Sammy Sosa's unforgettable 1998 season is now memorable for a different reason. (John Biever/SI)
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
Like his rival in the great 1998 home run chase, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa was hailed as a hero at the height of his popularity, a Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year and a great international ambassador for baseball. In the year that McGwire set a new single-season record with 70 homers, Sosa took home the NL MVP award. Three times in a four-year stretch from 1998 to 2001, he surpassed Roger Maris' previously unbreakable mark of 61 homers, and hit more homers over a three-, four- or five-year stretch than any player in history. In 2007, he became just the fifth player to reach the 600 homer milestone after Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds.
As with McGwire, the meaning of Sosa's home runs changed once baseball began to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs, and suspicions mounted about his achievements. He was called to testify before Congress in 2005, along with McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and several other players. Sosa denied using PEDs, but while he never tested positive once Major League Baseball began instituting penalties for usage, in 2009 the New York Times reported he was one of more than 100 players who had tested positive during the supposedly anonymous 2003 survey tests.
Though his case doesn't exactly parallel with those of either McGwire or Palmeiro (or Bonds, or Roger Clemens), Sosa seems likely to suffer a similar fate by garnering much less support among voters than his impressive numbers might merit. McGwire has yet to reach 25 percent in six years on the ballot, and has fallen below 20 percent since admitting that he used steroids. Palmeiro has yet to reach 15 percent in two years on the ballot.
Born in the baseball hotbed of San Pedro de Macoris, Sosa was discovered and signed for a $3,500 bonus by Rangers scout Omar Minaya in 1985. At the time, he was 16 years old, stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 150 pounds. Raw, since he had begun playing organized baseball in the Dominican Republic just two years earlier, he flashed more speed than power while climbing through the Rangers' system, but he held his own given his young age. He was just 20 years old when he debuted for the Rangers on June 16, 1989. After playing in just 25 games for Texas — with a 20/0 strikeout-to-walk ratio — he was sent back to the minors and then traded to the White Sox on July 30 in a package for Harold Baines. In 58 games that year between the two clubs, he hit just .257/.303/.366, with seven steals, four homers, and a 47/11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 203 plate appearances.
Sosa spent all of 1991 with the White Sox, but the holes in his game were as apparent as his natural gifts. He hit .233/.282/.404 with 15 homers, 10 triples and 32 steals, but 16 caught stealing, and 150 strikeouts. Though he homered twice on opening day in 1991, he struggled even more mightily that year, and spent more than a month back in Triple-A. On March 30, 1992, he was traded to the Cubs along with one other player for former AL MVP George Bell, the rare trade between the two crosstown rivals. He played in just 67 games that year due to a hand injury, but finally established himself in the majors the following year, when he hit 33 homers and stole 36 bases while batting .261/.309/.485. Though lacking in plate discipline, he was hardly without value, worth 3.8 WAR that year. He hit .300/.339/.545 with 25 homers and 22 RBI during the strike-torn 1994 season, and earned All-Star honors for the first time the following year, which he hit 36 homers and ranked sixth in the league with 5.1 WAR.
Sosa hit a combined 76 homers in 1996 and 1997, reaching 40 for the first time in the former year despite missing more than a month due to a broken bone in his right hand. He signed a four-year, $42.5 million extension in mid-1997, but hit a lopsided .251/.300/.480 with 36 unintentional walks and a league-leading 174 strikeouts. After spending the winter working on his plate discipline and using the opposite field at the behest of hitting coach Jeff Pentland, he reemerged as a different hitter. He bashed 66 homers in 1998, second only to McGwire, and set career highs in all three slash categories with a .308/.377/.647 line. His 416 total bases were the most of any player since Stan Musial in 1948, and he led the league in runs (134) and RBI (158) as well as strikeouts (171). His 6.3 WAR ranked just 10th in the league, but he took 30 of 32 first place votes in the MVP voting, handily beating out McGwire; that the Cubs made the playoffs for the first time since 1989 certainly helped his cause. Beyond the numbers, he became a fan favorite, tapping his heart and blowing kisses to the TV cameras after each home run, gestures to his mother.
Though it didn't receive nearly the same level of adulation, Sosa followed up that monster showing with a similar .288/.367/.635 line with 63 homers in 1999. He slipped to 50 round-trippers in 2000, but led the league in that category for the first time, and set career highs in batting average and on-base percentage via a .320/.406/.634 showing. He shattered those the following year, batting .328/.437/.737 with 64 homers (second to Bonds' record-setting 73), 425 total bases and 116 walks, his first time surpassing 100 — a goal that Pentland had set for him in the winter of 1997-1998. His 10.1 WAR set a career high and ranked second in the league; he was runner-up to Bonds in the MVP voting. He hit a league-leading 49 homers, walked 103 times and earned All-Star honors for the fifth straight year in 2002, but his rate stats took a tumble.
By this point, Sosa's public image had begun to take some hits. In July 2002, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly used the bully pulpit of his back-page column to dare the bulky slugger to subvert the Major League Baseball Players Association and submit a urine sample to an independent lab. Sosa refused. Slightly less than a year later, he was ejected from a game after umpires found his broken bat to be corked. Sosa claimed that the bat was "for batting practice — just to put on a show for the fans ... I like to make people happy and I do that in batting practice."
