The man who would be king played his salsa softly on his
portable stereo, having acquiesced to teammates' requests to
cease with the woofer-shaking amplification of last year, when
the Chicago Cubs were a winning team. Sammy Sosa was providing
the unofficial sound track of the 1999 season as he sat alone at
his locker last Saturday morning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
The Great Home Run Race was on again, only this time with the
volume turned way down.
Just that morning the Chicago Tribune had allotted only 12
paragraphs to the previous night's Cubs-Cardinals game, the
first between the clubs in St. Louis since last Sept. 8, the
night Mark McGwire beat Sosa to 62 home runs. The Tribune, which
buried the account on the third page of the sports section,
apparently was more smitten with obscure golfer Skip Kendall's
second-round 65 in the PGA Championship than with the
possibility of another 66 from Sosa. The previous day, under a
headline that read TO SOME, SOSA HOMERS RING HOLLOW, the paper
had run a story in which the one piece of supporting evidence
for the headline was an oblique criticism last month by Cubs
righthander Steve Trachsel, who implied that Sosa--whose 158
RBIs last year were the fourth most in National League
history--should have advanced a runner from second to third with
no outs in a one-run game rather than try to knock him in.
Never mind the salsa. The jading of the home run race has muted
even Sammy Sunshine himself. Last Saturday, in a rare somber
moment (not to mention a 3-for-31 funk), Sosa, speaking of the
fans and the media, said, "They ask for too much. They're never
satisfied. They think that because you did something last year,
you must do more the next year. Seventy-five, 80...and pretty
much it's tough. You only can do what you can do, you know? You
don't have any control beyond that. That's something people
Soon thereafter McGwire and Sosa resumed, mano a mano, what may
be the greatest home run rivalry baseball has ever known. They
did so at a familiar level of excellence, if not interest, as
their teams played a three-game series and played out their
also-ran seasons. Counterpunching like Ali and Frazier, they
combined for six home runs and 17 RBIs over a stretch of 18
innings, beginning with the third inning on Friday night when
McGwire stroked the first of his two homers in that game. Sosa
capped the series with a two-homer game of his own. In between
they each launched three-run rockets on Saturday, marking the
16th time this season and the 37th time over the last two that
they've homered on the same day. (By the way, St. Louis won two
of the three games.)
August 22, 1999
Okay, so there are no Yankees ghosts to chase this time, you can
find Parmesan cheeses in the dairy section that have aged longer
than the home run record, and we know way too much about both of
these guys. (SOSA'S SECRET? IT'S HAM, CHEESE, shouted the
Chicago Sun-Times last week, reporting that Sosa's daily
sandwich preference had "gone unrevealed until now.") That still
shouldn't obfuscate the truth that McGwire and Sosa are up to
something even more remarkable than what they did last year:
They are doing it again. In the pantheon of recurring classic
sports rivalries, they join Alydar versus Affirmed, Magic versus
Bird, Nicklaus versus Palmer and the People of the United States
versus the Dallas Cowboys.
The 3-3 weekend tie maintained McGwire's edge in the race at
one, 47-46. That kept both men on familiar ground. McGwire had
exactly as many home runs through 119 games as he did last year
on his way to 70. Sosa was ahead of his 1998 pace, with three
more dingers than he had through 116 games last season en route
to 66. No one else in baseball was within nine home runs of
Sosa, proving that even in this homer-happy era, McGwire and
Sosa are in a higher league.
"That they're doing it this year is extremely impressive, more
so than last year," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace says. "It's
probably taken for granted because it's not new news anymore. We
don't have reporters here from Australia, Bulgaria and all over
the world who'd never seen a baseball game before. But I'm
looking at it as a player. I consider myself an expert on the
game. And I know it's even more impressive because it's
unbelievable to do it again.
"I didn't expect this. Who did? You can't say it's because
everybody's hitting home runs. They're so far ahead of everybody
else. I would have guessed they'd be in the 50s [at season's
end]. My hat's off to them."
Only three other times this century have the same two players
outhomered the rest of baseball for two years in a row: Jimmie
Foxx and Babe Ruth in 1932 and '33, Foxx and Hank Greenberg in
'38 and '39, and Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner in '47 and '48. No
other pairing, however, did it with such prowess. Foxx and
Greenberg each won a home run title in their two years, and Mize
and Kiner shared the crown in both of theirs (each hitting 51 in
1947 and 40 in '48). Sosa could be the most sympathetic power
hitter in history, having picked the two worst seasons to hit
all these homers. If McGwire maintains his lead, Sosa will join
Ruth as the only players ever to outhomer everyone but the same
man two years in a row--with Sosa easily having more dingers to
show for such futility. Ruth hit 75 home runs over his two
runner-up seasons, but Sosa's two-year log was 112 through
Sunday and climbing.
Worse still, because he plays in the same league as McGwire,
Sosa could hit more home runs over two seasons than anyone in
history except for McGwire and still have fewer career home run
titles (zero) than middling sluggers Jesse Barfield, Howard
Johnson and Bill Melton (one each). Sosa could also obliterate
the record 89 home runs hit by the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez
in 1996 and '97, the most in back-to-back seasons without being
a home run champion. "Yes," Sosa said on Saturday, when asked if
he'd like to outhomer McGwire just once. "You want to finish
first in everything you do. Everyone wants to be the best."
