Sammy vs. MJ: Who was No. 1 in local sports in ’98? Believe it or not, Sosa dethrones Jordan as king

From the archives: A guy named Sammy Sosa also dominated the headlines in 1998.

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Michael Jordan chats with Sammy Sosa at Wrigley Field.

Michael Jordan chats with Sammy Sosa at Wrigley Field.

Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Originally published Dec. 24, 1998.

The first instinct is to look for ghosts. In the same year Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs, we also saw Michael Jordan steal the ball, take a calculated pause, push off cunningly and fire his latest and greatest buzzer-beating shot with ... 6.6 seconds left.

Are you kidding me?

What this spooky numerical symmetry means, I don’t know. Let’s just leave it as a cute coincidence, more evidence why 1998_whether you’re old or young or a middle-aged politician being hounded by Larry Flynt — was the most eventful, memorable, excellent and cool sports year of our time. Generations aren’t bonded by much these days. But somehow, a series of flashbulbs and majestic achievements brought us together in collective awe, eyes stony and mouths agape.

“Daddy, can we go watch Sammy Sosa play a game?” an 8-year-old asked in July, letting the alliteration roll off her tongue.

It is unfair to expect an encore any time soon. The drama was that intense, that immense. This was the year the most regal of records was shattered, the year history moved aside for some of its greatest teams, the year the impossible happened and let John Elway win and Doug Flutie play, the year Casey Martin beat golf’s arrogant masters and rode his cart, the year Harry Caray lived after he died and Joe DiMaggio died while he lived. The best testimony for 1998 was that it could include a crippling NBA lockout, a steroid called androstenedione, the relicensing of Mike Tyson, the flop of the Winter Olympics and every imaginable wedding, annulment, schlock movie andwrestlingshow involvingDennis Rodman_and still be remembered as a wonderful year.

A certain Midwestern megalopolis is exhausted, having served as a leading epicenter of it all. It started on a cold, dreary day in May, when Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters and identified himself as the real Chicago Hope. It continued with the tragicomic saga of the Bulls, which ended with the sixth and probably final title, the disappearance of Phil Jackson on a Harley and the hiring of Tim Floyd, Jerry Krause’s boy, even though Krause had denied at least 100 times that Floyd was coming. As the Bull hit the fan, Sosa was turning a June freak streak into an assault on Roger Maris’ record, matching the juiced-up Mark McGwire with natural muscle, homer after homer, deep into September. Next thing you knew, the same player who couldn’t hit a cutoff man two years ago was contending for the Nobel Peace Prize, delivering food and supplies to his native Dominican Republic after a deadly hurricane.

Maybe Chicago seems like loserville these days. And maybe ‘98 doesn’t have the ring of ‘85, knowing the sociological importance of the Bears. But have you ever experienced a year when two stories had you riveted to the sports page and TV set every day? There’s probably no reason to compare the stories as much as cherish them as separate joys, preserve them in cocoons forever. Just the same, it’s a fascinating exercise, deciding whether Sosa, Wood and the Harry-less Cubs had more impact in the city than another championship by Jordan and the Bulls.

More to the point, Sosa vs. Jordan. Who was the bigger story in ‘98? It should surprise no one that I say Sosa. His triumph was new, fresh, thoroughly unexpected. It involved a man who, in 10 years, has grown up before our eyes, shed his immaturity and wayward tendencies and become a humanitarian and worldwide ambassador. In fairness to Jordan, he never had to rescue an impoverished homeland after a disaster. But Sosa also went about his daily baseball business with a smile, like someone who had his life in perfect perspective. He was more fun to be around than McGwire, more fun to be around than Jordan. Where did this come from?

Sosa didn’t achieve what those men did. He didn’t hit 70 home runs or throw down the killer dagger to win another ring. But he came so much further, from a milk-carton-glove existence. Jordan is the best there ever was. McGwire owns the most famous and glorified record of all. But Sosa is the one we identified with this year. There is a reason he joins McGwire on recent magazine covers, hailed as dual Sportsmen of the Year. Together, they captured the essence of sport, carrying on a friendlycompetition amid the force of extreme pressure. McGwire won, but it wasn’t until Sosa showed him how to loosen up and enjoy the show, in mid-August at Wrigley Field, that he relaxed and passed Maris and reached 70. When they hugged that night in St. Louis, a world felt itself locked in the same embrace.

Nationally, Home Run Derby is the leading story on all accounts. Locally, the costar heads my list.

1. Pope Sammy I hits 66 home runs, wins Most Valuable Player award, rides in parade down Broadway, sings “We Are the World.”

2. Bulls win sixth NBA title. Jordan hits Hollywood career-ending shot, rejects Jerry Reinsdorf’s cigar.

3. Free Love Phil leaves, restricts recent interviews to lone chat with Cigar Aficionado magazine. Pink Floyd arrives, finally gives Krause a rent-a-friend and dinner companion.

4. Goodbye Harry, hello Kerry. Cubs win, make playoffs, celebrate like they had won World Series, get swept by Braves, betray Sosa’s trust by doing nothing during offseason.

5. NBA lockout threatens Jordan dynasty after Jordan changes his mind three times about playing for Floyd.

6. Bears continue their free-fall, but Dave Wannstedt (a.k.a. The Luckiest Man in Town) expected to keep his job.

7. Gambling scandal rocks snooty university on North Shore, but coach and athletic director refuse to accept any responsibility.

8. White Sox part ways with Albert Belle and Robin Ventura, slide into oblivion as minor-market team in major market.

9. DePaul’s basketball resurgence.

10. Fire wins soccer title.

We might have to make that Fire title last for a while. Cycles are vicious in sports. The gods reward a town, then make it pay. Are the lean ‘70s upon us again? A look ahead:

January — McCaskey returns from vacation riding camels in Kenya, retains Wannstedt, saves $2.5 million in salary, banks megamillions in league TV money. Baseball writers gain revenge on moody Carlton Fisk, don’t vote him into Hall of Fame.

February — After NBA season is canceled, Rodman agrees to marry Marilyn Manson, then cancels wedding in dispute about who wears gown.

March — DePaul upsets Cincinnati in Conference USA tournament. Joey Meyer is at the mike for Northwestern’s 20th loss of season.

April — Bears pass up Donovan McNabb to take 6-4, 230-pound B.A. Available, a linebacker out of Alcorn State. Blackhawks miss playoffs for second consecutive year for first time since late ‘50s.

May — Reporters ask Sosa, who has 18 home runs, why he’s slumping.

July — Bored with his life of wingtips, Jordan begins movie career. Variety declares: “Bag it, Michael.”

September — Cubs headed toward .500 season, fans hail improved selection at Beers of the World stand.

October — Sosa ends with 59 home runs, apologizes to fans “for a disappointing year.” Fire wins second consecutive title, mayor orders statue of Zach Thornton erected outside Soldier Field.

November — NBA season resumes, 10,000 show up at United Center for loss to Scottie Pippen and Rockets.

December — Stadium lease expires, McCaskey announces agreement to play games on flag-football field in Lincoln Park.

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