By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
SURPRISE, Arizona—Sammy Sosa is dead.
Not buried 6 feet under Wrigley Field on Chicago's north side. Not ascended to hardball heaven, sipping suds and butchering classics with Harry Caray. Not over at the cryogenics lab in Scottsdale chillin' with Ted Williams' head.
But the Sammy Sosa you remember—the one who routinely blasted 60 homers, earned $28,000 per at-bat, charmed baseball fans into blind loyalty and, in the end, alienated teammates and dented his legacy with entourages, boom boxes, corked bats, premature evacuations and steroid suspicions—is going...going...going...gone.
See for yourself.
Don't recognize him with the 20 pounds he's dropped or the guaranteed roster spot he's lost, do you? He's the guy, oddly enough, in the Texas Rangers uniform, the 38-year-old born-again rookie busting his ass and legging out infield hits in spring training. He's right there, picking up his balls and catching his breath after a spirited batting practice session on another postcard-perfect afternoon at Surprise Stadium.
Highlighting a friendly pre-game of wagering on wallops, moments earlier Sosa smacked a meaty BP pitch toward left field and instantly had to call yay or nay—homer or not. "Gone!" he says confidently to a group of teammates behind the cage. "Ten," bids teammate Nelson Cruz, establishing the number of push-ups on the line, pending the ball's final destination. As it dies harmlessly on the warning track, there is laughter.
And, surprisingly, there are push-ups. Five...10...15, each of Sosa's exertions counted out by a crowd arriving to watch his Rangers play Barry Bonds' San Francisco Giants. Non-roster rookies trying to earn the respect and trust of teammates go above and beyond playfully dispensed discipline, but baseball's fifth all-time leading home run hitter hustling for scraps? Imagine Madonna playing Midlothian.
"Did you see him drop down in the dirt and pay up?" Rangers manager Ron Washington says moments later. "I know Sammy's gonna hit and help this team on the field. But all I've ever asked of him is to be a teammate. To forget all that shit from his past and just be a good teammate. He's been great. He's part of the family."
Says Sosa after the 4-3 win over the Giants, "I'm not going to be Superman. But I am going to fit in and help this team win."
Despite being one of pro sports' worst franchises, despite exactly one playoff game win in 35 years and despite a laughable legacy that has creeps such as Kenny Rogers, Rafael Palmeiro and Alex Rodriguez atop the record books, the Rangers have positioned themselves as beggars who can indeed be choosy regarding the reincarnated Sammy Sosa.
Out of baseball since a miserable 2005 with the Baltimore Orioles, Sosa had two options this spring: Tokyo or Texas. Needing a right-handed bat and eternally desperate for a shiny new marketing vehicle, the Rangers offered him a minor-league contract worth $500,000 when he makes the opening-day roster and $2.7 million if he reaches every incentive. Mike Piazza, 38-year-old designated hitter for the Oakland A's, will make $8.5 million this season. Two years ago Sosa earned $17 million.
Humble pie, service for one.
"It's a blessing to be here and to be welcomed," Sosa says of Texas. "I'm not going to let these guys down for believing in me."
And what exactly do the Rangers expect from Sosa for their minuscule, low-risk investment? Less. Much, much less.
They want the instant boost of a "grande, double-shot, triple-caf, gingerbread cappuccino" without the inevitable energy crash. They want Michael Jackson's music and moonwalk, without the nose jobs and the pedophilia. They want the Sosa homers, the hop and the hoopla. With none of his better-than-the-team, bigger-than-the-game bullshit.
"Our guys will try to help keep him grounded," Washington says. "But if he starts being an asshole, they won't have his back. When we first got here I told him, 'You're not getting special treatment. Keep yourself in check and don't let that old stuff flare up.' It's the only conversation we've had about it. I don't expect another one."
One of the sport's grand ambassadors during 13 years in Chicago, he inspired fans with his signature sprint to right field, his charismatic smile and, in the Cubs' first game after 9/11, his goose-bump homer punctuated by circling the bases carrying Old Glory. Although Senator Ted Kennedy botched his name, calling him Sammy "Sooser," he earned a ticker-tape parade through New York and received invitations to talk with Dave Letterman and listen to President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address.
To accomplish all that and still be booed when he steps in the batter's box for a spring training game in cross-town Mesa against the Cubs, the dude must have done some pretty heavy shit. To the Rangers, Sosa's royalty-turned-role player metamorphosis is refreshing, promising. But to the fans who know him best, it's a familiar farce of calculated crap born out of desperation for one last stroke of his irrepressible ego.