Splintered bat super souvenir for Sosa fan

Thursday, August 27, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sammy Sosa cools himself off at Cinergy Field Wednesday.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |

Sammy Sosa is the Lothario of lumber. He loves his bats, and then he leaves them. His power is constant, but his passion is fleeting.

The Chicago Cubs' home run machine struck No. 52 Wednesday afternoon at Cinergy Field. It was a mighty, majestic blow, calculated at 438 feet, a high, arcing shot off the top of the Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse sign in left-center field.

But wonderful as it was, it was not enough for a lasting commitment. Sosa used three different bats in the Cubs' 9-2 thrashing of the Reds, punishing two for their complicity in strikeouts, cracking another on a liner to third base in the ninth inning.

"The first one, I struck out and said, "He needs a rest,' " Sosa said, arranging his arsenal in a canvas bag. "I came back with that one (indicating a Rawlings model) and hit a home run. But then I struck out two (more) times and he needed a rest."

The third bat was a combat casualty, shattered by an inside pitch from Reds reliever Danny Graves. And yet, because of who had wielded the weapon, it was instantly recognized as a sacred relic. Though he had made an out, Sosa's last Cincinnati at-bat of the season was accorded a standing ovation.

Mad dash to parking lot

"We were about five rows behind the visitors dugout," said 10-year-old Bradley Johnson. "There were some empty seats, so me and one of my friends went down and sat right behind the dugout. When Sammy Sosa broke his bat, he started walking over. When he was almost in the dugout, I was yelling for his bat, and he gave it to me. It's up in my room right now. I've been watching SportsCenter to see if I'm on."

Bradley Johnson now has two big-league bats, and one goosebump-raising brush with greatness. On the same afternoon Sosa's countdown to baseball's single-season home run record dropped to 10, an Indian Hill fifth-grader went home with a story and a souvenir for a lifetime. "I was very, very excited," Bradley Johnson said. "I'm going to keep it and give it to my kids and tell them to pass it down."

One splintered stick of wood. One indelible memory. One of those magical childhood moments no other sport can manufacture.

Maybe Sosa won't surpass Roger Maris this season. Maybe he won't match Mark McGwire. But with one simple gesture he has helped baseball forge a bond with a small boy. A ballplayer has no higher purpose.

"He had this real disgusted look on his face," said Sandy Johnson, the boy's mother, recalling Sosa's return to the Cubs dugout. "He kind of looked up in the crowd and the next thing I knew, Bradley had his bat."

When another spectator asked to see Sosa's weapon, a security guard advised the boy he would have to leave the bat beneath his seat or leave the seating area. Rather than let the artifact out of their hands, the Johnsons chose to head home.

As they left, one fan offered the boy $50 for his prize. A vendor offered a box of souvenir bats. Bradley Johnson tightened his grip on the Louisville Slugger.

"I was a little nervous when we were walking to our car," he said. "We got out of there as quick as we could."

Worth its weight in gold?

The notion that anyone might try to steal a special bat from a small child is troubling, but speculators were offering as much as $10,000 for Mark McGwire home run balls last week in New York. Should either McGwire or Sosa reach 62 homers, their tools may be worth substantially more than their weight in gold.

Asked if he thought his broken bat might one day fund Bradley Johnson's education, Sosa smiled. "I hope so," he said.

"Maybe we'll put it in a glass case and frame it," Sandy Johnson said. "It's definitely something he's going to hang onto."

If nothing else, it should give Bradley Johnson a jump start on "How I Spent My Summer Vacation." That, and a personal interest in the home run race.

"I hope he does it," Bradley Johnson said of Sammy Sosa. "He's a nice guy. I think he's a good baseball player."

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.