a one-in-9.8 pace. Lynch, that
disheveled genius, somehow saw this coming. Last year he signed
Sosa to a four-year, $42 million deal.
Sosa made two significant changes this year. He dropped his
hands at least six inches in his batting stance, which he says
enabled him to get around on pitches faster. And he became far
more patient at the plate, on first pitches in particular. Last
season he made 59 outs on first pitches. This year he had made
only 29. He's also exceedingly confident. "When Sammy comes up
after going 0 for 12, he feels he has the advantage, not the
pitcher," says his manager, Jim Riggleman. Still, Sosa fights a
tendency to be overeager. He tied McGwire with 63 homers on
Sept. 16 and then in his next 17 at bats went hitless, striking
out six times.
Unfortunately for the Cubs and the 40,000 fans at Wrigley
participating in Sammy Sosa Day, five of those at bats came on
Sunday, when Chicago lost its third straight to Cincinnati. That
was not what the organizers of the celebration had in mind.
Sosa's final at bat was in the ninth, with two outs and the Cubs
trailing by four. The faithful in the rightfield bleachers,
standing in a spitting rain on a muggy afternoon, began their
ritual, rhythmic chant, "SO-sa! SO-sa! SO-sa!" It was all
short-lived. Sosa hit an infield pop-up, and the game was over.
The Cubs had lost to the Reds 7-3, on a day when the Mets
defeated the Marlins. On Friday, New York had trailed Chicago by
a game. By Sunday's dusk, the Cubs trailed by a game. On Friday,
McGwire and Sosa had been tied. Now McGwire was leading by two.
In losing, Sosa could not have been looser. After the game a
reporter, assuming the appropriately somber tone one does after a
loss, asked Sosa if Cubs fans had seen his final at bat for 1998
at Wrigley. Sosa understood the implication of the question, of
course: Would the Cubs be playing October baseball for the first
time since 1989? "What, am I going to die tomorrow?" he answered.
At that same session with reporters, a junior scribe, maybe 10
years old, asked Sosa to identify his next goal in life. "Go to
heaven," he said, and then he laughed. He retreated to the Cubs'
clubhouse, where he had a long beer with his brothers. He said he
was a happy man, and he looked like a happy man, 0 for 17 and
all. He looked like he was in heaven already.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO Chicago's hope A full house at Wrigley paid tribute to Sosa's season while rooting for the Cubs to make the postseason. [Fans in bleachers cheering under sign that reads 'SAMMY: "YOU'RE THE MAN"' as Sammy Sosa tips his cap on the field]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Battin' the breeze Sosa took some mighty cuts on his day of celebration, only to whiff twice and go hitless in five at bats, extending his slump to 0 for 17. [Sammy Sosa swinging bat in game]
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG Suffering with Sammy Among the anguished Dominicans in Chicago watching Sosa struggle was his brother Juan (right). [Juan Sosa with others reacting to game]
COLOR PHOTO: TODD BUCHANAN The Family Man As Sosa might say, life is "berry, berry good" for him in his high-rise home with Sonia, Michael (left) and Sammy Jr. [Michael Sosa, Sonia Sosa, Sammy Sosa, and Sammy Sosa Jr.]
When Sammy batted, suddenly four or five arms draped around his
brother's shoulders. When he whiffed, the arms disappeared.
Asked about his next goal, Sosa says, "To go to heaven." Even in
a slump, he looks so happy he might be in heaven already.