Redefining Sammy Sosa’s Baseball Legacy

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The Chicago Cubs are now several generations separated from the last time Sammy Sosa took right field for them on October 2, 2004.

A lot has happened since then: Derrek Lee had one of the best offensive seasons in Cubs history, Lou Piniella led his squad to back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008, that same squad fell apart leading to a long stretch of miserable losing, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer joined the front office in 2011 and rebuilt the entire organization, and the Cubs went back to the playoffs in 2015.

Sosa is now a relic of the past, one which the Cubs brass have made it clear they’d rather keep there. He’s a symbol of baseball’s maligned “steroid era” and left the Cubs organization in January 2005 on disgraced terms after 12 years sprinting out to right field and saluting the Bleacher Bums.

The problem with suppressing the memory of Sosa’s playing days in Chicago is the ultimate willingness to ignore a significant portion of the team’s history. For at least seven years, Sammy Sosa was the Chicago Cubs.

It’s no secret that Sosa’s breakout came when he was 29-years-old in 1998, when he joined Mark McGwire in breaking Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, finishing the year with 66. It earned him a National League MVP Award, and his historic offensive season helped lead the Cubs to a Wild Card entry into the postseason.

That was the year in which Sosa evolved from an underperforming power hitter into a superstar. It all started when he slashed a ridiculous .405/.458/1.238 with 11 home runs and 25 RBI across ten games between May 25 and June 8.

And for the next six seasons, Sosa never looked back. Slammin’ Sammy amassed 60 home runs in 1998 (66), 1999 (63) and 2001 (64), becoming the only player in baseball history to reach that mark in three seasons. Between 1998 and 2004, Sosa hit 402 of his 609 career home runs, only hitting less than 40 once (34 in 2004) and less than 50 three times — though he came close with 49 in 2002.

Sosa posted the greatest offensive season in Cubs history for the 88-win 2001 squad, when he slashed .328/,437/.737 and collected 425 total bases, 256 of them by way of the 64 long balls. He hit his 500th career home run in 2003, becoming the first Cub to reach that feat since Ernie Banks in 1970. He passed Ernie as the Cubs’ all time franchise leader in home runs one year later; all told, he still holds the historic team record with 545 blasts, all between 1992 and 2004.

He was also responsible for one of the greatest home runs in team history. In Game 1 of the 2003 NLCS against the Florida Marlins, Ugueth Urbina was tasked with holding the Marlins’ 8-6 lead in the bottom of the ninth. With two outs and Kenny Lofton on second, Sosa came up and smoked a 1-1 laser beam over the left field fence onto Waveland Avenue to tie the game at eight.

The Cubs would lose this game in 11 innings, but the moment stands. The sheer pandemonium inside of Wrigley Field on that home run gave Sammy his defining October moment, 11 years after first putting on a Cubs jersey.

It’s a common misconception that even when the Cubs are terrible, Wrigley Field still sells out. Whether the year was 1980, 1992, or 2013, the Cubs never struggled to sell tickets necessarily, but keeping butts in the seats was a different story.

Things were a little different during Sosa’s peak years on the North Side. The Cubs lost more than 90 games in 1999 (95), 2000 (97) and 2002 (95), and somehow managed to average over 34,000 fans per game between those three seasons. In a ballpark with a max capacity just under 40,000 at the time, that’s impressive for a 90-loss team. And Sosa was largely responsible for this, whether it was to see him during batting practice, or watch him sprint out toward right field, or witness four plate appearances in the hopes that he’d crush another colossal home run into the center field bushes.

And the Cubs knew Sammy Sosa was the show.

There’s an old story about former Cubs manager Don Baylor learning of Sosa’s obnoxious, pulsating boombox in the clubhouse before games when he took the job in 2000, and saying, “I have more bats than he has boomboxes.” In the end, Sosa was never asked by Baylor to turn it down, leading many to assume he was asked by the front office to back off the issue to keep Sammy happy.

As his numbers, muscles, and paychecks got bigger, so did Sosa’s ego, and as he aged and his numbers declined in 2003 and 2004, he began alienating teammates and fans.

Cubs catcher Joe Girardi did take exception to the boombox in 2002 and turned it down once. Sosa called the clubhouse “my house,” saying, “There’s always somebody who wants to say something about my music, but … I will be here for seven more years, so they will have to listen to that for seven more years.”

