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Five Years Too Late...

On June 23, 1980, in the midst of what was to become a 98-loss season, the Cubs traded a PTBNL (turned out to be Karl Pagel -- think of him as the David Kelton of his time) to Cleveland for a thirty-two year-old player named Cliff Johnson.

I say "player" for a reason, because Johnson, well, really couldn't field. He could hit like hell. He came up with Houston as a catcher, and he was brutal. So the Astros tried him at first base and he was worse, and so he never had an everyday job for the first few years of his career.

But oh, how he could hit; in 1975, at age 27, he hit 20 HR with an .876 OPS in only 340 AB. Bill James once wrote of Johnson (and I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the James book I remember reading this in right now) that if he'd found a team that could have installed him at first base as a young man, he'd have had a 20-year career and hit 500 home runs and made the Hall of Fame.

The 1980 Cubs tried to capture some of this magic and failed -- Johnson hit .235 in 68 games as a Cub, with ten home runs, and I still remember the hilarity of watching him attempt to play left field at Wrigley Field. Suffice to say he made Dave Kingman look like an all-star outfielder.

Johnson later had a decent end-of-career as a DH.

It is in this mold that the Cubs are apparently going to sign Jeromy Burnitz as soon as the ink is dry on the Sammy Sosa trade, which could come as early as tomorrow.

Five years ago, when Burnitz was putting up consistent .850 OPS numbers and occasionally flashing .900+ stats, and not coincidentally, wearing out Cub pitching as a member of the Brewers, this would have been a fabulous deal.

Now? I mean, for heaven's sake -- Burnitz is only five months younger than Sosa, and though he put up good numbers last year, I think you can almost totally discount them as they were attained in the otherworldly air of Coors Field in Denver. Whatever it is they do in Denver -- well, it's fun, but it ain't baseball.

Burnitz does hit lefthanded and has 14 career homers and 38 RBI in 47 career games at Wrigley Field. He's always played hard and is, even though he turns 36 just after Opening Day, a decent outfielder.

I'd like to hope that Jim Hendry is still after Aubrey Huff, because with Huff, an outfield of Huff, Corey Patterson and a Burnitz/Jason Dubois platoon would be solid offensively, with Todd Hollandsworth and Jerry Hairston as backup at all three positions.

Critics will wail about the lost offense of Sosa and Moises Alou.

Me, I cheer because these two, who were a big part of the negative atmosphere around the 2004 Cubs, are gone.

There are things about playing baseball that cannot be measured on a stat sheet. Jim Hendry has done something about that, and for that, I applaud him.