Sammy Sosa almost single-handedly brought the Cubs back to national relevance and was one half of the duo that pulled Major League Baseball back from the brink following the strike that truncated both the 1994 and ’95 seasons. With all due respect to his teammates, Sosa was a bona fide supernova for five seasons beginning in 1998 and was worth the cost of admission all by himself.
And I mean that literally, since the Cubs went from about middle of the pack in 1999 to the highest average ticket prices in the National League by the time Sosa departed a few years later. Though many other factors were involved in a trend that has the Cubs far outpacing the rest of the senior circuit, Sosa ushered in a new era of Cubs baseball that made the team an even bigger phenomenon than ever before.
Then it all came to a screeching halt as Sosa left early during the Cubs’ final game of the 2004 season, a 10-8 win against the Braves at Wrigley that capped a 89-73 third-place finish for the preseason favorites. Sosa reportedly arrived to the ballpark just 70 minutes before the game and bolted shortly after first pitch without ever getting into uniform, leaving nothing but wounded relationships and the apocryphal tale of a smashed boombox in his wake.
The disappointing finish and early exit were frustrating for everyone, but Sosa had come to be seen by many as a prima donna who cared more about his numbers than the team’s success. Those numbers had fallen off since his monster 2001 season, the third of four in which he had exceeded 60 home runs. His performance was markedly better than during his 1998 MVP campaign (186 wRC+, 9.9 fWAR vs. 159, 7.1), though a guy named Barry Bonds (235 wRC+, 12.5 fWAR) just happened to hit 73 homers to win the fourth of his eventual eight MVP awards.
Sosa had fallen off to the point of being expendable by the end of the 2004 season, so his Cubs tenure ended the following January, when he was traded to the Orioles for Jerry Hairston Jr., Mike Fontenot, and Dave Crouthers. The Cubs actually got the better end of the deal, kind of a theme when trading with Baltimore, getting somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 fWAR in exchange for the -1.1 Sosa went on to post for the O’s and Rangers.
The slugger did manage get the last laugh by hitting his 600th career homer against the Cubs in Arlington on June 20, 2007. In stroke of poetic irony, the history dinger was allowed by Jason Marquis, who was wearing Sosa’s old number 21. As for any other Cubs-related exploits, however, that’s the end of it.
Time is supposed to heal all wounds, but we now sit more than a decade and a half removed from any transgressions and Sosa remains persona non grata within the organization. While allegations of steroid use and the corked bat incident left permanent scars that some may never forget, it’s impossible to deny how important Sosa was to Cubs during his time in Chicago. As such, the lack of a relationship remains inexplicable.
Tom Ricketts has maintained for years that Sosa needs to show contrition before the two sides can move forward, something the slugger hasn’t seemed to willing to do in the past. But Sosa’s stance seems to be softening, as revealed during a recent interview with Z101Digital.com, which was translated on Twitter by Héctor Gómez.
“There was a game when I left early and I did it with Dusty Baker’s permission,” Sosa explained. “The problem is that it was on a bad stretch the team had so there was a lot of blame to go around. But it was a mistake I made leaving early on my last game. We were finishing on a bad streak and I was used to winning so I felt bad about it.
“It was my mistake. Still, I talked to Dusty afterwards and cleared things up with him by saying, ‘You gave me permission to leave early [and] told me it was okay I left.”
This could be seen as passing the buck, which it probably is to a certain degree, though it’s not at all implausible to imagine Baker using Sosa as a scapegoat. Even though he wasn’t really in hot water after just his second season with the Cubs, he may have seen the writing on the wall and just hung the superstar out to dry. Sosa was, after all, a very easy mark by that point.
It’s easy to see, then, how Sosa would be bitter about the whole thing, especially when no one from the Cubs’ side has been willing to budge in the time since. Though he’s still very proud of his accomplishments, it sounds as though he’s grown more humble and self-aware.
“There have been a lot of comments about my relationship with the Cubs, but time will tell,” Sosa said. “Today I’m a more mature man, I’m closer to God and that shows me false pride has no virtue. In a previous time of my live I would have argued about the Hall of Fame.
“But with my peace I’m happy now. If it happens I’ll be happy, if not I’ll be happy too. My numbers can’t be erased from the box scores”
I have no idea whether Ricketts has a specific set of criteria he’s looking to have met before welcoming the Prodigal Son back, but the invitation to return is so long past due at this point that this interview should serve as more than enough. With full understanding that there are some fans who will never forgive Sosa for their own reasons, this gap needs to be bridged. Like now.
Well, maybe not now now, but as soon as possible once we’re able to get back to having large gatherings again. Given all we’re being separated from at this point, there’s no better time to set aside any petty differences and make a move to build a little goodwill. The ball is in the Cubs’ court at this point and I’d like to think they’ll do the right thing sooner rather than later.
“You have to be able to let go,” Sosa said, perhaps with a tacit nod to Cubs ownership. “I have faith in God that one a year not far away I will be able to go to Chicago and we will figure out any misunderstanding, that grudge that we still have between us.”