I’m a Chicago Cubs fan — and not one of those fair-weather, bandwagon-jumping fans, either, mind you. I’m the die-hard, bleeds-Cubbie-blue type, and I have been practically since birth.
As such, I have rooted on my beloved North Siders during the good, the bad ... and, yes, even the downright disastrous. Through it all, my loyalty has remained steadfast. To me, that’s a big part of being a Cubs fan. After all, rooting for a winning team is easy. Sticking with a ball club referred to as the Loveable Losers — often in snide, derisive tones — is far more challenging ... although I would argue that it also makes the victories that much sweeter.
But in the mid-’90s, the Cubs weren’t the only ones who were struggling. Baseball itself was, too, in the wake of a bitter 232-day strike that forced the cancellation of the ‘94 World Series and drove disillusioned fans away in droves. The 1995 season was able to get into full swing, but many fans were not ready to forgive and forget. Attendance plunged by more than 20 percent as once-faithful followers decried the rampant greed ruining the sport.
Then something happened that changed everything: the home run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The excitement that contest generated drove ticket sales and reignited interest in the national pastime, attracting new fans and old alike. Nowhere was that impact felt more strongly than in Chicago.
By the end of 1998, Slammin’ Sammy had belted 66 home runs, breaking the single-season record held by Roger Maris. McGwire ended up with 70, but Sosa, who had more RBIs and stolen bases, was honored with the 1998 NL MVP award. The reason was simple. McGwire may have tallied a few more homers that year, but Sosa was the true star of the show.
The slugger was charismatic; his infectious smile, his home-run hop, and the kisses he blew to the camera after a towering blast were all part of a bigger-than-life personality that was hard to resist. Yes, breaking Maris’ record would have been headline-worthy regardless, but the energy is what the ever-growing crowds really responded to — and that was all Sosa.
One would think that alone would cement Sosa’s legacy, but Slammin’ Sammy followed it up with two additional seasons of 60 or more home runs — making him the only player in history to have ever done so. And in 2007, he belted home run No. 600 — becoming one of only eight major league players to achieve that feat.
Yet when the Hall of Fame ballot was released Nov. 28, with Sosa’s name appearing on it for the first time, those accomplishments weren’t given much attention in the reports. Instead, coverage mostly centered around the fact that Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were all first-timers on the Hall ballot, and they — like holdovers Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — would all almost assuredly win induction were it not for allegations of performance-enhancing drug use.
Page 2 of 2 - I may be in the minority here, but I have never believed the steroid allegations against Sosa. The evidence just isn’t there. Steroid users spend lots of time on the disabled list. Sosa did not. Sammy also didn’t exhibit other telltale signs of steroid use: lots of acne and an explosive temper. Yes, he bulked up, but he also was known to spend long hours in the gym. That, combined with his admitted use of creatine — a legal supplement — could easily account for his more muscular frame.
However, even if he did use steroids, he wouldn’t be alone. You’d be hard-pressed to find many baseball superstars during the so-called “Steroid Era” who haven’t been the subject of such speculation. Should the mere suggestion of steroid use keep every one of them out of Cooperstown, where mementos of their achievements are already on display? Doing so would be a big disconnect with Major League Baseball, which has made no move to remove even admitted steroid users from its record books.
“I think you have to judge people for the era they were in,” said former Cubs GM Jim Hendry in 2005. “Unless all the facts are in, speculation is a waste of time. You’ll never be able to go back and figure out who did what for sure. I’m not condoning it at all. As long as there is competitive athletics and people can get away with things, they’ll try to get a competitive edge.”
Hendry makes a good point. There is no denying that at least some players used performance-enhancing substances, but we’ll never be able to say with any certainty exactly who juiced and who didn’t. Rather than burying our heads in the sand and penalizing players based on possible behavior, we need to acknowledge that the Steroid Era — and all of the baggage that comes with it — is part of baseball history. And isn’t commemorating baseball history exactly what the Hall of Fame is supposed to do?
Amy Gehrt may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.