Into the sticky heat and brutal sunshine of a Saturday in Chicago
charged Sammy Sosa, not with the loping insouciance of a
professional but with the arm-pumping eagerness of a child. The
first Cub out of the dugout, he sprinted to his familiar place in
rightfield and banked left, like one of those sleek F-15s
swooping above during the city's weekend Air and Water Show, and
ended his high-kneed romp with a grateful tap to his heart for
his sunburned supplicants in the Wrigley Field bleachers, many of
whom even paused from draining their beers to cheer the greatest
signature entrance in sports since Ozzie Smith's flip. ¬∂ Sosa is
to Chicago what the queen's guards are to Buckingham Palace or
Old Faithful is to Yellowstone. Both despite and because he has
done so hundreds of times before, there is excitement to the
ceremony. Sosa has become as much a part of Wrigleyana as ivy,
brick, sunshine and the plentiful drinking of fluids, an
intoxicating recipe that prompted 13-year veteran and first-time
Cub Eric Karros to remark, "Every major league player should have
the opportunity to play one summer in Chicago before he retires."
¬∂ Never before, though, had Sammy made a run like last
Saturday's. Never before had Sosa done so with the Cubs in first
place this deep into a season--121 games. The last time a Cubs
team was in first place this late, back in 1989, Sosa was a
skinny 20-year-old kid playing on the South Side with the White
Sox. ¬∂ As if that alone wasn't enough to put a little extra
spring in his step, Sosa also knows the satisfaction of
recovering from the worst three months of his career. Other than
getting hit with a helmet-cracking beanball, suffering through a
toe injury that kept him up at night in pain, missing as many
games as he did in the previous six years combined and being
shamed and suspended for using a corked bat, April, May and June
were a real hoot. ¬∂ Since returning from that suspension on June
18, Sosa, as of Monday, had knocked in 51 runs in 54 games,
batted .301, whacked 22 home runs (the most of any player over
that period) and, as far as the fallout of his public disgrace goes,
generally put a cork in it.
The notoriety that came with the suspension was unfamiliar to
him. "It's a situation I've never been in before," he said before
Friday's game, "with the way people said things about me. What I
learned from it is it makes you stronger. I've put it all behind
me. When you're strong mentally and physically, you don't let
anything bother you. I knew when I got healthy, I could still do
the things I've always done."
Sosa then pushed his team into first place in the National League
Central by banging out three hits and knocking in both runs in a
2-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, backing a complete game by
pitching prodigy Mark Prior.
These being the Cubs, however, a team that hasn't won a playoff
series since 1908, success is a wet bar of soap. They dropped
behind Houston into second place with Saturday's 10-5 loss and
stayed there, a half-game back, thanks to Sunday's 3-0 defeat.
Sosa has hit more homers (527) without getting to the World
Series than any player in history. He has been to the postseason
just once--the wild-card-winning 1998 Cubs were swept by the
Atlanta Braves in the Division Series--but says, "This is the
best team I've played on because of the pitching and the balance
Chicago's staff is on pace to break the 2001 Cubs' major league
record for strikeouts in a season (1,344). It is the franchise's
most difficult staff to hit (opponents are batting .238) since
1914, back in the Dead Ball era. Again, however, these being the
Cubs, the staff leader in strikeouts, Kerry Wood, did leave
Saturday's sloppy start in the third inning with a strained back.
Wood and reliever Kyle Farnsworth are the only two Cubs to have
played alongside Sosa since before 2000. The manager and 26 of
the 37 coaches and active and disabled players joined the Cubs
either last year or this year. But despite all the changes and
the maturation of young guns Wood, 26; Prior, 22; and Carlos
Zambrano, 22, the Cubs remain Sosa's team. Even with his
resurgence, Chicago is a pedestrian offensive club, ranking 11th
in the league in runs at week's end. "He's the key to the team's
success, and we all know that," leftfielder Moises Alou says.
Sosa's troubles this season began with an April 20 beaning by
Pittsburgh Pirates righthander Salomon Torres, though Sosa
downplays any residual effect. "Lots of guys get hit," he says.
Meanwhile, the sore big toenail on Sosa's right foot, which he
says bothered him some last year, was getting worse. A few weeks
later he walked into the clubhouse with such a worn look on his
face that Alou said to him, "You look like you haven't slept.
Sosa told him he couldn't sleep because of the pain in his toe.
"I couldn't hit like I normally do," Sosa says. Upon getting in
the batter's box the righthanded-hitting Sosa typically digs a
hole with his right foot to get a firm base. As he swings he
pivots hard on the ball of that foot.
Because of the toe injury, Sosa says, "all I could do was
this"--he gingerly pawed at the floor with his foot--"and it hurt
too much to spin off my back foot. I hit off my front leg. No
Sosa played through the injury until one day he told Alou, "Mo, I
can't take it anymore." Alou persuaded him to tell the training
staff. Sosa went on the disabled list on May 10 for the first
time in seven years. He underwent a surgical procedure to remove
the nail from the toe, relieving the pain. The nail has since
regrown without a problem.
