When the 1998 season began, starting right from Opening Day, one of the key questions was: Could Mark McGwire break Roger Maris' record for most home runs in a single season? The whole focus was on McGwire for obvious reasons: He had played for two teams in '97, the Oakland A's and St. Louis Cardinals, and had hit a combined 58 home runs. That was only three shy of Maris' famous 61.
These were not regular home runs McGwire was hitting, either. They were, almost without exception, titanic blasts, absurdities, home runs that went so far the culpable pitchers could not help but feel a touch of pride. McGwire blasted a home run on Opening Day, then another on the second day, another on the third, another on the fourth, and the presumed race for Maris' mark was on.
Nobody saw Sammy Sosa coming.
We all know McGwire and Sosa will not get elected to the Hall of Fame any time soon. McGwire has already fallen off the ballot, having gradually lost support, while Sosa has barely managed the 5 percent necessary to stay on the ballot for the last four years. We all know why they are in Hall of Fame purgatory, too, despite a combined 1,192 home runs: McGwire admitted using steroids and Sosa is widely suspected of using them and, it has been reported, he failed a drug test in 2003, though the testing that year was to be anonymous -- with no one being punished -- per the Collective Bargaining Agreement in '02.
Most people look back at that 1998 season with cynicism and fury. We got duped, right? What was once seen as an ecstatic story of human possibility -- a shy Californian, who preferred to be left alone, and an exuberant young Dominican, who grew up with nothing, exchanging home runs like no two players in baseball history -- is now seen as a dark tale. You can't un-ring that bell.
Still, the sudden and mind-blowing arrival of Sosa in 1998 was one of the most stunning baseball events of the last quarter century. It is interesting to look back and see how he burst on to the scene.
Going into the 1998 season, Sosa had already proven to be a good player. He had flashed power before. He hit 40 home runs in 124 games in '96. Over the three seasons leading into the summer of '98, he averaged 37 home runs and 110 RBIs.
Yet, nobody outside of Chicago's North Side cared. For one thing, those numbers were not uncommon from 1995-97. Vinny Castilla averaged about the same number of homers and RBIs. Mo Vaughn, Jay Buhner, Andres Galarraga, Juan Gonzalez, Albert Belle, Tino Martinez and Eric Karros weren't far behind. Sixteen different players averaged 30 home runs per year from '95-97, while 24 different players averaged 100 RBIs. It was an offensive free-for-all, so Sosa got lost in the shuffle.
The feelings about Sosa were strong in Chicago ... but not necessarily positive. People thought he was underachieving. He had just signed a $42.5 million deal in the summer of 1997, so "Sosa is overpaid" was one of the hot Chicago sports-radio takes. Also, "Sosa is wasting his talent." A rather extraordinary story about Sosa ran in the Chicago Sun-Times just a week before the season began. This was the introduction:
Sammy Sosa is selfish. Sammy Sosa has a money hangup. Sammy Sosa is a one-dimensional player in a multidimensional body. Sammy Sosa steals bases for himself. Sammy Sosa's throwing arm is a lot stronger than his decision making. Sammy Sosa never hits home runs in crucial situations.
"What do people want from me?" Sosa said.
Sosa comes across in the story as a player in pain. "What bothers me, is people don't want to give me the credit I deserve," he said. "I'm the kind of player who plays every day, plays hard every inning. Why wouldn't I get credit? I don't know, but it's something I want to find out."
Everything in that intro -- that Sosa was selfish, greedy, one-dimensional and careless -- was hammered home every day by some new story. There was one about him ignoring a hold sign and trying to steal anyway (he was caught stealing). There was another about him getting into a shouting match with his manager. There were several about his teammates not respecting him. There were also plenty of stories about him just not living up to his infinite potential -- stories that, looking back, seem pretty unfair. Sosa was a good player on a bad team. He did a few things well. What did people want from him, anyway?
What makes the Sun-Times story so extraordinary, is you can feel Sosa's pain.
About his teammates, Sosa said: "I'm willing to do everything for my team. I'll open my heart to them. People have gotten confused because they didn't talk to me. I'm a human being. I have a sense of humor. All I ask is that people talk to me. I'm a good person."
And about the fans: "For the people who want more from me, I have to tell them I cannot be Superman."
Is it any wonder, after you understand what was bubbling inside Sosa, that in 1998 he did, in fact, turn himself into Superman?
This isn't to excuse whatever Sosa did to climb up the ladder -- we don't even know for sure what he did. This is only to say he came into that season determined to silence all these critics who didn't know him and win over the world. He was going to do whatever he had to do. He grew up in poverty. His father died when he was 7. His enduring dream had been to become a big leaguer with fancy cars, jewelry and adoration. The adoration was missing.
Sosa got off to a good start at the plate in 1998; toward the end of May he was hitting .333 with some power. He had nine home runs in 49 games -- a solid 30-home run pace.
By that point, McGwire already had 26 home runs. That's 85-home run pace. He was a virtual lock to vault past Maris' home run record.
