A Dominican who lives the American dream sat in an Austrian opera house last November listening to the Italian opera La Traviata. Unofficially finished as a Chicago Cub, if not as a cuddly mainstream star, Sammy Sosa knew that soon he would begin his own final act of a confounding career. As he watched the sad decline of the wayward Violetta, Sosa thought about his growing up hungry on the streets of San Pedro de Macorís, selling oranges and shining shoes. "I was proud to be [at the opera in Vienna], coming from where I did," he says.
Seven months later Act III of Sammy Sosa has unfolded as quietly as expected, his skills and profile in decline following the raw, itinerant years of his youth and then the muscular, superhero years when he was All Things Cubs. A Baltimore Oriole now, Sosa, 36, absentmindedly rips through the pile of cardboard boxes of clothing and equipment that arrive daily at his locker, like a never-ending Christmas morning. What is remarkable about Sosa this season, though, is what he is not. In Baltimore he is not the captain, he is not the best player in the room, he is not the diva with club officials and personal valets at his side, he is not the clubhouse deejay oblivious to the annoyance of his infamous boom box, he is not--by a long shot, given the boos he hears wherever he plays on the road--the most popular player in baseball. Sosa can't sell Orville Redenbacher's popcorn like he used to.
As much as he loved to play the star, Sosa has embraced his deferential role with the Orioles, whose cornerstone is the man they call Miggi (Sosa's friend and fellow Dominican, shortstop Miguel Tejada). The Baltimore fans, who haven't witnessed a winning season since 1997, are aflutter about the team's 34-22 start, its spot atop the American League East and the possibility of seeing Sosa hit home run number 600. (He needed 21 at week's end.) His teammates and manager Lee Mazzilli marvel at Sosa's boyish enthusiasm and comportment. Pitching coach Ray Miller appreciates the counsel Sosa gives the club's young Latin pitchers, including Daniel Cabrera and Jorge Julio. Second baseman Brian Roberts praises Sosa for having "the greatest attitude every single day. It's energizing. He doesn't get mad and doesn't get down no matter what. I've been amazed at that."
"It's perfect," Sosa says of his fit in Baltimore. "It's like when you move into a new house. You just want to enjoy it."
So eager was Sosa to get out of Chicago that he waived his no-trade provision and gave up $18 million--his 2006 salary that was contractually guaranteed upon any trade. And so eager were the Cubs to get rid of Sosa that they are paying $16.2 million of the $25 million remaining on his contract.
The divorce highlighted a dizzying downward spiral for the man who was voted the most popular ballplayer in a 2002 ESPN.com poll and who had the highest Q rating among major leaguers as late as the end of the '02 season. In 24 months beginning on April 20, 2003, Sosa was hit in the helmet with a pitch, was caught with a corked bat, hurt his back sneezing, fell into a deep slump at the plate, was booed at Wrigley Field, was fined $87,400 after he walked out on the Cubs during the final game of last season, ripped his manager for having dropped him in the batting order and was fingered by Jose Canseco as a suspected steroid user--which led to Sosa's being subpoenaed by Congress in March.
Sosa says he doesn't want to talk about Chicago. "I don't rewind the tape," he says. Eventually he does, though. Stronger than magnanimity is the pride of the poor shoeshine kid who wound up with the money and savoir-vivre to enjoy European opera, linger over oil paintings at the Louvre, dine like a king at the most expensive restaurants in Monte Carlo and plan to renew his marriage vows at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. (He later rescheduled for La Romana in the Dominican Republic so his four children could attend.) Sosa gave the Cubs 13 Hall of Fame seasons and 545 homers, more than anyone else who ever played for the franchise, while attendance at Wrigley Field increased 50% from his first season to his last.
"We had a chance to go to the playoffs [last year]," Sosa says. "And when we didn't, with the kind of year I had--supposedly it was a bad year--they blamed everything on me. Can you imagine if that [last-day] controversy didn't happen? Do you think I would be [in Baltimore]?"
Sosa is told that he must have surmised that he was through with the Cubs when, after hearing him explain to the media that he had left in the seventh inning, the club leaked word that parking-lot surveillance tapes had caught him leaving 15 minutes after the game began. In other words, his own team exposed him as a defector and a liar.
