A man of meager beginnings, Sammy Sosa won over the baseball world and then lost it
Sammy Sosa takes the field for the first time as an Oriole. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / August 31, 1995)
Sammy Sosa has always looked more anxious than stoic in the batter's box, an odd distinction for a man who has hit more home runs than all but six men in the history of major-league baseball. His hands twitch rapidly at the plate, and his left foot methodically taps the dirt beneath him before each violent swing sends a baseball screaming into the sky.
He has been arguing with his left foot for years now, wrestling with its stubbornness. It has a mind of its own some days. Sosa came up with this toe-tapping method of striding into the ball when he was just a boy, swinging at a dingy balled-up sock on the dirt fields of San Pedro de Macoris, a coastal city of 213,000 in the Dominican Republic. Sosa's life story can be told using this toe tap -- his rise from poverty, his ascent to stardom with the Chicago Cubs, his fall from grace, and now his chance at redemption with his new team, the Orioles, who open the season today against the Oakland Athletics.
In his youth, when all he wanted was to use baseball to feed his family, this toe tap helped him stay patient, prevented him from being too eager. But later in his career, with his muscles starting to slow, it has also made him too patient, leaving him unable to catch up to the fastest of fastballs. He will tinker with it, tweak it and study it until the day he retires, it seems. Because in baseball, and in life, timing is everything.
On this brisk Florida morning, outside a batting cage in the Orioles' spring training complex, Sammy Sosa is once again fighting overeagerness.
"Temprano! Temprano! Temprano!" says Sosa, shaking his head in the direction of teammate Miguel Tejada, a fellow Dominican. Early. I'm swinging too early.
It's odd, at first, seeing Sosa like this. Surreal even, but difficult to pin down why that is, exactly. Is it Sosa who looks out of place, or is it the orange-and-black uniform he has been wearing since Feb. 2, the day he was traded to the Orioles?
Maybe it's both, when you think about it.
Even though the transient nature of modern sports produces fresh scenes like this every few years -- think Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey, Joe Montana in a Kansas City Chiefs helmet and Willie Mays in a New York Mets uniform -- it never gets any easier watching the stars of yesterday try to begin anew after false retirements, salary disputes and messy divorces force them to leave behind the cities that first embraced them. And as much as the athletes often want to move on, it's never that simple.
"That door is closed," Sosa says, standing next to his locker. A polite conversation has suddenly turned tense after several questions about Chicago. There is anger in Sosa's voice. Weariness too. "It's closed. OK, guy?"
Some doors, though, can never be completely shut.
Sammy Sosa, in the fans' hearts and minds, will likely always be a Chicago Cub, no matter what happens next. His role in the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, despite the questions and doubts we have about it now, guarantees that. He is, like Mark McGwire, a major character in a small chapter of American history, for better or worse. Congressional hearings and gossipy, ghostwritten memoirs can taint our recollections of that summer, but they cannot erase the emotions Sosa helped stir up. Close your eyes years from now, and the Sosa you first imagine will likely be the one in a blue and white uniform with a red "C" stitched to his chest, the guy blowing kisses to his mother and his God, smiling as he trots around the bases.
It's hard, as a result, to imagine this season with the Orioles being anything more than a footnote attached to Sosa's legacy, but for all the unanswerable questions this spring, one thing is obvious: Sosa and the Orioles need each other badly right now. Both have taken a major credibility hit in recent years, and both find themselves on the defensive these days.
Sosa, who hit 66 home runs in 1998 and batted .308 that year to win the National League Most Valuable Player award, is one of only two everyday players in baseball -- the other being Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees -- whose home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases have declined each of the past three years.
In 2003, he was suspended seven games for using a corked bat during a game, and early last month, he was one of several baseball players subpoenaed to testify before a congressional committee looking into allegations of steroid use.
"Everything I have heard about steroids and human growth hormones is that they are very bad for you, even lethal," Sosa said in a prepared statement read by his lawyer. "I would never put anything dangerous like that in my body. To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything."
The Orioles, who were once one of the most admired and respected franchises in baseball, are on the verge of becoming little more than a punch line, if they aren't there already. In 2001, Sports Illustrated called Baltimore "the laughingstock of baseball," and last year, the franchise finished with a losing record for the seventh consecutive season. From 1992, the first year Camden Yards was open, to 1998, the Orioles averaged 45,211 fans a game and led the American League in attendance four times. In 2004, 34,300 showed up each game, down 24.6 percent from 1998. Since Cal Ripken's retirement in 2001, the Orioles' star power has barely registered with casual fans.
