All you need to know is that Ryne Sandberg didn't even pause. Asked if Sammy Sosa is the Greatest Cub Ever -- remember, he has homered 574 times, helped maintain the franchise's place as a cultural phenomenon and contributed to saving baseball from itself in the late '90s -- Sandberg was confident enough about his thoughts to respond instantly Monday.
''I think it's Ernie Banks,'' he said.
Such is the depth of the hole Sosa has dug himself with his latest blunder and lie. A Wrigleyville grave, you might call it. Everyone in Cubdom, including the rational and polite Sandberg, is disgusted by the way Sosa disgraced himself Sunday by walking out on his team during the final afternoon of a lost season. In fact, what we learned the day after is that the Cubs aren't at all viewing his quit job as a momentary blip, an act of frustration soon to be forgiven with a shrug and exchange of heart taps.
No, Tribune Co. is using Sosa's petulant departure as a way of greasing the skids for an option thought impossible back in the days of mutual love and kisses. Taking in the near-consensus opinion among local fans and media that Sosa finally has worn out his welcome, the Tribsters appear eager to trade the future Hall of Famer and the $17 million owed him for 2005. It is eminently clear, despite Dusty Baker's lack of control in the clubhouse all season, that the manager has the full backing of general manager Jim Hendry, the man who hired him. It's also clear Sosa, whose health and production no longer are reliable elements as his body shrinks and breaks down, is having trouble getting along with Baker and won't be able to co-exist with him.
''I'm tired of being blamed by Dusty Baker for all the failures of this club,'' said Sosa, in words that seem crafted by an agent. ''I resent the inference that I'm not prepared. I live my life every minute every day to prepare for combat.''
Said Baker, either playing dumb or mystified like the rest of us: ''I can't figure out where I blamed him. I have done nothing but cover for the guy.''
So it comes as no surprise that Cubs management has resorted to spywork in an effort to further degrade Sosa in the public eye. Upon reading Sosa's claims in Monday's Sun-Times that he didn't leave Wrigley Field until the seventh inning, the Cubs quickly checked security cameras to corroborate their information that he actually went home much earlier. According to team sources, the parking-lot cams showed Sosa leaving at 1:35 p.m., only 15 minutes after the first pitch. As it was, he had disobeyed Hendry's expectation that he be in uniform. Now, management has proof that Sosa blew off an entire day's work -- nothing to sneeze at, pun intended, when he makes $104,938 a game.
The Tribsters don't want their money back. They want Sosa out of here, having gone to extreme lengths to embarrass him. An employer doesn't expose a highly paid employee as a liar and jaker, then welcome him back to work with open arms just a few months later. This is called a smear campaign. There is no chance the Cubs and Sosa can have a good relationship anymore, and sometime soon, expect him to demand a trade so he can pursue his home-run milestones elsewhere while the Cubs move on without their financial albatross.
A parting of ways is best for Sosa and the club. He is obviously a bitter man, deeply hurt over what he considers disloyal fans and media. True, some of us who regularly saluted him in the past have found constant fault with him the last two seasons. But what are we supposed to do, blindly defend Sosa when cork is found in his bat and he hatches some b.s. story about a batting-practice mixup? What are we supposed to do, ignore the problems he has with his teammates? What are we supposed to do, sympathize with him when he abandons the ballclub and fans on the symbolic final day of an agonizing, abysmal season?
How curious that Baker, in a Monday media conference call organized specifically to address the Sosa issue, would say he has ''done nothing but cover for the guy.'' As it is, Sosa's career has been clouded by mystery and innuendo. When his manager drops a heavy-handed phrase, it only arouses more suspicions about what's going on behind the scenes. Sammy is a sensitive guy, but he couldn't have gone ballistic Sunday simply because Baker said the following when asked if he wanted Sosa on the club next year: ''I'd want him back if ... he's got to go to work. Get in tip-top shape mentally and physically. It's a big year for him next year.''
Perhaps Sosa's head was cluttered by another bizarre twist. He reportedly was interviewed Saturday by New York City police detectives asking if he knew the whereabouts of a cousin wanted for attempted murder. What possibly could be next in this soap opera?
With communication apparently cut off for now between the club and Sosa's camp, it's incumbent upon Hendry to start testing the waters of trade-market interest. If you think the 2004 season was dysfunctional, imagine if the Cubs can't trade Sosa and are stuck with his brooding, whiffing, broken-down, .253-hitting butt next year. It's possible they'll have to pick up a chunk of the fortune owed Sosa if he's dealt -- an $18 million guarantee for 2006 would kick in after a trade, making it a two-year package for $35 million. Or, they might have to inherit another team's unwanted goods. Assuming the New York Mets and general manager Omar Minaya, the man who discovered Sosa in the Dominican Republic, are interested in Sosa, they surely would want the Cubs to take on the salary of left fielder (and Chicago native) Cliff Floyd, who made $6.5 million last season. A more logical next stop is the American League, where he would be valuable as a designated hitter who could concentrate on hitting home runs and staying healthy. Whatever the case, the Cubs have to rid themselves of Sosa. If they must eat millions, then eat millions.
Of course, Sosa could veto any trade. But at this point, given all the spilled poison, why would he want to stay? The Cubs would rather pursue younger, healthier and more fundamentally sound players than keep Sosa (going on 36), Moises Alou (going on 39) and even Nomar Garciaparra, who wants big money and will be disappointed in the Cubs' offer. Maybe I'm dreaming, but you can't pursue Carlos Beltran unless you dump Sosa first.
There is an unmistakable sadness when a folk hero stumbles and fades. Cubdom wanted to live in 1998 forever, but unless you're Michael Jordan or Walter Payton, time sabotages the grand plan. Since the days he visited the White House, Sammy Sosa has corked his bat and quit on his team.