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Base week

LEADING OFF

So Sammy Sosa thinks he was made a scapegoat for the Chicago Cubs' collapse and barely makes a cameo appearance for the final game of the season.

And general manager Jim Hendry gets all puffed up and says this behavior is "inexcusable" and "will not be tolerated" and fines the fading superstar $87,400, which is his pay for one day.

This is both sad and hilarious. Sosa was dead wrong for ducking out, of course, then lying about it. He told a favored reporter later he had stayed until the seventh inning. The team cited security tapes that showed him driving away 15 minutes after the first pitch.

Sosa was also off-base for overreacting to a fairly mild observation from manager Dusty Baker. Asked if he wanted Sosa back next season, the manager replied: "He's got to work this winter, get in tiptop shape mentally and physically. It's a big year for him."

Gee, how can a guy who batted .253 with 35 homers and 80 runs batted in possibly be expected to play under those conditions?

Now there's even talk that he'll be traded, although any team that gets him would be inheriting $39.5 million in contractual obligation over the next two years. And the way the Cubs have handled this doesn't exactly strengthen their bargaining position.

The silly thing about this is that Sosa has been treated like a pampered potentate for years. He was allowed to pretty much come and go as he pleased. He was allowed to blast his boom box in the clubhouse, no matter what anyone else thought. He was allowed to have his personal valet, in uniform to wait on him at all times.

And as long as he was hitting his 60 homers every year, even managers tiptoed around him as if they might catch something.

As soon as his production fell off, though, this sort of behavior became unacceptable. The Cubs determined to crack down. Why aren't we surprised that Sosa reacted like a spoiled child who had his toys taken away?

There are plenty of reasons the Cubs finished a disappointing third in the NL Central this season. Injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were a factor. Baker must take a share of the blame for allowing comments made by broadcasters Chip Caray and Steve Stone to become a distraction. Closer LaTroy Hawkins wasn't good enough.

Sosa obviously likes being the center of attention when things are going well. Not so much when the tide turns. This makes him, well, human. Still, he makes the big bucks. He gets the commercials. It's part of the deal.

Bottom line: The Cubs had to do something. But it would have been so much easier if they had drawn this line in the sand years ago.

HOT STUFF

The leading candidate to become the next Diamondbacks manager is thought to be Wally Backman, who played for the Phillies in 1991 and 1992. One concern is that Backman was ejected six times and suspended twice at Arizona's Class A Lancaster affiliate in the California League this season.

Frank Robinson would like to manage again next season and, although no decision has been made, he's expected to be back when Washington reports to spring training. Robinson remains popular in neighboring Baltimore, where he starred for the Orioles.

If the Cubs decide to tradeSosa — and if they are willing to pay off a lot of the contract or take significant money in return — teams that could be interested include the Kansas City Royals, Texas Rangers and New York Mets.

AROUND THE BASES

Astros owner Drayton McLane plans to speak to commissioner Bud Selig to find out if he can remove the interim tag from manager Phil Garner's job description without going through the process of interviewing minority candidates.

The Reds aren't expected to bring shortstop/icon Barry Larkin back next season. So they started him twice in the final weekend, on Friday and Sunday. He didn't start Saturday, which only happened to be Barry Larkin Day, but he did pinch-hit and singled.

The Athletics failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years and became just the sixth team in history not to finish first after having a lead of three or more games with 10 games remaining. Despite that, general manager Billy Beane said manager Ken Macha will be back next season.

White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, in a letter to fans and season ticketholders, said the team "needs to be more athletic, better defensively and quicker on the bases. Slugging it out night after night is just too inconsistent."

QUOTABLE

Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, on the decision not to bring back popular shortstop Omar Vizquel: "Look, we all want Omar back. But I want to win a little more than I want Omar back."