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 Flashback: Sosa
 
The Education Of Sammy Sosa

Having learned that his personal goals and those of the team can be reached with a single stroke, the Cubs slugger produced the greatest home run streak the game has ever seen

More flashbacks

by Tom Verducci

Issue date: June 29, 1998

Sports IllustratedSammy Sosa used to wear a millstone around his neck. It was a gold pendant approximately the size of a manhole cover, hung from a chain that seemed fashioned from a suspension-bridge cable. The bauble was inscribed with a drawing of two crossed bats and bore the numbers 30-30, inlaid with diamonds. The Chicago Cubs outfielder wore it when he drove to Wrigley Field in his sports car, the one with the SS 30-30 license plates. Then he would place the pendant in a safe before games. "Did he play with it on?" says Chicago first baseman Mark Grace, shaking his head. "No way you could run with that on."

Sammy Sosa Sosa had commissioned the Liberace-style accessory in 1993, after he became the first Cub to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a season, a milestone he reached thanks to 26 frantic stolen base attempts (20 of them successful) in the last two months. Never before, it seemed, had anyone been so ecstatic about finishing in fourth place.

What a piece of work! And the pendant, too—unintentional symbol of a vacuous career—was something to behold. Numbers? Sure, Sosa had them. So did World B. Free, Eric Dickerson and Imelda Marcos. Partly a creation of Wrigley Field's cozy dimensions, the notoriously undisciplined Sosa through his first nine seasons racked up nearly as many strikeouts as hits and approached his defensive responsibilities as if he thought "cutoff man" was a John Bobbitt reference. At week's end he had played 1,159 games without getting to the postseason—more than any active player except the Devil Rays' Dave Martinez (1,502) and the Indians' Travis Fryman (1,166).

Last season was vintage Sosa, beginning in spring training, when in response to a question about the possibility of his hitting 50 home runs, Sosa replied, "Why not 60?" His was most probably the worst year ever by anyone with 36 dingers and 119 RBIs. Behind that impressive-looking facade, Sosa hit poorly with runners in scoring position (.246), was virtually an automatic out on any two-strike count (.159), whiffed more times than anyone else in the National League (174), had a worse on-base percentage than Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine (.300 to .310), and again ran with such recklessness trying for 30-30 (he didn't get there, finishing with 22 steals in 34 attempts) that manager Jim Riggleman was once forced to scold him in the dugout in full view of the television cameras. Oh, yes—and the Cubs finished 68-94.

"I think there comes a time in every player's career when he plays for the team and doesn't worry anymore about getting established or putting up numbers," says Chicago shortstop Jeff Blauser. Sosa's time is now. Buoyed by the best lineup that's ever surrounded him on the Cubs, Sosa has put together a monster first half as rich in substance as it is in style. At 29 and in his 10th big league season, Sosa has at last begun to take more pitches, hit the ball to the opposite field and realize that the only piece of jewelry that really matters is a championship ring. Only his numbers are gaudy now.

Sammy SosaAt week's end he was hitting .339—82 points better than his career average—and had cut down on his strikeouts, increased his walks and launched one of the most outrageous power streaks the game has known. From May 25 through June 21, Sosa slammed 21 home runs in 22 games. In four weeks he exceeded the career seasonal highs of every one of his teammates except leftfielder Henry Rodriguez.

What's more, in June's first 21 days Sosa hit more home runs (17) than any man ever hit in the entire month, blasting Babe Ruth (1930), Bob Johnson (1934), Roger Maris (1961) and Pedro Guerrero (1985) from the record book while closing in on the record of 18 for any month, held by the Detroit Tigers' Rudy York (August 1937).

He popped home runs like vitamins last week: three on Monday, one on Wednesday, two on Friday and two on Saturday. Of course, he hit all of them at Wrigley, where in the last three years he has hit twice as many as he has on the road (71 to 35). So hot was Sosa that Grace jumped on his lap in the clubhouse last Thursday, rubbed against him and yelled, "Gimme some of that!" And that was before Sosa hit a 375-foot missile on Friday with splintered bat and a 461-foot lunar probe Saturday—the June record-breaker—that crashed a viewing party atop an apartment building on Waveland Avenue. Just call him Babe Roof. "I think he ruined the barbecued chicken," Blauser says.

Says Grace of Sosa's June explosion, "I've seen a lot of things in this game, but I've never seen anything like this. The game of baseball has never seen anything like it. I really don't have words for it."

