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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.

Comments

Liked the article- and couldn't agree more for the most part. Funny you mentioned Jayson Werth too- as I could offer similar stories about him- WHEN HE WAS A ROOKIE w the Shorebirds and I was working with WBOC TV16.

My only issue with your article is why you have to drag Brian Billick into this as some sort of proof towards your theory. Apples and oranges- and Billick's words held a lot more truth about certain things IMO. Just because YOU maybe not be THAT guy, doesnt mean some members of the media arent.

Sammy Sosa is far from being a favorite of mine. However, we met him in Cincinnati (1995?) at the Hilton Hotel. He was just a prince to my son, shook his hand, signed his autograph book and teased him about being a White Sox fan AND a Cub fan. There are always two sides to every coin.

I have no problem letting the likes of Sosa, McGwire, Palmiero and Clemens - or Barry Bonds for that matter - into the Hall of Fame, but Pete Rose better get in first.

I agree with Doug McMurdo, I agree those guys should be in the hall, but Rose has to be there, they need to fix that injustice. That and Ron Santo!

Why anyone supports most professional athletes is amazing. I am now 62 and when I think about how much money I wasted on the O's and Colts in the past I get upset. I have two children 22 and 24 and I have encouraged them to not spend money going to O's games. My son turned 24 last Friday and here is an interesting story as to why he no longer even cares about them. When he was about 10 he and a buddy would go to the O's games by themselves with free tickets from an uncle. They would wait outside for the players to get autographs like most young kids did. I'm sure you know where they park in the fenced in area. I would go down and pick them up about an hour after the game and one time only one player signed any autographs for any one. It was Robby Alomar who by the way made an error that caused them to loose the game. This is when I began to explain to those two how athletes feel about fans. Then the next year the O's actually put a fabric around the fence so the fans would not even be able to see the players because they didn't want to be bothered. The only way the fans got to see them is when they walked up the ramp and entered the parking area. Then to add proof about how much distain they have for fans the players actually had a set of steps put into the ramp that allowed them to completely bypass the fans altogether. Can you imagine spending money to dig into a cement wall, and create a pair of steps that allowed the players to enter into the parking lot without having to walk past the fans.
I explained this to my son that I look at it like the fence and steps were put there to keep him and me from entering the stadium to watch them.

Mike:

I'm no fan of Sosa (I think he's phony), but it's no wonder he wanted nothing to do with Van Valkenburg. Sosa's "comical testimony in front of Congress" came AFTER the trade to the Orioles in 2005, not BEFORE. Maybe Sosa sensed something. I mean - if you can't even get a basic fact like this right, why should anyone want to grant you a full interview?

Sosa is a bum.

I think they way a professional athlete treats the media is completly different than how they treat the fans. If your a shy guy, like Eddie Murray, you don't like doing interviews. Then the media paints you as a jerk. That does not mean if a kid saw them, they wouldnt give an autograph. I used to wait outside theyre parking to get autographs all the time. Most of them would sign for a little while.

I would love to see a study on athlete worship and political affiliation. In my anecdotal experience, Republicans tend to ignore unpleasant personal truths about sports "heroes" while Democrats have a more realistic, if cynical, view of the world. I think it's because one party is more accepting of myth-making, but that' s just a theory.

Anyway, Sosa was a great lesson to not ignore detractors from a previous city. I have always been less offended by his steroid use than the corked bat -- lots of guys did steroids, but who else gets caught red-handed with a corked bat and then claims it's "an honest mistake?"

No fan of Sosa, but you staked him out for 4 hours while he was in rehab and then ambushed him in the parking lot, expecting him to talk to you? It's one (unfortunate) thing to be a jerk at events like practices and interviews, but another (and I think totally acceptable) to ignore tactics like those.

Hmmm...I was buying into Van Valkenburg's theory until someone invoked Eddie Murray. I don't know Eddie personally --- who does? -- but from all accounts he is an appreciative player, a gentelman of the game, and generally a good man. He had an abrasive relationship with the media to say the least. Is Eddie the exception to Van Valkenburg's rule? Or is it just that there is no universal truth to the idea that if an athlete is rude to the media, he has no respect for the fans either?

Furthermore, I'm cynical enough to not really be surprised by the behavior of stars -- athletes, actors, musicians, whatever. That many of them act like Don Johnson's pro-golf-jerk character in "Tin Cup" is no surprise to me.

As for Sosa -- I'm happy to forget he ever wore black and orange. He always struck me as a giant phony, and that perception only continued to grow as his career progressed. I'm just happy that *my* job doesn't depend on spoiled brats like him.

No fan of Sosa, but you staked him out for 4 hours while he was in rehab and then ambushed him in the parking lot, expecting him to talk to you? It's one (unfortunate) thing to be a jerk at events like practices and interviews, but another (and I think totally acceptable) to ignore tactics like those.

Jonah, it's disappointing to me that you feel it's totally acceptable for a professional athlete to essentially decide another human being is so beneath him that he can put his hand up in their face (as if he's royalty) and go about his business, flicking them away as if they were a bug. A simple "I'm sorry, but I have no comment" would have been fine by me. Or, he could have simply told the Orioles PR department he wasn't interested in talking, and I would have left, so we didn't have to go through this song and dance of me waiting in the parking lot. It's all fine and dandy to play the "hey, the media is trying to screw me over" card, because it's an effective tool to distract people drinking the Kool-Aid from your own shortcomings. But decent human beings still treat other people with decency. Although you may disagree, Camden Yards wasn't just Sosa's workplace, it's mine as well when I'm there working as a journalist. So the suggestion that I was "ambushing" him is absurd.

