It was just over a year ago now that the Cubs imploded in the season's final days, losing 7 of their last 9 when the wild card was theirs for the taking. For all its flaws, and there were a good number, that was a playoff team, and so inanimately watching the postseason last year hurt all the more. At the same time though, there was at least the prospect that, if the Cubs continued to improve under Hendry, next year, or at least the year after that, would at last not yield the same October disappointment. The Cubs under Hendry, with a bit more work and a bit more luck, would be going places. So much for that...
Part I: The Sosa Affair
The story of the 2004/05 off-season was Sammy Sosa. As the final game of the season was approaching its conclusion on the afternoon of Sunday October 3rd, it was rumoured that Sosa had left early. After the Saturday game, Sosa, interviewed earlier that day by New York police regarding a cousin wanted for attempted murder, had approached Baker to tell him that he was hurt and wanted Sunday off. Baker had duly obliged, but in explaining the decision to the press before the game on Sunday, Baker, probably inadvertently, questioned Sosa's dedication by commenting "yeah, I want him back [next year], especially if he goes to work this winter and gets in tip-top shape mentally and physically". Though Sosa was only later informed of that comment by reporters, and thus it didn't contribute to his decision to leave early, the fact that Baker was then the first to go on the record about the walk-out after the game didn't help. Inevitably Baker only succeeded in inflaming the situation: first he implicitly acknowledged Sosa's guilt ("I didn't know he was going to leave early"), made a point of his own innocence ("I didn't give him permission"), then called upon punishment for Sosa's transgression ("Jim [Hendry]'s got to take some action"). Someone smashed the boombox Sosa kept in the clubhouse. A public relations disaster was in the making.
Sosa, given his strained relationship with Baker, took things personally, too personally, and, having refused to speak to reporters before the game, and having avoided reporters after the game by leaving early, that night organised an interview with the Sun Times, which was published on the Monday morning. "I'm tired of being blamed by Dusty Baker for all the failures of this club," Sosa somewhat melodramatically lamented. "I resent the inference that I'm not prepared. I live my life every minute every day to prepare for combat. No one has ever questioned my mental or physical preparation at any level. They always find something to blame me for. I'm always the guy they are going to blame. They blame me for not going to the World Series last year. They blame me for not going to the playoffs this year. I'm tired of it." In the same interview, Sosa mentioned that he'd only left the game during the seventh inning.
The Cubs, upon reading that claim in Monday's newspaper, were quick to react, checking security cameras to catch Sosa actually leaving at 1.35pm, just 15 minutes or so after the game's first pitch. That information was quickly disseminated nationally by unnamed team officials. If authorised to do so by Jim Hendry, the Cubs' GM had just made the biggest mistake of his off-season. If not, someone else made it for him. Regardless, the Cubs' offseason was rendered a disaster waiting to happen the moment they embarked on the full-scale smear campaign against the man that for years carried the franchise on his back. With every swipe the Cubs took at Sosa, and every swipe Sosa took back, the team was backed further into a corner. The rebranding Sosa as the devil-reincarnate did little to entice potential buyers. Those with any interest at all, given the Cubs' obvious desperation to offload, were awarded the upper hand in all negotiations. And other free agents, looking on from the outside, can hardly have been impressed with the underhand tricks that the Cubs employed against one of their greatest players ever. All of that certainly contributed to the all-consuming Sosa saga stretching into February, only netting a pretty pathetic haul in the end (regardless of the fact that Sosa had a horrible year in Baltimore, the Cubs ought to have been able to turn $16.15m and a big name one-time superstar into a lot more than a utility player, a Triple-A middle infielder and a retired reliever), seemingly indoctrinating within Hendry an irrational dislike of players with any sort of supposed chemistry issues (Moises Alou, Kent Mercker, Kyle Farnsworth and Andy Sisco were shown the door for little return), and significantly limiting the moves that the Cubs were able to make in other areas.
That last point is critical. Hendry went into the off-season with a number of issues that he had to resolve. The leadoff spot, the team on-base percentage, the bench, starting pitching injuries, the bullpen, the closer's role, Dusty Baker, all had been significant impediments in 2004, and all ought to have been addressed as best possible by Hendry over the winter. The Cubs though went into Opening Day 2005 hardly any better equipped in those areas than they had been when things went wrong six months earlier, since by the time Sosa was out of the picture and Hendry finally had the numbers to work towards and the time to give, most of the winter's best options were already off the table. As a result, for instance, Jeromy Burnitz would have to do in right, for what other quick-fix alternatives were there? The end result of it all was a lot of talent lost and not all of it replaced, more holes and flaws created than filled, and a lot of that was the fault of the Cubs' handling of the Sosa affair. Only the legitimate prospect of healthy seasons from Nomar, Prior and Wood sustained the many that believed this year would turn out better than the last. Oh well.
None of all of this, for the record, is to say that Sosa didn't act deplorably that Sunday afternoon when he slunk out, nor that he shouldn't have lied about it later that evening. It's not to say in fact that Sosa didn't disgrace himself for much of his last year in Chicago, arguing with Baker about his rightful position in the lineup, refusing to listen to any advice regarding his hitting, and it's certainly not to say that Sosa shouldn't have been traded over the winter. But the way that the Cubs handled the whole process was quite appalling, and Jim Hendry must bear the brunt of the blame. The team could have weathered the surprise trade of an unsmeared legend, as the Red Sox did the trade of Nomar. The foreseeable trade of a villified scapegoat, well what does 79-83 say to you? My response is simple. When public relations take precedence over baseball, baseball is the loser; but losing baseball, it just so happens, is bad PR. That's a lesson Hendry, whose performance this last year we'll continue to look at in the days to come, learnt too late.