Friday, June 22, 2007

Historic Sosa Yet To Be Judged

'Slammin'' Sammy Sosa hit his 600th career home run the other day, becoming only the fifth person in the history of baseball to do so, after Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. The milestone came in the 62nd came of his comeback stint at the Texas Rangers, and, fittingly, was against the Chicago Cubs, with whom he spent 13 seasons and for whom he hit 545 of those home runs.

I saw him hit his 248th of that total, during my first ever visit to a major league baseball game, in which the Cubs defeated the Montreal Expos 9-5 at Wrigley Field. Henceforth the burly Dominican Republican remained a favourite of mine, having indoctrinated me in that most American of pastimes, whooping drunkenly at a home run.

Furthermore, he proceeded to conduct a thrilling chase for the all-time single season home run record with St.Louis' Mark McGwire, and his exploits helped drag the Cubs into a rare appearance at that season's play-offs.

But, unbeknownst to me, however, Sosa's achievements were already being tainted with the suspicion which has hung over baseball's big hitters for a decade. Sosa turned up for spring training prior to that 1998 season having put on noticeable muscle, and that season's 66 home runs had been preceded in 1997 by a mere 36. Sudden bulk and drastic improvement: the cynic's mandate.

Unlike Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants slugger whose record-breaking home run hitting has been marred by his implication in the BALCO doping scandal, Sosa's name has not been directly linked with any organised illegal steroid use. He has also never tested positive for taking banned substances.

Sosa testified before the congressional House committee into the matter of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport and stated that he had never used "illegal performance-enhancing drugs," had never "injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything," and had not "broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic." This statement may have been a tacit acknowledgement that his physical improvement was as a result of a substance like androstenedione, which was also allegedly used by McGwire, but which was not banned by the the baseball authorities at the time.

The stains on Sosa's reputation stretched to his perception within the Cubs themselves. He was reportedly an exceptionally arrogant figure, and one story from the end of his Cubs career illustrates that his popularity with the fans might not have been shared by his team mates.

After being dropped for the last fixture of the 2004 season (his last with the club) Sosa turned up at Wrigley Field only an hour before the game, then left after only 15 minutes. Having used his star player status to monopolise the music played in the dressing room at the Cubs (a privilege usually given to the days' starting pitcher), generally playing pop or salsa music extremely loud, Sosa's teammates used his absence as an opportunity to smash his boombox, an action which brought a symbolic end to his association with the Cubs.

Like McGwire, whose candidacy for the baseball Hall of Fame was rejected earlier this year, Sosa's legacy remains clouded. Many expected that he too would be denied the sport's greatest honour when he becomes eligible, five years after retirement.

However, a thawing in the attitude to Sosa was evident upon the achievement of his 600th home run on Wednesday. After leaving the Cubs, Sosa endured a poor season at Baltimore, before announcing his retirement. After taking a year out of the game in 2006, he has received praise for working his way back into shape, and into the major leagues, with Texas. He has reportedly been a model teammate, and has been commended for the example he has provided to the Rangers' younger players.

Many of those asked their opinion on whether he should be admitted to the Hall of Fame have veered towards a positive answer since Wednesday, citing the fact that he has never failed any drugs test during his career and that the scale of his achievement in joining such an elite band must be noted.

Sosa's rehabilitation in the public's minds is far from certain, however. It seems likely that he will always be associated, along with McGwire and Bonds, with an era in which the game's precious records and milestones were devalued wholesale by the influence of performance-enhancing substances.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home