It’s been a winter of ghosts in Chicago. The departed linger in the mind’s eye. Sammy Sosa levels his bat across the plate, not quite pointing the tip at the pitcher, then dips his head between his prodigious shoulders as if to shelter it from the violence of the swing to come. Magglio Ordonez races across the outfield with a flat-footed gait, as if running on the wet tiles of an immense bathroom floor. Carlos Lee finishes his swing with a long one-handed extension, body erect as he watches the flight of the ball. Kyle Farnsworth hangs his head in the dugout. And in the most searing memory of all, Moises Alou flings his arms down in anger and stomps his feet along the left-field wall at Wrigley.

All these players are gone, and the Cubs and White Sox have precious little to show in return. As free agents, Alou signed with the San Francisco Giants and Ordonez with the Detroit Tigers; since their old teams didn’t offer to retain them through salary arbitration, they didn’t even receive draft choices as compensation. Lee was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers in a trade in which the best player the Sox received was Scott Podsednik, a fleet center fielder who saw a sharp decline at the plate in his second season. Farnsworth joined Ordonez in Detroit in exchange for a package of minor leaguers, none considered a top prospect. And Sosa was shipped off to the Baltimore Orioles for little more than that–mainly Jerry Hairston Jr., son of the old Sox pinch hitter extraordinaire, who at 29 has never quite played up to his promise.

If it’s addition by subtraction, that’s a lot to subtract on both sides of town, but the loss is felt more deeply and with a direr sense of risk on the north side: the Cubs, after all, were but five outs from the World Series just over a season ago. The 2003 season was supposed to be the stepping-stone to bigger, better things, but having lost Sosa, Alou, and Mark Grudzielanek over the winter, the Cubs are left with only two players who were on the field at Bartman’s indelible moment. It’s hard to look at the Cubs and the Sox as they prepare for spring training and not conclude that both teams have gone backward.

Baseball is a business, as everyone knows. No player, no matter how popular, is safe from the buffetings of trades and free agency. What was especially galling about all these deals was the way the Chicago teams felt compelled to sully the players’ reputations on the way out of town. If the Cubs couldn’t be held responsible for the rumors about Farnsworth’s drinking that resurfaced, they certainly did nothing to minimize his reputation for erratic behavior. (I recall him early in his career walking, or rather being walked by, two huge American bulldogs in the outfield one day during batting practice; it seems he was no more in control of his life than he was of those dogs.) After one of his best seasons, Alou was dismissed as a malcontent. Lee was suddenly labeled a soft, unwanted presence in the clubhouse, with general manager Ken Williams making thinly veiled references to how he didn’t break up a double play in a key midseason series against Minnesota. Pleasant and soft-spoken, Ordonez would have seemed beyond such slights a year ago, but when he rejected a reported $50 million multiyear contract things soured, and Williams did all he could to cast doubts on Ordonez’s recovery after an outfield collision with Willie Harris caused a deep bone injury that ended his 2004 season. Apparently Williams was attempting to drive down interest in Ordonez in the free-agent market. It didn’t work, and when Ordonez signed with the Tigers for over $100 million he said, “I don’t know why they want to pull this campaign against me in the newspapers. The only thing I ever did in Chicago was play hard, do my job, and be quiet.”

Then there was Sosa. Never exactly popular in the clubhouse, he endeared himself to fans with his game-opening dashes to right field and, of course, his 66 homers in 1998, when he raced the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire past Roger Maris’s home-run record. But both were soon outdone by Barry Bonds, and all three were haunted by another specter this winter: the steroid scandal. Last fall the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bonds had admitted in sworn grand-jury testimony to using steroids (albeit, he claimed, inadvertently). Now there’s Jose Canseco’s new tell-all naming Big Mac as a definite user and Sosa as highly suspect. Sosa’s reputation had taken a hit during the 2003 season, when he was caught using a corked bat, and the anti-Sosa faction reasons that if a player would cheat with a corked bat, then of course he’d cheat by taking performance-enhancing drugs. It didn’t help that Sosa appeared diminished literally and statistically last season–though he was still capable of tape-measure blasts. His struggles seemed to have more to do with a decline in confidence, as he waved at pitches he’d previously let pass, than with a decline in muscle mass. The image of Sosa that prevails is his trademark hop, toes twinkling off the ground and arms flapping in an abbreviated touchdown gesture, but even that was turned against him late last season when he displayed it prematurely on a couple of not-quite homers. Once it was revealed he left the last game early–the team actually leaked the videotape from the parking lot, as players talked anonymously of his infamous salsa-spewing boom box being beaten to bits–his days in Chicago were numbered.

So if Ordonez suffers a relapse and Sosa’s skills atrophy, Williams and Cubs general manager Jim Hendry will look like geniuses. But it’s far likelier, in my opinion, that Ordonez will play more games than his injury-prone replacement, Jermaine Dye, and that Sosa will hit more homers, drive in more runs, and just plain outplay his replacement, Jeromy Burnitz. If the Chicago teams struggle early on, then it’s Williams and Hendry who will be haunted by the memories of the departed players.

One last ghost has hovered over the Chicago sports scene this winter: the Blackhawks. The National Hockey League owners, demanding a salary cap and locking the players out, have appeared quite content to let the entire season die. Even in the mind’s eye, the Hawks are as still and lifeless as the snow-covered statue across the street from the United Center.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Trotman/Getty Images.