And so, the bright, shining star that was once the career of Sammy Sosa has burnt out.
Completely. Not in recent memory has a major sports figure fallen so hard, so far and so fast.
Just eight years ago, Sosa was on top of the baseball world. Duking it out with Mark McGwire for the MLB single-season home run mark in 1998, Sosa’s face was everywhere. He was beloved in Chicago and adored by millions. Eventually winning the 1998 NL MVP award, Sosa was at the peak of his career.
A human highlight reel, Sosa was a threat to go deep every time he stood up at the plate. He was intense, fun and exciting. Vibrant. His smile and mantra of “baseball has been very, very good to me” were ubiquitous. And he truly represented the notion that baseball is the sports world’s version of the American dream.
But the dream has now ended. It’s done. Finished. Rotted away by greed and the storm cloud of steroids.
Sosa’s last two seasons have been horrendous on every level. Everything from his productivity (he batted only .221 for the Baltimore Orioles last year) to his commitment to his integrity has come into question. He was booed out of Chicago by formerly die-hard Cubs fans. His gladiator-like body deteriorated. And he quickly became the poster-boy for the horror of steroids that swept through MLB like a plague.
So, last week, when Sosa declined an offer from the Washington Nationals for a one-year contract, the final nail was sent into the coffin.
The walking legend that was Sammy Sosa is no more.
He will now go up on the wall, at the top of the list, of MLB players whose entire career is now shadowed by a gigantic, black question mark.
Did he use? Did he cheat? How many (if any) of the home runs that he hit were legit? How badly did he betray the game?
Examining pictures of Sosa’s body from his early days with the White Sox and the Rangers and then comparing them to his heyday with the Cubs is to look at two completely different people. He’s two times bigger.
In 1993, Sosa was a thin, rail-like figure that was known more for his speed than his power. By ’98, Sosa had turned into a home run machine. His arms were the size of cannons. Fans would show up at the ballpark hours in advance just to watch him take batting practice.
Following the ’98 season, Sosa was thrust into the limelight as an ambassador of the game. He was a spokesperson for Pepsi. He rivaled McGwire for the game’s biggest name.
But once MLB publicly announced that it was going to begin random testing for steroids, Sosa’s numbers and his career plummeted. His batting average declined significantly every year from ’01 to ’05, as did the long balls.
The questions began to mount.
Then there were the embarrassments: the corked bat episode, the back spasms and subsequent stay on the IR that resulted from a sneeze, leaving the ballpark early during the ’04 season finale in Chicago and allegedly being caught on videotape doing so.
Sosa went from being a hero to a villain in no time flat. His posters were taken down. His baseball cards were discarded in the random pile. His jerseys stopped showing up on the backs of kids at the ballpark. Sammy Sosa’s name became a curse.
And now this: Sammy Sosa leaves the game without a sound. No one even notices. The kids don’t care. He gets a corner space news bit in major papers, nothing more. Sixth on the all-time home run list with 588 dingers, a once sure-fire Hall of Famer, Sammy Sosa leaves the game and baseball doesn’t even flinch.
It doesn’t matter. It’s just the way it goes.
Sosa was held up as a champion of the people when the people needed him and now they don’t. It’s that simple.
In baseball, as in life, you’re only noticed as long as you’re useful.