"I think we have stars on the team, but they're stars that people don't really know about because they don't make themselves known," says Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts. "[Tejada] and [Melvin] Mora are two of the best players in the game, but they don't embrace the media attention or need to be in the spotlight. It's just not their thing. Sammy, he loves it. He thrives on it. That's his personality. He's such a household name, it's going to be a good thing for any town he goes to."
Ever since his career with the Cubs began to take off, American journalists seeking deeper truths about Sosa have been traveling to San Pedro de Macoris, a city that produces more major-league baseball players, per capita, than any city in the world. What they quickly realize is that San Pedro, like Sosa, is never still.
Cars and motorcycles blaze through intersections with little regard for traffic laws or traffic lights, and in the shadow of Estadio Tetelo Vargas -- the concrete baseball stadium that was constructed to be the city's heart -- barefoot children with dirty faces and just a few pesos to their names sell oranges and sugar cane. At night, many of them sleep on dirt floors.
Sosa was one of these children, and he went out of his way to remind Congress of this fact when he was called to testify. As a boy, he shined shoes in the Parque Duarte, the city's main park, and washed cars and sold fruit, candy and cigarettes for anyone who would hire him. He rarely knew where his next meal would come from.
Though many have tried, no writer has documented this time in Sosa's life better than Julio C. Malone, a journalist and author who, like Sosa, was born in the tiny Dominican village of Consuelo, just five miles from San Pedro de Macoris. Malone, who now lives in New York and writes a weekly column that is published in many Spanish newspapers, lived in San Pedro de Macoris and worked for a radio station during much of Sosa's childhood.
He can remember seeing Sosa in the northeast corner of the park, carrying the wooden box that held his shoeshine brushes -- a sight that gave Malone a unique perspective when he sat down to write a book about Sosa's life and the history of Dominican baseball in the summer of 1998. An English edition of the book, Sammy Sosa in 9 Innings, was recently published.
"One of the wonderful things about living in poverty -- and believe me, there should be something wonderful about it for all its heartache -- is that it exposes you to extreme difficulties," Malone says. "It isn't until you get to the bottom of the pit that you find out who you really are."
The true bottom is not easy to pinpoint, however, when so much of your life is full of despair. Sosa's father, Juan Batista Montero, died of a brain hemorrhage when Sosa was 7 years old. His mother, Mireya Sosa, remarried a truck driver named Carlos Peralta, but his two children from a previous marriage, when combined with Sosa and his five siblings, meant there were now 10 mouths to feed. Mireya prayed each day, asking for God's help, and made what little extra money she could by selling food to San Pedro factory workers.
"She is everything to me," Sosa says. "She is the reason why I am here playing baseball. I wanted to help my mother so much. My family went through so many hard times, and that motivated me."
In San Pedro de Macoris, the Sosas were among the city's poorest residents, but they also considered themselves lucky. The family managed to secure a one-room apartment in an abandoned public health building, just across the street from Estadio Tetelo Vargas. Homeless people had settled there after the government left it empty, and the Sosas were able to secure a tiny room, thanks to a friend. Malone describes in his book how the heat and the mosquitoes were often unbearable in the windowless rooms, and that residents would nearly "boil in their own sweat" on the hottest summer nights. There was no electricity either, though sometimes at night, the lights from the baseball stadium across the street would fill their home.
"That room is the place," says Luis Sosa, Sammy's older brother, "where everything came together for us."
"That was the first time, I think, we started to talk about something bigger," Sosa says.
There was no denying or hiding his raw talent from anyone. Certainly not once he started practicing and started dreaming of being the next Roberto Clemente. Mireya Sosa would cook rice and beans for her family, still Sosa's favorite food, and Sosa would get a larger portion in hopes that it would help him put on weight. He wasn't big, but he attacked the ball like a hungry animal when he swung the bat, and soon, people took notice. Carlos Bernhardt, the Orioles' director of Latin American scouting, has known Sosa since he was 12, and he has a simple story for people who ask him whether he thinks Sosa used steroids.
"When Sammy was just a skinny kid, he weigh maybe 145 pounds, and I saw him hit a ball 390 feet over the fence," Bernhardt says. "Everyone knows Sammy's power is natural. In the Dominican, we say it comes from the yucca and the sugar cane. In America, you have your hamburgers and hot dogs, but in the Dominican, we have mucho bananas to eat instead."
Though current Mets general manager Omar Minaya is often credited with discovering Sosa, the truth has more layers than the legend. Sosa originally signed with the Philadelphia Phillies, but his contract was voided when the scout was fired and it turned out Sosa was only 15, too young by baseball's rules. A year later, in 1985, it was Texas Rangers scout Amado Dinzey who begged Minaya to come take a look at the young prospect, who was working out at a camp sponsored by the Toronto Blue Jays. Minaya, who thought Sosa was malnourished, offered him $3,000 to sign a contract with the Rangers. Sosa countered by asking for $4,000. The two sides haggled, though not for very long, before agreeing to split the difference at $3,500.
