On the famed baseball corner of Clark and Addison in Chicago, four
hours before the Cubs hosted the Montreal Expos at Wrigley Field
last Saturday, a rack of Sammy Sosa jerseys hung as tellingly as
the puffy, white letters of a skywriter. The message blared from
those made-for-flea-markets Day-Glo orange price tags that were
stuck to the shirts' hangtags: REDUCED FOR QUICK SALE. Across the
street from the Sports World souvenir shop, inside the Cubs'
clubhouse, the message was exactly the same; only the Day-Glo
sticker was missing from the number 21 jersey actually worn by
A mere few months ago, the idea of Chicago without Sammy Sosa
seemed as unthinkable as Chicago without the Sears Tower. No
other sports figure in the city moves more hearts--or novelty
items--than Sosa. His public image is as cuddly as one of his
beanbag-doll namesakes ($14.95), but when the Cubs, after another
suggestion by Sosa's agent that a contract extension is in order,
announced two weeks ago that they would consider all trade offers
for their rightfielder, Sports World owner Earl Shaevitz knew
exactly what he had to do. He marked down every Sosa item in his
inventory and hung a sign across his storefront announcing SOSA
"The agent said the two magic words to the Tribune Company: Pay
me," Shaevitz says, referring to the parent company of the Cubs.
"Once he said that, I knew Sammy was gone, because the Tribune
Company doesn't pay anybody. So I priced everything to move. And
yeah, it's been moving."
As of Sunday it appeared that the 31-year-old Sosa was likely to
follow his replica jersey ($29) out the door real soon, probably
before the All-Star break. Chicago general manager Ed Lynch had
dispatched his top scouts to file reports on minor league
prospects of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and New York
Mets--the most likely Sosa suitors, in that order, along with the
Arizona Diamondbacks. "If you're looking at Double A teams, you
want to send in two or three people for five-game increments
each," Lynch said last Saturday, thus indicating that a two-week
study period would be required before talks intensify.
As a prelude to the trade discussions, Sosa engaged in ugly
verbal sparring with his manager, Don Baylor, and complained
about not being given proper respect by the Cubs' front office,
which sometimes shakes its head over Sosa's stretch-limo-sized
affectations. Nonetheless, how one of the game's best drawing
cards, home run hitters and reliable performers (through Sunday,
Sosa had missed only four of Chicago's 555 games since 1996) came
to be given the eBay treatment isn't close to being a morality
play about who's the good guy and who's the bad. The Sosa saga
simply is the latest fallout of baseball's runaway economics and
trench-warfare agentry. To put it in Day-Glo orange sticker form,
as Cubs outfielder Glenallen Hill did adroitly last Saturday,
"It's all about money." We're not talking Sammy Sosa key-chain
money ($4.95), either.
With the usually loquacious Sosa tired of speaking about his
purgatorial existence, it has been left to such friends as Hill
and Red Sox infielder Manny Alexander to act as Sosa's unofficial
press secretaries. Alexander last week said Sosa told him he
wants to play in Boston. ("He shouldn't have said that," Sosa
said in his terse nondenial last Friday.) Said Hill, with whom
Sosa shares agent Adam Katz, "The Cubs have to decide whether
they're willing to pay him long term. Sammy wants to stay in
Chicago. He wants to be appreciated. I don't think the team wants
to pay one third of their payroll to one player, which is a lot.
What do I think? In my heart, maybe a 65-percent chance he stays.
I think it could happen with a little creative financing on the
Hill's heartfelt assessment rings overly optimistic, considering
that the Cubs put Sosa on the market without engaging in
substantive discussions about an extension. The four-year, $42
million contract Sosa signed before his 66-home-run breakout in
1998 runs through next season, with a mutual option for 2002.
Cubs president Andy MacPhail says that Katz had broached the
concept of an extension "almost right from" the year the deal
began. Although MacPhail and Katz agree that no specific figures
have ever been presented, Katz apparently said enough to persuade
Chicago management that Sosa wants to be among the highest-paid
players in the game, with the kind of long-term security given to
Cincinnati Reds centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. (nine years, $116.5
million) and Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Kevin Brown (seven
years, $105 million) and rightfielder Shawn Green (six years, $84
million), and offered this spring to Detroit Tigers
outfielder-designated hitter Juan Gonzalez (eight years, $140
million). Roughly translated, that works out to between $15
million and $20 million annually over six or seven years. That's
a lot of Sammy Sosa mousepads ($12.95).
