Goatriders of the Apocalypse

Cubs 101 - Pt 34 - Sammy Sosa, the 30-30 Man

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Samuel Peralta Sosa was born a poor black sharecropper's son in the Dominican Republic.  Actually, I'm not certain his dad was a sharecropper, but you get the gist.  His was the prototypical humble beginnings of many of the Dominicans that were scouted, recruited, and signed by MLB in the 70's and 80's, up to the present day.  Sammy was a strong, quick,and skilled young lad when he was signed by Texas in 1985.  He made his major league debut with Dubya Bush's Rangers four years later, and even though Sosa matured quite a bit during his minor league apprenticeship, he was still largely as skinny, raw, and undisciplined as he was when he left home.  It only took Dubya's people 25 games, 84 at-bats and 20 strikeouts to decide to trade Sosa to a rival GM who was panting with (what we can assume to be platonic) man-love with him.

Of course, that rival GM was Larry Himes of the White Sox.  Himes only had to give up Harold Baines for him.  Baines, of course, was the face of the franchise, and his owner's favorite player.  But Himes must have convinced his owner that Mr. Sosa provided the fast-path to championships and winning beyond wildest dreams.  So then, Sosa came in and hit .233 with 150 strikeouts in his first full year.  After he followed that up with a .203 mark in 1991, Jerry Reinsdorf did the following: retired the number of his beloved Baines; fired Larry Himes; and when Himes (inexplicably) found employment a year later with the crosstown Cubs, traded Sosa back to him.  Which made him our property and the 23-year-old cornerstone of our franchise.

One problem right off of the bat - we already had cornerstones, good solid ones, named Sandberg and Maddux.  But thanks to his GM, Sosa was installed in the middle of the order, in center field, every day, an arrangement which lasted about 60 games, until he injured himself.  Inexplicably, Sosa earned himself a 400% raise for his 3/8ths of a season in 1992, from the league minimum, to $750k.  He also was installed in right field the next year in order to minimize injury risk, as well as to take advantage of his strong arm, which Sosa liked to display as runners tried to take extra bases.

Most general managers (nearly all of them in the 80's and 90's) placed utmost importance on players perceived to have 'five-tool impact', and there were few players at that point in time that were as young, with so much potential, as Sosa.  He bashed pitches, ran very well, and could send throws from deep in the outfield all the way to home plate.  His shortcomings were the typical ones for any raw prospect player - plate discipline; running routes to fly balls; overzealousness on the basepaths; and most of all, a brash, flashy nature.  It was easy to overlook all of that when he was only 24 years old.  He was young, and he could possibly mature and focus his talents.

On a fourth place Cubs team in 1993, one with Jose Guzman and Candy Maldanado instead of Greg Maddux and Andre Dawson, Sosa smacked 33 homers and stole 36 bases.  Larry Himes declared victory, and Sosa for his part received his first of what would be three gigantic multi-million dollar contracts.  Now, I don't begrudge the man for wanting to commemorate his accomplishment by purchasing a small token as a remembrance, but to this day, it rankles me that he purchased a shopping mall in his hometown and renamed it the "30-30 Mall".  I mean, certainly, the 30-30 Club is rather exclusive, but your team still hadn't won anything, and wouldn't it be more satisfying if you could buy a shopping mall and call it "Cubs Pennant Mall"?  But such was the me-first nature of Mr. Sosa.

The next few years, for the life of his first contract, Sosa put up great power and speed numbers.  In the somewhat abbreviated season of 2005, he hit 36 homers and stole 34 bases, making him a repeat member of the 30/30 Club.  He most certainly would have made it three years in a row, but the 1994 season was cut short with Sosa only five homers and 8 swipes shy.  He was making money commensurate with the great young players in the game, and at the end of the 1995 season was only 27 years old and only had two years remaining until his next big deal.

But Sosa was not happy.  He was not getting the acclaim and respect he deserved, from the national media, from his teammates, and now (since Himes had been relieved of his duties) from his own front office.  He started talking about looking elsewhere for his next big deal.  His agents started wondering out loud if the Cubs shouldn't try to trade him to a club who would respect Sammy more for his contributions. 

From the time he was plucked from the slums, to this very day, Sosa's biggest fault was a lack of self-awareness, an over-inflated self worth.  It never occurred to him that the reason why he was not getting the love he thought he earned was of his own making.  His teams never won, in no small part to his own lack of fundamental baseball.  He widened his strike zones; did not have  a great average with runners in scoring position; he got caught stealing in over a third of his attempts; he was infamous for his disdain of cutoff men; and he misplayed more than his share of fly balls.  Furthermore, Larry Himes managed to alienate or eliminate all of the clubhouse leaders, giving all credit to Sosa while assigning blame to the rest of the team.  Finally, he committed the almost unforgivable sin of complaining about his contract in Chicago, a place that demands unflinching loyalty from its sports heroes.

