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: Now and Then

For generations of suffering Cubs fans, baseball at Wrigley Field had been mostly a dreary slog by the time Sammy Sosa came to the team in a trade with the White Sox in the spring of 1992. At the time, the Cubs’ most charismatic star happened to sit in the TV booth. “The folks at the Tribune Company [which owned the Cubs then and now owns Chicago magazine] realized that if you don’t have a particularly good product, you have to have the best salesman around,” says Stone, referring to his former broadcasting partner, the play-by-play legend Harry Caray. Most years, Stone adds, “we were selling Harry and the ivy” at Wrigley Field; after Caray died, in the winter of 1998, he says, they were “selling Sammy and the ivy.”

Sosa wore the number 21 on his Cubs uniform, the same as that of the late Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Sosa had idolized while growing up wretchedly poor in the Dominican Republic. In the early years of Sosa’s career, baseball insiders even compared him to Clemente, a multitalented star who could win a game with his bat, his glove, his base running, or his arm. But Sosa was raw—“Roberto Clemente without brain cells,” said the pundits on talk radio. His strikeouts came by the bushel. He ran the bases aggressively but not always intelligently. And he sometimes threw to the wrong base or missed the cutoff man on plays from the outfield. “He was a wild, undisciplined, free-swinging guy, but when he made contact, the ball went a mile,” David Kaplan recalls. “You thought, If that guy ever harnessed it, he’d be a hell of a player.”

Sosa did harness his talent. “He worked his butt off,” says Bob Scanlan, who pitched for the Cubs in the early nineties. “I never questioned his commitment to being the best baseball player he could be.” Over time, says Stone, “Sammy became not only a slugger but a difficult out. He was a good hitter.”

Sosa was also a natural showman. Beaming an electric smile as he sprinted exuberantly into right field at the start of a game, he would touch a finger to his ear as he neared the bleachers, prompting the faithful to roar their approval and bow before him. He reciprocated their affection with taps to the heart and peace signs. “He was lovable, just a fun guy,” says Jay Mariotti, the former Sun-Times columnist who now writes for FanHouse.com. “And the fans were into it. It was an act, a show, but it was infectious.”

Sosa blew kisses in the dugout after hitting home runs, and he always “knew when the WGN cameras were on him,” says Chris De Luca, the Sun-Times sports editor. “He loved the camera. He loved the attention. And, frankly, the Cubs loved it, too. He was putting butts in the seats at a time when the Cubs weren’t doing great.”

* * *

Not all of Sosa’s teammates were enamored. In the speech for his 2005 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ryne Sandberg, the former Cubs second baseman, extolled the virtues of those who played the game “the natural way” (a swipe at steroid users) and “the right way” (a dig at players who put their own glory above the good of the team). “When did it become OK for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?” Sandberg asked. He added that “learning how to bunt, hit and run, and [turn] two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light [on] the dugout camera.” The remarks were widely interpreted as shots aimed at Sosa, who played alongside Sandberg for five years.

Throughout Sosa’s career, there remained a faction of teammates who rolled their eyes at his antic behavior and undisciplined style of play. “He became known as a selfish player, as a guy who cared only about his stats,” says Barry Rozner, the Daily Herald sports columnist.

Before the 1993 season, Sosa began telling teammates of his goal to become “a 30-30 guy,” recalls Scanlan. “At first I didn’t know what he was talking about.” Sosa explained: He wanted to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases that year. “He just seemed to have that desire and that focus early on.” Sosa achieved his goal, and to celebrate, he commissioned a large gem-encrusted medallion bearing the numerals “30-30,” which he suspended from his neck by a heavy gold chain. “When he got the 30-30 jewelry and all the bling, people started saying Sammy was in it for Sammy,” says Joseph Reaves, who covered the Cubs that year for the Chicago Tribune.

