In mid-January, after the Chicago Cubs essentially put their winter business on hold for three months while trying in vain to trade outfielder Sammy Sosa, Cubs president Andy MacPhail and Adam Katz, Sosa's agent, began discussing the damage control needed to bring Sosa back. There was talk of hiring public relations people with expertise in crisis management, a long past overdue meeting between manager Dusty Baker and Sosa, and the possibility of Sosa's addressing his teammates in spring training. It all smacked of trying to glue together a porcelain vase that had smashed into hundreds of pieces. The beauty was gone, and the awkward attempt at restoration would serve only as a mockery.
Truth is, Sosa's iconic 13-year run as a Cub ended the day he walked out on his teammates while they played the final game of the 2004 season. The Cubs knew it. Sosa knew it. There was no going back, especially when the team bloodied him in a p.r. war, announcing they had stadium surveillance tapes to prove he lied about when he left. And then Sosa dashed off to a European vacation to let the mess curdle, but not before ripping Baker for dropping him down in the batting order.
It took until last weekend and a last-gasp deal for the confirmation: The Cubs agreed to give the Baltimore Orioles $12 million to take Sosa off their hands. (Baltimore will pay the remaining $9.5 million of his 2005 salary.) In return the Cubs accepted Jerry Hairston Jr., a 28-year-old multiposition player who does nothing exceptionally well, and two minor leaguers. A baseball source said Chicago planned to sign vagabond outfielder Jeromy Burnitz to replace Sosa.
Sosa was just as eager to get the deal done: He waived his no-trade clause as well as a guaranteed $18 million salary for 2006 and got nothing in return. Sosa and Katz may indeed begin negotiations soon on a two-year extension for Sosa with Baltimore, but those talks are not part of the conditions of the trade. "He understood that the Cubs felt the relationship had run its course, and he reluctantly agreed," Katz said on Sunday.
Remember this: Sosa is the Cubs' alltime home run leader, is the only man in history to hit 60 homers in a season three times and, for many a day since he became a Cub in 1992, actually surpassed the warm sun and cold beer as the most compelling reason to go to Wrigley Field. You went to see Sosa make that exuberant dash to rightfield in the top of the first and that wing-flapping home run hop at the plate the way you went to see Old Faithful gush at Yellowstone. He satisfied thousands whether or not the Cubs won.
All that seemed forgotten among the dry-eyed Chicagoans who bid Sosa good riddance. As Rick Telander wrote in Sunday's Chicago Sun-Times, "Never in my life have I seen an athlete go from being the heart and soul and spirit of a team to an utter pariah--without point-shaving or outright felonious crime involved--as swiftly as I have with Sammy."
The Cubs grew tired of his act--never mind that his act is essentially the same as it was when he served as baseball's cuddly ambassador during the Great Home Run Race of 1998: the entourage, the boom box monopolizing clubhouse air space, the late spring training arrivals and the constant need for pampering. The maintenance of his celebrity grew burdensome as Cubs culture lost its lovableness; Wrigley fans demand wins with their beer now. And Sosa, 35, declined at the plate during the last three years, a period marked by a serious beaning and a corked bat incident. (To that list the suspicious might also add baseball's crackdown on steroids.)
The Cubs are not better off without his bat--he did smack 35 home runs last year even while missing a month with an injured back--but they are better off without his baggage, just as the Red Sox were without a brooding Nomar Garciaparra last year. And Sosa landed in a prime place for career rehab: a middle-market team with a franchise player already in place (fellow Dominican Miguel Tejada), a fresh set of fans with no postseason expectations, a beautiful ballpark and the luxury of the DH spot.
Sosa had to go. Baker couldn't reach him, and several teammates, many of whom never played with him at his best, chafed at what they regarded as the selfishness of the team captain. It was not one incident that caused the expiration of his goodwill, but the last dripped with cinematic perfection. Upon Sosa's premature exit from Wrigley last October somebody in the clubhouse smashed his boom box to bits. The day the music died.
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"Jamal Lewis should be released from prison in time for training camp.'' --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 22
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG