Commentary

More than whispers now for Sosa

Star tarnished by allegations

Originally Published: June 16, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeSammy Sosa
Mike Fiala/AFP/Getty ImagesSammy Sosa's bulging biceps made some people suspicious.

Well, now I've heard everything.

Say it ain't so, Sammy!

My hands are shaking, my worldview is shaken. My faith in Flintstones vitamins as muscle-building supplements is lost forever.

Those biceps, those triceps, those deltoids, those home runs. All fake.

Yes, Sammy Sosa, the erstwhile home run king of the Chicago Cubs, has finally been named as an able and willing participant in the Steroid Era.

What wacky news will befall us next? Cigarettes are bad for you? Rain is wet?

Maybe he just took the wrong pill, like when he used the wrong corked bat. Maybe those were his batting practice steroids. It's possible, right?

Sosa and steroids. Did you ever think you'd hear those two sibilant words together? Well, yeah, of course you did, if you had two eyes.

After being outed by unnamed lawyers for using some kind of performance-enhancing drug in a New York Times report on Tuesday, Sosa's legacy is officially shot. The era he helped champion with his mammoth home runs and joyful trots was already marred beyond reclamation.

Sosa now joins Alex Rodriguez as one of the 104 players who reportedly failed a baseball-wide mandatory drug test in 2003. That was the last season when players could juice, inject and pop pills with impunity. Or so they thought.

The majority of the list, which consists of the few dumb enough to keep using during baseball's penalty-free testing phase, remains a secret, but the leaks have implicated two of the top 12 home run hitters in baseball history. More names will surely come. And when they're announced, do yourself a favor and don't act surprised.

Yes, Sosa was a no-brainer, from his balloon biceps to his veiny neck. But there are others out there, superstars and hometown heroes, who are sweating tonight.

For a sport that cherishes its past like no other, baseball is constantly drowning in its past sins.

While the A-Rod news broke before spring training, Sosa made himself the news two weeks ago when word filtered out from the Dominican Republic that he was officially retiring and starting his countdown to the Hall of Fame. Cloistered from his disbelieving public, and thinking his test was safely sealed away at some lab, Sosa thought his 609 home runs (ranking him sixth all time) were his key to Cooperstown.

"Everything I achieved, I did it thanks to my perseverance, which is why I never had any long, difficult moments [as a baseball player]. If you have a bad day in baseball, and start thinking about it, you will have 10 more," Sosa told ESPNDeportes on June 4. "I will calmly wait for my induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Don't I have the numbers to be inducted?"

Sosa added, "I always played with love and responsibility and I assure you that I will not answer nor listen to rumors. If anything ugly comes up in the future, we will confront it immediately, but with all our strength because I will not allow anybody to tarnish what I did in the field."

So much for that. The future is now, Sammy.

"I'm kind of surprised that he came out for an official retirement," said Steve Stone, a White Sox television broadcaster who announced games for the Cubs during Sosa's heyday, "because sometimes when you do that and make a comment as he made, it has ramifications that you can't foresee and in this case, these are some of the ramifications."

The former Cubs and White Sox slugger was the talk of a rainy afternoon at Wrigley Field on Tuesday.

Cubs manager Lou Piniella said he'll leave drug-busting to baseball, because "I have enough problems managing the Chicago Cubs."

The former slugger from the wild Bronx Zoo days sounded positively prehistoric when he said he wouldn't know "a steroid from a reefer."

While most of us jaded Chicagoans can laugh at this story, White Sox reliever Octavio Dotel said the news will be taken differently in their shared homeland, the Dominican Republic.

"It's a tough one," he said. "It's really, really, really tough, especially for us. Sammy is one of our leaders. Not only that, Sammy Sosa is everywhere. … Hey, Sammy is one of our leaders in the Dominican Republic. He's one of the guys who did unbelievable things in baseball. It's a big mistake. He didn't kill nobody, yes. But it's a big mistake by him."

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called the news "really sad." Just a few days ago, one of his former players, Pablo Ozuna, was busted for using in the minors. The White Sox and Cubs had made it through the brunt of the 2007 Mitchell report and ensuing leaks without having a former star player implicated before Tuesday.

"We all should be embarrassed," he said. "No matter how you put it, you're not going to win. Every other week, every two weeks, we have to talk about this, about someone else, another player. Whoever's names are out there, I'd rather get it out and deal with it for one day, so we don't have to sit every day and be asked some of these questions."

"If you do wrong things, then eventually it comes out and you pay the price," said White Sox DH Jim Thome, who is third among active players, and 13th overall, with 553 home runs.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," said fellow Dominican Aramis Ramirez, who joined his countryman on the Cubs in 2003. "Everybody talked about it, but I played with him for two years here and I never saw him do anything wrong."

"It's not a shock," said Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, who played with Sosa in 2004. "You kept hearing the rumors, this and that. I like to believe people are innocent until proven guilty, but now it sounds like he's proven."

Sosa has been the poster boy for guilty before proven innocent since everyone started writing about what everyone was ignoring, for whatever reason, for a decade.

