By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) I winced Wednesday as I saw the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame voting totals. Despite how cool it is that Tim Raines is finally deservedly in and Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell made it too, one number stuck out to me.READ MORE: Chicago Police Restrict Time Off For Officers; Unclear If Order Is Related To Battle Between City Hall, FOP Over COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
Eight percent. A single digit. Utterly pitiful.
And I was sad for Sammy Sosa, the once-beloved Chicago Cubs slugger who today is some sort of ghost story you’d tell a kid to depress him or her into passive behavior rather than frighten them.
Sosa’s vote total Wednesday was up from seven percent last year but still down from the abysmal 12.5 he opened up with in 2013. Five percent is needed to remain on the ballot, so Slammin’ Sammy won’t even get the dignity of disappearing from conversation moving forward like a Rafael Palmeiro. Instead, he will linger at the bottom of the annual list, glaring pathetically as a reminder of the way capital-B Baseball punishes hubris. Oddly enough, he probably prefers that to the Palmeiro treatment.
The kid from the Dominican Republic only wanted to make people happy, including himself, and to be loved for doing so, including loving himself. For a long time, the cheers and the cameras showed him that love and inflated his self-love. He was a pretty obvious choice for the Hall of Fame after three seasons of more than 60 home runs and 609 total when his career ended.
“We’re selling a lot of Sammy Sosa merchandise,” said Herb Bernstein, manager of the souvenir shop at the Cubs’ former spring training home, Hohokam Park.
These quotes came in 2005 just after the Cubs had traded Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles.
“People are buying because they’re pretty sure that Sammy Sosa is going into the Hall of Fame one of these days, and he’ll be going in as a Cub,” Bernstein added. “That’s what they’ve got figured. And when he does, all this memorabilia won’t be available. So they’re buying this stuff, and they’re putting it away.”
It’s likely much of that spending spree has remained put away, food for moths in attics and out of sight so people can lie to themselves about ever making such foolish purchases.
OK, so Sosa maybe probably most likely beefed up chemically. Most of us lied to ourselves about what our eyes began to see in the late 1990s as we favored the comfortability of having fun with the long ball over the distasteful truth. Today, we know that Sosa reportedly tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. Though, as noted by Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated, “Not only were laws violated to bring forth the information that he failed a survey test rather than the result being officially announced by the sanctioning body, but the legitimacy of the results is also more in question than ever.”
Still, we’ve been emotionally scarred ever since, continuing to lie to ourselves that the player whom our conscience told us wasn’t clean stole our innocence that was more accomplice. Hypocrisy should be made of sterner stuff. As tragic a figure as Sosa is, our collective vendetta against a guy whose great crime was an insatiable lust for our joy and praise is just as pathetic.
“Every time I think about it, I want to take three showers,” former Sun-Times oil fire and woman batterer Jay Mariotti told Chicago Magazine in 2010. “Sosa had me caught up in the magic, and I feel like an idiot. I don’t say that often, but I feel like an idiot because of Sammy Sosa.”
Should that alone not be redeeming enough of Sammy Sosa right there?
The spiral of Sosa’s history prevents most of us from getting over his redeeming qualities, which today seem artificial in retrospect. At his peak of celebrity, he was carrying an American flag around the bases during a home run trot after 9/11.
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Maybe it was genuine love of adopted country. America at least loved Sosa for it at the time. Then he used a corked bat amid suspicion his body wasn’t on the up-and-up anyway, and thus began the venomous denouement of the once-great Sosa.
“Sosa said he keeps a corked bat to use during batting practice because, ‘I like to put on a show for the fans. I like to make people happy and show off’,” wrote Rick Telander in the Sun-Times then. “I believe that. I believe gangsters keep shotguns in their trunks to shoot rabbits. I believe the Tooth Fairy is married to the Easter Bunny. I believe — I guarantee I believe — that Sosa is a liar.”
Thing is, “I like to make people happy and show off” was no lie. That was Sosa’s career as a superstar long since scabbed over. It was all selfish, sure, but it was symbiotic. He needed us to need him to be happy. And we all were for a time.
Now he’s eight percent worthy of a subjective greatness label, zero percent allowed to be part of the Cubs franchise or its recognized history and a fluctuating percentage of melanin as he seemed in recent years to fall prey to the skin politics in colonial West Africa and Afro-Latin America that unfortunately says to be right is to be white.
“It’s a bleaching cream that I apply before going to bed and whitens my skin some,” Sosa told Univision in 2009. “It’s a cream that I have, that I use to soften (my skin), but has bleached me some. I’m not a racist, I live my life happily.”
And as he grasped for happiness, he was mocked as a clown.
Don’t get it twisted — Sammy Sosa the private citizen is fine. He has his wealth and ironic needle-less drug injection business and lavish parties and whatnot. Also, he still hasn’t learned much since, it seems.
“(The Cubs) threw me into the fire,” he told Chicago Magazine in 2010. “They made (people) believe I’m a monster.”
The Cubs are by no means innocent in this sad story, but it shows a persistent lack of awareness from Sosa. He was never quite a monster as in bad guy, but his hubris was enabled to the point it consumed him to this day.
“There was a very permissive attitude as it pertained to Sammy Sosa in all his years with the Cubs,” former Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone once said. “He could pretty much do whatever he wanted to do.”
Sammy the retired player — the supposed-to-be gracefully aging in baseball lore elder statesman of a perpetually scriptured baseball past — isn’t fine, though. Chicago, America and baseball don’t love him anymore and seemingly have little desire to try to. Eight percent little.
Sports stars aren’t private citizens anyway. The human parts of them in retirement are, sure, but as stars they exist in our minds forever as superheroes. And on a long enough timeline, most superheroes become tragic. Maybe even ejected from our minds until they are nothing but eight percent.
Going into this latest vote, SI’s Jaffe broke down Sosa’s Cooperstown case, which despite passing Bill James’s Hall of Fame test with flying colors seriously lacks in metric worth (neither of which matters to most voters who operate on spite and superficialities). Sosa will likely never be enshrined, though his bats from 1998’s home run race are there. They’re the tools that he needed to make himself immortal for a while. Now they acts as fossils, bare bones stripped of the love for him he so badly needed and still wants but won’t get. At least not until he and we budge a bit in our own sense of righteousness.
Doubtful either side will any time soon. That’s a tragedy.MORE NEWS: Amid Critical CPS School Bus Driver Shortage, One Company Uses Halloween Event As Recruiting Tool
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.