At 30,000 feet, the seat belt signs were not illuminated, and the drink carts rolled freely up and down the aisle. The salsa music played on, and nobody could see the turbulence ahead during the heyday of the Sammy Sosa era with the Chicago Cubs.
Charter flight after charter flight in 2003, Eric Karros sat across the aisle from Sosa. They talked baseball. Life. Music. Clubhouse etiquette. They were together for only one season, a 35-year-old first baseman toward the end of his career and a 34-year-old icon nearing the end of his usefulness.
During that one hot, memorable summer, they helped push the Cubs to heights not seen since 1945, moving them to within five outs of the World Series before all hell broke loose and, like a violent storm off Lake Michigan, the ugliness moved in.
To this day, Kerry Wood says he has never seen anybody handle Sosa better than the mop-topped first baseman who came to Chicago knowing the Cubs required a leader and then carried himself with the sort of swaggering, been-there, done-that edge that only a highly decorated veteran can bring.
"I'd always given people the benefit of the doubt," says Karros, now retired and an analyst for Fox Sports. "For me, Sammy wanted to be liked. Bottom line. He wanted everyone to like him. That didn't always transpire, for whatever reason."
Karros had barely unpacked his boxes in '03 before it became apparent that he was closer to Sosa than Sosa was with any other player in the Chicago clubhouse. That was a telltale sign. Even as Sammy basked in public standing ovations, a growing and poisonous rift between him and many teammates and ultimately the organization was developing in private.
More than a decade later, out of the toxicity of baseball's Steroid Era, nobody has emerged more radioactive than Sosa, who denied having used performance-enhancing drugs and remains elusive and out of touch with his former teammates, the Cubs organization and the baseball public.
It's as if one day the Museum of Science and Industry or Gino's East suddenly disappeared from the streets of Chicago. Once a landmark in one of America's best cities and most rabid sports towns, Sosa has nearly disappeared without a trace.
"I think it's unfortunate," says former club president Andy MacPhail, whose years running the Cubs (1994-2006) covered most of Sosa's time there (1992-2004). "I've been around the game all of my life, and I really don't know what percentage of players did what.
"It seems to me there are a few who are carrying a disproportionate burden of that activity, and clearly Sammy is one of them. He was immensely popular and important to the franchise, and I think the situation is unfortunate."
Mark McGwire? Back in baseball as a hitting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers after a stint in the same capacity with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Barry Bonds? Back in a San Francisco uniform, if only during the spring, working with Giants hitters.
Roger Clemens? Special assistant to the general manager of the Houston Astros.
Even Manny Ramirez returned to the game's good graces, hired last summer as a minor league hitting instructor by, of all teams, the Cubs.
Yet right now, odds remain better that Cubs Hall of Famer Hack Wilson will make a personal appearance in Wrigley Field before Sosa. And Hack has been dead since 1948.
"It is what it is," current Cubs owner Tom Ricketts says. "Hopefully, it won't be like this forever.
"Hopefully, there will be a day when this is behind us."
It is 8:30 a.m. on a cold January Saturday morning in Chicago.
By the thousands, Cubs fans are streaming into the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers for that annual tribal rite known as the Cubs Convention. Clutching their Starbucks cups and Dunkin' Donuts bags, dressed in jerseys bearing the names and numbers of current players (LESTER 34, RIZZO 44), legends (BANKS 14, SANDBERG 23) and cult heroes (DERNIER 20), many of them flow into a ballroom for a scheduled Q&A with the Ricketts family.
This winter's day is fairly mild by Chicago standards, temperatures in the 20s, but as one of the club's most anticipated seasons in years prepares for launch with new manager Joe Maddon, new ace Jon Lester and the prediction of an NL Central title from young Anthony Rizzo, there is no thaw for Sosa.
"I have a problem with Sosa, even though I'm supposed to be a forgiving person," says Sister Caritas Wehrman, 76, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a lifelong Cubs fan who once walked to Wrigley Field regularly with her brother to watch Hank Sauer. "Maybe God will forgive him. I'm not that good."
Eventually, a man steps to the microphone and asks what has become an annual question at the convention: "I know it's an awkward situation, but are there plans for a reunion? A lot of Cubs fans, a lot of my friends, love Sammy."
