On the last day of the season in 2004, Sammy Sosa left the Cubs team in the first inning. The last image the team had of him was walking out on security camera footage. His boombox was smashed. He was then traded in January 2005, and hasn't been back since.
It was a shame of an ending to the player that defined an era of Cubs baseball. How did the homer hopping, record setting Sammy fall so far out of grace? Some point to his corked bat incident in 2003. Others pointed to the rumors around steroids. He's struggled in Hall of Fame voting, but more puzzlingly, struggled with the Cubs fanbase. The Cubs are a team of tradition, welcoming back ambassadors like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, and Ryne Sandberg, among others. For all we know, Sammy's never been welcomed back, even after a change in ownership.
I've previously shared my fandom for Sammy Sosa. He was a great player that helped rebuild the game after the cancelled 1994 World Series. He was a reason to watch the Cubs day in and day out despite many bad years. He's 9th all time in home runs, and was 5th on the list when he retired. There's very many reasons why he should be in the Hall of Fame. But that's not the argument I'm going to be making today.
Today, I ask you to reconsider Sosa's place in Cubs lore, and consider welcoming him back to the team. This means both recognizing his accomplishments, and also forgiving him for his failures. We'll start with the failures.
The three big strikes against Sosa are the corked bat, steroids, and leaving the team.
• Corked Bat: on 6/3/2003, Sammy's bat shattered in a game against the Devil Rays. Cork came out. So did the word "cheater." Sammy apologized quickly, and maintained that the bat was a practice one. MLB took 73 of his bats, and also tested 5 others that were in the Hall of Fame. None of them were found to have cork. He had an OPS of .914 that day, so it's not like he was slumping and needed a pick up. Nonetheless, this has been a sticking point for Cubs fans angry with Sammy.
• Steroids: As with many sluggers of the era, Sammy has been linked to steroids. However, it's a bit of a more loose connection than others of the era. During his playing days, he never failed a test. In 2009, the New York Times published a list of players found to have tested positive for steroids in 2003. Sosa's name was on that list. That list was obtained by unnamed attorneys and was the subject of much ridicule. In 2016, Rob Manfred said that it was inconclusive because "it was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program." In 2005, Sosa was summoned with other players to testify in front of congress regarding steroid use, where he used an interpreter to deny usage.
It's worth noting that MLB did not have an official comprehensive steroid/PED policy until 2006. Before that, there was a 1991 memo from then commissioner Fay Vincent stating that it was against the rules. Unwritten rules. From 2002-2006, there was assorted testing of random samples, with a couple of minor punishments handed out in 2005. For what it's worth, MLB's drug policy timeline only lists Sosa twice, one for the Congress hearing, and the other mentioned because of McGwire in 1998.
People tend to think that Sammy used because of how he went from 36 home runs in '97 to 66 in 98. Hitters don't just double their home run totals. But there were other factors leading into that. Once a free swinger, he made adjustments to his approach. Going into '98, his walk rate was around 6.5%. After 1998, it never went below 10% . His best home run % was 7.4% in 1996. '98 on, it was 9.1%, 8.9%, 7.1%, 9% and 7.4%, all within a reasonable figure. His IF FB % dropped by 6% as he began driving the ball more. He began making less contact, going from a % in the 60s to in the mid 50s. HR/FB rates jumped by 8%. While the home runs did double, none of his other peripherals indicate that it was solely because he was stronger. He was more selective, and making better quality of contact. Unfortunately things like pitch velocity didn't exist back then, so it's a limited picture. I have a full write-up of how Sammy's explosion affected his career numbers here.
1998 was the big year, but Sammy did show signs of it in 1996, when he hit 40 home runs in just 124 games (shortened by injury). 1997 was a reboot year as he struggled, and retooled his overall game. While most consider '98 to be an outlier when he springboarded into potential PED use, his .888 OPS '96 campaign showed that he had potential.
