The man who would be king played his salsa softly on his portable stereo, having acquiesced to teammates' requests to cease with the woofer-shaking amplification of last year, when the Chicago Cubs were a winning team. Sammy Sosa was providing the unofficial sound track of the 1999 season as he sat alone at his locker last Saturday morning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The Great Home Run Race was on again, only this time with the volume turned way down.
Just that morning the Chicago Tribune had allotted only 12 paragraphs to the previous night's Cubs-Cardinals game, the first between the clubs in St. Louis since last Sept. 8, the night Mark McGwire beat Sosa to 62 home runs. The Tribune, which buried the account on the third page of the sports section, apparently was more smitten with obscure golfer Skip Kendall's second-round 65 in the PGA Championship than with the possibility of another 66 from Sosa. The previous day, under a headline that read TO SOME, SOSA HOMERS RING HOLLOW, the paper had run a story in which the one piece of supporting evidence for the headline was an oblique criticism last month by Cubs righthander Steve Trachsel, who implied that Sosa—whose 158 RBIs last year were the fourth most in National League history-should have advanced a runner from second to third with no outs in a one-run game rather than try to knock him in.
Never mind the salsa. The jading of the home run race has muted even Sammy Sunshine himself. Last Saturday, in a rare somber moment (not to mention a 3-for-31 funk), Sosa, speaking of the fans and the media, said, "They ask for too much. They're never satisfied. They think that because you did something last year, you must do more the next year. Seventy-five, 80...and pretty much it's tough. You only can do what you can do, you know? You don't have any control beyond that. That's something people can't understand."
Soon thereafter McGwire and Sosa resumed, mano a mano, what may be the greatest home run rivalry baseball has ever known. They did so at a familiar level of excellence, if not interest, as their teams played a three-game series and played out their also-ran seasons. Counterpunching like Ali and Frazier, they combined for six home runs and 17 RBIs over a stretch of 18 innings, beginning with the third inning on Friday night when McGwire stroked the first of his two homers in that game. Sosa capped the series with a two-homer game of his own. In between they each launched three-run rockets on Saturday, marking the 16th time this season and the 37th time over the last two that they've homered on the same day. (By the way, St. Louis won two of the three games.)
Okay, so there are no Yankees ghosts to chase this time, you can find Parmesan cheeses in the dairy section that have aged longer than the home run record, and we know way too much about both of these guys. (SOSA'S SECRET? IT'S HAM, CHEESE, shouted the Chicago Sun-Times last week, reporting that Sosa's daily sandwich preference had "gone unrevealed until now") That still shouldn't obfuscate the truth that McGwire and Sosa are up to something even more remarkable than what they did last year: They are doing it again. In the pantheon of recurring classic sports rivalries, they join Alydar versus Affirmed, Magic versus Bird, Nicklaus versus Palmer and the People of the United States versus the Dallas Cowboys.
The 3-3 weekend tie maintained McGwire's edge in the race at one, 47-46. That kept both men on familiar ground. McGwire had exactly as many home runs through 119 games as he did last year on his way to 70. Sosa was ahead of his 1998 pace, with three more dingers than he had through 116 games last season en route to 66. No one else in baseball was within nine home runs of Sosa, proving that even in this homer-happy era, McGwire and Sosa are in a higher league.
"That they're doing it this year is extremely impressive, more so than last year," Cubs first baseman Mark Grace says. "It's probably taken for granted because it's not new news anymore. We don't have reporters here from Australia, Bulgaria and all over the world who'd never seen a baseball game before. But I'm looking at it as a player. I consider myself an expert on the game. And I know it's even more impressive because it's unbelievable to do it again.
"I didn't expect this. Who did? You can't say it's because everybody's hitting home runs. They're so far ahead of everybody else. I would have guessed they'd be in the 50s [at season's end]. My hat's off to them."
Only three other times this century have the same two players outhomered the rest of baseball for two years in a row: Jimmie Foxx and Babe Ruth in 1932 and '33, Foxx and Hank Greenberg in '38 and '39, and Johnny Mize and Ralph Kiner in '47 and '48. No other pairing, however, did it with such prowess. Foxx and Greenberg each won a home run title in their two years, and Mize and Kiner shared the crown in both of theirs (each hitting 51 in 1947 and 40 in '48). Sosa could be the most sympathetic power hitter in history, having picked the two worst seasons to hit all these homers. If McGwire maintains his lead, Sosa will join Ruth as the only players ever to outhomer everyone but the same man two years in a row—with Sosa easily having more dingers to show for such futility. Ruth hit 75 home runs over his two runner-up seasons, but Sosa's two-year log was 112 through Sunday and climbing.
Worse still, because he plays in the same league as McGwire, Sosa could hit more home runs over two seasons than anyone in history except for McGwire and still have fewer career home run titles (zero) than middling sluggers Jesse Barfield, Howard Johnson and Bill Melton (one each). Sosa could also obliterate the record 89 home runs hit by the Texas Rangers' Juan Gonzalez in 1996 and '97, the most in back-to-back seasons without being a home run champion. "Yes," Sosa said on Saturday, when asked if he'd like to outhomer McGwire just once. "You want to finish first in everything you do. Everyone wants to be the best."