It was the final day of March 1992 when I talked to Sammy Sosa for the first time. He was just 23 years old, having been acquired the day before from the White Sox with pitcher Ken Patterson in exchange for veteran outfielder George Bell.
We were at the original HoHoKam Park, and Sosa was sitting on a weight bench in the hallway outside the locker room. The clubhouse at that old facility was too small to actually hold any training equipment within the locker room’s confines, forcing the creation of a makeshift weight room.
I introduced myself to this shy, quiet kid, and we immediately hit it off.
Little did I, or Sammy, or anyone else know what the future would bring: 609 home runs – including a club-record 545 as a Chicago Cub … seven All-Star Games … six Silver Slugger Awards … an epic 1998 battle with Mark McGwire, capped by a National League MVP Award … massive adoration and adulation.
Little did I, or Sammy, or anyone else know that his departure from the Cubs after the 2004 season would be remembered more than what he did during his 13 years with the club. Certainly, things could have been handled differently at the end by both sides. He had been a popular and important figure in baseball’s recovery from the 1994-1995 strike – yet he and the Cubs had a parting of the ways and haven’t been able to get back on the same page.
While Sammy has limited the number of interviews he has done in recent years, he agreed to talk with me for this site – and we spoke at length via Skype a few days ago.
Why did he agree to speak to me? In the words of Rebecca Polihronis, a former Cubs colleague of mine and a publicist for Sosa, “Sammy trusts you.” Sammy said that to me, too, during the course of the call.
By trust, he knew I wouldn’t twist his words. In turn, I trust the words he said to me.
Chuck: How are you doing? It’s been a long time.
Sammy Sosa: “I know, I know, my goodness. I always ask Rebecca (Polihronis) about you. When Rebecca talked to me about it, I definitely wanted to do the interview with you. I’m ready to answer some questions.”
Chuck: First off, I really appreciate getting this opportunity. It’s been way too long since we last talked. As I was putting my thoughts together for this interview, I realized it will be 25 years this March when I met you for the first time. It was old, old HoHoKam Park, and you were sitting on a bench in the fake weight room.
Sammy (laughing): “My goodness, 25 years. It feels like yesterday. The bench … I remember it.”
Chuck: So, tell me all about life after baseball. How have things gone for you?
Sammy: “I’m very happy, my man. I’ve got my family. I’ve been successful in different areas in everything I’ve done outside the lines. I retired about 10 years ago, and it feels like it was yesterday. A lot of people come to me everywhere that I go – and it feels like I’m still playing. So I’m good. For a lot of people, life after baseball has been a little bit of a struggle. For me, I’ve always said that as soon as I retired from baseball, I had a good life to live. That’s why I organized myself to be ready after I retired. It was a good thing that I surrounded myself with good people to help me be more successful in the decisions I was making. I have a few projects that I have right now in Panama; we’re building around 2,000 houses, and that project is moving very well. I have business in Europe, Hong Kong, Dubai. And I keep myself busy in the Dominican Republic, which is my homeland. I’ve been traveling a lot, doing a lot of stuff. I’m also in Miami a lot. I feel that from the time I retired until now, I really haven’t missed baseball – to tell you the truth. I’m very happy with what I’m doing. I’m my own boss (laughing). I don’t have to be at the ballpark at 10 o’clock tomorrow morning. I’m very happy. I’m comfortable. I’ve got a lot of good people around me. And you know, I believe in God – he’s my savior (pointing to the sky, as he did after his home runs).”
Chuck: I remember when all of your older kids were born. You were traded to the Cubs just before Keysha’s birth. How is everyone?
Sammy: “Keysha is now 24. Kenia, my second girl, is 22. Junior (Sammy Jr.) is 20. Michael is 19.”
Chuck: That’s hard to believe. They’re all grown up.
Sammy: “And Kalexy is 5 and Rolando is 2. I think Rolando is going to be the baseball player. I’m hoping for it.”
Chuck: You had the four older kids when you were in the middle of your playing career. They were little babies, and you were a baseball player – so you weren’t always around. What’s it like to be a father this time around for Kalexy and Rolando?
