Sosa's stats merit Hall of Fame recognition

February 18, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

Sammy Sosa's agent says it looks like the slugger might retire rather than accept the one meager contract offer he received from the Washington Nationals, which means, first of all, that there does appear to be a ceiling on the collective cluelessness of major league clubs.

Anyone who watched Sosa swing and miss at a relentless diet of outside pitches while playing for the Orioles in 2005 knows he couldn't possibly help anyone this year, but such overwhelming evidence seldom stops some desperate, buzz-hungry team from taking a chance on such a player, hoping to get lucky and maybe sell a few tickets.

This time, it appears everyone paid attention and got the message. (As did Japan's teams, which, in a major upset, also have shunned Sosa.)

In any case, Sosa's likely retirement (one never knows for sure) inevitably raises the question of whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame. I say he does. I don't see how you can keep him out.

There would be no debate if Sosa hadn't played in what we'll call the Juiced Ballplayer Era, under the widespread supposition - never proved - that he was among the juiced. Although he struck out a ton, got caught corking his bat and wasn't the greatest outfielder, he ranks fifth on the all-time home run list with 588. He is the only major leaguer to hit at least 60 homers in three seasons. Why have a Hall if it doesn't include one of the all-time boppers? A key factor in determining any player's Hall worthiness is whether he dominated his era, and no player has hit more homers in any 10-year span than Sosa did from 1995 to 2004, when he hit 476 .

But of course, the taint of steroids complicates Sosa's candidacy, as it does for all of his era's potential new Hall members, starting with Mark McGwire next year. Should their numbers be ignored because chemicals supposedly disrupted the game's natural order? Should new minimum standards be applied - say, 600 homers gets you in instead of 500? Should even the best players from this era be denied entry for several years as a way of making a statement?

You have to decide where you stand on each of those larger questions before making judgments on individual players. I know Hall voters who will not vote for any players from this era because of the taint, but I can't go that far. I see Hall candidacies largely as numbers games (I'm fond of hard evidence), and despite what you think, the impact of steroids on the game and its statistics remains unknown.

Yes, Roger Maris' single-season home run record has been shattered, but there's more to the story. The majors' overall ratio of home runs per at-bat rose sharply from 1900 through 1960, declined for two decades, and has since risen to an all-time high - but that all-time high isn't that much higher than the ratios that prevailed in the late 1950s, before steroids . What does that say?

As well, only six of the top 20 all-time home run hitters swung a bat in the 1990s, so it's just a myth that the game's annals are being overrun by bulked-up sluggers who otherwise would hit like Jeff Reboulet.

Most importantly, since baseball didn't effectively test for steroids until last year, there is no record to consider, just supposition. (Unless the player tested positive like someone we know.) Sosa is a classic case. He hit just 37 homers in his first 1,283 major league at-bats, and then suddenly was an All-Star slugger for years before tailing away when steroid testing was ramped up in 2005. His career arc is not without its suspicious turns. But that's all they are - suspicions, as opposed to the hard evidence, which is that he is a no-brainer for the Hall statistically, and that, for better or worse, he was one of the game's brightest lights for a long time.

Yes, the apparent end of his career was as abrupt as it was pathetic, featuring a startling power outage in Baltimore and that hilarious "speak-a-no-Englis" turn in front of congressional steroid investigators last March. But a poor ending shouldn't have any bearing on a player's Hall worthiness (Unitas in San Diego? Mays in New York?) and neither should unproven suspicions.

I'm all for keeping some of this era's players out of the Hall on the first ballot, and maybe even the second, as a way of sending a message of general rebuke, even if the known details are fuzzy. But the punishment should fit the crime in the end, and Sosa, a bona fide superstar in his day, belongs in the Hall if anyone does.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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