We assume there was no suspense concerning the identities of the three remaining players on this list. We'll leave you guessing one more day about #1.
A good argument can be made for any of these final three ranking first, and there was a time, just before his massive fall from grace, when a consensus had emerged that Sosa had, indeed, become the greatest Cub. Time and perspective may yet confirm that judgment; the author was certainly convinced, a few years ago.
Based on numbers and performance alone, Sosa should be first. His ranking at #3 reflects the continuing doubt surrounding the legitimacy of his accomplishments, the manner and method of his leavetaking, and the redeeming fact that those accomplishments, despite caveats, are of worthy and often heroic stature. In Cubs history, only Anson and Banks achieved the synthesis of identity between athlete and team as did Sosa.
If, as the canard goes, journalism is the first draft of history, a blog is anybody's darn guess. Sammy, after all, may not be finished.
In the current atmosphere of suspicion, even Sosa's birthdate has been questioned. Officially, he was born November 12, 1968, in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. The date is almost certainly true; it survived the post-9/11 crackdown on foreign workers' data that resulted in additions of up to several years to many Latin players' ages (including, incidentally, Alfonso Soriano). Those who signed and nurtured Sosa in his first professional years had no doubts about his age. At one early point, it would have been much to Sosa's advantage to be "older", and he didn't take the opportunity.
He was born Samuel Peralta Montero, the fifth of seven children, into poverty almost unimaginable to those who would pay to see him perform. Sammy was seven when his father died, and acquired a new surname upon his mother's second marriage. The combined family eventually grew to eleven children. One younger brother, Jose, would play in the Cubs' minor league system.
A poor boy with athletic gifts, Sammy saw sport as his means of ascent. He initially attempted boxing, but quit at his mother's request. Sosa would later claim his boxing instructor assaulted him.
Sammy took up baseball with school teams at fourteen, and began playing in local leagues soon after. Within a year he had attracted enough attention to receive a professional offer, from the Phillies. MLB nullified the deal, as a new rule forbade contracts with prospects younger than sixteen. Had Sosa been fudging his age, the pretense would have been dropped at that time.
Omar Minaya, scout for the Texas Rangers, signed Sosa in 1985, following Sammy's sixteenth birthday, for a bonus of $3500. Sammy was "skinny and malnourished", according to the reports Minaya filed, but he possessed the rarest qualities, top-notch hand-to-eye coordination and bat speed. On those abilities alone, the Rangers took a four-figure chance.
Sosa rose quickly through the minors, despite considerable flaws in his game, most notably a lack of plate discipline. He made his major league debut for the Rangers (leading off) on June 16, 1989. On June 21, he hit his first major league home run, off Roger Clemens, at Fenway Park.
Sosa had played 25 games for the Rangers when he was traded to the White Sox, with pitcher Wilson Alvarez, for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique, July 29, 1989. Sosa hit .273 with three home runs in 33 games with the Sox in `89.
Sammy played the full schedule in 1990, batting .233 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI, though with an alarming 150 strikeouts. He spent some time in the leadoff spot, but primarily batted fifth or lower. The team was experimenting with a raw talent. He proved his value in a year in which the young Sox made a stirring run at the division title, only to falter in September. Despite the Ks, Sosa was the only AL player that year to record double-digits in doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases.
Sammy wasn't Sammy yet. In hindsight, it can easily be seen that Sosa was a quintessential late bloomer. The culture shock must have been immense in his first pro years. The persona that reached maturity in `98 grew hand in glove with the player. It is certainly no coincidence that Sosa the player grew apace with Sosa the act.
Those who hang at both parks (more than local lore would have you believe), remember a tall, lanky, wiry dude (and that is the word), who projected an air of too-much confidence. He was comfortable as a professional, if not quite as a public figure. He fell in with fellow countryman Melido Perez, as might be expected. Sammy, for a time, even wore the same curly perm Melido affected. They seemed a good match, Perez was a player of occasional brilliance who seemed unable to realize his talent.
That perception was an error in Sosa's case. His work ethic and passion was evident to everyone, thus his inability to live up to potential was particularly galling to management and coaches. Larry Himes, Sox GM, had a special regard for Sammy's future. Himes had, after all, traded one of the greatest and most popular Sox stars of all time to acquire him. This faith would pay huge dividends, but in a direction the Sox could never have imagined.