"They don't have that tape," Sosa snaps.
The Cubs fabricated the story?
"I don't want to go into detail," he says. "I don't want to talk about it. That s--- is over."
(Cubs president Andy MacPhail says team security personnel informed him of a tape showing Sosa leaving in the first inning, but he never asked to see it. MacPhail and Sosa's agent, Adam Katz, both say the tape was never discussed during talks they had regarding disciplinary action.)
A bit later, more agitated, Sosa says, "Every human being--I don't care where you are sitting--is going to be in a little controversy, outside the door, inside the door. Nobody is perfect. The time I was in Chicago, 13 years ... let's say I only had one or two or three, at the most, mistakes. That's pretty good."
He has acknowledged the corked bat and the desertion of teammates as mistakes. Is there a third one?
"Let's just say three, just in case," he says. "That's pretty damn good. Make sure you put that s--- in there clear, bigger, and give me the f------ front page. It's incredible. Don't hate the players, hate the game. It's not my fault that I'm a good player."
Says MacPhail, "I do like Sammy. I appreciate all he accomplished for the franchise. To some degree I am sympathetic to him because he doesn't quite understand the depth of the negativity that he incurred."
On his first morning in an Orioles uniform, an on-time Sosa, the guy who made a habit with the Cubs of showing up--he thought--fashionably late for spring training, busted out of the batter's box and sprinted full-bore for second base, the first in line for what he thought was a team baserunning drill. When he looked back, however, he saw his new teammates standing idly or walking back to the dugout. He'd been set up. But he laughed and lit up one of those smiles that for many people will always take them back to the sweet summer of '98 and the great Home Run Race.
"The only thing I told him when he got here is, 'Be yourself,'" Mazzilli says. "And he's been great. Most of the time you hardly know he's here. No special treatment. He knows this is Miggi's team."
One day during the first month of the season the righthander Cabrera, who lockers next to Sosa, complimented him on his $250 Donald J. Pliner two-tone leather loafers. The next week there was a FedEx package waiting for Cabrera in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park: two pairs of size-14 Pliner loafers. "I remember how guys like Andre Dawson and Ruben Sierra looked out for me when I was a younger player," Sosa says.
"When we were thinking about trading for him," says Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie, "one of the first calls I made was to Miggi. I said, 'What do you think?' There was no hesitation. He said, 'This guy will be great for the team and the clubhouse.' So far he's been everything we expected. He's even a better defensive outfielder than we thought. The only thing we haven't seen yet is the power, and we think that will come."
At week's end Sosa, who returned to the lineup on May 24 after missing 16 games with a staph infection in his left foot, was hitting .242 with five home runs and 17 RBIs. His on-base (.318) and slugging (.399) percentages were on the decline for the fourth consecutive season. That kind of production would invite scorn if he had remained in Chicago or accepted a trade to the New York Mets, who briefly considered acquiring him. (Even Sosa knew the Mets' spacious ballpark and impatient fans were a poor fit.) But Baltimore, starved for relevance, is enthralled with his lounge act: the first-inning sprint to rightfield, the big swings, the home run hop. With its Latin-heavy roster, gem of a ballpark and eager fans, Baltimore was the perfect safe house.
"He just didn't fit us," says one National League general manager who only briefly engaged in Sosa trade talks initiated by the Cubs. "His skills were declining, and the whole entourage thing was a negative. He still has some skills, but he's not close to being what he once was. There are holes in his swing where you can get him out. The other thing we were concerned about was the injuries. Durability was one of his greatest assets--you penciled him in for 150, 160 games a year--but not now."
Some on the Cubs trace Sosa's decline to the 2003 beaning by Salomon Torres of the Pittsburgh Pirates. After that Sosa moved farther from home plate and was vulnerable to outside pitches. He had averaged 58 home runs over the previous five years while becoming the only player with three 60-homer seasons. One month after getting hit, he had to have a toenail removed and missed 17 games. On June 3 he was batting .285 with six home runs when he took a corked bat to the plate. It cracked open on a groundout, exposing him as a cheater. Sosa apologized, saying it was a batting practice bat that he had used unwittingly. Looking back, the Cubs' hierarchy sniffed desperation from a slumping slugger.
