Sosa had already been told that he would not be in the starting lineup for that game, and arrived at Wrigley Field only an hour before game time; this was a violation of team rules. He then left Wrigley without permission during the game, claiming to reporters afterwards that he left in the seventh inning. However, a surveillance video proved that Sosa had left the stadium 15 minutes after the game started. Several days later, the Cubs fined him one game's pay (approximately $87,000).Thus the love affair between Sosa and Cubs fans -- which was already on the rocks for reasons we'll get to -- came to a decisive end. Over the winter the big slugger was traded to the Baltimore Orioles after waiving the poison-pill clause of his contract, which would have guaranteed him an $18 million salary for 2006 and a $4.5 million buyout on a $19 million option for 2007. Alas, his season in Baltimore turned into an unmitigated disaster. After a moderately productive April (.281/.317/.469) that saw him walk just three times, Sosa hit just .201/.288/.345 the rest of the way and literally couldn't get on the good foot. He missed three weeks in May with a staph infection on the bottom of his left foot, then was sidelined by a lesion under the nail of his right big toe in late August. With the Orioles well into their post-Palmeiro crash and burn mode, he never returned to action.
After his teammates learned of the departure that day, they decided to vent their frustration on Sosa's trademark boombox that he kept in his locker...Though unconfirmed, reliable sources have stated that catcher Michael Barrett, following up on a suggestion by pitcher Kerry Wood, destroyed the boombox with a bat. That action was viewed as symbolic of the end of Sosa's era with the Cubs.
But we all really know why a guy who once hit 66 homers in a season is headed into history through the back door. Steroids. It's a word that -- fair or not, right or wrong -- will appear in the first three paragraphs of Sosa's obituary.While Olney shifts some of the blame to himself and his peers over the steroid mess, he's virtually treating Sosa's guilt as a fait accompli, and nearly every writer who's covering his departure finds a way to work steroids into their narrative.
I don't know for sure whether Sosa took steroids and I suspect that we won't ever know, for certain. But this is what makes us all feel uncomfortable, and maybe a little glad that he's going away. Here's the thing, though. Steroids became the elephant in the room with Sosa and with others more than a decade ago, and virtually everybody who had a chance to say something said nothing.
Baseball's Frankensteins grew, and for all intents and purposes, almost everybody within the institution of baseball chose to stand aside, look the other way, and capitalized. Big-time. The home runs flew out, and as the fans flocked to see the show, their checks were cashed and their credit card imprints were taken. The game climbed aboard the Slammin' Sammy Show and the Mark McGwire Train, and almost nobody said aloud what was being whispered -- by executives, by scouts, by players, by writers.
...As a beat writer covering this sport, I did a horrible job of reporting this story, and not because I didn't want to damage baseball's Frankenstein, but because I assumed that getting at a smoking gun -- a box of used syringes in a clubhouse, for example -- was all but impossible. There were other ways to illuminate the story, but it took me too long to realize that.
So now Sammy Sosa is retiring, and fans -- who weren't in position to know what those in the game had long suspected -- have the right to say what they want.
But almost everybody associated with the game helped create the Frankenstein, to varying degrees. We should be nothing but embarrassed, for ourselves, that one of the all-time home run leaders is headed out of baseball through a back alley, and others will follow.
What Sosa did was wrong, but he immediately came forward and offered a fairly convincing explanation -- he mistakenly grabbed a bat that he uses to wow the crowds for batting practice and home run derbies. You don't necessarily have to buy that, but I do. Sosa's credit line is good with me, and not just because I once put him on the cover of a book. First of all, the accountability has to count for something. Sammy didn't hide, issue a denial or pass the buck to anybody else. He said, in essence, "My bad." We've seen superstars do a lot worse.Substitute "steroids" for "a corked bat" and you can find my current stance on the matter, not that the preceding thousand-plus words haven't made that clear. Sosa did a lot for the game of baseball, and while we've been forced to reconsider the context of those accomplishemnts, we need to retain perspective instead of rushing to judgement. In one of the better postmortems, FoxSports.com's Ken Rosenthal wrote of the multiplicity of viewpoints on Sosa's legacy:
Second, we have zero proof that he's done this before. Think for a moment about the intense scrutiny the man's been under since he made the country's radar screen during the Great Home Run Chase of '98. Sammy's probably broken a few bats since then, while millions of people watched. None of them ever turned up corked, not a single one. So if somebody wants to tell us that the reason Sosa hit all those homers is a corked bat, the burden of proof is on them, not on Sosa.
For now, the enduring images of Sosa will be different in each mind's eye. Some will recall his glory days with the Cubs, his home-run hop, his joyous sprints to right field, his dugout pantomimes for the cameras. Others will remember his less charming side, his corked bat, his clubhouse boombox, his early departure from Wrigley Field on the final day of the 2004 season. Still others will recall his swift, stunning fall from grace, his feeble appearance before Congress, his loss of bat speed in '05.Amen to that. And peace to Sammy Sosa in his retirement.
It's too soon to capture his legacy. Too soon to assign his place in history. Too soon to make sense of the Steroid Era and all that it involved.
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