Over the next several years, Sosa put together more stellar seasons and emerged as the team’s brightest talent. But he also fueled the impression that he was out for himself. He would irk teammates by arriving late to spring training, assuring maximum attention for himself when he finally made his grand entrance. His musical listening habits could drive teammates batty. Doug Glanville, an outfielder with the Cubs in 1996 and 1997 and again in 2003, remembers giving Sosa a copy of “Killing Me Softly,” by the Fugees. “I didn’t realize he was going to play this song in a perpetual loop,” Glanville says. “He’d get stuck on a song, and even if it was a good song, people were like, ‘OK, we kind of heard this 35 times today.’”

Glanville thinks Sosa’s compulsive tendencies—“he liked routines”—made him a “tremendous competitor.” But his habits could sometimes impede the preparations of other players. For example, Sosa took extra batting practice at the same time each morning in a cage under the Wrigley Field bleachers. When it was his time to hit, “you really couldn’t do much,” Glanville recalls. “You either had to get there way before Sammy or just leave [when he arrived]. You knew he had that schedule. It didn’t get questioned. It was like, OK, that’s what Sammy does.” Glanville didn’t see Sosa’s behavior as malevolent. “I think he was kind of oblivious to the impact of that on his teammates.”

Apparently no one in authority was willing to rein Sosa in. “There was a very permissive attitude as it pertained to Sammy Sosa in all his years with the Cubs,” says Steve Stone. “He could pretty much do whatever he wanted to do.”

* * *

Occasionally management would attempt tough love. On the final weekend of the 1997 season, Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman tried to shame Sosa into being more of a team player. Since signing a huge contract extension midway through that season—paying him $42.5 million over four years—Sosa had started swinging even more aggressively for home runs, often striking out, and trying to steal bases in a desperate attempt at another 30-30 season (he fell short, with just 22 steals). That weekend in St. Louis, he ignored Riggleman’s “hold” sign and got thrown out trying to steal second. In the dugout, the manager ripped into Sosa in front of his quietly approving teammates. “If you care more about the damn 30-30, you can sit on the bench!” Riggleman declared.

That same weekend, Sosa glimpsed a vision of baseball apparently more in keeping with his inclinations. Mark McGwire, the Cardinals’ recently acquired home-run-mashing behemoth, was threatening to break one of the most hallowed records in baseball: Roger Maris’s 61 home runs in a season. McGwire’s satellite-launch upper-deck shots were so awe inspiring that fans came to the ballpark early just to watch him take batting practice, and opposing teams’ players stopped to marvel at the spectacle as well. “I remember watching Sosa watch McGwire taking batting practice, and you could just see his eyes light up,” Barry Rozner recalls of that weekend.

At the time, baseball was in the midst of a metamorphosis in which the home run was glorified as never before. Earlier that season, Sosa had told a reporter he would rather hit for a low average with a lot of home runs than a high average with fewer. “To understand Sammy is to know that what was important to him was being a star, being famous, being loved,” says Rozner. “And he knew that the best way to be loved and be famous was to hit home runs.”

* * *

The excitement generated by the greatest home run race in the history of baseball seems a bit silly today, particularly after revelations about steroids made the news in the years that followed. But in 1998, what a swell party it was.

The race heated up when Sosa erupted in one of the gaudiest offensive displays in baseball history, clubbing 20 home runs in June, still the record for homers in a month. “That was the lightning bolt,” recalls David Kap­lan. The battle between the gregarious Sosa and the introverted McGwire for the new home run record was one of the biggest sports stories of the century. Indeed, it was a phenomenon that transcended sport. “Chicks dig the long ball,” proclaimed a Nike commercial.

By coincidence, McGwire broke the record when the Cubs were playing the Cardinals in St. Louis. As flashbulbs burst during a midgame ceremony to honor McGwire, Sosa sprinted in from right field to offer his congratulations. The two colossi embraced in a tectonic mingling of pecs and lats and delts. The press loved it. The fans ate it up. But beneath the show of sportsmanship, McGwire gritted his teeth at sharing his moment with Sosa, according to a report early this year quoting former Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel, who served up the record-setting gopher ball. And Sosa’s teammates were less than thrilled, according to Chris De Luca—the Cubs were in the middle of a game against their arch nemesis, and there was Sosa, hugging the enemy, hogging the spotlight.

