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 at his Miami home today
“All I did all my whole life was play hard and give everything I had for the organization and for the people of Chicago,” says Sammy Sosa, photographed in his home in July. For more photos of Sosa through the years, launch the gallery »

 

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Sammy Sosa: Now and Then

In 2001, Sammy Sosa enjoyed perhaps the best season of his career—arguably the finest ever by a Chicago Cub. He hit more than 60 home runs for the third time, a feat accomplished by no other player in the history of Major League Baseball. He drove in a league-leading 160 runs, almost 100 more than the next closest teammate, and batted .328, his highest average ever. By then Sosa was at the pinnacle of his superstardom, an extravagantly gifted and charismatic ballplayer with a lovable persona, legions of reverent fans, and a level of fame that made him a “human rock ’n’ roll show,” says Jay Blunk, a Cubs marketing boss during Sosa’s career.

“He was as big as any athlete this town has seen in a long time, other than Michael Jordan,” says David Kaplan, host of Comcast SportsNet’s Chicago Tribune Live and a contributor on WGN radio.

Just three years after that high point, Sosa was a fading and sullen star, at war with his manager, estranged from his teammates, and booed by some of the same fans who had long worshiped him. Sportswriters who had worn out their thesauri conjuring praise began to savage him. And the Cubs’ front office turned on him, publicly rebuking him before banishing him from the kingdom he had ruled. When the team traded Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, “people were so excited that he was leaving,” Kaplan recalls. “It was like, ‘We finally got rid of him.’”

Today, Sosa is a stranger in the city whose affection he once owned. He has not been welcomed back to Wrigley Field to throw out the first pitch or guest-conduct the seventh-inning rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” In 2007, the team handed out his jersey number to another player (pitcher Jason Marquis), signaling that it had no plans to retire it in Sosa’s honor. And last year, when Sosa asked the Cubs if he could announce his retirement at Wrigley Field—his “house,” as he used to call it—the team rejected him.

As the baseball broadcaster Steve Stone puts it, the greatest Cubs slugger in history “now is persona non grata in the entire city.”

* * *

Sosa’s transformation from Chicago icon to pariah has a lot to do with the controversies that tarnished his image: his use of a corked bat in 2003; his walkout during the last game of the 2004 season; and his years of self-indulgent behavior, which exasperated teammates and management. Any discussion of Sosa’s perceived failings must also, of course, include the elephant in the locker room: the suspicion that steroids helped fuel his career total of 609 home runs, the sixth highest in major-league history. “I don’t think he felt any constraints,” says Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist. “In fact, it’s a leap to think he didn’t take any steroids.”

Though Sosa has always insisted that his Bunyanesque physique and mind-boggling home run statistics were purely the result of hard work—and the occasional Flintstones vitamin—last year The New York Times, citing unnamed sources with access to sealed court documents, reported that Sosa was one of 104 players who had tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, when Major League Baseball conducted a survey to gauge the extent to which steroids had infested the national pastime. In more than a year since that report ran, Sosa has been conspicuously quiet. He has not denied the allegation or otherwise addressed it directly. For the most part, he has not talked to the media.

But Sosa did break his silence to comment for this article. Speaking by phone from his home in Miami, he touched on the steroid issue only obliquely, albeit with blustery bravado. “My numbers don’t lie,” he declared. “Everything that I did was so big—my career was so good—that even if people want to scratch it from the board, it’s not going to happen. Those numbers are going to stay there forever.”

As for the drug test he allegedly flunked in 2003—evidence, if true, that could permanently stain his legacy—Sosa ducked the topic. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

And so we did. Sosa splits his time between homes in Miami, where his four children go to school, and his native Dominican Republic. He says he is working on several business projects and trying to stay fit by running and lifting weights. “I don’t want to get fat,” he says. He is happy now and does not want controversy. But there is one issue that weighs on him: the state of his relationship with the Cubs and the ugly way it blew apart nearly six years ago—a sad episode that, he believes, turned public opinion in Chicago decisively against him. “[The Cubs] threw me into the fire,” he says. “They made [people] believe I’m a monster.”

* * *

Whatever one’s view of the controversies surrounding Sosa, his grievance with the Cubs is at least understandable. For years he and the organization had formed a spectacularly successful theatrical partnership, staging the Sammy Show at sun-drenched, beer-sozzled Wrigley Field. If the production resembled home run derby more than actual baseball, that was OK—the show was a smash, and the team was happy to count the box office receipts that poured in.

The magnetic Sosa seemed born to play the role of Slammin’ Sammy, and the Cubs’ marketing muscle helped spread the image of a carefree and cuddly hero who hopped when he hit home runs, tapped his heart to show his love for his adoring fans, and blew kisses to the TV cameras. If the truth was more complicated—if the star could be a maddeningly self-absorbed diva offstage—that was OK as long as the baseballs kept flying out of Wrigley Field. And if he sprouted muscles like Popeye after an epic spinach bender, apparently that was OK, too, provided that the turnstiles at Wrigley Field kept spinning.

The Sammy Show lasted, of course, until the thunder in Sosa’s bat went quiet and the production was abruptly canceled. But if the final curtain was inevitable, perhaps the messiness of the breakup was not. “It was an ignominious end to what was otherwise a wonderful stint in Chicago as far as the Cubs were concerned,” says Steve Stone, who had his own painful split with the Cubs after the 2004 season and now announces for the Chicago White Sox. Then he adds, “It didn’t have to happen that way.”

* * *

Photograph: Jeffrey Salter

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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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