A harbinger, perhaps, of hard times came during the winter of `90-'91. Sosa was charged with spousal abuse, allegedly after his wife refused his demand for a divorce. The charges were later dropped, and an understanding of some sort was reached. The marriage survives to this day; the couple has four children.
In 1991, Sosa hit .203 in 116 games, with 10 home runs and 98 strikeouts in 316 at-bats. He also served a month-long stint in the minors that summer. The Sox tried him all through the lineup, looking for something to click. There was now a general sense of incurable underachievement regarding Sosa, and his future with the Sox was doomed. He was ripe for trade bait by the end of the season.
The Cubs and Sox have made relatively few trades in their mutual histories, and most of those of small import. The exchange made on March 30, 1992 would have been notable even had Sosa never developed. The Cubs, now led by newly-hired (and ex-Sox) VP of Baseball Operations Himes, traded George Bell to the White Sox for Sosa and pitcher Ken Patterson. Both clubs got value, Bell spent two decent seasons as south side DH, and was a regular most of the division title year of `93.
And, of course, the Cubs got Sammy. It was received bleacher wisdom that the Cubs had traded an old head case for a young one. How right we were.
Sammy has left a lot of regret in the wake of his departures. George W. Bush, managing partner of the Rangers at the time of the first Sosa trade, made it a laugh-line at campaign appearances eleven years later ("my greatest mistake"). Jack Gould, who made the second Sosa trade on behalf of the Sox, would make similar statements. But no one could have foreseen the magnitude of Sammy's rise. Larry Himes has taken the credit, but if he really saw what Sosa was to become, it was a flash of genius not evident elsewhere.
Sosa's first Cub season was a near disaster. Expos pitcher Dennis Martinez broke Sosa's right hand June 13, Sammy returned to the lineup July 27. But he fractured an ankle three weeks later, returning again in mid-September. In 67 games in `92, Sammy batted .260 with eight home runs. The Cubs did what the Sox had done, first trying Sammy toward the top of the lineup as a possible power/speed man (Sosa would have eight leadoff homers in his career), then dumping him in the middle of the order.
In 1993 Sosa finally, and suddenly, became a power hitter, more than doubling his previous season high with 33 home runs. Also stealing 36 bases, he became the first Cubs member of the 30-30 club. During this season, Sammy was moved to a more conventional power spot in the lineup, and stayed there.
Now began the "Selfish Sammy" years, as we called them in the bleachers. Sitting directly behind Sosa in right field, we had a thirteen-year ringside seat for what was arguably the biggest show in team history. Over the next few years, all the Sosa hallmarks would fall into place. "Sammy's Spot", the perpetual bare patch in the outfield grass, the bunny-hop during home runs, the over-deliberate batters box dance between pitches, the love tap, the charge into right field to open home games.
There was a method to the act, Sammy improved as a player, almost never missed a game, and became the face of his team. Certain elements of his game now came into sharp focus. Sosa produced in astounding white-hot bursts. Of all the members of the 500-HR club, Sammy hit homers in the fewest individual games. His 68 multi-homer games are third in history, and he played in far fewer games than the two players ahead of him. His six three-homer games are tied for first (John Mize). But it seemed all for the stat books. His strikeout totals remained phenomenally high. He would not adjust.
Sammy would always be, first and last, a hitter. Speed was incidental to his game. His stolen bases were the product of the raw swiftness of his youth, he never learned to run the bases well. His fielding was adequate at best. He had, probably, as strong an arm as any outfielder of his time, but he was as likely to nail the backstop as throw out a runner or hit a cutoff man. His running and fielding never received the intensity he would now bring to his batting.
All of what was to come nearly took place in, of all things, a Boston Red Sox uniform. During the offseason following the 1994 player's strike, Sammy had agreed to a free agent contract with the Red Sox. Before he could actually play his home games at Fenway Park, the commissioner's office ruled that any such contract negotiations were null and void, and by the time the strike had been settled and the 1995 season was to begin Sammy had changed his mind and chose to remain a Cub.
Sosa had his first 100-RBI season in `95, as well as his second 30-30 year, the only two such seasons in team history. He also made the first of his seven All-Star appearances.
