Sammy Sosa

When the Chicago White Sox traded Sammy Sosa to their crosstown rival Cubs for George Bell in March of 1992, their young prospect had never hit more than fifteen home runs in a season at any level. But six years later, the young Dominican from the baseball goldmine of San Pedro de Macoris hit 66 home runs — the second-highest total in baseball history — as his pursuit of Mark McGwire in the race to break Roger Maris‘ record of 61 homers captivated the baseball world. Even though McGwire outpaced Sosa with 70 round-trippers, Sosa’s leadership, effervescent personality and humility gave him an overwhelming victory in balloting for the NL MVP award in one of baseball’s most memorable seasons.

Sosa’s early years were spent in poverty. As a youngster in the Dominican Republic, he and his friends used tree branches as bats and milk cartons to field ground balls. To earn money, the young Sosa sold orange juice and shined shoes. An early Rangers scouting report described him as “malnourished,” but there was no doubting his bat speed. Texas scout Omar Minaya signed him to a contract after agreeing to give Sosa a $3,500 signing bonus, most of which remained in the Dominican Republic with Sosa’s family. But by the time he won the 1998 NL MVP Award, Sosa owned at least eight cars, including a Rolls-Royce, and a luxurious Chicago apartment two floors above Oprah Winfrey’s.

Sosa’s minor-league and early career performance never hinted at the potential power held in his slender 6’0″ frame. In his first season in rookie ball, Sosa was a teammate of 1998 AL MVP Juan Gonzalez and future stars Dean Palmer and Wilson Alvarez, but displayed a disturbing tendency to chase bad pitches.

He played just 25 games for Texas in 1989 (hitting the first home run of his career off Roger Clemens on June 21st) before the Rangers traded him to the White Sox, along with pitcher Wilson Alvarez and infielder Scott Fletcher, for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique on July 29th. Years later, former Rangers owner George W. Bush would draw a big laugh at a South Carolina debate during his 2000 presidential campaign when he called the Baines/Sosa swap his biggest mistake as an adult.

In little more than two seasons with Chicago, Sosa never developed into a great hitter, but played a key role on the worst-to-almost-first White Sox of 1990. That season he was the only American League player to reach double-digits in doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases, but he batted just .233, struck out 150 times in 532 at-bats, and made 13 errors in the outfield. Problems dogged Sosa off the field as well. That winter, he was accused of viciously beating his wife after she refused to grant him a divorce.

Frustrated by another subpar performance in 1991, the White Sox had no hesitation in sending Sosa to the crosstown Cubs before the 1992 season. While Sosa had yet to prove he was little more than a mediocre outfielder with good speed but no pop in his bat, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field would dramatically alter the course of Sosa’s career. Limited to 67 games with the Cubs his first year (he fractured both his right hand and left ankle during the course of the season) Sosa began paying big dividends for Chicago in 1993. Suddenly emerging as a power threat, he more than doubled his career high for home runs, slamming 33. Adding 36 stolen bases, he became the first Cub to reach the 30/30 club — a feat he would duplicate in 1995.

The next four seasons would look much the same for Sosa. He would hit as many as 40 home runs (in 1996), drive in as many as 119 runs (1995 and 1997), bat as high as .300 (1994), and strike out as many as 174 times (1997). Still, his team consistently finished out of contention, and after the 1997 season Cubs manager Jim Riggleman publicly criticized his star right fielder for being more concerned with his stats than with helping the team win.

Success in 1998 quickly brought an end to any acrimony that remained between the two. A flurry of offseason moves bolstered the Cubs’ roster and raised hopes for the coming season. Rookie pitcher Kerry Wood was called up early in the season, and promptly tied Roger Clemens‘ major league record by striking out 20 Houston Astros on May 6th at Wrigley Field. With the Cubs near the top of the wild-card standings, Sosa had just nine home runs through May 24th — fifteen behind McGwire.

But beginning with two homers against Atlanta the following day, Sosa embarked upon the greatest home run splurge baseball had ever seen. He set records with 21 circuit blasts over a 30-day period from May 25th through June 23rd, and another by hitting 20 home runs in June, the most ever hit in a single month. This spectacular run (which included one stretch of 21 round-trippers in 24 games) propelled him into a neck-and-neck race with McGwire for Roger Maris‘ record. On August 19th, McGwire watched from first base At Wrigley Field when Sosa slammed number 48 off Kent Bottenfeld of St. Louis, pulling ahead of the Cardinals’ slugger for the first time all season. But two consecutive homers by McGwire later that game reclaimed a lead he would relinquish just once more.

