Sosa learns to embrace celebrity

Wednesday, August 26, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fans react when Sammy Sosa comes to bat Tuesday.
(AP photo)
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Sammy Sosa is not big on brooding. He does not complain of claustrophobia. He is the baseball slugger who does his job joyfully. His is the merry chase of Roger Maris.

"Mark McGwire is The Man," the Chicago Cubs outfielder said Tuesday afternoon. "I'm just another kid."

While McGwire has sometimes felt like a "caged animal," this summer, Sosa remains an unfettered force of nature. He is instinctive, demonstrative and evidently impervious to the ceaseless hype and media intrusions spawned by the Great Home Run Race of 1998. He has come to terms with celebrity, and conferred on it his unconditional surrender. He understands, as professional athletes rarely do, that the man who sits on top of the world ought to have sense enough to enjoy the view.

"It must be pretty cool right now, being him," Reds second baseman Bret Boone said Tuesday.

It is.

He's come a long way

Sammy Sosa arrived at Cinergy Field Tuesday afternoon with 51 home runs and no apparent worries. He would hit no homers in the Reds' 10-9 victory over the Cubs, but his mere presence prompted seven fans to remain in the left-field red seats after two rain delays for his ninth-inning, midnight strikeout.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in the Dominican Republic, selling oranges on the street and shining shoes to help his widowed mother make ends met. By comparison, Sosa's life of late is a lark.

Reds manager Jack McKeon greets Sosa before the game.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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"I've been enjoying it," he said, sitting in the visiting dugout before batting practice, surrounded by cameras and notepads and peppered with the same questions he hears at every stop. "I feel strong mentally. I feel great physically. . .I didn't have it in my mind to break the record. But if it happens, God Bless America."

Good answer. America likes humility in its heroes, even those whose home run trots come choreographed. Sosa might have been telling the truth, or he might have been repeating the answers that raise the fewest eyebrows, but he was pleasant, obliging, even tolerant. When the emissary of a local radio station struggles to find the most delicate way to phrase the most obvious question -- How does it feel to be chasing this famous record? -- Sosa intercedes.

"It's OK," he says, "you can ask."

You imagine Albert Belle in similar circumstances. You wonder how Barry Bonds would cope beneath this daily barrage. You consider some of the churls who might have stood in Sammy Sosa's spikes -- Dave Kingman, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice -- and you are grateful that fate tapped this fellow instead.

McGwire has not been as consistently charming, but he has spent the season under considerably greater scrutiny. He has been leading the chase for the most part, and has both the build and the resume to expect a Ruthian run.

Ken Griffey Jr., with his singularly sweet swing, was generally listed second among those most likely to exceed 61 homers this season. Sosa, a right fielder, has entered the scene from stage left.

'A super guy'

He has been the least discerning of baseball's power hitters, a slugger whose unrestrained hacks produced 36 homers and 174 strikeouts last season. When the Cubs signed him to a four-year, $42.5 million contract last summer, fellow ballplayers scratched their heads and asked, "Him?"

"That's right," Boone acknowledged. "But he's shut a lot of people up with the way he's played. I think everybody in the game is pulling for him, pulling for both of them. He (Sosa) had the locker right next to mine at the All-Star Game, and he's a super guy."

With a month of stalking Maris still ahead, Sosa may be forced to ration his time more carefully, to delay requests if he will not deny them, to act more like the Big Deal he has become.

But for the moment, he claims to be more interested in the Cubs' playoff possibilities and in maintaining a .300 average. Power numbers he leaves to providence.

"Anything can happen," he said, "when you make contact."

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