Monday, September 24, 2012

EXTRA: What do we do with Sosa?

When I think back to the baseball playing career of Sammy Sosa, a pair of other ballplayers come to my mind – Babe Ruth and Sandy Koufax.

Now this isn’t one of those stat-guided similarity things (one such list says that Sosa’s comparable ballplayers are guys like 1970s-era stars like Mike Schmidt and Reggie Jackson). I’m talking about ballplayers whose careers bear some strong similarities to the Sosa phenomenon that was the ONLY reason the Chicago Cubs got national attention a decade ago.

IT’S JUST THAT when I think back to the six-season time period (1998-2003) that Sosa was hitting all those home runs (including three seasons when he managed to hit 60 or more, and one other season when he led the National League), you literally have to go back to Babe Ruth at his 1920s peak with the New York Yankees to find another ballplayer who could pop the ball out of the ballpark at a greater rate.

Slammin’ Sammy was downright Ruthian at his peak.

And yet, I fully appreciate the fact that it took Sosa a full decade of hanging around the major leagues (bouncing from the Texas Rangers to the Chicago White Sox to the Cubs) before he finally did anything notable.

You could argue the only reason he managed to last long enough to do anything special is because he was playing for mid-1990s Cubs teams that were so god-awful that they could afford to keep him on the roster.

OR PERHAPS THOSE teams were so god-awful because they had ballplayers like Sammy Sosa.

The very idea of a ballplayer in his 10th season rising to superstardom (as he did back in June 1998 when he managed 25 home runs that month, and 66 for the season) is just so unheard of.

You literally have to look to the 12-year career of Sandy Koufax as a pitcher for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers to find anything comparable.

Through his first six seasons, Koufax was a wild-throwing pitcher with a losing record. In seasons seven and eight, he settled down and became respectable.

IT WAS THE final four seasons that Sandy Koufax became SANDY KOUFAX!!! and did all the things that we now remember him for and wrongly assume he was doing for his entire career as a professional ballplayer.

These are the thoughts that popped into my head when I learned that former Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood said Sunday during ceremonies at Wrigley Field that he wishes the team would retain its former star ballplayers – including Sosa, whom Wood said did “special” things while wearing the Cubby bear blue.

Just like Sammy’s six-season Ruthian stint, which whipped this city into a frenzy that could match up with anything Michael Jordan accomplished in basketball with the Chicago Bulls.

I remember being at Wrigley Field for the next-to-last game of the 2001 season – one in which Sosa hit 64 home runs. In that game, Sosa hit number 62, and I still remember the man sitting in front of me turning to a group of kids and telling them, “That’s what makes it worth skipping school.”

I CAN REMEMBER when the only people who bashed Sosa were White Sox fans – whose comments were dismissed as being bitterness that Sosa never amounted to anything during the 2 ½ seasons he played on the South Side (and later complained that the ballpark was in part to blame because it was “too big”).

Now, everybody seems to want to join in the Sosa-bashing party. I don’t buy that it’s because of steroids. Heck, anybody back then could have seen what was happening. They chose to turn their heads.

I’ve even heard the line of logic that it was because he “walked out” on his ball club in the last game of 2004 (which also was his last with the Cubs, who traded him away shortly thereafter). Although the idea of a ballplayer on a losing ballclub having a hissy fit certainly isn’t unique to Sosa.

Which makes me think that the people who are now dumping on Wood for suggesting image rehabilitation for Sosa ought to lighten up.

BESIDES, I EXPECT they’ll get their chance to fully rejoice come next year when the Baseball Hall of Fame announces its vote tallies – and Sammy falls short of induction in what is his first year of eligibility for baseball’s take on immortality.

It’s going to take a lot more than Kerry Wood for anybody to seriously want to rehabilitate the name of Sammy Sosa.


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