Kiss Him Goodbye

One by one the Cubs left their Wrigley Field clubhouse that final, surreal day of the 2004 season. They walked past team captain Sammy Sosa's two locker stalls, up a flight of steep stairs, through a metal door that opened onto a main concourse that still smelled of Italian sausages, grilled onions and spilled Bud Lights. From there they made their way through a musty concrete hallway, maneuvered around a stairwell and wall and then, finally, reached the 20-space players' parking lot, where dozens of fans--some of them actually sober--lined the chest-high chain-link fence. Tony Cooney, the 21-year-old lot attendant, already had the remaining cars unlocked, engines running and driver's side doors opened ever so slightly. Out came relief pitcher Kyle Farnsworth, carrying a broken bat autographed by Greg Maddux. Mark Prior emerged from behind the wall and spent the next 20 minutes signing autographs before climbing into his black Beemer. Closer LaTroy Hawkins stepped into the late afternoon sun and was immediately greeted by jeers. "I can do your job!" yelled one of the inebriated. "No, you can't!" said the defiant Hawkins.

It had been a quintessentially dysfunctional Cubs day, beginning with an 89th victory that meant nothing more than a laughable third-place finish in the NL Central--which the Cubs had been predicted to win, along with their first pennant since 1945 and their first World Series since 1908. Instead, the Cubs finished 16 games behind the Cardinals and botched a wild-card spot by collapsing like an air bag during the final week of the season.

So now they said their awkward goodbyes. There were handshakes, a few heartfelt hugs, the usual promises of off-season phone calls. Soon the clubhouse was all but deserted.

Except for several players with a grudge.

"Guys stayed late, had a few beers," says a Cubs official. "And there were bats around."

These players were exasperated and angry at Sosa, the self-proclaimed "gladiator" who had betrayed them on a day when none of the Cubs really wanted to be there. Thirteen minutes after Maddux threw his first pitch in that meaningless season finale, Sosa slipped out of the clubhouse, made that brisk walk to the players' lot, fired up his silver Range Rover (Sosa was the only Cub with an assigned space) and gunned it past the surprised attendant, right out the gate. He was gone.

Much later, after Dusty Baker and even the clubhouse staff had left Wrigley for the day, one of the lingering Cubs, a veteran position player known for his intensity and unselfishness, grabbed a bat and made his way toward the double locker.

And there it was, The Gladiator's boom box. Many of the players hated that boom box, mostly because they resented how Sosa used it to mark his territory. This was his house, his team, his city--or so he said. Thirteen years of Cubs service and 545 of his 574 career home runs made it so.

But what Sosa didn't understand--still doesn't--is that his power in the clubhouse had eroded. The players, especially some of the veterans, were tired of Sosa's salsa CDs, the way he cranked up the volume, the way he imposed himself on everyone.

After all, this wasn't 1998, when His Samminess and Mark McGwire energized a sport ready for its AARP discount card; this was 2004, when Sosa's key offensive numbers were down across the board for a third consecutive season. Injuries, age and the law of diminishing returns had revealed Sosa for what he was: a fading superstar who spoke of teamwork, but rarely practiced it, a Hall of Famer-to-be who had alienated most of the other Cubs players, as well as key management and support staff. To make matters worse, Sosa lied about sneaking out, insisting he left in the seventh inning. The Cubs would let it be known that a security camera showed otherwise. Once again, he'd been transformed: from shoeshine boy on the streets of San Pedro de Macoris to major leaguer to Hall of Famer to dictatorial diva to … quitter.

So what happened next was no surprise. The teammate stood over the black boom box with a bat and smashed the thing as if it were a hanging curve. In one anger-and beer-fueled gesture, the coup d'état was complete. This would never be Sosa's house again.

FOUR MONTHS later the Cubs traded the seventh-leading home run hitter in history--and agreed to pay $16.1 million of the $25M remaining on his deal--to the Orioles for utility man Jerry Hairston Jr. and two minor leaguers. Listen hard and you could have heard the celebration at Clark and Addison when Sosa passed his physical. "He wore out his welcome, and we wore out our welcome with him," says a Cubs official. "Basically, he needs to be loved, but he doesn't need to love you back."

Sosa, signed 20 years ago by the Rangers for $3,500, understands the value of showmanship. The sprint to right field, the two-finger kisses to the crowd, the bunny hop after a homer, the search for the dugout camera after a dinger--these were his signature moments. The spontaneous had become the calculated, not that anyone seemed to mind. Sosa was good for Cubs business, especially as the team stumbled through mind-numbing losing seasons during the mid-1990s. His popularity reached mushroom cloud proportions beginning in '98, when he and McGwire captivated a country with their Mantle vs. Maris-like home run duel.

What few knew outside the organization was that Sosa was becoming a pain. There was the public Sammy, all kisses, smiles and astounding numbers. Then there was the clubhouse Sammy, who embraced few teammates, chafed at criticism from managers and stiff-armed all but the most sympathetic reporters.

Finally there was the demanding Sammy, who began to treat team support staff like, well, shoeshine boys. "He was allowed to get away with way, way too much," says a Cubs official. "The PR people let him get away with too much. So did managers and management. And other players didn't stand up to him." Or as one support staffer bluntly says, "The whole persona of him smiling, well, he turned into a pretty big piece of crap."

This is what happens when adoration, commerce and ego collide: something has to give. It was never going to be Sosa. He was too valuable a commodity, so management tolerated his whims, his late arrivals at spring training, his defiance of manager after manager. They were enablers. As former Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone once put it, "If you create a Frankenstein monster, you can't be real surprised if he eats the village."