By then Sosa didn’t need to seek the spotlight. It sought him. He finished the season with 66 home runs, a Cubs record, four fewer than McGwire and five more than anyone besides McGwire had ever hit. Sosa’s fame soon went hypersonic. After the season, he seemed to be everywhere—in New York for a ticker-tape parade in his honor down the Canyon of Heroes; at the White House to light the national Christmas tree; in the Capitol alongside the First Lady for President Clinton’s State of the Union address; at the Playboy Mansion to hang out with Hef.

In the coming years, a parade of celebrities—from Donald Trump and Sylvester Stallone to Eddie Vedder and Bill Murray—would clamor to meet him. “Every day, it was what rock star or what movie star was coming in to see Sammy?” recalls Jay Mariotti. Meanwhile, global corporations like McDonald’s and Pepsi hitched their brands to Sosa to hawk their products. “For a certain period of time, Sammy was as big a name as anyone on the planet,” says Jay Blunk, who left the Cubs to become the Chicago Blackhawks’ senior vice president of business operations.

Mariotti, who wrote as effusively as anyone in town when the home run race was building to its thrilling climax, now shudders at the recollection. “It was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen,” he says. “Everybody just got into the story, and I was as guilty as anybody.” Today, Mariotti can’t bear to read some of the columns he wrote that year for the Sun-Times. “Every time I think about it, I want to take three showers,” he says. “Sosa had me caught up in the magic, and I feel like an idiot. I don’t say that often, but I feel like an idiot because of Sammy Sosa.”

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4 years ago
Posted by 103703

Did the magazine purposely lighten all of his old pictures?

4 years ago
Posted by heartbreak

I was once one of dude's biggest fans. I'm probably the only fan who the Cubs lost as a result of the trade but I did begin to see thereafter why the Cubs had no choice other than to get rid him. I don't and never have regretted leaving my Cubs fandom as they've gone through so many negative things since the Sosa trade. I do however regret being such a Sosa supporter as his habit of not answering the real questions became quite aggravating. It's hard to respect a man who would rather run than explain himself.

4 years ago
Posted by Random Joe

Sounds like he thinks he's above the organization... he should read "Wooden On Leadership"...

4 years ago
Posted by ecleme2

I was never a huge fan of Sammy, but the Cubs threw him under the bus in 04. Some of that stuff should have stayed internal.

It's unfortunate the distaste people have for him in Chicago. It's really unwarranted to the level that it is. Was he all about Sammy? Sure, but the Cubs were cool with that---as long as he was a show pony. (Actually, his self-centered attitude reminds me of Favre, but since Favre is a good-ole-boy, he can never be hated.)

4 years ago
Posted by Loogs31

I am a lifelong Cubs fan and I was upset that the Number 21 wasn't retired in honor of George Altman 20 years before Sammy Sosa was even born and, was absolutely infuriated that the organization allowed Greg Maddox to wear Ferguson Jenkins' Number 31 then had the audacity to retire Number 31 in honor of both Jenkins and Maddox. This organization never seems to get it right. As for Sosa, I'm torn about him. He was the franchise during his time in Chicago but I just hate the steroids era and how it has cheapened the record books. Maybe I should just get over it and resign myself to the fact that Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and everyone else who was juiced were really just "victims" of the era...BULL#%*@...they weren't victims. These guys knew exactly what they were doing and so did their managers, general managers and the commissioner...baseball just sold out. So baseball has to pay the price...let 'em all in the Hall - Pete Rose too...Hey, while we're at it let's give Steve Howe another chance...Hell, let's let lifetime DH's (Edgar Martinez) in the Hall of Fame too - just because they never really "played" the game that's no reason to keep them out. We've retired jerseys and put guys in the Hall that padded their stats by being a DH for several years after they couldn't play any more (Molitor, Winfield, Etc...). I say again, Baseball just sold out!! Sammy's behavior?? Why should we care...we never cared that Charles Barkley wasn't a role model...why did I have to read this article??

