PITTSBURGH -- As a young boy in the Dominican Republic, Sammy Sosa would shine shoes to help provide money for his family. There were no baseball games played unless someone found a sturdy tree branch and remembered to roll up a sock and wrap it in tape.
Just how frazzled is he supposed to get over pursuing Roger Maris' single-season home run record?
"This is like a holiday for me," he said.
The celebration grew some more last night. Sosa connected off Pittsburgh's Jason Schmidt with two outs in the first inning, smacking the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field for his 57th homer in Chicago's 5-2 victory at Three Rivers Stadium. He broke the Cubs' single-season record held by Hack Wilson since 1930, and also moved within four of Maris.
A crowd of 36,510, considerably more than the 8,610 who watched the previous day's loss to expansion Arizona, grumbled as Schmidt's first two pitches missed the strike zone. Sosa swung hard at the third, taking it 401 feet the opposite way and narrowing the gap between himself and St. Louis' Mark McGwire, who has 59.
An ovation similar to which greeted Sosa's introduction accompanied his trip around the bases and into the dugout. He emerged with two fingers raised, the obligatory curtain call that punctuates every blast.
The Pirates were the last National League team to allow a homer to Sosa this year. He also singled and scored in the fourth inning, struck out in the sixth, reached on a throwing error by shortstop Lou Collier in the eighth, and reached again on an error by third baseman Freddy Garcia with the bases loaded in the ninth that brought in the go-ahead run and was credited with an RBI that increased his total to 139.
"Right now I feel like one of the lucky guys," he said after the Cubs' fifth straight win, which allowed them to maintain their one-game lead over the New York Mets in the NL wild-card race. "We got the win and I got [Wilson's] record.
"It's been there for how many years? I hope mine stays that long. When I retire, my name's going to be here for a long time. But I'm not satisfied by what's happening right now. I want to continue doing my job."
Sosa admitted to watching each of McGwire's at-bats on the video screen. "I wanted him to hit No. 60 tonight. I was ready to clap, too," he said.
If McGwire is attracting a media circus wherever he goes, Sosa has built his following to carnival proportions.
He sat with his back to the screen behind home plate during batting practice, answering questions for nearly 40 minutes that ranged from personal to preposterous. He engaged in relaxed conversation, as if reclining in his living room with a few close friends. Laughter came easily, as did his latest prediction.
Sosa hasn't changed his vote. He still believes McGwire will be declared the winner of the great home run chase, with a final count of 70. "He can do it. He's Superman," Sosa said.
"This is exciting because we're pulling for each other. When you're by yourself, it's more difficult. This makes it nice."
Last night's game drew an impressive crowd in a city where football rules. Advanced sales for the three-game series reached 76,000, compared to 107,000 the last time McGwire was here.
Sosa sat still long enough to get dressed, then became a study in perpetual motion. He darted from one locker to the next, calling out a teammate's name in a tone loud enough to rattle the walls or shoving a magazine under their noses and howling. His hips swayed to the music coming from a stereo. He continued to handle the pressure of catching Maris like a batting-practice fastball.
"I think about Maris, what he went through. Sammy's very relaxed," said pitching coach Phil Regan, himself much calmer than during his one season managing the Orioles in 1995. "You see him now, laughing and joking around. To me, he likes the attention. He's no different today than in spring training."
Regan has seen this type of media swarm before, when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record. But the anticipation with Sosa is different, Regan said, because it's not known in advance when he will inch closer to Maris. With Ripken, the lineup card took away any suspense.
"This is always so unexpected," he said. "And with Cal, it was more emotional. They'd drop the flag on the warehouse with the number of games and you'd get goosebumps."
Manny Alexander gets claustrophobic. The former Orioles shortstop has his locker next to Sosa's on the road, where privacy is sacrificed for a good story.
"I have to kick people out of there sometimes," he said, "but it's been fun."
A look at how Sammy Sosa fared last night:
First inning: Hit his 57th home run to right-center field in the first inning.
Fourth inning: Singled to left.
Sixth inning: Struck out swinging.
Eighth inning: Reached base on throwing error.
Ninth inning: Reached base on an error.
Tracking the pursuit of Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs in 1961:
McGwire ...... ...Sosa
59 .......... ....57
23 .............. 21
NTC 0-for-3, 0 HR ....2-for-5, 1 HR
Pub Date: 9/05/98