At Carolina Panthers home games, fans are forbidden to remove their shirts and vendors call out "Cold beverage!" instead of "Beer!" At Chicago Cubs home games, shirt removal is compulsory, the better to show off a Ruthian beer gut. So we ask you, America: Which sport is truly your national pastime?
Baseball is back, and that has much to do with shirtlessness and Chicago and the delightful space ranger who plays right-field for the Cubs. Ask the four shirtless 17-year-olds who loitered behind the Cubs' dugout on Friday night at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, each with his chest painted with a letter of Sammy Sosa's surname. When the O, Will Lamb, wandered off to the bathroom, his three friends self-consciously maintained their order, careful not to make an ASS of themselves. "I'm rooting for Sosa and McGwire," said the A, Jason Weaver. "Both of them are such good guys."
Said Joe Rivosecchi, who had an S on his chest, "Yeah, it's not like Albert Belle is about to break this record."
Between the two estimable men competing for the single-season home run record, the 29-year-old Sosa is somehow the more human, no? While Mark McGwire ingests creatine and androstenedione, Sosa is popping body-enhancing Barneys and Freds: A box of Flintstones chewables sat on a shelf of his locker in Pittsburgh.
Here's a man who makes $10 million a year but doesn't play golf. "I tried one time to golf, and I hit everything foul ball," he explains. "I hit it over trees, over houses." Who cannot relate?
Of course, in baseball Sosa is hitting everything fair ball, everything long ball, having homered in 15 consecutive series through Monday, 58 times in all. Barring injury, he will get to 62 but probably not before Mac Daddy gets there, which didn't seem fair. "Let me ask you this," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace said on Friday night, after Sosa hit his 57th in the Cubs' 5-2 win over the Pirates. "What are we supposed to do if Sammy hits his 62nd when McGwire already has, like, 64? Do we mob him, even though 62 is no longer the record? Do we just stay in the dugout and clap, like it's any other home run? I honestly don't know."
Odds are the Cubs will mob him, in the way that Sosa is mobbed on his rare walkabouts in airport terminals and hotel lobbies. "Some of the stuff he hears, it would floor you," said Sosa's agent, Tom Reich, intriguingly, after dining out with his client in Pittsburgh. "Some of the people who approach him got balls. And I don't mean baseballs."
Of course, they got baseballs, too. The fan at Wrigley Field who caught Sosa's 56th home run (hit on Sept. 2 in the Cubs' 4-2 win over the Cincinnati Reds) personally returned it to Sammy after the game. Sosa signed the ball and gave it back. "It was a woman," he explained gallantly, "from the rightfield bleachers." Sosa treats Wrigley's rightfield bleacherites with a reverence he otherwise reserves for his adopted homeland, the United States. Last week, after Sosa, a native of the Dominican Republic, said "God bless America" for the 1, 689th time, breaking the record held by Kate Smith, someone asked him, "Who are you, Don King?" Sammy replied, " Don King says, 'Only in America.' I say, 'Gad bless America.' "
While McGwire can appear constipated in press conferences, Sosa has used them to hone his lounge act. "If somebody wants to have an interview with me," he says with a shrug, "it's a free country." He likes to mix clich�s as if they were paints, creating colorful new images. Of a Pirates pitcher who struck him out on Sunday, Sosa said, "I have to take my hat off and hand it to him." Even when he says nothing at all, he seems to be sharing a confidence. "To tell you the truth," he said on Friday, as a dozen journalists leaned in a little closer, "today is a new day."
Sosa is always vowing "to tell you the truth." His other favorite phrases are "I'm not gonna lie to you," "Believe me when I tell you" and the all-purpose "You don't wanna know, buddy." (Q: "How fun will it be to go back to the Dominican this winter?" A: "You don't wanna know, buddy.") On rare occasions Sosa will decline to answer a question by saying, "That's personal," though when he was asked last week to name his first love, he replied, without hesitation, "Cartoons."