Today in Mesa, Arizona, the Cubs will square off against the Texas Rangers in Cactus League action, which would normally pass by without much reason for the casual Cubs fan to pause. Today though will be a little different, today the Rangers bring with them a man that is as synonymous with the Cubs as the ivy planted in the outfield at Wrigley, a man who very much like Ernie, Fergie and Ryno, needs only a first name introduction - Sammy.
The rise and fall of Sosa has been discussed and dissected; ad nauseum. What made him famous ending up making him infamous. The rumors repeated so often, they're essentially accepted as facts. Did he or didn't he? The definitive evidence will likely never be revealed to settle the case. But to be convicted in the court of public opinion, the burden of proof is far less stringent and the verdict was delivered long ago. The man abused and fans were not amused, a matter of fact, many felt used.
And I imagine that's what has many a fan feeling scorned. They believed in Sammy, they believed he was one of the good guys, they put him up on that pedestal reserved for heroes but often occupied by the insecure. I imagine those same folks will find the news about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to be a bit of a shock as well. I won't break it here if you haven't heard yet. Professional athletes though are not heroes, or at least they should not be granted hero status just for being pro athletes. I'm sure some are worthy of such praise, but for the most part they're as mistake-prone as any other class of people. But what they are is entertainers who get paid millions because we pay millions to watch them. And there was no one more entertaining than Sammy.
For better or worse, Sammy was the face of the franchise for the bulk of his thirteen seasons. He and Mark McGwire are often credited with saving the game from the aftermath of the 1994 strike with their historic chase of the home run record in 1998. The ensuing seasons until his departure from the Cubs were nothing less than some
of the greatest baseball ever played by a single player in the history of the game. But this isn't about the numbers or their legitimacy, this is about what it meant to watch Sammy step up to the plate.
Quite simply, I'm sure I'll never experience anything quite like it again.
Everytime Sosa came up to bat, lives stopped. And I don't believe that's much of an exaggeration. Each and every at-bat was a chance to watch history, a chance to see something special, a chance that we'd be watching the next "Sandberg Game". The energy, the buzz, the anticipation, whatever you wish to call that wondrous feeling of Sosa striding up to the plate and taking a mighty whack. We were living history and we didn't dare miss a chance to see it. Even my wife, who to say the least she wasn't much of a baseball fan back then (although she's been converted to the Angelfan wife since) understood what it meant when I said, "Hold on, Sammy's up." It transcended baseball and it was the perfect example of how sports can bring a community together. Some of his at-bats were the JFK's of Cubs history, you knew where you were when it happened.
But Sosa's days as a Cub have long been over and the break-up was too nasty to ever attempt a reconciliation. His return to the Rangers this season will be watched heavily on a national and local level. I hope he does well. Because if he does have a good season, I hope it eases some of the resentment that Cubs fans feel towards him. Maybe a few homers will knock that chip off our collective shoulders. And although I envision the ensuing discussion in the comments will focus on "did he or didn't he"... I'm here to say it doesn't matter, at least not for me. This isn't about his place in baseball history or his ticket to Cooperstown. This is about what he meant to us as Cubs fans during that time. I'm sure some disliked him from the get-go, too much showmanship, too much ego...I'm not one of those people.
For all the knocks on his game, he came to play each and every day. He played hard and he played with a passion. He was the SOLE reason to watch the Cubs for many of those years. He does not need to be worshiped and deified, he doesn't even need to be liked. What needs to be done, is he needs to be remembered for what he gave us as Cubs fans. He gave us the memories and moments that bind us together, the shared experiences that define us as fans of a team. There will be plenty of non-Cubs fans(as well as some extremely grumpy Cubs fans) always ready to remind us of his faults, his mistakes, his problems. But who will be there to remind us of what he meant to the game, what he meant to Cubs fans over the years?
When Sammy strolls up for his first at-bat today, it'll be like seeing an "ex" for the first time in years. You dated for years, life was great, this was the "one" and then it all quickly unraveled. And just like any break-up, we tend to just remember the tragic end, even if it's just a fraction of the joy and happiness we experienced throughout. But I'd like to believe that Cubs fans can put that aside and remember 1998, remember June of that year and his record-setting twenty homer jaunt through the majors. That we remember his four homer outburst in a weekend series versus the Brewers that year that put him over sixty homers and briefly in the lead over McGwire. May we all speak fondly of one of the greatest baseball seasons ever played in 2001 and let us re-live Game One of the 2003 NLCS. Down two in the bottom of the ninth, Sosa nails an Urbina offering deep into the night at Wrigley, the crowd(me included) erupts in a roar heard three states over. These are the memories we should be sharing, these are the moments that connect us as fans and these are the moments that Cubs fans should be applauding when he steps up to the plate today.
Leave the booing for Albert Pujols....