What’s sad about Sosa’s retirement is not only that this once-great player's career fell off a cliff so quickly and violently that even Wile E. Coyote sent a sympathy card. A 37-year-old athlete retiring isn’t necessarily pathetic, but it is when the athlete is quitting because he can’t face the financial and psychic implications of a salary cut from $17 million to $500,000.
What’s sadder is the feeling, as a fan, that Sosa played you for a sucker. The neo-Chico Escuela routine (Sosa often invoked the old Saturday Night Live character’s catchphrase, “Beisbol been berry berry good to me”). The hop when he hit a home run, and the post-trot smooch-and-fingers-to-the-heart routine for the TV camera. The I’m-just-happy-to-be-here vibe that, not to put too fine a point to it, made America fall in love with Major League Baseball all over again after the bitterness of the 1994, World Series-canceling lockout. All of that is long forgotten.
Willie Mays’ disastrous final season as a New York Met didn’t color his legacy, but it’ll be hard to think about Sosa without thinking about the prima donna pouting that marked his final few years as a Chicago Cub, and his corked bat, and his sudden inability to speak English when confronted by a House committee investigating steroid use, and his insistence that he be the main man in Baltimore last season even as the Mendoza Line became an impenetrable barrier.
Maybe Emmitt Smith now doesn’t feel so bad about his final days as an Arizona Cardinal.
Sosa’s famed boom box is a fitting symbol for the arc of his career. In his glory days, the ear-splitting salsa it blared into the Cubs’ locker room seemed symbolic of his joyful, energetic embrace of life and baseball. As his ego grew larger, the boom box seemed to symbolize his insistence of having the team bow to his whims.
When Sosa, in his final act as a Cub, walked out of the clubhouse before the last game of the 2004 season ended, a teammate took the opportunity to pound the boom box into a messy, electronic pulp.
It’s hard to believe that during the 1998 chase to break Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, it was Sosa’s vivacious personality that influenced Mark McGwire to stop being a gloomy Gus about all the attention. McGwire and Sosa’s embrace after McGwire hit the record-setting No. 62 against the Cubs echoed fans’ re-embrace of baseball, post-lockout. All was forgiven.
Of course, looking back, Sosa wasn’t the only illusion of those times, as Jose Canseco taught us. But that was, so to speak, inside baseball, Deep Locker Room stuff.
In posting the video of the incident, The Smoking Gun web site noted the comment was “wildly inappropriate” and “highlights the kind of derision still directed at Latin athletes.” Maybe. But it also appears, looking back, Schilling was sending a message we all would soon learn — Sosa isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.
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