4 years ago
Posted by tretzck

To Heartbreak:

To say that you were a Cubs fan while Sosa was there and then say you are not a fan because Sosa is gone really means that you were never a TRUE Cubs fan. You were a Sosa fan. What Sosa did for the city of Chicago was great while he was there. But the Cubs are better off without him and they traded him at the perfect time. They way he conducted himself the last game of 2004 was horrible. You don't leave your team in the middle/before a game when you know you are not playing.

And to Ecleme2 - what did the Cubs do to throw him under the bus? There was video footage of him leaving Wrigley in the middle/before the game started. In my opinion Sosa put himself under the buss and asked the Cubs to drive over him.

4 years ago
Posted by Dex2k

I don't think Sammy is to blame. The whole world got caught up in this home run thing in the late 90's. After the strike, baseball needed something to get people watching again, and McGwire and Sosa did that. And they were encouraged to do it. With their managers and coaches turning a blind eye to their bulky growth. Their teams didn't care as long as people were coming to see them and selling tickets. I've been a Cubs fan since I was a little kid, but I'm disappointed in how they treat Sosa since he left them. They let him get away with everything for so long, and as soon as he doesn't hit as many home runs they take everything away. That's pretty crappy. As far as his team mates go, they should have taken it upon themselves to step up and be men and tell him what they thought instead of just letting it go.
I don't think steroids are right and those guys who have been proven to use them shouldn't be allowed into the Hall of Fame (like A-Rod), but with the media giving them all of the attention and the teams not doing anything about it, I don't blame him for doing what he had to, to get to the position he was. The fans loved it. The media loved it. The team loved it, until all of the sudden steroid use became the worse thing a ball player could do.

4 years ago
Posted by ecleme2

Tretzck,
The video footage was internal. And even if it wasn't, Dusty and Ed made it this a huge thing. It should have stayed internal.

The hatred for Sammy in this town is unwarranted. It's like he signed a free agent deal with the Cardinals and then punched Michael Jordan in the face.

Cardinal fans disliked McGwire, cause they felt betrayed. They have since forgiven him (more or less). I don't expect Chi to forgive Sosa, but the level of hatred they have for him is unbelievable.

4 years ago
Posted by betweenthevines

Neither the Cubs nor Cub fans quit on Sammy, he quit on us. It was he who threw us under the bus by walking out on us, not the other way around.

4 years ago
Posted by Mr Fit

The Sosa years were sure improved upon by Baker and Piniella weren't they? Sosa was a tremendous player who helped pull in a record number of fans while helping an ailing MLB game come back to life. Yes, he had a corked bat and he may have taken supplements - only the corking was against the rules! And, many Hall of Famers cheated in every way possible to get an edge. It was and always will be part of the game.

The bottom line is that no player in history averaged 60 HR's for five seasons...no one. And the Cubs were far more exciting with him the team around him than that of the record payroll team that is currently the 5th worst team in MLB. It wasn't Sammy's fault when they were 5 outs away from a World Series in 2004 and their shortstop muffed a double-play ball resulting in causing a game 7.

4 years ago
Posted by thaalderman

i dont think jay marriotti needs sammy sosa to feel dirty, sosa may have been a roider but mariotti is a world class scumbag

4 years ago
Posted by Mr Fit

Sosa's career seems to justify some of the antics. Putting up the stats he did would seem to warrant some of the baggage that other superstars have brought to park, arenas, and stadiums in basketball, baseball, and football. The Cubs handled his final year poorly as they have handled most everything else involving the game of baseball since 1945. Hendry has no room to talk - he may possibly be the worst GM in the modern history of the game.