[+] EnlargeSammy Sosa & Mark McGwire
Stephen Jaffe/AFP/Getty ImagesSammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were praised for saving baseball in 1998. That praise now rings hollow.

What bothers me is that the party line continues to exist that however he did it, Sosa helped save baseball during his 1998 traveling freak show with Mark McGwire. As if they were doing it for charity. I'll admit that season was pretty incredible, but in reality, Sosa wound up helping destroy the sanctity of the most difficult, most masculine play in all of sports.

For so many years, the very idea of 60 home runs was synonymous with super-heroics and the once-in-a-lifetime story of Roger Maris, and the kind of providence that touches an athlete, or a writer, or a poet and makes it worthwhile to be a fan of something.

Sixty home runs was the kind of mark that inspires little kids to read the backs of baseball cards and memorize arcane facts. Maris' 61 was something special.

Then all of a sudden, it was all meaningless, just another number. Sosa whacked balls over the wall, again and again and again -- 66 in 1998, 63 the next year, 50 in 2000 and 64 in 2001. We all cluck our tongues retroactively, but when every second baseman started hitting 40, 50 home runs, it became old hat. When Barry Bonds hit 73, it was celebrated. By the time he slugged 756, we were all exhausted.

So tell me again, how did Sammy Sosa save baseball?

Until Tuesday, Sosa had never been implicated by a former trainer, ex-player or the Mitchell report, but his performance in front of Congress in 2005 was the fin de siècle for his public career. When he used a translator to read an official statement that he had never used "illegal performance-enhancing drugs," maybe he just meant that day. To everyone he looked as guilty at that table as he looked juiced in his cut-off shirts.

It's fitting the test was in 2003, because that was the year Sosa's prima donna act became tired. The Cubs were gunning for something other than a full house and few were coming out just to see his hop. And of course, there was his embarrassing corked bat incident that served as a deus ex machina of Sosa's fade into ignominy. He hit 40 home runs that year. How many do you remember?

The next year, he sneezed, shrank and skedaddled out of the Cubs' good graces. His own team sold him out for leaving the clubhouse early. By then, the Cubs were glad to be rid of him.

Did anyone suspect Sosa was juicing back then?

"Do you think the sun's gonna rise in the East tomorrow?" Stone said. "He was the star of the team that I broadcast, that I broadcast for. It wasn't our job to check out what guys did or didn't do ... it wasn't my place as a broadcaster to ever question who did what. My feeling is Sammy did what he did. I think he will pay the same price as a lot of other guys from the steroid era."

And why should the Cubs have cared? Baseball was celebrating his heroics and the Cubs were rolling in dough in 1999 and 2000, when Sosa's homers kept the turnstiles clicking. Baseball's a business and Sosa closed like Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Cubs general manager Jim Hendry decried the whole era and kept up the easy call for baseball to keep penalizing users, like it did when Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games this year.

"Obviously he put up numbers here that were phenomenal," Hendry said. "He did a lot for the city, and the franchise had some really down years when he was going good. So I'm sure he did a lot for our fan base and the organization. Let people judge him on what kind of total player compared to the other players of his era."

I guess that's the best-of-the-worst argument we'll be hearing more of in the coming years as Bonds, Sosa and their ilk are eligible for the Hall of Fame. The voters will have to judge a handful of known steroid users as a group. McGwire, and his 583 homers, is languishing far away from electability.

This Hall of Fame question vexes me, because it's not as if that kind of approval would erase his baseball sins. We wouldn't forget about it.

Should Sosa get in? Shouldn't he? Does it matter? The dopiest question of all is, "Should they have a separate wing for the juicers?" The Hall of Fame isn't a nightclub, just getting in isn't the goal. It's more of a calling card, acknowledgement of your immortal achievements.

So really, either you're in or you're not. Where they put your plaque is meaningless.

"To me, he is [in]," Guillen said. "He's got the numbers."

Ironically, Sosa's contemporary, Frank Thomas, was at the park in a temporary role as TV talking head. While Sosa did his chest tap and his sprint to right, Thomas was a less cuddly superstar on the less popular South Side. A two-time MVP before the Steroid Era really exploded, Thomas was never as popular as Sosa. Chicks don't dig a keen batting eye.

The Big Hurt, who is building a campaign as the Last Honest Superstar of his era, along with Ken Griffey Jr., was there for Comcast SportsNet Chicago. He didn't make an official comment on the matter, but when someone asked if he was surprised, he said he wasn't shocked another big name came out. "No. With all the people that have come out, I'm not shocked," he said.

Thomas, a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer after he eventually retires for good, stood there, his bald head grazing the top of the visiting dugout. He tried to stay dry, like he has in the court of public opinion since coming out for steroid testing way before it was popular.

I thought it was poignant that Thomas, who has had his share of money problems, was hustling for a post-baseball job in Chicago, while Sosa, a millionaire many times over, is at his luxurious compound in the Dominican Republic, a wealthy man with no place in the city he used to own and the stadium he used to fill.

Someone asked Guillen if there was any way for Sosa to reclaim his legacy in Chicago.

"The only way he can save it is if he proves he's not guilty," Guillen said.

Good luck, Sammy.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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