Sosa persona non grata

CHICAGO -- Too bad Sammy Sosa didn't cork his skin.

If it was a little thicker, he might not be poised on the threshold of joining Reggie Sanders, Gary Sheffield and baseball's other itinerants.

Maybe Sosa should have gone into September games at Wrigley Field wearing the earplugs he once used at Comiskey Park. Maybe then he would realize that his troubles in 2004 could be him hitting a speed bump, not running full speed into a brick wall, whether covered with ivy or not.

But as it is, with Sosa overreacting at every opportunity, the only question remaining is can Cubs general manager Jim Hendry find a team willing to take on Sosa at a price of $39.5 million for two years? They'd like to have this resolved as soon as possible, as it could impact decisions on retaining Moises Alou and Nomar Garciaparra.

Trading Sosa is not as unlikely as it might seem as there are many bad contracts in the marketplace. The Cubs appear sufficiently motivated to take a few of them back if they can move Sosa.

A better solution might be for Hendry to persuade Sosa and his agent, Adam Katz, to rework his contract, giving up the 2006 option to reach free agency sooner. That would make it easier to deal him, but it seems highly unlikely.

Either way, it's going to be some scene in Mesa, Ariz., next February if Sosa is back with the Cubs. There's simply no repairing this relationship.

After Sosa bolted the clubhouse during the early innings on the last day of the regular season, while his lesser-paid teammates were toiling against Atlanta, there's no turning back for the future Hall of Famer with 574 career home runs, including a franchise-record 545 for the Cubs.

While it hasn't been confirmed, there's a rumor that at some point after Sosa left on Oct. 3, one of his teammates took a Louisville Slugger to the boom box in front of his locker.

It's the boom box that he once cranked up even as Joe Girardi was leaving for Northwestern Hospital, needing treatment for chronic migraines. Blaring music, whether Latin flavored or simply Janet Jackson or Kool and the Gang, was always Sosa's way of identifying his territory.

Well, if the reports are right, one boom box isn't going to be heard from again.

Sosa, of course, will. He can't seem to help himself.

Strictly for context, consider these facts:

  • Both Sosa's health and his power hitting numbers have been on the fritz in recent seasons (while testing for steroids has been on the increase). After averaging 61 homers and 149 RBI from 1998-2001, he has averaged 41 homers and 97 RBI the last three years.

  • His batting average has dropped 75 points in the last three years, from .328 in 2001 to .253. Even worse, he hit only .233 after the All-Star break last season and an anemic .224 with men in scoring position.

  • If he has a marginally better season, LaTroy Hawkins' nine blown saves wouldn't have proved fatal for the playoff chances of a team that had the best starting pitching in the major leagues.

    Yet manager Dusty Baker handled Sosa with kid gloves almost till the very end. He didn't drop him out of the cleanup spot until Sosa had given him his blessing. He talked optimistically about Sosa's chance to finish strong.

    On the last day of the season, after the Cubs had been eliminated from the wild-card race, Baker was asked if he wanted Sosa back in 2005.

    His answer was more conditional than Sosa would have liked.

    Baker said he did, but added that Sosa would have to ''go to work'' and ''get in tip-top shape mentally and physically.'' Those comments were relayed to Sosa by the Chicago Sun-Times' Mike Kiley by telephone after Sosa had left early, without permission.

    Sosa has never been one for constructive criticism, as former manager Don Baylor found out after saying he'd like him to become a more complete player. This time Sosa told Kiley he felt he was being made a scapegoat for the team's failure and was tired of it.

    "My reaction is that it was totally untrue," Baker said a day later. "I can't figure out where he figured out I blamed him for whatever. I've done nothing but cover the guy ... Boy, this is some year.''

    Asked about not sticking around, Sosa told Kiley he left in the seventh inning and tried to convince him that it wasn't a big deal. Cubs president Andy MacPhail and his front-office troops took a different view of it, however.

    The next day they told reporters that security cameras showed Sosa leaving the players' parking lot at 1:35 p.m., which was a whole lot earlier than the seventh inning. They subsequently fined him a day's pay, about $87,400. That's believed to be the biggest fine ever given a major league player and has been challenged by the players union.

    Home in the Dominican Republic, Sosa fired a shot over the Cubs' bow last weekend. He was critical of Baker and the organization in an interview with Hoy newspaper.

    Sosa only halfway accepted responsibility for the Oct. 3 incident.

    "I know I screwed up and I can assure you that I've asked for forgiveness,'' he said. "But I also need to say that I felt poorly treated. So many things happened I was in shock. I needed to rest that day because I wasn't going to be able to give it my best.''

    Sosa lashed out at Baker for dropping him to sixth in the batting order, behind Moises Alou, Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee.

    "I'm not a sixth place batter,'' Sosa said. "I'm a cleanup hitter, or third, because I've earned that right with almost 600 career home runs.''

    An aging slugger on a downhill slide, unpopular with his teammates and unreliable in his approach, is not likely to get promoted to player-manager.

    So Hendry and his assistants, including the resourceful Gary Hughes, will go to next week's general manager meetings trying to identify teams interested in Sosa.

    The New York Mets (Cliff Floyd, Mike Piazza and Tom Glavine), Texas (Chan Ho Park and Alfonso Soriano) and Kansas City (Mike Sweeney, Brian Anderson, Darrell May and Benito Santiago) are among the teams that are on the radar screen.

    Nothing that happens with Sosa from now on will surprise Baker any more than what he's lived through the last two years.

    "Just a few years ago he was almost like a king here,'' Baker said. "That just shows you how quickly things change. I'm not surprised. I've seen it before. You get a little disappointed, very disappointed. But what can you do? You just got to go on with life.''

    Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.