Play It Again, Sammy

Can the Rangers' oldest rookie leave his diva days behind and deliver?

"Can't stand him," says Joe Serauphny, a Chicago native now retired and regularly grumbling at the Cubs' HoHoKam Stadium. "At the end it was all Sammy this and Sammy that. He might play good for a while, but he'll be no good for the Rangers. Just wait."

A month in, however, the Sosa signing is a smashing success.

When Sosa's agent, Adam Katz, called the Rangers, they demanded to kick the tires and overhaul the engine. Over the winter Sosa twice wowed Ron Washington and hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo with his physical condition and bat speed. And over dinner he eased the fears of general manager Jon Daniels and owner Tom Hicks.

"We gave him a clean slate, and he's been great," Rangers star shortstop Michael Young says.
"We gave him a clean slate, and he's been great," Rangers star shortstop Michael Young says.
Ron Washington has changed the culture of the Rangers faster than you can say Avery Johnson.
Ron Washington has changed the culture of the Rangers faster than you can say Avery Johnson.

The brain trust agreed on their unique discovery: a healthy, hungry future Hall of Famer motivated not by paycheck but pride.

"I only needed one look to know he could help us," Washington says. "My baseball instincts told me the guy could still play. And anybody who goes through the adversity he did, he'll come out the other side humbled. He's proving me right."

But what Sosa couldn't do—what he'll never be able to do short of telling, in detail, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help him God—is shake the asterisk from his stats and stop the whispers behind his back. I mean, