- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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We'll almost certainly never know now what the 2005 Cubs would have been with Sammy Sosa. But we do know this:
It's best for everybody that they'll never have to find out.
It was barely a week ago that Sosa's image appeared on the big screen at the annual Cubs Convention, during a showing of the 2004 highlight video. You've probably heard by now what happened next.
If not, we'll even give you a hint: It was a sound that Sammy never heard much during 13 mostly blissful seasons as a Cub.
We'll give you another hint: It rhymes with "blue."
Which is what Sosa is now as a Cub, unless something very unforeseen happens over the next 48 hours or so.
You'd be making a big, big mistake, though, to assume that's what Sammy is as a baseball player. He may not be the 66-homer, 158-RBI Sammy ever again. But he's far from through.
Remember, this is a man with a lot to prove, heading for a ballpark practically contoured with guys like him in mind, bound for a lineup with more big bats than have ever surrounded him.
So to think Sammy can't hit 40 home runs again, or reach the top four or five spots on the all-time home run list, or ever hear a home crowd chanting his name again would be a major overreaction to this guy's misadventures these past two years.
But we feel a lot more comfortable saying that as he points his steering wheel toward Baltimore than we would have if another spring training at Ho Ho Kam Park loomed just over his horizon.
Oh, he could have gone back. Weirder things have happened. But why? Who would that have benefited? Think of all the damage control that would have been sitting on Sosa's place mat. With his manager. With his teammates. Even with the paying customers who once thought the sight of Sammy stalking toward home plate was right up there with Jordan defying gravity or Ditka stomping the sidelines.
Teams getting geared up for a playoff charge don't need to spend their spring training at the circus. They need to get their brains trained on baseball.
But Spring With Sammy would have been a nonstop carnival. Did he and Dusty talk today? Did they dodge each other's glance? Did they laugh? Scowl? Go to a movie?
Who needed that?
Not the Cubs.
But they were prepared to go down that trail if they had to. If they didn't get a decent player in return. If they didn't get some financial benefit out of this somewhere along the line.
They spent their winter committed to the concept of addition by subtraction. But there was only so much they were prepared to subtract.
And once the Orioles came along -- with no more partners beside Sosa left on their dance floor, suddenly willing to offer a commodity as useful as Jerry Hairston and not looking for the Cubs to pay every nickel of Sosa's paycheck -- everything suddenly made sense.
Baltimore had long been Sammy's first choice, anyway -- because of the ballpark, because of the forgiving people who stream into Camden Yards, because of Miguel Tejada. So there were no worries about him signing off on this particular deal.
And the inclusion of Hairston gave the Cubs the kind of player they need more of. A guy who can actually score from second base on a single. Who can steal a base. Who has spent his life absorbing those irreplaceable baseball instincts that seemed to be in such short supply at Wrigley last summer.
Hairston also offers a skill almost no one else on the Cubs' roster possesses: He has talents that just might translate into a real leadoff man.
He hasn't done it a whole lot. But if he can duplicate, or better, that .378 on-base percentage he compiled last year, he can be to the Cubs what Tony Phillips used to be in Detroit and Anaheim -- a regular top-of-the-order presence with no set position.
He can hang out in left field one day, at second base the next, in center field the day after that. If he gets on base and orbits those bases consistently, that alone will have made this a trade well worth making for the Cubs.
But that doesn't mean we can sit here and announce the Cubs are better than they would have been without this deal, either. They need to do more. And this trade frees them to do more.
Jeromy Burnitz is a definite option. But Burnitz has been looking for a bigger payday than the Cubs, or anyone else, think a guy who hit .244 away from Coors Field, with more whiffs than hits (67-66), ought to command. So his signing may not be as imminent as it has been portrayed.
Magglio Ordonez? Not happening. Or at least he isn't getting any five-year deals from this team.
But sooner or later (even if it's July), the Cubs will import some notable thumper to fill the offensive void left by Sosa and Moises Alou. And we won't know exactly where this Sosa deal has led them until they do.
Nevertheless, when that wild-card lead was disappearing on them last summer, they clearly figured out something very telling about their baseball team:
You don't make the playoffs -- and you don't win the World Series -- just by lofting 235 home runs into the Wrigley breezes. But you can sure do that if Mark Prior and Kerry Wood combine for 35 wins -- as opposed to 35 DL visits.
And you can sure do that if a lot more of those twisting fly balls turn into outs instead of doubles.
And you can sure do that if, every once in a while, you manufacture a run instead of pitching a tent on the basepaths until somebody pounds one off a brick wall on Waveland Avenue.
Was there any more telling Cubs stat last year than this -- despite 235 home runs (21 more than any other team in their league), they only finished seventh in runs scored. Just ahead of a San Diego team that hit almost 100 fewer homers than they did.
Exactly 35 of those Cubs home runs were authored by a fellow named Sosa. But he still drove in just 80 runs -- the fewest RBI in history by a guy who hit at least 35 homers in a season.
So the Cubs needed to subtract that approach as much as they needed to subtract Sammy himself. But the saddest part of all this is that Sammy is the last memory many people in Chicago will have of him.
There was a time, remember, when Sosa owned Chicago the way Seinfeld once owned Thursdays.
There was magic in his bat. There was just as much magic in his smile. He made Wrigley one of the electrifying places on this planet, even on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon in the midst of another 95-loss season.
No matter what you think of him now, after Corkgate and Dustygate and the talk-show accusations that his emergence as a star wasn't quite au naturel, it's OK to remember what he was back then.
He was good for his sport. And he was good for the Cubs.
And now he is about to help them out one last time -- by saying goodbye not one moment too soon.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.