He could barely string three words of English together when he showed up at Rangers camp that first summer. Teammates had to order for him in restaurants. When he went to sleep at night, he cried from loneliness.
"I found out from other players that he was worried all the time, but that he never told me because he didn't want me to worry," Mireya says.
Ruben Sierra, the Rangers' All-Star right fielder, that his spot was in jeopardy. When Blue Jays outfielder George Bell, a San Pedro native, won the American League MVP award in 1987, setting a record for Latin-born players with 47 home runs, Sosa whispered to his brother, Luis, that he would surpass Bell's mark.
He was so impatient to do it, however, that he swung at nearly everything. In 1989, he played in 25 games for the Rangers and came to the plate 84 times. He hit just .238, and even worse, he didn't walk once.
"I've always swung the same way," Sosa told reporters later in his career. "The difference is when I swing and miss, people say, `He's swinging for the fences.'"
Because of Sosa's habit of swinging hard and missing nearly everything, the Rangers managing general partner, an equally impatient man named George W. Bush, agreed to sign off on a trade that sent Sosa to the Chicago White Sox in 1989. The White Sox didn't keep Sosa around for very long either, shipping him across town to the Cubs 2 1/2 years later.
In 1992, Sosa was just 24 years old, but already a darker side of his personality was beginning to emerge. His wife of less than a year, Karenlie Bright, claimed in Dominican court that Sosa beat her, hit her on the head with a rum bottle and tried to kill her when she refused to grant him a divorce. Sosa denied the claims, and the mess quietly disappeared.
He blossomed as a hitter during the next four years, learning to take pitches and drive the ball to the opposite field. He was remarried, falling in love with a Dominican dancer named Sonia, with whom he has four children. In 1993, he became the first player in Cubs history to hit at least 30 home runs and steal 30 bases, a feat he was so proud of, he commissioned a jeweler to make him a large gold necklace honoring the accomplishment, and named a shopping center he had purchased in San Pedro de Macoris "Plaza 30/30."
With his teammates, however, he began to develop a reputation for selfishness. He didn't always throw to the cutoff man, showed no interest in moving runners over and was forced to answer charges that he tried to pad his statistics at the expense of the team. In 1997, near the end of the season, he and Cubs manager Jim Riggleman got into a heated argument when Sosa was thrown out trying to steal during a 12-4 Cubs loss. Many believed Sosa, who finished with 36 home runs and 22 stolen bases, was chasing statistics.
Still, there was an innocence to Sosa when he first started playing regularly for the Cubs, according to Gene Wojciechowski, a former Cubs beat writer for the Chicago Tribune and now a senior writer at ESPN: The Magazine.
"He hadn't quite mastered the language yet, and I don't think he understood the public relations aspect as well as he would further down the road," Wojciechowski says. "Give him credit, he always, always played hard."
No one, not even Sosa, was prepared for what happened in 1998, when he hit 20 home runs in the month of June, a major-league record. His duel with McGwire in their quest to break Roger Maris' record for most home runs in a season turned him into a household name, and led sportswriters to gush that he was the new goodwill ambassador for baseball. Sosa finished with 66 home runs, second to McGwire, who had 70, and stole people's hearts in the process.
"He would call me and tell me, `Mami, I don't know what's going on,'" says Mireya Sosa, who now lives in a large house in San Pedro that Sosa bought for her. "He said, `I'm just trying to work hard.' He always had his feet on the ground, even as a boy."
Falling out of favor
So why is Sosa now chasing 600 home runs in an Orioles uniform instead of Cubs' pinstripes? Why was he so determined to leave Chicago that he waived an $18 million option in his contract that would kick in if he was traded? And why were the Cubs so eager to rid themselves of him?
Some say the first crack in Sosa's reputation came in 2000, when Fortune magazine reported that the Sammy Sosa Foundation, a nonprofit group Sosa had set up in 1998 in the Dominican Republic, was abusing its tax-exempt status. Two of his sisters were running businesses out of the Plaza 30/30, which Sosa had turned over to the foundation, but neither was paying rent.
Bill Chase, the Sosa Foundation president, also acknowledged that he had purchased a sports car for Sosa's younger brother, Jose, with foundation money. The magazine reported that even though Sosa was halfway through a four-year, $42.5 million contract with the Cubs, he had never made any substantial contribution. (McGwire had famously contributed $100,000 after the charity opened.) The IRS investigated, Sosa repaid the charity $126,000 to cover any questionable transactions and the foundation closed its doors in 2001.
Still, the true genesis of one of the nastiest divorces between a player and a team in recent baseball history can most likely be traced back to Sosa's decision, conscious or not, to bring a corked bat to the plate on June 3, 2003, for a night game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
When Sosa's bat splintered into several pieces in the first inning, the fan and news media reaction was swift, fierce and unforgiving. Skip Bayless, a former columnist at the Tribune, called Sosa "the biggest phony I have encountered in any sport" and gleefully declared that "an all-time great con artist has been exposed." Sosa served a seven-game suspension.
"I called him, and I asked him, `What happened?'" Mireya Sosa says. "He said, `Mami, it was a mistake [that it was a batting practice bat], and I'm telling you the truth. Now I have to fix the mistake. I was born a man, and now I will face this as a man.'"
A man of meager beginnings, Sammy Sosa won over the baseball world and then lost it
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