CHICAGO -- In 1998, Sammy Sosa got off to a slow start, hitting 13 home runs in the first two months of the season with the Cubs. But he found his groove in June, belting 20 that month, and then joined Mark McGwire in a sluggers' duel that drew national attention.
That season, Sosa charmed fans with his dashes to right field, mammoth home runs and post-homer heart taps. He launched a steady stream of souvenirs for the ball hawks stationed on Waveland Avenue behind Wrigley Field's left-field bleachers. Whether the Cubs won or lost became secondary. The spotlight was on Sosa.
"It's so much fun to watch him," said Jeff Pentland, who was the Cubs' hitting coach that season. "It's not supposed to be that easy."
Sosa enjoyed the attention and the hoopla. He caught up to McGwire on the home run counter that summer, then the two met in St. Louis on Sept. 7-8, with the Cardinals slugger at 60 homers and Sosa at 58. In the first inning on Sept. 7, McGwire belted his 61st to tie Roger Maris for the Major League single-season record, set in 1961. The next day, he hit No. 62. McGwire would finish the season with 70; Sosa closed with 66, the first of his three 60-homer seasons. The Cubs slugger is the only player in Major League Baseball to accomplish that feat.
Sosa may have lost the home run race but did edge McGwire in the National League Most Valuable Player balloting, winning the award in 1998 as he led the league in RBIs (158), runs scored (134) and total bases (416).
Now, Sosa is hoping his stats compare well to others in Cooperstown. The former shoeshine boy from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.
But Sosa's career also had other elements for Hall of Fame voters to consider. The New York Times reported in 2009 that he was one of 104 Major Leaguers who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs during a 2003 survey that preceded the creation of an MLB-wide testing program. The report has never been confirmed by MLB or the Players Association.
In 2005, Sosa joined McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Jose Canseco at a hearing before Congress regarding drug use in baseball. Sosa's attorney testified on his behalf, saying the slugger had never taken illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
"I think you have to judge people for the era they were in," said Jim Hendry, who was the Cubs general manager at the time. "Unless all the facts are in, speculation is a waste of time. You'll never be able to go back and figure out who did what for sure. I'm not condoning it at all. As long as there is competitive athletics and people can get away with things, they'll try to get a competitive edge."
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from eligible Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Shortstop Barry Larkin (86.4 percent) earned his ticket to Cooperstown on the 2012 ballot. Starting pitcher Jack Morris (66.7 percent) and first baseman Jeff Bagwell (56 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot. Results of the 2013 election will be announced on Wednesday, Jan. 9.
Sosa posted impressive numbers in his 18 seasons in the Major Leagues. He's one of two NL players to reach 160 RBIs in a single season, which he did in 2001. The other was another Cubs player, Hack Wilson, who holds the single-season mark of 191 set in 1930.
Besides his 66 home runs in 1998, Sosa clubbed 64 in 2001, and 63 in 1999. Babe Ruth had one 60-homer season.
Sosa was a seven-time All-Star and six-time Silver Slugger winner. He won the Roberto Clemente Award in 1998 and the Hank Aaron Award in 1999. He hit more home runs (479) than anyone for any 10-year period. He's the only player in NL history to have six consecutive seasons of 40 home runs. He is the Cubs' all-time home run leader (545), passing Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo.
Sosa was involved in a scandal of sorts in 2003, when he was ejected for using a corked bat. MLB confiscated and tested 76 of his bats, and all were found to be clean. He eventually served a six-game suspension.
After playing for the Cubs from 1992-2004, Sosa spent one season with the Orioles in 2005, missed a year, and ended his career in '07 with the Rangers, the team that had originally signed him in 1985 out of the Dominican.
Sosa always seemed to have a flair for the dramatic. In the Cubs' first home game after the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, he ran out to right field for the first inning waving a small American flag. The fans in the bleachers, who worshiped Sosa, cheered. He wasn't finished. Sosa belted a home run in the first, and as he rounded first base, he grabbed another American flag from coach Billy Williams and held it high as he ran the bases.
"I'm always happy that I could come to this country and get the opportunity to be who I am," Sosa told MLB.com in 2011. "I always appreciate what America did for my family. I never forget who took care of me in the tough moments I went through in my career.
"This is the land of dreams. The hope and accomplishments you can make here is incredible. America will always for me be No. 1."
In his final season, he timed one more home run perfectly. The Cubs and Rangers met on June 20, 2007 in an Interleague game, and Sosa connected on that day for career home run No. 600. He is one of eight Major League players to reach that number; the others are Bonds, Aaron, Ruth, Willie Mays, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome.
"Not bad for a guy from the Dominican Republic," Sosa said after the feat. "It's a great opportunity and a great feeling to be among the greats. When I leave this world, people will remember that I'm among guys like that."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.