Sammy to the rescue
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

What's the big deal? What's everyone in a lather about? It's just a little cork. It ain't the death of a dream; it ain' t the decline of western civilization. Quit with the head wagging, I say. Give the hand wringing a rest.

Truth is, Sammy's done the game a favor. That's right, this thing is good for baseball.

Here's 10 reasons why:

Sammy Sosa
Just another at bat for Sosa, until ...
1. Fan love: You hear all the time that modern athletes are self-interested prima donas, egomaniacs out of touch with the hoi poloi and only out for the big bucks. You hear all the time that the game's turned its back on the people. But here's a guy, here's maybe the biggest superstar in the game, going the extra mile for the folks in the stands. Sure, he slipped a little something extra in the barrel, but he didn't do it for himself, he did it for us, "just to put on a show for the fans." "I like to make people happy," he says. There it is. There's the generous heart of baseball. There's the sweet love of the game coming up off the field and wrapping itself around each and every one of us.

2. Winning the kids: Used to be, the wee ones were wide-eyed innocents looking for can-do-no-wrong heroes. Nowadays, though, kids are too savvy and sophisticated to go for the super-perfect super hero bit. Guys like Sosa, who run, pop and smile like there's nothing to it, like everything is always so good, so fun and so right -- kids don't trust 'em, and they think they're kind of square anyway. But guys like Sosa who work the angles, sneak their way to advantages, and reveal the way things work in the real world -- now that's a modern-day hero.

3. Peace of mind: Those nagging questions about performance-enhancing drugs can finally be put to rest.

4. Science: The minute Sammy's shards went spraying all over the Wrigley infield, everybody started talking physics and crunching numbers. Bobby Valentine's quoting Robert Adair's The Physics of Baseball on "Baseball Tonight," guys all over the country are busting out drills, calibrating scales and setting up video cameras in their garages to test for bat speed, wind resistance and power transfer, and teachers who've been struggling to get their students to pay attention to the force=mass X acceleration lesson are heading into the classroom with smiles on their faces, knowing the little buggers will be chomping at the bit. In an ordinary week, baseball is a diversion, an amusement. This week, it's educational.

Sammy Sosa
... everything blew up ...
5. History: And speaking of education, you know, too often, we're all about the now. We don't pay proper respect to our elders, don't remember and don't care about the past. It's sad, really. But thanks to Sammy, folks are climbing into the wayback machine now, they're thinking about young Wilton Guerrero, about Albert Belle, Chris Sabo and Billy Hatcher. Youngsters are crawling up on their grandpas' laps, asking for stories about bat corking and ball doctoring back in the day. Pops is weaving tales of Jay Howell, Joe Niekro and Gaylord Perry, reminiscing about George Brett's pine tar meltdown. Before long, the past is come alive again, and the game is, as it once was, as it always should be, part of the thick-woven fabric of our lives.

6. Center stage: Last night was Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Tonight is Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Think anyone cares? That's right, baby, the National Pastime is back!

7. Intrigue: That thing about inter-league play lacking drama? Never mind.

8. The little man theory: Let's say I'm a 155-pound second baseman hitting .216. I've got three home runs career. The team keeps me around for my glove, but they don't feel good about it and neither do I. These last few years, I watch a guy like Sosa, and I envy him his power and swagger. If I could only do what he does, I think. If I could only feel what he feels. But I know I never will. I know I'm just a scrappy little out-maker and he's the king of swing. I walk around all sheepish and skittish, wishing I were more. But now I know it's all been cork and mirrors with Sammy. Now I'm thinking he ain't so bad. Now I'm thinking I ought to feel good about myself. Sure, my numbers are thin, but they're my numbers, damnit. Pure, hard-earned. And before you know it, my chest is puffing out a bit, I'm walking a little taller, swinging with a little more righteous gusto and purpose. Hits start to add up, the average and slugging numbers start to climb. Before you know it, I'm a bona fide threat, a guy capable of doing damage, an x-factor, a difference-maker whose late-summer rush helped tighten the playoff races and bring excitement to the park.

Sammy Sosa
... and Sammy got caught.
9. The story: First there was the spectacular rise in '98. Now there is the ignominious fall in '03. Next comes the steady, slow bending of shame, hit by hit, bat x-ray by bat x-ray and Bible-sworn press conference by Bible-sworn press conference, into redemption in, say, '05. We love this story. This is our very favorite story. This is the Darryl Strawberry story without the rehab.

10. The Hall is back: In April, with the "Bull Durham" thing, the Hall of Fame was an out-of-touch treehouse club run by a paranoid goof. But now it's the standard by which a player and a man are measured, the heart of baseball integrity and the center of the ongoing debate every pencil pusher and phone jockey in every office in America is taking part in right now.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.





SOSA HELPS OUT

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