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Sammy Sosa: Cubs ‘Threw Me into the Fire’

SAMMY AGONISTES: His fall from grace as a beloved Chicago sports icon came with startling speed and bitterness. The Cubs “threw me into the fire,” says the ex-slugger Sammy Sosa in a rare interview. “They made [people] believe I’m a monster.” But the real blame for his haunted career is more complex—a tale of money, fame, and the cost of hero worship in the steroids era

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Sammy Sosa at his Miami home today
“All I did all my whole life was play hard and give everything I had for the organization and for the people of Chicago,” says Sammy Sosa, photographed in his home in July. For more photos of Sosa through the years, launch the gallery »

 

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Sammy Sosa: Now and Then

In 2001, Sammy Sosa enjoyed perhaps the best season of his career—arguably the finest ever by a Chicago Cub. He hit more than 60 home runs for the third time, a feat accomplished by no other player in the history of Major League Baseball. He drove in a league-leading 160 runs, almost 100 more than the next closest teammate, and batted .328, his highest average ever. By then Sosa was at the pinnacle of his superstardom, an extravagantly gifted and charismatic ballplayer with a lovable persona, legions of reverent fans, and a level of fame that made him a “human rock ’n’ roll show,” says Jay Blunk, a Cubs marketing boss during Sosa’s career.

“He was as big as any athlete this town has seen in a long time, other than Michael Jordan,” says David Kaplan, host of Comcast SportsNet’s Chicago Tribune Live and a contributor on WGN radio.

Just three years after that high point, Sosa was a fading and sullen star, at war with his manager, estranged from his teammates, and booed by some of the same fans who had long worshiped him. Sportswriters who had worn out their thesauri conjuring praise began to savage him. And the Cubs’ front office turned on him, publicly rebuking him before banishing him from the kingdom he had ruled. When the team traded Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, “people were so excited that he was leaving,” Kaplan recalls. “It was like, ‘We finally got rid of him.’”

Today, Sosa is a stranger in the city whose affection he once owned. He has not been welcomed back to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch or guest-conduct the seventh-inning rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” In 2007, the team handed out his jersey number to another player (pitcher Jason Marquis), signaling that it had no plans to retire it in Sosa’s honor. And last year, when Sosa asked the Cubs if he could announce his retirement at Wrigley Field—his “house,” as he used to call it—the team rejected him.

As the baseball broadcaster Steve Stone puts it, the greatest Cubs slugger in history “now is persona non grata in the entire city.”

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Sosa’s transformation from Chicago icon to pariah has a lot to do with the controversies that tarnished his image: his use of a corked bat in 2003; his walkout during the last game of the 2004 season; and his years of self-indulgent behavior, which exasperated teammates and management. Any discussion of Sosa’s perceived failings must also, of course, include the elephant in the locker room: the suspicion that steroids helped fuel his career total of 609 home runs, the sixth highest in major-league history. “I don’t think he felt any constraints,” says Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist. “In fact, it’s a leap to think he didn’t take any steroids.”

Though Sosa has always insisted that his Bunyanesque physique and mind-boggling home run statistics were purely the result of hard work—and the occasional Flintstones vitamin—last year The New York Times, citing unnamed sources with access to sealed court documents, reported that Sosa was one of 104 players who had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, when Major League Baseball conducted a survey to gauge the extent to which steroids had infested the national pastime. In more than a year since that report ran, Sosa has been conspicuously quiet. He has not denied the allegation or otherwise addressed it directly. For the most part, he has not talked to the media.

But Sosa did break his silence to comment for this article. Speaking by phone from his home in Miami, he touched on the steroid issue only obliquely, albeit with blustery bravado. “My numbers don’t lie,” he declared. “Everything that I did was so big—my career was so good—that even if people want to scratch it from the board, it’s not going to happen. Those numbers are going to stay there forever.”

As for the drug test he allegedly flunked in 2003—evidence, if true, that could permanently stain his legacy—Sosa ducked the topic. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

And so we did. Sosa splits his time between homes in Miami, where his four children go to school, and his native Dominican Republic. He says he is working on several business projects and trying to stay fit by running and lifting weights. “I don’t want to get fat,” he says. He is happy now and does not want controversy. But there is one issue that weighs on him: the state of his relationship with the Cubs and the ugly way it blew apart nearly six years ago—a sad episode that, he believes, turned public opinion in Chicago decisively against him. “[The Cubs] threw me into the fire,” he says. “They made [people] believe I’m a monster.”

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Whatever one’s view of the controversies surrounding Sosa, his grievance with the Cubs is at least understandable. For years he and the organization had formed a spectacularly successful theatrical partnership, staging the Sammy Show at sun-drenched, beer-sozzled Wrigley Field. If the production resembled home run derby more than actual baseball, that was OK—the show was a smash, and the team was happy to count the box office receipts that poured in.

The magnetic Sosa seemed born to play the role of Slammin’ Sammy, and the Cubs’ marketing muscle helped spread the image of a carefree and cuddly hero who hopped when he hit home runs, tapped his heart to show his love for his adoring fans, and blew kisses to the TV cameras. If the truth was more complicated—if the star could be a maddeningly self-absorbed diva offstage—that was OK as long as the baseballs kept flying out of Wrigley Field. And if he sprouted muscles like Popeye after an epic spinach bender, apparently that was OK, too, provided that the turnstiles at Wrigley Field kept spinning.

The Sammy Show lasted, of course, until the thunder in Sosa’s bat went quiet and the production was abruptly canceled. But if the final curtain was inevitable, perhaps the messiness of the breakup was not. “It was an ignominious end to what was otherwise a wonderful stint in Chicago as far as the Cubs were concerned,” says Steve Stone, who had his own painful split with the Cubs after the 2004 season and now announces for the Chicago White Sox. Then he adds, “It didn’t have to happen that way.”

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Photograph: Jeffrey Salter

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