Cubs’ Sammy Sosa helped change Barry Bonds career trajectory

(Photo by TANNEN MAURY/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by TANNEN MAURY/AFP via Getty Images) /

Former Chicago Cubs’ star Sammy Sosa and St. Louis Cardinals star Mark McGwire set the baseball world alight with their home run chase during the summer of 1998.

Both sluggers chased Roger Maris’ single-season home run record, with Mark McGwire finishing the season with a new record of 70 dingers and Sammy Sosa following with 66 round-trippers of his own while carrying the Chicago Cubs to a postseason berth.

While some have speculated the excitement of the chase helped to save baseball, it also led to the slow unveiling of one of the darkest periods in the history of the game: the steroid era.

Even more ominously, the notoriety Sosa and McGwire received as they ascended to stardom almost single-handedly altered the career of one of the game’s most celebrated superstars in Barry Bonds.

Younger baseball fans likely associate Bonds with the home run, as well. In 2001, he broke McGwire’s single-season record by clubbing 73 homers, and he finished his career with a record 762 homers. However, Bonds’ ties to steroids–like Sosa and McGwire–have kept him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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But before 1998, Bonds was unquestionably the best all-around talents in baseball. He won three National League MVP awards between 1990 and 1993 and posted a 40-40 season in 1996. There is no doubt Bonds was the greatest player in the 90s.

Yet, Bonds was somehow like the best-kept secret. After ’93, the accolades were few and far between. Bonds finished no higher than fourth in the MVP voting before the 1998 season.

In ’98, Bonds led the MLB in fWAR, per FanGraphs, and he also finished second in win probability added (WPA), per Baseball-Reference. So, did he win the MVP? No, that award went to Sosa, who finished eighth and third, respectively, in the categories mentioned above.

Naturally, Sosa and McGwire’s gaudy numbers were hard to ignore, but it was also their unprecedented fame that likely irked Bonds, who deserved every bit as much of the recognition.

Bonds was a bit of a surly character who had a poor relationship with the media. At the same time, Sosa and McGwire were these jovial characters who established a close friendship with the fans and one another. Their apparent likability had as much to do with their fame as their towering home runs.

Thus, it is no coincidence that Bonds’ alleged timeline of steroid use began in earnest in 1998 when he hired former personal trainer Greg Anderson. The turn of the millennium would see Bonds become one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, and one of the most controversial as well.

Bonds would indeed recapture the attention of the media, winning four consecutive MVPs and–in 2002–putting up one of the most ridiculous World Series performances in history.

But Bonds’ perjury indictment and the constant speculation he used have also led many fans to believe he is one of the biggest disgraces in the game.

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The truth is, Bonds was already an all-time great heading towards the turn of the century. But Sosa and McGwire’s epic chase in the summer of ’98 had an especially notable impact on Bonds’ legacy, in particular.