I was talking to one of my editors the other day in the aftermath of the latest Pete Rose news. His favorite player growing up was Rose and he raised an interesting point: With Rose's banishment from baseball -- and thus ineligibility for the Hall of Fame -- he feels as if he's essentially being told to erase all those good memories of watching Rose play, that our remembrances of him should now be soiled. He asked: Is this the right message for baseball to send?
This idea is even more pronounced when considering the steroid era players. What they did was wrong. They cheated the game. They're bad guys. Let's just pretend the whole era didn't exist. Let's pretend we all didn't enjoy the great home run race of 1998.
Before the 1998 season, Sammy Sosa was a talented if somewhat enigmatic outfielder for the Chicago Cubs. He'd averaged 37 home runs and 113 RBIs over the previous three seasons -- which included the strike-shortened 1995 season -- but his slash line in 1997 was a mediocre .251/.300/.480. He was wild and undisciplined at the plate, so despite 36 home runs he was worth just 2.5 WAR that season thanks to that poor OBP.
We all know what happened in 1998, as Sosa dueled Mark McGwire for the home run record. As McGwire just said this week with the Dodgers in Chicago playing the Cubs, "It was a great time, battling against the Cubs and Sammy. Of course, they beat us going to the playoffs that year, but having the home run chase going on, the whole country watching that, a lot of great memories."
We all know that the Hall of Famer voters, most of them anyway, have chosen to wash away the memories of the era they once happily celebrated. We all know that Sosa's power outburst -- 66 home runs in 1998, 63 in 1999, 50 in 2000, 64 in 2001 -- is now attributed to performance-enhancing drugs.
But Sosa also made some real changes entering the 1998 season to become a better hitter. From a New York Times story later that season:
[Hitting coach Jeff] Pentland collected videotapes of Sosa at the plate. As he stepped toward the pitcher and just before he began his swing, there in freeze frame was the ball -- already halfway to home plate. "That's too late," Pentland said. "You can't swing till the foot hits the ground. It's called having late feet." They worked on keeping Sosa's hands down, closer to the point of impact, making his swing shorter. The goal was to give him more time to recognize the pitch.
And Sosa added another touch on his own: the tap step. Chipper Jones of Atlanta uses it, as do others. Last August, Sosa began learning the tap. Before the pitch is delivered, he steps back, with his front foot, away from the pitcher. It's a timing device. It starts a rhythm. First the back step and then the forward explosion. "Rhythm," Pentland said, "is another word for coordination."
The tap step also breaks the swing down into stages: a first stage (the rearward tap step) that always happens, and a second stage (the forward swing) that is held in reserve for the right pitch. Tapping delays the launch decision a split second.
"That gives him time to read the pitch, to load up, to build up," Pentland said. "We want Sammy ready to swing even if he doesn't commit."
He quit trying to pull every pitch to left field. He became more disciplined. As Sosa said then, "I was trying to hit two home runs in every at-bat."
In 1997, he had walked just 45 times in 694 plate appearances. In April 1998, he walked 11 times ... and hit .343 with six home runs. In May, he walked 16 times and hit .344 with seven home runs.
Then the great home run race began. McGwire already had 27 home runs at the end of May. But Sosa's June -- when he hit 20 homers -- was a month for the ages. His hot streak actually began in late May, when he homered twice on May 25 and on May 27 to reach 13 home runs for the season. Sosa missed the final three games of that month with an injury or illness, then homered twice again on June 1. After going 1-for-4 on June 2, he homered in his next five games. He had one in his next five games but then hit three against the Brewers on June 15, all off Cal Eldred. Sosa was up to 24 home runs, seven behind McGwire.
That winter, Pentland had called Sosa with two goals: 100 walks and 100 runs. "It's not easy for a Latin player to take 100 walks," Sosa told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci that June. "If I knew the stuff I know now seven years ago -- taking pitches, being more relaxed -- I would have put up even better numbers. But people have to understand where you're coming from."
After an 0-for-3, Sosa homered on June 17, then hit five against the Phillies in three games at Wrigley on June 19-21. He was up to 17 home runs in the month, a record for June, the record-breaker a 461-foot shot that broke up a party on a roof on Waveland Avenue. Fifteen of the 17 had come at Wrigley. Friendly confines, indeed.
He tied Rudy York's record for any month on June 24 with his 18th home run. Then on the 25th, he homered off Detroit's Brian Moehler in the seventh inning at Tiger Stadium, setting the record for most home runs in a single month. He'd add one more on the final day of the month.
His final numbers: .298/.331/.842, 20 home runs, 40 RBIs. He had 34 hits in the month; 20 of them left the ballpark.
It was pretty spectacular. I'll keep it as a happy memory.