Last October, before Game Four of the World Series, baseball celebrated its ethnic evolution by announcing its Latino Legends Team in front of a national television audience. That's when it became apparent how far Sammy Sosa has fallen.
Not long before that night, Sosa had been the face of baseball, its most popular player, the pitchman advertisers were eager to have representing their products. Fans rejoiced over his boyish innocence, his sparkling charisma, as he engaged a surly, agitated Mark McGwire in the great home run chase of 1998. No Latino hitter had ever been as universally beloved.
The home runs kept coming, two more seasons of 60-plus, until Sosa ascended to fifth on the career list and his enshrinement in Cooperstown seemed assured. And yet when the Latino Legends Team was announced last fall, Slammin' Sammy was on the outside looking in, cast aside by fans who three years earlier voted him baseball's most popular player in an ESPN.com poll. Roberto Clemente, Manny Ramirez and Vladimir Guerrero constituted the Latino outfield, Sosa finishing fourth on a ballot he might have won in a landslide a few short years before (although, let's be clear, he's no Clemente).
It has been a precipitous decline for Sosa, once the ace, now down to a deuce. He retains little if any current-day value, either as a hitter or a drawing card, as evidenced by the tepid interest teams have expressed this offseason. The Washington Nationals opened negotiations by offering a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training. When that didn't fly they upgraded the package to one year non-guaranteed at $500,000, about 50 percent above the league minimum, or $17.5 million less than Sosa's salary at its apex.
Slammin' Sammy's camp turned it down, insisting the money was irrelevant, that this was nothing but a performance-based decision based exclusively on pride.
Certainly only then and there, while weighing the lean proposal, did Sosa come to realize he batted .221 with 14 homers and 45 RBIs with Baltimore last season and his capabilities may have dwindled. So now the most famous Cub since Ernie Banks is leaning toward retirement with no one clamoring to intervene although he's just two seasons removed from 35 homers and a mere 12 homers shy of 600.
Who could have envisioned that this is how it might conclude, with Sosa left at the curb as baseball revs its spring engine? What does it say about his legacy when all 30 teams are disinclined to snap him up at a journeyman's cost and go along for the ride as he pursues 600, a feat only four others have achieved? Wouldn't that typically equate to tickets sold in droves?
How sad that it has come to this, but Sosa need look no further than himself. His integrity took a hit in June of 2003, when a bat he broke in a game was found to be corked.
Questions about his sense of team arose when he abandoned the Cubs either in the first inning (their version) or the seventh inning (his version) of their 2004 season finale. Either way, leaving before the final out is an act of brash defiance.
And his character was called into question again when, citing a lack of comfort with English, he declined to speak before the Senate subcommittee investigating steroid use in baseball. Instead, Sosa's attorney read a shrewdly crafted denial on his behalf, one that provided few answers but raised a lot of questions. And the main question -- was he on the juice? -- persisted when his numbers plummeted with the Orioles while his former Cubs teammates took note of his diminished physical stature.
It'll be interesting to see how Hall of Fame voters weigh the evidence when Sosa comes up on the ballot. There was a time when he was a sure thing. Of course, the same could have been said about his place among the Latino legends.