As is our custom late each fall, we at sports illustrated sat down to discuss nominations for sportsman of the.... No, we didn't discuss. We didn't even sit down. It was automatic. It was unanimous. It was the easiest selection in our history. It couldn't be one sportsman of the year. It had to be two. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. All in favor, say aye. All opposed, report back to your coma.
McGwire and Sosa gave America a summer that won't be forgotten: a summer of stroke and counterstroke, of packed houses and curtain calls, of rivals embracing and gloves in the bleachers and adults turned into kids—the Summer of Long Balls and Love. It wasn't just the lengths they went to with bats in their hands. It was also that they went to such lengths to conduct the great home run race with dignity and sportsmanship, with a sense of joy and openness. Never have two men chased legends and each other that hard and that long or invited so much of America onto their backs for the ride. Rarely has grace so swiftly begotten grace, $2 million pouring into Sosa's foundation for hurricane victims in his native Dominican Republic and a flurry of checks for $62 and $70 into McGwire's Los Angeles-based charity for abused children.
But if the choice of McGwire and Sosa as Sportsmen of the Year was a no-brainer, figuring out how to write about them, so soon after so much had been written and spoken and shouted from the rooftops, was a real brain-racker. We decided to turn the lights and cameras a little to the side, a little beyond what America watched all summer, to tell the stories of the two men who helped form baseball's two greatest single-season home run hitters—to present the prequel, if you will, to the Summer of Long Balls and Love. One of these men, who says he lost his job at USC for coaching in a summer league where he turned Mark McGwire into a slugger, watched his prot�g�'s epic quest unfold as most of us did, catching network news flashes and lightning bolts on SportsCenter before dropping off to sleep or just after waking up. The other man, Sammy Sosa's teacher, followed it all from the heart of darkness, a prison in Sosa's hometown. For him, the home run race wasn't watercooler conversation. It was nearly life and death.
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