- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

NEW YORK — The Chicago Cubs were close to agreement on a trade to send unhappy slugger Sammy Sosa to the Baltimore Orioles, several high-ranking baseball officials told the Associated Press last night.

Medical tests and approval from commissioner Bud Selig and the players’ association remain unresolved, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Cubs would pay a substantial part of Sosa’s $17million salary this season, the executives said. Sosa would agree to void his salary scheduled for 2006, they also said.

In exchange, Chicago would receive second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. and at least two prospects.

Sosa’s contract gives the Cubs an $18million option in 2006 with a $4.5million buyout. But the contract says that if he is traded, his 2006 salary would become guaranteed and a 2007 club option would be added at $19million with a $4.5million buyout.

The players’ association previously told Sosa’s agent, Adam Katz, that voiding the 2007 option would not be a problem.

“I haven’t spoken with anybody about the particulars, but from what I understand in all conversations, what was being discussed was cleared a while back,” said Gene Orza, the union’s chief operating officer.

The teams had not finalized a deal, all the executives said. Selig’s approval is necessary because the trade would involve the transfer of $1million or more. Sosa also must waive his no-trade clause.

Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie and vice president Mike Flanagan could not be reached for comment. Cubs spokesman Sharon Panazzo also could not be reached for comment, and Katz declined to comment.

As late as yesterday afternoon, the Cubs also were talking to the Washington Nationals about a deal for Sosa.

The Cubs have been looking for a taker for Sosa since the end of the season, when he skipped out on the finale at Wrigley Field. Sosa initially claimed he didn’t leave until the seventh inning, but the Cubs produced videotapes showing him leaving shortly after the game began and fined him $87,500 — one day’s salary.

The New York Mets were initially thought to be the best bet because general manager Omar Minaya signed Sosa when he was a teenager in the Dominican Republic. But the Mets won the bidding for Carlos Beltran two weeks ago, and two Mets officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were not involved with Sosa trade talks this week.

Baltimore’s interest intensified after the Orioles lost out on Carlos Delgado earlier this week. Baltimore offered Delgado $48million over four years, but the slugger took a four-year, $52million deal from the Florida Marlins instead.

After finishing 78-84 in 2004, their seventh straight losing season, the Orioles entered the offseason seeking to add a front-line starting pitcher and a cleanup hitter. They courted pitcher Carl Pavano, who signed with the New York Yankees, and their failure to secure Delgado means their most significant free-agent signing so far this winter is reliever Steve Kline.

Beattie and Flanagan are under extra pressure to improve the club because of the potential competition for fans with the Nationals. The addition of Sosa would give the Orioles a marketable name.

Sosa has 574 home runs, seventh on the career list, and his home run race with Mark McGwire in 1998 made him one of the game’s most popular players. With an infectious smile, home run hops and heart taps, he became Chicago’s favorite athlete after Michael Jordan retired. In all those dark years when the Cubs struggled, Sosa and his jaw-dropping homers were the lone bright spots.

But Sosa’s relations with the Cubs and the fans soured. Hampered by injuries, he batted just .266 the last two seasons and his homer totals have dropped. Last season Sosa batted only .253 — his lowest average since 1997 — and had 35 homers and 80 RBI in 126 games, ending his run of 100-RBI seasons at nine.

The breaking point came when he skipped out on the final game of last season. He criticized manager Dusty Baker the next day, with Sosa saying all the blame was put on him for the Cubs’ failures.

In a later interview, Sosa said he was humiliated by being dropped to sixth in the batting order.

While Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, Baker and Cubs players insisted at last week’s Cubs convention that Sosa’s presence wouldn’t be a disruption to the team, fans weren’t buying it. When his image appeared on a video, there was a loud chorus of boos.

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