From star to persona non grata

The Tiger Woods saga is a reminder that fame and success can be fleeting: one can go from the toast of the world to a pariah pretty quickly.

Chicago’s version of this may be the tale of Sammy Sosa. Sosa’s story is remarkable: he grew up very poor, came to town as a skinny White Sox outfielder, was traded to the Cubs and became a prodigious home run hitter, and then quickly disappeared and according to one commentator “now is persona non grata in the entire city.”

As a profile in Chicago Magazine suggests, Sosa helped run himself out of town:

Sosa’s transformation from Chicago icon to pariah has a lot to do with the controversies that tarnished his image: his use of a corked bat in 2003; his walkout during the last game of the 2004 season; and his years of self-indulgent behavior, which exasperated teammates and management. Any discussion of Sosa’s perceived failings must also, of course, include the elephant in the locker room: the suspicion that steroids helped fuel his career total of 609 home runs, the sixth highest in major-league history.

In retrospect, some of these issues seem easy to spot – even the most ardent Cubs fan today can see some of the troubles Sosa brought. His part in the lingering steroids scandal, which will take years to sort out as voters consider more players for the Hall of Fame, is damaging.

Yet, at the same time, when times were good with Sammy, they were good:

For years he and the organization had formed a spectacularly successful theatrical partnership, staging the Sammy Show at sun-drenched, beer-sozzled Wrigley Field. If the production resembled home run derby more than actual baseball, that was OK—the show was a smash, and the team was happy to count the box office receipts that poured in.

The magnetic Sosa seemed born to play the role of Slammin’ Sammy, and the Cubs’ marketing muscle helped spread the image of a carefree and cuddly hero who hopped when he hit home runs, tapped his heart to show his love for his adoring fans, and blew kisses to the TV cameras. If the truth was more complicated—if the star could be a maddeningly self-absorbed diva offstage—that was OK as long as the baseballs kept flying out of Wrigley Field. And if he sprouted muscles like Popeye after an epic spinach bender, apparently that was OK, too, provided that the turnstiles at Wrigley Field kept spinning.

As the profile notes, even as the Cubs languished during some years, Sosa was the baseball show for numerous summers.

So now Sosa languishes in some odd celebrity limbo like Woods: once revered, they both have shown a more frail human side, and have not yet recovered. I think both of them could regain some measure of standing: Woods by winning again and Sosa perhaps coming clean about steroids or offering apologies to his teammates. But they may never again reach the peaks of fame they once knew. While we haven’t heard Woods comment on how this feels to him, it sounds like Sosa is still struggling with this lesser status.

0 thoughts on “From star to persona non grata

  1. I had a history teacher who would quote the line, “How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” Then he would share another example of a Sosa-like character who could not adjust to life out of the limelight when once the light had shown so brightly. One example is Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who went from the classroom at Bowdoin College in Maine to winning the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg. He then was governor of Maine, and president of Bowdoin College after the war, but he never was comfortable being “down on the farm” and even tried to volunteer, late in life, to go lead troops in a foreign war. A good counter question is: “How do some people make a graceful transition from the lime light and enjoy life on the farm again?”

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