As Sosa's and the team's performance declined, Chicago's roster turned over, and the focus of the club moved away from Slammin' Sammy and toward its young power pitchers, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Carlos Zambrano. Most of the Cubs, including manager Dusty Baker, had not been with the team in the late '90s when Sosa owned not only the clubhouse but also Chicago's otherwise star-barren sports landscape. He had nothing in the goodwill bank with them.
A major league clubhouse is a place grossly infused with entitlement. Attendants pick up dirty jocks from the floor because ballplayers with world-class throwing arms can't be bothered to toss them into huge laundry bins. One day last month the visiting clubhouse manager in Milwaukee wrote this message for the Cubs on the whiteboard: I HAVE MOTHER'S DAY CARDS IF YOU NEED THEM. Amid such enabling, stars can expect the highest class of service, which is how the Cubs came to allow Sosa to entertain friends and blast his salsa and Whitney Houston music before games.
"He was a guy who always got special treatment, and probably needed it back in 1998," says one Cub. "But when you're not the same player and the focus turns to the pitchers, people look at the special treatment differently. There were some guys who didn't want to take batting practice in his group because he'd take more swings than he was supposed to. Things like that may be O.K. when you're going good, but they're resented when you're not."
Says Baker, "Sammy is the kind of player who likes to be pumped up, not criticized. That's why I came out publicly last year and told the fans he needs love, not boos. I did whatever I could to protect him. I didn't move him down in the lineup [from third to, eventually, sixth] until he called me up one day in my [hotel] room and suggested it himself. That's why I couldn't figure out his comments after the season."
Before heading to Europe, Sosa told Hoy newspaper in Santo Domingo, "I'm not a sixth batter. I'm a cleanup hitter or third because I've earned that right with almost 600 home runs." (Sosa hit .253 last season, his lowest average since 1997, with 35 homers and 80 RBIs, his fewest in both categories since '94.) By then the Cubs, who had blown a playoff spot with a 1--7 collapse down the stretch, already had begun paving the way for his exit because his last-day walkout had alienated teammates and what remained of his fans. The Cubs knew that Sosa without adulation was like a flower without sunshine.
"There were about 10 or 11 players in the clubhouse when he left, and it was really strange," Prior says of that last game of the season. Then someone, or possibly several people, gleefully busted Sosa's boom box with a bat.
In the Milwaukee clubhouse early last month, a few Cubs lounged on leather chairs and watched the Orioles--Toronto Blue Jays game on the requisite giant television screen. Sosa was batting in the eighth inning of a close game. When he hit a two-run double, there was silent indifference. The only time during the at bat that one of Sosa's former teammates acknowledged him was when the Chicago player blurted sarcastically, "Hmmm. He looks a little smaller, huh?"
"Hey, how you doing? How's it going?" Sosa said cordially, and stuck out his right hand. Mark McGwire shook it. The meeting, in the main anteroom to the hearing room in the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C., on March 17, was the first time the two men had seen each other since Sosa's Cubs played McGwire's St. Louis Cardinals in 2001, McGwire's last season. This time they were wearing business suits uncomfortably rather than baseball uniforms proudly. The room was filled with suits--lawyers and agents and the rest of the genus otherwise known as handlers. Where once home runs had brought the two players together, now steroids, or at least questions about them, had reunited Sosa and McGwire. There was no conversation beyond the rote greetings. "It was uncomfortable in that situation," Sosa says. "It's not like we went to a party and were hanging out together. Everybody was taking care of their own business."
The atmosphere was somber and tinged with the faint aroma of fear. Legacies were on the line. Soon Sosa, McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro of the Orioles, Curt Schilling of the Boston Red Sox and Canseco, who waited in another room, would testify under oath at a congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball.
"It was apprehension about the unknown," Sosa's agent, Katz, says of the mood in the room. "We all understood it had magnitude. We didn't know who they were, what they wanted to know, the kind of questions they'd ask. We knew it was on TV, and it was a hot issue in the public. All those things created a stressful situation."
