Hispanidad: So-so Sosa becomes superstar

By GREGORY TEJEDA, United Press International  |  April 8, 2003 at 10:48 AM
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To his detractors, he is Sammy So-So.

Sammy Sosa is the Chicago Cubs outfielder whose show-off style of play irritates the purists among baseball fans, who are quick to note the historically dismal Cubs have had some of their most inept teams with "No. 21" in right field.

Yet Sosa, a Dominican Republic native who arguably is the biggest name Hispanic ballplayer ever, has 500 career home runs, a statistic even critics begrudgingly admit will get him into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Sosa Friday smacked a shot off Scott Sullivan of the Cincinnati Reds, becoming the 18th man of the tens of thousands who have played major league baseball to reach the 500-home run mark and the first Latin American player to reach that level.

Soon, Sosa will have company. Rafael Palmiero of the Texas Rangers, a Cuban exile whose family fled Fidel Castro when Ray was just a tot, only needs nine more home runs for "500 club" membership.

But no one will remember Palmiero the way they'll remember Sosa, who in a recent Major League Baseball survey was picked the most popular baseball player.

Even people who don't follow baseball got a chuckle the time Sosa was asked whether he used steroids or other performance enhancing drugs. His response was to produce a bottle of Flintstone vitamins. Now, anyone who seriously tries to pursue the steroid issue among athletes gets accused of picking on Sammy.

Sosa has been a hit with fans since 1998 when he hit 66 home runs. That topped the single season record of 61 by Roger Maris, but wasn't quite good enough to beat Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals, who smacked 70 that same year. While public adoration made McGwire testy and sullen, Sosa's ego lapped it up.

During the past five seasons, Sosa has been on a tear -- hitting 292 home runs and at least 60 in three seasons. One literally has to go back to Babe Ruth at his early 1920s peak to find a player so prolific at bashing baseballs.

Home runs cause some fans to think Sosa is the equivalent of past Latin American stars like outfielder Roberto Clemente or pitcher Juan Marichal. Marichal would have thrown at Sosa's head had he ever pulled his goofy kiss-blowing or heart-tapping routines while batting against him.

Skeptics cite Sosa's early career. Prior to June 1998, when Sammy smacked 20 home runs in one month, anyone suggesting Sosa as a Hall of Fame candidate would have been the one accused of taking illicit drugs, not Sammy.

Sosa was traded away by the Rangers in 1989 -- no matter what then-owner George W. Bush now says, it was not his biggest mistake -- and was a gaudy gold chain-wearing "payaso" who flailed away at the ball when he played for the Chicago White Sox. They traded him to the Cubs during spring training 1992 for former American League MVP Jorge Bell, believing that Sammy would never realize his potential.

Sam-ME, as some critics refer to him, still complains the White Sox' stadium had too big a playing field for home runs and the team's hitting coach, Walt Hriniak, "hurt my career," even though Hriniak's techniques have won accolades from many players.

To this day, Sosa is all swing -- hit big or miss bigger. He has struck out 1,834 times during his career, putting him seventh on the all-time list.

Assuming Sosa strikes out at least 109 times this season (which is very likely), he will pass everyone ahead of him, except for Reggie Jackson. Even Reggie's 2,597 career strikeouts are within Sosa's reach if he plays until age 40.

But strikeouts are not everything. Some of the players Sosa will pass this season on the career strikeout list -- Tony Perez, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell -- are in the Hall of Fame.

Some Sammy criticism is ridiculous, such as the oft-repeated charge that Sosa is a disruptive clubhouse influence because he likes his CD player loud and prefers Spanish-language music with a dance beat.

Listening to Marc Anthony only makes him guilty of bad taste in music -- although it's no worse than the heavy-metal rock that too many Anglo ballplayers listen to in a belief it "pumps them up," rather than deadens their brain cells.

The music charge against a Hispanic ballplayer isn't even new.

Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, a Puerto Rican, used to get complaints for rigging up a turntable in his locker so he could play jazz records by artists like Tito Puente or Cal Tjader while his teammates would have preferred the crooning of Johnny Cash.

Personally, I don't think much of Sosa the outfielder, the base runner or the clutch hitter, and home runs these days are cheap. Anyone seriously trying to pick today's best Latin American ballplayer should pay more attention to Dominicans Vladimir Guerrero of the Montreal Expos and Alfonso Soriano of the New York Yankees or Venezuelan Magglio Ordonez of the White Sox.

But Sammy's place in baseball lore (three seasons of 60-plus home runs) has grown on me, although in much the same way that athlete's foot develops -- suddenly it's there and you wish you could ignore it, but you can't.

Besides, Sammy is not the first ballplayer to overcome a mediocre career with a spurt of greatness. Sandy Koufax was a bust his first six years with the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (36 wins, 40 losses, a 4.10 earned run average). But his last four seasons (97 wins, 27 losses, 1.86 ERA, 1,028 strikeouts and four no-hit games) make us remember him as one of the all-time great pitchers.

Sandy and Sammy -- it has a nice ring to it. Too bad they can't put their bronze plaques next to each other in Cooperstown, N.Y.

(Hispanidad is a weekly column about the culture of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States, written by Greg Tejeda, a third-generation Mexican-American. Suggestions for topics can be made to gtejeda@upi.com)

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