However, after blasting two home runs in last Friday night's 7-1
win over the Cubs, McGwire would not even acknowledge that a race
with Sosa existed. "There's no home run race," he said. "You
don't play for the home run race. You don't win a prize for it.
There's no trophy, and there shouldn't be."
Actually, though no accompanying hardware is presented, the
National League home run champion does win the Mel Ott Award,
named after the New York Giants' outfielder who won six homer
titles. (The American League has no corresponding honor.) That
still didn't sway McGwire, who has more records than Kasey Kasem
but loathes speaking about them. "The message that's being put
out there today is that individual statistics are more important
than the team," McGwire said on Friday. "That's wrong. That's
not good for little kids to hear. Didn't people learn from last
year [when the Cardinals finished third in the National League
Central]? Look at the Mariners. They've got two of the best
players in the game, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. Look at
all the home runs Griffey has hit. But what have they won
lately? Nothing. That's what really counts. Home run titles mean
nothing to me. I measure myself against my own expectations, not
against what other people do."
He did proudly add this regarding his record of 70 jacks: "I
don't think it will ever be broken."
Home runs are the potato chips of baseball, empty calories of
pleasure that Americans devour in bunches. The last World Series
champion that led its league in home runs was the 1984 Detroit
Tigers, who hit 187. Still, at week's end the biggest road draws
in baseball were the Cardinals (36,307 average) and the Cubs
(33,998), though they were a combined 27 1/2 games out of first
place. Last week more Philadelphia fans--an estimated 12,000 to
15,000--turned out early to watch McGwire take batting practice
than have shown up for some Phillies games in recent years.
Philadelphia's Aug. 9-11 series with St. Louis, which also
included the Philly debut of Cardinals outfielder and prodigal
Phillies draft pick J.D. Drew, was Philadelphia's biggest
three-day draw (140,446) in five years.
McGwire worked so hard at putting on a pregame show for the
Veterans Stadium crowd on Monday, Aug. 9, that his troublesome
back stiffened. He removed himself after one at bat on Tuesday,
sat out Wednesday, and the next day, when there was no game
scheduled, he underwent a 20-minute acupuncture treatment, as he
has done occasionally for the past three years.
McGwire pronounced himself fully fit for last Friday's series
opener against the Cubs, much to the delight of the first of
three straight sellout crowds drawn to otherwise meaningless
games. The Cardinals might as well have cut to the chase and
staged a home run hitting contest between McGwire and Sosa
instead of playing the game. "You could have the starting
pitchers throw to them 27 times each and see who wins," Cubs
righthander Kevin Tapani said with a laugh, "and I doubt many
fans would ask for their money back."
McGwire adheres to the same pregame routine he employed last
year, retreating to a back room of the Cardinals' clubhouse to
listen to soothing music by Enya and other New Age artists. The
world McGwire shuts out doesn't seem as cacophonous as it was in
1998. It wasn't until the Philadelphia trip, for instance, that
he needed to hold his first formal press conference to
accommodate the media. He has needed no security escorts home
after games, as he did last year when fans often tailed his
silver BMW. "In restaurants it never fails that people come up
to me as soon as the food is delivered to the table," he says,
"but it hasn't been that bad. It all comes down to concentration
and preparation. That's why I've been consistent."
McGwire's bombs on Friday and Saturday sent St. Louis fans home
happy, even in defeat and even if they exhibited slightly less
fervor than last year. When McGwire batted with the bases loaded
and two outs in the sixth inning on Saturday, only a small
portion of the 48,615 fans bothered to get off their duffs to
urge him on before he whiffed. During his two-plus seasons with
the Cardinals, through Sunday, McGwire had racked up 78 homers in
162 games at Busch Stadium. The three homers on Friday and
Saturday gave him 20 in 29 games--at no time in 1998 did he hit 20
dingers in so few games.
Sosa was the greyhound chasing the mechanical rabbit last year.
Not once did he go to sleep at night with the home run lead to
himself. This season, in their head-to-head battle, the lead has
changed four times; Sosa was last in front at the start of this
month, 40-39. He snapped out of his slump on Saturday, starting
with a first-inning single that caused him to crack to McGwire
upon reaching first base, "Hey, I got a hit. Maybe I should ask
for the ball."
"This morning I was struggling," Sosa said after that game. "Now
I feel great. I'm right where I was last year, and I haven't got
hot yet. I feel I can get hot and finish strong."
He was back chasing the rabbit, hoping the schedule would afford
him an edge. McGwire's Cardinals had 18 games left against the
five National League teams that had allowed the fewest home runs
(Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Montreal
Expos and Florida Marlins). Sosa's Cubs had just seven games
left against those staffs. McGwire and Sosa go head-to-head six
more times, including on the serendipitously scheduled final
three days of the season at Busch Stadium. "That," Sosa said,
"will be unbelievable."
By then we will know even more about our two
protagonists--important stuff, such as McGwire's having a taste
for grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, though not as
compulsive an appetite as Sosa's for his beloved ham and cheese.
Most of all we will be sure of this: McGwire and Sosa have
validated the greatness of 1998.
"That they're doing it this year is extremely impressive,
more so than last year," says Mark Grace.
"You could have the pitchers throw to them 27 times each and see
who wins," said Tapani, "and I doubt many fans would ask for
their money back."