Sosa swings for Oct. fences Matching McGwire, Cubs slugger says postseason real goal

August 19, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa is willing to make a deal with Mark McGwire right now.

"I'd rather let him get the record and I'll go to the playoffs," Sosa said yesterday, as baseball's two most prolific home run hitters prepared to square off in a two-game series between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field.

It may turn out just that way. McGwire and Sosa entered last night's game tied for the major-league home run lead with 47 apiece, but McGwire is considered the favorite to break Roger Maris' single-season record -- if anyone does -- and Sosa is in excellent position to carry the Cubs to a wild-card playoff berth.

"I've got my money on Mark," Sosa added. "He's the man. I'd love to see him do it."

Maybe it's too early to try to make sense out of any of this, but both players are on pace to challenge the record Maris set with his historic 61-homer performance in 1961, and the excitement of the chase brought hordes of homer-happy fans to the ivy-decked ballpark where Babe Ruth supposedly called his famous shot during the 1932 World Series.

They packed the bleachers. They waited anxiously behind the left-field fence. And, of course, they partied on the rooftops across the street.

Nobody hit a home run during the Cubs' 4-1 victory last night, but the national preoccupation with the long ball is no longer limited to the actual game. McGwire sent four towering shots onto Waveland Avenue during batting practice, each causing a stampede that did not abate until some lucky fan raised the ball above the crowd in triumph.

The first one was bare-handed on the fly by Ricky Borges, 18, a regular from the neighborhood. The second was caught by Dave Davison, 30, another Northsider who claims to have caught 1,700 balls in his lifetime. Apparently, there is no substitute for experience.

Inside the ballpark, McGwire had put in a full day well before the game had even started. He held court for a large group of media and signed autographs for some of the fans who arrived early enough to get close to the Cardinals' dugout.

Sosa was just as accommodating. Though neither has ever craved media attention, it was clear that both understood the significance of this particular meeting at this particular place at this point in one of baseball's most exciting offensive seasons.

"I don't know who's going to do it," McGwire said of Maris' record, "but whoever does it, it's going to be a great feat. If it doesn't happen, it's still going to go down as one of the great seasons."

The sellout crowd last night obviously recognized that, giving Sosa a huge ovation when he took the field and treating McGwire to a 50-50 mix of cheers and boos when he came to the plate in the first inning.

There was no doubt, however, what the fans came to see. They booed when Cubs starter Steve Trachsel steered well clear of the strike zone with his first two pitches, then erupted after McGwire took a pair of big cuts and went down on a checked-swing third strike.

McGwire has lost some momentum lately. There was a time well into the season when he was on pace to hit 80 home runs, but pitchers have become reluctant to leave anything in the strike zone.

Sosa is not nearly as strong, but he may get more opportunities to drive the ball because he usually has big-swinging Henry Rodriguez batting behind him. Still, Sosa said that the record chase is tailored more toward McGwire.

"My thinking is, I'm trying to make it to the playoffs," Sosa said. "I'm going to be up there trying to hit the ball to right field, looking for the RBI single to win a game. Mark has a shot to break the record, but his team is not as likely to be in the playoffs."

Therein lies the trade-off Sosa is so willing to make. The Cubs have not been to the World Series since 1945. He'll take the postseason berth and let the home run chase take care of itself.

"That's fine with me," said Sosa, who came within a few feet of taking the home run lead with a mammoth foul ball in the first inning. "I'm not thinking about anything but the playoffs."

That doesn't mean he isn't enjoying all the attention. McGwire may find the media crush stifling at times, but Sosa -- who didn't step into the Maris chase until he hit a major-league-record 20 home runs in June -- views it as a reflection of his long-awaited TC emergence as a superstar.

"The more home runs I hit, the more people will come to talk to me," he said. "That's OK. I'm having a good time."

Maris watch

Tracking the pursuit of Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in 1961:

.... ....... HR Proj.

Mark McGwire 47 62

Yesterday: 0-for-4, 0 HR

Sammy Sosa 47 61

Yesterday: 0-for-5, 0 HR

Ken Griffey 42 56

Yesterday: Late game

Pub Date: 8/19/98

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