Monday, January 31, 2005

the devil in sammy sosa

the sosa trade calls to mind the cardinals’ divestment of joaquin andujar in december 1985. like slammin sammy, wacky jack was a star player sent packing to purify the soul of a disgraced team — the ’85 cardinals, who choked away the world series that year against kansas city. and, like sammy, andujar precipitated his own departure by committing an unforgivable breach of protocol — in his case, flying into a rage at don denkinger with the cards trailing 8-0 in game 7. during his tantrum he bumped denkinger twice; two days later, mlb suspended andujar for the first 10 games of the ’86 season, and gussie busch immediately pronounced one of those fatwas he used to issue periodically against players fallen from his favor. and so, on the first day of the winter meetings, dal maxvill obediently sent andujar packing to oakland for mike heath and tim conroy.

both the sosa and andujar transactions are best regarded as exorcisms. the players had similar dispositions — self-centered and attention-starved, given to iconoclastic gestures and/or utterances — and while such qualities might be winked at in a winning clubhouse, they become intolerable after a team’s character and guts have been exposed as deficient. worse than intolerable, in fact — they become dangerous, threatening to his teammates’ now-fragile emotional equilibrium. the alien traits come to be seen as the sole source of the team’s failure, and their removal is considered essential to the healing process --- also a satisfying outlet for pent-up anger, frustration and self-doubt. and there's probably some truth to the notion, however based in sensibility (rather than sense) it may be, that purging can hasten a ballclub's recovery. does anybody think the cardinals would have returned to the world series in 1987 with wacky jack andujar still on the roster?

when a team falls apart, the ritual sacrifice of a star player can indeed be a cleansing thing. it can mean more, in the end, than the departed player’s 20 wins or 100 rbis. for wins and rbis can be replaced on the roster fairly easily — a lot more so than emotional balance and competitive drive.

for the record, andujar had a much better year in 1986 than heath — 12-7 in 26 starts, an acceptable 3.82 era. heath meanwhile assumed not only andujar’s roster spot but also his role as the embodiment of the cardinals’ disgrace; after a slow start he found himself in herzog’s doghouse, never to emerge. on august 10 he got dealt to detroit for a pitching prospect in the low minor leagues. guy named ken hill.