Sosa's handlers decided that a lawyer would read the carefully worded opening statement they had prepared for him, though he is keenly conversant in English. "It was a situation I've never been in," Sosa says. "I know how to speak English, but to get up there and read all those things like that, it's different.
"I didn't have anything to hide. Of course it was worthwhile. We went to Washington to show the whole world that we are clean. We didn't go to Washington because we did something wrong. I don't mind going back up there anytime they want me."
On behalf of Sosa, his lawyer read, "To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything." Questioned later by the congressional committee, Sosa provided clipped answers of little substance.
"It was hard for Sammy to be in that stressful environment talking in a second language," Katz says. "People can joke about it, but nobody I know who speaks Spanish as a second language would want to speak it in front of a parliament or congress."
A teary McGwire blubbered mostly a series of nonanswers. He gave no denials. "I guess [he was told] what to say," Sosa says. "It was emotional."
Asked about Canseco, Sosa quickly snaps, "I don't want to talk about that."
When asked to clarify, Sosa, even more indignant, blurts, "I don't want to mention that guy's name, O.K.? Can you respect that from me? Huh?"
He lets the words hang, as heavy and pointed as daggers.
This is how the Chicago Tribune, over a column by Rick Morrissey, greeted the trade of the city's alltime home run champion to Baltimore: POP THE CORK: NEW HOME FOR INCREDIBLE SULK. The sentiment was largely indicative of the press and fan treatment afforded Sosa for much of his final two years in the Windy City. Rarely has a sports figure once so revered been run out of town so rudely. "I know they had to write whatever they had to write," Sosa says, "but some of what they wrote went over the line. They work for the same company"--the Tribune Company owns the Cubs--"it's like when you go out there and you're swimming against the river."
He was the first Latin crossover baseball star embraced by corporate America. He sold popcorn, hot dogs, film, soda, pudding, fast food, video games. But the gigs have all but dried up. "He can still sell product if he chooses," Katz says. "He decided to slow down, be more discerning." But Don Hinchey, vice president for the Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing firm, says, "He's not in his prime of five years ago. And with the controversies that have surrounded him, his marketability is on the downswing."
In late April fans at Fenway Park booed Sosa every time he stepped to the plate. "I've been around too long to worry about that," he said.
Sosa insists his circumstances have changed but he hasn't. He says he's been "blessed by God with a gift"--the ability to reach out to people and share joy with them. After getting booed in Boston, for instance, and as a security guard kept autograph seekers away from a sedan picking him up outside Fenway Park, Sosa saw a boy, about eight years old, wearing a Red Sox shirt and motioned him over. He signed an autograph for the child, and then he signed for each of the other 20 people the guard had kept at bay.
Even now, his reputation diminished, Sosa emits a preternatural sense of certainty about himself. Former Cubs G.M. Ed Lynch says, "The normal person on the street is given to self-doubt when things begin to go wrong. I never, ever saw that with Sammy."
The swagger, Sosa insists, is still there. "I go out there day by day and fight for my s---," he says. "That's why I'm one of the greater players in this game. It's because I'm never satisfied. You don't learn that. You have to be born with it."
There is, he wants you to know, something else inside him--something he discovered in Baltimore after losing the superstardom of Act II. "I want you to put this in," he says. "And this is the last thing that I want to say." He pauses. And when he begins again, all the firmness of his voice is gone. Now the tone is soft, like a child's.
"I remember when I first got to the major league level," he says. "And then the last few years in Chicago, my heart was different, like ... loving people. I love everybody, don't get me wrong. But then later, in the last couple of years, things started to change. Because I always considered myself a good person who believes in God and everything. But sometimes, when I see so many negative people happy and enjoying something that happens to me, sometimes your heart changes. And I never really thought I would be in that situation.
"I made the decision and I'm here now. So now my heart feels like when I first got to the major leagues. Like more ... more...."
And he finishes without words, holding both hands on top of his heart and letting his eyes slowly close, like a curtain falling.