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.
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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).
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.