Sammy Sosa used to wear a millstone around his neck. It was a gold pendant approximately the size of a manhole cover, hung from a chain that seemed fashioned from a suspension-bridge cable. The bauble was inscribed with a drawing of two crossed bats and bore the numbers 30-30, inlaid with diamonds. The Chicago Cubs outfielder wore it when he drove to Wrigley Field in his sports car, the one with the SS 30-30 license plates. Then he would place the pendant in a safe before games. "Did he play with it on?" says Chicago first baseman Mark Grace, shaking his head. "No way you could run with that on."
Sosa had commissioned the Liberace-style accessory in 1993, after he became the first Cub to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season, a milestone he reached thanks to 26 frantic stolen base attempts (20 of them successful) in the last two months. Never before, it seemed, had anyone been so ecstatic about finishing in fourth place.
What a piece of work! And the pendant, too—unintentional symbol of a vacuous career—was something to behold. Numbers? Sure, Sosa had them. So did World B. Free, Eric Dickerson and Imelda Marcos. Partly a creation of Wrigley Field's cozy dimensions, the notoriously undisciplined Sosa through his first nine seasons racked up nearly as many strikeouts as hits and approached his defensive responsibilities as if he thought "cutoff man" was a John Bobbitt reference. At week's end he had played 1,159 games without getting to the postseason—more than any active player except the Devil Rays' Dave Martinez (1,502) and the Indians' Travis Fryman (1,166).
Last season was vintage Sosa, beginning in spring training, when in response to a question about the possibility of his hitting 50 home runs, Sosa replied, "Why not 60?" His was most probably the worst year ever by anyone with 36 dingers and 119 RBIs. Behind that impressive-looking facade, Sosa hit poorly with runners in scoring position (.246), was virtually an automatic out on any two-strike count (.159), whiffed more times than anyone else in the National League (174), had a worse on-base percentage than Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine (.300 to .310), and again ran with such recklessness trying for 30-30 (he didn't get there, finishing with 22 steals in 34 attempts) that manager Jim Riggleman was once forced to scold him in the dugout in full view of the television cameras. Oh, yes—and the Cubs finished 68-94.
"I think there comes a time in every player's career when he plays for the team and doesn't worry anymore about getting established or putting up numbers," says Chicago shortstop Jeff Blauser. Sosa's time is now. Buoyed by the best lineup that's ever surrounded him on the Cubs, Sosa has put together a monster first half as rich in substance as it is in style. At 29 and in his 10th big league season, Sosa has at last begun to take more pitches, hit the ball to the opposite field and realize that the only piece of jewelry that really matters is a championship ring. Only his numbers are gaudy now.
At week's end he was hitting .339—82 points better than his career average—and had cut down on his strikeouts, increased his walks and launched one of the most outrageous power streaks the game has known. From May 25 through June 21, Sosa slammed 21 home runs in 22 games. In four weeks he exceeded the career seasonal highs of every one of his teammates except leftfielder Henry Rodriguez.
What's more, in June's first 21 days Sosa hit more home runs (17) than any man ever hit in the entire month, blasting Babe Ruth (1930), Bob Johnson (1934), Roger Maris (1961) and Pedro Guerrero (1985) from the record book while closing in on the record of 18 for any month, held by the Detroit Tigers' Rudy York (August 1937).
He popped home runs like vitamins last week: three on Monday, one on Wednesday, two on Friday and two on Saturday. Of course, he hit all of them at Wrigley, where in the last three years he has hit twice as many as he has on the road (71 to 35). So hot was Sosa that Grace jumped on his lap in the clubhouse last Thursday, rubbed against him and yelled, "Gimme some of that!" And that was before Sosa hit a 375-foot missile on Friday with a splintered bat and a 461-foot lunar probe Saturday—the June record-breaker—that crashed a viewing party atop an apartment building on Waveland Avenue. Just call him Babe Roof. "I think he ruined the barbecued chicken," Blauser says.
Says Grace of Sosa's June explosion, "I've seen a lot of things in this game, but I've never seen anything like this. The game of baseball has never seen anything like it. I really don't have words for it."
While Sosa wore out pitchers and thesauruses alike, the big payoff was that the Cubs were still hanging within four games of the first-place Houston Astros in the National League Central at week's end. For the first time in his life Sosa was hearing his faithful flock of rightfield fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P!" More telling, when reporters asked him about possibly outgunning Ruth and Maris over the full season, Sosa rolled his eyes in embarrassment and said quietly, "Oh, god. I'll just let you people take care of that. I don't want you to put me in that kind of company."