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
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.”
For generations of suffering Cubs fans, baseball at Wrigley Field had been mostly a dreary slog by the time Sammy Sosa came to the team in a trade with the White Sox in the spring of 1992. At the time, the Cubs’ most charismatic star happened to sit in the TV booth. “The folks at the Tribune Company [which owned the Cubs then and now owns Chicago magazine] realized that if you don’t have a particularly good product, you have to have the best salesman around,” says Stone, referring to his former broadcasting partner, the play-by-play legend Harry Caray. Most years, Stone adds, “we were selling Harry and the ivy” at Wrigley Field; after Caray died, in the winter of 1998, he says, they were “selling Sammy and the ivy.”
Sosa wore the number 21 on his Cubs uniform, the same as that of the late Roberto Clemente, the great Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Sosa had idolized while growing up wretchedly poor in the Dominican Republic. In the early years of Sosa’s career, baseball insiders even compared him to Clemente, a multitalented star who could win a game with his bat, his glove, his base running, or his arm. But Sosa was raw—“Roberto Clemente without brain cells,” said the pundits on talk radio. His strikeouts came by the bushel. He ran the bases aggressively but not always intelligently. And he sometimes threw to the wrong base or missed the cutoff man on plays from the outfield. “He was a wild, undisciplined, free-swinging guy, but when he made contact, the ball went a mile,” David Kaplan recalls. “You thought, If that guy ever harnessed it, he’d be a hell of a player.”
Sosa did harness his talent. “He worked his butt off,” says Bob Scanlan, who pitched for the Cubs in the early nineties. “I never questioned his commitment to being the best baseball player he could be.” Over time, says Stone, “Sammy became not only a slugger but a difficult out. He was a good hitter.”
Sosa was also a natural showman. Beaming an electric smile as he sprinted exuberantly into right field at the start of a game, he would touch a finger to his ear as he neared the bleachers, prompting the faithful to roar their approval and bow before him. He reciprocated their affection with taps to the heart and peace signs. “He was lovable, just a fun guy,” says Jay Mariotti, the former Sun-Times columnist who now writes for FanHouse.com. “And the fans were into it. It was an act, a show, but it was infectious.”
Sosa blew kisses in the dugout after hitting home runs, and he always “knew when the WGN cameras were on him,” says Chris De Luca, the Sun-Times sports editor. “He loved the camera. He loved the attention. And, frankly, the Cubs loved it, too. He was putting butts in the seats at a time when the Cubs weren’t doing great.”
Not all of Sosa’s teammates were enamored. In the speech for his 2005 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ryne Sandberg, the former Cubs second baseman, extolled the virtues of those who played the game “the natural way” (a swipe at steroid users) and “the right way” (a dig at players who put their own glory above the good of the team). “When did it become OK for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?” Sandberg asked. He added that “learning how to bunt, hit and run, and [turn] two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light [on] the dugout camera.” The remarks were widely interpreted as shots aimed at Sosa, who played alongside Sandberg for five years.
Throughout Sosa’s career, there remained a faction of teammates who rolled their eyes at his antic behavior and undisciplined style of play. “He became known as a selfish player, as a guy who cared only about his stats,” says Barry Rozner, the Daily Herald sports columnist.
Before the 1993 season, Sosa began telling teammates of his goal to become “a 30-30 guy,” recalls Scanlan. “At first I didn’t know what he was talking about.” Sosa explained: He wanted to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases that year. “He just seemed to have that desire and that focus early on.” Sosa achieved his goal, and to celebrate, he commissioned a large gem-encrusted medallion bearing the numerals “30-30,” which he suspended from his neck by a heavy gold chain. “When he got the 30-30 jewelry and all the bling, people started saying Sammy was in it for Sammy,” says Joseph Reaves, who covered the Cubs that year for the Chicago Tribune.
Over the next several years, Sosa put together more stellar seasons and emerged as the team’s brightest talent. But he also fueled the impression that he was out for himself. He would irk teammates by arriving late to spring training, assuring maximum attention for himself when he finally made his grand entrance. His musical listening habits could drive teammates batty. Doug Glanville, an outfielder with the Cubs in 1996 and 1997 and again in 2003, remembers giving Sosa a copy of “Killing Me Softly,” by the Fugees. “I didn’t realize he was going to play this song in a perpetual loop,” Glanville says. “He’d get stuck on a song, and even if it was a good song, people were like, ‘OK, we kind of heard this 35 times today.’”
Glanville thinks Sosa’s compulsive tendencies—“he liked routines”—made him a “tremendous competitor.” But his habits could sometimes impede the preparations of other players. For example, Sosa took extra batting practice at the same time each morning in a cage under the Wrigley Field bleachers. When it was his time to hit, “you really couldn’t do much,” Glanville recalls. “You either had to get there way before Sammy or just leave [when he arrived]. You knew he had that schedule. It didn’t get questioned. It was like, OK, that’s what Sammy does.” Glanville didn’t see Sosa’s behavior as malevolent. “I think he was kind of oblivious to the impact of that on his teammates.”
