Is Sosa Reeeeeeeeal?
By Tom Edwards, Editor-In-Chief,

    On June 3rd, 2003, Sammy Sosa used a corked bat during a major league baseball game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

    This is all we know for sure.

    Why do we know this?  Because Sosa's bat broke, and the cork was found.  In no other game was cork found in Sosa's bat.  In no other instance was any foreign substance or anything else illegal found to be on Sammy Sosa or him equipment.  But the fact that it happened once makes the wheels begin to turn.  What if he did it in the past?  How much could he have done it in the past?  How many of Sosa's home runs were "real", and how many were the result of a corked bat, or other methods of cheating?

    Fingers are going to be pointed in every single direction, and while we will never truly know the answer, Sosa will never be looked upon as a player in the same way again.

    It's easy to defend Sosa, and many people have spent a lot of time defending Sosa simply because Sosa is easy to defend; not because his actions were any better than any other player who was caught doing something he shouldn't have been doing during a game, but because Sosa is likable, and very popular.  People don't want to see Sosa in trouble, because Sosa is charming, doesn't get caught abusing women or having children in every state, and is "good for baseball".  In a time where baseball desperately looks for role models and positive images for the sport, Sosa was just that.  Sosa played the game, looked like he enjoyed every minute of it, and was glad that the fans came to see him play.  Even Sosa's excuse for having the corked bat was made to show him in a more positive light.  Sosa told those who would listen that he had a corked bat for batting practice, so that he could hit more home runs so that the fans could be better entertained.

    What a great guy.

    The bat got mixed in with the rest of his bats, he used it by mistake, it broke, and he's sorry.  His apology was heartfelt, he didn't smile, he expected punishment, and he hoped everyone could forgive him.  And, for the mostpart, everyone did.  Teammates shrugged it off, hometown fans applauded him as he went out to play his position the next day, and everyone went on like nothing had ever happened.  Sure, the sportswriters played the pessimist, and started to question everything, but that's their job.  Sportswriters secondguess everything that goes wrong, and take credit for everything that goes right.  That's their job, that's what they do.

    But let's play devil's advocate for a minute.  What if Sosa had been using a corked bat this year?  What if Sosa had been using a corked bat for several years?  When speaking of home run hitters of the 90s that might have broken the record, Mark McGwire's name came up often.  Ken Griffey Jr. was another name.  Cecil Fielder, Albert Belle (whose name stopped being mentioned after cork was found in his bat), Juan Gonzalez, even Barry Bonds.  Matt Williams, who recently retired, was also mentioned due to his incredible power numbers during the 1994 season, only to have them end due to the '94 strike.  Sosa was never seriously considered, even with his decent numbers and relatively hitter-friendly home stadium (at least when the wind was blowing out).  From 1993 to 1997 (age 24 to 28), Sosa not only never lead the league in home runs, but only finished in the top 4 once; a second place finish in 1995.  Sosa only managed to hit 40 home runs once during those five years (40 in 1996), and finished 13, 18, 4, 7, and 13 home runs behind the league leader in each of those five seasons.  While Sosa was a good home run hitter during that time, he wasn't a great home run hitter.  Sosa hit 170 home runs over those five seasons.  Other noteable performances:

    Ken Griffey Jr. - 207
    Albert Belle    - 202
    Barry Bonds     - 198
    Frank Thomas    - 194
    Juan Gonzalez   - 181
    Rafael Palmeiro - 176
    Mo Vaughn       - 173
    Jay Buhner      - 172
    Sammy Sosa      - 170
    Mike Piazza     - 167
    Mark McGwire    - 167

    Yes, even's inspiration hit more home runs than Sosa over that time period.  McGwire's numbers may not seem that high until you realize that McGwire played a grand total of 74 games in the 1993 and 1994 seasons combined, hitting a total of 18 home runs during that period.  McGwire's number are more frightening when you consider he hit 149 home runs over a period of three seasons going into 1998, averaging almost 50 a year - more than anyone else in baseball.

    So, going into 1998, Mark McGwire was one of the most likely candidates to go after Roger Maris' mark of 61 home runs in a season.  Sports Illustrated mentioned three candidates it felt had the best chance to break the record in their 1998 MLB preview: Ken Griffey Jr, Mark McGwire, and Juan Gonzalez.  Sosa wasn't mentioned at all, except to point out his strikeout total.

    So how did Sosa suddenly increase his home run total from 36 to 66 in one season?  The biggest reason people pointed to before the '98 season was expansion.  Traditionally in expansion years, records had been set because of the thinning of the baseball pool.  Players who wouldn't normally be in the major leagues would be pitching, batting, and fielding.  Maris' 61 home run record itself was set in 1961, a year when major league baseball expanded by two teams.

    But how much did expansion really thin down baseball rosters in 1998?  Assuming a 25 man roster, baseball had 50 major league baseball players than it would have had it not expanded.  Since the field expanded from 28 to 30 teams, that meant that there was 750 major league baseball players on rosters instead of 700.  Spread out those 50 players among 30 teams, and you average 1.785 players per team that wouldn't be on a major league roster otherwise.  This isn't a large number, because even rounding up to two, that just means that the 24th and 25 players on the roster of each team wouldn't have normally been there.  That equates out to a 5th outfielder and a 11th or 12th pitcher.  In reality, the average number of players on major league franchises who wouldn't normally be there would be closer to one, considering the two expansion teams, which had most of the "questionable" major leaguers.  Compare this with years like 1961, 1962, and 1969, where three to five players per team would not have necessarily been there before the expansion.

    Number of players in baseball due to expansion:

    Year - Team Growth - Player Growth - % "New" Players - Avg. "New" Players Per Team

    1998 -     2       -      50       -      7.14%      -           1.785

    1993 -     2       -      50       -      7.69%      -           1.923

    1977 -     2       -      50       -      8.33%      -           2.083

    1969 -     4       -     100       -     20.00%      -           5.000

    1962 -     2       -      50       -     11.11%      -           2.778

    1961 -     2       -      50       -     12.50%      -           3.125

    The impact of expansion in 1961 on Maris' performance was even more signifigant when you consider that both expansion teams (the Washington Senators and Los Angeles Angels) played in the American League, where Maris' Yankees played.  1998's expansion added one team to the National League (the Arizona Diamondbacks) and one team to the American League (the Tampa Bay Devil Rays).  Even with interleague play in effect in 1998, Sosa's (and McGwire's) teams did not play Tampa.  So while expansion might have been an issue in 1961 and 1969, it doesn't really affect 1998.

    Perhaps a breakout year?  Sosa's 1998 season produced 66 home runs, which was 30 more than the season prior.  Using back to back seasons with a minimum of 400 at-bats each and a difference of less than 150 atbats between seasons, Sosa's 30 home run increase was third best, only behind the unlikely 50 HR season of Brady Anderson in 1996 (34 HR increase), and Lou Gehrig's 1927 season (31 HR increase).  Anderson's season was obviously a fluke; he had never hit more than 21 home runs in a season before that, and never hit more than 24 in a season after.  Gehrig's season was his second full season in the Yankees lineup, at the age of 24.  Sosa, however, was 29 years old at the time of his "breakout season", which is more in line with a "fluke" season than someone who learned how to use their "tools" finally.  Also keep in mind that players who "breakout" into home run hitting power generally do it at a young age, or develop power from where there was none.  Sosa was already an established power hitter; saying he "broke out" in 1998 would be like stating that he broke out twice in his career, reaching another plateau after all had assumed he reached his first plateau when he became a regular for the Cubs in 1993.  Such a second plateau is relatively unheard of in baseball, even with a player of Sosa's relative youth.

    Is there even anything to say that Sosa was a better hitter in 1998 than he was in 1997?  Some may point to a better dedication to hitting as being Sosa's improvement, and his better hitting resulted in more power.  However, Sosa's patience didn't increase in 1998.  His 171 strikeouts still led the major leagues, while his 73 walks that season (albeit a 28 walk improvement over the previous season and 15 better than his previous career high) could as easily be attributed to his sudden home run totals as much as it could his patience.

    So what if he did use cork in his bats?  Wouldn't he have caught already?  Wouldn't something have been seen in the five years since Sosa's home run chase?  Probably, but if you want to play the conspiracy card, think about this.  In 1998, the "experts" believed that the players with the best chance for breaking Maris' home run record were McGwire and Griffey.  The two didn't disappoint, as McGwire had 27 home runs by the end of May.  Sosa had 13.  However, Sosa's sudden surge in June resulted in 20 more home runs, a record for home runs in any one month.  As Griffey began to fade, Sosa and McGwire struggled to chase Maris' record, and baseball began a rebirth in the hearts of fans, who were still reluctant to accept the sport after the strike of 1994.  And while McGwire had support, some still questioned his use of suppliments in his diet for added size and strength.  Sosa appealed to minorities, purists (who saw Sosa as a six foot tall, 185 pound athlete instead of a chemical filled muscle monster in McGwire), and outsiders who were just tuning in to see the race.  Sosa had a charisma that not only McGwire lacked, but was matched by few players in the league.  In Sosa, Major League Baseball had found a player who could promote their sport.

    So, if during the course of this great event that is causing attendance to rise throughout baseball and money to be spent, bringing the sport back to the level that it was before the strike, you happent to find that one of the players most responsible for this rebirth might be cheating, would you investigate?  Would you risk telling the fanbase that had shunned the sport several years back because of the greed and uncaring of both owners and players, that had endured accusations of steroids and drug abuse in years before that, that wanted a role model that they could give to their children, that one of the players they wanted to like was just another untrustworthy baseball player?

    Probably not.  Too much was at stake in 1998.  Even as years went by, there would be no positive in "bringing down" Sosa with an investigation.  So when, in 2003, Sosa gets caught using an illegal device that would (supposedly) allow him to better hit the baseball, would Major League Baseball find it in their favor to find something wrong with Sosa?  Or would it be better to try to clear his name, and make believe that nothing ever happened?  It wouldn't be hard to cover up an investigation being conducted by Major League Baseball if Major League Baseball itself wanted it covered up.  Clear Sosa's name, and save the integrity of the game, and maintain the star power of one of the game's best examples of a role model.

    Think that it couldn't happen?  The question isn't if it could happen, because it could.  It'd be pretty easy to do.  The question is whether it did happen, and that's something we're not likely to ever find out.  People don't _want_ Sosa to be guilty.  Had this happened to Gary Sheffield or Barry Bonds, people would have pointed a finger and said "I knew it!"  Instead, Sosa gives a quickly prepared and shaky at best explination (a guy who has 60+ home run power needs help hitting home runs in batting practice when even pitchers who can't hit in major league games can somehow manage to hit balls over the fence), teammates and "reputable" baseball personalities back him up (Hall Of Famer Joe Morgan said in an article that he once did the exact same thing), and Major League Baseball clears his name by x-raying bats, suspending him eight games (which was reduced to seven on appeal due to Sosa's quick apology - the hell?) so that he doesn't miss a home game, and allows him to play in the three game series against the Yankees (thanks to the appeal) and the White Sox (thanks to the shortened sentence).

    People will believe what they want to believe about Sosa, and the majority want to believe that he made an innocent mistake.  However, when you look closer, it's more apparent that something's rotten in the state of Illinois.

Copyright 2003  All Rights reserved.