Before June 3, 2003, Sammy Sosa’s glow had already started to fade.
He had been on the disabled list for the first time since 1996 with a toe problem. After getting plunked in the head by a Solomon Torres pitch in April, he started standing way back in the batter’s box, killing his ability to reach anything on the outer half. His numbers (.285, 6 HR, 24 RBIs) were well down, and those once-charming quirks were growing old as the Cubs’ intentions actually turned to winning.
Most important, the whispers about what those Flintstones vitamins really were had grown louder, as a smaller Sammy had shown up just as MLB was starting its steroid testing. Something wasn’t quite the same about Sosa. His edge was gone.
And after June 3, so was his benefit of the doubt.
We all wanted to believe that Sosa was clean. In 1998, we were told that his incredible improvement was because hitting coach Jeff Pentland had inserted a left foot tap in Sosa’s swing, a timing mechanism that would keep him on top of breaking pitches away. It was all because of hard work. We really wanted to believe that.
It became harder to believe when that bat split, revealing a piece of cork. Unfortunately, everything falling apart for Sosa began to come together at that moment. The leap wasn’t hard to take: If a struggling Sosa was cheating by corking his bat, how else had he cheated? The timing of his shrunken physique and equally shrunken production just seemed to dovetail all too well with the new testing.
When it happened, Sosa didn’t have to admit he was corking his bat to compensate for something else. Not even the most hopeful interviewer could get that from the most honest of players. No, all we wanted was some accountability. Instead, we got the excuse that Sosa was using a batting practice bat, and that it had somehow gotten into the game.
“It’s something that I take the blame for. It’s a mistake, I know that. I feel sorry. I just apologize to everybody that are embarrassed,” Sosa said at the time.
If he hadn’t included the part about batting practice that would have been a fine apology. But the batting-practice aspect of it unnecessarily mucked up what should have been a decent mea culpa.
Looking back, there was always something more with Sosa. Things were never what they should have been. The Cubs had a player putting up incredible numbers but never built a real team around him until 2003, when he had started to decline. Instead, they tip-toed around him, even letting him blast that notorious boom box in the locker room.
Then, after the cork, he suddenly became an albatross. Sure, he recovered to pop 40 home runs and drive in 103 runs, and hit one of the Cubs’ great homers off Ugueth Urbina in Game 1 of the 2003 NLCS, but the Sosa Era was pretty much killed on June 3, 2003.
Ten years later we look at that era in a completely different way when we did then. It all feels like an ignorant mistake. We see this and cringe:
The footage of us salaaming him in the outfield looks foolish. The Sammy chants when he came to bat sound so misplaced and so wrong. Ten years ago, any seed of doubt blossomed into a small piece of cork. And Sammy headed down, never looking back.