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.
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."