Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene A Boy's Life

What makes Sammy run

By Randy Horick

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  To the long list of former owners of Chicago--Native Americans, railroad barons, George Halas, Richard Daley, and the Democratic Machine--we can now add a certain low-flying bald guy who wears No. 23 for the Chicago Bulls.

At some undefined point during the past month, possession of the city passed from His Airness to Sammy Sosa, a benevolent new sovereign whose agenda seems to include, in no particular order, crushing baseballs, smiling infectiously, and savoring a singular moment in time.

In Chicago last weekend, when the Cubs returned home for three final games at Wrigley Field, Sammy's chevron was everywhere. His picture ran large in every newspaper. It dominated billboards. It was emblazoned on T-shirts. Signs in museum gift shops, on restaurant menu boards, and in other unlikely locales offered updates ("McGwire 64, Sosa 63") or support ("Go Sammy!"). A zeitgeist-savvy panhandler displayed a placard that read, "Go Cubs. Please help."

Because of Sosa and his 63 homers, total strangers took up neighborly conversations. Surmising from the time of day (and their Cubs hats) that passengers exiting the Grand Street train station were returning from Wrigley, one pedestrian asked, "Did he hit one?" with the eager expression of a child hoping that arriving grandparents had brought along a gift. When the answer was no, the man's face sank. "Aww," he said and turned away.

In a city that just celebrated five NBA championships, eclipsing Michael Jordan, even temporarily, is an almost unthinkable feat. But Chicagoans last weekend were baseball-mad, and Sammy Sosa was their loopy, exuberant king.

To attend a game at Wrigley Field, as my dad and I did on Saturday, is to make baseball's hajj.

When you're there, looking out on a little green island amid a vast, sprawling cityscape, you understand why they call it "the friendly confines." For three hours at least, the concerns of the workaday world become vapor. The frauds and mountebanks in Washington don't exist. The stock market is irrelevant.

In this one place--with venerable, ivy-covered brick walls, a hand-operated scoreboard, and pennants that announce to passersby the league standings and whether the Cubs have won or lost--it's as if time can freeze, or even flow backwards. The nostalgic air is not piped in; it never left.

Even on an ordinary day, Wrigley is a magical place. Last Saturday, it was extra-ordinary. On a temperate, cloudless, perfect afternoon, the always festive atmosphere around Wrigley was ebulliently more so.

By noon, the sports bars along Clark Street swelled and roared with patrons. By 1:30, an hour and a half before the first pitch, ballhawks were herding behind blue police barricades along Waveland Avenue, which runs behind Wrigley's shallow left-field stands, hoping to catch a home run hit by Sosa.

Behind and above them, a fan with a net perched in the open window of a third-story apartment. Other window frames were similarly occupied, and the usual partying throng had gathered on the rooftops of the buildings beyond the outfield.

High on a streetlight and visible from the ballpark, someone had hoisted the flag of Sammy's native Dominican Republic. The boisterous bleacher bums carried a renowned Wrigley tradition one step further, hurling back onto the field even the batting practice homers hit by the visiting Cincinnati Reds.

Outside the park, our $14 tickets, for lower-level seats down the left-field side, were worth at least 10 times that. Some fans paid $8 just to stand in some unobtrusive spot.

More than 40,000 crammed into Wrigley Field to witness whether Sosa, having surpassed Roger Maris and Babe Ruth, could again tie Mark McGwire with one mighty stroke. Cub fans flocked in anticipation too, because their improbable, long-suffering team--with the ubiquitous, bespectacled caricature of the late Harry Caray suggesting heavenly intercession--was advancing toward the postseason, just two weeks away.

Across Chicago and well beyond, however, fans were also captivated because, in the longest of long shots, baseball has somehow seized the national imagination for the first time in years. In fact, it's hard nowadays to recall an earlier time when the game was so much a part of everyday conversations.

The credit for that development belongs not only to the hitting prowess of McGwire and Sosa but to their personalities.

McGwire, who since opening day has shouldered the crushing burden of Maris' record and most of the media attention, carried himself with exemplary grace and polite dignity that stood in marked contrast to what we've come to expect from political and entertainment figures.

Sosa, as buoyant as a 200-pound cork, approached the record with the romping exuberance of a puppy.

Sammy, as one teammate said, is a 29-year-old 12-year-old. When he first takes the field at Wrigley, he sprints out to right field and races along the warning track, rousing the fans like a horseless Paul Revere. He blows kisses. Hugs his home-run rival. Blesses the plate. Swings with unrestrained gusto for the fences.

Perhaps remembering his days in the Dominican Republic, when a baseball was a taped-up sock and a $3,000 signing bonus was a fortune, Sosa talks about what a great country this is. He's like a wide-eyed kid, still playing a kid's game, and he's contagious. Everyone watching can be a kid again, especially at Wrigley.

Thinking just like a kid, before Saturday's game I imagined that Sammy would hit a historic home run and we would see it and I'd catch a ball and the Cubs would win and we would all leave enraptured. I wondered whether others, like me, were reacting to this moment by drifting back to the first time baseball really mattered to them.

I thought about the 1968 World Series between Detroit and St. Louis, and of listening to Game 7 on a smuggled transistor radio in the back of Mrs. Perkins' sixth-grade classroom, and of the excited shouts I suppressed when the underdog Tigers recorded the final out on a pop fly to third. As soon as school let out, I ran all the way home to share the news with my father, a Tiger fan of 30 years.

Sammy jacked no home runs on Saturday. He struck out three times before hitting into a game-ending double play. The Cubs lost badly and fell a game behind New York in the wild-card race.

But if Sosa and the fans were supposed to act depressed and fatalistic (in other words, like Red Sox fans), no one cued them. The next afternoon, Sosa again sprinted to his position as if a posse were chasing him, and, once again, he was welcomed by a friendly riot.

Whenever he stepped to the plate, 40,000 people again stood and chanted his name: "Sam-my, Sam-my, Sam-my!" They sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" just as lustily as they had during the seventh-inning stretch the day before, when my dad had turned and said simply, "This is great."

It hardly mattered that the Cubs lost on Saturday. I'll always remember being at Wrigley Field that day, I thought as we watched Sunday's game on TV from the departure lounge at Midway Airport. Back home that night, I learned that McGwire had smashed yet another homer--his 65th--and, just like that, Cal Ripken's remarkable streak had ended.

This was going to go down, I concluded, as a great year to have been a kid.

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