It seems like a long time ago, but I can remember exactly when I got my first Cubs jersey, in June of 1998. It was a birthday gift, upon the occasion of turning a round number somewhere between 21 and 50 (but much closer to 21). The decision of which player’s name and number to have on the back of the jersey came down to two: Kerry Wood’s number 34, and Sammy Sosa’s number 21.
Kerry Wood was still a rookie, but he had caught the attention of the baseball world with his 20-strikeout performance against the Houston Astros the previous month. He followed it up with thirteen more Ks in his next outing, and the sky truly seemed to be the limit for what he could accomplish. All double-entendres aside, sporting a Wood jersey seemed like a chance to get in on the ground floor of something truly special.
And then there was Sammy Sosa. He had come over from the White Sox in 1992, before shifting over to right field and making Andre Dawson expendable. I loved Dawson, more than any other Cubs player before or since, but Sammy had more upside than the Hawk did in the early 1990s. He was consistently a 35-40 home runs and 100+ RBI player, and his star was definitely on the rise.
So I had to weigh the hot young rookie against the proven veteran in making my decision. There was also an element of the offensive star who was going to be in the lineup every day, against the pitcher who only took to the mound once or twice a week. I could still wear the Wood jersey if he wasn’t pitching that day, but I was reasonably certain that Sosa—who had played in all 162 games in the 1997 season—would be in the lineup whenever I found myself in the stands at Wrigley Field.
In the end, I decided that Sosa’s 21 trumped Wood’s 34. And I was instantly validated in the decision, when Sosa joined Mark McGwire in the chase for Roger Maris’ home run record. It was a summer that none of us who love baseball will ever forget, as Sammy and Big Mac put the focus back onto baseball in a way that it had not been since before the 1994 players’ strike. Baseball was on everybody’s minds, and Sammy’s hops and kisses to the camera and curtain calls at Wrigley Field were a central part of that experience.
When I went to the Field of Dreams movie site during the summer of 1998, I wore my Sosa jersey and a Cubs hat. A young boy of perhaps four or five came up to me, starry-eyed, and asked me if I played for the Cubs. I smiled at him and said, in my best TV commercial delivery, “only on this field, kid.” And I made a point of doing the tap-your-heart, touch-your-lips, blow-a-kiss, make-the-peace-sign gesture that was to become Sammy’s shtick for many years after that. The assembled baseball pilgrims ate it up, just like we all did back then.
Over the years Sammy grew into a baseball phenomenon, and I wore my Sosa jersey all over the place. I wore it out to Coors Field, and saw Sammy hit a homer in the Rocky Mountain air in 1999. A few weeks later, I wore it on my first and only visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where artifacts from the previous year’s home run chase were on display. I wore it to a Mets game in Shea Stadium, and a game against the White Sox at what was then New Comiskey Park. I wore it among the mob of Cubs fans who made Turner Field in Atlanta into Wrigley Field South during the 2003 playoffs. I wore it to work on the day of the Game Six meltdown against the Marlins, and had it on while all of that eighth-inning unpleasantness was unfolding that evening. I wore it as I watched Game Seven the following night, hoping against hope to have it on when the Cubs won the pennant. But it was not to be.
Through it all, I kept wearing my Sosa jersey. Whenever I went to a Cubs game, the jersey went along for the ride. And then, on the final day of the 2004 season, everything changed. Sammy left Wrigley Field in a huff, and his reign as the top dog in the Cubs’ clubhouse was suddenly over. He was traded to the Orioles the following spring, and never again set foot on a baseball field in Chicago, on either side of town.
After seven glorious seasons, my Sosa jersey wasn’t so grand anymore. It wasn’t like Ryne Sandberg’s 23 jersey, or Ron Santo’s number 10, or a hundred other permutations that can be seen inside Wrigley Field, and up and down Clark Street on game day. No, Sammy had become a pariah, and wearing a pariah’s jersey isn’t such a good idea. Still, it was the only jersey that I had, so I had to suck it up and move on.
For the first couple of seasons post-Sosa, the Cubs went into a tailspin and my interest in going to Cubs games waned as a result. Rock bottom came in 2006 when, for the first—and so far, the only—time, I sat out an entire season at Wrigley Field. The Sosa jersey hung on a hanger, banished to the the furthest depths of my closet. I had decided to carry on with my life.
And then the number 21 started coming back. First Jason Marquis wore it, and then Milton Bradley and then, in 2010, Tyler Colvin began mashing homers while wearing number 21. Finally, there was a 21 worth crowing about, a little bit.
I pulled my Sosa jersey out of mothballs and decided that it could be repurposed on Colvin’s behalf. I set about snipping the letters off the back of the jersey, which I didn’t realize would be such a time-consuming chore. By the time I had removed the first “S” from Sosa, I realized that the red dye had bled through onto the white jersey beneath. Even if I removed all the other letters, a phantom “SOSA” would still remain. I was stuck with Sammy, whether I liked it or not.
Later that summer, my father and I attended a Cubs-Cardinals game on a miserably hot day in St. Louis (Q: What’s the only thing more unbearable than July in St. Louis? A: August in St. Louis). Whenever and wherever the Cubs and the Cardinals get together, the fans have to represent their team. There was no way I was going to St. Louis without all the Cubs gear I could find, which included my old Sosa jersey. But I had hatched out a plan before I went.
I took some gray duct tape and covered up the spot where the phantom “S” still remained, and left the “O” in place. I covered up the second “S” and the “A” in OSA, and then covered over the gray tape with blue tape to spell out “COLVIN.” My father shook his head at the sight of my makeshift Colvin tribute–which is on full display in the picture above–but I was pleased to be supporting the Cubs’ cause. The tape only lasted a few minutes in the brutal St. Louis humidity, but it’s the thought that counts.
During the 2011 season, when the Cubs played in Fenway Park for the first time since the 1918 World Series, I was fortunate enough to be in attendance at the Friday night game. And again, I had nothing else to wear besides my old Cubs jersey. Boston fans told me, on more than one occasion, that “OSA sucks” but I took it all in stride. I was happy to be there that day, even though the Cubs got smoked on the field. that evening
The final public appearance of the Sosa jersey came during a Cubs-Cardinals game with my Dad and one of my brothers last September at Wrigley Field. Cardinals fans were out in force, predictably, and so I again felt the need to reply in kind. It was a cold, rainy day, and I wore my jersey beneath a blue zippered jacket, which accomplished two things: it allowed me to show my support for the boys in blue, while also covering up the name and number of the Cubs’ he-who-must-not-be-named.
A new Cubs jersey found its way under our tree last Christmas, and I was a happy guy when I opened it up. Now it’s out with the old, and in with the new, even if the new version doesn’t have a name and number on the back. This could end up being the final Cubs jersey I’ll ever have, and the lesson of the Sosa jersey is that the names on the back will come and go, but the name on the front of the jersey is the one that matters most.