Opening Day without Sosa – Time to Move On

Will the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry ever be the same without Sammy Sosa?

The general public has known now for over a month that Sammy Sosa's baseball career is most likely over. I've been meaning to write this article for some time, but for whatever reason I haven't been able to sit down and type out these thoughts. Was it just laziness and lack of motivation on my part? Or was it that this Cubs fan is still somehow living in the past and subconsciously didn't want to accept Sosa's retirement?


Well, now that Opening Day 2006 has come and gone without Sammy Sosa, I guess it's time to move on. Unfortunately, the Sammy Sosa I want to remember isn't the Sammy Sosa I will remember, and it's such a disappointment that these superstars that come and go before us don't typically leave the limelight until after their lasting image is tarnished.


During that unforgettable home run race in 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire jointly captivated the country as they chased Roger Maris' record. It was a battle for the ages that many analysts argue saved baseball from its own disastrous downward spiral initiated by the 1994 players' strike. It was McGwire that broke Maris' mark first. Fittingly he did it against Sosa and the Cubs in the old Busch Stadium. It was a magical night etched in my memory forever, and it was on national television and in front of a delirious flash bulb addicted Cardinal crowd. During that entire race you'd be hard-pressed to find a better picture perfect moment that encapsulated everything good about that year than the shot of Sosa and McGwire embracing after the Cardinal slugger smacked number 62 over the left field fence.


McGwire was bombarded by the press all season long that year, and at times it was noticeably wearing on him. When Sosa stormed onto the scene with his record 20-home-run month of June, he managed to help take some of the edge off McGwire. As such, a healthy competition developed between the two sluggers that lasted through the remainder of the season. They captivated audiences together, joking and laughing at press conferences, but it was Sosa's genuine smile and charisma that stole the show. He became one of those superstars that you couldn't help but like. He won over the hearts of millions of fans, and at that time even Cardinal fans couldn't hate Sosa.


Slammin' Sammy Sosa's 66 home runs fell short of McGwire's 70 that year, but his Cubs team went on to win the National League Wild Card. Sosa finished the season with 158 RBI and a .308 batting average. With the playoff berth in his hip pocket, he took home the leagues Most Valuable Player award earning 30 of 32 first place votes and edging out McGwire, who set the new single-season long ball record.


Sosa would go on to enjoy three more seasons of superstardom. Between 1999 and 2001, Sosa racked up 63, 50, and 64 home runs respectively. And in 2001 to go along with those 64 homers, Sosa put up a .328 batting average and 160 RBI.


His signature home run hop would become as popular in Chicago as Michael Jordan's drive to the hoop with his tongue sticking out. And his love taps on his chest and lips to his mother back home in the Dominican Republic would become a sign of affection between Sosa and his fans as well.


He was simply perched on top of the world. Fans would flock to Wrigley Field just to hang out on Waveland Avenue and maybe, just maybe, catch a Sosa monster home run. They'd sit in the right field bleachers, just to catch a glimpse of the phenom and tap their chests showing their love for him. And, man, would they roar when he performed one of his trademark sprints out to his position in the field to kick off a game – none of which was more memorable than his first sprint following the events of 9/11 when he held a small American flag, demonstrating his love for the country that had already given him so much.


In the end, Sosa ran off ten remarkable, unprecedented years of at least 35 home runs. And in that era he broke the 60-home run mark a record three times.


As Sosa departs from the game of baseball, these are the only memories I wish I could hold on to. But that's not the case. Like so many superstars that have gone before him, Sosa didn't go out on top. And to add salt to the wound, he made some really stupid decisions on a downward spiral that will leave his mark on baseball a question mark forever.


That downward spiral began on June 3, 2003, when Sosa was caught using a corked bat shortly after coming off the disabled list from a toenail injury. Whatever his reason was for carrying that supposed batting practice bat to the plate with him on that fateful night, that single incident destroyed his credibility forever. He instantly went from being a player that everyone couldn't help but like to being a player only Cubs fans could maybe like. He left doubt in the hearts of the elderly fans and crushed the lofty dreams of even the youngest fans. And for those Cardinal fans who once took a liking to him, well, forget about it. They were finished with Sosa, and were more than happy to don the gimmick t-shirts mocking the incident.


