Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sayonara, Sammy Sosa

Word is that Sammy Sosa, apparently unwanted after a desultory 2005 in Baltimore, is retiring from baseball. He apparently finishes 5th all time on the home run list, with 588 dingers behind his name.

But he also leaves with a trail of suspicion. Many in baseball openly wonder if Sosa was a cheater, if he filled his body with steroids. He had already been suspended once for using a corked bat in 2001. Did he sell his soul for a place in baseball history? Some are questioning whether he belongs in Cooperstown.

Hard to know, of course -- while there have been whispers for years, we have not seen any actual, public allegations of misconduct. Unlike Sosa's contemporary, Rafael Palmeiro, who has tested positive for steroids, we do not have conclusive evidence, nor are we likely to.

So how do we view Sosa? My view is that he is one of the greatest home run hitters ever. It's not clear that steroids were the deciding factor - so many of Sosa's majestic home runs were sent over the short walls of Wrigley Field, it would be difficult to say that the dimensions of his main ballpark were not the main factor in his success. There are two players, both safely in Cooperstown, whose careers make an excellent argument for Sosa.

  • First, consider Mel Ott, the great Giants 1st baseman, whose career was primarily in the 1930s. Ott stands 19th on the all time list, with 511 homers. Ott was a dead-pull left handed hitter, who played the majority of his career in the Polo Grounds, with a short porch of only 297 feet down the right field line. Ott clearly benefitted from his ballpark, but no one has seriously argued that his good fortune in playing at the Polo Grounds somehow disqualifies him from the Hall.
  • Next, consider Gaylord Perry. The big righthander lasted over 20 years in the big leagues finishing his career 17th on the all time list with 314 total victories. Throughout his career Perry threw an illegal pitch, the spitball. He was able to conceal his methods and, even though he was searched almost every time he took the mound, he was able to get through his career without serving any significant time under suspension. He is safely in the Hall.

There's a lot of moralism (and moralizers) in baseball. Always have been. The baseball writers often act like a priesthood, conferring blessings on some and not on others. While there are many who would view the Hall of Fame as some sort of sacrosanct institution, baseball's Holy of Holies, there's little reason to believe that it is. Politics, public relations and horse trading have always been part of the Hall. Given what we now know about Sosa's career, it's difficult to imagine keeping him out of the Hall. And the same goes for Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. Maybe they can replace the logo on their caps with an asterisk or something....

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