Saturday, January 29, 2005

Rise and fall

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of professional sports is how fast an athlete can turn from popular to hated. (Or vice versa.) Fans are certainly mercurial. (Guilty as charged, by the way. When hockey player Chris Chelios played for the Chicago Blackhawks, I hated the guy. But once he was traded to my Detroit Red Wings, he was a favorite.) Jerry Seinfeld had it right: We don't really cheer for the player; we cheer for the uniform he wears.

Last night, Sammy Sosa was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the Baltimore Orioles. And if you're wondering why I care, Iowa City sometimes seems like an extended (very extended) suburb of Chicago. Many suburban Chicagoans attend the University of Iowa. So we get a lot of Chicago radio, TV, and newspapers here. (We also get some Chicago-style food, which keeps me nice and trim.)

Anyway, you might remember that Sosa was on top of the baseball world in 1998 when he and Mark McGwire were chasing the Major League Baseball home run record. Ever since then, the man had essentially been King of Chicago. How could you not love a guy who was having so much fun playing baseball? His smile, his enthusiasm, his titanic home runs - he was a spectacle for Chicago fans. (Watching him run out to his position in right field holding an American flag after 9-11 was a goose bump-inducing moment.)

But just as the fans can put an athlete on a pedestal, they can also kick it out from under him - especially when a player acts selfishly, pouts, and would rather play someplace else. Sosa whined about being moved from his accustomed spot in the lineup, even if it was a better move for his team because of his advancing age and diminishing skills. He was caught cheating, filling his bat with cork to make it lighter. And during the last game of this past season, he left the ballpark while the game was still being played. So management wanted Sosa gone, his teammates wanted him gone, and the fans suddenly hated him. So, as Phil Rogers says in today's Chicago Tribune, Sosa had to go. From god to goat, in the span of one season. And how bad did the Cubs want this to happen? They'll pay the Orioles $10 million of Sosa's remaining $17 million contract! And they'll receive three marginal players in return for a player who will probably go into baseball's Hall of Fame. Wow.

I wonder how long Sosa's honeymoon will last in Baltimore?