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.

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez can see the future

Javy Baez doesn't have the words to describe Javy Baez.

But then again, that's not what he does.

Analytical breakdowns aren't his game — incredible, heart-stopping physical feats on the baseball diamond are.

On a night at Wrigley Field that felt like one of the October battles of the past between the Cubs and Dodgers, Baez once again wowed and awed.

It wasn't just that ridiculous juke move at first base, though that will undoubtedly go down as one of the top MLB highlights of the year — if not THE top highlight. 

During Tuesday night's 7-2 Cubs win, Baez turned five different ground balls into outs...from the outfield grass. One such play nabbed Cody Bellinger by a split second at first base to end a bases-loaded threat in the eighth inning. 

And there was his seventh homer of the season — his first at home, surprisingly — to give the Cubs some more breathing room as he continues to hit the ball with authority the other way. He now has 15 hits in his last 33 at-bats and 9 of those knocks have gone for extra bases (5 doubles, 3 homers and a triple). 

But back to that play at first base — how did he do it?

After pausing for a few seconds, Baez shrugged and said, "I don't know," before trying to find the words to explain what was going through his head in those few seconds as he was hurtling down the basepath:

"I just saw him really close to the line," Baez said. "Usually on that play, you go around [the base] like it's a base hit. I think if I would've kept going, he was going to run me over because he's a big dude. 

"I saw a play — Billy Hamilton did it like 3 or 4 years ago. I saw it and that was the first thing that came to my mind — to stop or see a reaction and he couldn't stop. I know I didn't leave the line. It was everything good."

It's the last part that's most amazing. 

Here's the play Baez was referencing, from July 11, 2014:

So as he's running down to first base, he has the wherewithal to dip into his encyclopedic cache, pluck out the perfect play from his memory and execute it in glorious fashion...all in a matter of maybe a second-and-a-half.

"I think we all feel his energy all around the place — not only on the field, but in the clubhouse," catcher Willson Contreras said. "We call him The Mago for a reason. I love this guy. To me, he has the best instincts in the game. What he did today was just awesome. That's one of the best base hits ever."

Joe Maddon said he and the Cubs coaches were comparing Baez to legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers in the dugout for that juke move.

"That's him playing on a playground in Puerto Rico somewhere," Maddon said. "That's what I love about him. There's no fear in his game. His game is a game and he sees things in advance and he's fearless. He could strike out three or four times in a row and that is not going to impact his fifth at-bat."

Just about every week throughout the season, Baez shows the baseball world something it's never seen before. 

From his lightning quick tags to his swim move slides to hitting bombs left-handed during batting practice to his rocket arm that has been clocked as high as 98 mph on the infield — even he has to surprise himself every now and then, right? Especially like this play Tuesday night?

"Nah, not really," he said, smirking. "I think if it's in your mind, it's possible. I see a lot of things that people can do and they don't realize it. I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

If you ever want to know what makes Baez "El Mago," read that last sentence again:

"I realize everything I can do and everything I can't do."

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Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

Jose Quintana continued his strong run in a dominant 7-inning performance against the Dodgers

During the 4th inning of the Cubs’ 7-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night, LA right fielder Cody Bellinger took a 92 mile per hour fastball from Jose Quintana and sent it right back his way at 96: 

After a quick (maybe unintentional?) grab, Quintana calmly tossed the ball in his glove a few times before walking off the mound without even a grimace.

It was just that kind of night for Quintana, who pitched 7 strong innings while allowing only two runs on four hits and striking out seven. He’s now gone seven innings in three straight starts, all Cubs wins - two of which were against teams that currently sit in 1st place.

“We needed that kind of performance tonight,” Manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “They have a very difficult lineup to navigate and he was once again on top of his game. Great focus - he kept coming back with good pitches. Really the curveball was very pertinent tonight and then he had some good changeups to go with the fastball. He’s pitching.”

Quintana flashed an impressive amount of control while working through one of baseball’s toughest lineups. After walking six batters through his first two starts, Quintana has now only walked three since. 71 of his 114 pitches -- the most thrown by any Cubs pitcher this season, per team notes -- went for strikes. 

“I feel great,” he said after the game. “I know I’ve been throwing the ball really well the last couple of starts. All my stuff’s worked really good.”

“This year he’s been really good,” Willson Contreras added. “He’s using all his pitches which he didn’t do last year very often. I think he has his mind in the right place right now, and we’re in a good place.”

Quintana’s offspeed repertoire was firmly on display all night. Per Statcast, after throwing two changeups to Dodgers leadoff hitter Enrique Hernandez, he didn’t show the pitch again until the 4th. On the night, he threw the change up 12 times; the Dodgers failed to put a single one in play. 

“We’ve been in these types of situations and conversations since Spring Training,” Contreras added. “I saw him working out his change up in [there], which is good. He was a little harder than 84, but today I think was one of the best games he threw with the change up.”

Through 28 innings pitched this season, the lefty now sports a sub-3 FIP (2.89) and is striking out over 11 batters per nine innings. Some pitchers that have a higher FIP include David Price, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. 

“He’s absolutely pitching right now,” Maddon added. “Where in the past I thought he would just pretty much rely on his fastball. He’s becoming a pitch maker.”