By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) 2015 is the Year of the Goat, according to the Chinese zodiac.
Per New York’s Taipei Economic Cultural Office: “The Chinese commonly regard sheep as an auspicious animal, and the Year of the Sheep (or Ram or Goat), therefore, heralds a year of promise and prosperity.”
So the Chinese damn well know Chicago Cubs culture. For a sports franchise fandom that for decades has adopted the slogan “Wait til next year” and asinine curses of goats ad nauseum, Cubs fans entered this season with legitimate rose-colored glasses for once. This year of the Cubgoat (Goatcub?), skippered by new manager Joe Maddon and with budding-turned-blossoming-turned-exploding talent arriving ashore in waves as conquistadors of baseball’s New World, quickly went from a spring of promise to a fall of prosperity.
With all that has come the reunions. Ryne Sandberg and Kerry Wood threw out the first pitches in the two home playoff games to date. The retiring Aramis Ramirez was honored at Wrigley Field a few weeks ago – while a member of the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates — for his contributions as a Cub. Despite never bringing home a trophy, former Cubs greats have always been welcomed and celebrated at Wrigley.
With one exception.
“Goat” is a subjective word these days. Forever in sports, it has acted as an epithet for the one responsible for some great negative. As a modern positive acronym so often used in the sports conversation, GOAT is “greatest of all time.”
Sammy Sosa as the Cubs’ GOAT is debatable, though he was certainly the greatest of a generation. But as franchise goat, Sosa – since being traded from the Cubs prior to the 2005 season and retiring in 2007 – has become a black sheep of Cubs lore. And it just feels wrong.
In addition to the new wave of 2015 fan favorites, walk around Wrigley Field and you’ll see a plethora of former player jerseys worn by fans. You can’t swing a churro on the concourse without hitting a Sandberg 23, Banks 14, Dawson 8, Santo 10, Maddux 31 or even the uncreative Rowengartner or kitschy Fukudome 1. The number 21, worn by the man who hit more home runs in a Cubs uniform than anyone else, is scant.
With the Cubs the talk of the town as they ready for Game 3 of the NLCS against the Mets, the-old timers all get brought back and spotlighted. The likes of Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams, Randy Hundley, Milt Pappas and Lee Smith will be visible during the upcoming home games of the NLCS — and hopefully a series after that.
But not Sosa.
The national TV montages are full of Harry Caray, the Cubs Hall of Famers, Sandberg homering off of Bruce Sutter, Joe Borowski, Rod Beck and goats galore. But notice that there’s hardly much mention of Slammin’ Sammy?
In the local papers, he’s lamented at best and demonized otherwise. A Chicago Sun-Times column from July on FiveThirtyEight’s attempts to adjust statistics of the steroid era referred to Sosa thusly:
Our Cubbie pal Sammy Sosa (609 lifetime homers) goes all the way from No. 8 to No. 39 (432 homers). That puts him behind most of the great power hitters in history, which is where — if there’s a baseball God — he should be.
Our other favorite narcissist, Alex Rodriguez, No. 4 on the actual homer list (674), drops to No. 11 (548). If you ask me, that’s not nearly far enough for that clown.
The Chicago Tribune last week more-bitter-than-sweetly reminisced about the 1998 Sosa/Mark McGwire home run race, quoting Todd McFarlane, who had paid millions for 10 of the home run balls from that historic duel.
“The reason it’s still a dagger in the heart is because we fell in love,” McFarlane said. “We wanted it to be romantic and pure and innocent and fun, but it wasn’t.”
“Seventeen years later,” Phil Hersch added in his piece, “with Cubs and Cardinals sharing a spotlight again, the memory of Sosa adding sunshine to a perfect August day on the beach is a footprint in the sands of time.”
This is Sammy damn Sosa they’re talking about. The man was baseball for years in Chicago and abroad, where an outgoing personality who could launch baseballs was desperately needed in a sport still smarting from a strike that almost buried it. Now he’s the cousin you don’t talk about or, if you do, it’s in hushed tones about “how dare he have wronged the baseball family.” For many, he represents a system of failure and dishonest greatness.
Sosa’s no criminal, though. He was a cheater. That’s hardly unlike many of us. But where we stole office supplies or fudged some tax figures, he — like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and who knows how many uncaught sluggers and pitchers — enhanced his body to be a more successful entertainer under the auspices of the office of commissioner Bud Selig, who was desperate to get strike-jilted eyes to return to watching baseball.
