Sammy sosa has been booed by Cubs fans and dropped to the bottom half of the batting order while putting up his weakest power numbers in a decade this season. The salsa music that blasts from Sosa's boom box, however, plays on in the clubhouse. "Sammy's had a tough year," says catcher Michael Barrett. "But he's always positive, and he still likes his music loud."
Now as the Cubs are battling to win the NL wild card--they trailed the Giants by a half-game at week's end-- Sosa's bat is starting to make some noise. In a six-game span against the Pirates and Reds last week, Sosa hit four home runs and drove in eight runs. "I'm starting to find myself," he said last Thursday, a day after homering twice in a game for the first time since June 27.
It's been a difficult season for the 35-year-old rightfielder, who had averaged 49 home runs and 127 RBIs over the last nine years, but through Sunday had 33 homers and 74 RBIs. A career .278 hitter entering the season, he was batting .258. "He's always a threat to homer, but he hasn't been the same elite hitter," says one National League Central pitcher. "There are other guys in that lineup that are more dangerous, like [third baseman] Aramis Ramirez and [leftfielder] Moises Alou."
Late on the night of Aug. 17, with his average at .258, Sosa phoned manager Dusty Baker and volunteered to move down in the order. Sosa's name was written into the No. 5 spot the next game, ending a streak of 1,466 straight starts in which he had batted third or fourth. On Sept. 11, with Sosa's average at .254, Baker dropped him to sixth in the order, hoping it might get him to relax more at the plate. Through Sunday, Sosa was striking out at his highest rate since 1991 (once every 3.9 plate appearances) and walking at his lowest rate (once every 9.9) since 1998.
"We need Sammy to get hot," Baker said last Thursday. "I can see it coming. His swing is getting crisper, and his timing is getting better."
Injuries are partially to blame for Sosa's struggles. Before this season he had been on the disabled list only once since 1996, but in mid-May he strained ligaments in his lower back while sneezing and was sidelined for a month. Sosa also has been slowed by bursitis in his right hip. "He won't be fully recovered until next season," says hitting coach Gary Matthews. "His swing is inconsistent because of his hip and back, but he's constantly making adjustments. He's battling."
"I've been playing with pain," says Sosa, "but no one cares about [that]." Indeed, fans at Wrigley Field showered Sosa with boos in late July, when he and the team were slumping. The Chicago media has even speculated that G.M. Jim Hendry could shop Sosa next winter. But Sosa's salary--he has one year remaining on a contract that will pay him $17 million in 2005 and he has an $18 million option for '06--and age make it difficult to move him. "Outside of the Yankees, who could take on such a gamble?" asks one NL general manager. "You don't know if he'll ever be the [old] Sammy Sosa again."
On Sept. 15 he was. After ripping an eighth-inning grand slam in the Cubs' 13--5 romp over the Pirates, Sosa danced up the steps of the dugout and waved to the crowd. He blew kisses to the TV camera. The next day Sosa was asked by a reporter if he was finally back. "I never left the building," Sosa said. "It's not how you start. It's how you finish."