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The Race Is On
Gary Smith
September 21, 1998
With a hot bat and little fanfare, Sammy Sosa served notice that the home run record is up for grabs
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September 21, 1998

The Race Is On

With a hot bat and little fanfare, Sammy Sosa served notice that the home run record is up for grabs

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Where was the commissioner? Where were the 600 media members? Where were Roger Maris's sons? Send the word! Tell 'em quick! Sammy did it too!

Where were the 350-bucks-a-bleacher-seat scalpers? Where were the Blue Angels screaming over the stadium's rim? Where was America looking last weekend when Sammy Sosa of the Dominican Republic belted four baseballs over the ramparts and through the palace door to halt the coronation of Mark McGwire?

Where were the zillion camera flashes last Friday night when Sosa hammered number 59 out of Wrigley Field and onto Sheffield Avenue in the Chicago Cubs' wild 13-11 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers? Where were the major-network cameras last Saturday when Sammy crushed number 60 onto Waveland Avenue in an even wilder come-from-behind 15-12 Cubs victory? Where were the balls with infrared markers in the fifth inning on Sunday when he walloped number 61 onto Kenmore Avenue? Where, oh, where was the '62 Corvette when four innings later he poleaxed number 62, onto Waveland once more, in the wildest game of all, a 10-inning 11-10 Cubs triumph?

For 34 years Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs shimmered in the distance. For 37 years Maris's mark of 61 went untouched. McGwire's record 62 stood alone for 116 hours. Then Sammy tied it and cried.

The race is on. To the split-screen finish. Baseball's greatest individual race ever, seemingly spent after Big Mac went on a seven-homers-in-seven-games jag that climaxed with his historic shot on Sept. 8, has its second wind, 10 miles per hour to dead left.

People piled into the streets in the Dominican Republic to celebrate Sosa's 62nd, tears streamed down grown men's cheeks at Wrigley, and the thunder of 40,846 fans took six minutes and three curtain calls to baseball officials, sports editors and TV producers everywhere gulped hard.

No need to squirm. Don't bother alibiing. Don't try to explain away the disparity between the national response to Mac's 62nd and Sammy's. Don't open America's chest and search for rotting racial reasons why the Caucasian is creaming the Hispanic in magazine covers and slo-mo replays—well, all right, go ahead, but not now. Sammy wouldn't want it. Sammy loves the cool of Big Mac's shade. Don't you dare blow his cover.

He has drafted behind McGwire for nearly three months, tying him for the fifth time on Sunday but nudging ahead of him only once—for three innings of a game on Aug. 19—making sure at all times to lean over Big Mac's shoulder and blow kisses and hosannas in his ear. Sosa's other camouflage, of course, is the Cubs' quest for the National League wild-card berth. Who but Sammy could tie Ruth one day, becoming the first non-American-born or nonwhite player ever to belt 60 in a season, then tie Maris and Mac the following day and watch both games end with bench-emptying, game-winning, bear-hugging home run celebrations at home plate...for someone else? Orlando Merced's three-run jolt won Saturday's heart attack, then Mark Grace's solo shot in the 10th closed Sunday's, and it was almost as an afterthought, after the Cubs lifted Grace to their shoulders, that Cubs catchers Tyler Houston and Scott Servais hoisted the man who had just thunderstruck baseball. Then Sosa ducked into the Brewers' clubhouse to thank manager Phil Garner for pitching to him—as well he should, after feasting on Milwaukee for 10 home runs this season—and stepped before the media, eyes glistening, to coo at Mac again.

"I'm so emotional right now," said Sosa. "Mark, you know I love you. It's been unbelievable. I wish you could be here with me today. I know you are watching me, and I know you have the same feeling for me as I have for you in my heart." He did the signature Sammy Sosa heart thump and added, "That's for you, Mark."

He had second-fiddled for Mac in St. Louis on Sept. 7 and 8, stroking just a pair of singles as America toasted McGwire. He applauded Mac. He hugged Mac. Then he ambushed Mac, breaking a 23-at-bat, five-game homerless silence with four weekend bombs that gave him 148 RBIs for the year, kept the Cubs one game ahead of the Mets in the wild-card race and likely salted away the National League MVP award.

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