1996 seemed to be the year Selfish Sammy might become history. More clutch singles were in evidence. Strikeouts were still high, but all other aspects of Sosa's production increased. The season was peppered with small spectaculars. On May 16 Sosa became the first Cub to homer twice in the same inning. On June 5 he had his first three-homer game, driving in five runs, almost single-handedly erasing a four-run deficit in a winning cause.
On August 20, Sosa had 40 home runs and 99 RBI, well on his way to an historic year. He got his 100th RBI that day, a bases-loaded hit-by-pitch that broke his wrist and ended his season. Still fresh in fan memory was the similar injury suffered by Ryne Sandberg in `93, from which the future HOFer had never fully recovered.
Sosa returned to play a full schedule in 1997, but got off to a slow start, redeemed somewhat by a late-season surge. He hit 36 home runs and drove in 119. But his .251 average and 174 strikeouts (the team record), seemed to herald a disappointing return to bad form. Nonetheless, he signed a contract extension through 2001, worth $42 million, one of the most expensive deals in the game.
At this time, Sosa and new team hitting coach Jeff Pentland formed a strong relationship. Pentland is widely credited as the man who got Sammy to listen, focus, and adjust, as he had never done before.
What happened in 1998 was not entirely unexpected, the power game had been building incrementally since the early `90s. In `94, Ken Griffey jr had been on pace to break Maris' single-season home run record before the strike halted play in August. Subsequently, Griffey, Mark McGwire, and Matt Williams had each hit 60 or more homers in 162-game spans, spread over two seasons. In 1996 McGwire had hit 52 homers, in `97, he hit 58. McGwire had long been considered the best potential threat to the record, but he was frustratingly injury-prone. With two fairly healthy seasons behind him, all that was seemingly needed was one calendar year of uninterrupted production. 1998 began with the anticipation that this most hallowed record was due to fall. But no one saw the magic coming, or the direction from which it would come.
There was no magic the first two months. McGwire started hot, setting records for home runs in April, and for the end of May. On May 25, Sosa entered play with nine home runs, McGwire with 24. On that day Sosa had his first multi-homer game of the year, hitting a pair in Atlanta. It was the start of the greatest concentrated home run binge in history.
Sammy hit a record 21 home runs in the next thirty days (5/25-6/23). He shattered the record for home runs in a calendar month, hitting 20 in June (Rudy York, 18, July 1938). Along the way, Sosa also had streaks of 21 homers in 24 games, and 14 in 15 games, (6/1-6/15), the latter capped by a three-homer game against the Brewers at Wrigley June 15.
At the end of June it was a race, although Sosa would pass McGwire only twice, and both times very briefly. McGwire had only two slow spots in his season, the first from late July through early August. On August 19, with the Cardinals at Wrigley, McGwire watched Sosa pass him for the first time, Sammy's 48th home run. Mac hit two home runs of his own later that game, retaking the lead, which he would not relinquish until after Maris' record was broken.
By now it was a circus, in the best sense. Batting practice, when the Cardinals were in town, was a spectacle. McGwire always bunted the first BP pitch thrown him, (nearly always perfectly down the line), and took a few relaxed cuts before turning things loose. Then the moonshots would fly onto and across Waveland, into a crowd that filled the street shoulder-to-shoulder. Sosa's BP displays were lower-keyed, he did his serious prep work in the batting cages beneath right field, hidden from view.
For us ballpark lifers, it was paradise. We knew we were witnessing the greatest baseball season in decades, and by the grace of whatever one believed in, most of it was happening before our eyes in Wrigley Field. There had been a small crash of recognition, a reporter had already spotted the used vial of supplement (a legal one, to be sure), in McGwire's locker, but for the moment, joy was still unfettered.
Double joy for Cubs fans, the wild card had turned into the most dramatic race of its kind. From mid-August to the end, the last forty-five days of the season, the Cubs, Mets, and Giants fought it out, no team gaining more than a single-game lead in all that span. Sosa was not only performing the greatest power feats in team history, he was doing so under the ultimate pressure.
The act was now at its zenith. The fans, and the country, devoured it. Only those forced to deal with it at close quarters on a daily basis, Sammy's teammates and the beat press, were jaded. The press, especially, thought they scented more than a whiff of the fulsome. They knew Sosa and McGwire were not friends, and met only on the playing field. Mark Grace, the congenital wiseacre, had a few bon mots at Sammy's expense. But the public saw only the entertainment, played to perfection. Sosa was now a national figure, and performed the role as well as anyone could. McGwire sometimes lost his cool; Sammy, never.