Sosa did rebound that magical year in Chicago, mainly because the club caught fire, won the NL Central Division Championship, and even advanced to the League Championship series before falling to the World Champion Florida Marlins (yes, that Steve Bartman series). He gained the love back from most Cub fans, but his reputation was tarnished everywhere else. This superstar that used to be bombarded with cheers and flashing cameras in every stadium he entered had to now find a way to cope with endless boos and comments about cheating.


That genuine, charismatic smile, which had previously won the hearts of so many fans, disappeared that year. And sadly, it never came back.


Sosa and the Cubs tried to rebound in 2004, a year when expectations were as high as ever. Yet, 2004 was a bust. Dusty Baker could not rally his club to put the Steve Bartman incident behind them. Sosa was plagued with injury after injury, including the bizarre back spasms that resulted from a "violent sneeze" in the clubhouse. And perhaps with hopes of maybe winning back some disgruntled fans, Sosa accepted an invite to the Home Run Derby at the All-Star game when most big-name sluggers passed on it. But there was no repeat of the home run display Sosa put on in Milwaukee in 2000. Instead Sosa didn't even make it to the second round.


The downward spiral that started with the corked bat incident apexed on the last day of the 2004 regular season. The Cubs had been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention the day before. The last game essentially didn't mean a thing. But that day, Sosa made the stupidest decision of his career when he walked out on his club and his fans, leaving the stadium before the game even started. He would never wear a Cubs uniform again. After months of scrutiny and attempts by Dusty Baker and Cubs front office personnel to work with Sosa, the once-superstar was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for Jerry Hairston Jr. and David Crouthers.


After dealing with even more injuries in Baltimore, Sosa finished 2005 having played in just 102 games tallying 14 home runs and 45 RBI. It was his worst season of productivity since 1992, Sosa's first year with the Cubs.


When propositioned with an incentive-laden contract to play in the nation's capital for the Nationals, Sosa rejected the offer. The smiles were gone. The desire finished. One of the two men once acclaimed for having helped save baseball didn't even have a press conference to provide closure. More interesting, though, was that few people even cared to notice.


Mark McGwire's run ended in 2001 when the slugger retired. Unfortunately, McGwire didn't go out on top either. He pressed on through injuries and played his final two years a shell of the monster he was in 1998 and 1999. McGwire ended the 2001 season with 29 home runs and an ugly .187 batting average we all wish we could forget. He befuddled and frustrated fans with repetitive images of him lifting his arms and backing away from fastball after fastball on the inside corner of the plate. He quickly lost his edge. And it all came to that I-never-would-have-thought-it-would-happen ending when the Cards were on the brink of elimination in the 2001 LCS. In a game tied at one and Jim Edmonds on first base, Tony La Russa called McGwire back from the on-deck circle in favor of pinch-hitter Kerry Robinson. K-Rob would lay a perfect sacrifice bunt down to advance Edmonds to second base, where he was ultimately left stranded. The Cards would go on to lose, and that disappointing scene would be our last baseball memory of McGwire. 


But just as we might have been moving on, McGwire reemerged and added insult to injury during the infamous 2005 Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball. Fans had to deal with a teary-eyed McGwire speaking in a quiet, wishy-washy tone as he refused to acknowledge the use of steroids nor deny such use. It now stands as the last significant public image we have of this once-megastar.


Sadly, I wish I could truly remember how I felt during the home run race in 1998. I wish there was a way to block out the negative memories I have of both Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. And now with this new so-called steroid investigation, there is a good likelihood more memories and images will be tarnished from an era that was flat out exhilarating. It just doesn't seem fair. And maybe it isn't. Maybe I'm not being fair to Sosa or McGwire. Maybe I should accept the fact that they are human, make mistakes, and change as they grow older. And maybe I should just be thankful for the good times I had when they were at their peak.


Regardless, I know it is time to move on. Hopefully those responsible for this new steroid investigation will realize the futility of determining everything that went on before Major League Baseball banned the substances in 2003 and began testing for them. Quite frankly, it's way too little, way too late. Digging now will only hurt baseball and ruin more memories for everyone. It's time to move on.


Pete Khazen can be reached via email at Sound off with your thoughts or post a message on the discussion board.

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