The Quietest Retirement You'll Ever See

Sammy Sosa is done.

He turned down a non-guaranteed offer from the Washington Nationals, and according to his agent, Adam Katz:

"We're not going to put him on the retirement list," Katz told ESPN.com. "We decided that (not putting him on that list) was the best thing to do. But I can say, with reasonable certainty, that we've seen Sammy in a baseball uniform for the last time."

And that apparently means not in Japan, either.

Here's what I wrote about Sosa last year when the trade to Baltimore was just about consummated:

Sammy Sosa has played thirteen years with the Cubs, and the only players who have been with the club longer in my lifetime are Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, should-be HoFer Ron Santo, and Mark Grace, all of whom are so identified and identifiable as Cubs.

Sosa should have been the same way. He's been so much loved over the last six or so seasons, because of the sunny personality he once projected, and because of all the home runs he hit -- steroids or no, and I suppose now we'll never know.

All the goodwill Sammy had built up after the 1998 season, and with his spectacular 2001 season, almost certainly the greatest offensive season in Cub history, started to fade away, first with his ridiculous "Sammy's in the house" proclamations when he arrived at spring training, to playing his boom box loudly in the clubhouse despite the fact that it grated on everyone else there, to the corked-bat incident in 2003, to injuries that seemed suspicious, and finally, with the well-documented walkout on his teammates, manager and we the fans on the final day of the 2004 season.

It is indeed truly a shame that Sammy could not finish what is certainly going to be a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs. Even with his clearly reduced abilities, he's going to hit his 600th home run this year, and possibly go on to 700 -- and that's part of the problem, as Sosa was quoted earlier this offseason as saying he wanted to play five more years so he could hit that many. No mention was made by Sosa about winning, which, after all, is what this game should be all about.

I can't really add anything to that a year later, only to say that he never made it to the milestone of 600 HR -- a plateau reached by only four players in the history of baseball -- much less 700, and his abilities went downhill very quickly.

Some blame steroids. We'll probably never know that for certain.

I blame, at least in part, his physical decline on this game on August 18, 2002, where in the top of the sixth:

Miller hit an inside the park homer to right; Sosa & Bellhorn collided and each left the game in the 7th with headaches; Dellucci reached on an error by Bellhorn; Helling struck out; Womack doubled to left [Dellucci to third]; GORDON REPLACED CLEMENT (PITCHING); McCracken struck out; Spivey flied to center; 1 R, 2 H, 1 E, 2 LOB. Diamondbacks 2, Cubs 1.

That was Damian Miller, future Cub, incidentally, who hit that ball. Sosa was hitting .308/.417/.651 on that date; he finished with .288/.399/.594 (and hit .216/.339/.412 in September 2002).

Then there was this April 20, 2003 game, which is often commented upon; after Sosa homered off Josh Fogg in the first inning, reliever Salomon Torres hit him in the head in the fourth and cracked his helmet.

Neither of these incidents alone might have caused a decline in a baseball player's abilities, but the two of them, and the corked-bat game, all combined for physical and psychological pressure on Sosa that he apparently couldn't handle, and at an age (35) when some ballplayers' skills begin to erode anyway.

Lest you think that a single physical ill cannot turn a career around, recall the broken hand that Ryne Sandberg suffered at the hand of Mike Jackson of the Giants in spring training 1993. Coming off a .304/.371/.510, 26 HR, 87 RBI season in 1992, Sandberg missed over 40 games and never really recovered his power, and this certainly had to be part of his season-and-a-half retirement, before his brief "comeback".

And thus, Sammy Sosa, who might have held the all-time homerun record, not to mention all-time adulation, slinks off into a February night without even a press conference. Two years ago, that'd have been unthinkable.

What is his legacy? If this is indeed it, five years from now, his name will be presented to Hall of Fame voters, and it will be open for discussion. That's a good thing, I think. Five years' perspective takes away some hard edges that develop during everyday competition, and give us a chance to view the man's body of work as a whole, and let some still-festering sores heal.

And at that time, presuming he is elected to Cooperstown (and with the steroid allegations, that's no sure thing these days), perhaps it will be appropriate for whoever is in charge of the Cubs, to invite him back to Wrigley Field for a number-retirement ceremony.

For Sosa did give us thrills, and was a part of two playoff teams, and remains, tainted or not, and probably forever, the only man to ever have three sixty-homer seasons -- and curiously enough, his only HR titles came in years he hit 50 and 49.

I thank him for the excitement. I shy away from him for the frighteningly poor way in which he left Chicago. And I look for the distance of the next five years to give a chance for reflection on what is inarguably a remarkable professional baseball career.

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