On Saturday, Sosa was not the man. The breeze was blowing in at Wrigley, except when Sosa was at bat. He struck out swinging in his first three times up. For his finale, he grounded into a game-ending double play. The Reds won 7-2. In New York the Mets beat the Marlins 4-3. The wildcard race was even.
There are still at least three people involved with the Cubs who know firsthand the torture Chicago went through at the hands of the Mets in 1969. That was the year the Cubs had a 4½-game lead on Sept. 1 and finished the season trailing New York by eight games. Yosh Kawano, the equipment manager who has been with Chicago since '53, was around then. So was Billy Williams, the Cubs leftfielder in '69, now a Chicago coach. Those guys don't have much to say about '69. "The Mets were a team of destiny," Williams says. Then there's Ron Santo, the Cubs' third baseman in '69, today one of the team's radio announcers. Santo despises the Mets, has for 29 years. He has been passing down the history to the newly arrived in Chicago ever since.
Some, like Sosa, care little about history. He believes the 1998 Cubs are a team of destiny and harbors no animosity toward the Mets—or anyone else, for that matter. Some of his teammates think more like Santo. "The Mets have that New York arrogance, they always do," one veteran Cub said the other day. "They'd have it if they were fielding a Triple A team." (Things are heating up: On Friday, in the home clubhouse at Shea Stadium, a Mets reliever was watching the Cubs-Reds game on TV when a Cincinnati infielder bobbled a ground ball. "Pick it up with your bare hand, moron!" the reliever had yelled at the screen.)
Why all the tension? Because it's late September and the Cubs and the Mets are playing games in which every pitch has meaning. That's why September exists.
Sunday at Wrigley was Sammy Sosa Day. It may be true that poststrike baseball has a tendency to wallow in sentimentality, but Sunday's pregame ceremony was truly moving. For one thing, it was the final home game of the Cubs' season. There was the venue, Wrigley Field, teeming with life. Every seat was taken, everyone was paying attention. Michael Jordan was in the house, claiming graciously that Sosa's game is harder than his. On the field was Juan Marichal, a Dominican who was starring in the majors when Sosa was born, pleased that a countryman is now linked to Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. A congratulatory letter from McGwire was read. Then came Ed Lynch, the Cubs' shaggy general manager, wearing a rumpled sport coat, microphone in hand, his words reverberating off the outfield wall and upper deck, praising Sosa for having "the greatest season in the history of the Chicago Cubs." This may actually be true, although it could be argued that Hack Wilson had a better season for the Cubs in 1930 when he hit 56 homers and knocked in 190 runs. As Lynch spoke of Sosa's accomplishments, Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub himself, stood nearby waving a tiny Dominican flag. It was all fitting and good and a reminder that no sport does little moments the way baseball does.
When Sosa spoke, he thanked his God, his teammates, his fans, his adopted city, his family. He concluded by trotting out his favorite slogan, "Bezball been berry, berry good to me!" He then ran around the field, waving his cap. The Reds were applauding him, the grounds crew was applauding him, the ball hawks on Waveland were applauding him. The Bleacher Bums were bowing to him. McGwire chose that moment to hit number 65. Meanwhile, Wrigley's primitive scoreboard showed that the Mets had taken an early lead over the Marlins.
Given where the Cubs were a year ago, it seems preposterous that they are even in a wild-card race. Chicago has a spectacular closer in Rod Beck, but getting to him is a daily adventure. The Cubs are where they are because of unexpected seasons from two players: Kerry Wood, the 21-year-old rookie righthander with a 13-6 record and a 340 ERA, and Sosa. There's nothing in Sosa's history to suggest that he would have an MVP-caliber season, much less put on one of the best hitting performances of the last 60 years (chart, page 48). Before 1998 he had a .257 career batting average. This year he had hit .305 through Sunday. Entering this season, Sosa had hit a homer every 17.8 at bats. This year he had maintained a one-in-9.8 pace. Lynch, that disheveled genius, somehow saw this coming. Last year he signed Sosa to a four-year, $42 million deal.
Sosa made two significant changes this year. He dropped his hands at least six inches in his batting stance, which he says enabled him to get around on pitches faster. And he became far more patient at the plate, on first pitches in particular. Last season he made 59 outs on first pitches. This year he had made only 29. He's also exceedingly confident. "When Sammy comes up after going 0 for 12, he feels he has the advantage, not the pitcher," says his manager, Jim Riggleman. Still, Sosa fights a tendency to be overeager. He tied McGwire with 63 homers on Sept. 16 and then in his next 17 at bats went hitless, striking out six times.
Unfortunately for the Cubs and the 40,000 fans at Wrigley participating in Sammy Sosa Day, five of those at bats came on Sunday, when Chicago lost its third straight to Cincinnati. That was not what the organizers of the celebration had in mind. Sosa's final at bat was in the ninth, with two outs and the Cubs trailing by four. The faithful in the rightfield bleachers, standing in a spitting rain on a muggy afternoon, began their ritual, rhythmic chant, "SO-sa! SO-sa! SO-sa!" It was all short-lived. Sosa hit an infield pop-up, and the game was over. The Cubs had lost to the Reds 7-3, on a day when the Mets defeated die Marlins. On Friday, New York had trailed Chicago by a game. By Sunday's dusk, the Cubs trailed by a game. On Friday, McGwire and Sosa had been tied. Now McGwire was leading by two.
In losing, Sosa could not have been looser. After the game a reporter, assuming the appropriately somber tone one does after a loss, asked Sosa if Cubs fans had seen his final at bat for 1998 at Wrigley. Sosa understood the implication of the question, of course: Would the Cubs be playing October baseball for the first time since 1989? "What, am I going to die tomorrow?" he answered.