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By Brent Hyland
Special to ESPN.com
"He should have known better. I know what kind of cleats I'm putting on. I know what kind of glove I'm using. I know what I should and should not use when I'm pitching. So Sammy knows," says Pedro Martinez about Sammy Sosa using a corked bat on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
As of mid-May 1998 Sammy "So-So" was considered a civil epitaph in the beer-swilling bleachers at Chicago's Wrigley Field. Five months later, Samuel Peralta Sosa was riding down Manhattan's Canyon of Heroes as the first athlete from a team outside New York to share an honor normally reserved for the likes of Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn or Nelson Mandela.
On May 25, Sosa's nine homers were but a blip on the radar; the Cardinals' Mark McGwire already had 24. That night, the Cubs rightfielder clubbed two to begin a splurge of 23 homers over the next 32 days. Suddenly, Sosa had joined the chase to eclipse Roger Maris' 37-year-old single-season record of 61 homers.
The ebullient 6-foot Dominican fireplug with his signature hop out of the batter's box and heart-tapping, kiss-blowing salute to his mama after each homer was the perfect foil for McGwire, the stoic All-American giant. The combatants turned comrades transcended sport as they chased one another and Maris' legacy.
On September 18, with both sluggers beyond 61 and the media circus at a feverish pitch, Hurricane George fatefully pummeled Sosa's native Dominican Republic. Sosa transformed his postgame interviews for the balance of the season into a platform to attract donations to his homeland.
McGwire edged Sosa, 70-66, but the consolation was sweet. The Cubs rode the NL MVP's league-leading 134 runs, 416 total bases and 158 RBIs (the most since Vern Stephens and Ted Williams had 159 in 1949) to their first playoff berth in nine years.
On a postseason tour of Japan, Sosa so impressed the foreign minister that the Japanese government donated 1,000 units of housing to his hurricane-swept homeland. That Christmas he lit the White House tree. At the State of the Union Address in January, President Clinton introduced Sosa as a hero in two countries.
Sosa went on to hit 63 homer in 1999 and 64 in 2001 to become the first player to belt at least 60 in three seasons. His rise to stardom from humble beginnings as a shoeshine boy in the Dominican Republic coupled with his homage to Roberto Clemente, in both jersey number and humanitarian efforts, evoked the brush strokes of a Caribbean Norman Rockwell.
Then, on June 3, 2003, a grounder to second base overwhelmed that image and his tape-measure shots. Sosa fought off a pitch from Tampa Bay's Jeremi Gonzalez that shattered his bat, exposing splinters of cork.
"Now everything else he's done has question marks around it . his home run records, everything," said former teammate Turk Wendell.
The media blasted him. "Sosa is the biggest phony I've encountered in any sport," wrote Skip Bayless of the San Jose Mercury News and formerly the Chicago Tribune. "Baseball's most popular player is Madison Avenue's most successful marketing fraud."
Sosa countered with a humble confession, saying he mistakenly used a bat reserved for entertaining fans in batting practice exhibitions. Doubt raised by the incident was somewhat abated when 76 of his other bats - besides some historic lumber previously donated to Cooperstown - were x-rayed and found to be legitimate.
He was born Paulo Samuel Montero on Nov. 12, 1968 in Consuelo, a small, sugarcane-farming town eight miles from the baseball Mecca of San Pedro de Macoris. His father, Juan Bautista Montero, died of a brain hemorrhage when he was six. The youngster preferred Sammy to Paul and later took his stepfather's surname, Sosa.
Poverty and circumstance led Sammy and his brothers to hustling coins, shining shoes, selling fruit and washing cars. Although baseball was like religion in the Dominican Republic, the Sosa boys had little time to play. When they did play, they wore milk-carton gloves and batted rocks with broomsticks.
Sosa's pride and doggedness caught the eye of an American businessman, Bill Chase, who gave him his first real glove. At 13, Sosa began playing "pelota" regularly.
Described as a "lobo" - wild and raw - Sosa at 14 stood out in the barrio leagues of San Pedro. The town of 200,000 had already produced such stars as Pedro Guerrero, Joaquin Andujar and George Bell. Consequently, major league teams from the U.S. had scouts scurrying about the dusty diamonds in search of talent.
