Each time the Orioles struck out in their pursuit of an impact free agent this winter, their money and overtures failing to connect, their thoughts shifted to a player who's been known to swing and miss.
Outfielder Sammy Sosa was out there, made available by the Chicago Cubs when their relationship became too fractured to repair. And no matter how often various members of the Orioles' front office denied having interest in an aging, expensive player who's statistically on the decline, the rumors wouldn't stop.
They proved correct over the weekend, when team and industry sources confirmed a trade that will send Sosa to the Orioles for second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. and minor leaguers Mike Fontenot and David Crouthers.
A high-ranking club official confirmed yesterday that Sosa is scheduled to take his physical examination Tuesday in Baltimore. If he passes and Hairston does the same in Chicago, the long-rumored trade with the Cubs should become official.
Negotiations with the Cubs were held beneath the rather large shadow cast by the new Washington franchise, which signed and traded for players as the Orioles preached fiscal restraint.
According to a major league source, the Cubs will pick up $12.5 million of Sosa's contract in 2005, before he becomes a free agent, and the Orioles will owe $7 million. The club will attempt to sign him to a two-year extension.
Sosa would have been entitled to $25 million this season, including a buyout and severance pay, but he's apparently willing to waive a portion of the additional money pending negotiations on an extension with the Orioles.
Determined to leave Chicago, where his popularity with fans plummeted last summer, Sosa also would waive an $18 million option for 2006, to be activated if he's traded.
"I heard about [the Sosa trade] and just said, 'Wow,'" pitching coach Ray Miller said. "I'd certainly like to have him in this league with all the left-handers they throw. If he does close to what he's capable of, he'll fill the stadium. It's certainly a lift for people here who were getting depressed."
Stinging from their latest rejection, when first baseman Carlos Delgado agreed to terms with the Florida Marlins, the Orioles have made a bold move after continually playing down the speculation about Sosa. His age (36) no longer was an issue. Neither were his declining home run totals and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), hefty contract and questionable attitude.
At $7 million, he became a relative bargain for a team that found the prices on the free-agent market to be distasteful. A team that also couldn't persuade pitcher Carl Pavano or first baseman Richie Sexson to sign with it, or to lure pitcher Tim Hudson into signing a contract extension if traded by the Oakland Athletics.
Four years and $48 million weren't enough for Delgado. Three years and about $30 million didn't bring in Sexson. Four years and $40 million, along with the promise of being a No. 1 starter, couldn't get Pavano's signature on a contract.
Majority owner Peter Angelos still is waiting for Major League Baseball to determine how he'll be compensated financially after the Montreal Expos moved to Washington. Team executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan admitted that the uncertainty, along with the lost revenue, have hindered their negotiating tactics.
Though they don't play in the same league, the Nationals clearly had moved ahead of the Orioles with their acquisitions. Sosa presented the Orioles with a chance to make a big splash instead of dipping their toes in the water and either walking away or being left cold.
"I think it's great," outfielder David Newhan said. "It's going to be a great impact on the lineup. Are you kidding me? I'd like to be in there ahead of those guys. Plus, that personality, that energy he brings, it's something we needed."
"Of course, it makes us stronger," said hitting coach Terry Crowley. "We'll probably hit him fourth, though we haven't talked about it yet. It's a little bit of a surprise to me. It still hasn't sunk in. But it's a big addition and it's going to make us a better team."
Each time Miller is confronted with another question about his young pitching staff, as if its relative inexperience and warped track record will burden an entire team, he brings up the security that comes from having a prolific offense. "I might be putting my foot in my mouth," he said, "but if you give me eight runs, I'll figure out the rest."
The Orioles must have figured out, after long fighting the urge, that they needed Sosa, baggage and all.
Sosa's character came into question again last season when he butted heads with Cubs manager Dusty Baker, agitated a fan base that once worshiped him, and absorbed an $87,500 fine for leaving the final game in the first inning. In 2003, he was handed a seven-game suspension for using a corked bat.
"I know Sammy's a good kid," Miller said. "I've met him before. He'll make the city of Baltimore proud."
Sosa will appease fans if his numbers improve. In the past four seasons, Sosa has hit 64, 49, 40 and 35 home runs. The seven-time All-Star's OPS has gone from 1.174 in 2001 to .849 last season. He ranks seventh on baseball's all-time home run list with 574 but also has struck out 2,110 times in 8,021 at-bats.
The only player in major league history to hit 60 or more homers in three straight seasons, Sosa slumped to .253 last year with 35 homers and 80 RBIs in 126 games.
"He'll make us better. I'm just not sure how much better," Crowley said. "It will make for an interesting spring training. Hopefully it will help us get out of the game a little faster, and we'll make a run at it."
Hairston, 28, broke into the majors with the Orioles in 1998 after the team selected him in the 11th round of the draft one year earlier. Injuries limited him to 144 games the past two seasons.
The trade "could be great for both teams," said Hairston, who is expected to play a corner outfield position in Chicago. "Obviously, the Orioles are searching for a power hitter. This will help the offense. And it benefits me greatly because I've been looking to play second base. I know the Cubs have Todd Walker, but regardless."
Though reluctant to leave Baltimore, Hairston has a natural connection to Chicago. He was born in Naperville, Ill., and played college ball at Southern Illinois University. His father, Jerry Hairston Sr., spent 13 seasons with the Chicago White Sox.
"This is like going home," he said. "I thank the Orioles for trading me to a team like Chicago, a great place to play.
"Maybe Sammy needs a change of scenery, and maybe I fit in that category too."
Nov. 12, 1968 - Born in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
July 30, 1985 - Signed by Texas Rangers as an amateur free agent.
June 16, 1989 - Called up from the minors for the first time, batting .238 with one home run.
July 29, 1989 - Traded by Rangers with Wilson Alvarez and Scott Fletcher to the Chicago White Sox for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique.
March 30, 1992 - Traded by White Sox with Ken Patterson to the Chicago Cubs for George Bell.
July 2, 1995 - Named All-Star for first time, hitting 36 HRs and driving in 119 runs during that season.
June 27, 1997 - Signed to four- year, $42 million contract.
Nov. 20, 1998 - Named NL Most Valuable Player after hitting 66 home runs and driving in 158 runs, while batting .308.
Sept. 18, 1999 - Became first player to hit 60 HRs in separate seasons. Two years later, he would become the first to do it three times.
April 3, 2000 - Defended himself against accusations from Fortune magazine that his Sammy Sosa Foundation in the Dominican Republic had done little for the people it was intended to help, but provided his family with rent- free offices to run their own businesses.
June 27, 2002 - Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly confronted Sosa, challenging Sosa to take a drug test for performance-enhancing substances.
April 6, 2003 - Hit 500th HR, becoming first Latino player to reach that milestone.
June 3, 2003 - Ejected from game against Tampa Bay Devil Rays when umpires discovered he had been using a corked bat, leading to an eight-game suspension. Sosa stated that he had accidentally used the corked bat, which he claimed was his batting-practice bat.
Oct. 3, 2004 - Already late for last game of the season, Sosa left contest early without letting team know. Fined one game's pay - $87,500.
Jan. 28, 2005 - Reportedly traded from Cubs to Orioles in exchange for infielder/outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr. and two prospects.
- Christian Ewell