Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Sammy Sosa

Claim to fame: I seem to be repeating variations of the following phrase ad nauseam, but here goes again. In about nine months, the Baseball Writers Association of America will begin voting on the most controversial Hall of Fame ballot in recent memory. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will inspire volumes of copy as writers publicly rationalize why they are or are not voting for them or anyone else thought to have used steroids. Holdovers like Jack Morris and Tim Raines will have impassioned cases made on their behalves by supporters, and Craig Biggio might be the only player enshrined by acclimation thanks to his 3,000 hits. It’s a bad year to be anyone besides Biggio on the upcoming ballot, something of a dog pile. It’s a bad year to be Sammy Sosa.

With all the noise surrounding Bonds, Clemens, and everyone else who will appear on this ballot, I suspect Sosa may get the quietest consideration from the writers a 600-home-run hitter has ever received. Revelations in 2009 by the New York Times that Sosa flunked a steroid test in 2003 wouldn’t help him even with a weaker ballot. On this one, though, I’m guessing he’ll get 10 or 20 percent of the vote his first time out. It wouldn’t stun me if Sosa fails to receive 5 percent of the vote and falls off the ballot. While I’m guessing the same 20 percent of the electorate that’s steadfastly voted for Mark McGwire his six years on the ballot might also be willing to support his partner in the 1998 chase for the home run record, all bets could be off with the upcoming vote.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Reports out of Oakland say soon-to-be-40-year-old Manny Ramirez has inked a minor league deal, and I’ll admit I wonder what the effect would have been for Sosa if he’d done likewise in 2008 or ’09. Certainly, he didn’t look terrible at the plate his last year in the show, 2007, hitting 21 home runs and driving in 92 runs with an OPS+ of 101 (though his WAR was admittedly lousy, 0.4.) If Sosa had found work thereafter, it’d be another year at least until he was eligible for the writers ballot, and he might debut to more favorable circumstances; I suspect the landscape will change drastically the longer worthy candidates get the shaft from the BBWAA over steroids. As it stands, Sosa has a maximum of 15 years on the ballot and needs 75 percent of the vote for a plaque.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? I’ve undergone a huge shift in my thinking. Maybe even a year ago, I was staunchly against the Hall of Fame honoring anyone connected to steroids. In general, I used to be more of a small Hall person, wanting the museum to be reserved for only the most stellar of candidates. But the more I’ve written about Cooperstown, the more inclusive I’ve become about the place, the more I’ve wanted it to be something that captures all of baseball’s history. And the more I’ve thought and talked with others about steroids, the more I’ve come to think they were simply a part of baseball, no different than all-white play in the 1940s and before, amphetamines in the 1960s, cocaine in the 1980s. Every generation of baseball has its sordid details, and to deny them is to deny a part of the game.

Let me be clear: I don’t like steroids, and I hope they never return to the game. I don’t like that a generation of players was faced with the decision of using to keep up. I think it’s reprehensible Major League Baseball allowed this to happen, and it will be tragic the first time an ex-big leaguer dies before his time because he used. Still, though, for 10, maybe 15 years, steroids and gargantuan power numbers were a fundamental part of the game. And for better or worse, Sosa was at the core of this. He slugged as well as very few other members of his generation did, averaging better than 60 home runs a season from 1998 through 2001, and for better or worse, he highlighted his era. I’m guessing Sosa will be a largely forgotten man on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. It will be a pity the longer this remains.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAlbert PujolsAllie ReynoldsBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBill KingBilly MartinBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCraig BiggioCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon Mattingly,Don Newcombe, Dwight EvansGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenGus GreenleeHarold BainesHarry DaltonJack MorrisJeff BagwellJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiKevin BrownLarry WalkerManny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouPete Browning,Phil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon CeyRon GuidryRon SantoSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaVince ColemanWill Clark

15 Replies to “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Sammy Sosa”

  1. Thanks for this article. It is a compelling argument Graham. It is interesting that your own pov has evolved and perhaps over time others may soften as well. While I don’t see the comparisons between the exclusion of our great black athletes as similar to steroids (as this was not a situation that was controlled by the players.) — your point about the prevalent barbiturate use prior to the steroid era makes a strong argument. I’m no medical person, but would imagine as it gave energy and it must have also given athletes improved concentration and like steroids it is dangerous to use without knowledge. I would guess that combo of greater energy and concentration would have had the short term effect of improving a players hitting and power. And like steroids it sure became common knowledge after Bouton’s “Ball Four”.
    The only issues that still remain with me are the literal mutative results of steroid use that so physically transformed a number of its users thereby creating a massive leg up never before seen. The transformations were in some cases not unlike a real life X-Man. I do believe that some of the side effects of this effect will in time will be known more over time. I live on small doses of steroids for asthma and although a different type, it has indeed had a significant impact on other aspects of my health that I have to deal with. And those are small doses.
    IMHO Sammy Sosa, unlike Barry Bonds, is one player who’s career was made by steroid use. His physical transformation coincided with his massive improvement as an offensive player. Not only did his power numbers shoot off the charts, but so did his batting average improved significantly. Prior to those years, Sosa did not have HOF stats at all.
    I’m no expert but to me this may be an example that could refute the belief that steroids may add power but doesn’t make a player a better hitter as Sosa was indeed significantly better in his steroid transformative years.