Ricketts answers slowly and carefully: "Nothing has really changed in our relationship with Sammy. Obviously, I was a big Sammy Sosa fan. A lot of us were. But a few things have to happen before he comes back, and we'll see how that goes."
What has become clear, both from sources with knowledge of the Cubs' thinking and from the club's actions, is that the Sammy part of the equation boils down to this:
He must admit using performance-enhancing drugs and apologize for it. Then the peace talks may truly begin.
Ricketts, genteel and soft-spoken, will not elaborate on that topic except when it is mentioned that the return of McGwire, Bonds and Ramirez is what makes Sosa's exile all the more headline-inducing.
"I don't know what the other guys did or didn't do," Ricketts says. "McGwire, who’s obviously very high-profile, he came forward, he discussed and admitted at least some use of performance-enhancing drugs, or controlled drugs.
"I think a lot of guys have taken that path. I think that generally is the right way to handle this. Sammy's got to make his own decisions as to what he is going to say and not say, and we respect that."
The enormous gulf between Sosa and the Cubs is made even odder by the fact that this is an inherited situation for Ricketts, who purchased the Cubs in 2009. Very few people remain in the organization from Sammy's time there.
Theoretically, anybody of importance who carried a grudge from Sosa's past sins, real or imagined—including his corked bat in 2003 and skipping out on the last game of the season in 2004—is long gone.
Mostly, protective handlers keep Ricketts insulated from the questions about Sosa. And on the rare occasion when Sosa has had his people reach out to the Cubs—on the possibility of retiring his jersey number or appearing at ceremonies last summer celebrating the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field—no invitation has been forthcoming.
"There's got to be a better solution than what we go through this morning, going through that question," Ricketts says during a private conversation shortly after the public Q&A session. "Hopefully, there will be a time and a place where things fall into place and we have a better solution.
"Until then, we've just got to play through."
Sosa's last hours in a Cubs uniform were the stuff of CSI: Chicago. Begging out of the lineup on the final Sunday of the '04 season within hours of the Cubs being eliminated from the playoffs. Leaving Wrigley Field 15 minutes after the game started. Denying it. A leaked security tape confirming his early departure and exposing his lies. Publicly ripping manager Dusty Baker for placing an inordinate amount of the blame for the Cubs' failure on him.
"Listen, we can candy-coat it all we want, but the reality is that those are choices he made," says Ryan Dempster, a teammate of Sosa in '04 and back with the Cubs this year as a special assistant to president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer. "I was on that team, and I saw what happened."
Still, Dempster said, "I think that hopefully one day him being back around Chicago and being here would be a really, really great thing. Because I think he was such a huge part of so many great memories for so many people at Wrigley.
"Hopefully, one day it happens and under the right terms."
Dempster, Mark Prior and others demanded an apology from Sosa in the raw days immediately following the '04 season. Since then, there has been much speculation that any Sosa-Cubs reunion would have to include Sosa making amends for his long-ago misbehavior. But as the years fall off the calendar, that theory is slowly fading.
"From the players' standpoint, we'd all like him to come back,” says Wood, also a special adviser now to Epstein and Hoyer. "If he feels like he can't come back without apologizing, I don't think we need [an apology]."
Thing is, for all the credit he got for teaming with McGwire to help bring baseball back following the 1994-1995 players' strike, Sammy has a history of whiffing on key decisions.
In the friendly skies and at the Friendly Confines, Karros did what he could to walk Sosa through some of those decisions in '03 as erosion began to gnaw at the bones of the aging slugger. Sosa's fierce pride, once a key tool in his box, more and more was becoming a liability.
"Sammy was harmless, he really was," Karros said. "Did he rub people the wrong way? I guess. But on the surface, he just wanted to be accepted in life."
Acceptance and love were easy to come by when he slammed 66 homers in 1998 and 63 more in '99. Non-factors in the division race from 1999 to 2002, the Cubs were more than successful in marketing the Freak Show: Come see how far Sammy can hit the ball.
To the denizens who packed Wrigley Field day after day, for a time, whether the Cubs won or lost didn't matter. Their box score was complete if Sammy went deep. Which, more often than not, he did.
