CHICAGO - What does it take for a hero to fall? Sammy Sosa, who became an international superstar in his race with Mark McGwire for the home run title of 1998, is being reduced to a has-been. The happy-go-lucky slugger from the Dominican Republic, with a smile as wide as the rift between Cubs and Sox fans, also appears to be heading out of town.
The Cubs reportedly will send Sosa to Baltimore for nearly nothing. What a fall from grace.
Forget that he brought the fans to their feet as he raced out to right field. Abandon the thought of the way he thumped at his chest and blew kisses to the crowd. Sosa is out of step with what fans want from their heroes these days, and the misstep has nothing to do with the one-hop glissade he takes down the first base line as he watches the ball blast off his mighty bat.
As the alternative to the colorful Sammy, fans here are migrating to Nomar Garciaparra, the humbly-spoken shortstop who was shuttled west to Chicago by Boston last summer. Nomar’s number 5 jerseys are being snapped up at the rate that Sammy’s home runs used to fly over the vine-covered Wrigley Field wall onto Waveland Avenue.
“Supply and demand,” is how jersey vendor Trey Carlstrom shrugged off the fans’ flip. Carlstrom is co-owner of Wrigleyville Sports, one of the many shops selling Major League gear near the ballpark. He pegs the current demand for Sosa jerseys to be “about $20 cheaper than everybody else.”
Wrigleyville Sports has dropped the price of Sosa jerseys from $150 to $100 ... no doubt they will go even lower with Sosa heading out of town. Carlstrom says that Greg Maddux, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood jerseys are better sellers than Sosa’s these days, despite the fact that each of these three players plays only one game in five.
At the Cubs Convention, held Jan. 21-23 at the Chicago Hilton Hotel, it seemed downright dangerous to don Sosa’s 21. At fifty bucks a sold-out ticket, and scalper’s prices of $500, the Convention is a gathering of the hard-core, yet few in the massive crowd were willing to shoulder their allegiance to the fallen future Hall of Famer by wearing his number.
“Sammy’s not conducive to winning,” said Clyde Allen from Kenosha, Wis., who is a fan who has been to all 20 Cubs Conventions. Allen is so committed to the Cubs’ quest of the World Series that he spent $2000 for two bleachers seats at Game 1 in Yankee Stadium in 2003, only to watch the Florida Marlins play in the game instead of his Cubs.
“Everybody’s fed up with (Sammy’s) antics,” Allen said, after reeling off a list of Sosa’s shortcomings, including base running, outfield play, and strike outs. “Whatever it takes to make a trade, they should do it,” Allen said before hearing of Friday's deal, snickering at those who revere Sosa as the greatest player in Chicago Cubs history.
On the basis of numbers alone, there is little argument that the prodigious Sosa is a Cub for the ages. He is seventh on the all-time home run list with 574, which is 52 ahead of the legendary “Mr. Cub,” Ernie Banks. Sosa has knocked in 1,530 runs, 468 more than Hack Wilson, who in 1930 had 190 runs batted in, an achievement now deemed to be unreachable.
Yet, despite an illustrious past, Sosa had been difficult for general manager Jim Hendry to trade until the Orioles stepped up after failing to land other targeted free agents. At the core of the problem was Sosa’s $17 million salary and a desire to be paid $18 million in 2006, which is what his current contract calls for.
“I used to be a big Sosa fan, but now sort of,” apologized 9-year-old Parker Buell of Michigan City, Ind., still clinging to the Sosa jersey as fashion. “We could have gotten someone better for him,” young Parker offered from the perspective of someone just beginning a lifetime of Cubs agony and anticipation.
“Sosa’s not a popular guy,” said Chris Bleven of Arlington Heights, Ill., who has lived through the heartbreak many times. “I was there on the last day waiting to see him play and he wasn’t there.”
And he won't be there again when the season opens — and few Cubs fans will care.
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