For all Ed McMahons, heeeere's Sammy!

September 15, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Buzz Aldrins of the world have a new hero. Suddenly, Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa is the man for anyone who ever languished as a sidekick, runner-up, second fiddle or minor historical footnote. You know who you are.

With his stirring challenge to Mark McGwire's eminence as a home run champion, Sosa has become a hero for the surpassed, eclipsed, outshone, dwarfed, diminished and towered over.

Ed McMahons rule!

If Sosa hits more homers than McGwire this season -- each has 62 -- he would shatter the ego-swallowing ideal set by Aldrin, who became the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong.

Sosa has lived in McGwire's shadow all season; he has trailed in the home run race for all but a few hours and, playing to type, was relegated to applauding from right field when McGwire hit No. 62 at Busch Stadium last week, breaking Roger Maris' record.

McGwire had four more homers than Sosa that night and seemed almost assured of the new record.

Not anymore.

If anything, Sosa is now the favorite. Unlike McGwire, who hasn't homered since No. 62, Sosa is hot, four strikeouts last night notwithstanding. Unlike McGwire, who left Sunday night's game with back spasms, Sosa doesn't seem ground down by a long season of attention and pressure.

And unlike McGwire, whose Cardinals are out of playoff contention, Sosa has a reason to stay motivated and keep his focus. The Cubs are in the thick of the National League wild-card race.

McGwire tends to respond to Sosa's challenges with a flurry of homers, so let's see what happens. But gracious, what if Ed McMahon ends up getting the laughs instead of Johnny Carson? What if Avis ends up renting more cars than Hertz?

What if the second man on the moon becomes a bigger deal than the first?

It would be terrific, that's what.

As much as McGwire, with his Hall of Fame power credentials, is the rightful heir to baseball's most glamorous record, Sosa is equally deserving and compelling.

He isn't the wrongful heir, in other words. Far from it. He has brought splendid life to baseball this summer. His performance, standing on its own merits, is one of the greatest ever.

No, he isn't a sure-fire Hall of Famer yet. But if he were to pass McGwire in the last weeks of the season, it would go down as one of the great jaw-dropping feats in history. Who wouldn't love to see that?

McGwire will still go down as the Neil Armstrong of this space race, regardless of who finishes with more homers. McGwire was the first to pass Maris. That's why his No. 62 was bigger than Sosa's five days later. The first history-making moment is always the keeper.

Some claim Sosa's Dominican background contributes to the slightly lesser acclaim greeting his accomplishments, and sadly, there's probably an element of truth to that. Latin American stars have long struggled for the same acclaim as American stars.

But that's really no factor here. It's old history. The fact is that McGwire's acclaim probably was overblown in the sense that he wasn't going to "heal the country" as some suggested, whatever that means. And hey, Sosa is enormously popular. He is cheered everywhere on the road now, much like Cal Ripken, and he will be for the rest of his career. He took three bows at home the other day. Enough said?

If Sosa had passed Maris first, he would have received the same acclaim. And if he finishes with more homers, he'll get the credit and ovations he deserves from all fair-minded fans.

He and McGwire would become a pair of Neil Armstrongs at that point, sharing the spotlight equally. McGwire as the first to walk on the moon and pass Maris. Sosa as the one who ended up holding the record. Both remarkable.

Which feat would resonate as the more lasting and historical? Who knows? And who cares? The whole thing is lasting and historical.

If there's an unfortunate element to it, it's that it has to end. It has blown away pro football as a water-cooler talking point, quite an achievement. And now, after delivering one unforgettable moment at Busch Stadium last week, it's going to deliver more.

A race for the record. With every swing counting.

Does it have to end?

McGwire and Sosa are such friends now, bonded by their common experience, that they aren't obsessed with winning and would happily share the record. Sosa is more concerned about taking the Cubs to the playoffs. It's those of us on the outside who see the home run derby as a competition.

Sosa has smiled and said all along that he had no intention of winning, that McGwire was "the man" and destined to hold the record. That was partly an honest bow to McGwire's status, but also partly a sly way to deflect attention and pressure, of which McGwire clearly has borne more. Smart, Sammy.

Now McGwire looks like a tired hitter trudging to the end of a long, wonderful season of great expectations, and Sosa looks relaxed and happy and without a care. He just might win. Sancho Panza might knock over the windmill. Second fiddles, your moment is at hand.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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