20/20 hindsight on Sammy Sosa's June slugfest for Cubs in 1998
Like most former major-league pitchers, Ryan Dempster remembers his first start.
"Wrigley Field," Dempster said without hesitation. "I struck out Brant Brown on three pitches to start the game. Then I walked Mickey Morandini, and Sammy Sosa hit his first of 20 home runs that June."
Dempster had it exactly right. Pitching for the then-Florida Marlins against the Cubs, Dempster helped launch, literally, one of the most historic months in major-league history when he served up Sosa's home run to deep left-center on the night of June 1, 1998. Later in that game, Sosa homered off Oscar Henriquez in a 10-2 Cubs win.
Over the next 29 days, Sosa turned the baseball world on its head as he hit 18 more homers, finishing against Arizona's Alan Embree on June 30 at Wrigley Field.
Dempster would become Sosa's teammate in 2004. In June of 1998, Sosa homered off another future teammate, LaTroy Hawkins. He tagged three White Sox pitchers and hit 3 homers off Milwaukee's Cal Eldred in one game.
Sosa's June came one month after Cubs phenom Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros, and it set off a summer bonfire that featured a historic home run duel between Sosa and the Cardinals' Mark McGwire and culminated with the Cubs winning the National League wild card.
Cubs fans celebrated every swing that June and throughout the season, which finished with Sosa hitting 66 home runs, trailing McGwire's 70, as both men shattered the single-season record of 61, set by Roger Maris in 1961.
Time, however, has changed perceptions. The specter of performance-enhancing drugs -- whispered along the edges in 1998 -- reared its ugly head in subsequent years, ensnaring Sosa and McGwire and denying both what looked to be certain paths to the Hall of Fame.
Feelings about 1998 now are conflicted and mixed for many fans. Should they remember June 1998 fondly or should they attach a mental asterisk?
"I just would hope -- it's been 20 years -- a lot of your younger fans wouldn't remember much about it, but those who do, I think, should just really appreciate it and cherish it," said Jim Riggleman, the Cubs' manager then and currently the interim manager of the Cincinnati Reds. "It was a tremendous accomplishment as he was having an MVP season, and June was a big part of that for Sammy."
Before we sort it all out -- if that's even possible -- let's take a look at how it all came about, setting aside the PED element for the moment.
Cubs general manager Larry Himes acquired Sosa at the end of spring training 1992 in a trade with the White Sox for outfielder George Bell. Himes had also traded for Sosa in 1989, when he was GM of the White Sox. With the Sox, Sosa chafed under the harsh tutelage of hitting coach Walt Hriniak, who chewed cigars and espoused a hitting style that had the hitter release his top hand from the bat when it made contact with the ball.
When Sosa came to the Cubs, he was greeted by the gentle presence of Billy Williams, whose disposition was and is as sweet as his Hall of Fame batting swing. Williams and Sosa hit it off immediately, and they remained close whether Williams' title was hitting coach, first-base coach or bench coach.
"When Sammy came over here, we used to go down to the batting cage, and we'd talk, not only about baseball and hitting," Williams recalled. "He used to tell me about his grandmother. He didn't come from the best place. We started talking about that. We hit it off, and he listened to what I could tell him. He started having a little success, and everything I'd tell him, he'd have a little bit more success. He'd begun to put a lot of faith in what I was telling him."
A more relaxed Sosa started putting up better numbers.
"I would tell him about a long time ago, a guy by the name of Rogers Hornsby, who taught me how to do it," Williams said. "I'd say every now and then, 'Look him up, check him out.' We hit it off pretty good because I didn't give him a lot of (B.S.). I'd just tell him, 'This is what you've got to do to be a good baseball player.'
"Everywhere we went, we'd take a little time. We'd have a certain time. I'd take Sammy down to the cage by myself. I didn't talk too much around the batting cage. But we'd go to the cage down here and we'd talk one-on-one. He liked it. Just the two of us."
Sosa put up the first 30/30 season in Cubs history in 1993, when he hit 33 home runs and stole 36 bases. It was the first of two 30-30 seasons for Sosa. He hit 25 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season and 36 in 1995, a season that started late because of the strike. He hit 40 homers in 1996 and 37 in 1997.
Williams remained a confidant to Sosa even though Tony Muser and Jeff Pentland later served as hitting coaches. Pentland came aboard in the middle of the 1997 season. He always credited Williams for Sosa's success, but Williams said recently that "Pentland took him to another level."
Carlton Loewer of the Phillies was the victm of two home runs on June 19, 1998 by Sammy Sosa at Wrigley Field.
- Daily Herald file photo / 1998
A total surprise
Sosa entered June of 1998 with 13 homers, but no one saw what was about to come.
"I don't think anybody did," said Cubs radio play-by-play man Pat Hughes. "We knew he was a slugger. We knew he had 30- maybe 40-home run potential. But a guy that starts hitting 20 in a month, he's got a lot more than 40-home run potential."
