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

After the Cubs were eliminated from playoff contention on the second-to-last day of the 2004 season, Sosa sent an emissary to Baker to ask to be left out of the lineup for the meaningless finale. Baker gave him the day off. On that last day, Sosa went to Wrigley Field just before game time, remained in his street clothes, and left shortly after the game started. Later, he told a reporter he had stuck around for most of the game—a lie. The Cubs’ response the following day was extraordinary: The team said it had security camera footage of Sosa driving out of the players’ parking lot 15 minutes after the game started. The revelation made for a sensational story. But the real shocker was that the Cubs had publicly humiliated their star. “The Cubs had always been very protective of Sammy,” Chris De Luca says. “I’d never heard of any team ever offering up that kind of information.”

“They put me out there like I was a bad guy,” Sosa says today, “when all I did all my whole life was play hard and give everything I had for the organization and for the people of Chicago.”

The backlash was swift and brutal. Dusty Baker said he had not given Sosa permission to leave. Jim Hendry, the general manager, called the walkout “inexcusable.” (Sosa now says he had clearance to leave and was not the only player to do so. Hendry denies both claims.) Pundits in the press and on talk radio excoriated Sosa for deserting his comrades in the heat of battle. Teammates demanded an apology, and reports emerged that one or more of them had smashed Sosa’s boom box with a baseball bat after the last game. “A rift had been growing throughout the year,” recalls Remlinger, and the walkout “was kind of the icing on the cake.”

Sosa’s vanishing act was the kind of thing he might have gotten away with at the peak of his stardom. “If you believe that [walking out] was the worst thing that Sammy ever did as a member of the Chicago Cubs, then I have some land to sell you in Arizona,” Steve Stone says.

But times had changed. Like irreconcilable lovers, Sosa and the Cubs were breaking up, and the loss of consortium was fueling passions on both sides. As the boos had gotten louder at Wrigley Field, Sosa made it known he wanted out, and the Cubs were eager to accommodate him. “There was a mutual decision that it was time to move on and part ways,” says Jim Hendry. “From a baseball point of view, I felt that was the right thing to do. I felt Sammy was not going to be the same player he was before, and for the good of the team, he would be better served going somewhere else. His camp agreed with that.”

With a trade inevitable, perhaps the Cubs saw other advantages in exposing Sosa’s lie. “They realized that they were dealing with a Cubs icon, and they had to cast him in a negative light,” De Luca says. “If Sammy were to go on and hit 60 home runs wherever he ended up landing, they had to have a better reason than ‘It was time to trade him.’ It had to be that he had wronged them so much that they had to let him go.”

Another motive may have been financial. A clause in Sosa’s contract, guaranteeing him an additional year beyond 2005 at a salary of $18 million if he got traded, made it all but impossible to swing a deal—no team would take on the obligation, given his declining skills. The Cubs “had to make things so uncomfortable in Chicago that he would be willing to come off that [clause],” says Stone. Eventually, Sosa did waive the clause, walking away from the extra $18 million and paving the way for his trade to the Baltimore Orioles. The Sammy Show had officially gone dark in Wrigleyville.

* * *

This September outside of Wrigley Field, the Cubs will unveil a statue of Billy Williams, the Hall of Fame left fielder with the sweet swing. Elsewhere around the ballpark stand monuments to Harry Caray and Ernie Banks, the iconic slugger whose franchise record for career homers was broken by Sosa. When Sosa was at the height of his fame in 2001, “he was so popular that I thought he was going to be the new Mr. Cub,” says George Castle. “I thought he was going to take the place of Ernie Banks.”

Today a visitor to Wrigley Field must search a bit to find a tribute to the player whose accomplishments arguably eclipse those of any other Cub. Embedded in the sidewalk outside the ballpark is a stone slab engraved with Sosa’s name, similar to markers that commemorate other past Cub heroes such as Phil Cavaretta, Rick Sutcliffe, and Gabby Hartnett. And fluttering from a pole on the roof of Wrigley Field is a flag celebrating Sosa’s landmark 66 home runs in 1998. But beyond those acknowledgments, there is little evidence that Sosa thrilled millions there not so long ago. Hanging from the foul poles are half a dozen pinstriped flags adorned with the names of former players whose numbers the Cubs have retired. But the number 21 remains very much in circulation—today Tyler Colvin, the Cubs rookie outfielder, wears it. “That number should be untouchable because of the things that I did for that organization,” fumes Sosa. “That right there shows me that they don’t care about me, and they don’t want to have a good relationship with me.”

