Brief encounters with Sammy Sosa, and the time he almost gave me the Heisman
When the New York Times broke the news yesterday that Sammy Sosa tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, that he was one of the 103 names on a list that was supposed to be kept secret but continues to leak out, it probably struck you as just about the least surprising development in sports this year. I'm not sure anyone at this point still believed Sosa's mid-career home run explosion was anything but the product of copious amounts of chemicals swallowed or injected, just like nearly every elite slugger of his era.
I go back and forth about whether I really care about any of this. Most people I know have similar feelings. On some level, what happened happened. Moral judgments, in retrospect, are silly. Baseball created an environment where drug culture was allowed to flourish and instead of spending our time arguing about who does and does not deserve to be in a Cooperstown museum, all I really want is to have rules established and enforced going forward. I don't even care if Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens make it into the Hall of Fame. They probably should be in, if you view it objectively. They were the best hitters and pitcher of their era. Nonsense like, "How can we look our children in the eye if we let Sammy Sosa in the Hall of Fame?" is laughable. Any person invoking the innocence of children in an argument about the Hall of Fame, from this point forward, needs to be flogged with a thousand rosin bags.
I bring this up, however, not to have another tired Hall of Fame and steroids discussion, but to fondly remember Sammy Sosa as the most unlikeable professional athlete I've ever briefly encountered. And to explain why the next time you hear about a professional athlete acting like a jerk to someone in the media, you should realize that what they're really doing is acting like a jerk to you, the fan. If they hate the media, there is a good chance they don't like you either. The rest is just spin. They'd just prefer you didn't know that. Because they crave your love and attention, even if they would prefer not to offer much for it in return.
When Sosa was traded to the Orioles 2005, I was assigned to write a long profile of him by sports editor Randy Harvey, which meant flying to the Dominican Republic to spend time interviewing his family and trying to understand what he meant to a country that had begun to feel indifferent to him. (This was after the corked bat incident, and his comical testimony in front of Congress.) Sosa's mother and brother were very kind and generous with their time, inviting me into their home and telling stories about their family, and how Sosa shined shoes in a square in San Pedro de Macoris for mere pesos.
I sort of assumed Sosa would be accommodating enough to grant an interview for the story. This was after all, as I explained to his agent, a chance for him to introduce himself to Baltimore fans. The story certainly wasn't going to be a rip job. It was mostly biography, because while Chicago fans were familiar with his remarkable rise from poverty, I'm not sure Baltimore fans were. Sosa wanted out of Chicago so he could have a fresh start, because the fans had soured on him for a dozen different reasons, and he said all the right things in news conferences about how much he loved the people of Baltimore and couldn't wait to be the old, beisbol-loving Sammy Sosa again. So when Sosa changed his plans and didn't come to the Dominican Republic, where I was told I'd get to talk to him by one of his friends, I was a little perturbed but ultimately thought nothing of it. I'd simply catch him in Fort Lauderdale for spring training.
I spent five days begging for 20 minutes of Sosa's time in Fort Lauderdale. I offered to do it in the morning, at night, on a drive to the park, over coffee, at the Orioles complex. Anywhere. He answered the same way each time. "Tomorrow, guy. Ask me tomorrow," and then seemed annoyed when I showed up the following day to renew my request. Finally, on a day when the Orioles were traveling without him and he had quite literally nothing to do, he agreed to be interviewed.
The interview lasted roughly four minutes and 12 seconds. I know because I looked at my digital recorder in astonishment when Sosa waved his arm and playfully dismissed me after the fifth question, saying he should not be expected to sit there all day. I explained I'd spent five days hoping to talk to him, but that was irrelevant to him. Orioles fans who weren't diehards were still in the initial stages of understanding just how rudderless their franchise had become, and so Sosa was going to be cheered Opening Day regardless of what I did or did not write. And he knew this. I was a nobody to him.
Months later, I spent four hours waiting outside the Orioles clubhouse, where he was allegedly rehabbing an abscess on his foot while the team was on a West Coast road trip. All I wanted to do was ask him how the rehab was coming and when he expected to be back (since the Orioles were essentially saying it was up to him) but a clubhouse guy had tipped him off that I was waiting for him, and so Sosa refused to come outside the clubhouse, where I was not allowed. It was essentially a four-hour childish standoff. After the fourth hour, I went outside to the players parking lot, and decided to wait for him there. And because my brilliant military-esque strategy of falling back but cutting off his escape route did not occur to him, I was there waiting when he walked toward his car.
As he walked slowly toward me, I asked him several polite inquiries about his foot, and his eyes narrowed. He then did something that still makes me laugh when I think about it. He put his hand in my face, which made me duck out of the way as he continued walking. Had I not moved, I would have been on the receiving end of the Heisman. I'm not even sure if Posh Beckham or Paris Hilton would have been snotty enough to pull that move on me.
It's become fairly easy in modern sports to play the "media is out to get us" card, and the "reporters are the enemy" theme. It's probably the most tired rallying cry in sports, in my opinion. Brian Billick played it brilliantly for several years, using it as a shield to deflect legitimate criticism, until even the true diehards began to realize it wasn't the media's fault his offensive game plans and strategy were so poor for so long. The idea that negative news sells is another falsehood usually trumpeted by people who don't read very much and don't have a real understanding of the way the world works. Approximately 99 percent of sports writers don't search for scandal, they're just interested in telling the truth, not some rosy version of it. And at that point, the truth was that Sammy Sosa was an aging, selfish, injury-prone slugger. Except I didn't even really view him that way at the time. I just wanted to write an Orioles notebook about his foot injury because I thought the fans might want to know when his awful bat might return to the lineup.
Former Sports Illustrated writer-turned-book author Jeff Pearlman got me thinking about Sosa recently when he authored this post on his own blog about how a mutual reporter friend couldn't believe he'd been blown off by Jayson Werth of the Phillies. (Jayson Werth!) What made me shake my head in dismay, though, wasn't Werth's alleged Sosa-esque blow off, but the comments on Pearlman's blog, which were overwhelmingly in favor of Werth. I'm not sure if it's the mentality of politics creeping into sports, where the media has become the bogeyman everyone blames when their behavior comes into question, but in general, professional athletes who treat the media with contempt tend to view fans the same way. Their sense of entitlement doesn't go away when notebooks aren't there. It's sort of remarkable that fan loyalty blinds people to this so frequently. Sometimes I think this is the most compelling case for the rise of baseball stat geeks. If viewing the game like an imperfect, but beautiful math equation brings you joy, what does it matter that Player X gives the Heisman to reporters in the parking lot because he thinks they're beneath contempt?
This isn't to say every professional athlete feels this way. Not even close. There are plenty of Orioles, like Brian Roberts and Adam Jones and Jeremy Guthrie, just to name a few, who I think are good people who understand the media is the best way for them to communicate how they go about their profession to the fans, in good times and bad. And there are plenty of Ravens I'd throw on that list as well, like Trevor Pryce and Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata, among others.
But mull that the next time you see a clip of a professional athlete treating someone like dirt. Sammy Sosa isn't a jerk because he most likely took steroids, and then failed to tell the truth about it. And he isn't a jerk because he feuded with the media, both in Chicago and Baltimore. He's a jerk because in the second half of his career, he treated people poorly, media and teammates included. He'd have given you the Heisman too, if given the opportunity.
Just like steroids, you probably shouldn't let that ruin the way you watch sports. But don't be naive about it either.