Then came a rush that no one was prepared for. Sosa hit two homers each in consecutive games May 25 at Atlanta and May 27 versus Philadelphia. Mark McGwire had 27 home runs by the end of May; Sosa had 13. He belted two more June 1 against Florida, connecting against current Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster in that game, to begin a month to remember, clubbing a Major League-record 20 homers in June.
"It's just so much fun to watch him," Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland said at the time. "It's not supposed to be that easy."
The '98 season had begun on a somber note with the death of longtime Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. The boisterous Caray, who led the Wrigley Field crowd in the seventh inning stretch, would have loved the excitement that kept building with every home run swing by Sosa.
By the end of June, McGwire had 37 homers, Sosa 33.
"Mark McGwire is in a different world," Sosa said then. "He's my idol. He's the man."
The two sluggers respected each other, and their slugfest became the focus of the season. The Cubs were drifting further behind the Houston Astros in the Central Division. On Aug. 8 in St. Louis, Sosa hit a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth but Rod Beck, a.k.a. Shooter, gave up two home runs in the bottom half. In the Chicago 11th, Tyler Houston hit a two-run pinch-hit homer, but again the Cardinals tied the game on Ray Lankford's two-run homer. The Cubs scored in the 12th, but again St. Louis tied it on Eli Marrero's solo homer. The Cardinals eventually won, 9-8, in 13 innings on Lankford's RBI single.
On Aug. 18-19, the Cubs and Cardinals squared off at Wrigley Field, and Sosa and McGwire were tied at 47 homers each. Sosa passed the St. Louis slugger for the first time all season with a home run in the fifth to give the Cubs a 6-2 lead, but McGwire belted two and helped the Cardinals win, 8-6, in 10 innings.
"That's why he's the man," Sosa said.
They met once more, Sept. 7-8 at Busch Stadium. Big Mac had 60 homers, Sosa 58. McGwire connected off Mike Morgan in the first for No. 61 to tie Roger Maris' single-season record. The next day, he broke it with No. 62 off Steve Trachsel. Sosa came in from right field to hug his rival.
On Sept. 13 before a standing room only crowd of 40,846 at Wrigley, Sosa belted Nos. 61 and 62 against Milwaukee. That was just one of the highlights of a wild three-game series against the Brewers in which the two teams combined for 72 runs, 94 hits and 21 homers, and both teams reached double-digit runs in all three contests, a Major League first.
Sosa's 61st and 62nd homers bring us back to Hughes, who was the WGN Radio play by play man. Part of his daily pregame preparation that year included jotting down notes about where Sosa's dingers placed him in history.
"I wanted to say something about Babe Ruth when he hit No. 60," Hughes said. "I think I said, 'Sammy joins the Babe,' or something like that. I wanted to mention Maris when he hit 61. I felt like Iwanted to say something.
"You've got to be true to your radio call first, make the call -- is it a high drive? Line drive? Is it down the line? In the alley? Does the guy make a leaping try? Is it 40 rows in the bleachers? You make that call first. I thought as part of the preparation, I should say something additional after that because of the historic significance."
Hughes' trademark home run call is, "That ball's got a chance -- gone." If a player hits one out of Wrigley Field, Hughes will sometimes say, "Get out the tape measure, long gone." But the 1998 season was unlike any other in Cubs, or baseball, history.
"It's such a spontaneous thing," Hughes said of home runs. "You have to be true to your audience with the call first and foremost. Whatever you add later on is simply your own preference and what you may have thought of at that moment or what you prepared for for that game."
On Sept. 25, the Cubs were playing Houston at the Astrodome. Back on June 8, Chicago was tied with Houston for first in the Central, but the Astros pulled away in early August and had a 13-game lead by late September. From Aug. 8 until the end of the season, the Cubs were never more than one game up or one game out in the Wild Card race.
"There were two parallel dramas that year -- the Cubs were going for the playoffs and concurrently there was the home run battle between Sammy and McGwire," Hughes said. "They were both dramatic but to me, the pennant race is always the most important thing. The most dramatic games to me actually were in that final week culminating with that one-game playoff with the Giants. To me, the team is always the most important thing."
That game at the Astrodome marked Sosa's last home run of the season, No. 66. The Cubs lost, 6-2, and were tied with the Giants for the Wild Card lead at 88-72.
Hughes was prepared with soundbites if Sosa were to make contact again.
"I had a couple things, and I thought they were unique," Hughes said. "'He's gone where no slugger has gone before.' 'He's enters a new home run galaxy,' or, 'It's a new home run high,' or something like that. I was thinking, 'Geez, there are only two days left in the season after today and this could be the one, and it was 66 and that was the call.' I had other things to say but that was the last home run.
"You always feel like you could do a little better," he said. "I feel like I gave it my best shot. I thought that would be the one, and then McGwire goes and hits five in the final weekend."
After 162 games, the Cubs weren't finished. They met the Giants on Sept. 28 at Wrigley in a one-game playoff to determine the Wild Card winner. Steve Trachsel started for Chicago, and threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings, despite walking six. In the fifth, ageless Gary Gaetti, a mid-season pickup, hit a two-run homer to go ahead, 2-0. Matt Mieske's pinch-hit two-run single in the sixth made it 4-0.
The Giants scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth but Beck came in and got Joe Carter to pop up in foul territory to pick up his 51st save. The Cubs were 90-73, and headed to the postseason for the first time since 1989.
Sosa didn't homer in the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. The Cubs didn't muster much offense at all against John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux, and were held to four runs, 17 hits and a .181 average as Atlanta swept the best-of-five series. Maddux beat Wood in the deciding Game 3.
Sosa finished with a Major League-leading 158 RBIs, and won the NL Most Valuable Player award, the ninth player in Cubs history to do so. Of his 66 home runs, 21 gave the Cubs a lead, six tied the game, and 10 were hit with the Cubs holding a one-run lead, while eight brought the Cubs to within one run.
Kevin Tapani was 19-9, Trachsel 15-8, while Wood was 13-6 and struck out 233 over 166 2/3 innings to win Rookie of the Year honors.
"The most obvious thing that carried us was the phenomenon that was Sammy Sosa," Jim Riggleman, then the Cubs manager, said in an interview. "He was unbelievable. What he did was not only hit all these home runs that were winning ballgames and always making us feel like we could win the ballgames, but so much of the attention was on Sammy that it allowed other people to just go to work."
People like Pat Hughes. Good call, Pat.