Bear Down and Get Some Runs, best-of: January 30, 2005

January 30, 2005

Ever since Sammy Sosa walked out on his team fifteen minutes after the first pitch of the final game of the 2004 season, Cub fans have been asking: “Where will Sammy be in 2005?” It appears we have our answer, and it’s not Chicago.

Nope. It’s Baltimore.

Reports broke yesterday that the Cubs and Orioles had reached a deal that would send Sosa to Baltimore in exchange for outfielder/second baseman Jerry Hairston, Jr. and a pair of prospects. What shocked me most about the deal—apart from the fact that I was absolutely wrong about him apologizing and staying—was the lack of shock on the part of the city. The overall reaction that I’ve felt and heard is that people are not only not surprised that he’s gone, but they’re happy. I gotta say, I’m really surprised. Since yesterday, Chicago’s home town sports talk radio station (WSCR, the Score) has been filled with calls from fans who were pissed off with Sammy and glad to see him go.

Now, I can understand being pissed at the guy and feeling like he was going to have to do something to make it up to the team and the fans, but do you really want to see Sammy in another uniform? I’m not ready for that. And yet barring some sudden 180 by Orioles management, it looks like this is the end of the line for Sammy Sosa at Wrigley Field.

How could this have happened? How did a guy who was the face of the franchise, and maybe of baseball, fall so far out of favor so quickly? A lot of people think it’s due to Sammy’s change in attitude, but I don’t think Sammy ever really changed. He’s the same guy he was in 1995 when he was flashing the garish “30-30” gold chains. Once he straightened his swing out in ’98 and learned to hit for average, he had more fun and his playful side emerged. He was a national hero in two countries, and spent the whole summer in the spotlight, becoming the biggest star in the city even with Jordan still around. And then Barry Bonds started out-hitting him, and then the Cubs packed their roster with other great players, and then Sammy got hit in the head with a pitch in 2003. His production fell, and he compensated by using a corked bat, for which he was caught and suspended. He returned to the team determined to turn his season around, but if the Cubs had gone done the tube at the end of ’03 like they did at the end of ’04, Sosa may have been on the outs with the team one year earlier. There are clearly two sides to Sammy, and we’ve seen both with changing circumstances.

So what happened to make him break down and bail out? Certainly a part of it is Sammy’s pride, as he became more and more disgruntled with the team last year when Dusty tried to move him down in the order. A part of it is management’s unwillingness to make Sammy follow the same rules as everyone else. And part of it is that the Cubs, once a one trick pony with Sosa as the one trick, have become a balanced team with lots of stars and an emphasis on starting pitching, clearly the team’s strength. The Cubs no longer needed Sammy to win, his performance day-by-day less important than ever to the team’s success. When I envisioned the 2004 Cubs before the season started, I envisioned them winning a World Series because of their starting pitching, not because of their big bats. I envisioned Wood and Prior each winning twenty games with Zambrano right behind them, and I envisioned stretches where Wood, Prior, Zambrano, Clement, and Maddux were just unhittable, stretches in which opposing batters would come up to the plate and leave shaking their heads because they were facing arguably the greatest five-man rotation in the history of baseball. It’s not a stretch to say that those five guys could have had that moniker by midseason.

But that was not the case. Wood and Prior were hurt for much of the year and went a combined 14-13 in 43 starts. Maddux was Maddux, an old Maddux, but still Maddux. Zambrano had a terrific season and Clement was good for a fifth starter. But it didn’t all add up the way it should have, because Wood and Prior were not the two guys who pitched brilliantly throughout 2003. You wanna talk about big bats? The Cubs had more bats than anyone, becoming the fourth team in major league history with four 30-homer guys in Alou, Aramis, Derrick Lee and Sosa. The lineup was stacked, with Michael Barrett having a breakout season and Corey Patterson turning into the guy we’ve been waiting for and Todd Walker and Mark Grudzielanek doing great work at second base. And then, even with all that, the Cubs acquired Nomar Garciaparra from the Red Sox, and suddenly we had a lineup that could compete with any team in the majors.

Still, none of it mattered, because the pitching wasn’t there.

This was not the Cubs of 1998 or 2001, Cub teams that depended on Sosa for their wins and losses. Sammy had an abysmal 2004 following his incredible 2003 postseason, and yet it took a monumental collapse in the season’s final week for the Cubs to miss the playoffs. The whole team just had an awful week, with LaTroy Hawkins blowing key saves and the errors piling up in the field and on the base paths and with the club allowing bad teams to beat them. So a frustrated, prideful, injured Sammy Sosa realized he didn’t mean as much to the team as he used to, and walked out on them on the last day of the season. His teammates didn’t forgive him. Nor did the fans.

And you know what? Even with all that, I still think it’s really too bad that Sammy’s career with the Cubs has to end like this. Fans are going to end up missing him more than they think. We’re not talking about just some player; we’re talking about the premier athlete in the city for the past seven years. When the current anger settles, people will be left with the memories, and I think that most of them will realize that Sammy was more good than bad. But it’s a long season, and if we play the way that we should, this team could come together and blossom in our imaginations as the team we want without Sammy just as the Red Sox fans learned to love a team without Nomar last year. And maybe, just maybe, Sammy will get sick of losing in Baltimore too and start to realize what he had in Chicago and how foolish he was to screw it up.

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