Feats, and records, dropped like rain. Sosa had set an anti-record, 4428 at-bats, and 247 homers, before hitting his first grand slam, July 27, at Arizona. He hit his second slam the next day, the first Cub to slam in consecutive games, the 18th player ever. On August 31 he caught McGwire at 55, a home run at Wrigley against the Reds. On September 2, Sosa tied Hack Wilson's 68-year-old team record with his 56th home run, also at Wrigley (it had been the NL record until McGwire passed it the day before). Sosa broke Wilson's record September 4 in Pittsburgh.
On September 8, in St. Louis, McGwire hit the season-record-breaking 62nd home run, of course, against the Cubs. Sosa joined the plateside celebration, sharing a bear hug with his rival. A perfect moment by two men who had grown into their roles. Here, perhaps understandably, McGwire began his second slowdown, and it set the stage for what, we all agreed, was the best weekend we'd ever spent at a ballpark.
Friday, September 11, the Brewers came to town for three games. Every game was critical now. The weather all three days was hot, sunny, and magnificent. Friday was a tough loss, 13-11, redeemed somewhat by Sammy's 59th home run. Saturday's game was even crazier. Sosa's 60th homer came in the seventh inning, a three-run blast that brought the Cubs close, 12-8. The Cubs hit six homers that day, two of them pinch-hit, including Orlando Merced's walkoff in the ninth, for a 15-12 win.
Sunday topped everything that had gone before. Sosa tied McGwire, and thus the in-flux major-league record, with two titanic blasts onto Waveland, numbers 61 and 62. The Cubs won, 11-10 (on a Mark Grace extra-inning walkoff HR), retaining a one-game wild card lead over the Mets.
On September 16 in San Diego, with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning, Sosa came to bat with the bases loaded. With the crowd screaming for a long ball, Sammy delivered, his third slam of the season, and 64th home run. He obliged the ecstatic throng with a curtain call. "I thought I was at a road game", was the disgusted remark attributed to several Padres players the next day. Sosa and McGwire had transcended team loyalties.
Sosa passed McGwire for the last time September 25, his 66th home run, also his last of the season. McGwire tied him within an hour, and hit two home runs in each of the remaining two games of the year to finish at 70. Sammy went homerless the last three games, but the Cubs made the playoffs in an almost comically unlikely manner, backing into a wild card tiebreaker after both they and the Giants lost dramatically, within moments of one another, on the final day. The Cubs won the deciding 163rd game of the season against the Giants, at Wrigley, 5-3. Sosa went two-for-four, both singles, scoring each time.
The Cubs, utterly spent, were promptly swept by the Braves, the eventual pennant-winner, in the first postseason round. The season was left on the floor before the playoffs began.
Sosa was the near-unanimous MVP; only the two St. Louis writers cast first-place votes for McGwire. The summary of a truly great season: 159 games, 134 runs, 198 hits, 66 home runs, 158 RBI (the only league-leading stat), .308 average, .647 slugging percentage. Sosa's 86 extra-base hits were the most in the NL in fifty years. His eleven multihomer games tied Hank Greenberg's record for a season.
Sammy remained busy in the offseason, performing highly praised charity and relief work in the Dominican, which had been devastated that summer by Hurricane Georges. Sosa had become, and remains, a Dominican national hero. Dominican flags could be seen in every ballpark in which he appeared during his glory years. During home games, his national colors were a fixture atop a lamppost on Waveland. Today, it has to be one of the sublime ironies of existence that Sammy, and his family, must often live and travel under guard within their native country. His astonishing rags-to-riches life has made him a paragon, but also a potential target.
Although several superb seasons, and the best individual year of all, were still to come, `98 would be Sosa's peak as a star. The act began to show its seams. The expanding ego, the clubhouse entourage, the boombox played at earsplitting volume even during Joe Girardi's migraines, wore down the goodwill built with such care. Sammy knew he was special, and he pushed it, undermining team morale and his managers' control.
He was hardly the only difficult player loved for his performance. 1999 would have been heroic had it followed any other year. Also, the Cubs began a two-year tenancy in the cellar, depriving Sammy's feats of dramatic backdrop. Sosa became the first player to have two 60-homer seasons on September 18, although McGwire would pass him at the end, again leading the league with 65 homers to Sosa's 63.
