DENVER — It was a typical summer afternoon Major League Baseball game here the other day, which is to say a lot of sun and little at stake. Both the home Colorado Rockies and the visiting Chicago Cubs are average teams at this juncture with myriad problems that beset average teams - fundamental botches, mental lapses, inconsistent offense, spotty pitching.
But, hey, they may get better. And make no mistake, a routine afternoon at the baseball park is still light-years better than a sensational afternoon at the office.
And so it was that the partisans cheered for the locals. They were forgiving when usually steady third baseman Vinny Castilla messed up a ground ball, and they were sanguine when the Cubs scored five runs in the second inning. To endure as a Rockies fan in 1999 requires lots of forgiving, plenty of sanguineness.
What ignited the fans, and what made Coors Field rock with playoff intensity was - amazingly - the Cubs' Sammy Sosa. Incredible. After all, the culture in sport is to love your team and despise the opposition. Villains are part of the fun.
Dennis Rodman is a delightful basketball villain. Bucky Dent is a villain forevermore in Boston for his memorable three-run homer in 1978 that propelled his Yankees into the World Series and kept the Red Sox out.
But when it comes to Sammy Sosa, adulation engulfs him, home and away. It's Michael Jordan-like. The most loved player in the park in Denver was Chicago's Sosa.
Of course, there is the respect, Sosa having performed brilliantly and honorably in last season's classic home-run competition with Mark McGwire. McGwire hit 70. Sosa was a classy second with 66. Both beat Roger Maris's record of 61 set in 1961. And this season? At this writing, Sosa leads the major leagues with 30.
Yet, beyond even the respect is the affection. It stems from the way Sosa behaves, the signals he sends.
He plays the game with love and with joy. Sosa and surly never appear in the same sentence. Now, you can say that if you were making $9 million for less than nine month's work, you'd be pretty joyful yourself. But, would you? Plenty of athletes glower far more than they glow, the dollars notwithstanding.
What Sosa does is give back to fans. It's a rare gift. Too often, the players act as if we aren't even there. Many won't even tip their hat or acknowledge our cheers with a wave. It's the me-me-me attitude. They grudgingly play for us but not to us.
Sosa plays to us. Big difference.
His story makes us tingle. Here's a guy who sold oranges and shined shoes in the Dominican Republic to help his desperate family survive. He was a good local player but was not drafted by a single Major League Baseball team. He kept on keeping on.
Sosa routinely gives us that big, big smile, and we appreciate it. But he's not all style and no substance. For too long, he was a notorious first-pitch hitter, until he willed himself more patient. He stopped trying to pull outside pitches. Defensively, his arm has always been world-class; he has worked to improve it.
In the sixth inning here, Sosa homered; in the ninth inning, Sosa homered. Fans stood and cheered and waved and went bonkers. Imagine, Rockies disciples wanted Sosa to go deep, real deep; they wanted him to succeed, really succeed. Fans everywhere do.
"I am a little kid," Sosa told ESPN's Peter Gammons not long ago. "I just like to be happy every day, and I like to make people happy." He definitely has the knack.
And when people make fun of his Dominican accent - "America has been bery, bery good to me" - it's all in good fun. Even ACLU members smile. And he can bring tears when he says, "Without America, I don't know what I would be today." Ah yes, God Bless America.
The Cubs won 12-10, thanks to Sosa. Rockies fans approved.
In voting last season - Mark McGwire's history-making season - for Most Valuable Player in the National League, Sosa won with 30 first place votes. Second was McGwire - with two votes. That outcome made Sosa smile, naturally. Us, too, bery much.
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