- Twenty years ago he and Mark McGwire juiced baseball with their home run chase—and while we view that era differently now, time has largely healed baseball's PED wounds. Sosa, though, has been mostly absent from the public eye and is persona non grata at Wrigley Field. Where have you gone, Slammin' Sammy? Let's start in Dubai...
This story appears in the July 2, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 87 percent off the cover price and two FREE gifts. Click here for more details.
Inside the cool, hushed second-floor lounge of Dubai’s grandest hotel, a waiter carefully prepares a shallow glass of 12-year Macallan. A familiar figure smiles, observing the meticulous way that his drink—nearly $100 for a double portion—is prepared. Three ice cubes, so symmetrical they could have been laser cut, gleam as they’re tongued into the scotch without a splash or even a clink.
He leans back, arms wide, into a plush sofa trimmed in blue leather. A crisp blue suit clings to his shoulders and chest, still broad from 500 push-ups each day, even as he’s set to turn 50 in November. His golden eyeglasses are stamped MAYBACH across each temple. A monogram peeks from under the left sleeve of his jacket: S.S. He gazes up into the majestic atrium of the 56-story Burj Al Arab Jumeriah, self-billed as “the Most Luxurious Hotel in the World” and famously shaped like a sail swelling above the azure waters of the Persian Gulf. “Now,” he says, “you see why it’s seven stars.”
Twenty summers after he and Mark McGwire chased the ghost of Roger Maris—and saved a sport, as they both contend—this is the life of Sammy Sosa. Or at least the one he wants you to see. His are the curated days of an Instagram influencer, even if Sosa isn’t much for social media. “I never watch Facebook, Instagram, some of that B.S. s---,” he says. “I don’t have time for that.”
But those are the places we’ve glimpsed Sosa since he took his last MLB swing, in 2007. He looks different from the man whose every plate appearance late in the summer of 1998 was a public spectacle as he slugged his way to 66 homers, just behind McGwire’s 70. His skin tone is lighter, the source of much confusion, speculation and ugly rubbernecking. (Deadspin: SAMMY SOSA IS A TERRIFYING VAMPIRE.) Sosa professes not to care. “Look at what I am today,” he says, motioning a hand toward the opulence around him. “This is my life, and I don’t take garbage from nobody. I do whatever I want.”
It is, in some ways, his third life. In this one he’s a devoted husband—he has been married to Sonia, the mother of his six children, for 26 years—and an international man of commerce. Although he won’t provide many verifiable details, he says he has interests in his home country, the Dominican Republic (oil); as well as in Panama (stormproof housing); the U.K. (beverages and hospitality); and the United Arab Emirates (real estate).
He officially established residency in the UAE a few years ago, for business reasons but also for pleasure, which explains his twice-yearly trips to Dubai from his homes in Miami and Santo Domingo. Here, Sosa rubs elbows with the elite, laughing and cajoling his way through a chance encounter with two well-appointed Dominican businessmen, catching up with them in rapid Spanish outside an upscale restaurant and commemorating the occasion with a photo. Sosa says he knows the men from home, from years ago. “How about that?” he shrugs, grinning wide.
This is all a long way from his first life, which he spent sleeping on the dirt floor of his family’s two-room house in San Pedro de Macorís, where he’d shine shoes in the park for a quarter. He attended school through seventh grade and didn’t play baseball until he was 14. “When I made my first contact, I hit the ball very hard,” he says. “My friend told my brother, ‘We have a chance.’”
That led to his second life—the public one and, for many people, the one that continues to be problematic. When Sosa was 20, after his first season in the majors, he brought $40,000 in cash back to the D.R. and laid it out on a bed so his family could take turns jumping into the lush pile of green. Nearly a decade later the guy who as a rookie hit four home runs and was described in one early scouting report as 150 pounds and “malnourished,” had transformed into Slammin’ Sammy, a chiseled, joyous 225-pounder who delighted the world with his trademarks: sprinting from the Cubs’ dugout to rightfield; hopping sideways toward first base as his homers rocketed into the night; touching two fingers to his lips, then to his heart, then back again to each.
How had he done it? Everyone thinks they know. The Cubs, the franchise Sosa shook from an 80-year snooze, certainly think they do. “Players of that era owe us a little bit of honesty,” owner Tom Ricketts (whose family bought the team in 2009) told fans in January. “The only way to turn that page is to put everything on the table.”
In fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Most of the players tainted by accusations of steroid use have never apologized for, much less admitted to, any transgressions. And yet: The Giants will retire the jersey number of Barry Bonds (who never apologized) in August. Roger Clemens (never apologized) is a special assistant to Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Even Alex Rodriguez (sort of apologized) has returned as an adviser to the Yankees.
Sosa, though, remains in exile. The Cubs’ view is that the power to change this situation is Sosa’s alone. “It’s never been our position that we want Sammy to wear a hair shirt and sit in front of Wrigley and be punished for weeks on end,” says a team source. “This is simply, ‘I messed up, and there’s something to learn from it, and I’d love to get back in the fold.’ It would take one sentence.”
It’s the one sentence Sosa won’t say. “I never failed a drug test,” he says today. “So why are you asking me about that, when they don’t have nothing on Sosa?”
After Dubai, Sosa’s travel plans include visits to Monaco, London and Paris. He’ll go to cities all over the globe—except one. It’s been 11 years since he set foot in Chicago.
Mark McGwire sits on an allegedly leather couch in a windowless office next to the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park in Washington, bathed in a sickly, fluorescent-green light. He wears a Lycra gaiter on his head, and a sleeveless Padres T-shirt reveals 54-year-old biceps—still considerable if no longer the 19 inches in circumference they were two decades ago. He’s exactly where he wants to be. “I love it,” he says of his nine-year career as an MLB coach. “I absolutely love passing on what I learned as a player.”
The great home run race of 1998 started out between two American heroes, the Cardinals’ McGwire and the Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. Through May, McGwire had 27 and Griffey had 19. Then, in June, Sosa went nuts. He entered the month with 13 homers and ended it with 33, the most ever in a single calendar page. The tormented fans in Wrigley Field’s bleachers suddenly had something to celebrate. And a demoralized country found a positive sports story to counterbalance a political scandal about a president and an intern. “We were bringing the game back,” says McGwire. “People had a really bad taste in their mouths after the ’94 strike; a lot of people didn’t watch baseball. But ’98 brought those fans back. I’m very proud of that. I still get people thanking me.”
The enthusiasm over the chase meant that even loose suspicions about all the long balls were met quickly with qualifiers. When the AP’s Steve Wilstein wrote in August that there was a bottle of Androstenedione in McGwire’s locker—the substance produces testosterone in the body, and its use was banned in many sports but not by MLB—his third paragraph began with this: “No one suggests that McGwire wouldn’t be closing in on Roger Maris’ home run record without the over-the-counter drug. ...”
The chase felt good. America was falling in love, especially with McGwire’s unlikely Dominican challenger. And as the two separated themselves from Griffey, Sosa became the soul of the summer.
While Sosa embraced the attention, McGwire bristled at times. He was often colder with the press than his spirited Chicago counterpart was. “If I didn’t help the club win, and somebody else did, I felt really bad that the media was asking about me and not my teammates,” McGwire says. “That’s the thing I would get irritated about.”
Sosa never seemed annoyed. He was thrilled to be chasing Maris with the 6'5" McGwire. “Coming from a different country, fighting with Goliath, me and him, boom-boom-boom,” Sosa says. “I was already a winner just to compete with Mark.” (It helped too that Sosa would receive news that his every home run triggered a party in the streets of the D.R.)
To accommodate a growing horde of reporters, special press conferences had to be called whenever the Cubs played the Cardinals. But the reality was that the two men at the center of it all rarely interacted. They’d say hello at first base or outside media rooms. When McGwire broke Maris’s 37-year-old record with blast number 62 on Sept. 8, it was against the Cubs in St. Louis—the highest-rated regular-season game since 1982. As Sosa arrived from rightfield to throw his arms around McGwire—“You’re the man!” Sosa shouted, over and over—you would have thought these two were great friends, united by more than their shared pursuit of history. The truth was something different. “We don’t know each other that well,” McGwire says.
As the NL Central rivals approached the last weekend of the regular season, even the team-first McGwire felt as if he were competing against one man—a man who had just tied him at 65 homers. The Cardinals were playing the Expos in St. Louis, the Cubs were in Houston. On Sept. 25, McGwire heard the Busch Stadium crowd gasp. “I knew Sammy had hit a home run,” he says. “I had to put it into another gear: I’m not allowing him to pass me, to take over this record.” McGwire homered in his next at bat, and then twice in each of his remaining two games. Sosa didn’t go yard again. Still, if the record was McGwire’s, history belonged to both of them, strangers paired forever.
