From where I sit, as a 24-year-old lifelong fan of the Cubs, there is relatively little to complain about regarding the Ricketts family’s ownership of the team. After arriving in 2009, they hired one of the best minds in baseball (Theo Epstein), then stood back as he masterfully executed a plan to stockpile young talent and build a foundation for the future. The team has also moved forward on the upgrades Wrigley Field so desperately needed, particularly to a home clubhouse that’s been out of date for decades. What’s more, the family actually ponied up for the entire cost of the renovations after the city scoffed at their initial funding requests. All that, good.
I do find myself frustrated, though, with one minor aspect of the family’s ownership to date: their reluctance to make peace with Sammy Sosa.
I suspect I’m not the only 20-something Cubs fan who was drawn to the franchise because of Slammin’ Sammy. My father is a die-hard White Sox fan who dressed me in a Sox onesie on the day I was born (yes, there is photographic proof), but my Cubs fan uncles started recruiting me early on, and the home run chase of 1998 pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn’t be cheering on the South Siders.
Sammy Sosa is the common thread between my early baseball memories. In true ‘90s fashion, I’d use my Talkgirl recorder to read the standings in the home run chase. In backyard Wiffleball games, I’d puncuate any solid contact with a huge hop as I ran to first. When I was a terrified 9-year-old in the wake of 9/11, I remember being touched when Sammy grabbed an American flag to wave during his first trip around the bases. Two years later, I somehow begged my parents into taking me to the bleachers so I could watch Sosa sprint out up close.
He racked up 1,800 games, 545 home runs and a 139 OPS+ during his Cubs years, but more important than those numbers were the thousands of kids he cemented as lifelong fans. The man just exuded such joy in playing the game, and nothing—not the corked bat, not the alleged steroid use, not the bitter breakup in 2004—can erase what those memories mean to me as a baseball fan.
Yet Sosa was not invited to the celebrations for the 100-year anniversary of Wrigley Field in 2014, despite being the best thing about the team for many of the 13 years he called Wrigley home. Cubs spokesman Julian Green told Jesse Rogers at the time: “There are some things Sammy needs to look at and consider prior to having an engagement with the team.” Rogers’ sources suggested he was referring to the debacle at the end of the 2004 season, in which Sammy arrived late and left 15 minutes into the Cubs’ last game of the season and later ripped manager Dusty Baker, damaging his relationship with the team beyond repair.
Sosa has made it clear he wants back in at Wrigley, telling the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan he’d love to throw out the first pitch when the Cubs make it to the World Series.
In the same article, former teammate Kerry Wood and current Cubs superstar Anthony Rizzo said they want the team to make amends with Sosa. I suspect most fans around my age feel the same. Of course we don’t like the fact that Sosa’s accomplishments, and those of other power hitters of that era, are tainted by steroids, but it still seems disingenuous to erase an entire chapter of the game’s history.
For comparison’s sake, here’s how Sosa’s contemporaries who have been connected to performance-enhancing drugs have handled the potentially awkward relationships with their former franchises:
- Barry Bonds became a roving instructor in the Giants’ spring training camp in 2014, despite being a notoriously difficult figure in the clubhouse. This offseason, he became the Marlins’ hitting coach.
- Mark McGwire became the Cardinals’ hitting coach in 2010, receiving a standing ovation from the Best Fans In Baseball ™ upon his return. After helping the Cardinals to the 2011 title, he moved on to the Dodgers and now the Padres, though he said the move to California was simply a means of getting closer to his family.
- Benito Santiago, accused of late-career steroid use in the book “Game of Shadows” and the Mitchell Report, was inducted into the Padres’ Hall of Fame last year.
- Andy Pettitte, who admitted to using HGH in 2002, had his number retired by the Yankees last year.
- David Ortiz, who has acknowledged a positive test for PEDs in 2003, is the most beloved player on one of the league’s most beloved franchises. He’ll likely be honored with a Jeter-esquire retirement tour through the league this year.
Of course there are still the Jose Cansecos in the world, but the point stands: It’s possible for franchise to have good relationships with their former superstars of the steroid era.
I’m certainly not suggesting the Cubs put Sosa on their staff or anything like that. (John Mallee and Eric Hinske seem to be holding the fort down pretty well.) I just think the next time the Cubs trot out their legends for a ceremony, No. 21 should be lining up with the rest of them.
I know he played under different ownership, but Sammy Sosa made a ton of money for this franchise. He played at a time when the Bears stunk, the city had just lost Michael Jordan and the Cubs hadn’t been to the playoffs in nearly a decade. The Ricketts may not have owned the team at the time, but they are Cubs fans, and they know what Sosa meant to the fanbase.
Sosa should probably apologize to his old teammates for his selfish 2004 actions. Perhaps, with some discussion, he could be convinced that acknowledging his mistakes in that situation make sense. On the other hand, given how few players accused of steroids have apologized for their transgressions, I won’t hold my breath for an apology there.
This shouldn’t be a matter of good vs. evil. It’s a matter of thanking Sosa for the great memories he brought us, particularly those of us who became rabid Cubs fans because of those moments. It’s been more than a decade. It’s time to bring Sammy back.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.