'Sam I Am'
updated 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/28/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT
The frantic episode was telling. When McGwire hit his 62nd homer on Sept. 8, breaking Roger Maris's 37-year hold on the most hallowed record in American sport, the event seemed orchestrated in advance for national TV. Everything was neatly in place: his son the batboy, his parents, the Maris family, baseball commissioner Bud Selig and specially marked baseballs so the historic ball could be positively identified. By contrast, the occasion of Sosa's 61st and 62nd homers—an 11-10 Cub win over Milwaukee—was as gloriously messy as an urban stickball game. Both Sosa's blasts onto Waveland Avenue sparked wrestling matches by fans fighting for the ball. There was no network audience, no commissioner, no Marises, no hugs from opposing players—no wife almost.
Whatever the differences, Sosa wasn't troubled by them; his rivalry with McGwire has been uncommonly friendly—not a rivalry at all, really. McGwire, son of a California dentist, has been the earnest straight man, while the exuberant Sosa, the Dominican ex-shoeshine boy who grew up so poor he made his first baseball glove out of a milk carton, has played slyly funny second banana. His blithe spirit has shone at press conferences, such as one before McGwire broke the record, when Sosa deadpanned, "Baysbol been berry, berry good to me"—his take on the Hispanic ballplayer portrayed by Saturday Night Live's Garrett Morris. But at the core of his attitude is a sober sense of perspective. Asked about the pressure of the home run chase, he responded, "Pressure was for me...when I was a shoeshine boy trying to make it to America."
Surely his roughly $10 million salary and seven-bedroom Chicago condo were inconceivable when Sosa was growing up the fifth of six children in San Pedro de Macoris, a city of 125,000. (A hero there now, he donates generously to various Dominican charities.) His father, Juan; who plowed fields for a living, died when Sammy was 7. The boy then began shining shoes and later worked as a janitor in a shoe factory. His first love was boxing, not baseball, but eventually Sosa drifted onto the diamond. At 16, he was signed by the Texas Rangers and gave almost his entire $3,500 bonus to his mother. Within four years he was in the majors, a free-swinging, undisciplined player traded twice before settling with the Cubs in 1992.
By then he'd wed Sonia, whom he met in 1990 at a San Pedro de Macoris disco. She was 16 at the time but already working as a dancer on a Dominican TV variety show. "He looked at me and said, 'Wow, look at that woman,' " Sonia recalls. "I said, 'Oh, yeah?' and turned my back on him." Undeterred, Sosa sent her tickets to the next game, and she showed up expecting to see him in the stands, not the outfield. "I didn't know he was a ballplayer," she says. "I thought he was just another traveling salesman in gold chains." In any case, Sonia was smitten. "Every time I saw him," she says, "I used to feel [electrical] current from the tips of my toes right to my heart."
Now, Sammy is working on another relationship—his budding bond with McGwire. Indeed, Big Mac has even hinted that the two may have some kind of future together. "One time," Sosa says, "he said to me, 'Maybe we gonna go back to the Dominican and retire together. Maybe build a golf club out there, call it Home Run Park.' " Sammy considers the name and smiles. "I like it. I got the land."
Sam Jemielity and John T. Slania in Chicago, Greg Aunapu in Miami and Jamie Reno in San Diego