Jeff Pearlman

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The fraud that is Sammy Sosa

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Throughout the 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s, baseball boasted no greater fraud than Sammy Sosa.

If you go back in time, nobody was more beloved by fans than Sammy the Cub. The way he sprinted to the outfield; the way he did that kissie thing after home runs; the way he behaved during the ’98 home run chase, when he was like a big puppy in a 100-foot bowl of sausage links.

All, garbage.

Sosa was a fraud. An enormous fraud. The fans didn’t know it, but we did. We, the media. We, the community allowed to glimpse behind the curtain. With rare exception, Chicago teammates loathed Sosa. He was selfish, arrogant and dismissive. No matter the desires of others, he blasted his Salsa music throughout the tiny Wrigley Field clubhouse at ear-splitting levels. If you didn’t like it, well, to hell with you. He was Sammy Sosa, you were, oh, Todd Walker. Your opinion didn’t count. If people wanted Sammy’s time, it had to be granted. He wasn’t nearly as bad as Barry Bonds, who reigned over the San Francisco clubhouse like a third-world dictator. But he demanded your respect. And if it wasn’t offered—to hell with you.

And yet, Sosa’s abhorrent behavior isn’t why I was happy to read that he was finally implicated to have used performance-enhancers. No, I was happy because Sosa—more than Bonds, Clemens, Giambi, Manny Ramirez—was (I believe) a product of performance enhancers. The aforementioned players were studs before they began using. Certainly, the PHD provided a huge boost. But they had undeniable skills that reached the highest levels. Sosa, however, was merely … OK. He hit 15 home runs in 532 at-bats with the White Sox in 1990, and another 10 with the club in 1991. He was a tall, skinny kid with a pretty swing but only so-so potential. As much as I’m loathe to credit George W. Bush for anything, his trading Sosa from the Rangers (with Wilson Alvarez and Scott Fletcher) to the White Sox for Harold Baines (and Fred Manrique) on July 29, 1989 wasn’t the brain freeze the president long stated it to be. Hell, Baines—even at age 30—was a significantly better talent than Slammin’ Sammy.

No, steroids and growth hormone made Sosa into the terror he became. His swing never changed, but his size and power did. He went from George McFly to Bob Backlund in a matter of months—a preposterous transformation that, for some reason, few of us questioned.

I first knew—without question—that Sosa was full of it during his congressional testimony on March 17, 2005, when he hid behind laughably broken English. I’d spoken with Sosa before inside the Chicago clubhouse, and he understood absolutely everything. Suddenly, he was two days off the boat. It was preposterous.

What continues to bother me most about all this is the damned silence. In reaction to yesterday’s news, Brian McRae, Sosa’s former teammate with the Cubs, told USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale that, “It’s not like it’s a shocker. I think with the top 10 guys you most suspected, he was one of the top three or four on everybody’s list. It’s not like you were thinking, “Nah, he never did anything.’ The guys that were around him, and saw him every day, you suspected something. He just didn’t look right.”

That’s all fine and dandy, but where was McRae’s voice in 1998? 1999? 2000? 2001? Where were any of the clean players when the game needed them to speak up? The usage of PHD damned the game. But the silence was equally crippling.

Oh, well. There’s always the NFL …

  • Joe
  • Joe

    And, yes, I just linked to Hat Guy, which isn’t one of my finer moments.

    Sue me.

  • Jeff Pearlman

    Joe—RE: the NFL.

    I was being sarcastic.

  • And see, this is where I find so much of the modern hysteria over PEDs so obnoxious and self-serving. How could you look at Sosa in ’98 and NOT think something was up? And yet, whenever anyone mentioned it, the response was pretty much “Shut up. Home run chase fun!” Now, everyone is upset because they claim to have been duped. I think we let ourselves be duped.

  • that was great. lol. i just googled sosa after i saw them talking shit about him on espn and i had to uncover his asshole tendencies. i wish there was more show and not tell, but this is just a blog and i understand that. crucial, nonetheless.

  • chris

    where was YOUR voice during that time if you knew all this?
    did you ever write it?
    seems wrong to rip McRae if you never spoke up either.

