In 1998, Major League Baseball was in trouble and losing fans fast. In the wake of the ’94-’95 strike, the biggest strike ever in professional sports, fans were disillusioned and bitter. Then something happened that changed everything: the home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.
In 1998, Major League Baseball was in trouble and losing fans fast. In the wake of the ’94-’95 strike, the biggest strike ever in professional sports, fans were disillusioned and bitter.
The 232-day strike began during the ’94 season, forcing the cancellation of the World Series that year. The 1995 season was able to get into full swing, but many fans were not ready to forgive and forget. Attendance declined as once-faithful followers decried the rampant greed ruining the sport.
Then something happened that changed everything: the home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The excitement that contest generated drove ticket sales and reignited interest in the national pastime, attracting new fans and old alike. Nowhere was that impact felt more strongly than in Chicago.
By the end of 1998, Slammin’ Sammy had belted 66 home runs, breaking the single-season record held by Roger Maris. McGwire ended up with 70, but Sosa, who had more RBIs and stolen bases, was honored with the 1998 NL MVP award. McGwire tallied a few more homers that year, but Sosa was the true star of the show.
The slugger was charismatic; his infectious smile, his home-run hop, and the kisses he blew to the camera after a towering blast were all part of a bigger-than-life personality that was hard to resist. Yes, breaking Maris’ record would have been headline-worthy regardless, but the energy is what the ever-growing crowds really responded to.
One would think that feat alone would cement Sosa’s legacy for the Cubs and its legion of loyal followers. But Sosa followed that up with two more seasons of 60 or more home runs — making him the only player in history to have ever done so.
But by the end of the 2004 season, things had rapidly deteriorated between the right fielder and his team. Much was made of Sosa’s early departure from the final game of the season. Sosa says he had permission to leave, and other players also left early. The Cubs organization denied those claims, turning on their star player and vilifying him in the press. The front office wanted Sammy gone, but they first had to find a way out of a trade clause worth $18 million.
“They realized that they were dealing with a Cubs icon, and they had to cast him in a negative light,” Sun-Times sports editor Chris De Luca told Chicago magazine. “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.”
The maneuver worked. Many fans hopped on the Sammy-bashing train, seemingly forgetting all he had done for their beloved team. Those who once loudly refuted the steroid rumors following Sosa began calling him a cheater and booing him. No longer getting the love and respect he fed on, Sosa waived the clause and was soon traded to the Baltimore Orioles.
So it was no surprise to me when, in that same Chicago magazine article last week, Sosa said the Cubs “threw me into the fire. They made (people) believe I’m a monster.”
I may be in the minority here, but I think Sammy has a valid point. Given all that he did for the Cubs and baseball, he deserves far better than he has gotten from the club and its fans. I have never believed the steroid allegations against him. The evidence just isn’t there. Steroid users spend lots of time on the disabled list. Sosa did not. Sammy also didn’t exhibit other telltale signs of steroid use: lots of acne and an explosive temper. Yes, he bulked up, but he also was known to spend long hours in the gym. That, combined with his admitted use of creatine — a legal supplement — could easily account for his more muscular frame.
But even if he did use steroids, he wouldn’t be alone. You’d be hard-pressed to find many baseball superstars who haven’t endured speculation. Mark McGwire admitted to doing so, and it hasn’t stopped the Cardinals from treating him like baseball royalty. But while McGwire has been allowed to join the Cardinals coaching staff, Sosa has not so much as been asked to sing during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field. Even his request to announce his retirement in the Friendly Confines was rejected.
So are the Cardinals really that much more loyal? As a lifelong Cubs fan, I have always been proud of our reputation as the best fans in baseball, and the most loyal. But we certainly don’t seem to be living up to that where Sosa is concerned. Regardless of how things ended, there were many years where there wasn’t much for Cubs fans to believe in. But Slammin’ Sammy gave us years of thrills ... not to mention the untold millions of dollars the Cubs made by selling tickets to the Sammy Sosa Show. Even when the Cubs didn’t give fans much to smile about, there was Sosa.
Now it’s our turn to repay that debt by putting past differences aside and welcoming him back into the fold. I’d love to see his number retired, as I believe it should be, but right now I’d settle for seeing Sosa throw out the first pitch or sing the seventh-inning stretch. Ignoring his contributions is shameful, and unworthy of an organization like the Cubs.
Amy Gehrt may be reached at email@example.com.