Sports Nut

The Trial of Sammy Sosa

Is this man a danger to your children?

I am on record for quite a while as to my belief that my sportswriting brethren serve their primary audiences more honestly and (therefore) better than any writers elsewhere in most newspapers, so there’s a dismal feeling that creeps over me when I see people in what was once my business behaving like those constipated windbags who hang out in Chris Matthews’ green room.    

A week ago Tuesday, Sammy Sosa, the moon-faced slugger of the Chicago Cubs, hit a pitch on the wrong part of an illegal bat, shattering it and exposing in it a heartwood made of cork. This is fairly typical baseball gamesmanship of a charming, old-school kind. I am not so young that I don’t remember the way Elston Howard used to carve a baseball on the buckles of his shin guards until Whitey Ford could make the next pitch do the buck-and-wing. Graig Nettles once exploded a bat that turned out to be loaded with Super Balls, those Flubberish projectiles beloved by children and loathed by parents who own lots of Hummel figurines. Every one got a good laugh out of it.

Not this week, though. There was an orgy of huffing and blowing that extended through the weekend just past in which Sosa was accused of (in no particular order) hypocrisy, infidelity to a public image that had been lavishly built for him, making sportswriters look like credulous jackasses, and—Shhh!—cheating. The commentary ran generally from downcast disappointment through grave moral misgivings to the kind of Old Testament frog-raining outrage that marked the House portion of the impeachment kabuki. I’m not sure, but I think I saw ol’ Ken Starr over there at the end of the press box, knocking out a column and two sidebars for the early edition.

There was loose talk about denying Sosa admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame, an institution with an inherent capacity to turn otherwise educated people into blithering nitwits. There was talk that his prodigious slugging throughout the 1990s—Sosa is still the only man to hit 60 home runs in three consecutive seasons—was tainted beyond repair. [Correction, June 11, 2003: Sosa is the only player to hit 60 home runs in a season three times; he never hit 60 in three consecutive seasons.] And there was even some sniffling that the whole business had scarred permanently the gold-plated summer of ‘98, when the smiling Sosa and the suddenly ungrumpified Mark McGwire made their run at Roger Maris’ old home-run record, an event which played out on the nation’s sports pages in prose that was halfway between The Iliad and a Moxie commercial. (To be fair, McGwire put the first dings in that saga when he was found to be gobbling androstenedione like penny candy.)

There was also a lot of talk about, you know, The Children—the poor tots, always running into popular culture without looking both ways. This is where my native Madisonian impulses always give way to my inner Comstock. Whenever anybody in the modern communications media starts vaguely maundering about The Children—whether it’s Weepin’ Joe Lieberman talking about rap music, or Cokie Roberts wondering how she’s going to explain Oval Office blowjobs to her daughter, or sportswriters worrying about the dearth of good role models—it is time to turn off the set and throw the remote control to the dog. My lord, on Tuesday morning, a full week after the incident happened, Jay Mariotti in the Chicago Sun-Times was still gathering the shattered young ones under his wing. “Children deserve to know what he did and why it’s wrong,” Mariotti thundered, perhaps mindful of the generation we lost to drugs and crime because of society’s tolerance for Gaylord Perry. Mariotti finds that we are all adrift—children and adults alike—in “a world gone mad with deceit.” To which one can only reply, zowie!

When The Children come up, very often what is meant is that some reporter feels his own right to remain 10 years old has come to be threatened. “This is Sammy,” wrote Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant. “His numbers are our folklore. His story has been our inspiration.” Beware, always, journalists anywhere in the newspaper who go carelessly spelunking into the first-person-plural. Many of them get lost there and never come out. And, of course, the great thing about folklore is that so much of it is ridiculous bunkum. It’s what gets the stories told, and the songs sung, down through the centuries. That spirit lived on in only a few places last week. Bill Conlin down in Philadelphia is old enough to still remember fun, and John Levesque in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote a hilarious burlesque on the topic of Sosa’s having become a boon to the cork-producing nations of the world in which I, at least, also learned which ones they were.

Elsewhere, well, it’s not the job of sportswriting to create illusions and it is even less the job of sportswriting to maintain them. Sammy Sosa may have profited from an image that it was in the interest of the sports media to create, but his little bit of gamesmanship is no more serious because it may have damaged that image. His obligation to our need for cardboard heroes and plastic drama is minimal at best. (And to argue that he’s made a fortune off that image is to miss the point. Caveat emptor still obtains in that transaction.) When Ian O’Connor, one of the finest daily sports columnists in America, writes that Sosa is a “victim of his own power and fame,” O’Connor is indicting the sportswriting profession as surely as he is Sosa.

Perhaps the most odious outbreak of public moralizing came on the issue of performance-enhancing drugs. When Sosa’s bat exploded, more than a few commentators took the opportunity to explore sub rosa the possibility that Sosa had found his power in a syringe, a rumor that has dogged Sosa for many years. The argument—if one can dress up pure innuendo by calling it that—ran that, if Sosa would cheat by corking his bat, why wouldn’t he cheat by juicing himself? It was stated most clearly by Skip Bayless in the San Jose Mercury News. After spending several paragraphs pounding his chest to the effect that he had alone fought the lonely battle against Sosa’s image as a decent person, Bayless got right down to it: “Is it much of a stretch to believe, if he resorts to corked bats, he might have used testosterone boosters to build his body?”

The answer, of course, barring concrete evidence to the contrary, is that it is an incredible stretch to do so. Millions of people fudge on their income taxes. They don’t all rob banks. To conclude from a hoary piece of traditional baseball trickery that, therefore, Sammy Sosa also would imperil his own health and violate federal law in the bargain is a leap into judgmental idiocy that might have embarrassed even Henry Hyde. We do love our rogues here in America—or we did, anyway, before all those baby boomers started having children for whom we all must be concerned.

[Correction,June 11, 2003: Sosa is the only player to hit 60 home runs in a season three times; he never hit 60 in three consecutive seasons.]