Sosa's ego a problem ... again

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Sosa's ego a problem ... again

When I walked into Sammy Sosa's house in the Dominican Republic back in 2006, the former Cubs slugger was getting ready for his annual birthday bash, a lavish red-carpet affair that he threw every year that drew celebrities from the baseball world to Hollywood.

Salma Hayek was among the A-listers in attendance that year. I got a glimpse into the private life of a very public sports figure and knew immediately Sosa still thought himself larger than life, even after he had left the Orioles unceremoniously two years before and had his storybook career with the Cubs end bitterly.

He hadn't yet retired from the game, his comeback in the works, but his star was surely faded, yet his sense of self shined brighter than ever.

The first thing Sosa did when he greeted me at the door was give me a tour of his beachfront home in the private resort area Casa de Campo in LaRamana. Our first stop, the foyer where Sammy proudly pointed out the large portrait of himself hanging next to a large portrait of Jesus. I smiled at the obvious parallel he was trying to draw with his artwork and realized Sosa still believed he walked on water.

Egos like this aren't built in a day and aren't built alone. Baseball, the Cubs and fans all had a hand in the making of Sammy Sosa.

Sosa and former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire are credited for 'saving baseball' back in 1998 when their home run race was celebrated and encouraged. The Cubs, the league and Sosa made a lot of money during that time and not a single person questioned it or balked at the audacity of it. Now that the full extent of the steroid era has come to light, that period went from being glorified to vilified faster than Sosa could whiff at a 99 mph fastball.

A guy like Sosa couldn't fully comprehend going from super famous to super infamous overnight, and so he maintained his innocence and his pride.

When I asked Sammy at his home in 2006 whether or not he had ever used performance enhancing drugs, he of course denied it and said, "there's no evidence of it". Three years later, in 2009, a New York Times article reported that Sosa had indeed tested positive for steroids in 2003. The slugger has never addressed the report.

The answer he gave me back in '06 may reveal why he hasn't refuted that story.

"I really don't have to worry about what these people thinking," Sosa retorted when asked about the perception that he used steroids. "Because this is not my problem. My own world, me, I'm happy. I know who I am. I don't have any control about these people and what they are thinking because they are going to think it anyway, so why should I worry about that, c'mon."

What Sammy said is true, people are going to think what they are going to think about him, regardless of what he says or does, but he is wrong about one thing: it is his problem because what people think is going to keep him out of the Hall of Fame. And believe me, Sosa thinks he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

"Do you think with my numbers I should not be in the Hall of Fame?" Sosa asked me incredulously back in 2006. "Hello?"

Hello? Sammy? Your haters are calling, can you hear them now? Baseball writers are sure to loudly reject Sosa's bid to Cooperstown based on suspected steroid use. I do not have a vote. All I ask of those who do is to decide what you want to do with the so-called steroid era and be consistent with it. Either they are all in based on numbers or they are all out based on what we know about drug use at the time.

You can not pick and choose which suspected steroid user gets in based on how well they refuted the evidence or whether or not they admitted it and how contrite they were. Did they cry during their admission (McGwire)? Or, are they still denying it (Sosa)?

None of that should make a difference. We have no way of knowing the full truth. PED's have forever tainted sports of all kinds and are still tainting the games today.

My sense is that the media and fans want to choose who gets admonished and who gets forgiven based on their own personal bias. Drug users like Alex Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte and Ryan Braun are still playing and still being cheered on. Cheaters like Braun get to keep their MVP awards, but guys like Sosa are vilified. Even McGwire and Barry Bonds are welcomed back to baseball and their franchises with open arms.

Bonds, like Sosa, has never admitted wrongdoing, yet he attends Giants games at AT&T Park regularly. Sosa is persona non grata in Chicago, all because he maintains an arrogant defiance.

How dare he be so cocky? No vote for you until you admit everything and say you're sorry, and if you can manufacture some tears that would help us forgive you. And, after all of that we still won't vote you into the Hall of Fame because than you would be an admitted drug user, right now there's still some gray area.

Oh yeah, and if you can say you're sorry for leaving a Cubs game early back in 2004, you know the incident that ended your career in Chicago? Then maybe you can return to Wrigley Field without getting spit on.

We build our sports figures up to tear them down. Yes, Sosa made his own choices and his own bed so to speak, but standing in his living room six years ago it struck me how much he truly doesn't understand why some people hate him.

I have to admit, neither do I.

Yes, even after Sosa kept me waiting for three hours that day to sit down for the interview in which he made us change locations several times because he didn't want to sit in the hot sun, I rolled with the superstar punches because Sosa is no different than any other out-sized-ego-athlete I've dealt with. Only he's one people choose to hate.

In Sosa's mind, he only did what baseball asked him to do, produce home runs, bring glory back to the game and fans back to the seats. Nobody cared how he did it, until now. Sosa may never get into the Hall of Fame, but if he is living the same kind of life he was six years ago, he may not care.

"My own world, me, I am happy. I know who I am."

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

Jon Lester thinks Cubs have a special player in Willson Contreras: ‘It’s about time we got an offensive catcher’

MESA, Ariz. – Jon Lester couldn't resist when a reporter mentioned the two home runs Willson Contreras launched off Danny Salazar, an All-Star talent who might have changed last year's World Series if he had been at full strength.

"It's about time we got an offensive catcher," Lester said.

