CHICAGO – He still hops, kisses and taps like it's 1998. That's what greatness does. It traps people in vacuums of delusion, and until the day baseball no longer wants Sammy Sosa, he will carry himself like he did the summer he and Mark McGwire rescued baseball.
It's rather fascinating to watch, this 38-year-old man, his best days now almost 10 years in the rearview, acting as if he's the same guy. Sosa hit a home run Tuesday night. It was a long shot to center field on a fat 0-2 fastball that tacked three insurance runs onto the Texas Rangers' 8-1 throttling of the Chicago White Sox. And after the game – fumes of arrogance leaking unmistakably through his pores – Sosa noted, "I've got 591 of them," like this one, in this city, was no different than the previous 590.
Sosa hadn't been to Chicago since security cameras at Wrigley Field caught him leaving the park 15 minutes into the last game of the 2004 season, and in the three years since the revulsion for him had built like a shaken soda can so laden with pressure it starts to dent. Before the game, he defended his legacy with fervor, his memories of Chicago almost all positive. Asked to pick a highlight, he of course settled on '98, when Sosa believes he played mercenary and martyr.
"Mark and I did the right thing," Sosa said. "We played good. We made a lot of people happy. That year is incredible. I don't care what anybody says. I don't care what anybody's opinion is. We did what we were supposed to do in '98. And I'm very happy. And I'm very proud."
He would be. In 1998, there were no BALCO raids, no Congressional saber rattling, no 50-game suspensions, no cream or clear. Baseball and good times ruled, a '60s-style love-in at stadiums across the country.
Eventually, everyone wised up, saw the game was juiced up and, in turn, wanted to throw up. We'd been had by Mark and Sammy, who started their act as the strong men and wound up the carny barkers.
McGwire gave up the jig and pulled a Harper Lee. Sosa, ever defiant, slogged through a terrible 2005 with the Baltimore Orioles, spent 2006 in the Dominican Republic because he couldn't stand the fact that his performance warranted only minor-league contracts even if his persona didn't and finally relented this year, accepting a non-guaranteed deal with the Rangers so he could pass 600 home runs and prove once and for all that '98 really isn't so far away, that his heroism lives infinitely.
"In my mind, yes, I believe," Sosa said. "Now, I am not in every person's mind to find that out.
"A hero to me is great," he added. "It's always been me. There's no changes in me. I've been fortunate, and God blessed me with the talent to play baseball, and I do that very good. Nobody can take that away from me."
In that respect, Sosa is right. If he wants to look at '98 as some kind of virtuous endeavor, allow him that. No fan can hearken back to that summer and deny the energy and excitement, the rush to the morning paper to check the box scores and see who had hit a home run, the temporary kick of adrenaline that accompanied the season totals climbing closer and closer to 61. It was a great time.
Now, it is just another bullet on the steroid timeline.
Unlike with McGwire and Barry Bonds, there is no evidence tying Sosa to performance-enhancing drugs other than his body mass' exponential growth, the word of Jose Canseco and his Capitol Hill ploy of not speaking English. Why, coupled with his claim before Tuesday's game that he had not heard boos this year, is it not fair to think that Sosa will blame his inevitable decline on macular degeneration, what with the volatility of his most basic functions?
Actually, the decline started years ago. Only 17 of those 591 home runs of which Sosa is so fond have come since he walked out on the Cubs. Before his home run and double against the White Sox, Sosa had spent most of the season below the Mendoza Line, all of one walk to his name in 44 at-bats.
"I still have some premium gasoline in my tank," Sosa said.
"I'm going to get hot," Sosa said.
"The numbers don't lie," Sosa said.
And he said it with such conviction, his unending faith that squiggly digits carve the path to redemption when, in reality, they lead somewhere else.
Right back to where he is. Stuck.
On himself and in a time warp.
When put together, there is no rescue from either.