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

When he broke into the big leagues in 1989, Samuel Peralta Sosa was a sliver of a 20-year-old prospect who stood six feet tall and weighed 165 pounds, according to his rookie baseball card. So lithe that he was nicknamed the Panther, he was known as a flashy defensive player, with lightning speed and a great throwing arm, but an erratic hitter. Like many athletes, Sosa got bigger as he matured. Indeed, “Sammy got astonishingly bigger,” says Steve Stone. “He went from being the Panther to having the body of Ray Lewis [the perennial all-pro NFL linebacker].” Late in his career—when he “reported to spring training routinely at just under 240 pounds,” according to Stone—Sosa had morphed into a fearsome power hitter but a shaky defender, with plodding speed and a below-average arm.

Observers have varying recollections of when Sosa bulked up. One reason is that “other guys were getting huge, too,” says Rick Telander. “We were all being sold a bill of goods that they were training better and taking [nutritional] additives and lifting weights.” The other reason is that it didn’t happen all at once. Joseph Reaves remembers being stunned by the change in Sosa when he reported to spring training in 1995. “It was the difference between Clark Kent and Superman,” he says. Barry Rozner recalls a major growth spurt going into 1998, the season of the home run race—Sosa’s muscles stretched his skin so tight “it was almost ugly,” Rozner says. The following winter, despite a dizzying round of public appearances and parties, Sosa managed to pack 12 pounds of new muscle onto his already sculpted physique. And in 2000, he was bigger still, according to reports.

Like several others in the press box, the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan thought he knew what was fueling the muscle growth. Yet a dramatic change in size was insufficient evidence to accuse someone of steroid use. During the 1999 season, says Sullivan, a Cubs player approached him and asked, “Why don’t you write about Sammy doing steroids?” Sullivan asked the player if he’d go on the record, but the player refused to violate the unwritten code of silence among his peers.

Rick Telander, who had previously written about steroids in football and the Olympics, says he knew in the midnineties that steroids were spreading throughout baseball. “My assumption was that it was rampant certainly by ’96 and ’97,” he says. Without tangible evidence, though, he had to tiptoe around the subject. “I’d say things like they looked swollen or like they swallowed an air hose,” he says. “What can I do? I can’t make anybody pee in a cup, and I can be threatened with libel if I unfairly say something about somebody.”

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After making the playoffs in 1998 as a wildcard team, the Cubs were dismal again in 1999. The Sammy Show was the only act playing in Wrigleyville—and fans couldn’t seem to get enough. In the four seasons prior to 1998, attendance at Wrigley Field had averaged about 2 million annually. In the year of the home run race, the figure jumped to 2.6 million. And in the four years that followed, when the Cubs were mostly awful, attendance averaged almost 2.8 million, despite annual ticket price hikes averaging 14 percent. A persuasive case could be made that Sosa alone was attracting at least half a million additional fans each year, generating tens of millions of dollars in sales of tickets, concessions, souvenirs, and ads on TV and radio and boosting the value of the franchise by tens of millions of dollars as well. Even under the four-year, $72 million contract he signed in 2001, Sosa might have been the most underpaid player on the team.

Sosa feasted on the perks that came with stardom—and Cubs management was happy to oblige. Since his early days with the team, he had maintained a rotating posse of friends, relatives, and hangers-on whose presence in the locker room was regarded by other players as an intrusion into their private reserve—and evidence that Sosa abided by a different set of rules than everyone else. Now the Cubs allowed Sosa to have his own full-time lackey, a friend from his minor-league days named Julian Martinez, whose salary Sosa paid but who had his own clubhouse locker and Cubs uniform and whose travel, food, and lodging expenses were covered by the organization. Martinez helped Sosa stretch and warm up before games, trained with him, brought him meals, and toted his boom box from town to town, setting it up on a chair next to Sosa’s locker, ready to blare lively salsa and pop tunes.

On most major-league teams, protocol dictates that the day’s starting pitcher chooses the clubhouse music. In the Cubs’ locker room, says De Luca, “Sammy just disregarded that. It was like, ‘I’m putting my music on.’ Everybody hated it, and everybody put up with it.”

