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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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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