Seven years later they were together again, subpoenaed to appear before Congress for hearings about doping. McGwire was tearful and opaque. “I’m not here to discuss the past,” he said. “I’m here to be positive about this subject.”
Sosa, at the time, seemed to have a modest grasp of the English with which he’d once chopped it up with Jay Leno. But the language was his second, and the stage in Washington, D.C., more stressful than the set of The Tonight Show. To lasting public opprobrium, he largely relied on someone else to speak for him in front of Congress. “I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs,” his attorney said on his behalf. “I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything. I’ve not broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic.” It did not take seasoned lawyering to identify the gray areas, such as the possibility that he had taken PEDs orally or used substances that might have been banned from baseball but not illegal.
McGwire was then four years into his own exile from baseball, during which he remarried and started a second family. Yet his time away from the game was self-imposed; Cardinals manager Tony La Russa kept encouraging him to return as a coach. And he finally agreed to do so before the 2010 season, following a short apology tour in which he conceded, “I wish I had never touched steroids. It was a mistake. I truly apologize.”
“I had to go through what I had to go through,” McGwire says now. “But it wasn’t easy.” He has since worked steadily in the game, spending three seasons as the Cardinals’ hitting coach, three in the same role with the Dodgers and three as the bench coach for the Padres.
When Sosa stood before Congress, he still had two seasons left to play: one with the Orioles and one, after a year away from baseball in 2006, with the Rangers. He hit his final homer—number 609, still the ninth-most ever—on Sept. 26, 2007, but no team has invited him back in any role since.
Perhaps that has something to do with the way his 13-year tenure with the Cubs ended, in 2004. The shine of 1998 had long before worn away, thanks in part to his being caught using a corked bat in 2003. He had his critics, those who felt Selfish Sammy only cared about the cameras and his stats, or that he took advantage of privileges granted him by his team. Thirteen minutes into a meaningless game on the last day of the ’04 season, with Chicago miles from playoff contention and Sosa out of the lineup, the team’s all-time home run (and strikeout) leader departed Wrigley for what would prove to be the last time. After the final pitch, a teammate approached Sosa’s double locker with a bat. He stood over the rightfielder’s boom box, the stereo that some felt he had used to exert his musical taste—and influence—over the clubhouse, and smashed it to pieces.
The attack, now the stuff of Cubs legend, seems to suggest that Sosa had turned off many with whom he’d shared the clubhouse. But not everyone remembers him that way. Whenever Jim Riggleman, who managed the Cubs from 1995 through ’99, would chew him out for chasing steals or being sloppy in the field, Sosa always had the same reply: “You’re right, skip.” Says Riggleman, “He never fought me on anything.”
When first baseman Derrek Lee joined the Cubs in 2004, Sosa often offered him a chauffeured ride home from games. “I would have a hard time thinking of one negative thing about him as a teammate,” Lee says.
“He was a role model,” says Aramis Ramírez, who became the Cubs’ third baseman in 2003. “As a Dominican player, you wanted to be like him.”
The Cubs no longer seem to wish that anyone be like him, but Sosa is not begging for the team’s endorsement, either; he relishes the comforts of his new life. In Dubai, under the relentless desert sun, Sosa, in his blue suit, sits in the back of a black SUV as it weaves through traffic, stealing glances at this new world. Luxury car showrooms with tall glass windows line the freeway. Billboards rise high above the streets, advertising haute couture or exclusive real estate, or bearing the unsmiling likeness of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.
As the shadow of the towering Burj Khalifa approaches, Sosa casts his eyes upward. He looks the part of a cosmopolitan dealmaker, black iPhone pressed to his ear. But he is not on some high-stakes conference call, discussing a deal. He’s listening to Bible verses in Spanish. Often with Sosa, things are not what they seem.
Take his feelings about the Cubs. Sometimes he says he doesn’t need them. But he also says, “I miss the game. I miss the fans. The people lifted me up for so many years. I would like to come back and say, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ Time will heal everything. Sooner or later—could be now, or 20 years—they have to open the door.”
Time heals. It also does something else. “You’re here one day,” McGwire says. Then, “You’re gone.” Many young Padres have no memory of their burly coach as a player. Sometimes they’ll watch videos of the summer of 1998 on the Internet. “Damn, Mac,” they’ll tell him, “you could swing.” On the night before McGwire sat in the clubhouse at Nationals Park, a rookie phenom for Washington, leftfielder Juan Soto, hit his first career homer. Soto was born one month after the ’98 regular season ended.
McGwire has six children, including triplet eight-year-old daughters, and they too have to resort to YouTube to see their father at the peak of his powers. Only Matthew, a 10-year-old Cardinals bat boy in 1998 who now works for a golf apparel company, remembers. McGwire didn’t keep a single artifact from his most famous summer; he distributed them to people who helped him along the way. “Not one item,” he says. “I wanted everybody that was a part of ’98 to have those pieces—my batting gloves, my shoes. They’re in my mind. My heart. I didn’t need them.” Now, 20 years on, part of him wishes he’d saved something for his kids.
Sosa’s oldest son, Sammy Jr., was just one in the summer of 1998. He’s 21 now, tall and lean, a music engineer, the spitting image of his father as a younger man. Junior, as his dad calls him, helps him with his enterprises.
At one point during dinner on the 122nd floor of the Burj Khalifa, Junior, who has accompanied his father to Dubai, excuses himself to take a business call. Years ago he was an elite prospect in his own right. At 12 he was playing with boys five or six years his elder, traveling to the D.R. for summer camps alongside some of the country’s best young stars. Even then, there was no escaping his father’s shadow. “Steroid baby,” people would call him. Junior quit baseball as a teenager, in part because the wisecracks grew to be too much. He never did tell his father what people had said about him.
Junior also doesn’t discuss with his dad the things people say online. Sosa’s appearance has changed, the result of a skin cream that he years ago began applying daily. “It doesn’t affect him, but I’m sure he feels a certain way,” Junior says. “Like, ‘Man, I gave so many years and so much hard work for you guys, and now you want to undermine all that because of some decisions I’m making—some personal decisions that don’t affect you at all?’”
When Junior was young, he resented the outsiders who clamored for his dad’s attention, seeking photos at the mall or autographs at the movies. I don’t spend enough time with him, he thought to himself. And the little time I have with him, you’re trying to take from me?
But when Sosa left baseball—or when baseball left Sosa—he had more time to devote to his children. On the diamond he’d been all smiles, but at home he’d carried a hardened exterior, molded by the burden of a superstar’s responsibilities. That softened with retirement. Now “he listens a lot more,” says Junior.
Still, there are parts of Sammy Sosa that remain a mystery to his family. “He’s a really closed-off person, even with me,” Junior says. “He doesn’t mean to be. There are some things I don’t know about my dad that I wonder about.”
Among them may be a fuller understanding of the summer of 1998—what it meant then and what it means now. “It feels like yesterday, ’cause that was the year that I shocked the world—that we shocked the world,” Sosa says. Most remember that it was McGwire who hit 70 home runs, a record broken three years later by Bonds. But it was Sosa who batted .308 and led all of baseball in runs, total bases and RBIs. Sosa was the NL MVP.
That was a magical year for Sosa, but it may be only to him that it feels like yesterday. Most of his children (and his granddaughter Kira, born in April to his oldest daughter, Keysha) have had no opportunity to feel for themselves the way he was once revered. That is one reason why today, after a decade of reclusiveness, he is cautiously reemerging during this anniversary year.
The Cubs have allowed Sosa’s number 21 to be worn by nine players since he left town. The only real sign of him at Wrigley these days is on a small flag that flutters among the dozens that ring the ballpark. It reads SAMMY on one side, 66 on the other. That’s it.
While relaxing in Dubai—which generally means avoiding the 111º heat—Sosa will sometimes open up about his feelings toward his former team. On his last night, after nine hours of sightseeing and photo shoots, he changes into a white polo shirt and dark blue jeans. He’s gripping another double 12-year Macallan when his pique emerges. “I passed Ernie Banks for most home runs in Chicago Cubs history,” he says. “He has a statue, and I don’t have nothing. So, what the f---?”