"It was crazy," Wood says of his rookie season in '98, when Sosa's route to 66 homers helped push the Cubs into the playoffs as the National League Wild Card. "For me to come in as a rookie, I'm thinking this is what Major League Baseball is all about, and I'm not sure I'm ready for this.
"I'm watching stuff in person that's never been seen in a game. Some of the stuff they [Sosa and McGwire] were doing was absurd. It felt like every time I pitched, he hit at least one home run, and most of the time two.
"It was fun. The media circus, every day you walked onto the field and there were 60 media outlets. Cameras everywhere. Watching him after the game, 50 reporters were around him, and he was holding court. And I'm thinking, 'Thank God that’s not me.'"
"It was a magical year," former Cubs GM Ed Lynch (1994-2000) says. "It started on a horrible note when Harry Caray dropped dead a few days after Valentine's Day. But Kerry Wood had his 20-strikeout game [May 6], Sammy hit 20 homers in the month of June, the whole McGwire-Sosa home-run race and us battling the last two months with only a game separating us and the Giants for the wild card.
"We had hundreds of media with us every day for months. Then, the regular season culminated with us in St. Louis when McGwire hit No. 62. What are the chances of that?"
The media loved Sosa because he lit up with the television lights. McGwire? He was viewed as a mope. He wore the pressure of chasing Roger Maris' single-season record 61 homers like a 50-pound lead weight. But for every caustic comment from him, Sosa delivered smiles by the dozens like roses.
The man former GM Larry Himes acquired twice—when Himes was with the White Sox in 1989 (from Texas) and when he was with the Cubs in 1992 (from the White Sox)—and once was viewed as a lithe, prototypical leadoff hitter now was a full-blown power broker, both in the batter's box and in selling the game to fans still reluctant to bite after the '94-95 strike.
But every spotlight creates its own shadows.
His sudden power surge, Sosa often quipped, was attributable to Flintstones vitamins. His portable boom box that sent pounding bass lines through home and road clubhouses began to wear on teammates, some of whom already didn't appreciate the way he had sprinted in from right field to congratulate McGwire after Big Mac broke Maris' record in that game against the Cardinals while the Cubs were fighting for a playoff spot in '98.
There was Sammy's program, and then there was the rest of the Cubs' program. Some of his teammates dealt with it better than others as the years passed. Many tired of his act. But as long as the home runs flowed and the stands were packed, Sammy mostly was untouchable. Yabba dabba doo.
Then came a swing on June 3, 2003, a shattered bat and umpire Tim McClelland spying a large piece of cork in the infield during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. Sosa immediately was ejected.
"I was in the bullpen at the time," Mike Remlinger, the former reliever, says. "I went into the clubhouse, and I saw the bat in the tunnel on the way in. I grabbed it because I didn't know what the umpires had, and I figured they didn't need any more evidence other than what they already had. I went upstairs, and Sammy was talking with [outfielder] Moises Alou, and we talked about where we would go from there.
"There was a lot of tension, a lot of emotion around. I told him, 'Do whatever you want to do, but for me, if you just admit a mistake, that's your best chance of people forgiving you.' That was my advice: It may hurt to tell the truth, but say you made a mistake. That's your best option."
Out of that came this: Sosa apologized and did cop to a mistake—the mistake of accidentally grabbing one of his batting-practice bats that he used to put on a show for the fans and using it in the game. It was a thoroughly unbelievable tale and slashed a huge swath through his credibility.
Instantly, he became a national punchline.
Meanwhile, something else was happening: The Cubs finally had built a winner again, and, with that, their entire culture was changing. Over that year and the next, Sosa would be forced to adjust to attention shifting away from him and onto the team as it charged toward the playoffs.
For a sensitive man whose knee-jerk reaction was to become defensive whenever he felt like he wasn't being accepted, that adjustment became a problem.
As Sosa's homer totals skidded from 64 to 49, 40 and then 35 from 2001 to 2004 and his RBI totals went 160-108-103-80, his impact diminished. As it did, predictably, his selfish quirks, in the views of many around the clubhouse, turned from charming to grating.
