I don't know about you folks in Chicago, but to the rest of us around the country what is going on between the Cubs and Sammy Sosa is inexplicable. When was the last time a bona fide superstar, a player who is arguably the greatest everyday draw in the game, perhaps the biggest international star in baseball, was harassed off his team?
Well, perhaps not so inexplicable. Maybe it was explained quite well almost half a century ago when Pittsburgh Pirates GM Branch Rickey turned down Ralph Kiner's request for a raise with a tart "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." What Rickey meant, of course, was that the Pirates' management had already anticipated that the loss in ticket sales would be more than offset by the loss of Kiner's salary. (Actually, it didn't mean that, since Kiner was bound to the Pirates by his contract and couldn't go to another team. But Rickey was trying to make a point.)
In the Cubs' case, the unspoken message to Sosa is even more cynical. What they're saying, in effect, is "We finished last (or near last) with you, we can finish last without you, and we'll probably sell the same number of tickets anyway since we usually sell near-capacity every year regardless of what kind of dog meat we put on the field and even if we don't it hardly matters because the TV deal is secure and we're going to get that money whether you or any other player is here or not, and if we dump your salary that's just more pure profit at the end of the season."
Actually, the Cubs' front office isn't even saying that to Sosa; it's saying it to Cubs fans in language clearer than a Harry Caray "Holy Cow." And what I'm wondering is this: Why do fans as loyal and militant as Cubs fans take this from the team management? Why don't fans serious enough to throw home-run balls by opposing players back onto the field have the sand to do what is really needed to make this team better: namely, throw their tickets out on the field, walk out and refuse to turn on the Cubs channel again until the entire management is thrown out?
Two years ago Sammy Sosa was everyone's choice for MVP. (Well, perhaps not everyone's; I would have voted for Mark McGwire, but let that pass.) The Cubs made the playoffs, barely, and everyone, particularly the front office, which figured it wouldn't have to do much to sell tickets the next season, was happy. Last year Sosa was pretty much the same player, with almost identical on-base and slugging averages, but the team was awful.
This year he's been, for the most part, the same player he was in those seasons, but to new manager Don Baylor, Sammy's failure to be Tony Gwynn at bat, Roberto Clemente in right field or Joe Morgan on the bases was the reason that the Cubs' pitching was the worst in the league.
Funny, I thought it was Sammy's willingness to work on his marginal skills that made him MVP fodder in the first place. After hitting .268, .273 and .251, he learned to go to right field with the outside pitch and upped his batting average to .308 and then .288 while also increasing his walks (not to mention his home runs).
At the same time, his fielding average went up dramatically, from .962 and .954 in '95 and '96 to .977 and .975 over the last two seasons. He even filled in 25 times in center field in 1998: not exactly typical behavior for your average right-handed power hitter. (Would anyone have expected Mark McGwire to sub in center? Juan Gonzalez? Mike Piazza??) It's rare enough for any player to acquire new skills at age 30, but it's even rarer in players who don't have to.
And after all this, Sammy has to pick up a paper and read that a Cubs official is saying that, yes, Sosa drove in a lot of runs but he also let in a lot with his fielding. As it was common knowledge that Sosa had never exactly been Willie Mays to begin with, the sudden criticism was stinging. So was Baylor's open criticism of his decline in stolen bases in '99 -- 7 of 15, down from 18 of 27 the previous year. (To which the average Cubs fan surely must have replied, "Who cares? We didn't win squat when he stole 34 of 41 in '95, and besides, how many bases does Mark McGwire steal?")
The official was anonymous, by the way; Sosa and others assumed it was Baylor, but the quoter never owned up. In fact, it wasn't important who said it; the fact that the quote was anonymous told the readers (and Sosa) all he needed to know, namely that the Cubs were looking for excuses to drop him and his contract.
Remember about 20 years ago when ballplayers started getting big, multiyear contracts, and writers (prodded by the front offices) used to complain that "they don't play as hard once they know their money is guaranteed?" I never saw evidence that it was true of players, but it certainly looks as if it's true of some management teams. They've already counted the ticket and TV money and then they want to raise profits by cutting salaries.
If the Cubs management was a group of ballplayers, they'd be accused of conspiring to lose. What's the fundamental difference, I'd like to know, between what the Chicago Cubs front office is doing now and what the Chicago Black Sox players did in 1919?