Sammy Sosa

Scott Servais breaks down Sammy Sosa's 1998 season, era's steroid speculation

Scott Servais breaks down Sammy Sosa's 1998 season, era's steroid speculation

Scott Servais has “no idea” if former teammate Sammy Sosa was on steroids when the Cubs followed the slugger’s 66-homer MVP season into the playoffs in 1998.

“There’s a lot of speculation out there,” said Servais, who joined the Cubs Talk Podcast this week to talk about the front-row seat he had to the unprecedented power trip Mark McGwire and Sosa took baseball on that summer. 

“But it’s not for me to judge and throw somebody under the bus,” he said. “It was an unbelievable season. It was a lot of fun to be part of in ’98.”

Servais, now the fifth-year manager of the Seattle Mariners, caught for the Cubs from 1995 through 1998 and says he knows this much about Sosa: He matured as a player during those seasons from a “wild swinger” to a more selective hitter with a more efficient swing and approach under the tutelage of hitting coach Jeff Pentland.

RELATED: Cubs film study: How Sammy Sosa changed his swing between 1997 and 1998

“Hence, he got more pitches to hit as the season went on and he caught fire,” Servais said.

It included a record-setting June and a co-starring role for Sosa in the historic home run race that finished with both players eclipsing Roger Maris’ previous single-season home run record of 61 — McGwire finishing with 70, Sosa with 66.

It also raised the volume of the whispers in and around the game about steroids, with Congressional pressure and testing to follow a few years later — and the cloud of that era with all its chemical enhancements still hanging over the memory of that record-setting summer.

McGwire later admitted to using steroids; Sosa still has not directly admitted it.

It took Servais until his playing days were over to start to get a handle on how prevalent steroids might have been in that era.

“You’ll hear people say, 'Well, everybody was doing it,’“ Servais said. “Not everybody was doing it; I will say that. Not until I got out of the game and looked back did I realize maybe there were as many players involved as there were. The guys that did do steroids made a decision. Certainly there was a lot of money involved and opportunity to further your career.

“But it’s an individual decision, and who am I to judge? I do know when you’re out on the playing field against those guys, you scratch your head a little bit: ‘Is this really fair?’ But it’s an individual decision. As I look back it was probably a few more guys than I ever anticipated at the time when I was going through as a player.”

As for Servais, his time with the Cubs gave a La Crosse, Wis., kid a chance to play close to home and spend most of four seasons at idyllic Wrigley Field — including one summer-long thrill ride that involved the biggest media circus in sports.

Listen to Servais’ thoughts on being traded to the Cubs, Sosa as a teammate, that awkward moment when McGwire hugged him crossing the plate on the record-breaking No. 62 and the legacy the Steroid Era has left to this generation of the game.

And then the NBC Sports Chicago team has a few of its own sharp thoughts for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the rest of baseball for their botched handling of a possible start to a 2020 season.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Discussing Rob Manfred and MLB's future

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Discussing Rob Manfred and MLB's future

Laurence Holmes, David Haugh and Adam Hoge join Kap on the panel.

0:00 - Rob Manfred is getting heavily criticized as baseball’s season is on the brink. They are still going to find a way to get a deal done, right?

7:30 - Kyrie Irving is getting criticized for his criticisms of the NBA’s restart plan.

10:00 - It’s Part 2 of Kap’s interview with Sammy Sosa. He talks about whether or not he’s spoken with anyone from the Ricketts family as well as how he fixed his swing to become a MVP-level player.

19:30 - Kyle Long says he didn’t retire, he was fired. 

Listen here or below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

Cubs film study: How Sammy Sosa changed his swing between 1997 and 1998

Cubs film study: How Sammy Sosa changed his swing between 1997 and 1998

Sammy Sosa still denies using steroids, 22 years after the home run chase that solidified his place in baseball history. So, maybe his proclamations and the public’s perception of his role in baseball’s performance enhancing drug era will never align.

But Sosa's evaluation of his breakout 1998 season is still revealing. Sosa told David Kaplan this week on Sports Talk Live that he “became a great hitter” because of mechanical adjustments. It shouldn’t be ignored that in 2009, the New York Times reported that Sosa was one of 104 players who tested positive for a PED in a 2003 baseball survey. An examination of old game film also makes it clear that Sosa's swing mechanics did indeed play a role.  

“The thing that made me a much better hitter was that when I tried to hit, I’d go forward,” Sosa told Kaplan. But when Sosa learned to keep his weight back, “all the breaking pitches that I used to be swinging out front, I had a chance to wait a little bit longer and then hit the ball to right field.”  

Sosa went from hitting 36 home runs in 1997 to 66 in 1998. He also improved his batting average from .251 to .308. Jeff Pentland joined the Cubs as the hitting coach during that transition.

“In Sammy’s case, he was getting paid for hitting 30 to 40 homers,” Pentland told Kaplan on ESPN 1000 last week, “but I thought his production levels were below what he was capable of doing, and I just projected him as an All-Star type player.”

If we break Sosa’s swing down into parts, the first two – the stance and load – reveal the most obvious changes from ’97 to ’98.

Let’s start with the stance. In 1997, Sosa set up with his hands high and away from his body. The angle of his hips suggest that he kept the majority of his weight in his back foot.

The next year, Sosa’s hands started much lower, around shoulder-level rather than head-height. His weight was more evenly balanced between his two feet. 

Those changes in stance led to a smoother load, which helped Sosa sit back on breaking balls, as he mentioned. It also likely gave him a boost in power – I know what you’re thinking, but we already covered the PED controversy at the top.

In ’97, Sosa’s hands started so high that he had to move them down and back as he loaded. His weight was already back, so he had little to no weight transfer on the load.

In ’98, Sosa’s load was more linear. His hands and weight shifted back at the same time, preparing to explode forward in a fluid motion.

“I started when I was 14 years old,” Sosa said on Sports Talk Live. “I never played when I was a little boy. So, when I started to learn the strike zone, I started getting more comfortable. I used to hit the ball to left field only. When I changed it to hit to right field, I saw the whole field. So, there’s a lot of different things that I didn’t know, that I had to make an adjustment, and that’s why I became a great hitter.”

Say what you will about reasons behind Sosa’s offensive jump from '97 to '98. The adjustments he made to his swing were among them.