Sosa returned to the lineup on May 30. Four days later, with only
six home runs in 137 at bats, he took a corked bat to the plate
in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He later said he had
used it to put on displays for fans in batting practice. The bat
broke in half, revealing his dirty little secret. Sosa was
suspended for seven games. He apologized, calling it a one-time
"In this country," manager Dusty Baker says, "when you admit a
mistake, you get forgiven quickly. People are more likely to give
you a reprieve when you admit a mistake instead of trying to make
For some, however, that's not enough. "It's not forgotten," says
one NL West player. "I still have a problem with it. As time goes
by, people will forget, but players still talk about it. I hear
guys wisecracking when he hits one, 'I wonder if that one was
corked.' But some guys have good p.r. Sammy came out right away
and said it was a mistake, but it'll never convince me he didn't
know the bat was corked. Guys know their bats. If it was Barry
Bonds, he'd be blasted and the criticism would be nonstop. But
Sammy is a likable guy, always smiling."
Others believe that Sosa's mere accomplishments since the
incident are sufficient to remove the stigma. "Absolutely," says
Hall of Fame baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, Major League
Baseball's historian. "He's overcome it by going out there and
playing well and because of all the good he's done for the game.
I thought it was much ado about nothing. There have been 10,000
corked bats used in the game, and a few have been exposed."
Hartford Courant baseball writer Jack O'Connell,
secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of
America, agrees. "I never got on him too much in the first
place," O'Connell says. "I had a feeling it was done out of
desperation--the fact that he had been hit in the head and the
toe injury. It wasn't as if they found a whole fleet of corked
bats. The other thing is, he didn't cry about it or say, like
Raul Mondesi did, 'People are picking on me because I'm
O'Connell also thinks that Sosa's Hall of Fame prospects will
suffer little damage. "Listen, I've already had one guy tell me
he's not voting for Mark McGwire his first year because of the
andro issue, so there will always be some people," O'Connell
says. "But [notorious spitballer] Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of
Fame. I guess that's the answer to that question. With all
Sammy's done, I don't think this will get in his way at all."
Not everyone is so sure. "People might forget about it now," says
Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt, "but when it's time for him to be
considered for the Hall of Fame, I'm sure some people will
remember and say, 'What if?' I don't think all the fans are
forgiving. Every time I turn on the TV to a Cubs game, somebody
is throwing cork on the field. When people look back on Sammy's
career, that [stigma] will always be there. But people love to
see the home runs, so they're not saying much now."
Sosa homered in his first game back from the suspension and
hasn't stopped hitting since. At week's end he ranked seventh in
the league in slugging percentage, needed only two home runs to
become the sixth player with nine straight 30-homer seasons
(joining Jimmie Foxx, Bonds, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Mathews and Mike
Schmidt) and needed 22 RBIs to become the first player in NL
history to drive in 100 runs nine years in a row.
For Sosa, those numbers all add up to an answer to his critics.
"People said negative things about me," Sosa says. "They didn't
believe I was hurt. That was a tough thing. And I tried to play
every day. I take the blame for that. But I knew I had to get
healthy, and once I did, I could do what I always do."
Says first-year teammate Mike Remlinger, "I don't think he could
have done anything better to make people forget about the
corked-bat incident than going out and playing the way he has. If
he was struggling, who knows what we'd be hearing right now?"
Sosa is still heckled sometimes on the road, where fans call him
Corky, though the noise has abated. He has declined most in-depth
interviews, choosing to speak to groups of reporters after games
in a voice barely stronger than a whisper. He still runs the
clubhouse boom box, though Alou says, "Anybody in here can walk
over and change it or turn it off at any time."
"He's been through a lot of adversity this year," Karros says,
"and it would have been very easy for him to go off on his own
path. He hasn't."
The rehabilitation of Sosa proceeds apace, especially in Chicago.
On Aug. 12 former Beatle Ringo Starr, in town for a concert,
called to ask for an autographed Sosa bat. Before the night was
out a Cubs intern had delivered two bats to the famous drummer.
Three days later actor Russell Crowe made the same request upon
his first visit to Wrigley. Chicago's gladiator obliged
These are heady days in the little old ballpark. The beer is
cold, Sosa is hot, and the Cubs are in an honest-to-goodness
pennant race this late in the season for only the sixth time in
the past 30 years.
"Only in America," Sosa said with his trademark grin after
Friday's quintessential Wrigley afternoon. "It doesn't get any
better than that. I love it."
BACK ON TRACK
Off to a solid start before an April 20 beaning, Sammy Sosa then
went into a tailspin that culminated with his June 3 corked-bat
incident. But since suffering that indignity (for which he served
a seven-game suspension that began on June 11), Sosa has been on
G AB BA HR AB/HR RBI SLG OBP
Opening Day till beaning
(March 31-April 20) 19 60 .333 5 12.0 20 .683 .518
Postbeaning till corked
bat (April 21-June 3) 20 78 .244 1 78.0 4 .359 .314
Since corked bat
(June 4-Aug. 17) 60 233 .305 22 10.6 54 .614 .360