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Michael Bamberger
September 28, 1998
Sammy Sosa showed he's indeed the Man—even when he and the Cubs are struggling
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September 28, 1998

Sammy: "you're The Man"

Sammy Sosa showed he's indeed the Man—even when he and the Cubs are struggling

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In the wee hours of last Friday—on the day his youngest child turned one—the hero returned home. Sammy Sosa had just flown in from San Diego, where the Chicago Cubs had won three of four games from the Padres. He rode the elevator to the 55th floor of his building, on Navy Pier in downtown Chicago, a contented man: He was rich; the Cubs had a one-game lead over the New York Mets in the National League wild-card race; he had 63 home runs, the same as the other guy; and his new glasses, with heavy black Harry Caray-style frames, had been receiving excellent reviews.

Sosa reached his apartment. It was nearly two in the morning, and he was expecting a sleeping household. He opened the door, and there they were, very much awake: his mother, his wife, an aunt, his four brothers and two stepbrothers, his two sisters, along with other family members and friends. Most of them were fresh arrivals, visitors from the Dominican Republic. In the bedrooms Sosa kissed his four sleeping children. In the kitchen, in the refrigerator and on the counters and in the pantry, he saw prime meats, ripe fruit, fresh vegetables. He hugged his guests.

In time, Sosa made it to the north end of his sprawling apartment. The three air-conditioning units in his bedroom were on full blast. He turned on the oscillating fan to circulate the frigid air. He's a man of simple tastes. Sleeping in a cold room is one of his joys.

When he woke up late Friday morning, Sosa knew what was coming, and so did the rest of his adopted city: the final home stand of the Cubs' absurdly entertaining season. At Wrigley Field on three consecutive afternoons—Friday, Saturday and Sunday—the Cubs would be playing another relic of the Midwest, the Cincinnati Reds. At stake was a berth in the playoffs for the Cubs and the most glamorous record in American sport for Sosa: most home runs, season. Sosa ate a heaping plate of beans, rice and avocado and went to work.

Fans streaming off the El at the Addison Street-Wrigley Field stop saw a sign posted by the Chicago Transit Authority: THERE MAY BE SLIGHT DELAYS WHEN SAMMY SOSA'S AT BAT. In the Cubs' dugout, another newly minted baseball philanthropist and his two young sons sat and chatted with Sosa. The father, Steve Ryan, a 40-year-old professional sports-memorabilia collector, had paid $10,000 for Sosa's 61st home run ball so that his sons could meet their idol when their dad gave the ball back to the man who had launched it. Fabian Perez Mercado, the fan who caught ball number 63—a grand slam in San Diego that tied Sosa with the St. Louis Cardinals' Mark McGwire in the home run race—gave that ball to Sosa too. Ball number 62, meanwhile, sat under court-ordered lock and key as a judge tried to sort out who it rightfully belonged to after one Chicagoan claimed another had stolen it from him in a mad scramble on Waveland Avenue.

In the Wrigley bleachers, things were more interesting. Two women lifted their shirts and tried their best to distract Dmitri Young, the Reds leftfielder. It didn't work. Of course, Young didn't have much to do on Friday, not with Sosa at bat, anyhow. He stood practically on the warning track, leaving all sorts of room for Sosa to try to bloop a single, but on this day Sosa never even got the ball out of the infield.

His best chance came in the fifth. Cincinnati was leading 4-3 when Chicago second baseman Mickey Morandini led off with a double. Sosa came to bat and a thousand camera flashes went off in the bright afternoon. "I just need a base hit here," an old-school Bleacher Bum called out. "We're in the middle of a pennant race." The count was full when Reds starter Steve Parris threw a mistake, a hanging curve. Sosa swung hugely and missed hugely. Strike three. For the day Sosa went 0 for 4, and the Cubs lost 6-4. His response to the game was beautifully sane. "I will go home, have a couple of glasses of wine with my wife and watch Mark hit a home run," he said. Which was what happened. While Sammy and Sonia sipped their wine, McGwire hit his 64th. On another channel the Mets lost to the Florida Marlins. The Cubs were still one game ahead.

There's no player in baseball who mentions his wife, mother, siblings and cousins in interviews more often than the 29-year-old Sosa does. His older brother Juan lives with Sammy during the season and serves as his unofficial batting coach. (Juan's main job is to remind Sammy to keep his head back over his right foot to prevent over-swinging.) Sammy's father, a highway worker, died of a brain aneurysm at age 42, when Sammy was seven, and it was Juan who encouraged Sammy to give up boxing in favor of baseball, encouraged Sammy to show up at various team tryouts in their hometown of San Pedro de Macoris and encouraged Sammy to shorten his looping swing.

Juan has another unofficial job: He's the family's representative-at-large to the city's Hispanic community. He plays in a soft-ball league in Chicago—through Sunday he had six homers—and watches the Cubs' road games on TV at a Dominican social club on Chicago's West Side. The other night, when the Cubs were still in San Diego, Juan was at the club. It was a scene. A merengue band was rehearsing, a group of grown men drank beer and argued about whether President Clinton was going to heaven or hell and several young kids ran about. The game was on two television sets, but the announcers' description of it could not be heard above the din. Then Slammin' Sammy came to bat, and everything went silent. Suddenly, four or five arms were draped around Juan's shoulders. Sammy whiffed, the arms disappeared, and Juan ducked his chin into his chest. The music and the arguments resumed.

Sonia watches most of the Cubs' games at home, even when the team is in Chicago. She's 24 and has four children, two girls followed by two boys, all under the age of six, and they need their mother, particularly the youngest, Michael. Sonia has a beautiful singing voice, and when Michael gets fussy she calms him by singing the theme from Titanic. She was 17 and working as a dancer on a Dominican TV variety show when she met Sammy. He was 21 and playing minor league baseball. They were at a dance club in Santo Domingo when Sammy noticed her from a distance. He had a waiter bring her a note: "If you will do the honor of having one dance with me, it will be the start of a beautiful friendship." Sammy Smooth. She had no idea that Sammy was a baseball player, but he had other qualities. "I like guys who are big, tall and dark," she says. "I looked at him and said, 'Oh, wow—what a man.' "

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