CHICAGO — Everybody knew it was a serious shot, but Sammy Sosa's 55th home run had that flat trajectory even longtime Wrigley Field bleacher bums had a tough time gauging. Still, fans were on their feet almost as soon as the ball left his bat, mostly because they so wanted it to be gone.
Those wishes were answered on Monday night before 36,700 when the ball landed in the left-field bleachers. And baseball's most captivating chase in years grew that much more thrilling as Sosa again pulled even with St. Louis Cardinal slugger Mark McGwire in the pursuit of the single-season home run record.
The Cubs went on to defeat the Cincinnati Reds, 5-4, in a game that included a homer to virtually the same spot by 21-year-old wunderkind pitcher Kerry Wood, his second of the season.
Wood was too shy to come out of the dugout for a bow, so a grinning Sosa took it for him.
Sosa and McGwire, who went 0 for 3 Monday in the Cardinals' 5-3 victory over the Florida Marlins,are both on pace to top Roger Maris' hallowed 1961 record of 61 homers.
After the game, in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the recent revelation that McGwire uses a controversial, over-the-counter supplement, Sosa held up a box of Flintstone's chewable vitamins.
"This is what I use," he said with a chuckle.
Growing serious, Sosa said he was "getting excited," but just couldn't allow himself to get too worked up about his pursuit of Maris' record. Not yet.
"I'm going to go home tonight and have a glass of wine with my wife, and keep going," he said quietly. "Maybe after the year is over, and we get to the playoffs, I'll say, 'Wow. I did something unbelievable.' "
The chase of Maris' record has become one of the most-followed spectacles in the recent history of sports, with ballparks around the country posting the number of Sosa and McGwire homers on their scoreboards and fans jamming their hometown stadiums whenever the Cubs or Cardinals come to play.
The place to see Sosa whack a homer, though, is at Wrigley. Even United States senators know that.
Earlier this summer, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began planning a late-August trip for meetings in Chicago, he told his staff to schedule it around a Cub game. They did.
And at the top of the third inning Monday, the white-haired senator--looking only mildly conspicuous in a navy blue suit and white shirt--was wandering the upper levels at Wrigley, waiting for Sosa to bat.
He had a plane to catch, McCain said, and wouldn't be able to stay for the entire game, but he was going to put off his departure as long as possible in the hope of seeing a Sosa homer.
"I'm on Sosa watch too," McCain said.
A few minutes later, Cincinnati pitcher Brett Tomko hung a breaking ball and Sosa sent it flying.
Sosa's 55th of the season was his 30th at Wrigley.
As they have for more than a month now, Cub fans arrived at Wrigley early and by the hundreds Monday. At this point, even a batting-practice homer by Sosa is something to see.
First, they watched outfielder Brant Brown hit a couple of good shots, and nodded their approval. Then 40-year-old Gary Gaetti hit a long ball, and they clapped.
Then Sosa, who had spent much of the team's warm-up time in the clubhouse, stepped onto the field. For a few seconds, the stadium was silent.
"Sammyyyyy!" came the first shout.
"Fifty-five!" came the next.
His first long drive plowed into the ivy just below the right-field fence and the fans stifled a moan. His next went over the left-field fence and bounced in the street. The crowd roared with delight.
One man, though, stood silently, frowning, his arms crossed. Only after Sosa hit the next pitch into the street as well did the stern-faced fan allow himself a smile.
"Look at that," he whispered to no one in particular. "Look at that."
ON THE OTHER HAND
Nothing doing for Mark McGwire in first game of a series at Florida. C6
RANDY HARVEY: Roger Maris was a power hitter, but also adept at the hit-and-run. C2