  • Jeff Pearlman

    Chris:

    I agree 100%. I didn’t know, but had suspicions. I’ve written about the media’s faults often, in regards to roids. But probably should have said it again here. Good call …

    Jeff

  • To be totally fair to Sammy, despite his rather crummy credentials as a human being:

    He only tested positive in 2003. There’s not a lot of evidence that, even now, could be dredged up to say he was on something in years prior. Saying that he was, without conclusive evidence, is, despite the likelihood of the scenario, assuming something.

    For that, I place the blame on baseball, for filling their game with doubt as their players filled themselves with synthetic talent.

    It should also be noted: I am skeptical about every single athlete. There is too much money involved in sports to not be.

  • Ryan

    Jeff,

    Why not reference Sosa’s top 10 HR finish in ’93 as a 24 year old?

    To say Sosa had a pretty swing with so-so potential is to be ignorant of Sosa the prospect. Sosa was the classic 5 tool guy and always had enormous power potential.

  • JimmyP

    You forgot to mention the corked bat.

    This guy cheated in almost every possible way. Total loser.

  • Max

    There can be a lot of sane commentary on how deplorable it is to take PEDs, but this comes off as a rambling rant by someone who has an axe to grind against Sosa because of some perceived slight during his playing days. Get over it and write more level-headed commentary please.

  • 3Com Park

    What a load of garbage. Do you know how much Sosa was helped by PEDs based on a single positive test in 2003? No.

    Sammy Sosa was a tremendous prospect who exhibited substantial power at a very young age. To suggest that he was somehow helped more than Jason Giambi is ridiculous speculation, obviously fueled by personal animosity.

    Get a clue Pearlman. When you read this column in ten years you’re going to say to yourself, “I was a total idiot.”

  • Jeff, you spent the steroids era as a baseball writer for Sports freaking Illustrated. Don’t you think it’s a little disingenuous for you of all people to be complaining that nobody stood up to speak on the issue? Where was your reporting on the issue when Caminiti and Canseco spilled the beans, or when McGwire had andro in his locker? If Sosa was such a fraud, why did SI help turn him into a matinee idol…. putting him on the cover three times in 1998 and naming him and McGwire Sportsmen of the Year? It’s awfully easy to pile on Sosa now. But don’t pretend like you didn’t miss the biggest baseball story of your lifetime.

  • Funny, I used the same picture when I wrote my article

  • Part of Sammy Sosa’s appeal and marketability during his home run years was his outsized personality, the portrayal of which you say was wildly inaccurate in his heyday. Why wasn’t this widely reported then? The proof offered by a positive drug test wasn’t required to say, “Hey, the guy you think is a cuddly teddy bear is really a surly bastard.” If we are to accept that a ballplayer’s personality is worth reporting on, and the “media” all knew the real deal as you say, how come Sosa regularly came off as such a sweetheart in profile after profile? To tell us, “we knew he was a fraud” now, when it’s open season on Sosa and there are no clubhouse consequences to setting the record straight, conveys a bit of gutlessness on the part of those who were reporting from the trenches.

  • Oh, and great Bob Backlund reference.

    Listen, we can’t blame the owners or blame the players or blame the reporters. There’s enough to go around. Sosa, Giambi, Bonds, etc are all cheaters. They knew the rules and they broke them. The owners knew the players were taking them. A good many reporters suspected but didn’t do anything. And we as fans just watched the home runs and cheered. There’s enough blame for everybody. It’s just sad.

  • Snuckles

    I love how the same writers who shouted down Steve Wilstein in 1998– a full ten years after the Fenway Park crowd chanted “Steroids, steroids” at Jose Canseco– have suddenly found their spines and their balls and their OUTRAGE.

    “Don’t remember what we did then! Look at the way we leave Mark McGwire off our Hall of Fame ballots now!”

    Thanks for the belated moral guidance, but it might have been more useful back when chicks were digging the long ball.

