The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

 

Slamming Sammy

Sammy Sosa has passed on the Washington Nationals' low-ball offer of a nonguaranteed $500,000 contract, and with it, one of the great sluggers of the past decade has apparently passed into retirement as well. Said his agent, Adam Katz, "We're not going to put him on the retirement list... But I can say, with reasonable certainty, that we've seen Sammy in a baseball uniform for the last time."

The 37-year-old Sosa's fall from grace has been precipitous. It was only a few years ago that he was one of the game's biggest stars, credited with reviving interest in the game after the 1994 players' strike, able to transcend boundaries with his infectious smile and boyish enthusiasm for the game, not to mention those booming home runs. Sosa launched 588 of them for his career, the fifth-highest total of all time. At one point in the not-too-distant past, he had a legitimate shot at surpassing Willie Mays' 660 dingers, and even a run at 700 didn't seem out of the question.

But when the Cubs collapsed in the final weeks of the 2004 season, losing seven out of eight to cough up the NL Wild Card, Sosa became the center of controversy. As the ever-useful Wikipedia neatly summarizes:
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).

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.
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.

Sosa will be remembered for blasting 243 homers over a four-year span, an unprecedented barrage that saw him cross the once-unreachable 60-homer threshold three times. Ironically, none of those 60-plus seasons led the National league; Sosa was runner-up to Mark McGwire twice and to Barry Bonds once, though he did lead the NL with 50 in 2000 and 49 in 2002.

His proximity to those two sluggers has taken some of the luster off that output, but it's worth asking whether that's fair. According to grand jury testimony pertaining to the BALCO case which was leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, Bonds admitted to using previously undetectable performance-enhancing drugs. McGwire first made waves for using the steroid precursor androstenedione during his 1998 home run chase. While he tearfully refused to talk about whether he had used any other performance enhancers when called before Congress last March -- a refusal that was read as guilt by most observers -- a New York Daily News report connected him to an FBI investigation called "Operation Equine." McGwire wasn't a target of "Operation Equine" himself, but two dealers who were caught fingered a man who allegedly supplied both McGwire and teammate Jose Canseco with steroids.

There's no similar smoking gun for Sosa. We don't know whether he was among the 83 players who turned in a positive test during 2003, when Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association conducted survey testing to determine whether a stronger program was needed, or in 2004, when the 12 players who tested positive weren't publicly identified but placed on a so-called "administrative track." We do know that he wasn't among the Dirty Dozen who tested positive and drew a suspension last year. We know that his performance collapsed in the first year of open testing, although so did those of many other players including (to reel off a bunch from the lower ranks of the VORP listings) Mike Lowell, Cristian Guzman, Ivan Rodriguez, Tony Womack, Steve Finley, Miguel Cairo, Jeff DaVanon, Cesar Izturis, David Bell, Jose Hernandez, B.J. Surhoff, Scott Hatteberg, Jose Lima, Russ Ortiz, Kirk Rueter, Al Leiter, Eric Milton... a long list.

We know that Sosa was never linked to BALCO, and hasn't turned up in any other law-enforcement investigation pertaining to steroids. We know that he wasn't among the names named by Canseco in his salacious tell-all Juiced. We know that last March, Sosa appeared before Congress along with McGwire and said he never used steroids. He was clearly uncomfortable in the proceedings -- let those who haven't quaked in front a Congressional hearing, however dubious, cast the first stone -- and his denial may have lacked the finger-wagging flair of Rafael Palmeiro, but unlike Palmeiro, Sosa didn't fail any of his subsequent wizz quizzes.

Yet the assumption that Sosa used steroids runs rampant. Back in 2002, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly smugly challenged Sosa to pee in a cup and prove his innocence; when Sosa refused, Reilly wrote a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife column about it. Even now, as Sosa fades into the sunset, writers can't resist treating him as though he'd been caught red-handed. Here's what ESPN's Buster Olney wrote the other day:
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.

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.
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.

Two possibilities exist when it comes to the presumption of Sosa's guilt. First, writers such as Olney are doubtless well-connected enough to be privy to information that a certain high-profile slugger may have been on the 2003 or 2004 lists with a positive test, wink wink, nudge nudge. In the tradition of "where there's smoke, there's fire," such articles as Olney's recent one might be interpreted as said writer's knowing wink to the rest of us all that yes, the rumors are true.

For what it's worth, a source who was privy to the 2003 positive list has confirmed that Sosa was not on that list, but was unable to confirm whether he passed his 2004 test as well. Given the 86 percent reduction in positive tests between those two years -- down to less than one percent of all major-leaguers tested -- and the assumption that a positive result for Sosa would have been harder to contain from a confidentiality standpoint based on his high profile, this is a statistical longshot. Nonetheless, Sosa clearly has made some enemies within the Fourth Estate, and many writers feel justified in treating him as a user because, well, he profiles like one and, y'know, he shunned their interview request that time after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in a tough loss.

Second, there's another elephant in the room, that of the infamous corked bat Sosa was discovered to be using in June 2003. Despite Sosa's explanation that the use of that particular bat was accidental, fans and writers were shockingly quick to throw Sosa under the bus. Sosa drew an eight-game suspension (later reduced to seven), but none of the 76 other bats MLB confiscated and tested turned out to be similarly tainted. It's worth noting that while the shape of Sosa's performances before (.282/.410/.493) and after (.277/.337/.576) the incident are different, the overwhelming likelihood is that tainted bats played no part in those calling-card home run totals. After all, how many other bats did Sosa break during his reign as one of the game's top sluggers? Yet because of that admittedly embarrassing incident, there's an assumption that Sosa would stoop to any level to cheat, would slide down any slippery slope. And now that he's retired, many are hailing him as history's greatest monster.

Frankly, that's horseshit. Here's what I wrote about Sosa after the corking incident:
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.

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.
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:
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.

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.
Amen to that. And peace to Sammy Sosa in his retirement.

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