In home run chase, Sosa had clout -- and charm

On Baseball

October 04, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa got his wish. He said weeks ago that he would gladly trade the chance to own the single-season home run record for a chance to play in the postseason, and that's exactly how it played out.

It took some doing. The Cubs had to take the regular season into overtime to earn a spot in the Division Series against the Atlanta Braves -- and they had to survive a nail-biting, ninth-inning comeback attempt by the San Francisco Giants -- but Sosa got to take his wonderful 1998 season into October.

How could anyone outside of Atlanta root against him? Sosa has conducted himself this season with the class and style to match much-revered Latin American Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente. He has also negotiated the suspenseful home run chase with something you don't see enough of in professional sports anymore.

A smile.

Mark McGwire may have beaten him to the home run crown, but Sosa radiated class when he celebrated along with Big Mac on the day that Roger Maris' 37-year-old record went down.

OK, so there were some raised eyebrows because teammate Steve Trachsel had to stand on the mound and watch a teammate congratulate the guy who just hit a home run off him, but get over it. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event that transcended the usual competitive etiquette.

Who's going to remember who won the 1998 wild-card race 50 years from now? Everyone's going to remember McGwire lifting Sosa into the air and the two of them exchanging their signature home run salutes.

Take nothing away from McGwire, who handled himself wonderfully throughout a grueling season of unprecedented media attention. But there was something even more special about the way Sosa deferred to McGwire throughout the season and congratulated him during the Cubs' post-game celebration.

"Mark McGwire is the man," Sosa said, echoing a sentiment he had repeated countless times. "He has the home run record and anybody who wants to get to him will have to come through me first."

This isn't easy to do in the big-ego world of major-league baseball, but Sosa managed to pull it off: He made humble cool.

There are a lot of fathers dreaming that their kids will grow up to be just like Mark McGwire, and that's just fine.

McGwire is a great role model. But I'll take Sammy Sosa.

He's the man.

Davis stands tall

It might be difficult for Darryl Strawberry to count his blessings right now -- the day after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his colon -- but he has every reason to be thankful that he has a friend like Eric Davis.

Davis was on the phone with him soon after the frightening diagnosis came in, reassuring him that he could beat the disease as Davis did. There will be many more of those phone calls as Strawberry works through the long treatment process.

"He knows I'll be there for him every day," said Davis, who has become an unofficial spokesman for colon cancer awareness.

Some are asking what the odds are of two thirtysomething athletes -- close friends since high school -- coming down with a non-contagious disease that is relatively rare in people their age.

"While the coincidence that my friend and I both contracted the same disease is amazing," Davis said in a statement on Thursday, "the reality of colon cancer potentially affecting all of us is something that we are hopefully helping people become aware of. "The one thing that we should all learn from this is that this disease can strike any of us at any time. Testing is a vital step in the prevention of colon cancer and I encourage everyone to talk to their doctor about a testing procedure."

Great manager?

Former Florida Marlins manager Jim Leyland is recognized as one of the best managers in the game, but he proved this year what club executives and owners should keep in mind when they evaluate the performance of their managers. He was only as good as his players.

The Marlins dismantled their 1997 store-bought, world championship team and they plummeted to the worst record that any team has ever compiled the year after winning the World Series.

That doesn't mean Leyland isn't a good manager, but it should put the performance of someone such as Oakland's Art Howe into perspective. Howe has not had a lot of success since replacing Tony La Russa in Oakland, but he has had a hand in the emergence of several exciting young players and has kept the club playing hard in an almost hopeless competitive situation.

Tough choice

Who should be the Rookie of the Year in the National League? Kerry Wood or Todd Helton?

Obviously, both are deserving, but Wood did something this year that only one other player has ever done -- striking out 20 batters in a game. He also finished an abbreviated season ranked third in the league with 233 strikeouts.

Helton had an outstanding season, but Wood's 20K one-hitter might have been the most spectacular single-game pitching performance in the sport's history.

Piazza ponderings

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