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.

Baseball as primitive religious ritual

One common means that sociologists use to gain perspective on social phenomena is to consider what an alien might observe and conclude if they happened to see human social life. Hampton Stevens takes a similar tack at to report on baseball as a primitive religious ritual:

Essentially, the religion of baseball is based on the hurling of a small, white orb that represents the sins of believers, and the attempt to expiate those sins by the ritualized touching of three small white squares. Two bands of warrior-priests wage an intricate, highly symbolic battle to see who can cleanse the most of their followers’ sins.

Each sect has a high priest. He stands elevated atop a circular mound at the very heart of the temple, the sanctum sanctorum of, beneath which are buried his ancestors and martyrs to the faith. Hurling the white sphere, he thus symbolically accuses the entire community of some great wrongdoing, challenging them to defend themselves and their sacred honor.

A cleric from the opposing clan does just that. He holds a weapon, offering a defense by trying to strike the orb in the hopes of being allowed to progress through the series of small white squares and therefore disprove the accusation.

While this may seem like a silly essay, it has value:

1. It is always useful to be reminded how others view practices that we think of as “normal.” Whether the others are aliens or people from different cultures, it is a reminder that what is obvious to us may not be obvious to others. Indeed, social life is made of up of norms and rules that one must learn starting at a young age.

2. Sporting events can be thought of on religious terms. While I have joked that being a Cubs fan is almost like having another religion because of the amount of faith it requires, sports in American society can be analyzed as “functional religion.” Particularly with an event like the Super Bowl, the amount of attention, time, and money spent on sports is astounding. We gather in stadiums/”hallowed grounds” to lustily cheer on our “good” team versus the “evil” team from another place. We might even go so far as to suggest that it may be possible that more Americans pay more attention to sports than they do to religion.

The end of the Lou Pinella era

As I listened to the Chicago Cubs pregame on WGN Radio, I heard the news that Lou Pinella is resigning after Sunday’s game against the Braves. A few of my thoughts about the Lou Pinella era:

1. This resignation spells the true end of this four year era of Cubs baseball. As the players leave (Lee, Theriot, Lilly) and now the manager is gone, the bottom has fallen out on the Cubs. The four year run included two playoff trips from two very good teams that couldn’t break through the first round.

2. Lou as a person has been fascinating to watch. He clearly has a wealth of baseball knowledge yet at the same time can often seem like another grumpy old man. He has one of the slowest walks to the mound. He can be grumpy with post-game questions. I have seen some pictures and I have read his statistics at but I still have a hard time believing he was a serviceable player for some good late 1970s New York Yankees teams.

3. I don’t know what to make of Pinella’s managerial skills. While he will certainly be remembered for two playoff losses (including yanking Carlos Zambrano early in Game 1 in 2007) and then asking for more left-handed hitting before 2009 (which seemed to backfire), I think managers are like the President of the United States: they get lots of credits when things are good, blamed for everything when things are bad. Ultimately, the players are the ones who make and break the team.

4. Hearing Ron Santo’s pregame interview with Pinella, I was reminded why some people don’t like listening to Santo and why some Cubs fans love him. Santo sounded depressed for much of the interview and talked about how much he enjoyed their friendship. Ron really does bleed Cubby blue.

5. I hope the Cubs go with a relative newcomer when selecting a new manager – the last two big names of Dusty Baker and Lou Pinella haven’t worked out. It looks like next year will be a rebuilding year and it would be interesting to see a younger guy (like a Ryne Sandberg?) mold a new Cubs team.

UPDATE 9:28 PM 8/22/10 – Listening to Pinella’s post-game press conference was touching as Pinella got choked up about his time in Chicago. He really did seem to enjoy his time with the Cubs – even if he may only be remembered for being another Cubs manager who couldn’t win a World Series.