His physical appearance did change, as he put on 15 pounds of muscle from his down '97 to career '98. In 1997, Topps listed his weight at 185 lbs. In1998, it was 200 lbs. He never got the huge hat size like Bonds did. I can't say with any certainty what led to Sammy's 15 added pounds year over year, but that kind of muscle gain isn't exactly unheard of for a player in their late 20s.
Basically, Sammy got linked to steroids without having the same types of evidence as other proven users. Sammy was never suspended for using them against the rules. Nor was he linked to them like Bonds was to BALCO. Sosa's listed among the worst cheaters of all time, despite not having the same resume as others on the list. I can't tell you whether he used steroids or not. But the fact is, there's really only circumstantial evidence. There just isn't a strong case against him. People lump him in the same category as Bonds, without doing research.
• Leaving early in 2004: Sammy was late to the last game of the season in 2004, and also left 15 minutes after the game started. There was a fine, a battle with manager Dusty Baker, and it led to the trade. In that article, Sammy's agent Adam Katz did the speaking, which rubbed some fans the wrong way. Rather than get an apology from Sammy himself, Katz does conclude saying that he expected it to be a non issue within a couple of days. That just wasn't the case. At first he denied leaving that early, then security camera footage came out.
In 2017, during a rare interview, Sammy had this to say: “My relationship with the organization was great. The last day of the season, the last game, I asked [assistant trainer] Sandy Krum to talk to Mr. Dusty Baker and ask him if I could leave early. He said yes, that I could go. That was a mistake by me. I should have stayed there. It was the last game. My intention was to finish my career in Chicago,” Sosa said.
“That was my intention all the way. I never wanted to leave Chicago. I should have handled that situation differently, yes indeed. I recognize my mistake. But look, I have my pride, and I know I had a tremendous career in Chicago. When nobody knew who Chicago was, I put Chicago on the map. Like you said, if I could have done it again, I would have done it differently. The only thing we cannot do is turn back time. We can’t do that. But hey, we have to move forward. I understand I made a mistake. I regret it, definitely, but I have to move on.” Not an apology, but a recognition that he did wrong.
Really, there was a lot of poor clubhouse behavior before Sammy's absence. Sammy had a rough August that year, and for what it's worth, rebounded in September a bit. I can't defend leaving the team. But at least he wasn't calling the booth to complain or smashing other player's stuff. There were a lot of problems on that roster, Sammy was just one.
Now onto the successes. The good times. Because for many years, Sammy Sosa was the only reason to watch the Cubs. His five year peak from '98-'03 is among the best of all time. He owns the record for most home runs in a five year span. He was also the quickest in NL history to 300, 400, and 500 home runs (in terms of games played). He also owns the record for closest number of home runs to team wins (63 HRs, 67 wins in 1999). He's the first player in Cubs history to go 30/30. He hit home runs in 45 MLB ballparks, the record. He also owns the record for most home runs in a 10 year span (479 between '95-'04). Early on he had speed and defense, later on it was pure slugging.
He hit many memorable home runs throughout his career. There were the milestones, and also the record breakers. There was the big one in game 1 of the '03 NLCS. There was the one after 9/11. The memories I have are of the ball launching off the bat, and the happy home hop. I miss those days. Sammy was among the best home run hitters of the home run era.
Since 2004, there hasn't been much going on between the Cubs and Sosa. Essentially, once every couple of years, it comes up in an interview. Sammy's relationship with the Cubs is often described as "frosty." Tom Ricketts has gone on record talking about putting everything on the table regarding PEDs, and that honesty is the best way to turn the page. Sammy's expressed an interest in reconnecting with the Cubs, but also that he would not be begging for forgiveness. It's a bit of sad stalemate.
I agree and disagree with Ricketts sentiment. Would I love for Sammy to come clean, apologize, and come back? Yes, absolutely. But what if he didn't do steroids? What if he's honest about it and nobody believes him? Do we then withhold our forgiveness based off a statement that we can't determine if it's factual or not? There's a lot of gray area there. We can't really determine what's true or not. As I've previously shown, there's not overwhelming evidence that his 5 year peak was chemically fueled. Is it fair to Sammy to make him apologize for something he didn't do? Could that be why Sammy doesn't want to apologize? Furthermore, what if he does fess up to something, but you think he did more than what he admitted? Do you then toss out the whole apology?
My point is, it would be very challenging for Sammy Sosa to go public with an apology that is pleasing to baseball fans all over the spectrum, baseball media, and ownership. Honestly, with all the pundits out there, I think it's safe to say that he won't be able to please everyone, and risks opening bigger cans of worms. That doesn't mean he then gets to play the card of "well it's difficult so I shouldn't have to apologize." But I fully understand hesitancy about doing so. I've screwed up plenty of times. The hardest thing about my mistakes were looking people in the eye and asking for forgiveness. Will they be gracious and forgive, or will they twist the knife when you submit yourselves to their judgement? It's tough, and I can only imagine the pressures of having to do it in a massively public forum that millions of people will see and have an opinion on.
So where do we go from here? At this point, Sammy's missed out on the 2014 Wrigley Centennial, the 2016 World Championship, Cubs conventions, 7th inning stretches, first pitches, and many other team events. With the launch of Marquee Sports Network, we've seen an influx of former Cubs being welcomed back to the team. Every time a former Cubs comes back from that era, the question get asked again, can Sammy Sosa come back?
When fans talk about it, I've found that it's usually a mixed bag. There's a very vocal group who want nothing to do with him, and another group that says Sammy needs to apologize. To try and test the waters, I asked our followers on twitter. I provided four options to the question: What's your opinion on welcoming Sammy Sosa back to the Cubs.
• No, never. (essentially done with Sosa, no forgiveness)
• Yes, only with his apology (If Sammy comes 100% clean, essentially echoing Ricketts' statement)
• Yes, if the Cubs welcome him (If management is behind it, I'm behind it)
• I already have (Essentially no apology necessary)
The results were surprising.
For a while, I thought a large chunk of Cubs fans wanted nothing to do with Sammy. I was wrong. I also thought that a majority of Cubs fans would welcome him back with some kind of apology from him, or if ownership deemed him worthy. I was wrong again. Most Cubs fans would welcome him back as is. Nearly as much as the other 3 choices combined. If it comes down to management inviting him back, then suddenly 75% of Cubs fans want him back. At the end of the day, this poll shows that 88.2% of Cubs fans are open to welcoming Sammy Sosa back to the Cubs. The seemingly large group of people who think he should stay away are just a loud tiny minority. Resoundingly, the Cubs fanbase is ready for the reunion.
That's a lot to unpack, so I'd like to wrap things up with three statements to the different parties in this conflict.
To Cubs management and ownership,
Please don't be overly harsh on Sammy. Most people want him back. He wants to come back. That's not to say there aren't things to deal with or that you just have him back no questions asked. But please don't go wild over creating all these different criteria that need to be filled for a reunion to take place. Rather than create roadblocks to the reunion, let's find bridges to bring him back over to the team.
You'll likely have to humble yourself to get back in. It'll be worth it. Temporary pain for a long term gain. The vast majority of fans want you back. It'll take effort and flexibility on your part, but there is a path back. For years, you gave us fans what we wanted. Just do it one more time, and come home. You will be welcomed.
To the fans,
My informal poll was strong indication that most of you want him back. I encourage you to consider my above points, and remember that it's much easier and healthier to forgive rather than to hold a grudge. Keeping Sosa away from the Cubs casts a dark cloud over the history of the franchise. Let's dissipate that cloud. I'm not saying just forgive and forget, but let's actively work towards a Sosa/Cubs reunion. If you want Sammy back, make it known, so that your voice isn't silenced by the loud minority that want nothing to do with him. There is an active petition available.