His final two years in Chicago were lukewarm as he declined, but fans still came out to see him because he remained the Cubs’ primary power threat. As the team evolved into a winner under Dusty Baker, the fanbase — and the front office — felt there wasn’t a place for Sosa’s superstar ego on the roster anymore, especially as he performed less and less like a superstar every year.

Patience toward Sosa’s attitude had worn thin, and finally bottomed out on the last day of the 2004 regular season. He asked Baker to be scratched from the lineup, and left Wrigley Field early during the game. This was the final straw for the front office, who on January 28, 2005 traded him to the Baltimore Orioles for a package that included Jerry Hairston Jr. and Mike Fontenot — evidence they simply wanted to rid themselves of Sosa’s baggage.

Since then, Sosa has been exiled from the Cubs organization and not welcomed back. He and some fans have expressed their gripes over the issue to the current regime of chairman Tom Ricketts along with Epstein and Hoyer. But the team hasn’t budged, merely insisting that reconciliation is a two-way street.

It’s difficult, however, to truly pinpoint exactly what the Cubs would like Sosa to reconcile. Two things come to mind, the first of which being his unpleasant final few years as a clubhouse cancer and unceremonious departure in 2004. Sammy was an abrasive malcontent, and there’s very little evidence to the contrary.

What exactly would the Cubs like him to do about that? Apologize to every teammate who took offense to his eccentricities? The Baylor boombox story is evidence that no matter what Sosa wanted to do, the front office was going to let him do it. His behavior was encouraged because he was the main reason money flowed in when the front office couldn’t/refused to field a competitive team. He didn’t disrespect the Cubs; the Cubs created him.

The second issue is the cloud of suspicion over alleged steroid use throughout his career, especially during his peak power years.

In 2009, the New York Times released leaked information linking Sosa to what were supposed to be confidential drug tests from 2003 that found their way into the hands of the press. The leak certainly doesn’t bode well for Sosa’s status as a “clean” player, but also only proves one thing: that Sosa, for whatever reason, used performance enhancing drugs once in 2003.

It’s easy to look at that, and then look at his power spike in 1998, and begin to label him as a cheater, but the fact remains that proof just doesn’t exist that he took anything outside of 2003. No teammate or doctor testimony, no other tests. And if it does, nobody has seen it yet.

Steroids are such a gray area in baseball, because people are either in favor of moving on from the issue or vehemently opposed to it. The Cubs have made their position quite clear in recent years; Manny Ramirez, caught and suspended many times under the joint drug agreement, has been flaunted by the Cubs as a roving hitting instructor and a valuable mentor to young hitters, notably Javier Baez.

The “two-way street” argument doesn’t sell, because Sosa has absolutely nothing to reconcile. He behaved in a way that was encouraged by the front office for years and was only implicated as a steroid user in one test that was supposed to remain confidential from the public eye (which, again, shouldn’t matter because of their apparent loyalty to Manny).

Yet he continues to be vilified by the Cubs brass, forced to make some sort of goodwill effort that remains entirely unclear. When the Cubs celebrated 100 years of Wrigley Field in 2014, Sosa was not part of the festivities. For a team so progressive and accepting of history for what it is, their reluctance to welcome Sosa back is not only bizarre, but also hypocritical.

And therein lies the bigger issue: if he isn’t accepted by the Cubs and is continued to be perceived as a cheating malcontent, there’s no way he wins support with the BBWAA voters for the Hall of Fame, either.

Granted, acceptance of the very best from the “steroid era” hasn’t happened yet, and players with absolutely no link (other than speculative conjecture) to performance enhancing drugs, like Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza, continue to get the shaft from voters solely because of suspicion they must have done something. Bagwell and Piazza are painted as likeable guys, too; Sosa hasn’t had that benefit in quite some time.

Sosa’s exile from baseball in America has been a sad one, largely because over a seven-year stretch, he was one of the game’s elite performers that brought a city’s fanbase together when they had nothing to celebrate. Baseball’s lack of proactivity and bureaucratic complications with steroids and the Cubs’ encouragement of his egomaniacal eccentricities should all play into his legacy.

And somehow, they don’t.

One can only hope that, even if the inherently corrupt BBWAA voting class never accepts Sammy Sosa for the Hall of Fame (and with their results coming in days, that seems highly unlikely in 2016), the Cubs open their doors to Slammin’ Sammy again. After cashing in on his historic seasons and trotting him out as their primary marketing force for seven years, it’s the right thing to do.

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