No one figures to escape unscathed from the Cubs’ ongoing Sammy Sosa fiasco, in which, by making it clear they don’t want to give him a nine-figure contract extension, they’ve placed themselves in the ticklish position of being all but forced to trade him before the end of next season, when he becomes a free agent. Already most key figures on the Cubs have seen their reputations damaged, including Sosa himself.

Sosa, just to make things clear, is not on the outs due to any real drop in production. He entered the week hitting .310, with 21 homers and 69 runs batted in, which translates to more than 40 homers, down from his previous two historic seasons, but about 140 RBI, right there with last year’s 141. He might have committed five errors, and he might be on a league-leading pace with 87 strikeouts, but most power hitters strike out a lot–no one more than Reggie Jackson–and I’ve always said give me a strikeout instead of a double play anytime. His 45 walks and on-base percentage near .400 were likewise solid figures; in fact, Sosa’s on-base percentage almost equaled Eric Young’s. Young is the Cubs’ first true leadoff man in years (perhaps decades), and he and Sosa entered the week tied for the team lead in runs scored, which after all is the only offensive figure that really counts. Still, Sosa has seen his reputation slighted by manager Don Baylor, who helped bring on this fiasco by challenging Sosa to become a “more complete” player earlier this season. Sosa hasn’t handled the situation well. He at first seemed peevish at Baylor’s demands, then said Baylor showed “no respect” for him and had “no class,” then announced he would welcome a trade, especially one including a contract extension–which was practically a demand, as he can veto any deal that doesn’t include one–then amended that by saying the Cubs ought to trade him if they don’t intend to offer him such an extension. Sosa is making $10.6 million a year, which at the time he signed his contract was considered highway robbery but is cheap for a player hitting 60 homers a year. He’s said to be seeking a new deal in the $18 to $20-million range for four or five more years–$100 million ideally. At 31, with the end of his career in sight but several seasons away, Sosa is certainly justified in wanting an extension that would make him comfortable for life–not that he isn’t already–but he comes off as the baseball equivalent of Scottie Pippen, complaining about a contract that was eminently fair when it was signed.

Yet the Cubs haven’t exactly occupied the high ground in this. Baylor’s clear mistake in attempting to tamper with his best player–clear, at least, in hindsight–hasn’t enhanced his reputation as a clubhouse leader. If anything, he’s seemed as rashly prideful and egotistic as Sosa by insisting that he, Baylor, set the tone in the clubhouse. But it’s a tone that’s resulted in base-running mistakes, mis-thrown baseballs, and other bonehead errors; Baylor is no Earl Weaver, whom he played for in the 70s, when it comes to building a foundation of fundamentals. In addition, there’s his dubious game-situation managing, such as his penchant for one-run strategies and the sacrifice bunt, and bringing in Rick Aguilera without giving him proper time to warm up, the sort of mistake the White Sox’ Terry Bevington was strung up for. In fact, if anyone has seen Baylor undermine his confidence it’s Aguilera, and indeed the entire Cubs pitching staff, which has behaved like chickens under the proprietorship of a farmer fox ever since Baylor, a former slugger, said disparaging things about pitchers in general during spring training. Keep in mind that a manager may try any number of tactics to motivate players, but the end result should be players playing with more confidence, not less–as Jerry Manuel’s harsh ways with Mike Caruso and, yes, Frank Thomas have resulted in a White Sox team that was challenged and bettered as a whole. If the Cubs are a mess–and they wouldn’t even be thinking of trading a player as popular as Sosa if they weren’t–it’s in part Baylor’s doing.

But no reputation has been damaged more than general manager Ed Lynch’s. His job was already on the line after he fired scapegoat manager Jim Riggleman at the end of last season. The team’s golden boy president, Andy MacPhail, hasn’t exactly distinguished himself either. With Lynch facing a vote of no confidence in the boardroom, it became evident that MacPhail was playing a larger role, for instance in the negotiations to trade Sosa to the New York Yankees. If Sosa’s motivations were clear–to get as much as he could in a deal completed as soon as possible–the Cubs’ motivations in forcing the issue were less so. The team holds Sosa’s option for next season; it could have taken the high road early on and said it wouldn’t negotiate an extension at least until the end of this season and wouldn’t entertain offers for him in the meantime. If that course was abandoned it probably was because Baylor had already succeeded in making his drawing card insecure, and the possibility of a serious injury in the next year would only have compounded his insecurity. Yet an anxious but undistracted Sosa would have been preferable to the debacle we’ve had, with the papers full of trade rumors and clubhouse scuttlebutt, with Sosa and Baylor at loggerheads, and with Lynch and MacPhail locked in a high-profile game of chicken with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. When the Yanks broke off trade talks last Friday, completing a deal instead with the Cleveland Indians for David Justice, the Cubs were left high and dry. Lynch is a goner, I said to myself.