And then Sosa went on a home run tear like nobody had ever seen.
He hit two homers on May 25 against Atlanta. Two days later, he did it again -- this time against Philadelphia. Three days later, he hit two home runs against the Marlins.
From June 3-8 -- five straight games -- Sosa homered every day. He mashed three home runs off Milwaukee's Cal Eldred on June 13. He hit five home runs in a four-game series against Philadelphia, then went to Detroit and hit homers on back-to-back nights. He finished the month of June with a home run against the D-backs. That gave him 20 for the month, a record.
In all, Sosa hit 24 home runs in 30 games. It was pure insanity.
"Sammy's so hot," Cubs manager Jim Riggleman told reporters, "I don't even have words to describe it."
Sosa missed the All-Star Game that year with a sore left shoulder -- which prevented the Sosa-McGwire Home Run Derby that everyone in America craved. But he hit home runs in the first two games of the second half, which gave him 35 home runs on July 10. McGwire had 37 homers at that point. It was mesmerizing.
A lot has been said and written about that home run chase and how it helped save baseball, which was still reeling from the 1994-95 strike. Some of this can be overplayed. While it is true baseball attendance shot up in 12 percent in '98, most of that can be attributed to the addition of Arizona and Tampa Bay as expansion teams.
Anyway, it was more than attendance, more than television ratings. Baseball was at the white-hot center of the American scene again -- it was on the front pages of newspapers, the subject of the monologues on late-night talk shows -- and Sosa and McGwire were what everyone was talking about.
It would not have been that way had it just been McGwire chasing Maris, as everyone had expected. The fever ignited by Sosa -- the way he hopped and kissed the sky after every home run, the way he ran to the outfield as the fans at Wrigley Field lost their minds, his rags-to-riches story -- helped turn this "home run thing" into a cultural phenomenon.
The "home run thing" just kept on going, too -- right into September, right into the last week of the season. McGwire broke Maris' record on Sept. 8, with the Cardinals playing the Cubs, naturally. The two men embraced. Sosa had 58 home runs at the time, and it seemed like he would yield the stage to McGwire. But he smashed four home runs in a three-game set against Milwaukee to reach 62 himself.
And I was there in Milwaukee, when Sosa hit two home runs to reach 65 for the season -- tying him with McGwire. The next day, in the Astrodome, he hit No. 66 to take the lead. In the end, McGwire went on one more crazy homer run -- five homers in his last three games -- to reach 70 and to claim the record for himself.
But Sosa was clearly the big winner in 1998. He carried the Cubs to the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, while pacing the Majors in runs and RBIs, as he won the National League's MVP award. More importantly for him, he won the love he had longed for. Story after story celebrated him -- not just for his home runs, but for what he meant to baseball.
"For Sosa, in one year, became a figure who adeptly transcended the sport," the superb Claire Smith wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "by simply being a good sport, a giving citizen and a fortunate being who never forgot those he passed along the way."
Everybody wrote stuff like that. It was never the same after 1998.
Sosa kept on hitting home runs, though. He hit 292 of them from 1998-2002, more than anyone had ever hit in a five-year span. During those five impossible years, he topped 61 home runs three times and led the NL in home runs the other two seasons. That's a ridiculous 58.4 home runs per season.
Here are the 10 players who averaged 45 homers a year over five consecutive seasons:
Sammy Sosa, 1998-2002: 292
Mark McGwire: 1995-99: 284
Barry Bonds, 2000-04: 258
Babe Ruth, 1926-30: 256
Ken Griffey, 1996-2000: 249
Alex Rodriguez, 2001-05: 240
Ralph Kiner, 1947-51: 234
Ryan Howard, 2006-10: 229
Jim Thome, 2000-04: 227
Jimmie Foxx, 1932-36: 225
Sosa, like no one before or since, perfected the art of hitting a baseball over the fence. His home runs were not always majestic like McGwire's or daunting displays of power like those of Barry Bonds, but they left the yard. And that was good enough.
Is hitting home runs alone enough to make a Hall of Fame career? It was in the past with Ralph Kiner and Harmon Killebrew, though it has to be said that both of them got on base at a much higher rate than Sosa. The trouble with Sosa's case is it is wrapped up in one number, 609, the number of home runs he hit. He was a pretty good fielder when he was young (though no one thought so because he made a lot of errors) and he stole some bases, but neither of those adds much much to his case.
And offensively, beyond the homers, Sosa was limited. His career average was .273. He didn't unintentionally walk very much. Even with 609 home runs, he created fewer runs than Luis Gonzalez, who received five votes in his one year on the Hall ballot, as well as Fred McGriff, who can't quite gain traction with Hall of Fame voters.
It's all about 609 home runs, a massive number. But with the allegations of a failed drug test and never-ending whispers about PEDs haunting the latter part of his career, Sosa -- like his great rival McGwire -- will not get to Cooperstown unless attitudes change dramatically.
Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.