So for all these reasons, Sammy Sosa was not getting the fame he deserved.  Of course, Sosa never saw it this way.  A man who twice made the 30/30 club deserved more, and he believed he knew the reason why - it was because that particular club was NOT the place to be anymore.  Guys like Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds started a new "club".  No, not THAT one.  The 40-40 Club, of course.  Canseco was the founding member in 1988, and Bonds hit 42 homers and stole 40 bases in 1996.  When people talked about "the complete package", they pointed to Bonds and Canseco, and a new kid, Alex Rodriguez.  They were the state of the art - they were the ones keeping Sammy Sosa from the accolades he so richly deserved.

In the confusion of the 1994-5 strike, Sosa actually had signed an offer sheet with Boston, but when the smoke cleared, he remained a Cub, and his big payday loomed after the 1997 season.  Sammy, who did have a big heart, an even bigger ego, and loved hard work, figured out a way to leapfrog over everyone else, straight to the top. 

Kurt Evans
When Sammy Sosa started his career with the Cubs in the mid 90's, I was a teenage kid who did not have access to the Chicago papers or even the opinions of the Chicago-based fans, and I thought Sammy was pretty effin' cool.  I know I wasn't alone, either.

Pretty much all of my early opinions on the guy come from three sources -- Harry Caray, who described Sammy as being incredibly special in 1992, Steve Stone, who noted young Sammy's ridiculous hair style (subtly jabbing the flashy Sosa as having perhaps the wrong kinds of priorities), and Baseball Weekly, where I got to see the results of Sammy's exploits without experiencing his negative qualities.

Still, I was none-too-pleased when he became the defacto heir after Larry Himes sent Andre Dawson away from Chicago 1 homerun shy of 400. 

But was Sosa the empty calorie that Rob describes?  At certain points, he absolutely was.  In 1993 when the Cubs were a decent team lacking the punch necessary to really compete, Sosa was abysmal with runners on base.  He batted .214 in 1993 in "close and late" situations, and with 2 outs and runners in scoring position Sosa batted a putrid .160 with 19 strikeouts in 75 at bats. 

It was the same thing in 1995, when the Cubs were competing for a playoff spot until the last series of the season.  Sosa, who would hit 34 homeruns that year, would be the anti-intelligent hitter.  While batters typically improve against pitchers who they see more than once in a game, Sosa got worse -- he batted .310 the first time he faced a pitcher, .252 the second time, and .228 the third time and beyond -- and he was again a .226 hitter in "close and late" situations.

Still, Sammy deserves some credit.  He may have always grated some fans with his hot dog tactics and some teammates with his me-first mentality, but Sosa was always exciting to watch and he didn't exactly hit 600+ homeruns accidentally.  And when he was in his prime, be it from chemical advantages or other kinds, he was undeniably amazing, and no longer an empty calorie offensive player. 


And, back again to me: we have discussed two quite different perspectives on the most polarizing player in Cubs history.  Kurt notes that even before Sosa's unreal home run binge period from 1998-2003, his "primary" statistics (HR, RBI, AVG) were far superior to anyone else on the Cubs, and compared favorably to the cleanup hitters on nearly every other ballclub.  PEDs or not, Sammy was a supremely talented player.


I am beginning to think that the best thing to be is a Cubs fan who doesn't live in Chicago, or at least one who insulates himself or herself from the media.  For the 90's brought on, at least in the Chicago market, the advent of the major Sports Radio influence.  Until then, sports talk shows were only on a couple of minor stations, for a few hours a week.  Overnight, two major stations started full-time Chicago sports talk, and several other stations, to compete, beefed up their sports talk programming.  The hosts and program directors of these shows had a lot of hours to kill, and a favorite target, especially during the summer months, was the Great Sammy Sosa.


As a frequent listener, I was made aware of every cutoff man Sosa missed, every man he left on base late in games, and especially, every complaint he or his agent put forth in regards to the 'respect' he felt was lacking from his front office, once Himes was shoved aside.  And, of course, a few years later, the Internet really took hold, and far more people stepped up (like myself) and spent countless hours picking apart Sosa's faults to an even more minute level of detail than even the blowhards on the radio.


So is that really fair to his legacy?  Imagine what might have been said if the Internet and sports radio were around during the rise, stagnation, and eventual crumbling of the "1969 era" Cubs?  Would be feel the same way about Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, and some of these other guys if their every flaw was laid out open for all of us to pore over and analyze?  Probably not.


Fact is, though, Sosa came along too late.  Thus, as a rabid Chicago Cubs fan, who listened to every possible hour of sports radio and read every website, and heard nearly everything about the man; true, exaggerated, or completely false, it all shaped my opinion for the worse.  Just as for Kurt, living elsewhere, who got his information from TV, a more "mainstream" media, where the positives tend to be emphasized and the negatives glossed over, at least more so than on the radio and the internet.  His opinion, along with a generation of younger fans and non-local fans, thought Sosa to be the leader and savior of the franchise.


I understand.  Of course, I completely disagree.


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