Sosa Swinging for His Best Season

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sammy Sosa turns baseball into theater, where his rituals, talents and commitment to routine are all part of a lifelong drive to be a star.

There's the jack-in-the-box leap out of the batter's box after hitting a home run; thumping his heart and blowing kisses to the TV camera upon his return to the dugout; racing to his spot in right field before the game like a running back and saluting the fans as he arrives; turning his bat upside down before his first plate appearance and lightly tapping both the umpire and opposing catcher on the back of the leg.

And there are the long majestic homers that often come in bunches and draw fans to the ballpark. There is a durability to Sosa, who plays nearly every day and nearly every inning for the Chicago Cubs, a rarity in a sport with bulging disabled lists.

Sosa's missed just 11 games during the last five seasons -- he considers days off unfair to his teammates -- and he treats his daily trips to the batting cage to work with hitting coach Jeff Pentland with religious fervor.

"I am a gladiator," he says matter-of-factly, a slogan that appears on the back of his workout T-shirt.

More than anything, he is a better hitter, maybe even better than his MVP season of 1998, and he's helped put the Cubs in the thick of a playoff race.

Sosa has already matched his career high of 91 walks set last season and has a drawn a career-best 29 intentional passes. He's also cut back on his bad-pitch strikeouts by refusing to fish for outside balls in the dirt.

"I've been more patient and more mature and more selective at the plate, and that has helped," Sosa says.

"I'm working with Jeff every day on everything. We never miss a day in the cage. You got to be on top of your game and that's how I've been doing all my life. You can't take anything for granted."

Pentland says Sosa began to change and improve as an overall hitter in 1998, and has been sticking with the same workouts since.

"He always had tools, always had ability. But he's learned to take the balls and swing at the strikes. That's made him a tremendous power hitter," Pentland said.

"And he never panics. That's one of the plusses of Sammy. You can get him out a couple times, but you have to go back and get him out another two times."

Sosa hasn't cut back on his swing -- sometimes when he misses, it appears his rib cage will be ripped apart -- even though he'll occasionally reach across the plate and poke a ball to right field.

His power is generated with his hips and mammoth arms and shoulders. To look at the 1990 version of Sosa, a skinny curly haired member of the Chicago White Sox, and the current one is to view a classic before-and-after picture.

"I hit 15 homers there one year," said Sosa, who was traded crosstown from the White Sox to the Cubs for George Bell in 1992. "And I thought I was Babe Ruth."

Now the former shoeshine boy who sold oranges and washed cars on the dusty streets of his native Dominican Republic has power numbers with some of the greatest players in history.

He has hit 340 homers since opening day in 1995, and this season got the 400th of his career. When he reaches 50 for the year -- he had 49 going into the weekend -- he will join Mark McGwire and Babe Ruth as the only major leaguers to hit 50 in four seasons.

His epic duel with McGwire in 1998, when he lost 70-66, helped both players. One pushed the other and together they electrified a game that had been hurt by a work stoppage four years earlier.

Sosa hasn't slowed down. He's re-energized by a four-year, $72 million contract extension he received in spring training after a season in which he was continually linked to trades.

"Sammy pushes himself as hard as anybody that we have or anybody in this game," Pentland says.

"His expectations are very, very high. He realizes what he can do now. I'm not sure he could in '98. There's really nothing in his way but himself, and that's the way he looks at it."

Sosa and second-year manager Don Baylor have grown on one another. Baylor said when he took the job two years ago he wanted Sosa to be a more all-around player.

"He keeps turning it up. His approach is unbelievable. He plays every day. You want the young guys to watch his approach," Baylor said.

For two years, Sosa went neck-and-neck with McGwire for the home run title and finished second both times. Then last year he hit 50 to win one of his own.

Now after a pair of three-homer games this month, he's within reach of Barry Bonds, whose home-run tear has overshadowed Sosa for most of the season.

"I don't really think about that. Barry has a job to do and I have a job to do," Sosa said.

"I just won it last year, so that's good enough. I'm thinking about winning more games, not anyone else."

Baylor said Sosa's in position for another 60-something season.

"Everybody thought Bonds couldn't be caught, but Sammy hits two, he hits three," Baylor says.

"He's a special player. He's doing what his ability is calling for."

Cubs pitcher Kevin Tapani, a 19-game winner in 1998 when Sosa's popularity and star power was on the rise, was asked what would surprise him about his teammate.

"Right now, an 0-for-4," Tapani said. "When he gets on one of those spurts and gets hot, it doesn't matter what the pitch is or the location. He can just carry you."

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