The Red Sox once signed Sammy Sosa, but he never played for Boston

Sammy Sosa has a complicated reputation among baseball fans.

To some, Sosa is one of the greatest sluggers who ever lived – a Chicago Cubs titan who thrice topped the 60-home run plateau while reinvigorating a lost generation of fans. The Dominican hit 609 home runs in an absorbing career, including 66 in 1998, when his fairytale race against the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire captivated America and brought people back to baseball following an intense labour war.

To others, though, Sosa is persona non grata – a fallen hero shrouded in suspicion amid recurring links to performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). The New York Times reported that Sosa failed a PED test in 2003, back before MLB punished such offences. Sosa also appeared before Congress in 2005 – sat beside McGwire, José Canseco and Rafael Palmeiro, all admitted steroids cheats – but has remained steadfast in denial.

All told, then, Slammin’ Sammy ranks among the most divisive players of his generation, and arguments abound whenever his name is mentioned. Yet whatever people call Sammy Sosa – legend, cheat, slugger, deceiver – few remember him as a member of the Boston Red Sox. A quick skim of Wikipedia reveals no mention of The Olde Towne Team. Neither does a search of Baseball-Reference. Sosa only ever played for the Cubs, White Sox, Rangers and Orioles, according to Baseball Almanac. Few recall him in anything but a Cubs uniform, quite frankly, while any Red Sox links are tenuous at best.

Well, contrary to popular reminiscence, for 66 days in 1995, Sammy Sosa was a Boston Red Sock. Well, kinda. He did agree a major league contract with Dan Duquette, Boston’s general manager. And, yes, there was a visit to Fenway Park – even if an introductory press conference never materialised. This is the story of how that happened – how an epochal slugger agreed to join the Red Sox on the cusp of his iconic prime – and why it does not appear in the baseball record books.

Dan Duquette, Sammy Sosa and the Boston Red Sox

An Amherst graduate from Dalton, Massachusetts, Duquette took charge of his hometown Red Sox in February 1994, keen to reshape a team approaching eight decades without a World Series title. Though later derided as an aloof caricature, Duquette was actually rather progressive for that era, using rudimentary analytics in player evaluation and roster construction. Duquette later hired Mike Gimbel, an obscure statistical guru, as his chief lieutenant, and traditionalists chafed at their unconventional approach.

Perhaps some esoteric data trend led Duquette to Sosa in the winter of 1994. To that point, Sosa was something of an untamed beast – parts of six big league seasons with Texas and the two Chicago clubs yielding streaky power and inconsistent contact rates. Indeed, through the first 658 games of his MLB career, Sosa posted an OPS+ of 100. In other words, he was the very definition of average, and at age 26, the clock was ticking on his undoubted potential.

Why the MLB strike, 1994-1995, made Sammy Sosa a free agent

Of course, the 1994 baseball season was cut short, as years of mistrust and subterfuge between the MLB players and team owners culminated in an ugly impasse. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which governed rules and relations between both parties, lapsed on 31 December 1993, and the season unfurled amid cold war tension.

The owners sought to introduce a salary cap and revenue-sharing measures while centralising powers in the hands of the MLB commissioner. The MLB Players Association (MLBPA) opposed those changes and initiated a strike in August 1994. Commissioner Bud Selig responded by cancelling all remaining games, including the playoffs and World Series, which was not played for the first time in 90 years.

As labour relations deteriorated, the owners made unagreed changes, threatening the order of baseball business and jeopardising the game’s undecided future. A salary cap was unilaterally implemented late in December 1994, along with new rules governing free agency.

Eradicating salary arbitration, the owners granted restricted free agency to 38 players with four or five years of big league service time. Instead of exchanging figures with one team through arbitration, those restricted free agents could negotiate with all teams. If a deal was agreed, the player’s old team had 10 days to match the contract offer or walk away.

Ostensibly, Sammy Sosa belonged to the cohort of 38 restricted free agents. However, confusion reigned when MLBPA chief Donald Fehr countered with his own unilateral declaration, in January 1995. According to Fehr, the owners broke legal agreements by making such unilateral alterations to player contract. Accordingly, Fehr and the MLBPA considered all unsigned players – 895 in total – to be unrestricted free agents. Uncertainty poisoned the waters, and Congress soon intervened to grease the wheels of negotiations.

How Sammy Sosa signed with the Boston Red Sox

One way or the other, Sammy Sosa was able to speak with teams other than the Cubs, who had acquired him in a crosstown trade two-and-a-half years earlier. The Red Sox showed sufficient interest, and a meeting was set for 26 January 1995. “New GM Dan Duquette nearly pulled off a true coup,” recalled Bill Nowlin in his 2006 book Day by Day With the Boston Red Sox. “Both Sammy Sosa and relief ace John Wetteland visited Fenway Park, along with their mutual agent, Adam Katz. Within days, Wetteland agreed to a three-year, $15 million contract with the Red Sox, and Sosa and the Sox came to a tentative agreement, as well.”

Immediately following the impromptu Fenway powwow, the Boston Globe reported that Sosa had agreed to terms with the Red Sox. Cognisant of the ongoing strike and accompanying signing freeze, Katz refuted those reports. “We’ve had meaningful discussions with the Red Sox,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “But by no means do we have a deal.”

Incidentally, Duquette also reached a tentative agreement with Kevin Appier during this period, adding the prominent Kansas City ace to a smart haul including Sosa and Wetteland. A prior trade for the aforementioned Canseco bolstered a solid lineup, while holdovers stars like Mo Vaughn and Roger Clemens gave Boston a formidable core. If the 1995 season ever got underway, the Red Sox looked set to challenge for that elusive world title.

