CHICAGO — Much of the time, it seems, nice guys finish last.
But not this time. Not in Chicago, anyway. One of the nicest guys in the Windy City has risen to one of the greatest accomplishments in all of sports. Sammy Sosa - the man with the golden bat and a major-league smile - has become the first ever to hit 60 home runs in back-to-back seasons. And after his 400-foot Saturday swat he still had 14 games to hit 61, 62, and more before the season ends.
The success of this nice guy, who loves his mom and isn't afraid to show it on TV, has so captivated Chicago that the whole city is living, as one writer put it, "La Vida Sosa."
His success even comes at a curious time in American culture, when the nation is exploring the more-extreme sides of "guy-ness."
Take Adam Sandler's uniquely hands-off approach to parenthood, for instance, in the movie "Big Daddy." Or the testosterone-pumped World Wrestling Federation's ever-growing popularity. Or Susan Faludi's new book declaring a crisis in male identity. Or the biggest-buzz movie of the fall, "The Fight Club," about violent male bonding.
But Sosa stands in stark contrast to these dominant archetypes.
Humility and bunny hops
"He's humble and focused and refreshingly candid," observes Glenn Good, a "guy" expert and professor of psychology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Even though Sosa does bunny hops in front of millions and is almost totally lacking in overt braggadocio, "His masculinity is unquestioned because of his exceptional performance."
Only three other players have ever topped 60 homers in a season: Babe Ruth (1927), Roger Maris (1961), and Mark McGwire (1998). McGwire hit a record 70 last year, edging Sosa by four.
Saturday's blast to center field off Milwaukee Brewer pitcher Jason Bere kept Sosa securely ahead of McGwire, with 56 home runs this year.
With the crowd at Wrigley Field cheering wildly, Sosa circled the bases, returned to the dugout, and came back out for a curtain call. He blew kisses and waved to the crowd.
"I have to say that what I've done today is actually more special than what happened last year," Sosa said. "Mark [McGwire] did everything first last year. He was 'the man.' This year this record is mine. It's something no one else ever has done. I'm extremely proud of that."
"I just felt good it happened here in Chicago in front of these great fans," Sosa said. His family, including his mother, wife, and two-year old son, were also on hand.
Breaking a drought
The homer broke a seven-game drought for Sosa. The longest he has gone without a homer this season is eight games.
Asked if he might pull off the unbelievable and break McGwire's record by homering 11 times in 14 games, Sosa sought to keep expectations under control: "I was getting anxious to hit 60. Now you want me to hit 11 more?"
Perhaps one of Sosa's more endearing traits is that he maintains this success doesn't really matter. (And for a boy who grew up malnourished in the third-world slums of the Dominican Republic, perhaps an extra home run or two truly doesn't matter in the bigger scheme of things.)
But Sosa has a stealthy determination. "I have nothing to prove," he declared, heading into one contest against the Cubs' cross-town rivals - and his former team - the White Sox. But during the game, he swung his bat so hard his helmet came tumbling off.
And it's partly because of this studied nonchalance, but also because the Cubs are having their worst season since 1980, that just about the entire city of Chicago tunes in when Sosa comes up to bat, and most tune out when he's done.
As one wag put it: "Sosa has turned Chicago baseball into four can't-miss moments a day, which is four more than there would be without him."
In fact, Sosa's home-run streak puts him in the astonishing position of having more long-ball smackers than his team has wins. 60 homers. 59 wins. If that trend continues until the end of the season, it'll be another major-league first for Sosa.
Indeed, as if to symbolize a heartbreaking season, the Cubs lost Saturday's game in extra innings, as the Brewers rallied back to score three runs in the top of the 14th inning..
Last year, by contrast, Sosa shared the spotlight not only with McGwire but also with a winning Cub team.
Now, after a decade of Michael Jordan-led world dominance, Chicagoans have settled back into their routine of loving the losers, mostly.
But not everyone in Chicago loves Sosa. Perched at a table in a sports bar oozing with guy-ness - it's filled with big-screen TVs and sits across the street from Wrigley Field - a trio of men discusses Sosa.
"You gotta admire a guy who runs out there with a big smile on his face everyday to play for the worst team in baseball," says Justin Gates, a law student and lifelong Cubs fan.
"But he doesn't care about the team," complains Phil Richard, a financial consultant. "He's like an NBA player. He goes for the slam dunk and all the publicity, when that's not what wins games."
Sosa has indeed been swinging for the fences - often forgoing a base-on-balls to cut at pitches that are well outside the strike zone. But he insists he'd gladly trade his power-fest for pennant race.
And many fans are pulling for him, especially the masses in his native Dominican Republic, where he recently paid for construction of a medical clinic for children.
Last year, as he finished his homer-studded season, Sosa also poured energy into raising money for his homeland, which had just been ravaged by hurricane Georges. While his on-field play earned him the League's most-valuable player award for 1998, such charitable efforts have won him a status beyond mere sports hero in the Caribbean nation.
In his new homeland, meanwhile, Sosa takes his fame and a multimillion-dollar salary in stride, talking to reporters even after all those games when he hasn't homered.
Indeed, despite the criticism -and with his trademark exuberance and grace - this immigrant boy who once played baseball with sticks and pebbles is adding a new definition of manhood to the American lexicon: to do the inconceivable, two times in a row.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society