With Sosa eligible to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time, the question is whether or not he belongs with the greatest players in the history of the game.
Could Sosa be part of the 2013 Hall of Fame class? Does his career home run total warrant a near-automatic bid ticket to Cooperstown?
Or will voters hold suspicion of PED use against him, as they surely will with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and other names associated with baseball's steroid era? And even if those players eventually get in, does Sosa have the sort of career numbers that simply cannot be denied?
Sosa has 609 career home runs. That is eighth on MLB's all-time list, ahead of legends like Reggie Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Mickey Mantle.
There was a time when that many home runs by a player would have guaranteed his entrance into the Hall of Fame.
Reaching 500 homers was considered an incredible achievement. It still is, of course—only 25 players in the history of the sport have reached that milestone—but 600 home runs is another level. Eight players are on that pedestal.
However, career home run totals have to be viewed differently now because of the influence of PEDs and their perceived effect on the game. (I say "perceived," because we don't know exactly how or how much these substances help players. It's all speculation, though there certainly appears to be some convincing evidence.)
The six best single-season home run totals in baseball history all occurred from 1998 to 2001. Six of the top 10 career leaders in home runs played from the 1990s to the 2000s.
Reaching 500 or 600 home runs during that era, regardless of whether or not you believe many players were doing so with pharmaceutical help, doesn't appear quite as special as it did during the 1970s or earlier.
Consider also that Sosa was reported to have tested positive for PEDs in 2003, according to The New York Times. If Hall of Fame voters are keeping Jeff Bagwell out of Cooperstown for being suspected of taking steroids, actual proof doesn't help Sosa's case.
But Sosa will certainly be remembered for the 1998 season, during which he and Mark McGwire grabbed the attention of baseball fans, sports fans and popular culture with their race to break Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 home runs.
It was a reminder of how fun following baseball could be. We love to see records chased, especially a mythological achievement like the most home runs in a season.
Sosa actually did surpass Maris' total, hitting 66 home runs that season. But McGwire hit 70, achieving a mark that looked as if it might never be surpassed—or at least hold up for more than 30 years, as Maris' benchmark did.
However, this wasn't just a one-year aberration for Sosa. Of those top six seasons on the all-time home run list, he has three of them.
Sosa is the only player in MLB history with three seasons of 60 or more home runs. We spent 37 years wondering if anyone might hit that many homers again. He did it three times in a four-year span.
Over a six-year period, Sosa hit at least 40 homers every season. Not even Bonds or McGwire can say that.
Sosa is unquestionably one of the best home run hitters MLB has ever seen. But was he one of baseball's best players? Does hitting a whole lot of homers make someone a Hall of Famer?
Maybe this is the baseball equivalent of Buddy Ryan's infamous dismissal of receiver Cris Carter when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles: All he does is catch touchdowns.
Did Sosa only hit home runs? He had 160 RBI in 2001, making him only the second National League player to accumulate that many in a single season. (The other was Hack Wilson, who holds the record of 191 RBI.) Three seasons earlier, Sosa drove in 158 runs.
Sosa also has 2,408 career hits, which seems like a surprisingly high total for a slugger. McGwire, for instance, has 1,626 for his career.
But if you look at the all-time hit leaders in MLB history, Sosa's total puts him in the company of players like Todd Helton and Bobby Abreu. With all due respect, I don't think we'll be debating their Hall of Fame chances in the years to come.
In a previous article, I wrote that Barry Bonds deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. So why Bonds and not Sosa?
Bonds was worthy of Cooperstown in the 13 seasons before he reportedly began taking steroids after the 1998 season, according to the book Game of Shadows. He has nearly 3,000 hits and 2,000 RBI. He has more than 500 stolen bases. His career OPS is over 1.000.
Oh, and Bonds' 762 home runs are the most in MLB history. He was capable of hitting 40 home runs in a season even before he supposedly began using PEDs.
Sosa was a fringe major league player in the first four years of his career. Then something appeared to click. Perhaps it took him that long for his game to come together.
But Sosa jumped from eight home runs in 1992 to 33 in 1993. Was that because he played in more than twice as many games? Or was something else going on? Sosa made an even bigger jump from 1997 to 1998, going from 36 homers to 66.
Even Bonds didn't have that large of a spike when he hit 73 homers in 2001. It's certainly worth raising an eyebrow over. But again, maybe Sosa had a breakthrough with his swing.
Did we mention that Sosa was once caught using a corked bat? That seems worth noting.
Sosa has a compelling case for the Hall of Fame for all of the reasons mentioned above. He also has an MVP award and seven All-Star appearances on his resumé. At one point, he was perhaps the best home run hitter in baseball.
But was Sosa truly one of the best players of his era? And should the notable spikes in his home run numbers during his career raise suspicions? Those questions will likely be enough to keep him out of Cooperstown.
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