Sosa operated via a lie but also while most fans and media lied to themselves about what their eyes were seeing. Dingers were too much fun to deal with the truth. What wretched sin of his.
Sports fans are a forgiving group, for the most part. We’d rather feel good than be angry. Hence, most of the other sinners are forgiven by baseball — and some even given jobs with teams. Manny Ramirez took zero time in becoming a folk hero to Cubs fans after he was hired to work with hitters.
Ramirez was asked about Sosa returning to Wrigley Field by the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan recently.
“Why not?” Ramirez replied. “Sammy is a great person, an awesome guy. Why not just give him a chance to come. I was talking to (Jonathan) Herrera and I told him, ‘Man, how sweet it would be if Sammy comes and throws the first pitch in the World Series.’ I think it would be awesome.”
Sosa, who has been hardly heard from regarding anything Cubs since he left baseball, got wind of his fellow Dominican’s wishes and emailed the following to the Tribune shortly after:
“I want to thank Manny for thinking of me and I would be honored in throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley for a Cubs World Series. I want to send my best wishes to Manager Joe Madden (sic), the coaches and all the players on their win (Tuesday) night! I am very excited for the current team members to experience this journey!
“I remember how exciting it was for the 2003 team. Now it’s YOUR TURN and you are making us all proud. This is YOUR TIME. Enjoy it and take us all the way to the World Series. GO CUBS.”
So why not Sosa for a pitch or a seventh-inning stretch?
“It is what it is,” Cubs owner Tom Ricketts told Scott Miller this past February about Sosa’s absence from the Cubs family. “Hopefully, it won’t be like this forever. Hopefully, there will be a day when this is behind us.”
Miller’s piece put the onus on Sosa to repair the damage between him and the Cubs.
“Nothing has really changed in our relationship with Sammy,” Ricketts said then. “Obviously, I was a big Sammy Sosa fan. A lot of us were. But a few things have to happen before he comes back, and we’ll see how that goes.
“I don’t know what the other guys did or didn’t do. McGwire, who’s obviously very high-profile, he came forward, he discussed and admitted at least some use of performance-enhancing drugs or controlled drugs.
“I think a lot of guys have taken that path. I think that generally is the right way to handle this. Sammy’s got to make his own decisions as to what he is going to say and not say, and we respect that.”
So despite all that Sosa did to burn a big bridge, his former team has also passive-aggressively made it clear it’s holding a grudge. And so to be the prodigal son, he needs to humble himself. Kiss the ring. Sosa has never admitted to PED use publicly, and what tangible good doing so would accomplish when the truth is already known seems fairly unimportant.
Still, he can’t be allowed to seem bigger than the Cubs.
“If you create Frankenstein, you can’t be real surprised if he eats the village,” former Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone told the Tribune back in December 2004 shortly before the perceived menace was traded to the Baltimore Orioles. “It’s not his fault. You created him … The Cubs as an organization had a very permissive attitude toward Sammy Sosa.”
Nobody ever told Sosa he was in the wrong about his personality or handling of his body as balls sailed into the bleachers and commercials craved him. Now he’s the retroactive posterchild for a radioactive era that baseball and its Hall of Fame want to pretend didn’t exist.
He’s a goat.
“I’d always given people the benefit of the doubt,” former Sosa teammate Eric Karros told Miller. “For me, Sammy wanted to be liked. Bottom line. He wanted everyone to like him. That didn’t always transpire, for whatever reason.”
Presumably, Sosa still wants to be liked — by his old team and more so by the fans. If he were to throw out a first pitch in the NLCS or, gasp, the World Series, he would be raucously cheered. He’d weep. We’d weep.
Because feeling good feels better than spite. Scorned fans still remember the joy Sosa brought them years ago and would like to drop any emotional Sosa baggage they’re carrying, whether they realize it or not. It might paralyze a few future crusty puritanical sportswriters’ columns, but they can go kick rocks.
As we move into this new era of the Cubs, one built on sustained success and shedding the Lovable Losers moniker and beer garden culture, the Sosa hatchet needs burying. The former superstar who enjoyed one of baseball’s greatest seasons (and multiple other great ones) while blowing kisses to the fans and dugout cameras of Wrigley Field deserves an invitation to what may potentially be the biggest party sports has seen in more than 100 years.
The Ricketts family, team president Theo Epstein, the sophisticated stats personnel who crunch numbers over curses and the players and coaching staff want no silly talk of goats anymore.
So how about redeeming the Cubs’ most important one?
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.