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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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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