Why the Sammy Sosa-Red Sox deal fell apart

Alas, negotiations between the players and owners ground to a halt, dampening enthusiasm among fatigued fans. In fact, on the very day Sosa visited Fenway to discuss joining the Red Sox, President Bill Clinton ordered the two sides to resume bargaining. The White House set an arbitrary deadline – 6 February – for an agreement to be reached and the season to commence. The President told both sides to quit playing around.

During renewed talks, minor progress was made when the owners proved willing to renege on their salary cap fixation, but the MLBPA was still perturbed by likely changes to free agency and arbitration. To wit, in late January, the MLBPA voted to continue its freeze on player signings, casting doubt on the verbal agreements struck by Duquette and his peers – Sosa included.

When Clinton’s deadline passed without resolution, the owners pressed ahead with plans to hold spring training and a regular season with ‘replacement players’ – those willing to cross the picket line for a $115,000 base salary plus incentives. Those replacement players actually reported to spring training and played in contrived exhibition games, as public trust in the national pastime reached a new nadir.

Finally, in late March 1995, a breakthrough came when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) filed a complaint in federal court, supporting the players and charging that MLB team owners had not bargained in good faith throughout the process. The NLRB sought an injunction against the owners, claiming they had violated the National Labor Relations Act by unilaterally eliminating salary arbitration, competitive bargaining for free agents, and anti-collusion provisions in the CBA. Judge Sonia Sotomayor issued a preliminary injunction a few days later, and support from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit kiboshed any prospect of appeal by the owners. The old CBA terms were reintroduced on 2 April 1995, and the MLBPA ordered its members back to work.

As the old CBA granted free agency to players after six full years of big league service time, Sammy Sosa was removed from the open market, his Red Sox agreement void after more than two months in limbo. Effectively, Sosa was still a Cubs player, and GM Ed Lynch could choose to take the slugger to arbitration or offer him a fresh contract. Three weeks later, on 24 April 1995, Sosa agreed a one-year, $4.3 million deal with Cubs, avoiding arbitration and ending one of the strangest conquests in baseball history.

“When the strike ended and cleared the way for the 1995 season, there was some question as to whether I would leave the Cubs,” wrote Sosa in his 2008 autobiography with Marcos Breton. “One newspaper even wrote that I was going to the Boston Red Sox. Yes, I did talk to the Red Sox about the possibility of playing there, but it proved to be a blind alley – the result of all the confusion following the baseball strike. It gets technical, but the bottom line was this: during negotiations between players and owners, there was a chance that I might be considered a free agent. But when the players and owners came to agreement, I wasn’t – based on how many years I had played. It’s not worth getting into the details because the bottom line was that I was still a Cub and happy about it, and would be eligible for free agency in 1996. When asked what I thought about my talks with the Red Sox, I said what I felt: ‘It was nice to feel wanted, but now I want to stay here.’’

What might have been – Sammy Sosa and the Boston Red Sox

Vindicating the interest of Duquette, Sosa made his first All-Star team in 1995. He also won a Silver Slugger award and earned a smattering of MVP votes that year – hitting .268 with 36 home runs, 119 RBI, 122 OPS+ and a .340 OBP. For its part, Boston won the American League East in 1995, powered by Vaughn and Canseco, before Cleveland swept the Red Sox in a non-competitive ALDS.

Sosa went year-to-year with the Cubs, then finally signed a four-year extension in 1997. A further four-year tack-on kept him in Chicago through 2004, by which point Sosa had authored one of the greatest offensive stretches in baseball history. Indeed, between 1996 and 2004, Sosa hit .288 with 443 home runs, a .369 OBP and a 146 OPS+. During that stretch, Sosa topped 30 homers all nine years; topped 40 homers in seven of those; topped 50 homers four times; and topped 60 homers thrice. Nobody else – not Ruth or Maris, McGwire or Bonds – has produced more 60+ homer seasons. Sosa was a slugger unlike any other, and the Cubs rode his bat back to relevance.

Interestingly, Duquette and Sosa remained friendly long after their Beantown discussions. Sosa even invited the Boston GM to one of his famous birthday parties in Santo Domingo, though it is unclear if Duquette attended. Meanwhile, Duquette continued to remould the Red Sox without Sosa, landing cornerstone cogs like Pedro Martínez, Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe in the ensuing years. Nevertheless, Duquette could not move the needle in October, and was ousted by new ownership in 2002, less than 24 hours after the ink dried on a lucrative takeover deal.

Red Sox fans will not complain or seek to rewrite history, though. Theo Epstein replaced Duquette and put the finishing touches to a strong core. And while it would have been fun to watch Sosa, Vaughn and Canseco hit successively, taking aim for Lansdowne Street, Boston nurtured its own Dominican heroes in the new millennium – led by Martinez, with Manny Ramírez (another Duquette recruit) and David Ortiz in tow.

Looking back, then, Red Sox fans are likely glad the Sosa deal fell through in 1995. Dealing with his inglorious demise strained the Cubs, to a point where Sosa is rarely invited back to Wrigley Field for team ceremonies. But go ahead, admit it – part of you wishes to have seen prime Sammy Sosa launching baseballs over the Green Monster at Fenway Park. He may well have established new records unreachable even by Bonds playing home games in the lyrical little bandbox. It would have been a sight to behold, regardless of the scandal that would have emerged.

Sources


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