The tepid negotiations, like a house constructed on a fault line,
were built upon a fundamental rift. The Cubs' decision makers
bristled at Katz's accelerating what they took to be the normal
timetable for talking about the next contract. The proper
starting point for beginning such negotiations "is not 2 1/2 years
into a four-year deal," one Cubs executive says.
Baloney, Katz retorts. He calls the timing "common in the
industry." Like Sosa, Houston Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell,
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and St. Louis Cardinals first
baseman Mark McGwire all stand to be eligible for free agency
after next season, but none has created a similar climate of
urgency with his team. But Sosa has earned a powerful right those
players do not possess: He controls where and when he will be
traded. Sosa, a Cub since 1992, can't be dealt without his
approval because of his rights as a player with 10 years of major
league service and at least five with his current club. Griffey
used the same hammer to orchestrate his trade to Cincinnati with
one year remaining on his contract with the Seattle Mariners, and
righthander Roger Clemens leveraged a contractual perk that gave
him essentially the same power to engineer his trade to the
Yankees (with two years left on his contract with the Toronto
Blue Jays). In exchange for approving a deal, Sosa is expected to
demand a contract extension.
"This has nothing to do with Don Baylor," Katz says. "Sammy can
play for him, and he can manage Sammy. That's not the problem
here. It wouldn't matter if Don Baylor was managing this team or
Sammy's mother was manager. This is a big-picture baseball
decision. It's that simple. We'd like it resolved sooner rather
than later. And it should be a collaborative effort in which both
sides can get what they want."
What does each side want? Neither can say openly, not in the
soft-shoe dancing act that is a public negotiation. For p.r.
reasons Sosa, former shoeshine boy turned international goodwill
ambassador of the game, dare not elucidate what he wants: an
obscenely rich extension piled atop the eight figures he's
already pulling down annually. Because Sosa is an icon and has
trade value, the club can't reveal its answer to the "big-picture
baseball decision" that will determine whether Sosa stays or
goes. Would a National League team, without the escape hatch of
the designated hitter, want to be paying Sosa nearly $20 million
a year into his middle and late 30s when his manager has already
concluded that his skills are eroding? The Cubs' unwillingness to
engage in detailed talks regarding an extension provides more
than a hint about which way they are leaning.
Nearly from the day Baylor took the Chicago manager's job last
winter, he challenged Sosa to be more of "a complete player."
Specifically, Baylor wanted Sosa to make better contact at the
plate and improve his baserunning and fielding, elements of the
six-foot, 220-pound Sosa's game that have diminished as he added
muscle and developed into a devastating power hitter. Through
Sunday, Sosa was tied for third in the league with 20 home runs
and tied for second with 62 RBIs while batting .311. However, he
had committed five errors while playing rightfield with the
aplomb of a Sammy Sosa bobblehead ($49.95), had been thrown out
on three of seven steal attempts (as recently as '98, he was 18
for 27 when trying to steal) and had struck out 75 times in 68
games. "All [Baylor] did was say things about Sammy that were a
part of the scouting reports he's read for the past few years
with other teams," Cubs righthander Kevin Tapani says. "You're
not knocking someone if you just point out something that's true.
Every player in baseball has weaknesses. So what?"
Sosa, accustomed to being treated as delicately as his namesake
Christmas ornament ($6.95), felt he was being challenged. So when
a Cubs official was quoted anonymously earlier this month about
Sosa's driving in 120 runs but letting in 45 with his glove, Sosa
figured it was Baylor. Sosa told reporters that Baylor "has no
class" and protested, "I don't deserve this."
Baylor denied making the comment and told Sosa that in a meeting
with him on June 7. "If he has an issue with me, he should come
in and talk to me," Baylor said last Saturday. "When I played, I
didn't bring anybody else in if I had a problem with the manager
or anybody else. Sammy has told me he thinks about what the fans
think of him. Well, you know what? To me it's the players I
played with that mattered the most, not what fans thought of me."
Sosa's reputation for egocentricity caused immediate speculation
about whether he'd be a good fit in the Yankees or Red Sox
clubhouse. Boston centerfielder Carl Everett, for instance, asked
rhetorically, "Is he a team player?" New York manager Joe Torre,
appearing unconcerned about the possibility that Sosa might cause
instability, reminded reporters that he once favored bringing in
the notorious Albert Belle. "He'd fit in," says Cubs catcher Joe
Girardi, a former Yankee, of Sosa, "because he plays every day
and he'd find out real fast that it's all about winning there.
He'd have to make some adjustments, but he'd fit in fine."