With some of that money, Sosa bought a bicycle. He gave the rest to his mother. Soon, he was earning enough playing in the minor leagues to buy a small plot of land in the Barrio Mexico, one of San Pedro's poorest slums. On that land, Sosa eventually built a one-bedroom house with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Mireya Sosa's eyes still well up with tears when she tells this story.
"It's very hard to describe the way I felt," she says. "When he built that house, he said, `Mami, I'm going to get you a better house than this one. But this is the one I can buy you right now. I promise you, as soon as I get more money, I'm going to buy you a mansion.'"
That modest house in Barrio Mexico is standing today -- unlike the public health building, which was torn down years ago -- though Sosa (who has large houses in La Romana, Santo Domingo and Miami) is no longer its owner. The cement walls have been painted pink and white, and the roof is peeling away. Still, it's in better shape than most of the houses in the neighborhood. There are no street signs, but a woman walking by with her young children tells visitors the calle, or street, is named Uruguay.
An old woman at the house answers a knock at her door, but politely declines a visitor's request to see the inside, see the home that Sammy Sosa built. She is very poor, but she is also proud. It's not that she doesn't want to talk. She does not own any chairs for people to sit on.
Worried, yet brash
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.
On the outside, though, Sosa could be arrogant and brash. He told 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.'"
All the booing began to have a cumulative effect during last season, and tensions ran high when Sosa, by all accounts, acted like a diva while his production decreased considerably. He missed a month of the season with back spasms, an injury that was brought on by two famous sneezes in the clubhouse. His relationship with the news media worsened, and he eventually stopped speaking to the Cubs' public relations people entirely. He made a habit of skipping Cubs' fan functions after promising to attend.
Wojciechowski, who spent 2004 following the team for his recently published book Cubs Nation, says Sosa's boorish behavior finally angered so many people within the organization, they were no longer willing to defend him or protect him.
Sosa and manager Dusty Baker spent much of the season at odds, and near the end, Sosa began to believe Baker was blaming him for the team's failure to make the playoffs. He hit 35 home runs despite playing in only 126 games, but batted just .233 after the All-Star break, and refused to make adjustments in his batting stance.
"There's a lot to like about Sammy Sosa, but there's also a lot to despise," Wojciechowski says. "I've spoken to numerous folks inside the organization who did not always paint a flattering picture of Sammy. Some of it was just the way he treated support staff members. Let's just say Sosa's public persona and clubhouse persona were not always one and the same."
The final straw came on the last day of the season, when Sosa, who had the day off, showed up in the clubhouse just minutes before game time. The team had already been eliminated from the race for the playoffs, but there was still a game to be played against the Atlanta Braves, like it or not. Sosa obviously felt differently. Fifteen minutes after the first pitch, he climbed into his car and left.
Sosa later told reporters he had stayed until the seventh inning, but the Cubs were so fed up with him, they let it leak that Sosa could clearly be seen on the security cameras leaving the players' parking lot 15 minutes after the Cubs took the field.
"You really had to be there that last day to see the anger and betrayal on his teammates' faces," Wojciechowski says.
Late that afternoon, when the last news media member finally decided to go home, one of the Sosa's teammates took his beloved boom box -- the one that he used to blast salsa music with little regard for anyone else's eardrums -- and smashed it into thousands of pieces.
"I don't really care," Sosa told reporters this spring when asked about the incident. "You know why? Because when the man is not in the house, the chickens are jumping around."
The Cubs, 2,000 miles away in Arizona, had no interest in firing back. "It's a fresh start for everybody, fresh start for us," Baker says. "Sometimes change is good for everybody. ... Some of the things that were done here, weren't deserved by anybody. Sometimes you try to be a man about things and move on. I hope he has a good year over there."
Finding his rhythm
He's in the batting cage again, fighting his left foot less now, finding a rhythm to his movements. He is not the man he used to be, but it's obvious that, when he feels comfortable, Sammy Sosa can drive the ball farther and with more power than any man here. After batting practice, he signs autographs for several minutes, most of them on pictures of himself in a Cubs uniform. He stares at the images of his past with indifference. He is an Oriole now, for better or worse.
Malone, for one, chooses to believe it will be for the better.
"Baltimore and San Pedro de Macoris are not that different, really," Malone says. "They're both coastal towns, not far from the beach and the sea. Just the very fact that he can go drive to the bay and take a deep breath, I think, will help him clear his head.
"That," Malone adds, "is almost like being home."
Sun staff writers Don Markus and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.