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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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