The 600-home run plateau has been reached by only four players in major-league history. Yet somehow, one player is fast approaching that mark with less fanfare than an episode of 30 Rock. If it is possible to make an under-the-radar assault on 600 homers, then that's what Sammy Sosa is doing. The hop-happy Rangers slugger is at 597 and counting heading into Thursday's game against the Devil Rays.
Many of us -- myself included -- dismissed his signing this spring as a public relations gambit by a Texas ballclub that has never won a playoff series and isn't likely to in the near future. Get juice wherever you can, right? (Perhaps in more ways than one.) Hence the signing of Sosa, who if nothing else brought a good deal of publicity to Rangers camp this spring.
But something happened on the way to Sosa's ignominious swan song. He started raking. He leads Rangers regulars in slugging percentage (.530) and ranks second on the club in home runs with nine, trailing only the hot-starting second baseman Ian Kinsler (10). And this is without Sosa taking advantage of the Rangers' launching pad of a ballpark -- his road OPS (1.148) more than doubles his home OPS (.532). How surprising is Slammin' Sammy's resurgence? Consider that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA, the most reliable player-prediction system, had him down for a meager .385 slugging percentage this season, which is basically what he did for Baltimore in 2005 before taking a year off.
Thanks largely to Sosa, the Rangers are a respectable fourth in the AL in runs scored at 4.73 per game despite the fact that they sport a miserable excuse for an American League starting outfield; Brad Wilkerson-Kenny Lofton-Nelson Cruz do anything for you? (The pitching, of course, is as bad as ever, ranking 13th in the league in runs allowed and keeping the Rangers mired comfortably in last place, 7 1/2 games out.)
Critics and cynics alike can say Sosa's successful comeback wouldn't be possible without some type of chemical enhancement. Perhaps they are correct. Maybe Sosa was going to get those last 12 home runs to reach 600 either by hook or by cork, er, crook. There is no test for Human Growth Hormone, which means Sosa and anybody else who feels like it can take as much HGH as he wants. It's possible that there is a new, unknown designer drug that is a potent successor to THG. All we do know for sure is that the drugs that supposedly fueled the late 1990s power binge can be ruled out; hardcore steroids, such as deca durabolin and Winstrol (Rafael Palmeiro's downfall), and the cream and the clear (THG) are all being tested for by MLB. Maybe it's not the most encompassing of tests as far as offseason testing or whatever, but any player taking those substances now would be a fool to risk detection.
The bigger question has more to do with how Sosa's return to form jibes with our lingering disillusionment of the 1998 Home Run Race and The Steroid Era in general. I mean, it was a fraud, right? It was in the papers and everything. We're supposed to feel guilty for having cheered Sammy and Big Mac all summer long while they pursued Roger Maris' record of 61 home runs, right?
But with every blast Sosa launches, he disturbs the widespread perception of The Steroid Era (capital letters). We've painted a lot of players from the same time frame with the same broad brush as cheaters. And maybe they were cheating. But maybe there were other factors, too (i.e. expansion, smaller stadiums, lively baseballs, bad pitching, etc.) that had a lot to do with it. At what point do we stop revising history and start giving Sosa and Barry Bonds credit for what they are doing right now under a different set of conditions?