Former Detroit Tigers star Rudy York held the record for homers in one month with 18 in August 1937. So it was fitting that Sosa hit his 18th and 19th homers in June 1998 at old Tiger Stadium.
By the time of No. 20, Sosa was a national celebrity, but he constantly deferred to McGwire as "the man."
"The whole 1998 year was a blur, but my initial memories of Sammy were that it was like following a rock star on tour," said Chip Caray, who was in his first year as the Cubs' TV voice. Caray currently broadcasts Atlanta Braves baseball. "Everywhere we went, everybody wanted a piece of the guy. The stands were packed for BP (batting practice). They were at the hotel. It was pandemonium, especially since it was the Cubs on WGN, and they happened to be good."
Sammy Sosa is congratulated at home plate by Mark Grace after he hitting another home run at Wrigley Field on June 19, 1998. Sixteen of Sosa's 20 home runs that month were hit at Wrigley Field.
- Daily Herald file photo / 1998
As for theories on Sosa's sudden power surge, PEDs were rarely mentioned by those in the game. Former Cubs coach Chuck Cottier, then a Phillies coach, pointed to right field at Veterans Stadium and said Sosa had discovered that the opposite field existed. Others cited Sosa's patience and willingness to accept walks.
Pentland recalled Sosa being happy in spring training.
"I didn't realize how good he was until I saw him in spring training," Pentland said of '98. "He hadn't done anything in the Dominican (Republic) other than get himself in shape. He came out, and the first day he was smoking.
"I was shocked at how quick his bat was, how quick he really was. My thing was, 'Gee, we got to try to get this thing to work right,' because there's an awful lot of talent."
Throughout he career, Sosa had a hard time shaking the label that he was a "selfish" player, one more concerned about his stats than team play. Williams saw another side.
"No matter what you think of Sammy or what he did, he was worker," he said. "He would take a lot of extra batting practice. He would play every single day. He never wanted a day off. I will say he loved the game of baseball. He loved playing. He loved these fans here at Wrigley Field. He would always tip his cap to them when he would run out to right field to begin the game. There may have been some negative things about him. But there were a lot of positive things about Sammy, as well."
Sosa was on top of the world in 1998, but the Cubs bowed out of the playoffs in three games and the team fell in the standings in 1999 and 2000. Sosa feuded with manager Don Baylor in 2000 and was nearly traded to the Yankees. In 2003, he was caught with a corked bat. In 2004, he walked out on the team on the final day of the season and was later traded to Baltimore.
Sosa was never suspended for PED use, but he could not escape increasing suspicion over the next few years that he was a steroid user in light of the big jump in his power numbers beginning in 1998. The New York Times reported in 2009 that Sosa was "among the players who tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2003, according to lawyers with knowledge of the drug-testing results from that year." MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred later said the anonymous "survey" drug test of 2003 was inconclusive. Since then, tougher policies were put into place. McGwire eventually admitted to steroid use.
Sosa has fallen far short in balloting for the Hall of Fame, and it's likely he will never gain election.
The Cubs, under the ownership of the Ricketts family, have not seen fit to welcome Sosa into the family. Chairman Tom Ricketts gets asked about it each year at the Cubs convention, and he says little beyond implying that Sosa must be the one to make amends.
Sammy Sosa hit two home runs (No. 28 and No. 29) of the 1998 season on June 20 against the Phillies at Wrigley Field. He finished the season with 66 home runs, trailing only Mark McGwire of the Cardinals with 70. In his previous three seasons, Sosa had averaged 37 home runs.
- Daily Herald file photo / 1998
A time for reflection
So what, in the end, to make of his 1998 season and that magical month of June?
"To me, it was real at the time," Hughes said. "I didn't know anything about any kind of performance-enhancing drugs. I just covered the games, and I still just cover the games. I try to have fun with the game. To this day, I don't really know a lot about the performance-enhancing drugs. And I didn't know then."
Caray also chimed in.
"Now we all have the benefit of hindsight," he said. "In my opinion, no matter what he did, was suspected of doing or didn't do, you still have to hit the ball. And that year, he put on a show for the ages. I'm certainly proud of what he did with the Cubs. I may never see another single-season performance like that ever again. I know he is (proud), too, and if it were me, I'd do everything to try to mend whatever fences need mending."
Dempster, who got the ball rolling, or flying, in June of '98, offered his perspective.
"Cubs fans should remember those as their memories," he said. "If they're happy memories, don't let those be taken away. They're your memories. Enjoy those moments and remember those moments with those people you cheered with and laughed with.
"Yeah, people make mistakes. People do things. In that era, there was a lot of that stuff, but those are still your baseball memories. You still had a great time at the ballpark with your grandpa or you went with your wife and you guys had the time of your life, and those memories were created by that. That is still a bond for you. The exterior circumstances don't matter to your feelings inside."
Dempster added one humorous postscript to the June 1, 1998 game. He got to face Sosa one more time, with runners on second and third with nobody out in the bottom of the second.
"I struck him out, and then (manager) Jim Leyland took me out of the game," he said.
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