Could Sosa be going, going, gone?

Cubs slugger could opt for escape clause, making him free agent

He's 217 HRs shy of Aaron's mark

Star isn't talking

few believe he would leave $33M on table

League Championship Series

October 17, 2003|By Paul Sullivan | Paul Sullivan,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO — Late ALCS game: Last night's Game 7 of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees ended too late to be included in this edition.

CHICAGO - The Sammy Sosa contract watch officially began Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, when the 2003 season ended with a whimper instead of a hop.

Now Sosa will get his chance to escape the never-ending questions about curses and cork and the Cubs' long legacy of losing the games when it matters most.

If he opts for an escape clause making him a free agent, Sosa can wave goodbye to Chicago and continue his assault on Hank Aaron's career record of 755 home runs in another town.

Don't think for a second Sosa is not conscious of Aaron's mark. With 539 career homers at the age of 35, he's 217 home runs from passing Aaron and needs to average 43.4 per year over five seasons to get there.

Even if Barry Bonds passes Aaron first, Sosa may have a shot at passing his longtime Giants rival, a scenario that probably would drive him even more.

Whether it's counterproductive for Sosa to go for the record is debatable, but there's little doubt he's sacrificing his batting average in pursuit of home runs. Sosa hit .279 with 40 home runs and 103 RBIs in 137 games in 2003, missing 25 games with his toe injury, the corked bat suspension and a few days of rest.

Projected over a 162-game season, Sosa would have hit 47 home runs with 122 RBIs, a great season by anyone's standard. But Sosa's love for the long ball also resulted in his lowest batting average since 1997, when he hit .271 with 36 homers and 119 RBIs.

Of course, 1997 was the season in which he signed a four-year, $42.5 million extension, making him set for life. It was also the year hitting coach Jeff Pentland arrived, altering Sosa's life forever.

It was Pentland's Marine-style tactics that helped turn Sosa into a smarter hitter. He treated Sosa like a normal player instead of catering to him like a star, teaching Sosa to be more patient at the plate, hit to the opposite field and use the strike zone to his advantage.

Sosa had a breakthrough season in 1998 when he hit 66 home runs and increased his batting average 57 points to .308. He hit .320 and .328 respectively in 2000 and 2001, when he set a career high with 116 walks.

Pentland was fired in the post-2002 purge, and for reasons only he can explain, Sosa went back to being his own hitting coach in 2003. He finished with good power numbers, but also with 71 more strikeouts than walks (143-62).

Regardless of whether he leaves the Cubs, the big question is whether Sosa will be content to become a .270-type hitter as long as he belts 45 to 50 home runs a year and gives himself a chance at Aaron, and perhaps Bonds.

Sosa had some indelible playoff moments in 2003, spoiling the perception he doesn't hit in the clutch. He stepped up big in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, hitting a dramatic, game-tying, two-run homer off Ugueth Urbina with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game the Cubs lost 9-8 in 11 innings.

And he homered off the roof of the center-field camera shed at Wrigley Field in the second inning of Game 2, breaking open a game the Cubs went on to win 12-3.

But Sosa also failed to hit the cut-off man on Jeff Conine's sacrifice fly that put the Marlins ahead 4-3 in the now-infamous "Crazy 8" eighth of Game 6. Instead of having runners on first and third and two outs, the Marlins had runners on second and third. Manager Dusty Baker ordered an intentional walk to Todd Hollandsworth to load the bases and Mike Mordecai followed with a three-run double off Kyle Farnsworth that sliced through the red ivy, bounced off the wall and staggered the Cubs in their 8-3 loss.

Sosa declined to discuss his future after Game 7, but he'll surely make an announcement soon about whether he intends to test the free agent waters.

Few believe he would leave $33 million on the table over the next two years to seek greener pastures elsewhere, but few understand his animosity toward upper management, which is refusing to add two more years to his contract and guarantee he will be a Cub through 2007.

Before the Cubs' home opener in April, Baker was skeptical when asked whether Sosa might flee the Cubs after the season.

"Wouldn't he have to turn back a whole bunch of money to go get a whole bunch more money?" he said. "So who's going to give back $33 million to go get $35 million? That's way down the line, but I don't foresee that happening. One thing about Sammy, he can count real well."

Counting time has arrived.

Will Sosa stay with the Cubs, as he said after the division clincher Sept. 27 at Wrigley?

"Chicago is home now," Sosa said that day. "This is the place I wanted to be. This is the place I want to finish my career. Now on top of that we win the division, so believe me, I don't think I'm going anywhere."

But until Sosa officially informs the Cubs he doesn't plan to exercise the escape clause, the speculation will continue.

As Sosa watches Karim Garcia play right field for the Yankees, does he wonder whether Yankees ownner George Steinbrenner would offer him a three or four-year deal for a slight raise?

Would he consider an opportunity to move his ubiquitous boom box to the Bronx and play in Yankee pinstripes as a chance to finish his career with the respect he feels he deserves, but doesn't always get, in Chicago?

Only Sosa and his closest advisers know what he's thinking.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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