BOSTON — Our wild applause, boisterous cheers and cascading adulation for Sammy Sosa has all the authenticity of crocodile tears.
We are, sad to report, a nation of phonies.
Do we care - as in really care - that Sosa earlier this week hit his 62nd home run to best Roger Maris's 61 in 1961? Nope. On the other hand, did we care - as in really care - when almost a fortnight ago, Mark Mc-Gwire hit his 62nd to become the first to surpass Maris's record? Yup.
This is because what we aspire to is being first and phooey on everything else. Winners get crowns and cash and losers are chopped liver.
McGwire had a nation at his biceps, via national TV, when he plinked No. 62. It was nutty fun. The Maris family was there. McGwire got a red 1962 Corvette from the Cardinals in the classiest gift-giving gesture ever. Sosa stood in the Cubs' outfield and applauded with genuineness, then rushed to home plate to gather a hug from Mighty Mc. The nation was in tears.
The Maris family and baseball commissioner Bud Selig were on hand and camera-ready for McGwire's monstrous feat. None was present for Sosa's monstrous feat. Oh, sure, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was there but he's everywhere, having not missed a national event of any stripe since a botched plane connection kept him from Martin Van Buren's inauguration.
All Sosa got was a call from Bill Clinton, presumably biting his lip during the conversation. Talk about unfairness.
The reason McGwire got the whole enchilada and Sosa a long-distance chat is that we not only are a nation bent on first, but we don't even want to think about second. What child in America grows up dreaming of being vice president or winning a silver medal in the Olympics?
Lombardi never said, "Second isn't everything, it's the only thing."
After all, if second is good, why is Genesis enormously better known than Exodus? Michael Jordan is the highest- paid pro basketball player, but who is second? Cy Young leads baseball in innings pitched. Second is? The Packers won the first Super Bowl in 1967, but who won the second? Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927. Second was? Neil Armstrong was first man on the moon. Second was?
No answers supplied because you don't care. You only covet first.
At George Washington's passing - by the way, are you dead certain who the second president was? - a resolution passed by Congress praised him as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Second in war, peace and hearts just wouldn't have cut it.
Secondhand goods reign only at a second-hand store.
Second, to a nation fixated on winning, is losing. Sean O'Casey wrote, "Be content with your lot; we cannot be first in everything." Advice like this is why we ignore Sean O'Casey.
Sosa understands. Said he after blasting No. 62, "Mark, he did it first. He is the man." Chicago understands, too, it being America's Second City.
None of this is to deprecate Sosa's achievement. After all, Sosa started off life in the Dominican Republic at the bottom of a ladder that had no rungs. Sixty-two homers is quite a jaunt from shoeshine boy and purveyor of oranges in dusty streets. It's just that Sosa joins a long list of runners-up, almost none of whom we recall.
OK, a few - very few - second placers exist in the deep shadows of our minds. We know Jackie Robinson was the first black in the big leagues and a few know Larry Doby was second. We know Joe DiMaggio holds the record for consecutive game hits (56 in 1941) and a few know that the previous record holder was Wee Willie Keeler.
By and large, second has no appeal, which is why we rhapsodize over first love and have no observations on second love.
Happily, however, there is a potential sunny side up for Sosa, The Crown Prince of Second. The season goes until month's end. So it is quite possible Sosa will end up as the new season record holder and McGwire will become the answer to a trivia question.
Should this happen - as of press time yesterday, McGwire and Sosa each had 63 homers - presumably the Cardinals won't repossess the Corvette despite the fact that losers don't normally get Corvettes. He could, of course, have it painted Cubs' blue and give it to Sosa.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org