Sosa's ferocious line drive dinger on Friday—his third hit of the game—helped ice a 6-3 win. The next day he tied the game at 2 in the fifth inning with a two-out, two-strike single on the eighth pitch of a persistent at bat, then preserved the score with the mere threat of his throwing arm on what otherwise would have been a sacrifice fly to medium-depth rightfield. (To validate the threat, he unleashed such an impressive throw to the plate that the crowd gasped.) In the ninth, trailing 3-2 and down to their last two outs with nobody on, the Cubs would rally for two runs for a 4-3 victory.
"He's better this year than he was last year, if you can believe that," says Cubs first baseman Mark Grace.
Sosa hit his home run on Friday off a shoe-top-high pitch from Heathcliff Slocumb that didn't even catch the inside corner. "He won the longest-drive competition today," Cubs infielder Jeff Blauser said of the tee shot. It was Sosa's 13th home run in May, the most for the month in the majors and the most he has hit in any month in his career except for last June and last August (also 13). "I have to say I knew there were almost 40,000 people here who wanted to see what happened today," Sosa said afterward.
Wrigley Field was filled with the colors of the Cubs and the Cardinals, who drew a sizable flock of fans from down I-55 last week-end. Two young truants sat side-by-side in field-level seats on Friday, sporting the two best reasons to cut school: One wore a red McGwire jersey and the other a blue Sosa jersey. Who do you like? It's a beauty contest, of course, with no wrong answer. You can favor one but easily like both, leaving the McGwire-or-Sosa dilemma in the same category as boxers or briefs and Betty or Veronica.
The reunion attracted 250 members of the media (about three times the usual turnout for a May game), some of whom learned that McGwire wished they hadn't bothered stopping by his locker. If you really wanted to put a jolt into McGwire, the mention of only two words had a greater impact than planting a rubber snake inside his spikes: last year.
"I don't relive anything," he said on Friday. "This is a new year. Last year is historical. It's over with." He later added, "Why do you want to write about the same people year in and year out? People around America want to hear about new players. There's nothing new to talk about [with me]."
When a reporter mentioned players such as Jose Canseco and Ken Griffey Jr. (tied with a major-league-high 19 homers through Sunday) taking a shot at the home run record—his record—a vein opened in McGwire. "They're hitting a lot of home runs," he said, "but there's a long way to go. Even if they get a chance to do it, the pressure would be a thousand times greater than what I went through. They'd have to hit 10 more homers than I did"—the way McGwire hit nine more than Maris's 61.
He later declared, "From the replays I've seen, they're hitting home runs on pitches in the strike zone. They're getting pitches to hit. They've got 19. Fifty-two more to go. Think about that."
Think about this: Sosa hit 57 in the Cubs' final 114 games last year. Says Cubs righthander Kevin Tapani, "He's got 17 already, and that's after he's made it through the toughest part of the season here [at Wrigley]. Now it's warming up, and we have a lot of home games [45 of 75] after the All-Star break. Anything is possible with Sammy."
Encores can be ugly affairs, which is nothing new to anybody who ever tuned in to the new Love Boat series. McGwire, Sosa, Griffey and Greg Vaughn, all of whom hit at [east 50 home runs last year, are fighting the gravitational pull of history. Before them, the 50-dinger barrier had been cracked 23 times. Only three times did a player improve upon his total the following season: Babe Ruth (59 in 1921) and McGwire (58 in '97 and, of course, last year's 70). The 20 other follow-up acts suffered an average drop-off of 16 home runs. After McGwire smacked his 15th—a relatively harmless two-run blast off righthanded reliever Terry Adams in the ninth inning of the Cardinals' 7-4 loss on Sunday—his total through St. Louis's first 48 games was nine fewer than he had hit at the same point last year. Still, it put him on course to hit 50.