The $35 million question

Let's go through the checklist. In 2004, 35-year-old Sammy Sosa:

(a) Missed time because of a back injury brought on by a couple of violent sneezes;

(b) Struggled with hip bursitis;

(c) Delivered his lowest batting average in seven years and ended his streak of consecutive 100-RBI seasons at nine;

(d) Pissed and moaned his way through the entire ordeal, up to and including his silly parking-lot walk-off on the season's final day;

(e) Again pinned the blame, just this past weekend, on Cubs manager Dusty Baker for "humiliating" him by dropping him to sixth in the batting order.

All of which brings us to this: Would you invest $35 million in this man?

Would you? Because the New York Mets might, and so might a couple of other teams before the winter is over. The Mets might be willing to take on Sosa's $17 million salary for 2005 and the $18 million option for '06 that would become guaranteed with any trade from the Chicago Cubs.

The Mets might be willing to take on Sammy the Mouth, a player who has done the seemingly impossible in Chicago by making fans nearly forget the ebulliance and the smile that made Sosa so famous, beloved and (oh, yes) rich. They might be willing to take on the man who, over the past two years, has been a huge part of the Cubs' push to the 2003 World Series but also involved in a series of increasingly tiresome confrontations and breakdowns -- all the while seeing his injury-affected batting average trickle down to .253 and his RBI count drop off to 80.

The Mets might be willing to pay that kind of giant coin for a player who has 574 career home runs and wants to go another five or six seasons at a planned "35 home runs a year," which Sosa says "would allow me to finish my career with 700 home runs."

No team goals mentioned. But, shoot, it's not like the Mets have a team goal just now.

None of this is to presume that the Cubs are so finished with Sosa that a trade is the only route to recovery. Why, just at the end of the season, Baker mentioned what he thought would help Sosa for 2005, suggesting that the slugger "go to work" and "get in tip-top shape mentally and physically."

You may remember those comments; they're the ones that sent Sosa into the bruised-ego stratosphere and ended with Sammy saying he'd had just about enough of Baker trying to pin the blame for the Cubs' playoff-drive failure on him. They also circulated at about the time that Sosa arrived late to the Cubs' Wrigley Field finale, assured himself that he wasn't in the lineup (he had asked a team trainer the day before to tell Baker he was too sore to play), and then left the place 15 minutes after the game started.

Sosa claimed he stayed until the seventh inning. Security cameras in the players' parking lot showed otherwise. The Cubs fined Sosa $87,500, or one day's pay, which was of course appealed.

Sammy's vintage reply to all this, as given to Hoy newspaper in the Dominican Republic last weekend: "I know I screwed up, and I can assure you that I've asked for forgiveness. But I also need to say that I felt poorly treated. So many things happened that I was in shock. I needed to rest that day because I wasn't going to be able to give it my best."

Well, not from the No. 6 spot in the batting order. Or, as Sosa told Hoy, "I'm not a sixth hitter," even though his batting average and slumping power stats (again, affected by his injuries) suggested he might be either that or something awfully close to it.

Make no mistake: We're talking about one of the great modern sluggers, and there's nothing Sosa can do to his own reputation that will change that. Sosa is a classic contemporary story in the game; a swing-for-the-fences enthusiast as a young player, he remade his swing and his stance and became a power hitter who made contact often enough to eclipse .300 a few times and flirt with it as often as not. Alas, that transformation suddenly feels like a lifetime ago; now, Sosa's career-long penchant for striking out looms larger as his batting average and power numbers diminish.

As the Cubs chart their future, they've got to calculate the damage here. Maybe it's really only minor; after all, Baker established his managerial reputation in part by his ability to figure out how to deal with Barry Bonds and receive top production in return. Bonds is a virtual stranger in the Giants' clubhouse, yet his impact on the team remains remarkably important.

And, healthy again if not entirely thrilled, Sosa could perhaps be that -- the difference being that Sosa was always viewed publicly as the outgoing soul of the modern Cubs, a happy-go-lucky player who was loving life, laughing with his teammates and hitting the stuffing out of the ball. At his best, Sosa made great hitting look not effortless, but almost easy.

Now he is the player from whom one teammate, pitcher Mark Prior, is on the record saying he feels the Cubs are owed an apology from Sosa for bailing out on them instead of playing out the string on that final day like everyone else. He's the player with the advancing age and the injuries to match. He's the player who didn't like the situation at the end of 2004 and decided to walk away from it.

In and of itself, not the worst crime in baseball history. But in the context of the recent days of Sammy Sosa, it's a distressing part of a larger picture.

So how about it? Would you buy a used slugger from this team?

The Cubs have at least 17 million reasons to consider making a sale.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com