His numbers are legendary: 588 career home runs, three seasons of 60-plus, the most in any five-year span, an astounding average of 51 over eight seasons. But Sosa’s legacy remains tarnished. The corked bat was proven; the steroid use just suspected because of signs too obvious to ignore.
Make no mistake — to his credit, Sosa did adapt and adjust along the way, and turned potential into super-stardom. He was traded away by the Texas Rangers as a very raw 21-year-old rookie in part because the game didn’t come easily to him, that he had a lot of learning and improving to do, and wasn’t projected to be the same type of player as two other young Rangers farmhands at that time — Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez.
But somewhere along the line, Sosa stopped swinging wildly at everything, and curbed the urge to chase the low-and-away breaking ball. As his plate discipline increased, so did his walk totals and batting averages. In his first five seasons with the Cubs, he hit .300 only once and averaged .268. Beginning in 1998, he hit .300 three times in the next five seasons, and never lower than .288 in a season.
But his power increased monumentally and suspiciously — from 36 homers in 1997 to 66 in 1998, followed by seasons of 63, 50, 64 and 49. Ironically, the two lower numbers marked the only times he won the National League home-run title, as his 60-plus totals were topped by two other tainted symbols of the era, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.
And Sosa’s body morphed from a 6-foot-0, 190-pound lithe-and-power combination capable of a 30-homer/30-steal season to a bloated 220-pounds, his defensive ability and throwing arm dwindled, and his base-stealing became almost non-existent as the slugging totals reached record numbers.
Let’s face it, this was everybody’s fault. The lure for the users was obvious — ridiculously huge dollars. Sosa earned well over $100 million in player salary, not to mention endorsements. Steroid use wasn’t against the rules of the game at the time. For the Latin players, use was legal in their native countries. The players’ fraternity took years to violate the clubhouse code and begin to protest loudly enough for its union to accept testing. The media didn’t investigate hard enough. But mostly, the fault lies with the game’s administrators, for doing nothing in the face of obvious signs of trouble — not when the game was getting financially healthy again due in part to the offensive explosion.
As for the place in history of Sosa and the rest of the era’s sluggers, nothing can be done to change the numbers. They will stay in the record book because there’s no way of knowing for certain just how they were accomplished.
From there, I’m going to reserve judgment. I suspect I’ll follow the same pattern with Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and the others. To make these players the only perpetrators just isn’t right. This is a black mark caused and shared by many. For that reason, I suspect I eventually will vote the sluggers in — tarnished images and all.
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