Sosa made noise in the offseason, asking for a contract renegotiation, though signed through 2001. The Cubs put him on the market, but withdrew his availablity in the face of obvious fan discontent. Don Baylor was hired as manager, and vowed that Sammy would steal more bases and play better defense under his regime. Neither would happen. Sosa had reached his maximum size, and was no longer built for speed. For what it's worth, the 1990 White Sox media guide lists him at 6'0", 175 lbs, the 2004 Cub guide at 6'0", 220.
McGwire had now entered his career-end decline, and Sosa led the league in homers for the first time in 2000, hitting 50. He also won the Home Run Derby in Atlanta during All-Star week, belting drives of almost cartoonish length. The Cubs, however, finished the year with the worst record in the majors. The team took no chances in the offseason, signing Sammy to a four-year, $72 million deal, the fourth-richest to that time.
The Cubs challenged in 2001, and again Sosa had his backdrop, this time for the greatest offensive season by any Chicago Cub in history.
On May 16, Sammy hit his 400th career home run in a loss to Houston at Wrigley. Sosa had two three-homer games within two weeks in August, the first game a loss, the second a 16-3 win over Milwakee at home. In that second game, Baylor pulled Sosa after six innings, depriving him of a excellent chance to hit a fourth homer. On August 26, another multi-homer game produced Sammy's 50th and 51st roundtrippers, his fourth 50-HR season, and fourth consecutive, both tying major league records. On August 28, Sammy tied Willie Mays' NL record for home runs in August (17), in an extra-inning loss to the Marlins. Continuing a year-long theme of frustrating losses during heroic games, Sosa became the only player to have three three-homer games in one year in a September 23 defeat at the hands of the Astros, 7-6.
On October 2, the Cubs were eliminated from the wild card, and again Sosa made history, belting his 60th home run, the only player with three such seasons. He would remain hot to the end, including a bizarre inside-the-park 63rd homer at Wrigley October 6, a game in which he had three hits, three runs, and three RBI.
Sammy outdid himself, in an ultimately maddening year for his team. His 64 homers were second to Bonds' record 73; in none of Sosa's 60-HR seasons would he lead the league. His 103 extra-base hits set a team record (97, Wilson, 1930), his 160 RBI the most in the NL since 1930. His 425 total bases (Cubs record), fourth in NL history, were the most by anyone since 1948. And his strikeouts, 153, were the lowest of his monster years.
2002 was a miserable season in almost all respects. The team lost 95 games, costing Baylor his job and making Bruce Kimm, his replacement, a laughingstock despite his candor. Sosa got off on the wrong foot immediately, asking Bonds, during a joint spring training appearance, for "permission" to break his new home run record. It was not the sort of talk the team wanted to hear. Again Sammy thrived amidst the general horror, and was well on his way to another historic individual effort. A sign of the inflated times came June 18, against the Rangers at Wrigley, when, in the first such occasion, four members of the 400-HR club played in the same game (Sosa, McGriff, Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez). Only Palmeiro homered that night.
Soon after he had a notable binge; on August 10, in Colorado, Sammy hit three three-run homers in consecutive innings to tie the club record for RBI, nine, in a game (Heinie Zimmerman, 6/11/1911). It was his record-tying sixth career three-homer game. He followed with a grand slam and five RBI August 11, and another homer August 12 in Houston. The five home runs in three games tied another Cubs record.
Only a few days later, on August 18 at Wrigley, during a meaningless game against the Diamondbacks, Sosa and Mark Bellhorn, chasing a flare hit by Damian Miller, collided in short right, knocking heads with a sickening impact. As both players lay prone in the grass, Miller circled the bases for an inside-the-park home run. There was no DL time as a result, but Sammy played the remainder of the season at much diminshed levels. It cost him a 50-HR year (49), and a long wait for his 500th career home run (ended the year at 499). For those of us who watched Sosa on a daily basis, this was the beginning of his physical decline as a player. He was never again the same.
Dusty Baker was hired as manager for 2003, and Sosa and the Cubs began a strange season, the last decent year of an already badly strained relationship. Baker did nothing to seriously interfere with Sammy's increasingly irritating clubhouse lifestyle. Although he was still the big man in the lineup, the team leaders would be veteran imports Eric Karros, Kenny Lofton, and, ironically, Miller, who displayed no deference to Sosa and showed the team how to win despite distractions.