Zing! Lester had already seen David Ross on "Dancing with the Stars" by the time he finished up against the Cleveland Indians and met with reporters on Monday night at Goodyear Ballpark. While Lester knew Grandpa Rossy would appreciate that one-liner, there is also some truth behind it.

Yes, Ross became the security blanket for a $155 million pitcher, helped push and encourage young players like Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and got carried off the field after delivering his own Game 7 homer. But whatever Contreras may lack now in game-calling experience and pitcher psychology, he can make up for it with his rocket arm, smooth swing and willingness to learn.

A camp that began with questions about how Lester would work with Contreras ended with a sincere endorsement.

"Willie's obviously very special, to be serious about it," Lester said. "He's definitely going to add a presence to that lineup as far as protecting ‘Rizz' and ‘KB' to where they're not going to be able to just pitch around those guys. We're going to have some other guys to do some damage in the middle to the bottom of that order.

"He's a special kid, just like anybody else on this team. He's (24), so he'll only get better as time goes on and (he gets) the at-bats and the innings and all that stuff. So I'm excited to see him for a full season and how well he can do back there."

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That's another reason why the defending World Series champs might actually look better on paper than the unforgettable 2016 Cubs. Ross did a "Dancing with the Stars" routine based off Young MC's "Bust a Move," a song released in 1989, or years before Bryant, Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Javier Baez and Albert Almora Jr. were born.

Before the Cubs packed up and left Arizona, Ross made a promotional appearance in Mesa this week and caught up with some old friends like John Lackey.

"We got rid of Rossy," Lackey told reporters as the Cubs finished their Cactus League schedule with Wednesday's 15-11 win over the Oakland A's at Sloan Park. "He stinks. And we should be better. Actually, I was just inside talking to Rossy and he said that, so that's from him."

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

On paper, have Cubs put together a better roster than last year's World Series team?

MESA, Ariz. – One minute into the media scrum outside the West Wing, a Washington reporter asked Theo Epstein if this season would be considered a disappointment if the Cubs don't win the World Series.

"Oof, I hadn't thought too much about 2017 yet today," Epstein said after President Barack Obama's final official White House event. "But, yeah, I mean, that's our goal. I think the organization has come such a long way and we have this talented young core. We're clearly in a very competitive phase where I think if we do our jobs, we could be as good, if not better, than any team in baseball.

"So if you're going to compete, you set your sights for the world championship. It doesn't always work out that way. But we see it as our jobs to do everything we can to be back at the White House next year."

Whether or not Epstein would actually go through with a Donald Trump photo op is a different story. But with the Cubs signaling their Opening Night roster – keeping outfielder Matt Szczur and infielder Tommy La Stella while lefty reliever Brian Duensing begins the season on the disabled list – you could make the case that the team breaking camp on Wednesday looks better on paper than last year's World Series winner.

"This is a crazy talented group," All-Star closer Wade Davis said. "There's 10 or 12 players on this team that are some of the best players in baseball."

That doesn't mean the Cubs will develop the same chemistry or sense of purpose, but this team is completely used to the national spotlight, hanging out with celebrity fans and being followed around like rock stars on the road. 

Epstein compared this camp in Arizona with what the Boston Red Sox faced after ending the 86-year drought. 

"I will never forget in '05 spring training, we had 5,000 people the first day, 3,000 fans every day," Epstein said. "I was expecting it to be as nuts. But it's been refreshingly normal, reflecting the personality of our players, taking everything in stride."   

This doesn't mean the Cubs will stay as healthy as they did last year, when the projected rotation made 152 starts combined. But four-fifths of that group returns with Brett Anderson – given his natural ability, pitching IQ and extensive medical file – appearing to have a higher ceiling and lower floor than Jason Hammel.

As Anderson said: "It's not too often that you have a salty veteran with multiple rings (John Lackey) in front of you and a guy (Kyle Hendricks) that led the league in ERA behind you."

The 2016 Cubs won 103 games and scored 800-plus runs: without Kyle Schwarber contributing a single hit during the regular season; and with Jason Heyward finishing with a .631 OPS (or 103 points below the league average).

Manager Joe Maddon said Geek Department projections have this lineup generating even more offense with Schwarber as the new leadoff guy (even with a brace on his left leg), continued growth from young players like Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors.

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The Cubs are also counting on a full season from Davis, instead of a half-season rental like Aroldis Chapman. Where last year's Opening Night bullpen featured three guys who would get DFA'd or traded by midseason (Neil Ramirez, Clayton Richard, Adam Warren), this version features three guys who've already notched the final out in a World Series (Davis, Koji Uehara, Mike Montgomery).

"All the additions are wonderful complements to what this team was already," Schwarber said. "Upgrades. It's going to be really cool to see how it all plays out this season with more guys getting another year of experience under their belt."

Ian Happ raising his profile and hitting around .400 in the Cactus League should help his trade value if the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the trade deadline. The combination of Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in center field should be an improvement over Dexter Fowler for a team that led the majors in defensive efficiency last year.

As someone with fresh eyes – and the perspective from being on Los Angeles Dodgers teams that won back-to-back National League West titles – Anderson hasn't see any signs of complacency.

"Not at all," Anderson said. "The young guys are still hungry. And the handful of guys that weren't here last year makes you that much more hungry and itchy to get back where they were last year.

"It's a really good mix – if not a perfect mix – of young guys, veteran guys and a couple fresh faces that are eager to get back to what these guys accomplished last year."