He expresses frustration, too, with the Ricketts family, who insist that they run a values-driven organization and who have publicly maintained a hard line toward Sosa—harder than any other owner of a club that once employed a legend of the steroid era. “They come in and buy the team and they have a mark on me, and I don’t know why,” Sosa says. Of chairman Tom Ricketts, Sosa says, “This guy never was there when I was there.” (Ricketts declined to be interviewed for this story.)
The Cubs’ mark on Sosa, though, hasn’t always been indelible. According to a source close to the club, representatives of the Cubs met with Sosa in 2014, at the behest of Dominican government officials, to discuss a possible homecoming. According to the source, Sosa agreed that he would issue an apology—that is, something to acknowledge malfeasance, but short of a total confession. The next day, Sosa backed out.
Through an email from a spokesperson, Sosa confirms this account: In an effort to put the past behind us I agreed to meet with a PR firm representing the Cubs. Everyone signed confidentiality agreements, so I do not bring this up in interviews. All I will say is that after meeting with this group, I agreed to make a statement that would heal things. Both sides agreed upon this statement. When the time came, I felt like I was being swept up in a PR machine that was moving way too fast and not adhering to the spirit of our agreement, so I pulled out. I never met with anyone from the Cubs and do not hold anything against them. I always wish them well. —Sammy
Tom Ricketts has always said that the only way for Sosa to be welcomed back to Wrigley would be for him to admit his transgressions. Sosa acknowledges that he was willing (four years ago, anyway) to concede them in such a way that he could return to the place he still calls “my house.” Semantic gymnastics typically accompany the topic of steroids in baseball, but it doesn’t require an expert to come to a judgment as to what Sosa is really saying.
It is still fair, though, to wonder about a few other things. Such as why a billionaire who has never been anything but spectacularly wealthy—Ricketts’s father, Joe, founded the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade—insists that a man who grew up sleeping on Caribbean dirt accede fully to his terms. Keep in mind, these values-oriented Cubs traded in 2016 for closer Aroldis Chapman, who had months earlier been suspended 30 games for allegedly choking his girlfriend and firing eight gunshots in her vicinity. (Chicago considered Chapman to have sufficiently apologized and to have paid his penalty by serving his suspension.)
Would the Cubs be more receptive to a reconciliation if not for a few twists of fate? For instance: What if a memorably bespectacled fan hadn’t helped them wash out of the 2003 NLCS? What if they hadn’t ended their 108-year curse in ’16, with Chapman aboard and Sosa watching from Paris? Now, says Michael Wilbon, the ESPN personality and Cubs superfan, “I go to a lot of stuff in Chicago—cocktail parties, receptions, games. We don’t ever talk about Sammy Sosa.”
Or might things have played out differently had Sosa been more conclusively linked to steroids? His name wasn’t, in fact, one of the 89 included in 2007’s canonical Mitchell Report. Though he was fingered in ’09 by The New York Times as appearing on a list of players who failed what was supposed to be an anonymous round of PED testing in ’03, Commissioner Rob Manfred cautioned in ’16 against drawing conclusions from that. (“It was hard to distinguish between certain substances that were legal, available over the counter, and not banned under our program,” Manfred said of the testing round, which also named the Red Sox’ wholly beloved slugger David Ortiz. “There were legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives.”) Had Sosa been more directly implicated, might that have forced some resolution?
Of course, Sosa could always just admit to something and be done with the matter, but that may not comport with the self-sculpted man he continues to show himself to be. So time moves on and Sosa remains in limbo, sartorially splendid and yet nowhere near the city or sport that made him famous. “You’re from the Dominican, and you come to the States because this is the best place to play,” says Lance Johnson, a longtime teammate who insists he never saw any evidence that Sosa used steroids. “You leave when you’re done, and then you feel like you’re not respected for what you did when you were here. Now, couldn’t that make pretty much anybody into a recluse?”
Sosa isn’t in hiding; he’s just not where anyone expected him to be. Eventually, as midnight nears in the desert, he grows tired of answering questions about his second life. “One second,” he interrupts, a cloud of shisha smoke hanging over the patio bar of yet another luxury hotel, a rare moment outdoors. “We’re in Dubai. Look at the view.”
Out in the darkness is the bright skyline of this once dusty outpost, home to fewer than 60,000 people when Sosa was born five decades ago half a world away, but since transformed by oil-rich sheikhs and slave labor into a gleaming metropolis of three million. It is the most artificial city in the world, but it is also undeniably real. It dazzles in the distance.