Historic milestones were due to be paid in `03, and Sosa collected on the first April 4 in Cincinnati, his 500th home run, off Scott Sullivan in the seventh inning. Sammy was the 18th member of the 500-HR club. Sosa would collect his 500th Cubs home run June 8, and his 2000th hit August 22.
On April 20 Sosa was beaned by Salomon Torres in Pittsburgh, a horrifying incident in which even the high-tech metal lining of his batting helmet was left in pieces. Without that protection, Sammy would have suffered, at minimum, a disabling, career-ending injury. He was back in the lineup two days later, after passing a CAT scan, only to be hit again, less dramatically; one of three Cub batters hit in the same inning by Padres pitcher Brian Lawrence. The beaning is usually cited as the start of the decline evident the remainder of Sosa's career, but that decline had already begun the season before.
Sammy's recovery, in confidence and plate presence, after the beaning, was slow and painful, he was obviously tentative and overmatched. This was further complicated by a twenty-day stay on the disabled list (May 10-20), his first since 1996, for surgical removal of an infected toenail. On June 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution of congratulation in honor of Sammy's 500th homer, praising him as a role model for the nation's youth.
Two days later, in the first inning of the Cubs-Devil Rays night game, June 3 at Wrigley Field, Sosa's bat shattered as he hit into a groundout, revealing obvious corking. Crew chief Tim McClelland (the same umpire who had tossed George Brett in the "pine tar" incident), ejected Sosa. Sammy would receive an eight-game suspension, reduced to seven games on appeal. MLB examined all 76 bats then in Sosa's possession; even the Hall of Fame tested bats donated by Sosa in previous years. All were clean, no other bat of Sosa's, then or otherwise, has been found to be illegal.
The "official" explanation, finalized after some embarrassing trial and error, was that the incident resulted from accidental use of a batting practice bat. The bat was notably different in appearance from Sammy's usual, and if it were the only corked bat he owned, he could not possibly have misused it in error. He was, in cold fact, caught as red-handed as could be. His reputation took a major and irreparable hit.
Sammy returned to the lineup to have a solid second half, finishing with 40 homers and 103 RBI in 137 games.
Sammy batting vs. the Expos in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 11, 2003. Photo by Al Yellon
But, for once, the team was center stage, and Sammy went to his second postseason. Sosa was 3-for-16 in the division series against the Braves, and hit .308 during the LCS against Florida. In that homer-happy series, there were two great Sammy moments, a game-tying, two-out, ninth-inning homer off relief ace Urbina in Game One; and a gargantuan centerfield shot, off the roof of the TV camera shed, in Game Two.
Sammy's final Cubs season would begin with one last burst of fun. On April 18, 2004, in his 64th multi-homer game, Sosa passed Ernie Banks for the team record in home runs, hitting his 513th and 514th Cub clouts.
On May 16, he began a month on the DL after sustaining one of the most bizarre injuries imaginable, throwing out his back after two violent sneezes in the visitors clubhouse in San Diego -- shades of Jose Cardenal's eyelid. Yet it was legitimate, fully witnessed by trained observers of the fourth estate.
In yet another maddening year, the Cubs finished horribly, losing seven of the final eight games, botching a wild card bid that had seemed easily within their grasp. Sosa had spent the majority of the year in deep slumps, yet managed another 30-homer season (35). But he had become something he had never been; unreliable, physically and mentally.
Sosa had been informed he would not start the season's last day, October 3, at Wrigley. He arrived late, in violation of one of Baker's few rules, and then left early, without permission. Security cameras confirmed his departure five minutes after game time. It was a final, unpardonable act of professional contempt.
Cubs players, after the game, held a ceremony of defiance and liberation. Sammy's boombox was destroyed by a teammate's lumber (legend says Kerry Wood, though no one has ever officially `fessed up). It was a symbolic and prescient act. Despite the near impossibility of a trade, given the structure of Sosa's contract, the Cubs actively sought a deal, and Sammy's representatives proved cooperative in arranging details.
On January 28, 2005, the trade was announced. Sosa went to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for Jerry Hairston, Jr., and a couple of miscellaneous minor leaguers. Sammy waived his guaranteed 2006 salary, and the Cubs paid $7 million of the $17,875,000 owed for 2005. It was considered cheap at the price.