His self-absorption. His mugging for the television cameras. Going AWOL whenever he was hurt and failing to be on the dugout bench to root for his teammates. That damned boom box that lived by his locker and sometimes practically plastered everyone against the wall, it was so loud.
Gently, Karros would talk to Sammy. Sometimes, it wasn't so gentle, but when Karros did get in the slugger's face, it was with a mixture of humor and love: Sammy, you ain't going that good right now. Turn that boom box down.
Sometimes, Sosa would laugh and lower the volume. Other times, maybe he wouldn't, but he'd leave it off the next day. Rarely was there anything purposely harmful or spiteful in his antics. Nevertheless, many of the antics would leave teammates rolling their eyes.
And he couldn't see far enough past the mirror he was looking into to notice how much he was alienating so many in his path.
As Sosa exited the Wrigley Field parking lot for the final time in 2004, the amazing part is that he could see through the howling blizzard of his destroyed legacy to make it home safely.
After coming so close to the World Series in the Steve Bartman Game 6 in '03, optimism surrounding the Cubs in '04 was higher than the Sears Tower. Then came the injuries and the misfires and ultimately a fatal blow on the second-to-last Saturday of the season in New York. Leading, 3-0, entering the ninth inning at Shea Stadium and desperately needing victories, the Cubs let it get away.
They would go on to lose six of their final eight games. Tempers and frustration overflowing, the Cubs finished the season at home against the Atlanta Braves.
In short order, Sosa sent an emissary to tell Baker that he didn't want to play Sunday, left Sunday's game shortly after the first pitch without even getting into uniform, lied about it (claiming he had stayed until the late innings) and then ripped Baker, who had dared to tell the media before the Sunday finale that Sammy needed to be in better shape both physically and mentally in 2005.
"Hey, listen," Dempster says. "Whether you play one day or 20 years in the majors, whether you're a superstar or the 25th man on the team, there's a certain way you carry yourself among teammates. You don't ever do certain things.
"I think a lot of guys were really hurt. It bothered them for him to just leave like that. But at the same time, we're not in his shoes. We don't know what he was going through. We don't know what his emotions were.
"We're all human beings, and we all make mistakes, and that's OK. It's OK to make a mistake and to apologize. Nobody should be too proud on the other end to apologize."
As with parents learning which of their children need tough love and which need stroking, so it was with the Cubs and Sosa for 13 seasons. Karros recognized immediately that Sosa was a fragile personality who responded to praise and reflexively snarled when criticized. In controversially extending Sosa's contract for four years and $42.5 million in June 1997, MacPhail recognized it, too.
"I always believed Sammy was one of those players where, the more love you gave him, the better he played," says MacPhail, whose decision to extend Sosa was applauded a year later as the historic '98 season unspooled.
By the time Sosa exited Wrigley Field on Oct. 3, 2004, that love was long gone. Now, it was only a matter of time before he was escorted to the Chicago city limits after the Cubs traded him, a deal executed with the Baltimore Orioles by MacPhail and Jim Hendry on Feb. 2, 2005.
"If you create Frankenstein, you can't be real surprised if he eats the village," former Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone famously said at the time. "It's not his fault. You created him. ... The Cubs as an organization had a very permissive attitude toward Sammy Sosa."
Says MacPhail: "It wasn't like the Cubs were doing it, necessarily. It was a function of the entire environment back in the days when he was cranking out 60-plus home runs in three of four years.
"The issue was all of it. The fans, when he walked out of the dugout and got into the on-deck circle, you could hear the chatter of the crowd raise. When he got to the plate, nobody left to get a Coke or a beer. Everybody sat in their seat. That’s the nature of it. It's not a creation of somebody's media department. It's just all of it."
Hendry bristles today at the still-popular notion that the trade was a direct response to what happened on the final weekend of '04.
"My desire to trade him was over the last year, year and a half he was there and had nothing to do with him leaving that game early," Hendry, now a special assistant to New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, says. "My interest was in whatever I thought was best for the Chicago Cubs."
Then, that March, came the Congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. Just before pleading his English was not good enough to continue answering questions, Sosa told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, "I have never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I have never injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything."
