Kaplan: My conversation with Sammy Sosa

Kaplan: My conversation with Sammy Sosa

When the name Sammy Sosa is mentioned to a Cubs fan the range of emotions he evokes is staggering. While every fan remembers Sosa’s three 60+ home run seasons and tape measure blasts that thrilled crowds for many seasons at Wrigley Field, they also remember the corked bat incident in 2003, Sosa leaving the team on the season’s final day in 2004 before the game ended and the rampant speculation about alleged PED use.

I have covered Sosa since the 1993 season and got to know him very well when I joined WGN Radio in 1995 where I hosted the Chicago Cubs pre-game and post-game shows on radio for his final 10 seasons with the Cubs. Sammy is a complex individual but there is no denying that every time he took the field he gave 110 percent. He was always working on his swing and his approach and his work ethic was off the charts.

Along with a film crew of four, I traveled to Miami Beach, FL last week and spent four hours with Sammy at his waterfront penthouse condominium. It is the 20 year anniversary of Sosa’s epic 1998 MVP winning season when he produced an offensive outburst rarely seen in Major League Baseball and we decided to produce a tribute titled the Summer of Sammy.

While we had the highlights of each and every one of his 66 home runs from that season we needed to talk with Sammy himself. We needed to get his reflections on that amazing summer that saw him surpass the 60-home run mark while driving in 158.

"To have that great year that I have in '98, changed everything," Sosa told me.  "I mean Mark (McGwire) and I shocked the world."

Most of all, we needed to hear from him on why he is a stranger in a town and to a franchise that once adored him.

I was raised by parents that told me that your boss makes the rules and that if you don’t like the rules then find somewhere else to work. With that mindset I believed if Sosa wanted to reunite with the Cubs and work for the franchise in some capacity he had to follow the rules that Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts has clearly spelled out over the past several years. 

Ricketts wants Sosa to apologize for some of the mistakes that he made while he was a Cub. That includes leaving the team early on the season’s final day in 2004 and a perception that Sosa used performance enhancing drugs during his time with the Cubs. 

However, Sosa made it clear to me that despite some people’s perception that he wants a job from the Cubs, he wants nothing from the organization other than to be welcomed back. 

"I was playing for a company many years ago, it was the Tribune Company, so after I retire I formed my own company, so I'm not looking for a job," Sosa said. "When I call somebody the first thing that I say is, 'I'm not looking for a job. Just called you to say hello.' So I have my own company, I'm comfortable."

Sammy Sosa remains a popular topic among Chicago Cubs fans with many longing for his return. However, there are also large numbers of fans that side with Ricketts and want Sosa to apologize for some of the mistakes that he made. As we talked it became obvious that Sammy Sosa is in a good place in his life. He seems happy and he is a successful businessman in the real estate world. 

He also made it clear he holds no ill will towards the Cubs. While he would like to return to Wrigley Field and the place he calls “my house,” he is at peace if it doesn’t happen. 

Sosa has received a lot of attention for the changes to his appearance. His skin is noticeably lighter, but he is still in outstanding physical condition and as he approaches his 50th birthday this November and still looks like he could play. His appearance is nowhere near what people have perceived it to be after seeing a handful of photos online over the past few years. 

So after much thought and after spending several hours with Sosa I was left to ponder how the Cubs should handle his situation. As I said earlier, I had always believed that if Sammy wanted a job with the Cubs whether it was as a coach, front office executive or as a team ambassador then he needed to play by the rules that Tom Ricketts has made clear.

"The ownership they have to understand that I’m a humble man, I’m not a man to have ego, when I was playing I was a little bit because I was focused on what I was trying to do," Sosa said. "But right now I’m gonna be 50 years old. I’m a granddaddy, I'm a grandparent, so things change. So if I made a mistake, I don’t have to say that but if I made a mistake, I didn't want to offend any body I don’t have a problem with that, I’m sorry because you know, I was in my zone."

However, Sammy Sosa wants nothing more than to be welcome in a stadium that he helped to fill for many seasons on a daily basis. He played hard everyday and helped to turn many baseball fans into Chicago Cubs fans. Sammy wants to feel the love he felt when he was thrilling Cubs fans with his play. He wants to hear the cheers of the crowd once again. 

"If one day I come back to Chicago, I'd come back for the fans," Sosa said. "I owe those people something."

No matter the reasons for the estrangement, I believe the time has come to end it. Sammy Sosa played a large and important role in the history of the Chicago Cubs organization and that is undeniable. 

Many years have passed since Sosa last wore the uniform of the Chicago Cubs. He has no interest in a job. He simply wants to feel connected to an organization and a fan base that he played such a vital role for. The fact that he hasn’t set foot in Chicago since 2007 seems unbelievable. It’s time both sides extended an olive branch and moved past their issues. It’s time for Sammy Sosa to come home.

"If they invited me, I would be more than happy to be there," Sosa said.

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

As the Cubs look to retool their roster and improve a depleted farm system, it’s evident a member of the team’s core position player group may get traded this offseason. That player could be catcher Willson Contreras.

Thursday, The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma (subscription required) reported the Astros “went into this offseason” with interest in Contreras.

Majority of Houston’s core position players are under contract for 2020 — like the Cubs — though the Astros currently lack a catcher. Both starter Robinson Chirinos and backup Martin Maldonado — who briefly was a Cub in 2019 — are free agents.

Chirinos hit .238 in 2019 with a solid .347 on-base percentage and 17 home runs. Maldonado is limited offensively (.213/.293/.378 in 2019) but has a cannon for an arm and won a Gold Glove Award in 2017. He finished 8th in MLB last season in Defensive Runs Saved (8) among all catchers. Chirinos (3) tied for 20th and has built great rapport with 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. 

The Astros could look to bring Chirinos and/or Maldonado this offseason. Neither will command long-term deals on the open market and they don't come with expensive price tags. The tandem worked well for the Astros in 2019, but they could stabilize the position for the future by acquiring someone like Contreras. He’s only 27 — younger than Chirinos (35) and Maldonado (33) — and is one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. Contreras also has a cannon, but his defense (-1 DRS in 2019) and pitch-framing are works in progress.

Contreras has plenty of value for the Cubs, so they won't just trade him for the sake of doing so. The return package would have to be sufficient, whether it includes prospects, big league players or both. And as a reminder, trade rumors are referred to as such for a reason. One shouldn't overreact every time a Cubs player pops up in a report.

"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at last month's GM Meetings. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate — not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue."

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Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.