MLB officials confiscated a total of 76 bats belonging to Sosa, but none of the others was found to be corked. Upon appeal, his eight-game suspension was reduced to seven games. For what it's worth, he hit .273/.334/.586 with 34 homers after the suspension, compared to .290/.407/.481 with six homers prior. His first home run of the year, hit on April 4 against the Reds' Scott Sullivan, had been the 500th of his career, making him the 18th player to reach that mark. After helping the Cubs finish in first place in the NL Central, Sosa struggled in the Division Series against the Braves but homered twice in the NLCS against the Marlins, though the Cubs came up short.
Sosa's performance and value continued to decline; after being worth 2.5 WAR in 2003 — 40 homers and all — he slipped to 1.0 WAR in 2004. He hit 35 homers but missed a month due to back woes that began with a sneeze that triggered spasms, and his season ended on an even worse note. The Cubs led the NL wild-card race by a game with nine games to go, but went just 2-7 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs; Sosa hit .250/.371/.536 with a pair of homers during the skid, but with the team eliminated, he asked out of the lineup on the season's final day, and left the park early. A teammate (rumored to be Kerry Wood) smashed Sosa's boom box, sending a message to management: get this guy out of here. The following February, Sosa was traded to the Orioles for three players, including Mike Fontenot and Jerry Hairston Jr.; the Cubs agreed to pay $16.1 million of the $25 million remaining on his deal.
A month later, Sosa was called to testify in front of the House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform's investigation into steroid usage within the game, along with McGwire, Palmeiro and seven other players and executives. As SI's S.L. Price wrote:
There was surgical parsing: Sosa declared that he had never taken "illegal performance-enhancing drugs ... never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I have not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic." That left a massive loophole for, say, the ingestion of steroids in pill form under prescription from a Dominican doctor.
Sosa's statement was read by a lawyer, and at times he spoke Spanish, a move which drew criticism from some quarters, and was read by some as a tacit admission of guilt given the need to protect himself from the possibility of perjury with such a carefully parsed statement. He didn't win himself more fans that day, but then again, who did?
Already off to a rough start in Baltimore, the 36-year-old Sosa's time there grew even more dismal once he hit the field. He batted just .221/.295/.376 with 14 homers in 102 games, missing time in May due to a staph infection in his left foot, and the last five weeks of the season due to a growth under the big toenail of his right foot. He spurned the Nationals' offer of a minor league contract for 2006, and explored the possibility of playing in Japan, but wound up sitting out the season entirely. He signed a $500,000 contract with the Rangers in January 2007, and made the team out of spring training. On June 20, 2007, facing the Cubs' Jason Marquis - who was wearing his old uniform number 21 — he became the fifth player to reach 600 home runs. He finished the year with a respectable .252/.311/.468 line with 21 homers.
Sosa didn't pursue another job for the following season, and after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to make the Dominican Republic team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic and to parlay that into another major league job, he announced his retirement. Less than two weeks after that announcement, on June 16, 2009, the New York Times reported that he was among 104 players who had tested positive during the 2003 survey testing, which carried no penalty but was designed to gauge the extent to which major league players were using PEDs. The test was supposed to be anonymous, with its results destroyed, but the players' union failed to do so in a timely manner, and federal agents seized the results as part of the BALCO investigation. The agents had warrants for the drug-testing records of 10 players, but they obtained the whole list. Amid a protracted legal battle, the names remained under court seal, but in February 2009 they began surfacing via leaks, first Alex Rodriguez in February, then Sosa, and in July, both David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The leak of Sosa's name created the potential for a full-scale investigation into whether he perjured himself in front of Congress, but ultimately, charges were not pursued.
Steroid saga aside, the superficial statistics suggest Sosa is a Hall of Famer: 2,408 hits, 609 homers (eighth all-time), seven All-Star appearances, an MVP award, and a whopping score of 202 on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, where 100 is a player likely to be elected and 130 a virtual cinch. The advanced metrics tell a different story, however. Despite that 12-year stretch with the Cubs during which he blasted 537 home runs and slugged .576, his career WAR total of 54.8 is nearly 15 wins short of the average among the 24 enshrined right fielders. Even with defense that rated as 104 runs above average over the course of his career according to TotalZone, he had just six seasons of at least 5.0 WAR, and nine of at least 3.0; only three times did he crack the league's top 10. His peak score of 42.2 is actually around one win above the average of the enshrined right fielders, outdoing 15 of the 24, but his overall JAWS falls 6.9 points short. He ranks 16th all-time among right fielders, with 12 Hall of Famers above him and 12 below, with Dave Winfield (59.4/36.4/47.9) the closest on either side.
In cases where a candidate is close to the overall standard but has a peak score above it, it's not too difficult to justify a vote in his favor; a year or two of playing out the string rarely flatters a player's resumé anyway. Such a significant distance below the standard as in Sosa's case is is harder to overlook, even without reference to his PED-related transgressions.
In my previous pieces in this series, I've advocated distinguishing between infractions that are alleged to have occurred during the game's "Wild West" era, when the commissioner, owners, the players' union and the media all contributed to reenforcing the status quo, and those for which we have the proof of a positive test. While what we know about Sosa falls somewhat short of the latter — laws were violated to bring forth the information that he failed a survey test, rather than the result being officially announced by the sanctioning body — they don't help his cause either. It's difficult to imagine voters making room for Sosa on their ballots; the bet here is that he winds up somewhere in the vicinity of Palmeiro's initial share of the vote, at best somewhere between 10 and 15 percent.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Cubs' previous playoff appearance before 1998 had been in 1984.