BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CHICAGO -- Sammy Sosa swung and missed. He waved his bat at a slider beyond his reach, low and outside, and walked back to the dugout to put his wood away for the winter.
Sammy Sosa blows kisses to the right-field bleachers after the Cubs were eliminated Saturday night.
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The charismatic slugger of the Chicago Cubs hit no home runs in his first playoff series, and he ended it with no hits in his last eight at bats. The Atlanta Braves swept the National League Division Series in three games, and the National League's probable Most Valuable Player was nearly no factor.
But the baseball season had barely ended Saturday night at Wrigley Field when defeat gave way to defiance. The Cub players returned to the playing field after the final out of their 6-2 setback, and a chant arose from the stands that showed all was forgiven and nothing forgotten.
"M-V-P," the people shouted. And then louder. "M-V-P."
Sammy Sosa took off his cap and waved it toward each corner of the Friendly Confines, and then he started walking toward right field. As he moved, he was surrounded by a cluster of cameras that grew so thick the man of the hour could scarcely be seen.
The final sendoff
So Sosa picked up his pace, jogging now, until the guys toting the equipment were playing catchup. They trained their lenses on Sosa as he blew kisses to the fans in the right-field bleachers, and shadowed him as he tossed his cap and batting glove into the stands.
Sosa's gestures were emphatic and emotional, but his lips were locked tight. It was too late to save the season and too soon to summon a smile. After carrying the Cubs across his shoulders for six months, the remarkable right fielder felt as if he had failed them. Sixty-six home runs could not fill the hollow in his heart.
"I have to say that it is real disappointing," Sosa said later. "I'm not very happy for the last three games. I have to say I'm getting ready for next season."
The Cubs were not nearly good enough to compete with the Braves, but Sosa's season had suggested all things were possible. He had matched Mark McGwire's power output until the last days of the season, under the pressure of competing for a playoff spot, and he had done it with such charm, such joy and such spontaneity that he helped baseball appeal to a generation of fans that had been feared lost.
Those who have suggested Sosa's home run chase received less attention than McGwire because of his skin color profoundly miss the point. McGwire got there first, like the Wright Brothers, and was consequently celebrated as a pioneer. Sosa came second, finished second, and was celebrated as much for his spirit as his statistics. McGwire is a national monument; Sosa merely a treasure.
"I have to say that 1998, nobody going to forget," Sosa said Saturday night. "But I got to get ready for 1999. I'm going to go home, relax and work hard, and come back and make it for real to the World Series."
Contrary to fantasy, the Cubs are not close to a World Series. Their pitching staff, to borrow Branch Rickey's phrase, is "a conspiracy of ifs." Their batting order, outside of Sosa, is thoroughly ordinary.
The Braves were able to sweep the Cubs in part because they were able to pitch to Sosa under favorable circumstances. He had two hits in Game 1, but never batted with runners aboard until Game 3. By then, he was so determined to make a difference that he expanded his strike zone and commenced swinging at anything close.
Sosa was 0-for-4 Saturday, striking out to lead off the fourth inning, and again with two on and one out in the eighth. He took two balls from Kerry Ligtenberg, fouled off three pitches, and then waved weakly at a pitch that might have been aimed at the on-deck circle.
"He gave me so many pitches to hit, and I missed all of them," Sosa lamented. "If I had made contact right there, it would be a different situation, and I have to take the blame."
Sammy Sosa said he felt as if he would give his life to reach the World Series. It is this passion that makes him so popular.
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