By Zach Bernard
It was September 13, 1998. The Cubs were in the midst of a Wild Card race against the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants. Despite having one of the most hilariously, awful pitching staffs in recent team history, the Cubs were en route to 90 wins for the first time since 1989 because of an offense that boasted Henry Rodriguez, Mark Grace, midseason jolts from Gary Gaetti and Glenallen Hill, and career years from Jose Hernandez and Mickey Morandini.
No offensive force was more prevalent than Sammy Sosa, the 29-year-old Cubs right fielder who, for most of his career, was an erratic hitter with streaks of grand power. From 1995 through 1997, he hit 36 homers twice and 40 once, and with 13 home runs at the end of May ’98, he was on pace for another efficient but not earth-shattering (at least by late-nineties standards) showing of power.
Then, someone flipped the switch. Some would say it was hitting coach Jeff Pentland, for helping Sosa bring his hands down in his stance and work on his timing. Others will point to steroids. No matter the factor, Sammy Sosa hit an MLB record 20 home runs in the month of June, propelling himself into the “Great Home Run Race” between Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey Jr. that would lead to one of the most explosive storylines in the last few decades. And he was the X-factor in a potent Cubs lineup.
The Race dwindled down to McGwire and Sosa (Junior would finish 1998 with only 56 home runs), and on September 8, McGwire broke the single-season home run record with his 62nd of the year. Sosa wasn’t far behind, and during an insane Saturday afternoon game against the Milwaukee Brewers (which the Cubs won 15-12 on an Orlando Merced grand slam), he hit his 60th. The stage was set for Sosa to tie McGwire.
Sosa hit his 61st early the next day in what was shaping up to be another genuinely crazy afternoon at Wrigley Field. In the bottom of the ninth, the Cubs were down 10-8 with Erik Plunk throwing for the Brewers. On a 2-1 pitch, Sosa drilled his 62nd home run 480 feet out of Wrigley to swaths of people looking to catch history. The standing ovation brought on three curtain calls before play resumed seven minutes later.
It was on that afternoon that Sammy Sosa morphed from fringe all star to baseball superstar.
I was six-years-old when I saw this amazing display of entertainment. If I hadn’t already been consumed with the Cubs thanks to my grandfather years before it, that afternoon surely would have done it. Sammy Sosa won over the hearts of Cubs — and baseball — fans everywhere with his surprising entry to the history books. It was magical.
Sosa’s 1998 season set the table for some of the most unbelievable regular seasons in baseball history. His 2001 campaign — in which he hit 64 home runs, drove in 160, slashed an absurd .328/.437/.737 and collected 425 total bases — is without question the greatest offensive season in the long history of the Cubs. He remains the only player to ever hit 60 or more home runs in three seasons (1998, 1999, 2001). He hit 40 or more home runs in the six season stretch between 1998 and 2003, and collected 332 of his 609 career home runs in that span of time.
What was even more impressive was how he singlehandedly kept the Cubs relevant in Chicago during some really bad years. The Cubs lost 95 games in 1999 and 2002 and 97 games in 2000, and outside of “Slammin’ Sammy”, didn’t really have an identity. Yet Cubs tickets were always hot sellers in Chicago, because if the Cubs were on pace to lose 17-4, chances are one of those four runs was the result of a tape-measure Sosa blast.
As a kid who grew up in the more cynical faction of the Cubs fandom (there was no “Wait ‘Til Next Year” in our home), the combination of youthful ignorance and Sosa’s exciting performance gave hope to every new Cubs season, even if 40-year-old Willie Greene was the starting third baseman (as he was in 2000). He was a once-in-a-generation player, and defined my youngest years with baseball.
Sosa’s departure from Chicago was unceremonious. Between 2003 and 2004, his tendencies as a self-absorbed superstar and, by default, cancer in the clubhouse came to light, he became more temperamental, and with the national focus on steroids in baseball, his power surge made him a key target of suspicion.
On the last day of the 2004 Cubs season — a season in which the Cubs had four guys with 30+ home runs and failed to reach October — he requested to sit the game out, and eventually left Wrigley Field early. An angry Cubs player then destroyed his infamous boombox in the clubhouse (culprit still unknown, at large) in what would be his last “game” as a Cub.
Slammin’ Sammy, everyone’s hero in Chicago for some time, left disgraced, not to mention he was still surrounded by steroid suspicion. In a 2009 New York Times leak of confidential tests from 2003, Sosa was shown to have tested positive. To this day, he still has not been welcomed back to the Cubs organization despite several regime changes over the years (which is strange, since the Cubs unabashedly use steroid user Manny Ramirez as a coach).
In his career, Sosa hit 609 home runs between the Chicago White Sox, Cubs, Baltimore Orioles and two stints with the Texas Rangers (where he hit his 600th in 2007 off Jason Marquis and the Cubs). 545 of those home runs came with the Cubs. He also slashed a lifetime .273/.344/.534, logged 2,408 hits and, in his leaner days, stole 234 bases as a legitimate 30-30 threat.
Of course, most of these numbers became inflated after 1998. Between 1989 and 1997, Sosa slashed .257/.308/.469, averaging 23 home runs and 71 RBI in his standard 121 game season. Between 1998 and 2007 (with a year out of baseball in 2006), he slashed .287/.372/.588, averaging 45 home runs and 114 RBI in a standard 141 game season. He also cut his strikeout-to-walk ratio in half during this time.
It’s a tale of two careers, where Sammy Sosa went from a good-not-great, potential 400 home run hitter to one of the game’s most prodigious bats, all after the age of 28. While he did test positive for steroids according to the 2009 report, we don’t know for sure how long he was doing them and for what reasons he was in that positive test.
Should we care?
I’m convinced Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association didn’t (and if they did, they did a very poor job showing it). Former pitcher Rick Helling mentioned the problem to everyone in 1998 and nobody in baseball batted an eye until they were forced to in 2005. No matter what finger-wagging the higher-ups in baseball did, they sat idly by and let Sammy Sosa, or any player, take any substance at will. We as fans ooh’ed and ahh’ed while these players all achieved amazing feats, however artificially.
We’re all guilty. We didn’t question the system and neither did those in charge. So I don’t think we should in retrospect. It isn’t all that fair.
Does Sammy Sosa belong in the Hall of Fame?
Yes and no. No in the sense that until MLB and the BBWAA get over their inherent hypocrisy and prejudice over the steroid issue and induct Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, then Sammy Sosa surely doesn’t have a place in Cooperstown. However, if indeed Bonds and Clemens find their way in, then Slammin’ Sammy needs to be in as well. The entire second half of his career warrants it. But the dominoes need to fall, first.
And in this author’s eyes, solely on a personal level, Sosa will always be a Hall of Famer. Very few things can ever replace or damage the memories I have watching him as a wide-eyed kid at Wrigley Field, and those few things haven’t happened yet and may not ever happen.