Sosa's legacy could be broken beyond repair

Thanks to the video age, Sammy Sosa's career will be forever linked with one splintering swing.

Originally Published: June 2, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

He's going to get suspended. But that's not Sammy Sosa's biggest problem.

He lost an RBI. But that's not Sammy Sosa's biggest problem, either.

Sammy Sosa
AP Photo/Steve MatteoThis will be the first year Sammy Sosa won't play in the All-Star Game since 1998.

No, Sammy's biggest problem now is that he lives in a video age. And he has just been handed a life sentence in America's National Videotape Prison.

It isn't our intention right now to play judge, jury and prosecutor over what Sammy Sosa did or didn't do Tuesday night. He did what he did. He explained it how he explained it. You can believe him or you can not believe him.

But the videotape isn't going away. Not ever. He can ask Billy Hatcher. He can ask Wilton Guerrero. He can ask Albert Belle. He can ask Graig Nettles.

For years now, the image of Sammy in most American minds was Sammy hugging Mark McGwire during the Maris Chase in 1998. Or Sammy racing out to right field waving his little American flag after Sept. 11, 2001. Or Sammy doing his little hop step as another home run sailed off toward a Waveland Avenue rooftop.

But not anymore.

Now the image is going to be Sammy hitting a dinky little broken-bat ground ball to second base -- on the night his world changed forever.

Now people will ask if he has cheated his way to those 505 home runs, even though all the cork in Portugal wouldn't help a man hit 505 home runs if he couldn't hit.

Now people will ask if his whole career, his whole rise from raw strikeout machine to one of the great sluggers of all time, was phony and tainted -- even though Sosa's maturation as a disciplined hitter who learned the strike zone and hit great pitches to every field was not something he could have accomplished with a drill and some cork.

Now people will look at a man who was once one of baseball's most beloved figures and ask: "Why?" And no matter how reasonable or unfathomable the explanation, will anyone be interested in accepting it?

That's not a place anyone wants to be in this world we live in. But it is Sammy Sosa's place now, whether he likes it or not.

"The first thing that went through my mind," said his former Cubs teammate, Turk Wendell, on Tuesday, "was why would a guy like that be using cork? In my eyes, I could see guys who are little shortstops, who hit two or three home runs a year, using a corked bat so they could maybe hit one or two more homers. But Sammy doesn't hit paint-scrapers. He doesn't need help getting his balls to go out of the park. He hits moon shots. So I don't understand why he'd use a corked bat."

Now everything else he's done has question marks around it. His home run records, everything. It's all surrounded by question marks.
Turk Wendell

His first order of business, Sosa understands, is to await the formal portion of his punishment. Bob Watson, baseball's vice president in charge of discipline, was already on the case Tuesday night before the Cubs had even left the field. And he will be handing down a suspension of at least a week.

Belle got seven games for corking his bat nine years ago. Guerrero got eight games for his cork-a-pade six years ago. Hatcher was nailed for eight games in 1987.

There was speculation from some baseball people Tuesday night that Watson could be even tougher on Sosa. And that's a huge issue, obviously, for a Cubs team that's trying to win. But for Sosa, it's only a subplot now -- because however long his suspension is, at least some day it will end.

But the ripple effect of this one swing of the bat on Sosa's reputation and future luminance is never going to end.

"I hope it doesn't get to the point where this will tarnish what he's done the last four or five years," ," said another of Sosa's ex-teammates, Dan Plesac. "But I do know this: He's going to have some 'splaining to do."

Oh yeah. And it better be the finest 'splaining of his career, too.

In the expansion era, there have been just three other prominent hitters whose exploits came into question because of some sort of cheating allegation. One was Belle in 1994. He came back to hit 50 home runs the next year, 98 over the next two years and about 250 over the remainder of his career. But his ex-teammate, Omar Vizquel, wrote in his book that Belled corked all his bats. So there has been no escape for Albert.

Graig Nettles had superballs fly out of his bat one day in September in 1974. Even George Steinbrenner let him hang around the Yankees for another nine years after that. But when Nettles' name comes up, even today, somebody still utters the magic word, "superballs."

Then there was Norm Cash, who won a batting title in 1961 by hitting .361 -- 90 points higher than his career average. He never got caught. But he also never even hit .290 again. And years later, he admitted he'd corked his bat that whole season.

But none of those guys was a future Hall of Famer, even though Belle and Nettles didn't fall short by much. Sosa, on the other hand, might just as well have had his induction speech all written and rehearsed, because he was in -- until Tuesday night.

You never know how the Hall of Fame voters will weigh the impact of one corked bat on a man's Cooperstown credentials. But we know this: Sosa's new favorite Hall of Famer will have to be Gaylord Perry, who was practically a universally acknowledged cheater for 22 years -- and still made the Hall of Fame.

Will there be a different standard for Sosa than there was for a Vaseline Man? Who knows? But people will be asking and debating that question right up until the day Sosa's name appears on the ballot -- and maybe beyond.

"Now everything else he's done has question marks around it," Wendell said. "His home run records, everything. It's all surrounded by question marks.

"This is going to haunt him for a long time," Wendell said. "No matter what else he does, people are always going to talk about this at-bat -- because he got busted for it."

When Sosa struck out eight times in his first two games back off the disabled list last weekend, he probably didn't figure anything worse could come of finally getting to the point where he could hit the baseball again. Uh, guess again. Turns out even making contact is sometimes vastly overrated.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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