Apparently no one in authority was willing to rein Sosa in. “There was a very permissive attitude as it pertained to Sammy Sosa in all his years with the Cubs,” says Steve Stone. “He could pretty much do whatever he wanted to do.”
Occasionally management would attempt tough love. On the final weekend of the 1997 season, Cubs skipper Jim Riggleman tried to shame Sosa into being more of a team player. Since signing a huge contract extension midway through that season—paying him $42.5 million over four years—Sosa had started swinging even more aggressively for home runs, often striking out, and trying to steal bases in a desperate attempt at another 30-30 season (he fell short, with just 22 steals). That weekend in St. Louis, he ignored Riggleman’s “hold” sign and got thrown out trying to steal second. In the dugout, the manager ripped into Sosa in front of his quietly approving teammates. “If you care more about the damn 30-30, you can sit on the bench!” Riggleman declared.
That same weekend, Sosa glimpsed a vision of baseball apparently more in keeping with his inclinations. Mark McGwire, the Cardinals’ recently acquired home-run-mashing behemoth, was threatening to break one of the most hallowed records in baseball: Roger Maris’s 61 home runs in a season. McGwire’s satellite-launch upper-deck shots were so awe inspiring that fans came to the ballpark early just to watch him take batting practice, and opposing teams’ players stopped to marvel at the spectacle as well. “I remember watching Sosa watch McGwire taking batting practice, and you could just see his eyes light up,” Barry Rozner recalls of that weekend.
At the time, baseball was in the midst of a metamorphosis in which the home run was glorified as never before. Earlier that season, Sosa had told a reporter he would rather hit for a low average with a lot of home runs than a high average with fewer. “To understand Sammy is to know that what was important to him was being a star, being famous, being loved,” says Rozner. “And he knew that the best way to be loved and be famous was to hit home runs.”
The excitement generated by the greatest home run race in the history of baseball seems a bit silly today, particularly after revelations about steroids made the news in the years that followed. But in 1998, what a swell party it was.
The race heated up when Sosa erupted in one of the gaudiest offensive displays in baseball history, clubbing 20 home runs in June, still the record for homers in a month. “That was the lightning bolt,” recalls David Kaplan. The battle between the gregarious Sosa and the introverted McGwire for the new home run record was one of the biggest sports stories of the century. Indeed, it was a phenomenon that transcended sport. “Chicks dig the long ball,” proclaimed a Nike commercial.
By coincidence, McGwire broke the record when the Cubs were playing the Cardinals in St. Louis. As flashbulbs burst during a midgame ceremony to honor McGwire, Sosa sprinted in from right field to offer his congratulations. The two colossi embraced in a tectonic mingling of pecs and lats and delts. The press loved it. The fans ate it up. But beneath the show of sportsmanship, McGwire gritted his teeth at sharing his moment with Sosa, according to a report early this year quoting former Cubs pitcher Steve Trachsel, who served up the record-setting gopher ball. And Sosa’s teammates were less than thrilled, according to Chris De Luca—the Cubs were in the middle of a game against their arch nemesis, and there was Sosa, hugging the enemy, hogging the spotlight.
By then Sosa didn’t need to seek the spotlight. It sought him. He finished the season with 66 home runs, a Cubs record, four fewer than McGwire and five more than anyone besides McGwire had ever hit. Sosa’s fame soon went hypersonic. After the season, he seemed to be everywhere—in New York for a ticker-tape parade in his honor down the Canyon of Heroes; at the White House to light the national Christmas tree; in the Capitol alongside the First Lady for President Clinton’s State of the Union address; at the Playboy Mansion to hang out with Hef.
In the coming years, a parade of celebrities—from Donald Trump and Sylvester Stallone to Eddie Vedder and Bill Murray—would clamor to meet him. “Every day, it was what rock star or what movie star was coming in to see Sammy?” recalls Jay Mariotti. Meanwhile, global corporations like McDonald’s and Pepsi hitched their brands to Sosa to hawk their products. “For a certain period of time, Sammy was as big a name as anyone on the planet,” says Jay Blunk, who left the Cubs to become the Chicago Blackhawks’ senior vice president of business operations.
Mariotti, who wrote as effusively as anyone in town when the home run race was building to its thrilling climax, now shudders at the recollection. “It was one of the greatest things I’d ever seen,” he says. “Everybody just got into the story, and I was as guilty as anybody.” Today, Mariotti can’t bear to read some of the columns he wrote that year for the Sun-Times. “Every time I think about it, I want to take three showers,” he says. “Sosa had me caught up in the magic, and I feel like an idiot. I don’t say that often, but I feel like an idiot because of Sammy Sosa.”
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.”
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.
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.”