Ever since that little dustup in spring training, we wondered what kind of summer it was going to be.
If Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds trade home runs the way they exchanged words Tuesday, the answer is probably a dull one.
But don't count on it. These two won't be pushing each other as close pals, or even as bitter enemies, but they will definitely be pushing each other.
''I don't hate nobody,'' Sosa said. ''I respect everybody, and I want everybody to respect me. I have peace in my heart.''
For his part, Bonds refused to acknowledge a rivalry even exists.
''Nothing?'' a questioner poked.
''No,'' Bonds replied.
''Not even a positive one?'' the same questioner probed.
''No,'' Bonds said, and rolled his eyes.
Tuesday's late-afternoon sun was just beginning to disappear behind the grandstand at Wrigley Field. In two hours, the game's best sluggers would share home plate for the first of only two series scheduled between Bonds' San Francisco Giants and Sosa's Cubs, and then go their separate ways until they meet again in early August.
By then, the home run chase will mean something, and the teasing might not seem quite so playful.
''I'm his elder,'' Bonds said near the end of his 20-minute session with reporters, ''and it's one of the cardinal rules in baseball to respect your elders.''
When Sosa heard those remarks, his face lighted up.
''Who made up the rules,'' he asked, ''Barry?''
By the end of the night, though, Sosa wasn't smiling at all. He won the battle, but Chicago lost the war. Sosa's two-run shot narrowed Bonds' lead in home-run derby to 8-7, but it came with the Cubs trailing 12-0 in a game they would lose 12-4.
Bonds, already nursing a sore hamstring, got plunked on the hip, finished 0-for-3, and the ball he hit farthest was a routine fly pulled in by left fielder Moises Alou. The Giants hardly needed his bat on this night, though, which turned out to be a good thing. Before the game, Bonds said his days as a power-hitter already were numbered, too few, in fact, to take a realistic shot at Henry Aaron's career record of 755.
''I have four or five years left and that's it. I'm done,'' Bonds said.
He turns 38 on July 24. He needs another 150 homers to catch Aaron.
''You intentionally walk me 100-plus times, that's time I lost. I don't have seven more years to make up those differences,'' Bonds said.
But he has some idea who does.
Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez, for one.
''He's 26 years old,'' Bonds said. ''He's hit 40 homers every year except his first two.''
And Sosa, maybe, for another.
''Sammy's young enough to do it,'' Bonds said.
''I have a chance,'' Sammy said.
Six weeks ago, the two of them were standing around in the outfield at a spring-training site when Bonds said something just as flattering. He told Sosa he was counting on him to make a run at the single-season home run record of 73 Bonds had just set.
When Sosa let parts of that conversation slip during a talk with some Chicago reporters, Bonds found out and warned Sosa to quit ''running his mouth.'' Sosa shot back that maybe the ''negative things said about him by his teammates are true.'' Holding serve, Bonds said Sosa was ''childish.''
That's how Tuesday's love-in got started.
Sosa knows how the game, the back and forth, is supposed to go. He went through the routine several times already with Mark McGwire.
He always deferred to Big Mac, often referring to him simply as ''The Man.'' Bonds may have had the single-greatest offensive season of all time, but in Sosa's book it counts only as one season and it's apparently going to take more than just one to impress a man who's been in the home-run business for a while. When he calls Bonds ''the man,'' what usually follows is ''of the hour'' or ''at the moment.''
Still, it's not as if Bonds feels a need to impress Sammy, or anybody else. And just in case, Sosa missed his original point, Bonds on Tuesday repeated another one of what he called baseball's cardinal rules. ''What's discussed on the field,'' he said, ''is supposed to stay there.''
When Sosa heard that he was ready.
''Who,'' he said, breaking into a grin, ''wrote that book?''
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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