Last week another Chicago source, who asked not to be named,
suggested that the democratic Yankees wouldn't appreciate Sosa's
expectations of preferential treatment. In May, the source said,
Sosa, not MacPhail, took one of two prime parking spots reserved
for the visiting team at San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park.
(Baylor took the other.)
As a Yankee, Sosa might also have to curb his infamously loud
pregame salsa music. The Yankees' conservative clubhouse culture
also would frown upon leaving a disastrous series against the
cross-town rival (2 for 14 with nine whiffs as his team lost two
of three games) in a superstretch, as Sosa did on June 11 after a
game against the White Sox. Sosa's ravenous appetite for
endorsements--he peddles everything from custodial uniforms to
soft drinks (Sammy Soda?)--also might be a magnet ($3.50) for
trouble in the Bronx, where such activities might be seen as
putting one's interests ahead of the team's.
Then again, Sosa's individualism largely has been unchecked in
Chicago. Last year, for instance, a young Cubs pitcher asked
Lynch if he could parade family members through the clubhouse
after games, as Sosa routinely does. "When you show me your MVP
plaque, you can," the pitcher says Lynch responded.
"Sammy's not a distraction," Tapani says. "All he does is create
a little more traffic at this end of the clubhouse with the media
and stuff. But he really doesn't say much to us. He's not a
leader in the sense of picking guys up, saying things. When we
have team meetings, we have to say, 'Sammy, do you want to add
anything?' He's really pretty quiet. He'd fit in anywhere."
Clemens, Griffey, McGwire, Boston righthander Pedro Martinez,
Diamondbacks lefthander Randy Johnson and Mets catcher Mike
Piazza, All-Stars all, have been traded within the past 36
months. (Except for Clemens, none was more than a season away
from free agency.) What's one more change of address on the way
to Cooperstown? "Hey, it's a part of the game," says the Cubs'
unworried first baseman, Mark Grace. "Always has been."
What seem likely to be the last days of Slammin' Sammy in Chicago
are passing with less protest than might be expected for a folk
hero. Lynch says that his mail is running only "a little against"
a trade. In the Windy City, no one, not even Sosa, is bigger than
the ballpark. Wrigley Field is the largest sports pub in the
country. As long as the beer is cold and the sun is warm, fans
fill the stadium seemingly without regard to which cast of
characters is extending the Cubs' run without a world title. (For
Chicago, 29-39, fourth in the National League Central and 10
games behind the first-place Cardinals through Sunday, this year
seems likely to run the total to 92 straight, for those of you
scoring at home.) More fans (2,653,763) paid to watch the 1993
Cubs, a fourth-place outfit, than the playoff-bound,
Sosa-propelled '98 Cubs (2,623,000). "If Sammy goes, it'll still
be filled," Shaevitz, the shopkeeper, says of the Friendly
Confines. "Now, if they got rid of the beer, then it would be
Spoken with the wisdom of a true capitalist. Everything has its
price, even the marked-down merchandise. That's the real message
behind the shopping of Sosa. More than anything else, it's about
the Sammy Sosa wallet ($12.95).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS RAIN, MAN Of late, Sosa's mood has been as gray as the weather was in Chicago last Friday.
COLOR PHOTO: CHICAGO SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHERS STILL SLAMMIN' His steals are down and his whiffs are frequent, but through Sunday Sosa had produced 20 homers and 62 RBIs.
COLOR PHOTO: CHICAGO SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHERS EVERYTHING MUST GO Unlike the slugger, Sports World's Sosa stuff is at a discount.
Last Friday, when Sammy Sosa drove in the 1,000th run of his
career with a go-ahead, three-run triple off righty Guillermo
Mota in a 9-8 Cubs win over the Expos, he became one of only nine
major leaguers (listed alphabetically below) to have scored 800
runs, hit 350 home runs, knocked in 1,000 runs and stolen 200
bases. --David Sabino
AT BATS RUNS HOME RUNS BATTED IN BASES
Hank Aaron 12,364 2,174 755 2,297 240
Barry Bonds* 7,181 1,516 471 1,351 468
Joe Carter 8,422 1,170 396 1,445 231
Andre Dawson 9,927 1,373 438 1,591 314
Reggie Jackson 9,864 1,551 563 1,702 228
Willie Mays 10,881 2,062 660 1,903 338
Frank Robinson 10,006 1,829 586 1,812 204
Sammy Sosa* 5,553 889 356 1,003 228
Dave Winfield 11,003 1,669 465 1,833 223
*Active players; their statistics through Sunday
"All Baylor did was say things about Sammy that were a part of
the scouting reports he's read for the past few years," says