Five years later, after it was disclosed that Sosa had indeed tested positive for PEDs in 2003, the committee decided against asking the Department of Justice to pursue perjury charges against Sosa.
THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!
Within hours after that final game in '04, the underground legend is that livid teammates took a bat to Sosa's now-infamous boom box and smashed it to pieces. The incident continues to reverberate through the years as the signature moment for the crushed hopes and spewing vitriol that accompanied the end of the season and Sosa's exit.
Though nobody has ever publicly confirmed the details, the story has been that Wood took the first few whacks, and several teammates stepped up next, like attendees at a birthday party taking swings at a pinata.
"I will set the record straight by saying there were 24 guys upset with what happened," says Wood, who refused to say whether he took the first swing. "There are things that need to be kept inside the clubhouse.''
However, of Sosa's abrupt departure, he said, "Most of the time, we're all men enough to talk through things and work them out. We didn't get that chance because he left. That was the last time I saw him. We didn't get the chance to hug a teammate and say goodbye. Talk about the season and go over emotions. We were short a guy."
Explains one ex-Cub: "Nobody really wants to deal with him anymore. If he was a kind and generous and thoughtful and caring person as a player, people would want to deal with him. But they don't."
The broadsides continued over the years, from Chicago all the way to Cooperstown. Ryne Sandberg went out of his way in his 2005 Hall of Fame induction speech to deliver a clear shot at his ex-teammate.
"When did it become OK for someone to hit home runs and forget how to play the rest of the game?" Sandberg said on the Cooperstown podium. "If this validates anything, it's that learning how to bunt and hit and run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera."
Where Sosa once triumphantly returned home to the Dominican Republic to a hero's welcome from the president, now he cannot even get his No. 21 jersey retired by the Cubs. They have handed it out to six players since his departure, including such non-luminaries as Tyler Colvin, Joe Mather and Junior Lake.
Where he once sat next to First Lady Hillary Clinton during a State of the Union address, he now can't even score an invitation to Wrigley Field.
"People are creatures of their own environment, right?" Dempster says. "We as a baseball society feed a persona, an ego. I've been fed it before. And it's really hard to take a step back and say, 'Wait, I'm not that good.'
"I think that's one thing, Sammy was put on a pedestal. For some reason, it seems like the way we like to do things is to put someone on a pedestal so we can knock them down. So we put him on this pedestal and put these expectations on him that were, quite honestly, unrealistic."
Today, Sosa is said to spend much of his time at home in Miami, thickly insulated, as he has been for years, by layers of handlers. He is said to travel frequently to Europe and beyond. He rarely makes public appearances, and when he has, in 2009, his strange skin-bleaching episode freaked everyone out and overshadowed everything else.
"He should be back by now," one ex-teammate says. "I thought maybe he was ashamed to come back. I haven't seen him, but I've seen the pictures."
Several attempts over many weeks to reach Sosa for this story—through his agent, lawyer, ex-teammates and publicist—went nowhere.
Rebecca Polihronis, who works with Sosa as a publicist, says, "Like most current and former MLB players, Sammy loves the game of baseball and its fans. He also considers Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs to be his home. He would love to visit, but doesn't want to stay as a coach or manager.
"Baseball has given him the opportunity to develop two new companies. These days, he spends most of his time and efforts on those companies, Injex21 and Riverhead Advisors."
Injex21, of all things, is a technology for needle-free injections. Riverhead Advisors, according to its website, is a "unique commodity sourcing firm that focuses on the movement of physical products and commodities in the world market. The company specializes in sugar, petroleum products and prefabricated housing and buildings."
"My whole thing is, if he wants to be involved in Cubs stuff, publicity, whatever, at some point you'd think he’d make an effort," Remlinger says. "Talk for a story like this, whatever."
Wood has not seen Sosa since the end of the '04 season, though he thinks he's exchanged a couple of emails with Sosa. Thinks.
"I'm not 100 percent sure it's him, but here and there, he's reached out with some questions," Wood says. "There's nothing like a phone number I can call.
"I would love to [see him]. I would love to have dinner with him, or a drink, and catch up. He was a teammate of mine for a long time. Whether it's him I emailed with, I'm not sure. It could be someone in his circle."