As the article points out: Sosa was a bargain for the Cubs bringing in tens of millions by increasing attendance by 40% and allowing price gouging at a double-digit rate of increase per year...plus the fans had to know it would end at some point.

Sadly, the Cubs continue to disgrace themselves - they are experts at it though - while not paying homage to a player that, for a period of quite a few years - produced at a rate seldom ever seen in history. It was natural that some players would be jealous and if they were hitting 60 HR's and driving in hundred of runs then they could play their music and take extra batting practice. Fact is the fans came to see Slamin' Sammy and not the other guys.

I like Sammy and I like what he did for baseball. He helped make a game going south with boredom exciting again.

4 years ago
Posted by Bud Selig

I thought Sammy couldn't really speak or understand English when he went before Congress...maybe the Cubs have invited him and he just couldn't understand them

4 years ago
Posted by Twylar

“My numbers don’t lie,” he declared. “Everything that I did was so big."

Yea, you were the biggest diva
you used the biggest corks
you had the biggest syringes
you were the biggest fraud

and by the way, your "numbers" are a lie Corky

4 years ago
Posted by heartbreak

To tretzck:

I was a Cubs fan my entire life (several years before Sosa arrived) ever since I could remember and could never have imagined anything like this. Leaving "Cubdom" had more to do with the way that the fans turned on him in such a fickle manner. I couldn't cheer for the same thing that those people were cheering for after that point. The fans didn't know at the time that dude had failed a drug test. I've never heard of the hometown supporters crying guilty before one was even ever accused. The entire episode has Cubs written all over it. They can't do anything right. I'm glad I left when I did as I wouldn't have been able to deal with the White Sox winning the world series quite as well as all these "real Cub fans" seemed to. Nevermind the fact that White Sox (the team who the Cubs got Sosa from) won the world series immediately after the Cubs threw Sosa in the trash. I don't know how any "real Cubs fan" was able to co-exist with that. It was like they didn't even notice.

I'm beginning to think that Sosa's biggest crime might have been his stupidity. He keeps finding a way to say something stupid everytime he speaks and that probably played a huge role in why no one wanted him in recent years.

4 years ago
Posted by TheMotherShip

I just want to know why Sammie is now white...what the _____?

2 years ago
Posted by Batelelyon

One thing that disturbs me is something I don't think anyone else caught. Sammy's career took a downturn a few months before the corked bat incident. Who remembers the beaning he took at the hands of Pittsburg Pirates picther Salmon Torres--a throw so hard it shattered Sammy's helmet? After that incident, Sammy lost his confidence. He wasn't swinging as hard any more, and occasionally ducked balls at which he would have swung. I thought then, and I still do, that the corked bat was intended as a confidence builder, nothing more. But he was never the same after that.

I have been to Chicago, and its people were wonderful to me. But they have been downright cruel to a man who was once the light of their lives. I still do not believe he was guilty of the steroid thing. If I am correct, he should not have to apologize for something he didn't do just to curry favour with people who stopped believing in him at a time when he should have received medical help--and perhaps a neurological workup--to find out how much brain damage he sustained after such a powerful blow to his head.

OK, Sammy may have been a little cocky. I never had the privilege of knowing him. But he WAS the team star for quite awhile. And stardom can go to anyone's head. So why automatically assume the man did something wrong to achieve excellence--just becasuse so many of the others did? Because his career took a downturn after that beaning incident? Or were his detractors merely jealous?

2 years ago
Posted by Baseball18017

I met Sammy last week here in NYC. He is a total gentleman who I believe was framed by a media hysteria unprecedented in baseball. The mere implication of steroid use is much like being accused of sexual harassment, difficult to prove but devastating to the accused. He has denied usage and should be given the benefit of doubt status. Sammy Sousa's meteoric rise to stardom set the stage for many jealous naysayers. The media propped him up and sold stories, then that same media set out to destroy him and sold even more stories. It is a classic tragedy that repeats itself in all fields of entertainment, politics, arts and sciences. Let history and all of us remember him for his great success on the field.

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