Sosa was returning from the Toronto Blue Jays camp when he was intercepted by Texas Rangers scouts at the Santo Domingo bus terminal. They convinced him to go to Puerto Plata for a workout at the team's facility. Malnourished, the 16-year-old Sosa was not the physical specimen he would become, but he had a strong arm and immense confidence that moved scout Omar Minaya, who signed Sosa for $3,500.
In 1986, the 17-year-old hit .275 but had just four homers in 229 at-bats for the Gulf Coast Rangers in the Rookie League. Two years later, he hit .229 with only nine homers in 507 at-bats for Class A Charlotte.
Still, at spring training in 1989, the brash 20-year-old was naively taunting Ruben Sierra that his job was in jeopardy.
That June, the Rangers introduced him to the big leagues. But within two months he was moving to the White Sox in a five-player deal that sent Harold Baines to Texas. The trade was unpopular in Chicago as Baines was a three-time All-Star who was the team's all-time home-run leader (173) and synonymous with White Sox baseball for a decade.
"He's not the next Harold Baines. That's not what they got him for. He's just Sammy Sosa, which, in a little while, may be plenty," wrote Alan Solomon of the Chicago Tribune.
Sosa's game was explosive and difficult to watch at once. At 21, he led the White Sox in RBIs (70) in 1990 and was the only American Leaguer to record double figures in homers (15), doubles (26), triples (10) and stolen bases (32).
After taking a step backwards in 1991 - .203 average and 10 homers - Larry Himes entered the scene again. Himes had been the White Sox general manager who had traded for Sosa. Since then, he had become Cubs GM, and just before the 1992 season started, he acquired Sosa for the second time in two years when he traded Bell, a former MVP, to the White Sox.
Sosa struggled with injuries in 1992 and hit .260 with just eight homers in 262 at-bats. Healthy again the next season, Sosa vindicated Himes with his 33 homers and 36 steals, becoming the first Cub to go 30/30 in a season.
At a party before the 1994 season, Himes saw Sosa wearing a huge gold necklace. "It was huge," Himes said. "And on it was the inscription '30/30.' "
Ostentatious displays like that colored Sosa's reputation. Despite hitting .300 with 25 homers and 22 steals during the 1994 strike-shortened season, Sosa was knocked for hitting insignificant homers, padding stats with stolen bases and playing selfishly. That critique endured as he went on to register another 30/30 season in 1995, finishing second in the National League in homers (36), RBIs (119) and strikeouts (134).
His trademark sprint around the warning track and passion for high decibel Salsa music were as much a part of Sosa's image as his increasing production. In 1996 he hit .273 with 40 homers and 100 RBIs despite a season-ending injury on August 20.
Fresh from signing a $42-million, four-year contract, a bulked-up 240-pound Sosa in 1997 turned in perhaps the quietest 36-homer, 119-RBI season on record.
Despite hitting 66 homers in 1998 and 63 in 1999, Sosa had never led the league in home runs. In 2000, when he "slumped" to 50, he finally did. The next season, after signing a $72-million, four-year contract extension, he belted 64 with 160 RBIs but was overshadowed by Barry Bonds, who slammed 73 homers to break McGwire's record.
In 2002, Sosa regained the NL home-run crown with a mere 49. He overcame a slow start and the cork incident to hit 40 and drive in 103 runs in 2003 to help the Cubs win the NL Central Division. However, in 2004, his National League record of nine straight seasons of at least 100 RBIs ended; he knocked in just 80. His homers slipped to 35 and his batting average fell to .253 in a season which he spent a month on the disabled list with a back problem caused by a violent sneeze.
From 2002-04, Sosa was the only major leaguer whose batting average, homers and RBIs dropped each season. His relationship with the Cubs further soured when he skipped out on the final game of the 2004 season (for which he was fined $87,500, one day's salary) and criticized manager Dusty Baker. With the relationship fractured, the Cubs traded the 36-year-old rightfielder to Baltimore in February 2005.
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