| He was considered disruptive and selfish. Sure, he belted lots of home runs. But he was a divisive clubhouse presence. A local newspaper writer called him a "second Frankenstein." He injured himself in silly ways at crucial times. Everyone agreed that in his zeal to hit the next home run farther than the last, he ended up striking out too often. Worst of all, his titanic ego led him to walk out on his teammates. Team executives determined that the ballclub would benefit from the slugger's absence.
No, we're not describing Sammy Sosa in 2005.
That was Babe Ruth in 1920.
Contrary to baseball lore, Boston didn't sell Ruth to New York so that Red Sox owner Harry Frazee could finance a Broadway musical. They sold Ruth to the Yankees because he was considered to be---despite his charisma---a raving, greedy, and wildly unpredictable jerk. At the time, many observers felt that Ruth's unprecedented homerun totals were artificially enhanced by the fact that many of the league's better pitchers were off fighting World War I.
In the rhetoric of contemporary sports journalism, Ruth was thought to be a clubhouse cancer. He was bad for team chemistry. He was a me-first player. Getting rid of him was addition by subtraction.
That's the phrase now being foisted on Cub fans: "addition by subtraction."
Most fans have bought it, too. Or at least they were buying it before Jeromy Burnitz and a ludicrous amount of money were added to the equation. Cub management has framed the public discussion of Sosa masterfully. (It's almost like they're employees of a media conglomerate or something.) If Dusty Baker and Jim Hendry are to be believed, Sosa's selfishness was such an unconquerable problem for the team that he---and millions of dollars to offset the one guaranteed year remaining on his contract---had to be dealt to Baltimore for scraps. Otherwise, LaTroy Hawkins might start blowing saves again. Or Nomar Garciaparra might bunt with one out and the entire season on the line again. Or Mark Prior might inexplicably suck again.
But that won't happen in 2005, because the corrosive influence of Sosa has been excised, and replaced with Burntiz and Jerry Hairston Jr. Those two will bring a soothing warmth to the team. Little birds will alight on their shoulders. They'll weave hemp necklaces in the outfield. Any tactical gaffes by the Cubs manager or performance lapses by players will be easily overcome through enhanced clubhouse harmony. Good riddance, Sosa. Welcome, chemistry.
Things aren't likely to unfold exactly like that, however. If Sosa is injury-free---and even if he's steroid-free---he's likely to vastly outperform Burnitz. (Just as seemingly displaced AAA outfielder Jason Dubois would outperform Hairston.) You can't add by subtracting. Unless, of course, we're speaking mathematically and we're subtracting a negative integer. Which we aren't. And even if we were, Sosa's 2004 VORP was 27.9, so he's not really a negative integer.
Look, we're not predicting that the 36-year-old Sosa will go on to hit 665 homeruns with his new team, as the 24-year-old Ruth did after being sold to the Yankees. The two players were not exactly at the same point in the arcs of their careers when dealt. We are suggesting, however, that Sosa and Ruth are on a very short list of baseball's transcendently great power hitters. (You can say that Sosa's numbers were inflated by cork and steroids; we'll say that Ruth's numbers were inflated by segregation. In all likelihood, we're both right.) Trading either player, at any time, just seems like a very bad idea.
Big Foam Finger