Sammy Sosa’s incredible 1998 season was detailed Sunday night in the documentary Long Gone Summer, ESPN’s latest installment in the "30 For 30" series, which showcased the great home run race of that season between Sosa, Mark McGwire and to a lesser extent, Ken Griffey Jr.
Sosa, who ended the year with 66 home runs, just narrowly finished behind McGwire in the race. McGwire’s record of 70 home runs stood until 2003, when Barry Bonds hit 73 long balls.
The year was Sosa’s most famed and exciting of his career, as he won his first and only Most Valuable Player award as the Cubs made the playoffs while he and McGwire took the sporting world by storm.
His lone season in Baltimore in 2005, however, was his most disappointing — for more than just on-field performance.
Sosa became an Oriole on Jan. 28, 2005, when the Orioles traded utility man Jerry Hairston Jr., infielder Mike Fontenot and right-handed pitcher Dave Crouthers to Chicago for the Cubs’ slugger.
Sosa joined an Orioles’ team with first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, as the duo became the first members of the 500 home run club in history to join the same team after reaching the benchmark. The move was supposed to give the Orioles two of the game’s most prolific hitters and launch the Orioles into AL East contention.
In what was supposed to be a big move for the Orioles and a welcome departure from the Cubs for Sosa, the 2005 season quickly turned for the worst.
It began in 2003, when Sosa reportedly tested positive for steroids, according to the New York Times. Sosa had never publicly tested positive for steroids, but his public image declined over the years. An ugly break from the Cubs sent him to the Orioles.
Before the 2005 season began, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro and other players accused testified before congress about steroid use, in which Sosa said that he would never put something like that in his body.
“To be clear, I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs,” Sosa explained. “I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything.”
In that same hearing, Palmeiro pointed at members of the committee and proclaimed he had, “never” used steroids. He was suspended for a positive test later that season.
With Sosa’s 2005 season off to a rocky start, his on-field play didn’t help.
He hit just 14 home runs, his lowest total since 1992 and played in only 102 games — again his lowest total since 1992. As an Oriole, Sosa slashed .221/.295/.376 with an OPS+ of just 78, the second time he didn’t reach the 100-plus mark in the previous 13 seasons.
Despite the disappointing year from Sosa, Baltimore began the 2005 season as one of the best teams in baseball. They spent 69 days in first place, were 14 games over .500 on Jun. 21 and were 4.5 games ahead of second place just before Memorial Day. Then, the floodgates opened.
The Orioles, who started 42-28, finished the season 74-88 — a 32-60 finish in the final 92 games. They finished the year fourth in the AL East.
After a strong start to the season, where Sosa batted .281 in April, he ended each month with a batting average below .247 from that point on, including two months with .158 and .159 averages.
Sosa’s 2005 season was bad enough where the Orioles didn’t offer him an arbitration contract, which made him a free agent and ended his tenure with the club. Despite offers to play for minor league contracts, he declined and sat out the 2006 season before a one-year stint with the Rangers ended his career.
His 2005 season in Baltimore was a long cry from the incredible success he’d had in Chicago, especially in the documented 1998 season when he slashed .308/.377/.647 and had 158 RBIs. While Sosa’s career was one of the most popular and historical in baseball history, his 2005 season as an Oriole wasn’t one to look fondly upon.
Despite his gaudy numbers, Sosa has not been selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
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