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Sosa's Main Mission Is the Playoff

Baseball: With Cubs vying for wild-card berth, home run record takes a back seat.

September 13, 1998|BOB HILLE | THE SPORTING NEWS

This was back, way back in May; way back, almost 50 home runs and more than 120 tomorrows ago in this most remarkable baseball season, when six weeks into the season Sammy Sosa was muddling along with seven homers in 39 games. Colorado Rockies outfielder Dante Bichette intended to gently kid Sosa, not give him a lasting message about hitting home runs.

"What?" Bichette chided Sosa on a mid-May day at Coors Field. "You're not going to hit any more home runs; just going the other way now?"

Bichette recalled the moment recently for the Rocky Mountain News. He remembered kidding Sosa; he remembered thinking Sosa wasn't listening because he didn't smile; and Bichette remembered the punch line to his joking: "I said, 'Don't worry about it. . . . They come in bunches.' "

Some telling advice that seems particularly prescient as we enter the final weeks of this epic home run chase, as Sosa tries to keep up with--or is it push?--the man, Mark McGwire, who has done most of the heavy lifting in this race for immortality.

The focus tightens.

The at-bats dwindle.

The pressure ratchets.

And while McGwire has accomplished this season feats no other power hitter in the game has accomplished, Sosa finds himself on a twin-headed mission: Swinging for 62 and carrying the Chicago Cubs to a playoff berth.

Truth is, immortality is in the eyes of the beholder. If Sosa, home run record or no, gets the Cubs into the playoffs for the first time since 1989 and only the third time since 1945, then he is the hands-down winner of this year's National League Most Valuable Player Award, beating out not only McGwire, whose team isn't within 545 feet of contention, but also imminently worthy MVP candidates Andres Galarraga of the Atlanta Braves, Greg Vaughn of the San Diego Padres and Moises Alou of the Houston Astros.

"I don't know if MVP is enough to describe it," teammate Mark Grace says. "His homers make it special for all of us, and I've had the best seat in the house for all of them, in the on-deck circle. I don't think his intentions are to catch Maris, but for the Cubs to win."

He has done it all the while blowing kisses from the heart to his mother back in the Dominican Republic after each home run and mixing in a V for dear-departed Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. When Sosa sprints to his position in right field at Wrigley Field and dashes back and forth in front of the bleachers, working the crowd, he's not hotdogging.

"I'm having fun," he says. "This is the best year of my life, and I'm enjoying it. I come to the ballpark every day like a baby. ... Maybe next year, if it happens again, I won't enjoy it as much, but I'm enjoying it. Oh, what a country. I'm having a good time."

Says former teammate Brian McRae, now with the Mets: "He has a little boyish enthusiasm that maybe a lot more guys should have."

So while McGwire's colossal home runs have taken the hit-'em-where-they-ain't concept one step further--hit-'em-where-they-ain't-never-been--Big Mac has approached history with a dignified reserve that at times has spilled into edginess.

Sosa? He has banged line drive after line drive over the fence while mixing a sheer joy for the game with a wry sense of humor. Try this: On the night he hits his 55th home run--in a victory, by the way--to tie McGwire on the brink of Hack Wilson's National League record, Sosa takes a moment to poke fun at the tempest in a teapot over McGwire's use of the over-the-counter diet supplement androstenedione. "This is what I use," he says, holding up a box of Flintstones vitamins. Actually, his supplement of choice is the herb ginseng, but the point isn't missed. Sammy is having fun, on the field and off.

Moments later, Sosa grows more introspective when considering the tasks ahead. "I'm going to go home tonight and have a glass of wine with my wife and keep going," he says quietly. "Maybe after the year is over, and we get to the playoffs, I'll say, 'Wow! I did something unbelievable.' "

As this home run chase wound to its conclusion, the hypotheses were legion. How far out did it get? One favorite "what-if" scenario: What if Sosa reached season's end and in his last at-bat was forced to choose between swinging for the home run record, knowing that he may never get the opportunity to do it again, and getting on base any way possible to help the Cubs' playoff push?

Sosa's answer? A qualified "both": 'If you go out trying just to make good contact, if you have that in your mind, you can hit home runs. I won't overswing."

Barring a June-like surge from Sosa in the final weeks, McGwire may have rendered moot the home run half of that scenario. But there are other ongoing considerations about Sosa's home run pace as it relates to the Cubs' push for a playoff spot, including Cal Eldred, the Padres' and Astros' staffs and the lingering effects of El Nino:

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