Sammy Sosa is Chicago's power king
For his play on the field alone, former Cubs slugger deserves better
Editor's note: In celebration of Monday night's Home Run Derby (7 p.m. CT on ESPN and ESPN3), each of the ESPN local sites is selecting its city's top 10 sluggers and crowning its all-time home run king.
The Cubs, and their fans, can probably forgive the supposed cheating that benefitted them, but the crime of still being a jerk when you've become disposable is one that lingers.
Traded and later identified as a cheater by a leaked drug test result in 2009, a shrunken Sosa is now slugger non grata in Chicago. He's treated as an embodiment to the excesses of the so-called steroid era and an embarrassing reminder that baseball fans would pretty much believe anything once upon a time.
By the end, he was DL-ed for sneezing, caught using a corked bat and served as an anachronism for a team that was trying to shed an identity of a losing team that filled seats because of Sosa's home runs.
It's a shame, because Sosa did a lot for the Cubs in his tenure, more than any asterisk could erase. He made fans happy, he made the Cubs money, he sold a lot of T-shirts, beers and hot dogs, just by keeping fans enthralled.
Most have accepted the steroid era for what it was. Regardless of how he did it, Sosa is the greatest pure home run hitter who has ever played in Chicago. Am I right?
"No, Frank Thomas is," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said.
Well, we can agree to disagree there, Ozzie.
Big Hurt certainly is the best all-around hitter, but the art of the home run was transmogrified in the 1990s to an exercise in chemically-enhanced brawn. And Sosa was one of the poster boys for that time, for better or for worse.
For all the shame we're supposed to have from that era, as we move further away from it, I find nothing wrong with remembering that time with a wink and a smile. It was fun, wasn't it?
So let's not alter history: Sosa was good for baseball, and great for the Cubs. That's something Ozzie and I can surely agree on.
"Like I say, I don't know what he did, that's not my business, I don't care. But Sammy Sosa was good for the game," Guillen said. "Very great. Not good, great."
From 1998 through 2001, Sosa hit 243 home runs, including three 60-plus home run seasons. From 1995 through 2003, he hit at least 35 home runs. In all, Sosa clubbed 545 home runs and drove in 1,414 runs in a Cubs uniform.
You can't erase those numbers or the memories of the fans who marveled at the show he put on. And no syringe can make a human being that good at hitting a baseball, as one of the world's foremost experts is fond of pointing out.
"Steroids are completely overrated, guys," Jose Canseco said to a few reporters at a recent independent league game in suburban Chicago. "I think everyone puts too much emphasis on steroids and that they can make you a superstar player. They cannot. It's an impossibility."
He uses his twin brother Ozzie as an example. While Jose clubbed his way to a 40-40 season and nearly 500 home runs, Ozzie was a major league flop.
Before his power explosion and his 1998 race to 71 with Mark McGwire, Sosa was already an up-and-coming baseball player, and one who worked his tail off to prepare, as former teammate Doug Glanville recalls, even as his desire alienated him from his teammates.
Even before his clubhouse stereo became a symbol of his selfishness, Glanville remembers Cubs quickly growing irritated over Sosa's obsessive-compulsive pregame schedule, which often meant other hitters had to work around the slugger's schedule.
"He was very regimented," Glanville said in a phone conversation. "He was almost obsessive with his preparation. He had a certain time he would want to hit with the hitting coach, and he didn't stray from that routine. Sometimes that kind of attitude is hard in a team environment."
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Glanville, now an ESPN commentator, author and New York Times essayist, remembered Sosa as being "fun-loving," but also overly concerned with being famous. Maybe that self-consciousness pushed him toward doing anything to hit more home runs.
"I don't dismiss what he might have done as not a big deal," Glanville said. "But I very much recognize of how that comes to be. If you're a guy like Sosa, and maybe your career is flatlining, I can't say what I'd do, especially if you're coming from not having money."
Glanville thinks time will work in Sosa's favor, as far as getting welcomed back to Chicago. While he disapproves of steroid users, especially since he competed against them, he understands the forces that made guys cheat. Maybe that's how this past era will be looked at in the future.
"I don't think we're going to have a full sense of what it means until there is more time behind it," Glanville said. "That's part of the steps. I don't think it's spoken about quite as much as already. Baseball has always had these types of eras. This was an era that brought most of the records into such a focus. There was cocaine in the '80s, and before that we had amphetamines. We'll have HGH or something in future. That was a hypercompetitive environment and you had people in survival mode. There were going to be natural collisions where people push the envelope."
But for now, in the eyes of the Cubs' organization, however, Sosa is no more part of the team than Neifi Perez. He's not invited to Cubs Convention, nor will you find pictures of him at Wrigley Field. There are no plans to honor him in any way in the near future, a Cubs media relations employee told me.
(Maybe Blackhawks president John McDonough and his aide de camp Jay Blunk could offer Sosa an ambassador job with the Blackhawks, or retire his jersey in the United Center rafters -- after all, Sosa did even more for them while they were with the Cubs than the inventor of the Beanie Babies giveaway -- but I wouldn't count on that either.) Glanville brought up a more salient point on why Sosa is exiled. The way he left. It was like a deposed dictator fleeing to South America.
"Sosa's biggest issue is how things ended in Chicago," Glanville said. "The way he framed it was a problem."
Sosa, clearly on the downside of his tenure, was busted leaving the season finale in 2004 during the game; he had asked out of the game and if you recall the team had just finished a downward spiral. The Cubs aired him out in the media, even providing video of him walking out to his car during the game.
Sosa refused to apologize for breaking some kind of clubhouse law, and the animosity between the organization and Sosa was palpable. The marriage had ended. After the game, one Cubs player destroyed Sosa's hated stereo with a bat and the slugger was traded to Baltimore in the offseason.
In an interview with Chicago Magazine last summer, Sosa blamed the Cubs for destroying his image at the end and criticized the team for not honoring him. That probably didn't help mend his image with the new owners.
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The Cubs "threw me into the fire," he told a Chicago Magazine reporter. "They made [people] believe I'm a monster."
I brought this up to Guillen, who deflected blame onto the Cubs. Guillen said his players would never leave a game early, or do anything disrespectful to baseball, because he won't allow it. So he credits the enabling culture around Sosa, in some way, for turning him into a pariah. That's a popular opinion among baseball circles.
"That's not his fault, it's somebody else's [fault]," Guillen said of the early dismissal issue. "I'm not going to blame who, that's not my business. That's not Sammy's fault. All things players do is somebody else's fault because they let it happen. But I'll tell you this, you'd never see Paul Konerko do that."
Guillen doesn't think Sosa or McGwire get the requisite credit for "saving baseball." And he certainly doesn't think his former teammate Thomas, now a part-time commentator on Comcast SportsNet, is remembered as augustly as he should be, though when he goes into the Hall of Fame in 2013 that will likely change.
"That's why when I make a comment that people will forget you in a heartbeat. They will," Guillen said. "They will, they don't give a [bleep] who you are or what you do. They'll blame something."
Sosa will never be truly forgotten. But for his exploits alone, he deserves better.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.