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Monday, October 4, 2004
Updated: October 5, 8:53 AM ET
Sosa slams Baker for laying blame for Cubs failure news services

CHICAGO -- Turns out Wrigley Field's crumbling concrete was just an omen for the team that calls it home.

The Chicago Cubs had plenty of cracks, too, and then collapsed under the pressure of a playoff run -- and then things really went bad.

Fading slugger Sammy Sosa left the Cubs' meaningless final game of the season early without dressing, and then criticized manager Dusty Baker for piling too much blame on him.

"I'm tired of being blamed by Dusty Baker for all the failures of this club," Sosa told the Chicago Sun-Times. "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."

Numerous injuries to key players (including Sosa), run-ins with umpires and broadcasters, sporadic bursts of sloppy play and seven losses in their final nine games left the Cubs out of the postseason.

Sosa, who spent time on the DL with back problems brought on by a violent sneeze, batted just .253 -- his lowest average since 1997 -- and in 126 games finished with 35 homers and 80 RBI, ending his run of 100-RBI seasons at nine.

"He's got to go to work this winter. Get in tiptop shape mentally and physically," Baker said, comments that angered Sosa.

Sosa has another year on his contract that will pay him $17 million next season, and the club has an option for 2006 that probably won't be picked up.

But Sosa was just one of many Cubs stars to miss significant time during the season. In fact, Wrigley Field came close to a stint on the disabled list when falling chunks of upper deck concrete threatened to shut down the stadium.

Right-hander Mark Prior began the season on the disabled list with Achilles tendon and elbow problems, and missed the first two months. Kerry Wood later went on the DL with a triceps injury, and then so did Sosa with back problems brought on by a violent sneeze. Closer Joe Borowski came down with shoulder troubles, and the Cubs' bullpen suffered accordingly with 25 blown saves in 67 chances -- nine by LaTroy Hawkins.

Wood and Prior combined for just 14 wins. And Hollandsworth, a key player when Sosa was hurt, fouled a pitch off his leg before the All-Star break and never returned.

The pressure of the expectations was on display throughout the season. Wood, Baker and Hawkins all were suspended after angry on-field confrontations with umpires, and the Cubs earned a whiners label.

There also was a simmering feud with TV analyst Steve Stone, whose biting criticism didn't sit well with some of the players, especially reliever Kent Mercker, who called the booth one day to complain.

No wonder Baker called the season his toughest in 12 years as a major league manager.

When the Cubs made a big trade at the end of July and got shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, they were already too far behind to catch St. Louis and repeat as Central division champions.

But they were hoping for a strong final push to make the wild card. And they appeared on their way.

Leading the wild-card race by 1 games with nine to play and ahead of the struggling Mets 3-0 with two outs in the ninth, they let it get away when Hawkins surrendered a game-tying homer before New York won 4-3 in 11 innings.

The Cubs never recovered from that. They went home and lost three of four to the Cincinnati Reds, including two straight in 12 innings.

"When we hit, we didn't get the pitching and whenever we had the pitching, we didn't hit," said Moises Alou, one of several Cubs who probably won't be back next season, despite his career-high 39 homers.

Maddux did get his 300th victory and won at least 15 games for a 17th straight season. He and Carlos Zambrano led with 16 victories each. Alou, Sosa, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez all surpassed 30 homers, and the Cubs secured back-to-back winning seasons for the first time in 32 years.

Not good enough for a team that still expected to be playing.

Now the Cubs will determine who'll be back, with decisions ahead on Alou, Walker, Mark Grudzielanek, Matt Clement and perhaps Garciaparra, who said he's considering returning.

"We haven't done what we liked or what everybody expected," Baker said.

"I'm not making excuses. You've got to find a way. What we did last year, I didn't expect until year three. We did it that quickly and it put more pressure to do more."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.