When you think of Cubs baseball, you think Wrigley Field, the green ivy, the marquee, and an abundance of nostalgia through the years. But when you think specifically of Cubs baseball in the 1990s, you think of Sammy Sosa.
Although he originally debuted with the Texas Rangers in 1989, and then traded to the Chicago White Sox that same year, Wrigley was his home for 13 years from 1992 to 2004. I would argue that Sammy Sosa WAS Cubs baseball for all those years. Sosa was a seven time All-Star, the 1998 National League MVP, a six time Silver Slugger award winner, and a two time Home Run leader in 2000 and 2002. Sosa pumped life into a game that needed saving after many fans became disinterested in baseball due to the 1994 strike and cancellation of the World Series. My first memories of Cubs games involve Sosa. Before I knew of Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, and Ron Santo, my blank canvas of a brain only knew Slammin’ Sammy. And that is where my love of baseball began.
The signature Sammy Sosa hop when he would hit a home run was the stuff of legends. When you saw the hop, you knew that ball was gone. Whether it was a home game or an away game, the crowd was enamored by Sosa’s excitement when he would step up to the plate.
Sosa was also there when baseball and America needed him most. September 27, 2001, in the first home game after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Sosa ran to the outfield with an American flag after player introductions. And when he would later hit a home run, he did the same thing around the bases.
I was in fourth grade when that happened and Sosa was already a hero of mine, but that day, it became more than just baseball. The world seemed grim for a moment — and Sosa was there to help us forget for a while.
Of course, if you are going to mention the hop, you must mention that he “hopped” 609 times, 545 times as a Cub. Sosa was the first player to hit 60 or more home runs three times in a career. The first being in 1998 when Sosa and St. Louis Cardinal, Mark McGwire, battled it out to break Roger Maris’s home run record set at 61. Not only did that race bring people back to baseball, it cemented both men in home run history. Sosa trailed by as much as 16 by the end of May 1998, 25 to 9, but by mid-August, Slammin’ Sammy had roared back and took a 48 to 47 lead while the two men were playing each other. McGwire, however, would tie it later in that same game and take the lead once again. On September 7, 1998, McGwire would break Maris’s record against Sosa’s Cubs. Sosa would break that record almost a week later against the Milwaukee Brewers. McGwire would eventually win the battle 70 to 66, but the real winner were the fans who tuned in every day for seven months to see two NL All-Stars duke it out, bringing baseball back with them.
I remember when my dad would pick me up from summer camp and he would tell me “Sammy did it again” and I would ask what the total was now and if the bad guy was going to ruin it for him again. Talking about baseball was always one of my favorite things to talk to my dad about and still is today. It was so cool to be six years old and have your dad take you to Cubs games so you could see your idol all summer. I spent most of my days with my dad at Wrigley and that year like most, it was to see Sosa. Sosa did that for us.
And yet, his name is probably one that many fans have conflicting feelings about to this day. His alleged steroid use in 2003 sought to discredit his accomplishments in baseball. On June 16, 2009, The New York Times reported that Sosa’s name was on a list of players that had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. From 1995 to 2003, Sosa drove in at least 100 RBI’s and slugged no fewer than 36 home runs. His historic year in 1998 saw him hit .308 with 66 HR’s, 158 RBI’s, and 134 runs. Perhaps his “worst” season as a Cub was in 1997 when he batted .251, but also added 36 HR’s and 119 RBI’s. In 2010, McGwire admitted to taking steroids in his career which included the 1998 season, but Sosa remains adamant that he has never taken any steroids nor has anyone given him steroids. Many think that if McGwire was using illegal substances then Sosa must have as well in order to keep up with him in the home run race. It is not much of a leap to come to that conclusion, but Sosa to this day denies using PEDs.
In 2005, the Cubs traded Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for utility man Jerry Hairston Jr, infielder Mike Fontenot, and right-handed pitcher Dave Crouthers. Some took that as the Cubs wanting to avoid the steroid allegation altogether and used Sosa’s “declining” numbers (35 HR’s and 80 RBI’s) and increasing age (36 by the offseason) as a way of shunning their prized possession and reaping the benefits. Sosa batted .221 and hit 14 HR’s and 45 RBI’s in 102 games for the Orioles. He would take the next year off and return to his original team the Rangers in 2007 at the age of 38 and batted .252 with 21 HR’s and 92 RBI’s. I think the current Cubs could have probably done a lot worse than a 38-year-old Sosa last year.
Now, 13 days removed from his 52nd birthday, Sosa enters his ninth year on the Hall of Fame ballot (out of a maximum of 10.) He currently sits at 13.9%, and needs 75% to meet Cooperstown’s threshold. In short, he needs a miracle.
I think his HOF is strengthened if the Cubs do one thing: welcome Sosa back with open arms. I understand the organization wants transparency, and I think all fans do, but Sosa carried the team when no one else could. In fact, the Cubs should retire his jersey in the process. Players like Milton Bradley made a mockery of the iconic number 21, and it’s time they properly enshrine it.
The only way Sosa has any chance on for the Hall is if the Cubs work with him and make amends. Sosa made you want to play baseball, he made you want to watch baseball, and he made you proud to be a Cubs fan. Slammin’ Sammy would be wise to own up to his shortcomings, but he made me glad to be a Cubs fan, and he helped revitalize the game of baseball.
Sammy Sosa was baseball on the Northside, and for that he deserves a homecoming.
Featured Photo: John Zich, Getty Images
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