By Jason Maholy
There was a time when I loved Sammy Sosa.
Okay, so maybe “love” is the wrong word, but in the context of sports fandom I think you all know what I’m talking about. He was on my short list of all-time favorite players, which includes Ryne Sandberg, Andrew Dawson, Greg Maddux and Mark Grace. For you Sox fans out there, how you felt and probably still feel about Carlton Fisk, Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko – that’s how it was for me when it came to Sosa.
The show he and Mark McGwire put on during the summer of 1998 as the two sluggers challenged Roger Maris’ single-season home run record was must-see TV. Baseball fans across the country were enthralled by the race, as was Major League Baseball, a league that had still not recovered from the strike that cut short the 1994 season and resulted in the cancellation of that year’s postseason and World Series. I, at the time a student at Eastern Illinois University, found a TV whenever and wherever I could.
Sosa finished that season with 66 home runs – four behind McGwire’s then record-setting 70 – but though he lost that battle the Cubs won the war, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 1989. And Sosa was voted that season’s National League MVP, an accomplishment few people who had followed his career to that point could have ever seen happening. Sure, Sammy had indisputable talent – power, speed and a cannon arm – but he was an unremarkable baseball player who several years into his career still made “rookie” mistakes, was useless in the clutch, and frustratingly flailed at low-and-outside breaking balls. His 1994, 1995 and 1996 seasons were very good – look them up when you get the chance, if you’re into that sort of thing – but it just seemed he would never put it all together and become a superstar. And to watch a guy with that skill set be unable to realize his potential was disappointing.
Then 1998 happened. Sosa was coming off an underwhelming 1997 season, so not a whole lot was expected of him, or the Cubs, for that matter. But it was obvious from the start something was amiss. Sosa was laying off that breaking ball in the dirt and was just a more patient hitter overall. He was taking the ball to right field instead of wildly swinging and trying to hit every pitch 500 feet to left field, and he was drawing walks at a more frequent pace than ever before. And while it at first seemed he was sacrificing some power to be a better hitter, we soon learned that was far from the case. As pitchers realized they were not as likely to get him out throwing garbage, he began getting more pitches to hit – and he rarely missed. His performance during June was legendary as he belted a 20 home runs – the most any player has hit in any month in MLB history, then or since.
Sosa would prove to be no one-hit wonder. He would hit 60-plus home runs twice more, becoming the only player to ever surpass 60 round-trippers three times, and his 2001 season – 64 homers, 160 RBI, 146 runs, .328 batting average, .437 on-base percentage, .737 slugging percentage and 1.174 OPS – is one the greatest statistical performances in baseball history. And although his skills would begin to diminish over the following seasons, he was a key contributor to the 2003 team that advanced within five outs of making it to the World Series. His game-tying homer off Marlins closer Ugueth Urbina in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 of the NLCS is among the most memorable moments in Cubs playoff history – at least in any season that didn’t end with a World Series championship, and we know how many of those there have been in our lifetimes.
It was evident during this amazing run that Sosa was an egomaniacal, attention-craving superstar. Behind the fun-loving, exuberant exterior there was an emotionally fragile man-child who winced at even the slightest hint of criticism. It grew tiresome, but as we do with our sports heroes, we look beyond their obvious flaws because of – let’s be honest – the trivial thrills they provide and the success they help bring to our favorite teams. By the end of the 2004 season, many Cubs fans had had enough of his antics, and if his prima donna attitude hadn’t already turned them off, he severed many of the last tethers of goodwill when he took his ball – or in this case his bat and glove – and walked out on the team during the final game of the season. The petulant child he had been all along had reared its ugliest head.
Then came the allegations of PED use and his being named as one of many players who failed a PED test before there were penalties for doing so. He denied ever using PEDs, as he had done all along – during his glory days citing, practically with a wink, “Flintstones vitamins” as the source of his strength. By then anyone with a brain knew it wasn’t juiced balls, juiced bats or watered-down pitching, but rather juiced players that were the reason behind the video game-type numbers that altered the record books during the late-1990s and into the 21st Century.
So where’s all this going? Sosa, in a story appearing in Sports Illustrated, is still steadfast in his denial that he ever used PEDs. In the same interview, he also equates himself to Cubs great and Ernie Banks, and questions why the Cubs have not honored him – as the organization has Banks – with a statue outside Wrigley Field.
I, for one, don’t even care if Sosa used PEDs. There are undoubtedly players from Sosa’s era who used PEDs and are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and most of us recognize that it is likely the majority of players between 1995 and into the first decade of this millennium were juicing. Heck, we know Willie Mays and other superstars from the 1960s, 70s and 80s were jacked up on amphetamines, but I don’t hear anyone talking about that when it comes to PEDs in baseball. That doesn’t make it okay these guys cheated, but I’m not one of these people who thinks these guys cheated me out of anything. I mean, it’s just baseball; it’s not like they started a war under false pretenses or covered up the institutional, systematic sexual abuse of children. You know, actual, really serious issues?
What irks me about Sosa is his stubborn refusal to come clean and admit to what he did. And by not simply keeping his mouth shut and fading away, he continues to insult our intelligence by denying it. In his oblivious, narcissistic view he is saving face by refusing to acknowledge the error of his ways, but the reality is his lack of contrition makes him look even worse. He actually believes he has a legacy to protect.
And a statue outside Wrigley, aside the like of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo? Those men conducted themselves with dignity and class, and ingratiated themselves to the Cubs faithful by giving back to the organization and fans that gave them so much. Sosa gave us moments on the field, but beyond that did nothing but take.
All of this is indicative that Sammy is seriously out of touch with reality, which is usually the case with egomaniacs. Our society is very willing to forgive when people come clean, particularly for something as trivial as cheating in baseball, but when one continues to lie about that which we all know he is lying, we simply dismiss him as a fool.
Sammy Sosa, once the toast of the town, has reduced himself to a punchline. He would look more appropriate in a jester’s hat than a Chicago Cubs cap.