  2. He’s the only man to hit sixty plus homeruns in a season three times and the only one to have topped that number and not led the league, also three times. He had a four year stretch where he hit 243 hrs, an average of almost 61 a year and 292 over a five year period for an average of almost 58 and a half a season and just under 48 percent of his career total. Throw in seasonal rbi totals of 138, 141, 158, 160, total bases, 416, 425, 146 runs scored and a season with an ops plus of 203…. Well, you’re in some pretty elite high cotton.
    As much as I disliked his style of play, his fake good guy persona and my questions about the “souped up” era in which he played, not only was he exciting, but he was good for the game itself.
    We’re undoubtedly looking at the greatest lifetime career .273 hitter the game will ever see.
    I have to say, “yes”.

  3. Might add that if you look at the 96 season, when there was no hint of steroids in the air, he was on pace for a 60 home run season.
    His career also follows that classic peak (27-34) we’ve always been told exists for hitters, followed by a steady decline.
    We probably need to step back and look at the many other factors that could also have had a major influence in the home run explosion that took place.

  4. Corked bat? Sosa had about 500 homers at the time he was caught using it. How many of his previous homers may have been the result of corking: 1, 10, 100? We don’t know and never will but is it a stretch to say that Sammy may have had cheating in his heart?

    My sense of it is that hell will freeze over before Bonds, Clemens and Sosa get in. Writers hate Bonds and with good reason. He was consistently obnoxious to them; steroids give them an excellent excuse to pass him over. And writers aren’t too fond of Clemens either for his scortched earth denial of steriod use despite ample evidence that he used. As for Sosa, he won’t get in for a combination of reasons that Graham outlined. His credentials will not improve with age.

  5. Joe, unless hell freezes over in the next 15-20 years, I think those guys getting into the Hall will come first. Even if Bonds, Clemens, etc. don’t get in on the BBWAA ballot, don’t you think there’s a pretty good chance their peer on the Veterans Committee eventually admit them?

  6. Alex: A better chance that they get into the Veterans, yes. But a good chance, I’d be inclined to think not. Its their peers who, by comparison, have suffered the most.

  7. We baseball fans are obsessed with numbers, with total disregard to the environment. “Oh, my gosh, pitchers used to win 30 games on a regular basis, and sometimes 40!” “Uh, Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, and the record stood for a lot of years!” “Man, Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA is so impressive.”
    I respect McGwire and Sosa for being 1-2 in home runs year after year, but those numbers were a product of the environment.
    So, does a guy with a .273 average, two home run titles, a runner up four times, an MVP, a Clemente award, a 7-time all star, in an 18 year career belong in the Hall? Yes, unless there is something else that overrules all that, and that is steroids.

    Sammy topped out at 12.5%, then 7.2% this year. Steroids will always be the issue.

    One gentleman wrote; “IMHO Sammy Sosa, unlike Barry Bonds, is one player who’s career was made by steroid use. His physical transformation coincided with his massive improvement as an offensive player. ”

    Bonds put on about 50 pounds in his career, almost all muscle. Look at McGwire in his 49 homer rookie year. He had a big bone structure, but was actually thin.

  8. Marc, I enjoyed and appreciated your comment.

    I wrote the quote about Sosa you cited at the end. I wasn’t excusing or denying the massive changes in Bonds or possibly Big Mac. It was just that in terms of performance at least, Sosa went from an average player to a phenom.

    Your take on McGwire, beefing up over his career is surely correct. But my first experience with seeing him early on was quite different.

    Prior to the 1984 olympics, the US team came to town and played an exhibition game against the South Korean team. Now while the Korean team was on average much smaller, even Oddibe McDowell was bigger than most of the S.K. team, there was one player who took our breath away for sheer size.

    My buddy Jim and I, both long time fans and attendees of pro and minor league games since we were kids in the late 50’s early 60’s were utterly stunned when we saw Big Mac, not having any idea who he was. McGwire was the most massively muscled player we’d ever seen in person. And that included the likes of Mantle, Killebrew, Frank Howard and Ted Kluszewski.

    I have no idea what he was doing at the time and can make no assertions beyond the fact that he was tall of course but mostly so big and so well defined it was almost like looking at Arnold Schwarzenegger at his body building best in a baseball uniform. We had no idea who this guy was, but we remembered his name after that. You’re right in that Big Mac seemed to have little or no body fat, but thin? At least not in 1984, which was three years before we saw him again in his rookie season.

    As an aside, we did note one other player who had definitely looked like someone who had a great shot to get to the MLB. He had a smooth swing reminiscent in some ways of Ted Williams and that was Will Clark.

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