In his estrangement from his former team, Sosa may be unique among once revered but now disgraced stars of the steroid era. Barry Bonds remains popular in San Francisco. And Mark McGwire, who confessed this past January to having used steroids during his playing days, is embraced in St. Louis, where he is now the Cardinals’ batting coach.

Why has Sosa’s rival in the great home run race found redemption while Sosa still wanders in the wilderness? McGwire’s apology for juicing could explain it. But there might be more to it than that. “McGwire was never eviscerated in St. Louis—ever,” says Steve Stone. “The St. Louis Cardinals organization never went after Mark McGwire. They never did to McGwire in St. Louis what happened to Sammy here.”

Clearly Sosa yearns to soak in the adulation of the fans in Chicago and to be embraced by his former team as a cherished member of the family. “My door is always going to be open,” he says. But the Cubs currently have no plans to reach out to him.

For some people, there can be no redemption for Sosa unless he, too, tells the full truth about that elephant in the locker room. “He’d have to throw himself on the mercy of public opinion and say, ‘I was wrong. I took steroids. I’m sorry that I screwed up,’” says George Castle. Adds David Kaplan, “If he shows up at Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch and sing the seventh-inning stretch under the guise that he never did steroids, that will never fly with the fan base, because they’ll feel like they’ve been duped again. And they’re not that stupid.”

“If you just come clean—say you did steroids and you’re sorry—people tend to forgive pretty quickly,” says Barry Rozner. “There’s proof of that all around the game.”

* * *

Since leaving the Cubs, Sosa has trod an uneven path on his journey out of the public eye and into private life. In the spring of 2005, he was called to testify before Congress about steroids in baseball. In prepared remarks, he said under oath that he had “never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs” nor “broken the laws of the United States or of the Dominican Republic”—wording that did not preclude having juiced in his native country, where steroids were legal and readily available. Then, citing a shaky grasp of English, he let his lawyer field questions on his behalf. It was a damaging performance.

He followed that up with a terrible 2005 season in Baltimore. The following year, no team was willing to pay him what he thought he was worth, and he didn’t play. Sosa finished his career where he started, with the Texas Rangers, in 2007. Despite showing flashes of the old Sammy, hitting 21 home runs mostly as a designated hitter that year, he was not offered a contract for the 2008 season. His playing days were finished.

In June of last year, Sosa told ESPN Deportes that he was officially retiring from baseball and would “calmly wait” for his induction into the Hall of Fame. Thirteen days later, The New York Times ran the story about Sosa’s being on the steroid list—a revelation that could wreck his chances for enshrinement in Cooperstown. “This was the one guy who avoided the paper trail; he avoided the BALCO [investigation]; he avoided the grand juries,” says Jay Mariotti. Without such evidence, he says, “baseball writers would have [had to] put Sosa in the Hall of Fame. But not anymore.” Today, he adds, Sosa should be remembered as having been “at the core of the steroid era, a tragicomic figure who made us all look like fools for a few years, and in the end we realized what a fraud he was. I don’t put him in the Hall of Fame, and I don’t retire his jersey as a Cub. I feel cheated.”

Not everyone agrees. “He played in the steroid era, and we can’t turn a blind eye to that,” says Steve Stone. “But there’s a lot of people who played in the steroid era who didn’t hit 60 home runs three different times.” Adds Teddy Greenstein, “A high percentage of top players were taking steroids, and in all likelihood 80 percent of the pitchers were. It’s unrealistic to hold him to a higher standard than most [other] people in the game.”

The debate over Sosa’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame will only intensify as his eligibility for induction approaches in 2013. But all the arguments, pro and con, may miss a bigger point—and a sadder one. “When I saw Sammy Sosa come to the Cubs in 1992, he could do anything on a baseball field,” says Barry Rozner. “He grew up in abject poverty and dreamed of being Roberto Clemente. And I think he had the ability to be Roberto Clemente. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to be the biggest name in the game, and to do that, he stopped caring about everything except hitting home runs. The bigger he got, the worse he became. And he never became that great baseball player.”

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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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