Hendry last saw him in the spring of 2007, when Sosa was training for his final major league season with the Texas Rangers. Karros? The '05 season in Baltimore, when Karros was in town for a bachelor party and his group went to Camden Yards. Sosa was playing right field that night, and Karros and his friends were in the right-field stands.
"I kept screaming at him, and he wouldn't look up,” Karros says. "Finally, I said some phrase that only he would recognize, and he turned around.
"He really has dropped off the face of the earth."
And then there's Remlinger, who kept that broken bat from the cork-filled night of '03 and, seven years later, facing the end of his marriage and dire financial straits, put it up for auction. He wound up selling it to the CEO of Harry Caray's Restaurant Group, Grant DePorter, for $14,407.
For years, he kept it in the game room of his home in Phoenix. Figuring the bat was worth something, he mostly kept it on the down-low. When financial trouble bit him, he attempted to reach Sosa.
"I never spoke to him directly," Remlinger says. "I called an old number we had on one of our end-of-season lists, a phone number in Florida, and got one of his lackeys. I told him I have the bat and was going to sell it, and if Sammy was interested in it to let me know, and if not, no big deal.
"I got a message that Sammy was going to talk to me, going to give me a call, and then I never heard anything. Then, when I sold the bat, he was quoted in the paper that I should have talked to him first.
"It's always been about PR with Sammy. It's always about publicity. I wasn't going to get in a shouting match with him in the papers. He said, 'If he needed money, he should have just called me.' I'm like, 'Yeah, all right.'"
Nobody understands that more than the Cubs, both then and now.
Privately, according to multiple sources, the Cubs have had back-channel discussions with Sosa and his advisers as recently as last summer. Overtures have been made. The Cubs dispatched an envoy to personally meet with Sosa in Florida. The meeting was described as "unproductive."
His path back into baseball, at least into alumnus-in-good-standing with the Cubs, is clear: He must make the first move publicly. He must lay serious groundwork before returning to Wrigley Field. That way, the media feeding frenzy would be somewhat muted because apologies or, at the very least, explanations already would have been issued.
However, he's also backed himself into an untenable corner with his strategy. Unlike McGwire, who repeatedly told Congress in '05, "I'm not here to talk about the past," Sosa, under oath, flatly denied using steroids. Though the five-year statute of limitations period for such cases has passed, Sosa's brush with the law might have scared him away from any type of steroids admission for good.
Though the Cubs choose their words with care and precision, ultimately, part of the enormously complicated picture is this: If they simply invited Sosa back to an event as is, be it the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field last summer or a simple Cubs Convention, his presence alone would threaten to overtake the entire thing.
That would be tenuous enough in most normal years. But now? With rock-star manager Maddon aboard and the Cubs sailing toward what they hope is a very bright future as soon as this summer? There is little motivation for the Cubs to, in McGwire's words, talk about the past.
"You talk to any fan and they say, 'I remember Sammy running out to right field,'" says Karros, who videotaped some of those moments himself during the summer of '03. "No matter where the relationship stands, that's something that's never going away. It's got to be acknowledged. For 10, 12 years, that was part of the Chicago Cubs. What he brought the fans, the relationship at some point has to be repaired. But it has to work both ways.
"I don't know what Sammy's like nowadays. My guess is he feels hurt; he feels wronged. He's very proud. He's probably not going to apologize for anything. That would be my guess."
And that's the hurdle that cannot be cleared: A truculent manchild who will not mumble the words "I'm sorry" pitted against an intractable organization on the verge of its next big moment, unwilling to expose itself to a potential tsunami from the past unless the conditions are minimized.
However the scouting report reads, it's sad. Because in the immediate aftermath of Ernie Banks' death, which came not long after that of Ron Santo, and with Sandberg managing the Philadelphia Phillies and Mark Grace excommunicated from the organization, the Cubs' supply of living legends is dangerously low. There are Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams and not much else.
"He added a lot of things to the Chicago Cubs and a lot of things to baseball," Williams says. "I'd like to see Sammy come back and everybody welcome him with open arms."
Says Wood: "If you talk to him, tell him he's got several ex-teammates who would love to see him."