Sosa Deserves Fame, Not Shame

By Jim Reeves
Updated: June 24, 2007

ARLINGTON — He was just a scrawny little kid, 16 years old with big eyes and this smile that made people smile along with him, whether they wanted to or not.

He was hungry, which is probably why he was always at the front of the line to do everything. Eat. Hit. Run. Throw. There was no getting away from him.

Look up from the clipboard or the stopwatch, and there he was again, smiling, emanating this force field of almost palpable energy.

It was in the winter of 1985 when Sandy Johnson first saw Sammy Sosa in Santo Domingo, down in the Dominican Republic. Omar Minaya had found Sosa and signed him for the Rangers for next to nothing.

Johnson, who was the Rangers’ scouting director at the time, had seen hundreds of kids just like him. Except… there was something different about Sammy. Something special.

“Of all the guys there, he stood out,” said Johnson, now vice president of scouting for the Mets, where Minaya is general manager. “He was in the front of the line for everything — running, throwing, hitting. His energy was so amazing.

“He was a poor kid, but it was obvious he had tremendous strength in his hands for a little guy. He wanted to kill the ball. When he ran the 60, he ran all out. He laid everything on the line. He had a mission.”

No one, not even Sammy, could dream big enough to understand how big that mission was more than two decades ago. Only now, with the perspective of time and 600 home runs, can we grasp the enormity of it.

“Did I think he’d someday hit 600 home runs?” Johnson said. “I wish I was that smart. But he was a talented kid, and he was so determined.”

In any sane world, the one we used to know, Sosa’s future ticket to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown already would be stamped, the plaque all but ordered. But this isn’t that world anymore. I wish it was.

And so the questions come again, now that Sosa has hit his 600th home run, as they will periodically until his name finally appears on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Will Sosa be elected, or will he, like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire before him, forever be stained by having played in the steroids era? How will I vote? The honest answer is, I don’t know yet. I’m still trying to figure all this out.

But I do think Sosa has a far better chance than Bonds or McGwire, and because of that, I present for your contemplation five reasons why he should be elected to the Hall of Fame.

1. Sheer numbers

Considering that he’s on a pace to hit about 25 home runs this season, Sosa will finish the year with, say, 614 homers. If he can average 25 a year for the next three years — not a given by any means, but certainly possible — he’ll be closing in on 700 home runs. He will have sailed past Willie Mays and be fourth on the list, with Babe’s 714 in sight.

2. The smile (instead of a snarl)

Sammy loves life and it shows. It’s hard not to like him when he flashes that huge smile, taps his chest and points to the sky. Sammy’s personality will be a huge positive in his favor.

3. Lack of evidence against him

He’s never failed a drug test, never admitted steroids use to a grand jury (that we know of) and nobody’s written a book documenting his use of drugs. He’s guilty of growing a lot bigger muscles and of once using a corked bat. Voters will have to weigh whether that’s enough evidence to keep him out of the Hall.

4. 1998

Sure, we look back on that “magical” year with skepticism now, and rightly so, but there’s no question that Sosa and McGwire captured the hearts and attention of a nation and revitalized baseball. And While McGwire won the home run race with 70 to Sosa’s 66, it was Sammy who was the National League MVP.

5. He’s learned from his mistakes

Sosa wore out his welcome in Chicago by forgetting his roots and acting like a prima donna. He has come back to baseball humbled and not at all intent on making himself the center of attention. He doesn’t like the steroids questions, clearly, but he does his best to deflect or answer them.

So where does that leave those of us who have votes for the Baseball Hall of Fame? A long way from having to make a decision on Sosa, who won’t become eligible until five years after his retirement, which likely isn’t coming anytime soon.

Right now, the baseball steroids scandal is still fresh and there’s still too much we don’t know. There’s no way to predict what information will leak or be uncovered between now and when Sammy’s name finally shows up on the Hall of Fame ballot.

It’s also possible that time and distance will soothe our outrage. Where that will take us, I’m not sure. Forgiveness, maybe? Wouldn’t that be something?

At the moment, no decision has to be made on Sammy Sosa. It’s enough right now to remember a skinny 16-year-old kid with a smile so big, everyone who saw him just had to smile along with him.

On the other end of the phone, Sandy Johnson is remembering a photo from the Gulf Coast League Rangers of 1986. It’s a picture of two skinny kids named Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez. In the photo, they are smiling, happy, innocent.

It’s the way they were; the way we all were.