29 January 2005

Hasta la Sosa, baby

There's going to be a stranger in right field next year at Wrigley.

To no one's surprise, Sammy Sosa is no longer a Cub.  Unless he doesn't pass a physical in a day or so, he's going to play for Baltimore this year. 

This one is tough to judge.  Sosa began his stint with the Cubs in 1992 when he was still young and raw.  He was traded from the White Sox to the Cubs for a slugger named George Bell, who was a former MVP candidate with Toronto in the mid to late 1980's.  At the time, most experts thought that the Sox got the best of the deal.  For a season or two it looked like they were right.  Sosa had a wild swing, no patience, and didn't seem to understand much about the game.  Every once in a while he'd hit the ball a mile, but he was a marginal player at best.

Then George Bell broke down, collected the rest of the millions on his contract and went to run a gas station in the Dominican Republic. 

I'd wager that just about everyone in America is well aware of who Sosa is and what he's accomplished since 1996 or so.

We'll leave the "did or he didn't he" steroid question out of this forum for now.  No matter what you might put into your body, it takes a tremendous amount of skill to hit major league pitching.

I will never forget the summer of '98.  It started out somewhat uneventful but by June the Cubs were playing decent baseball and Sosa was hitting a ton of home runs.  He set a MLB record with 20 home runs in a single month.  Most of them were bombs.  I saw him hit a house across the street from Wrigley that month.  By the All-Star break in July, it was clear that both Sosa and Mark McGwire would challenge the all time record of 61 home runs in a season set by Roger Maris in 1961.  McGwire would get there first, blasting his 62nd the night after Labor Day in a game in St. Louis against the Cubs.  He'd finish the season with a then-record 70 home runs.  But his team, the Cardinals, would not make the playoffs.

On the afternoon of September 13, 1998 I was sitting with my friend Don in the right field bleachers at Wrigley.  We'd purchased the tickets for the game in February, one of about ten games we wound up going to that season.  When we chose that game, we had no idea what we were going to witness that day.  Forone of the few times in our lifetime, the Cubs were in contention, fighting for a spot in the playoffs.  This game was against the Milwaukee Brewers.  The day before, the Cubs had beaten Milwaukee 15-13, and Sosa had become just the fourth person in history to hit 60 home runs in one year.

I have a tape of the game from Sept. 13, and I am watching it now to make sure I get the facts right, but I remember it all like it was yesterday.  It was the bottom of the fifth inning and the Cubs were leading the game 6-3.  Sosa had flied out his first time up, and he was intentionally walked his next time up.  In the fifth, he was due up second.  Mark Grace led off the inning with a single.

The Brewers had a guy named Ben Patrick on the mound.  His first pitch to Sosa was a curveball that was low and outside.  His second pitch was a fastball down the dead center of the plate.  If there had been no noise in the park, you would have heard this pitch screaming "Hit me!  Hit me!" as it approached the plate.

Sosa hit it 900 miles.

I remember losing sight of the ball as it cleared the boundaries of Wrigley Field.  Our angle from where we were sitting did not allow us to see the hundreds of people who had gathered on the street outside the park, hoping to catch a historic baseball.  Unfortunately for them, Sosa hit the ball past them.  The ball landed over the street, past the buildings that one sees looking past left field.  Someone sitting on their front porch well away from the crowd wound up with the ball on Kenmore Avenue.

So there was #61, and a most exclusive club was now a trio: Maris, McGwire and Sosa.  And the Cubs were well in front of a game they had to win.

Sosa led off the 7th inning and struck out, and it looked like that would be the last time he would bat that day.  But, lest we forget, this was a game involving the Cubs.  They managed to blow their lead, and by the time the bottom of the ninth inning arrived, it was 10-8 Brewers.  Sosa was due up second.  The lead-off man grounded out, bringing Sosa up with the bases empty.  Again, I am watching the tape, but I remember it all.  A guy named Eric Plunk was pitching for the Brewers.  He threw two balls and a strike to Sosa, and on his fourth delivery, he did his best Ben Patrick impersonation: fastball, right down the middle, begging to be clobbered.

Sosa hit #62farther than he hit #61, and the game stopped for fifteen minutes.  For that moment, both Sosa and Mark McGwire held the record for most home runs in a season.

My tape bleeds from this game into "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" (???!!!) after this, but the Cubs tied the game and sent it into extra innings.  Mark Grace won it with a home run leading off the bottom of the tenth, with Sosa waiting on deck.

It was a good day.

Sosa won the MVP that year after he slammed 66 home runs and led the Cubs into the playoffs.  The next season, he became the first person ever to hit at least 60 home runs in two seasons.  Personally, I think his best year was 2001.  That year he had a .324 batting average, he hit 64 home runs and he drove in 160 runs.  It was one of the greatest offensive seasons ever for an individual player.

Many things have changed since then.  The ticket stub I still have from that game is a light shade of yellow, and the tape of the game won't last more than five more years or so.  Sosa is not the same player, both mentally and physically.

At the end of last season, he decided he had enough of Chicago.  He didn't just burn his bridges, he fire-bombed them.  There was no way that he could come back to the team for the 2005 season and not be a major distraction.  The Cubs couldn't wait to trade him.  If you twist my arm enough, I'll admit that I am relieved that he is no longer a part of the team.

I'm naive when I think about 1998.  I remember the roars, the excitement, the amount of time I spent watching games standing on my feet instead of sitting down.  I remember talking to people about that game on Sept. 13, 1998 who aren't alive anymore.  I don't think about the egos, the millions of dollars, and the fact that ultimately baseball is nothing more than a business.

99% of the fans and the press in Chicago are going to spend the next year torching Sosa whenever they can.  I can't say that he doesn't deserve it.

But I can say that these are the same people who praised him to no end for the better part of a decade. 

It's been a spectacular divorce, and it's only going to get better. 



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