Despite their contrasting personae, the pursuit of history forged a compelling and touching friendship between the towering, redheaded McGwire and the stylish, laid-back Sosa amidst the media maelstrom that surrounded the chase. The circus reached a crescendo during a Labor Day weekend series between the Cubs and Cardinals, but the two sluggers charmed the nation in joint press conferences, disregarding the pressure of the chase and by all appearances thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Sosa, who had insisted all along that McGwire would be the one to set the record, drew the biggest laughs by joking, “everyday a holiday for Sammy Sosa” and “baseball been ‘bery, ‘bery good to me.” Earlier in the year, when McGwire had been criticized for using a controversial testosterone booster, Sosa revealed the secret of his success — Flintstones vitamins.

It was only fitting that Sosa stood in right field on September 8th when McGwire hit the record-setting 62nd off Steve Trachsel at Busch Stadium. As McGwire celebrated outside his dugout, Sosa ran in from the outfield to deliver a heartfelt hug to the new home king. McGwire promptly lifted his friendly nemesis off his feet.

Although McGwire’s Cardinals had long since exited post-season contention, Sosa’s Cubs were in the thick of a thrilling three-way battle with the Mets and the Giants for the NL wild-card spot. The pressure of the pennant race heightened the drama of Sosa’s home run barrage. On September 13th, Sosa tied McGwire by launching two mammoth shots out of Wrigley Field for numbers 61 and 62, while the Cubs pulled off a dramatic 11-10 sudden-death win to remain a game ahead of the Mets in the wild-card standings.

As the season drew to a close, fans of all teams greeted Sosa like a conquering hero. In San Diego on September 16th, a packed crowd at Qualcomm Stadium stood on its feet, cheering wildly, as Sosa batted with the bases full in the eighth inning of a tie game. When the slugger obliged the crowd by sending his third grand slam of the year into the second deck in left field, the fans called him back onto the field for a standing ovation. The next day several Padres complained that the contest had felt like a road game.

A week later in Milwaukee, Sosa hit number 64 and 65 to tie Hank Greenberg‘s 1938 record of 11 multi-homer games in one season. Two days later Sosa cranked number 66 in Houston, and for the second and last time that season, crept ahead of McGwire. For 47 minutes, before his friend and rival tied him with a home run in a game in St. Louis, Sammy Sosa had hit more home runs in a single season than any player in baseball history.

Even though McGwire ended the season with four home runs in his final two games to establish a new single-season record of 70, Sosa got the upper hand in two vital respects. First, the Cubs completed their dreamlike regular season by winning a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field over San Francisco to earn the wild-card spot. (In the NLDS, the overmatched Cubs were swept by the powerful Atlanta Braves in three games.) Second, Sosa, who batted .308 for the season and led the major leagues with 158 RBIs, 134 runs scored and 414 total bases, was named the NL MVP in a landslide vote over McGwire.

Sosa’s offseason was a busy one. In Japan for a post-season goodwill tournament, Sosa managed to negotiate the delivery of much-needed supplies to his hurricane-devastated homeland. Strangely, a post-season parade in Sosa’s honor was held in New York, but not in Chicago. During his stay, Sosa gave New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani a bat, which Giuliani mistakenly believed was the one Sosa had used to hit his 66th home run. Sosa later apologized for the misunderstanding.

Following the celebratory hoopla of the 1998 season, the follow-up felt like a letdown. While McGwire (65) and Sosa (63) racked up the third and fourth highest single-season home run figures in baseball history, the drama that had fueled the chase in 1998 seemed absent in 1999.

Following the celebratory hoopla of the 1998 season, the follow-up felt like a letdown. While McGwire (65) and Sosa (63) racked up the third and fourth highest single-season home run figures in baseball history, the drama that had fueled the chase in 1998 seemed absent in 1999.

The following year began with a wrinkle, as new Cubs manager Don Baylor made it known early in 2000 that he wanted the slugger to steal more and play better defense. But the bulked-up Sosa wasn’t as dangerous on the basepaths as he had been in the early ’90s, and swiping bags was no longer a part of his game.

More glaring was Sosa’s contract dispute with management. With the Cubs floundering in last place for much of the season, the front office was tempted to trade the star — who was in the penultimate year of his contract — to a contender for a horde of quality players. But despite shopping him around, the Cubs realized that public support to keep the slugger was tremendous, and they eventually took him off the market. Sosa ended up with another stellar year, even though the Cubs sported the worst record in the majors. He batted .320, tallied 138 RBIs, and slammed fifty homers, joining McGwire as the only other player to have three consecutive years of 50 home runs.

He was rewarded in March 2001 with a four-year, $72 million deal in March 2001, becoming the fourth-highest paid player in baseball at the time.