BACK WHEN he was the ubiquitous Slammin' Sammy, blowing kisses to his mom into the camera, sprinting to rightfield with the stage presence of Elvis, cleverly inventing that signature home run hop, selling popcorn and soda with the wry smile of a magician, and living--this former shoeless shoe-shine boy from the Dominican Republic--the definitive version of the American dream, Sammy Sosa made sure there was a Sosa nobody saw. Nobody, anyway, except Jeff Pentland, one of his hitting coaches with the Cubs. Every day the two of them would meet in the batting tunnel, and Sosa would immediately chase away anybody else who was there. Teammates, executives, reporters ... it didn't matter. It was just the man and his work. Every day.
"Sammy," Pentland said last week, "probably had more pride than anybody I've ever been around. [Barry] Bonds is close, but Sammy was something else."
Sosa burned for greatness. Not All-Star greatness or MVP greatness. The greatness of immortals. This kind of greatness: From 1998 through 2001, he averaged 61 home runs and 149 RBIs, and he has a career total of 588 homers.
When the greatness was gone, when all that was left was a failing 37-year-old body that betrayed the commands of his heart, Sosa apparently quit: He effectively retired last week rather than take a $500,000, nonguaranteed flier from the Nationals, the only team that thought the free agent was worth an offer.
The cold shoulder confirmed the anxiety that menaced Sosa last season, when he batted .221 with little pop--he hit only 14 home runs--in the 102 games when he happened to be healthy enough to play. Troubled by various foot injuries and racked by the disease of doubt, he suffered through the most stressful season of his life, this from a man who in 2003 was beaned and caught with a corked bat, and in 2004 was run out of Chicago for walking out on his team during the final game. He could not, would not, play like this.
Like his skills, his image declined precipitously, greased by suggestions from Jose Canseco that Sosa used steroids and Sosa's weak showing at the congressional hearing on steroids last year. Pushed to the background were those years when Sosa was an ambassador for baseball who played unfailingly hard and rarely missed a game. Booted out of Chicago and booed in Baltimore, he might have endured if only he thought he could still hit like Slammin' Sammy. Without such confidence, it was time to leave.