This is the last straw for Lynch because he’s already had so many others and because the whole thing has been so badly muddled. A Chicago fan would have to go back to the Sox’ then-GM, Ken Harrelson, bending over a pool table in an attempt to entice Billy Martin to manage the team–as Tony LaRussa was left hanging–to find something equally mismanaged in the media (though the Bulls’ front-office behavior after the sixth title and the Bears’ unsigning of coach Dave McGinnis admittedly come close). Lynch has shown an erratic eye for talent, and for every good deal he’s made there’s been a bad one. He signed the greatly overrated Brian McRae and Mel Rojas to long-term contracts. When he succeeded in foisting them on the New York Mets for Lance Johnson, he began the instant rebuilding scheme that resulted in the 1998 playoff appearance. Yet even then he made dubious deals, in the worst case trading pitching prospect Jon Garland to the White Sox for Matt Karchner in the mistaken belief that because Karchner had once saved some games for the Sox he was closer or even middle-reliever material. When they came to Chicago, MacPhail and Lynch said they were going to build the team slowly and through the farm system, but they have generally drafted poorly–perhaps because of some ill-advised changes in the Cubs’ scouting system–and they’ve abandoned their master plan by trading away talents like Garland that they did have for short-term gains. They were forced to shop Sosa for prospects because, aside from Corey Patterson and a couple of pitchers, they have none.

Earlier in the year I wrote that Lynch had done a generally good job of rebuilding on the fly, and I stand by that–at least as a judgment for that time. Eric Young was a great acquisition, and the third-base tandem of Shane Andrews and Willie Greene had promise as a bargain-basement righty-lefty platoon. I added, however, that even with those changes the Cubs would need everything to go right to do better than fourth place. Instead, things have for the most part gone horribly wrong. It was wrong to rely so heavily on pitching aces Kerry Wood and Ismael Valdes, and when they weren’t ready to go at the start of the season the rest of the staff collapsed like lined-up dominoes. The bull pen, of questionable talent to begin with, was overworked early and tanked. The pitching problems put too much pressure on Wood and Valdes when they returned. Andrews went down with an injury, and that ruined the platoon system and put too much strain on Greene. Henry Rodriguez slumped badly–perhaps fallout from worrying about his buddy Sosa, not to mention his own trade rumors–and he’d been platooning in left field with Glenallen Hill. In short, the rebuilding job was left half done, team depth was nonexistent, and the Cubs soon found themselves relying heavily on borderline talent like Jose Nieves, Jeff Huson, Augie Ojeda, and Brant Brown (salvaged from the scrap heap in Florida, dusted off, and brought back to again serve as a defensive replacement in left field, argh!). Given that the Cubs got better results than even Lynch could have expected from catcher Joe Girardi, shortstop Ricky Gutierrez, and center fielder Damon Buford, it’s evidence of how badly constructed they were and how many holes Baylor had to fill on the fly that they came home Monday from their longest road trip of the year with a 32-48 record, ahead of only the Houston Astros in the National League Central. To return to Weaver, director of the great Baltimore Orioles teams of the late 60s and 70s, he used to insist that a manager shouldn’t go into a season without every position filled, from utility infielder to left-handed pinch hitter. Lynch has never approached compiling a roster with the same sense of detail. Baylor needs someone who will.

Still, things could be worse. The Cubs could have succeeded in trading Sosa, which would have been the best thing to happen to the White Sox, who might have enjoyed a massive defection of fans to the south side. When the teams play their interleague rematch at Wrigley Field this weekend, the right-field bleacher bums will no doubt still embrace Sosa as he runs his arc under the ivy, even if this ugly mess has tarnished his image as a gleeful superstar.