While Sosa wore out pitchers and thesauruses alike, the big payoff was that the Cubs were still hanging within four games of the first-place Houston Astros in the National League Central at week's end. For the first time in his life Sosa was hearing his faithful flock of rightfield fans chanting, "M-V-P! M-V-P!" More telling, when reporters asked him about possibly outgunning Ruth and Maris over the full season, Sosa rolled his eyes in embarrassment and said quietly, "Oh, god. I'll just let you people take care of that. I don't want you to put me in that kind of company."

Why not 60? This time Sosa said, "I'll let you know after the year is over."

Grace says, "He's done 30-30, been player of the week, player of the month, an All-Star, but now I think he knows there's nothing like having a good season and winning."

Sosa has reached a comfort zone. That it took so long in coming should not be such a surprise. Not when you consider that he didn't play organized ball until he was 14. Not when you take into account that he grew up selling oranges for 10 cents and shining shoes for 25 cents on Dominican street corners to help his widowed mother make ends meet. Not when you learn that home for him, his mother, four brothers and two sisters was a two-room unit in what once served as a public hospital. Each night when he put his head down on that wafer of a mattress on the floor, he didn't dream of playing baseball in a tailored uniform on manicured fields. He dreamed of his next meal.

The scout invited two kids to a field in San Pedro de Macoris for a tryout in 1985. Sosa was the one in the borrowed uniform and the spikes with the hole in them. He was 16 years old and carried only 150 pounds on his 5'10" frame. The scout made a mental note that the boy looked malnourished.

The scout timed him at 7.5 seconds for 60 yards. Not great. The kid's swing was, by his own admission now, "crazy"—all long and loopy. But the scout liked the way the ball jumped off his bat, and he liked the way the kid did everything on the field aggressively. So the scout, Omar Minaya of the Texas Rangers, eventually made his way to the Sosa home ("No bigger than the average one-bedroom apartment or large studio," Minaya recalls) and came up with an offer of $3,500. Sosa took it. He gave almost all of it to his mother, Lucrecia, allowing himself one modest extravagance: He bought himself his first bicycle.

The following year he was at the airport leaving for some place called Port Charlotte, Fla., without knowing a bit of English. As he looked over his shoulder, the last thing he saw was Lucrecia crying.

Only three years after that—only five years after he took his older brother Luis's advice to play baseball—he was in the big leagues. By the time he was 23, Sosa was playing for his third team, the Cubs. The Rangers and the Chicago White Sox each chose not to wait to see if he would acquire polish, trading him for veterans.

"When he first got here [in 1992], you could see he had great physical skills, but he was so raw," Grace says. "He didn't know how to play the game. He didn't understand the concept of hitting behind runners. He didn't understand the concept of hitting the cutoff man to keep a double play in order. So many little things he just didn't know."

This much he did know: If he was going to support his mother and family, it wasn't going to happen with the bat on his shoulder. "It's not easy for a Latin player to take 100 walks," Sosa says. "If I knew the stuff I know now seven years ago—taking pitches, being more relaxed—I would have put up even better numbers. But people have to understand where you're coming from.

"When I was with the White Sox, Ozzie Guillen said to me, 'Why do you think about money so much?' I said, 'I've got to take care of my family.' And he told me, 'Don't think about money. Just go out and play, and the money will be there.' It takes a while."

Says Minaya, "You've got to understand something about Latin players when they're young—or really any players from low economic backgrounds. They know the only way to make money is by putting up offensive numbers. Only now is Sammy at a mature stage. Only now is he becoming the player he always could have been."

Midway through last season the Cubs provided Sosa, already a millionaire, with $42.5 million of added security by way of a four-year extension, a contract that astonished many observers. Sosa had never scored 100 runs, had never had 175 hits and had made fewer All-Star teams in the '90s (one) than Scott Cooper. Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox refused to add him to the All-Star team in 1996 even though Sosa was leading the league in home runs at the break. Equally unimpressed fans had never voted him higher than ninth in the balloting. Even this year he is running only sixth among National League outfielders.

"We saw a five-tool player who was coming into what are the prime years for most guys, and who probably couldn't find the trainer's room because he's never [hurt]," says Chicago general manager Ed Lynch, explaining the thinking behind the extension. "The one important variable was Sammy's maturity as a player. We were banking that he would continue to improve."

Upon signing his new deal, Sosa did not buy a bicycle. He bought a 60-foot yacht that he christened Sammy Jr. By then he also owned, he says, "eight or 10 cars"—he can't remember exactly, though he is sure he has a Rolls-Royce, a Ferrari, a Viper, two Mercedes, a Hummer, a Navigator and an Expedition. Lucrecia is now living in the third house her son has bought for her, each one bigger than the last.

Cubs hitting coach Jeff Pentland gave Sosa a video to take home after last season, though he did so without great expectations. "I don't think he knew I existed last year," Pentland says.

The video included batting clips of three players: the Braves' Chipper Jones, Grace and Sosa. The tape showed that all three tapped their front foot on the ground as a trigger mechanism for their swing. But while Jones and Grace tapped their foot as the ball was halfway to the plate, Sosa would tap his when the ball was nearly on top of him, resulting in a wildly hurried swing. "We needed to come up with some way for him to read and recognize pitches sooner," Pentland says, "and that way we'd be able to slow him down."

A few weeks later Pentland called Sosa in the Dominican Republic. "All I care about are two stats: 100 walks and 100 runs scored," Pentland told him.

"And one more," Sosa said. "I want to hit .300."

Sosa spent much of the winter working on hitting the ball to rightfield. Meanwhile, the Cubs traded for or signed veterans Blauser, Mickey Morandini and Rodriguez, their first bona fide lefthanded power threat since Rick Monday a quarter of a century ago. Since the season began, centerfielder Brant Brown and utilityman Jose Hernandez (22 home runs combined) have emerged from part-time roles as full-time surprises, and Grace, who bats behind Sosa against righthanders, was third in the league in hitting at week's end.

"There was too much pressure last year," Sosa says. "Pressure from the contract, pressure to do it all. I felt if I didn't hit a home run, we wouldn't win. I was trying to hit two home runs in one at bat. Now I don't feel that anymore."

Said Philadelphia Phillies manager Terry Francona last Friday after a 9-8 win over the Cubs, "Sosa's scary, especially when he puts the ball in the air in [Wrigley]. He doesn't chase pitches the way he used to. And the guy behind him scares me, too. I went out to talk to my pitcher, and the guy on deck [Grace] was smiling at me. He was dying to get up there. He was basically telling me, Go ahead and walk him. I'll drive him in. It's pick your poison."

Not once in 16 straight plate appearances against Philadelphia last weekend did Sosa swing at the first pitch. (Last year he had 84 one-pitch at bats; almost halfway through this season he has 16.) Two strikes aren't deadly for him anymore, either. In those counts, through Sunday, he had improved to .232 with 13 home runs, four more than he hit in such situations all of last year. The tried-and-true strategy for retiring Sosa—getting ahead on the count and making him chase pitches farther and farther off the plate—no longer applies.

"And he's not missing mistakes," says Phillies catcher Mark Parent, a former teammate of Sosa's. "That's the big thing for all good hitters—McGwire, Griffey and those guys. They don't swing at bad balls, and they hammer mistakes. They make you pay for every mistake. That's what Sammy's doing.

"The other day, [Mark] Portugal tried to sneak a fastball by him on the outside, and boom—home run, rightfield. You didn't have to worry about those homers to right in the past, because he pulled off those balls. But he ain't pulling off now."

Every day before batting practice Sosa and Pentland meet in the batting tunnel under the rightfield bleachers at Wrigley. Pentland flips him baseballs to hit. He tosses them not on a line, as normally occurs with this drill, but in a high, slow arc. That way Sosa must wait, with his hands back, before finally unleashing his swing and belting the ball into a net where the right side of the field would be. The drill teaches patience. Sosa at last understands. The 30-30 pendant is a relic now, no longer found around his neck but in a display case at his home in the Dominican, like some artifact from another era.

Sosa's 1997 was probably the worst year ever by someone with 36 dingers and 119 RBIs.

This much he knew: He wasn't going tosupport his family with the bat on his shoulder.

"Good hitters make you pay for every mistake," says Parent. "That's what Sammy's doing."

More Flashbacks:

The Great Home Run Chase: August 3rd, 1999

Mark McGwire: July 13, 1987 | April 4, 1988 |June 1, 1992
August 26, 1996 | March 23, 1999 | May 11, 1999
Extra Edition | September 21, 1999

Ken Griffey Jr.: May 16, 1988 | May 7, 1990
August 8, 1994 | May 12, 1997

Sammy Sosa: June 29, 1999 | September 14, 1999
September 21, 1999 | September 28, 1999

Roger Maris: July 31, 1961| September 11, 1961
October 9, 1961| May 27, 1963| June 20, 1977


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