As for Eddie Murray, 99 percent of what happened with him came before my time, so I'm not really sure how unfair he was to the media. There are certainly exceptions to the rule. If Eddie Murray came along today and said, simply, "I'm not that comfortable with interviews, so don't take it personally" I think the way he'd be covered would probably be much different.

I just think what's frustrating to me, as a media person, is when athletes try to paint us as the bad guy when 99 percent of us are acting as advocates for you, the fans and readers. That role can be difficult, because different people want different things from us. Some people want nothing but rosy coverage, to the point of sycophancy (Go Ravens! Support the local team, jerk!), and other people want honest answers to legitimate questions. We juggle that role the best we can.

Pete Rose does not belong in the Hall of Fame. Every major league player knows betting on baseball will not be tolerated. Put in Joe Jackson before you consider Rose.

I hope all the "deserving" steroid users get into the Hall of Fame. Baseball's holy ground deserves them.

posting by Joe was beautiful. Not everyone, including some local broadcasters (Viviano) get that. I used to stand in line and wait and recieved plenty of autographs for my personal collection, not ebay. And was turned down many times, even by Cal becuase I was an adult and not a kid. Going to a game last year with my son, trying to share the experience, NO ONE stops. What a crock.

And back on point with Sosa, it is funny that these stories break when the players names are in the headlines - A-rod, and Sosa retires. It seems to me that these players have a basis to sue MLB for "leaking" the names of a ANONYMOUS drug test.

My issue on steroids has always been, yes, censure those found taking steroids now that there's rules saying they are illegal. But is it wrong to bash someone for doing something BEFORE it was deemed illegal? There are pitchers in the Hall of Fame from the dead ball era, a time when the spitter, scuffball, etc. were all legal. Should we kick them out of the Hall retroactively since defacing the ball in this manner to befuddle hitters is now illegal? I take multivitamins every day to give me an edge, to help me think and work better. If someone were to suddenly say that these vitamins were illegal, should I be jailed retroactively for doing something to help me live and do my job better? This I just don't get. Finally, on the flip side, I started my career as a journalist and now am celebrating my 22nd years as PR professional. As I tell the college class I teach, you never want to be that guy who puts his hand up in the lens of the videocamera. You think you're just pushing a reporter away, but what you're really doing is saying BLEEP YOU to everyone who is watching. Personally I think all professional athletes should take a class in PR/customer relations. Whether they realize it or not, everyone, from the clubhouse guy to the team owner has PR as part of his/her job duties, and that includes the players. Players wouldn't have jobs if it weren't for the fans, there'd be no huge TV contracts or commercial endorsements or dollars flowing into city coffers with the opening of grand new stadiums without the fans to fill them. Taking time to be polite, talk to fans (and reporters too) isn't just good manners, it is good business sense. If the fans like you, it's another bargaining chip when it comes time for a new contract (don't think for example that the admiration fans have locally for Brian Roberts didn't play a role in helping him get resigned; if he was an Albert Belle type, I think MacPhail would have traded him). And this is incredibly important today when, as has been said, the power has shifted from those who report the news to those who make it. Fans who once had no recourse can write blogs, post videos, get viral campaigns going to show their disdain...for just about anything, whether it's a store they don't like or a baseball player that's ticked them off. So yes, the Sosas of the world should do themselves a favor. Be nice. It pays. As one of my favorite sayings goes, "The truth path to power lies not through conquest, but through kindness. If you wish the world to serve you, you must first serve the world."

Sir,

If you would have printed this at the time it happened, perhaps it would have made a difference. Why hold on to all this until now? Why not get it in the newspaper you work for, when it happened, because the athletes' not caring whether the sports fans of Baltimore know anything about them is news. Now, it's a footnote, and a rather insignificant one at that.

Before anyone goes sanctifying Eddie Murray, know this. As a kid, I used to go to Orioles games every summer, and go three yours early. I would get Orioles autographs, then wait for the visiting team bus, and get the opponents' autographs. Yes, players rode buses then. So, you know how old I am. Every single player I approached signed. Brooks Robinson, Gus Triandos, Jim Gentile, etc., AND Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra, Moose Skowron, and so on. I thought it would be neat to pass along this experience to my 12-year-old nephew, and took him to Memorial Stadium about three hours early. As Eddie Murray approached, my nephew said, "may I have your autograph, Mr. Murray?" Murray never said a word. Just put a forearm out so that my nephew couldn't get any closer, and kept walking. He literally stiff-armed a 12-year-old kid. So much for passing along a pastime that had given me such pleasure as a child. Eddie Murray is a jerk. Period. His problems with the press were his own doing. The only person I met in all my years of covering sports who was a bigger jerk was Frank Robinson. Thank God I also had the opportunity to be around Brooks, Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, John Mackey, Jim Parker, et al. These players bring a whole new meaning to "nice guy". They're also in the Hall of Fame. Murray and Robinson are also in the Hall of Fame; and the All-Time A**hole Hall of Fame.

It’s real simple…
Santo B4 Sosa…
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz0SpMKvrXI

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