Sammy: “My wife and I had the first four. After a while, I said to Sonia, ‘In a few years, our kids are going to leave our house. So let’s see if we can have a couple more kids – so we’re not home alone. I don’t want to be fighting with you every day (a lot of laughing).’ The first four, I was never home much – 162 games … spring training … it was hard. After I retired, I now see a different world and a different life. I’m becoming a better man because I see my kids every day. I have a chance to hug them every day, to be there every day. Anytime I have a trip that I have to go out of town, it’s never for very long – and then I come back and I always stay home to play with them. I feel great, because the two little ones see me every day. I stay home to play with Kalexy and Rolando as much as I can.”
Chuck: When the younger two kids are both school age, will you spend more time in the Miami area?
Sammy: “Right now, we go between the Dominican Republic and Miami. I have everything set up (in Miami), because I want my kids to get their education here. There’s more opportunity here. When you have an education in the U.S., you have a better chance to get a better job. I have a team here; my wife has a nanny and a driver to take my kids to school.”
Chuck: It’s been 10 years since you last played, and you said you haven’t missed it. Do you ever think about getting back into baseball in any capacity?
Sammy: “You know, I’m a man of the future. I see a vision. I see opportunity. I’m not saying I won’t come back, because if you say that – if an opportunity came up you’d have to say ‘No.’ But right now, unless it’s something tremendous … something that I’d have to say ‘Wow’ … something that I feel comfortable with … maybe. In the meantime, the position that I’m in right now – and the team that I have – I’m great, I’m comfortable. I have to say, I don’t want to be a coach. It doesn’t mean that I can’t come back. But my desire to be on the field again is over. The only way I could come back is if I’d have an opportunity to buy a team one day. Yes, that is on my agenda. When that opportunity comes, I’ll be surrounded by my people. To be a coach, I don’t see myself doing that. Maybe with Rolando – when he grows up, and I think he has the potential to be a baseball player – definitely, I can do something with him. But right now, the ideas that I have and the projects that I have, I think I will be more successful outside the lines. Baseball – whether you struck me out or I hit a home run – was easy for me. In the business world, I get a little smarter every day. I have a big company in the Dominican Republic. I’m doing very well there, and that company has been very successful for me. That’s why, when I hear people ask if I want to go back to baseball to be a coach, I say, ‘The only way I’ll come back to baseball is to be the owner of a team.’”
Chuck: That said, would you like to be able to come back to Chicago to do the 7th-inning stretch or the Cubs Convention or things like that?
Sammy: “I never say ‘No’ to that. I owe something to the people – to the crowd in Chicago. For that, I would come back. But I’m not going to go up there and say, ‘I’m here. Please bring me back and give me a chance.’ No way. I’m not hungry. I have too much pride. They know where they can find me. They’re in their way; I am in my way. If they want to have a meeting – of course … I’m a gentleman. I’d never say ‘No’ to that. If one day it happens, I’d be happy. And if it doesn’t, we can talk again on Skype.”
Chuck: The way everything ended in 2004 didn’t have to happen. Are there things you could have done differently that would have made it easier to have a better relationship with the organization?
Sammy: “My relationship with the organization was great. The last day of the season, the last game, I asked (assistant trainer) Sandy Krum to talk to Mr. Dusty Baker and ask him if I could leave early. He said yes, that I could go. That was a mistake by me. I should have stayed there. It was the last game. My intention was to finish my career in Chicago. That was my intention all the way. I never wanted to leave Chicago. I should have handled that situation differently, yes indeed. I recognize my mistake. But look, I have my pride, and I know I had a tremendous career in Chicago. When nobody knew who Chicago was, I put Chicago on the map. Like you said, if I could have done it again, I would have done it differently. The only thing we cannot do is turn back time. We can’t do that. But hey, we have to move forward. I understand I made a mistake. I regret it, definitely, but I have to move on.”
Chuck: When I say 1998 – Sosa vs. McGwire – what kind of memories does that bring back for you?
