Some people were born to be baseball players. Others, like myself, were born to treasure baseball players.
After racking up a handful of four-strikeout performances in my second year of Dads’ Pitch Little League, I quickly learned that I belonged to the latter category. On the diamond, I wasn’t exactly one of the players that other teams ‘kept an eye on.’ But as a fan, I was on another level.
Whereas I could hardly pay attention when I was an actual member of an actual team—yes, I was the kid in right field picking dandelions—my focus became razor sharp when I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs. But it was for one reason, and one reason only: Sammy Sosa.
Here’s the thing about baseball – it gets really boring.
Oh my GOD does it get boring.
Taking in America’s “favorite” pastime involves a shocking amount of automatism; most times you just sit there unmoved for hours, involuntarily shifting between unconsciousness REM cycles. I often liken it to watching paint dry, with one minor caveat – you know approximately how long paint takes to dry.
Baseball, on the other hand, can take forever.
Although I recognized this from a young age (as well as many other shortcomings with the game of baseball), I couldn’t help but fall hopelessly in love with the game during the 1998 Major League Baseball season.
This was the summer of the epic home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. It led off the news every night, and helped a washed-up game recapture the fascination of an entire country.
It was Slammin’ Sammy vs. Big Mac.
The sobriquets alone heightened the importance of the era, each at-bat taking on an exponentially greater sense of importance as the season progressed. Chicagoans finally had a reason (other than reruns of America’s Funniest Home Videos) to tune into WGN, as budding superstar Sammy Sosa was single-handedly returning the lowly Cubs to a new height of relevance.
It was a match made in heaven: a love-starved slugger and a city starving for a slugger to love.
And it wasn’t just Chicago baseball that was being rescued; it was the entire game of baseball.
Americans were catching on to just how boring the game baseball was, and had begun to find alternative forms of entertainment—mainly AOL, Total Request Live, and the WWF. But just as Stone Cold Steve Austin used his ass-kicking, beer-bashing, middle-finger-to-authority persona to transform wrestling from a bunch of white fat-asses rolling around in a ring into a multi-billion dollar spectacle with attitude, Sammy Sosa used his kiss-blowing, home run-hopping, peace sign-to-mommy routine to morph baseball from a bunch of white fat-asses standing around in dirt into a powerful form of entertainment.
In the summer of ‘98, baseball’s popularity reached a fever pitch. As the summer began to heat up, so did the home run chase. The urge to see Sammy hit a fastball into orbit was the only thing that made the Turkish-bath summer heat bearable during an afternoon game at Wrigley Field.
Sosa and McGwire would both go on to shatter Roger Maris’s previous record of 61 home runs. But these days, you don’t hear much at all about that magical summer. Because while that season was from a non-uppity dipshit perspective amazing, it’s described as ‘disgraceful’ by baseball traditionalists.
Why? Steroids, of course.
Yes, baseball—which was flailing its arms in a drowning panic as it faced mounting waves of indifference until Sosa and McGwire heroically dragged it to safety—has treated the era like it never happened. Due to some creakily ancient notions of what it means to play the game ‘the right way,’ this epic era has been utterly forgotten.
Well, I say forget the ‘right way.’
I’d rather watch post-spinach Popeye hit 500-foot bombs sail onto Waveland Avenue than admire the sportsmanship of a “clean” player so thin that he must be tied down to prevent him from becoming a projectile on days the wind is blowing in off the lake.
Did Sammy and Mark juice? Yep.
Should we really care? Nope.
Sammy could have been poppin’ amphetamines and Flinestone Gummies, injecting testosterone-and-cocaine speedballs, and mixing dinosaur piss with crushed up Viagra, and it wouldn’t change a thing in my mind. Pitchers were juicing just as hard as those at the plate, and no rules against steroid use existed at the time.
The era happened. Build a bridge, and get over it.
And if you’re going to accept just one player from that era, why shouldn’t it be someone as loveable as Sammy Sosa?
Who could forget the unconquerable joy in his smile as he hopped out of the batter’s box after each home run?
He was just a happy-go-lucky star on a constant mission to entertain, whether it was sprinting out to right field at the beginning of each inning to the cheers of the bleachers, or blasting Puff Daddy and shit on his boom box in the locker room after a big win.
Even as a Cubs fan, how could you stay mad at Mark McGwire?
Sure, the guy ultimately looked like a science experiment gone horribly wrong, but you just know he grew up looking like Ham Porter from Sandlot.
It may seem unpalatable to champion the use of steroids, but consider this – without them, the ginger hair-color barrier may have never been broken.
And remember those “Chicks Dig The Long Ball” shirts you used to see everywhere? Well guess what?
They were true.
Exhibit A? Mark McGwire.
His ‘roid-fueled home run binge had women thinking that a stumpy, freckled red-head like Big Mac was hung like a grandfather clock. (For the record, I disagree with this notion).
But seriously, it’s time we recognize these two heroes. It’s time to give them the credit and respect that they so deserve.
Sammy Sosa has more than paid the price for his sins, if you view them as sins at all. He’ll never get into Cooperstown, he is somehow now white (OMG), and despite being a mammoth specimen who can bench press the Wrigley Field scoreboard, he likely has testicles the size of a Canadian dime.
We’re now several games into the 100th anniversary season of Wrigley Field, and while we have already celebrated basically every vendor who has ever sold so much as a Super Rope at the Friendly Confines, we have yet to honor Slammin’ Sammy.
And something is very wrong with that.
It seems like a lifetime ago that the deafening chants of “Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” echoed throughout the streets of Wrigleyville. Because nowadays, if you listen closely on a quiet afternoon at the corner of Clark and Addison, you can almost hear how little of a shit people give about baseball.
Sosa is undoubtedly the greatest player to ever don the Cubby blue in the 100-year history of Wrigley. He was born to play the game of baseball, and played it better than anyone in this city’s history. The No. 21 flag will likely never hang from the foul pole at Wrigley Field, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about Sammy Sosa.
As a matter of fact, we should be treasuring him.
(Feature photo courtesy of SammySosaTheRealMr609)