The inevitable contract dispute almost resulted in a 2000 trade to the Yankees. But after Sosa hit 50 home runs that season, he got a four-year, $72M extension and hit 64 in 2001, 49 in 2002 and 40 in 2003. But 2003 was also the year Sosa's credibility took it in the shorts. When his cork-filled bat shattered on a groundout against Tampa Bay, he earned much scorn and a seven-game suspension. Sosa insisted it was an innocent mistake, but some of his teammates declined to support him. Payback. "He had a pattern for not getting along with teammates," says a high-ranking front-office member. "He didn't need to. He was not aloof, but teammates were never a big deal for him."

Sosa was stung by the reaction. And he never forgot the slights. Not even a 40-homer, 103-RBI season and an unexpected playoff run to Game 7 of the NLCS could soothe his hurt feelings.

The distance between Sosa and his teammates increased even more the following spring. By then the plate tectonics of the clubhouse were changing. Prior was no longer a kid. Kerry Wood was in his seventh season. Four-time Cy Young winner Maddux, who signed as a free agent, was there, as were no-nonsense vets Todd Walker and Derrek Lee. At the end of July, Nomar Garciaparra would be acquired from the Red Sox, further disrupting The Gladiator's fragile universe.

On May 16 in San Diego, Sosa injured his back while sneezing. During his 27-game absence, in which the Cubs finished 13—14, Sosa annoyed some teammates by leaving the ballpark after his treatments. It didn't help when he told reporters, "They need me, no question about it. You don't know what you got until you lose it."

Sosa considered himself baseball royalty, and expected to be treated as such. It wasn't uncommon for team media relations staffers to babysit Sosa's children, arrange his family's travel, help with his Christmas shopping or even purchase his CDs (he'd give them $100, and tell them to keep the change). He could be generous. But he could also be petty.

Rather than invite a Cubs media relations member to share a charter flight he took from Chicago to Jackson, Tenn., for a rehab appearance with the team's Double-A affiliate, Sosa told the staffer to find his own way there. Later, when the third and final game of his rehab stay was rained out, Sosa was asked to return to the field to acknowledge a sellout crowd that was still chanting his name.

"F- that," he said, according to witnesses. "No."

But about 30 minutes later, Sosa asked if the fans were still in the stands. When told they were, he made his way to the field, thanked the crowd and received a standing ovation. As he walked back inside, Sosa was heard to tell the PR staffer, "See, I knew that was something good I should do."

Sosa returned to the lineup on June 18, but was dropped from his customary No. 3 spot to cleanup. He struggled there, and when he was still mired in a slump on July 1 the unthinkable happened: he was booed at Wrigley. In late July, when someone asked Baker if Sosa listened to suggestions, the manager said, "Sometimes. Next question."

By Aug. 10 Sosa was batting .261 and Garciaparra was occupying his old No. 3 spot. A sign popped up in the stands: "Red Line-$3.50, Cubs Tickets-$36, Hard Hat For Concrete-$50, Sosa At-Bats-Useless." In a revealing remark, Baker said he didn't drop Sosa lower than cleanup because "we just can't lose him psychologically and spiritually."

A day later, a peeved Sosa met with Baker to discuss the manager's comment. "Everything's cool," said Baker afterward. But it wasn't. Sosa's ego had been bruised. Plus, the booing continued. "Barry Bonds couldn't care less if the fans, the manager or his teammates hate him," says a longtime Cubs official. "Sammy tried to be like that, but he couldn't handle the negative."

On Aug. 18, in the face of mounting criticism, Sosa called Baker at the team hotel in Milwaukee and offered to drop to fifth in the order. Baker quickly accepted. Three weeks later, with the boos growing louder, Sosa was dropped to sixth--this time without his blessing. Relationships were frayed: between Sosa and Baker, between Sosa and the fans, between Sosa and management, between Sosa and his teammates. Sosa still delivered the occasional clutch hit, diving catch, arching home run. He played hard; nobody could dispute that. But then he would do something silly, such as in the Sept. 21 game in Pittsburgh when he did the home run bunny hop on a bomb to rightfield--only to get thrown out at second when the ball caromed off the wall. His response: "This is my style."

If he hadn't lost his teammates by Oct. 3, he surely lost them then, the day of the ditch-and-dash. A clumsy, agent-issued apology went over like a falling piece of Wrigley concrete.

Sosa was a no-show in January for the annual Cubs Convention, attended by about 15,000 diehards. During a video highlight package of the season, Sosa's on-screen image was booed by the crowd. By now the Cubs were desperate to rid themselves of Sosa, and Sosa was equally desperate to play elsewhere. Substantial concessions were made by both sides. "It was like a bad marriage," says a Cubs official. "You try to stay together for the kids, but in this case, it just was not working."

So a divorce was arranged, and when it became official, the Cubs and Sosa played nice and said all the right things during their respective press conferences. In fact, nobody in Cubs upper management is willing to rule out a bounce-back, 40-homer, 100-plus RBI season from The Gladiator. Sosa, they say, always plays better when motivated.

No matter how you feel about Sosa, it will be weird on April 8, the day of the Cubs' home opener, to see someone else--probably Jeromy Burnitz--running out to rightfield. Says a Cubs official, "Hopefully, this will give us a new beginning. It's certainly the end of an era."

Not to mention a boom box.

Gene Wojciechowski's book,Cubs Nation, will be published in April by Doubleday.