“That little boom box represented a lot of power,” says Teddy Greenstein, who covered the Cubs for the Tribune in the early 2000s. “It was his music. It was his clubhouse. Being ‘the man’ was very important to him.”

When Don Baylor became the team’s manager in 2000, he challenged Sosa to become a more complete ballplayer and threatened to put an end to the musical power games: “If Sosa plays that boom box, I have more bats than he has boom boxes,” Steve Stone recalls Baylor saying. But Baylor was “informed by the powers that be that it’s best to let Sammy be Sammy.”

“Sosa was the reason to show up at the ballpark,” says De Luca. “You could see that the Cubs were willing to put up with just about anything because of his value to the team.” Adds Stone, “‘Indulged’ would be a light term for what [the Cubs] allowed Sammy to do. Sammy was the star of the team, and he could do whatever he wanted. If you have that permissive attitude toward anybody, they’re going to take full advantage of it. And Sammy took full advantage.”

Doug Glanville says he enjoyed Sosa’s “life of the party” personality, though his outsize presence could take a toll. “Sammy was an enterprise,” he says. “He really embraced the celebration of his persona, and sometimes that’s not the easiest thing to deal with as a team.” Over the marathon grind of a baseball season, he adds, “it wears on you.”

With a nucleus of talented youn players led by pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and a popular new manager, Dusty Baker, the Cubs made it to the playoffs in 2003 for the first time in five years. But as the team’s fortunes ascended that year, Sosa’s began to decline. He finished with 40 home runs—outstanding by most standards but a comedown from the lofty heights of his glory years. Sosa’s low point came in June against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays when he was caught using a corked bat, resulting in a media uproar and a seven-game suspension. A contrite Sosa said the illegal bat had accidentally gotten mixed in with his game bats. Few believed him.

“That was the demarcation line,” says the baseball writer and radio host George Castle. “The corked bat tipped the balance downward in Chicago’s estimation of him, and things were never the same after that.”

In the fall of 2003, the federal investigation of BALCO Laboratories, a California distributor of high-tech nutritional supplements, exploded into the news, implicating a number of high-profile athletes, including San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, in a doping scandal. By then Bonds wasn’t the only big-league star suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. As one of the leading power hitters of the era, Sosa was the subject of speculation as well. After the corked bat incident, says Barry Rozner, “it wasn’t much of a leap to think if he was going to [cheat with an illegal bat], it was probably true what people have suspected all along about the steroids.”

After the 2003 team came within five outs of its first World Series since 1945, only to suffer a stupefying defeat, Cubs fans were in the grip of a strange new feeling as the 2004 season opened. The ivy and Sosa’s home runs would no longer suffice—they expected the Cubs to win a championship. And the team seemed poised to deliver. On the cover of its issue previewing the 2004 baseball season, Sports Illustrated ran a picture of Kerry Wood accompanied by the provocative line “Hell Freezes Over—The Cubs Will Win the World Series.”

No longer the team’s lone star, Sosa was now part of a cast that included other good players. “I think he had gotten used to the Sammy Show, and everybody else did, too,” says Mike Remlinger, a Cubs reliever in 2003 and 2004. “All of a sudden it became, ‘We’re here to win.’ I think it was hard for him to deal with not being the center of the show, whether he hit a home run or not.”

Noticeably smaller after baseball had started testing for performance-enhancing drugs and penalizing players caught cheating, Sosa endured his worst season in a decade in 2004, slumping badly while the Cubs wilted in the heat of the pennant race. As he piled up strikeouts and stranded base runners in bunches, he began to hear a shocking sound at Wrigley Field: boos—for him. Dusty Baker eventually demoted him from third in the batting order—the spot teams reserve for their best hitters—to sixth, realm of journeymen. Sosa put on a brave front, saying he would do whatever was needed to help the team win. But the message was clear: He was no longer “the man.” It was a colossal blow to his pride. After that, “things went downhill real fast,” says Castle. Sosa withdrew into a shell, brooding and alone, and relations with Baker became tense and strained. Teammates became bolder in their complaints about Sosa’s boom box. And the Cubs eventually fired his clubhouse valet, Martinez. “It had gotten to be Sammy versus the world, in his opinion,” says Remlinger.

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