When Sammy Sosa steps to the plate, the world stops. Concessions at the ballpark go unsold, telephones in the homes where the game is televised go unanswered, and the spousal query of "How was your day?" is met with a mutter of "Just a second, honey, Sammy's at bat." The affable and brilliant star from the Dominican Republic has become a superhero, sharing the limelight with Mark McGwire in the daily baseball game-within-a-game of home run derby.
Few players in the history of baseball have been as popular as Sosa. When he recently dropped a fly ball into the right-field seats and turned an out into a home run for the opposition, the fans didn't jeer him. Instead, they were supportive and sympathetic, reassuring him with shouts of "You're still the man!" and "Get 'em next time, Sammy!" Amazingly, this event didn't take place within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. Instead, it happened in the normally hostile environment of Dodger Stadium. Wherever Sosa goes he attracts huge crowds, and opposing fans unabashedly cheer for him.
Sammy Sosa began his major league career quietly. After being signed as a free agent by the Texas Rangers in 1985 (before his 17th birthday!), Sosa was a South Atlantic League All-Star in 1987 before making his debut in the majors in 1989. In that first season he appeared in only a few games for Texas before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in late July. In his first full season (1990) he hit only .233, and fell to .203 the following year, with limited power numbers. On March 30, 1992, the White Sox traded Sosa to the cross-town Cubs, and the metamorphosis into greatness began.
In 1992, he raised his batting average to .260, even though he missed much of the season with a hand injury. In 1993, the power was turned on, as Sammy cracked 33 homers to go with his 93 RBI. In 1994, he raised his batting average to the .300 level for the first time and led the Cubs in home runs, average, and RBI even though he played in only 105 games.
In 1995, '96, and '97 Sosa blasted 36, 40, and 36 home runs respectively, while knocking in 100 or more runs in each of those seasons. When he hit his 200th major league homer on August 24, 1997, even the most optimistic fan couldn't have anticipated that it would be less than two years until he hit number 300.
The season of 1998 was a magic one, and Sosa was one of the principal magicians. He hit 66 home runs, the second highest total in the history of baseball, yet he didn't win the home run crown. In June he set a new major league record with 20 home runs in a single month. He led the majors with 158 RBI, runs scored with 134, and total bases with 416. His RBI total was the fourth highest in National League history. He set a club record with 35 home runs at Wrigley Field, breaking Hack Wilson's record of 33.
Sammy Sosa won the 1998 Most Valuable Player award (MVP) in the National League, while earning 30 of the 32 first-place votes. He was also honored with the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year award for his combination of baseball skills and outstanding civic duties. In addition, he was the National League "Player of the Month" for June.
What could Sosa do for an encore? The season of 1999 became an extension of the incredible year of 1998. In May he was National League "Player of the Month" again, with 13 homers and 27 RBI's, to go with his .321 batting average. Even though the Cubs faltered after the All-Star game, Sosa kept up his excellent play, ending the season with 63 more round-trippers. Incredible!
Sosa is climbing up the all-time home run list at an incredible clip. After the 1997 season he had yet to register on the charts, with barely over 200 career blasts. By adding his 63 homers in 1999 to his 66 in 1998, he currently stands around 60th place all-time. If he averages 50 homers per season in 2000 and 2001, he'll be in the top 25 of all time before his 33rd birthday. From there, the possibilities are endless.
Is this asking too much? If the past two seasons are indicative of his potential, these numbers might be ultra-conservative!
In addition to his homers, Sosa also ranks high among the National League leaders in RBI, runs, total bases, slugging percentage, and extra-base hits. He has proved to be remarkably durable in recent years as well, playing in every game in 1997, all but three in 1998, and every game in 1999.
Sosa is also becoming highly regarded for his fielding skills. His 1999 fielding percentage of .981 is the best of his career, and his powerful throwing arm has brought his career assists total to 114.
As Sosa's abilities have become more and more remarkable, the statistics are constantly tweaked, so see if there's another record of some kind that can be written about. For instance, from May 25 to June 23, 1998, Sosa clouted 21 homers, the most in any 30-day period in major league history.
In 1998, he tied the record for the most multi-homer games in one season (11), a record that had been the exclusive property of Hank Greenberg since 1938. Of his 66 homers in 1998, 21 of them gave the Cubs the lead in the game. Sosa hit nine more home runs than Mark McGwire did from May 25 of 1998 through the end of the '98 season. Sosa was the first Cubs player in history to hit two homers in one inning.
He is the first Cubs player in this century to lead the club in homers and steals for three consecutive years. He is the first Cubs player to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in one season. He was the MVP of the All-Star team that toured Japan following the regular 1998 season. And so forth.
Life under the microscope is a small penalty to pay for the fame, success, and good fortune that have been bestowed upon Sammy Sosa, and he appears to bask in the limelight. He also shares his wealth, both tangible and intangible, with his native country. He not only helped the hurricane victims of the Dominican Republic following the 1998 season, he reportedly purchased large numbers of computers and other school-oriented supplies to aid in the education of his countrymen. And what TV viewer has not seen his infectious smile as he pitches the virtues of visiting the Dominican Republic?
Sammy Sosa is the improbable superstar, a player who was on the trading block twice after marginal early years in the majors and might have ended up back in the minors. Instead, he became one of the greats of the game through hard work, perseverance, and an attitude that says his day in the sun will be filled with the joy of the game.