Some in Chicago will miss Sosa

CHICAGO — CHICAGO - A patch of snow covered a hallowed spot on the street outside 3705 N. Kenmore Ave. on Saturday, obscuring the spray-painted mark of a prodigious Sammy Sosa home run from the summer of 2003.

By the time the snow melts and the mark becomes visible, the emotional Chicago Cubs slugger will be long gone.


After agreeing in principle to trade Sosa to the Orioles for Jerry Hairston and two minor leaguers, the Cubs effectively ended an era filled with bunny hops, heart taps and quite a few headaches.

Beloved for years for his long-distance home runs and his effervescent personality, Sosa leaves with a questionable legacy. Will he be remembered as the smiling star who dueled with Mark McGwire for the home run title, or as a self-absorbed sulker who walked out on his team during the first inning of the final game of the 2004 season?


The only certainty is everyone has an opinion about Sosa, and for some fans in Wrigleyville, news of his imminent departure was worth shouting about.

"They finally got rid of him," said Estelle Sugar, a self-described "30-year Cubs fan," as she glanced at Sosa's front-page photo at a North Side convenience store. "Good riddance. They should have done it a long time ago. He was just not a good teammate, and you knew he was never going to change."

Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois even weighed in, debating Sosa's career on sports radio while calling it a "sad" end to an era.

"Sammy Sosa gave us many great seasons and a lot of historic moments," Blagojevich said. "Because of that, he will one day be in the Hall of Fame. This is a sad way for the Sosa era to end in Chicago, but it's probably time for the Cubs and Sammy to go in different directions."

At Wrigleyville Sports, a souvenir shop on the corner of Addison Street and Sheffield Avenue, marked-down Sosa items sat on the shelves with few takers in sight. Near the entrance of the store, a life-size cardboard cutout of Sosa was stuck in a corner behind some other merchandise, drawing no interest at $35. Overpriced at any price? Say it ain't Sosa.

It was Sosa's dramatic home run binge in the late 1990s that led to the Godzilla-size contract that turned into an albatross for the Cubs. With few suitors available, the Cubs opted to pay about $12.5 million of the $25 million Sosa is guaranteed in salary, buyout and severance for 2005-2006 to grease the skids for his exit.

Former Cubs broadcaster and ex-Orioles pitcher Steve Stone said the parting was inevitable.

"It's in the best interest of both parties," Stone said. "It was best for Sammy to move on. Judging by the money the Cubs spent [to drop Sosa], it shows you the Cubs were motivated sellers."


Said Cubs manager Dusty Baker: "Sammy has been great for baseball and really great for the city of Chicago, and I'm sorry to see it end this way ... It's really not what his legacy should be."

He became the 10th player in National League history to join the 30-30 club of stolen bases and home runs in 1993, providing the Cubs with the rare combination of speed and power.

During 1997, when Sosa was still a relatively skinny 28-year-old with fewer than 200 home runs, the Cubs gambled by giving him a four-year, $42.5 million deal. It was during that season that Sosa's teammate, Brian McRae, remarked that Cubs fans didn't care if the team lost 10-1 as long as they got to see Sosa hit a home run.

That scenario ultimately would serve as Sosa's Cubs epitaph. Sosa's popularity soared during his remarkable 66-home run season in 1998, which featured the historic race with McGwire for Roger Maris' single-season home run record. While Sosa lost the race, he led the Cubs to the postseason, won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award and quickly became one of the game's most marketed stars.

Sosa had Chicago in the palm of his hand. There was even a proposed deal to open a Sammy Sosa restaurant until the idea fell apart in 2000.

Things began to unravel for Sosa when he became involved in a contract dispute and then was nearly traded to the New York Yankees in 2000. He eventually signed a four-year deal worth $72 million in March 2001.


Things took a marked turn for the worse in June 2003 when he was caught using a corked bat. That led to a suspension. Sosa subsequently withdrew from some of his teammates and soon began limiting his media availability.

When he suffered a sneeze-induced back injury in 2004 and saw his production numbers drop, Sosa was booed and baited at home.

The walkout during the last game of 2004 sealed his fate, along with his criticism of Baker for "blaming" him for the disappointing Cubs season.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.