Sammy: “You’re never going to see that again in your life … never. You’re never going to see the show Mark and I put on … never. You’re not going to see that excitement again. We were the ones bringing more fans to the stadium … I feel proud of what I did. The only thing is, they can say whatever they want to say about me. First of all, I’m clean. They don’t have a case on me. I never failed a drug test. Never in my life. But you know what – this is not my field anymore. I’d rather not be in the Hall of Fame and have a lot of money in my pocket than to be in the Hall of Fame and try to find money to pay my bills (laughing) … You saw me grow up, you saw how hard I was working. A lot of people say so many things, but I’m telling you – they have nothing on me. I’m not going to go out there begging, because they have no case. They had the Mitchell Report trying to find something, but they had nothing on Mr. Sosa.”
Chuck: Does it bother you that people continue to say you did something … and there’s no proof you did something … and there’s nothing you can do to disprove them? Do you feel you’ve been found guilty without any evidence?
Sammy: “Chuck, it’s like Jesus Christ when he came to Jerusalem. Everybody thought Jesus Christ was a witch (laughing) – and he was our savior. So if they talk (poop) about Jesus Christ, what about me? Are you kidding me?”
Chuck: How important is it for you to be able to say, “I came to the United States at 16-to-17 years of age with very little education, and I was able to become a successful businessman?”
Sammy: “When I left the Dominican Republic, the last thing my mother told me at the airport was, ‘My son, I know you have a very strong character. You have a very strong temper. The only thing I want you to do: Please take care of your bosses … they’re the ones who pay you the check.’ I took that like it was yesterday. I came to this country not knowing how to speak English, not having an education. I don’t say that I’m a genius now, but I understand the language. I write as much as I can. I know how to read. I do what I can. And one of the things that I feel most comfortable and happy about is that I came to this country and had all of those barriers in front of me – and I went over them. This country made me stronger. This country made me who I am. I keep saying I’m a patriot. I’m from the Dominican, but trust me, I love the U.S. – because this is a country that gave me an opportunity. I came here with no name, and I put my name on the map. This country has been great to me. I’m very proud to be here. My family has had a very good education. My kids are very smart.”
Chuck: The 2016 World Series … How did it feel seeing the Cubs playing for the championship – and watching it on TV?
Sammy: “The incredible thing … I’d been watching the last couple of World Series. And last year, not because it was the Chicago Cubs, but because it was the seventh game of the World Series – it was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen. Wow, it was incredible. Chicago showed the world that they can do it, and I hope they can repeat. As soon as they hired the manager (Joe Maddon), I was very happy about it. That manager gives chances to the young players. He knows how to deal with the young players. He makes everybody comfortable. Many managers – they don’t know how to deal with people. Believe me, this manager has that gift. That’s why everybody wants to play for him, because the guy is great. That World Series was one of the greatest. Both teams fought to the last out. And when (Rajai) Davis hit that home run … my goodness, it was a little bit scary. But then after that, it was amazing. Unbelievable.”
Chuck: Wrigley Field … it’s not the same ballpark you played in after all the remodeling that has taken place. Would you like to go back to see what it looks like now?
Sammy: “Hey, if they send me an invitation, then I would definitely say ‘Yes.’ This is my house – no matter what happened (at the end). My numbers – nobody is going to take them from me. Not even Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, hit that many home runs. And I did it with style (laughing). But if they invite me, why not? One day, if they invite me, a lot of people will be very happy about it.”
Chuck: I get that you want an invitation. I just want to know … Would you come back to Chicago to see the new Wrigley Field on your own, or do you have to be invited?
Sammy: “Look, if I don’t see it again, I’ll send my drone over there and I’ll watch it from my house. I won’t have to move (laughing).”
Chuck: But then you wouldn’t have the rightfield bleacher fans bowing and saluting you.
Sammy: “I understand what you’re saying. If one day they want to do something, I want to do it in style. If it’s going to happen, it’s got to be the right way. Don’t worry, one day they’re going to do it. I’m not in a rush.”