Sosa and McGwire: Fair and foul
By Shaun Powell - Newsday
TOKYO -- He is here only because he finished second to Mark McGwire again. Baseball officials originally wanted the Japanese to see McGwire send home runs through the roof of the Tokyo Dome, until McGwire turned Ugly American and bashed the idea.
So Japan received Sammy Sosa and treated baseball's most famous silver medalist like gold. He caused a scene as soon as he stepped inside Narita Airport. He was the only Chicago Cub who could not reach the bus without security. In the lobby of the New Otani Hotel, employees and guests stood and clapped. Some gave him long, gradual bows, the kind usually reserved for royalty.
The jet lag weakened his legs, summoned him to bed and stole his memory. Sosa forgot about the evening news conference. Forty-five minutes into his nap, he was awakened by an aide. The biggest star in town hurried downstairs with another dozen or so Japanese fans on his tail and quickly apologized to the Japanese media for the delay.
"I wake up now," Sosa said.
Sosa then explained why he supported baseball's decision to have the Cubs and Mets open the season halfway around the world. He had been here before, on exhibition tours, and knew the reception and atmosphere was second to none. He did not knock the flight or the food; he just talked about the fun.
"I feel happy here," Sosa said. "A lot of people show me a lot of appreciation. The people of Japan have a lot of class, and that's what keeps you coming back."
Then Sosa did something he never managed to do the past two years: He distanced himself from McGwire, who encouraged the St. Louis Cardinals to reject what he called a "greedy" sales pitch by baseball, saying the trip was silly and all about money.
"I don't want to disrespect another person's opinion," Sosa said quietly. "If he feels that way, fine. I don't feel that way. I'm happy to be here and play here. I represent Major League Baseball, so I felt obligated to be here."
Sosa and McGwire have been down this road before, and once again, the man who hit 66 home runs is proving to be more endearing than the one who reached 70. Once again, baseball benefits by having Sosa around as an option to McGwire. Once again, a willing volunteer came along, the perfect antidote to the grudging participant.
Two years ago during the height of the Great Home Run Chase, Sosa and McGwire assumed these very same roles. The more home runs he hit, the grumpier McGwire got. The game became uncomfortable, and the pursuit of history an annoyance. He bristled at all the attention and refused to enjoy the ride.
Then came the andro revelation, and the supplement that made him stronger also made him defensive. For months, McGwire refused to share the same joy his titanic blasts gave millions of others.
Luckily for McGwire, and baseball, Sosa arrived just in time to loosen things up.
He loved the home-run chase and everything about it. He smiled, he joked, he had a good time. Instead of cutting off the media, as McGwire did, Sosa took the opportunity to tell the public why the chase was good for the game. Gradually, he melted the iceberg that formed around McGwire and changed his mood. Sosa spared McGwire from becoming another Roger Maris, so sour and sorry about the whole experience.
Too bad Sosa can not save McGwire this time. It was silly of McGwire to express what Mets manager Bobby Valentine described as "a very limited thought" about what this is all about. Some might even interpret McGwire's aversion to "playing over there" as a mild case of Rockerism. Exactly when did baseball become so restrictive, cutting off the rest of the world and leaving it exclusively to us?
This is not about money. Baseball makes plenty off us Americans, and besides, two games in Japan will not constitute a windfall. This is about spreading baseball's tradition and letting others share, even envy, what we take for granted.
"I believe in social responsibility," Commissioner Bud Selig said Saturday. "Here you bring the Mets and Cubs for two games, and there are people who will watch these games and never forget what they saw. How can one feel bad about that? How can anyone say that isn't the right thing? This is the right thing."
Thankfully, baseball brought along its most useful ambassador, since it is now documented proof that Sosa can draw huge crowds in three countries: the Dominican Republic, Japan and Wrigleyville. Judging by the rate of pitches he sent from the park the past few weeks in the Cactus League, Sosa is poised for another 60-plus season.
He dismissed the notion of jet lag putting a cramp in his swing this week.
"I hit the baseball in the Dominican, in America, and I can hit the ball here," Sosa said.
They love American pop culture here, and hopefully by Thursday, the Japanese will learn the Sosa home-run hop. Maybe the entire Sosa package will become a craze and people will walk the streets, kissing their fingers, tapping their chest three times and flashing the peace sign. Having Sosa bash a few home runs here against the Mets, for a country that appreciates his presence, would be sweet.
If he gets an early jump on McGwire, even sweeter.