Sosa on Verge of Cooperstown

Former slugger debuts on BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot

December 20, 2012
2013 BBWAA Hall of Fame Candidate Sammy Sosa (NBHOF Library)

Sammy Sosa’s baseball journey has taken him through early poverty to national stardom and everywhere in between.

Now, it’s taken him to the doorstep of the Hall of Fame.

Sosa, one of only eight players in big league history with more than 600 home runs, debuts on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Hall of Fame ballot this year. He played 18 big league seasons with the Rangers, White Sox, Cubs and Orioles after emerging as a baseball prodigy from the Dominican Republic.

“My family went through so many hard times,” Sosa said in a 2005 interview. “And that motivated me.”

Sosa is one of 37 players on the 2013 Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot for the Class of 2013 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Sosa is making his debut on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 9. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2013. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 28 in Cooperstown.

Sosa was born Nov. 12, 1968 in San Pedro de Macoris – a city of about a quarter million people renown for producing an exceptional number of big league players. He helped supplement his family’s income as a child by shining shoes and selling fruit, and quickly realized that baseball could be his ticket to a better life.

By the age of 12, Sosa – with his whip-like build and natural strength – was gaining the attention of big league scouts. He originally signed with the Phillies, but his contract was voided because he was only 15 – too young according to baseball’s rules. The following year – 1985 – Texas Rangers executive Omar Minaya signed Sosa to a free agent contract.

After three-and-a-half years in the minors – where Sosa displayed his unique power/speed combination – the precocious outfielder debuted with the Rangers in 1989. But the team was making a pennant push that year, and Sosa was traded to the White Sox (along with Wilson Alvarez and Scott Fletcher) in a trade-deadline deal for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique.

The rebuilding White Sox immediately put Sosa in the outfield and let the 20-year-old learn on the job. He hit 15 home runs, drove in 70 runs and stole 32 bases in 1990, but struck out 150 times. After another tough season at the plate in 1991, the Sox traded Sosa to the crosstown Cubs for George Bell on March 30, 1992.

“I’ve always swung the same way,” said Sosa, whose 2,306 career strikeouts place him third on the all-time list. “The difference is when I swing and miss, people say: ‘He’s swinging for the fences.’”

Sosa appeared in just 67 games in 1992, but blossomed the following year – hitting 33 home runs, driving in 93 runs and stealing 36 bases, becoming the first player in Cubs history to post a 30 homer/30 steal season. Sosa hit 25 home runs and drove in 70 runs during the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, boosting his batting average to .300 along the way.

Sosa was named to his first All-Star team while hitting 36 home runs and driving in 119 runs in 1995, then reached the 40-homer mark the following year. But it was in 1998 when Sosa – along with the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire – captivated the baseball world by chasing Roger Maris’ standard of 61 home runs in a single season.

McGwire won the title with 70 home runs, with Sosa finishing with 66 in a season where their talent and sportsmanship brought many fans back after the divisive labor issues of earlier in the decade. But while McGwire got the record, Sosa got the hardware – winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award while leading the Cubs to the NL Wild Card. In June of that year, Sosa hit a record 20 home runs and drove in an incredible 47 runs.

Sosa hit 63 home runs in 1999, again finishing second to McGwire in the home run chase. Then in 2000, Sosa hit only 50 home runs – this time enough to win the NL crown. He hit 64 home runs in 2001, finishing second to Barry Bonds but leading the NL in RBI with160. And in 2002, Sosa homered 49 times – winning his second NL home run crown.

In 2003, Sosa helped lead the Cubs to the NL Central title and a berth in the National League Championship Series when he hit 40 home runs and drove in 103 runs. But he faced national controversy for the first time when his bat broke during a June 3 game against the Devil Rays – with cork being found among the shattered pieces of the bat.

Sosa insisted he had accidentally used a corked bat that he used only in batting practice, and subsequent x-rays of his other 76 bats – including bats he donated to the Hall of Fame – found no trace of cork or other illegal alterations. He was suspended for seven games after the incident.

“I’ve got to carry that mark for the rest of my life,” Sosa said.

Then in 2004, Sosa’s production slipped amidst injuries and disputes with management. He hit 35 home runs and drove in 80 runs that year, but was traded to the Baltimore Orioles prior to the 2005 season in exchange for three prospects. He struggled in Baltimore, hitting .221 with 14 homers and 15 RBI.

The Orioles did not offer Sosa a contract for 2006, and he sat out the entire season. But Sosa returned in 2007 with the Rangers, hitting 21 homers and driving in 92 runs as Texas’ primary designated hitter.

Sosa did not play in 2008, however, and announced his retirement in early 2009.

He finished his career 609 home runs (8th all-time), 1,667 RBI, 2,408 hits, 234 stolen bases, seven All-Star Game selections and six Silver Slugger Awards.

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum