Cubs: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year


Cubs: Sammy Sosa (barely) stays on the Hall of Fame ballot for another year

Sammy Sosa used to love the spotlight, but now it feels like his name only comes up in the Cooperstown voting or with the Cubs Convention question. The star attraction during all those summers in Wrigleyville resurfaces in the dead of winter – for a news cycle or two – and then disappears again.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America elected Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza to the National Baseball Hall of Fame while Roger Clemens (45.2 percent) and Barry Bonds (44.3 percent) – two of the biggest symbols from The Steroid Era – didn’t come close to the 75-percent threshold needed for induction.

Griffey went 437-for-440, scoring the highest percentage (99.3) in the history of this popularity contest. Junior finished his highlight-reel career with 630 home runs and 10 Gold Gloves in center field, spending almost his entire career with the Seattle Mariners organization that drafted him No. 1 overall and his hometown Cincinnati Reds (plus a run with the 2008 White Sox after a July 31 deadline trade).

Piazza – the power-hitting catcher who turned into a 12-time All-Star and a franchise icon for the New York Mets after the Los Angeles Dodgers picked him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft – broke through with 83 percent of the vote in his fourth year on the ballot.

[SHOP: Gear up, Cubs fans!]

Sosa just cleared the 5-percent cutoff and will remain on the ballot for another year after the BBWAA released the results on Wednesday, but his resume isn’t moving the needle, the percentages going from 12.5 to 7.2 to 6.6 to 7 since 2013.

At this point, Sosa is not expected to attend next week’s Cubs Convention, and it would probably take a fundamental shift in thinking for that sort of reunion to happen, where he’s signing autographs, sitting alongside old teammates and telling stories inside a packed downtown hotel ballroom.

The marketing machine has so many other personalities to promote that weekend (Jan. 15-17) at the Sheraton Grand Chicago, from a Manager of the Year (Joe Maddon) to a Cy Young Award winner (Jake Arrieta) to a Rookie of the Year (Kris Bryant), plus the big-name additions to a 97-win team (Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, John Lackey).

In what’s becoming a new Cubs Convention tradition, a fan at the microphone or a reporter in the media scrum will ask chairman Tom Ricketts about Sosa and when the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs (545) will ever be invited back to Wrigley Field.

From top to bottom, the organization has completely changed since Sosa walked out during the final game of the 2004 season, leaving him without many longtime allies on the North Side (where institutional memories of some behind-the-scenes personality clashes still linger).

[MORE: Ex-White Sox OF Ken Griffey Jr. makes HOF while Tim Raines comes up just short]

From an ownership point of view, the sense is that Sosa could account for whatever happened – or didn’t happen – during that time and follow Major League Baseball’s roadmap back into the game.

That’s a reasonable expectation. But it’s still “awkward” – as Ricketts has said – that such a big part of the franchise’s history keeps fading from view. Especially when so many other former players use their Cubs connections to work in baseball operations and broadcasting.

Team president Theo Epstein already hired Manny Ramirez as a hitting consultant, believing “Manny Being Manny” meant something different after failing at least two drug tests, cooperating with MLB officials and sharing his story with the next generation of players.    

“I really like what he does with the hitters,” Maddon said during last season’s surprising playoff run. “Beyond that, almost as a cultural coach, (given) the fact that we have so many young Hispanic players, (Manny’s) here to validate a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about. (It) really helps – not a little – but a lot. His influence within that group has been substantial.

“When I have a situation or a moment dealing with some of the younger guys there, he’ll come in, we’ll talk about it, and then I just turn him loose.

“I love having him here. He’s a positive, upbeat kind of a guy, so he’s been a really nice fit. I’m telling you – when it comes to Starlin (Castro) and Jorge Soler, primarily those two guys – the job he’s done has been spectacular.”

Sosa’s reputation unraveled with that corked-bat incident, an unconvincing performance in front of Congress and a New York Times report that identified him as one of the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003 (during what was supposed to be an anonymous survey).

Mark McGwire – Sosa’s foil during the 1998 Home Run Derby – did some version of a confessional media tour, took hitting-coach jobs with the St. Louis Cardinals and Dodgers and will be the San Diego Padres bench coach this year. (McGwire came in at 12.3 percent in his 10th and final year on the ballot.)

Even Bonds is coming out of the shadows and will work as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins this season.

The guess here is Sosa could still have something to offer, but the ball is in Sammy’s court.

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

Changes aren't exactly popular, but Cubs and Sox — except maybe Willson Contreras — will adapt to baseball's new pace-of-play rules

MESA, Ariz. — We know Willson Contreras doesn’t like baseball’s new pace-of-play rules.

He isn’t the only one.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. I think it’s all terrible,” Jon Lester said last week at spring training, before the specifics of the new rules were even announced. “The beautiful thing about our sport is there’s no time.”

Big surprise coming from the Cubs’ resident old-schooler.

The new rules limit teams to six mound visits per every nine-inning game, with exceptions for pitching changes, between batters, injuries and after the announcement of a pinch hitter. Teams get an extra mound visit for every extra inning in extra-inning games. Also, commercial breaks between innings have been cut by 20 seconds.

That’s it. But it’s caused a bit of an uproar.

Contreras made headlines Tuesday when he told reporters that he’ll willingly break those rules if he needs to in order to put his team in a better position to win.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If I have to pay the price for my team, I will,” Contreras said. “There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? … You have to go out there. They cannot say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. And if they’re going to fine me about the No. 7 mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Talking about pace-of-play rule changes last week, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said his team would adapt to any new rules. In Chicago baseball’s other Arizona camp, a similar tune of adaptation was being sung.

“Obviously as players we’ve got to make adjustments to whatever rules they want to implement,” White Sox pitcher James Shields said. “This is a game of adjustments, we’re going to have to make adjustments as we go. We’re going to have to figure out logistics of the thing, and I would imagine in spring training we’re going to be talking about it more and more as we go so we don’t mess it up.”

There was general consensus that mound visits are a valuable thing. So what happens if a pitcher and catcher need to communicate but are forced to do it from 60 feet, six inches away?

“Sign language,” White Sox catching prospect Zack Collins joked. “I guess you have to just get on the same page in the dugout and hope that nothing goes wrong if you’re out of visits.”

In the end, here’s the question that needs answering: Are baseball games really too long?

On one hand, as Lester argued, you know what you’re signing up for when you watch a baseball game, be it in the stands at a ballpark or on TV. No one should be shocked when a game rolls on for more than three hours.

But shock and fans' levels of commitment or just pure apathy are two different things. And sometimes it’s a tough ask for fans to dedicate four hours of their day 162 times a year. So there’s a very good reason baseball is trying to make the game go faster, to keep people from leaving the stands or flipping the TV to another channel.

Unsurprisingly, Lester would rather keep things the way they are.

“To be honest with you, the fans know what they’re getting themselves into when they go to a game,” Lester said. “It’s going to be a three-hour game. You may have a game that’s two hours, two hours and 15 minutes. Great, awesome. You may have a game that’s four hours. That’s the beautiful part of it.

“I get the mound visit thing. But what people that aren’t in the game don’t understand is that there’s so much technology in the game, there’s so many cameras on the field, that every stadium now has a camera on the catcher’s crotch. So they know signs before you even get there. Now we’ve got Apple Watches, now we’ve got people being accused of sitting in a tunnel (stealing signs). So there’s reasons behind the mound visit. He’s not just coming out there asking what time I’m going to dinner or, ‘Hey, how you feeling?’ There’s reasons behind everything, and I think if you take those away, it takes away the beauty of the baseball game.

“Every game has a flow, and I feel like that’s what makes it special. If you want to go to a timed event, go to a timed event. I’m sorry I’m old-school about it, but baseball’s been played the same way for a long time. And now we’re trying to add time to it. We’re missing something somewhere.”

Whether limiting the number of mound visits creates a significant dent in this problem remains to be seen. But excuse the players if they’re skeptical.

“We’ve got instant replay, we’ve got all kinds of different stuff going on. I don’t think (limiting) the mound visits are going to be the key factor to speeding this game up,” Shields said. “Some pitchers take too long, and some hitters take too long. It’s combination of a bunch of stuff.

“I know they’re trying to speed the game up a little bit. I think overall, the game’s going as fast as it possibly could. You’ve got commercials and things like that. TV has a lot to do with it. There’s a bunch of different combinations of things. But as a player, we’ve got to make an adjustment.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.