  • jeff@perlman com

    perlman is a dummy, thats why

  • Mike

    Call Pearlman whatever you like, but you can’t call the guy “gutless.” And saying the media “knew” something about a certain guy is a far cry from saying he personally had enough evidence to convince his editors to take it to print in the biggest sports magazine in the world.

  • Spike

    saying the media “knew” something about a certain guy is a far cry from saying he personally had enough evidence to convince his editors to take it to print in the biggest sports magazine in the world.

    Dude – he just accused Sosa of being a ‘roider since the 90s with no evidence other than leaked hearsay from a single event in 03 that no one even knows what was detected. Pearlman has always been a gutless bandwagoner along with the rest of his odious fraternity.

  • To pop up on this occasion and exclaim “We knew! We knew he wasn’t a nice guy!” (as Jeff just did) is what I find less than courageous. I don’t particularly care what Sammy Sosa was like behind the curtain, but to come along in 2009 with that revelation at the exact moment when there is no penalty to pay in terms of access or perception, when it is conventional wisdom to put down Sammy Sosa, makes me wonder why this apparently commonly held observation among the media who knew better than us, the fans, was not reported ten years ago. Noting that Sosa was a lousy teammate off the field did not require the proof of a drug test.

    It’s not the not reporting it in 1999 that bothers me as such. It’s emerging with “guess what we knew all along” that does.

  • Spike

    This whole sorry cartel of “scribes” – I think that’s latin for bottomfeeder – was and is far more worried about losing their access than doin any reporting. Now that they can safely hide behind the skirts of public opinion, of course they are in full smug self righteous mode. In a world where these “journalists” are routinely beaten to the analytical punch by bloggers, the only thing they have left to sell is access and faux outrage.

  • Whether you share the media’s hyper-outrage on this matter or not, I wonder why Jeff didn’t reference the 4th amendment and Sosa’s reasonable expectation of privacy?

    Of course, no one is surprised by this news, but that’s not the point. We’re not talking national security or anything, so why can the media continue to hide behind the “I won’t reveal my sources” canard?

    Worked really well for the sales of that Selena Roberts A-Rod book.

  • Spike

    How about his 6th amendment right to face his accuser? Conveniently ignored in the interest of fanning outrage. Or the fact that printing this leak is aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime – officers of the court swear not do this sort of thing.

  • And saying the media “knew” something about a certain guy is a far cry from saying he personally had enough evidence to convince his editors to take it to print in the biggest sports magazine in the world.
    Rick Reilly called Sosa out in the pages of SI. Tom Verducci did the reporting on the Caminiti cover story. Jeff talks about how he spent time in the Cubs clubhouse and the “preposterous transformation” that Sosa’s body underwent.

    A reporters job is to report, and I think it’s fair to ask why it’s okay to criticize Brian McRae for not speaking out about Sosa when Pearlman himself was unwilling to. After all, that was his job, not McRae’s.

  • Pingback: Sammy Sosa, steroids, faux outrage, etc. (Yawn.) » Getting to First Base()

  • Tom Vasich

    In 1999 I went to an Indians-Cubs game in Cleveland and got to stand on the field during batting practice. Sosa’s muscles were so inflated, he looked like a comic-book character. Yep, he’s on steroids, I thought at the time. It was that obvious. Certainly, the baseball media could have dug into this issue more, but without MLB and the player’s assocation pressing the issue, it wouldn’t have gone very far. No one in baseball wanted to slaughter the PED-fatted calf.

  • Lester

    Hey Spike … as eloquent as your arguments are, can the Constitutional crap. This isn’t a court of law, but a test for an illegal substance and if Sammy didn’t do it he can go ahead and say he didn’t do it. But yeah, he already did that … before Congress. How’s that play Constitutionally? The accuser is the stick they dipped into his cup of piss. Sammy and that stick would make for a fine conversation, I suppose.

  • Greg Andrew

    The year before Sosa hit 66 home runs, he wasn’t even a good player,and was barely above replacement value thanks to his wretched .300 OBP. Even though he did hit with decent power, he ranked 36th that year among major -league right fielders in offensive production above that of a replacement-level player.

    The next year, of course, he ranked far higher among major-league right-fielders.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

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