Wrigley Field, September 1998. Sammy Sosa Celebration Day. Outside the park, waiting for the gates to open, people are lined up in a frenzy of impatience, like they're about to claim an inheritance. Dominican Republic flags are for sale. The sidewalk is so choked that one visiting player needs 10 minutes to make it from the curb to the entrance.
Inside, the playing field is vacant. Batting practice hasn't started. A man emerges from under the right-field bleachers, where he has been taking extra batting practice in the indoor cage. He doesn't have his uniform jersey on, but his figure and stride have become unmistakable.He is about halfway to the Cubs' third-base dugout when someone yells from the bleachers: "Sammy!"
And having just concluded early batting practice, on a day that he could be excused for not taking it, Sammy Sosa waves back.
Part of this scene - the 66 homers, the fame, the "Sammy, You're the Man" sign hanging behind the leftfield bleachers - this is all new.
But the other part - the work ethic, the early batting practice, the friendliness of his wave - this isn't new at all.
Oklahoma City, summer of 1989. Hot, humid, miserable. The kind of weather you're not out in unless you have to be - or unless your dream compels you to be.
That's what most impressed Larry Himes the first time he saw Sosa: He was out in this heat as a minor league player taking extra batting practice.
Himes, then the Chicago White Sox's general manager, was working on a big trade with Texas involving veteran hitter Harold Baines. Himes wanted a premier minor-leaguer as part of the return package, and knowing he couldn't get Juan Gonzalez, he focused on Sosa, who was 20 and in his fourth year of pro ball.
Scouting the games, Himes saw Sosa had all the skills. Then Himes saw Sosa bring out a portable batting screen, a batting tee, and a bag of balls and take solitary batting practice for 20 minutes.
"That's what sold me on him," Himes said. "He didn't know we were there, and every day for four days, after everybody else was gone, he came out with the same routine, the same regimen.
"You don't see that very often. Here was a guy who was self-motivated, who had great desire, great hustle. That probably was the critical thing."
Himes soon dealt Baines and got back Sosa and another prospect, pitcher Wilson Alvarez, in a five-player deal. In 1990, Sosa came to the big leagues for his first full year and hit 15 homers and drove in 70 runs.
But in 1991, when he spent about a month in the minors, he dropped to 10 homers and 33 RBIs. He hit .203, which means about the only player in the league he outhit - by two points - was the young Oakland first baseman who was feeling lost, Mark McGwire.
"He was just a free swinger then," McGwire recalled. "We've both come a long way as hitters. If you look at any young player, and then you look at them 10 or 12 years later, they're going to be different hitters. After a while, a lot of things that your coaches tell you sink in.
"He's still a free swinger, but he's more patient."
Plus, Sosa had a late start. He didn't play organized baseball until 14.
In the spring of '92, Himes got the chance to trade for Sosa again. By then, Himes was the Cubs' general manager. He learned that the White Sox needed a designated hitter, so he offered George Bell for Sosa. The White Sox accepted; they were getting a former MVP for someone no one imagined would become an MVP.
"Larry, I feel like I'm out of jail," Himes remembered Sosa telling him. "I'll never let you down."
Indeed, he hasn't. He produced big numbers in his five previous Cubs seasons, but none like this one - in which he batted .308 and led the majors with 158 RBIs, 134 runs and 416 total bases.
He is a leading candidate to win the National League MVP, and he has led the Cubs to the playoffs, starting with today's game at Atlanta.
Sosa also has given his former general manager a distinction: Himes is the only man to twice trade for a guy who would hit 66 homers.
Dominican Republic, mid-1980s. At a tryout camp, Texas Rangers scouting director Sandy Johnson couldn't help noticing one kid. It was Sosa.
"He was by far the most aggressive and the most hungry one," Johnson said. "It was evident the kid was on a mission to get signed. He barely got signed. He got himself signed."
A pro contract allowed Sosa to emerge from a poverty that few of us can imagine. In his neighborhood, barefoot kids wore rags and played baseball with an orange. Sosa shined shoes and sold oranges.
"I've been in his house," Johnson said. "I know where he came from and how hard he wanted out of there. Sammy felt responsible to take care of his family. It wasn't a selfish thing to get out of there. He took a load on his shoulders to do something for his family."
Sosa's childhood elicits no bitterness from him - only appreciation at what he has now.
"This is like a holiday for me every day," he said of this season. "Every time I wake up, I say, `God Bless America.' It is a beautiful country."
Johnson said: "He's made himself into what he is. The way he's conducted his business and life, he's the real deal. There's not a phony deal in his body. That's why everybody is attached to him and is so fascinated by him.
"Even when he couldn't speak a word of English, you could see it in his eyes and smile."