Sosa's 2005 was a season of injury, absence, and long slumps. He batted .221 with 14 home runs, his lowest totals since 1992. On December 7, 2005, the Orioles declined arbitration, making Sosa a free agent. Sammy declined non-guaranteed offers from the Nationals in 2006, and sat out the season. His recent signing of a minor-league deal with the Rangers confirmed his desire to return to the majors: "I still have a lot of passion for the game and I'm in shape. I want to get to 600 home runs before saying goodbye".
On January 30, only a couple of weeks ago, Sosa and the Texas Rangers, his original team, announced agreement to a non-guaranteed minor league contract. Sammy will end a 17-month layoff with his first appearance in spring training.
Some accounting of Sosa's cumulative accomplishments, not otherwise mentioned in this article, needs to be given, in their entirety they are without a doubt the most remarkable batting stats by any player who has worn the red and blue.
Career home runs: 588 (5th), Cubs home runs: 545 (1st).
Consecutive 40-homer seasons: 6 (NL record).
Consecutive 30-homer seasons: 9 (3rd).
Most 150 RBI seasons: 2 (NL record).
Most homers, 3 cons. years: 179 (1998-2000); 4 cons. years: 243 (1998-2001), both NL records.
Homers in consecutive years, all major league records:
5 years: 292, 1998-2002.
6 years: 332, 1998-2003.
7 years: 368, 1996-2002, 1997-2003.
8 years: 408, 1996-2003.
9 years: 444, 1995-2003.
10 years: 469, 1994-2003.
Cubs ranks: games 1811 (10th), at-bats 6990 (8th), runs 1245 (6th), hits 1985 (9th), total bases 3980 (4th), long hits 873 (3rd), RBI 1414 (3rd), walks 798 (6th), strikeouts 1815 (1st), slugging pct .569 (2nd).
On March 17, 2005, Sosa appeared before the House Government Reform Committee, under subpoena, to testify concerning steroid use in major league baseball. He shared the table with Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and Rafael Palmeiro. Sosa, as did Palmeiro, denied usage; McGwire gave ambiguous, noncommittal reponses that destroyed what little then remained of his credibility. Palmeiro would later test positive, and make no attempt to return to the majors.
Sosa chose to testify in Spanish, his first language (a not uncommon practice when under oath and subject to possible penalty). All knew Sammy was perfectly competent in English, and the act laid an egg in Congress. Despite Sosa's denials, the testimony served to diminish his reputation further.
Of all the players tarred with the steroid brush, Sosa remains the most enigmatic. He never quite attained the comic-book bulk of the others. He never tested positive. There is no anecdotal or investigative account of his usage, as there is for Palmeiro, McGwire, and Bonds. Whatever happened, if it did, happened in the Dominican, and stayed there.
Sosa was the only player in the majors to diminish, every year, in home runs, RBI, and batting average in the span 2002-05, a damning pattern of decline. Only McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds achieved and maintained their historic levels of performance during the unregulated years, they are undoubtedly the greatest sluggers of their generation. But McGwire and Bonds had already established HOF credentials before performance enhancing became rampant, Sosa almost literally came from nowhere. No player, perhaps, has ever risen so high so swiftly, and then declined to his previous level, as swiftly.
But the deeds were done, the numbers are permanent, and awesome in any circumstance. What to do with it? If a definitive answer exists among the myriad suggestions, this author has yet to hear it.
Years after `98, Al and I had our attention called to a book entitled Baseball's Best Shots, a compendium of photos taken from all eras of the game. One spread is a shot of the right-field bleachers at Wrigley during a seventh-inning stretch in `98 (probably the game of September 18). A typically festive, half-dressed, half-bombed crowd gone half-bonkers over what they were seeing.
Except, that is, for two figures, in one corner of the image, bent over a pair of scorecards; literally the only people in the frame whose faces are not visible. Yes, it's us; and we agree, as do our baseball friends, that it's our perfect portrait.
I'd like to remember `98 that way, a season of joy, a season for the ages, fit for groupies and students alike, our season. But I can't, not anymore. It was stolen from us, under false pretenses, and time has not assuaged the anger.
A second draft of history was delivered, by proxy, last month; the baseball writers' vote for the Hall of Fame. Mark McGwire, on the ballot for the first time, received 23.5 percent. If Sosa has indeed played his last game, it will be delivered, in person, from the same source, in January, 2011.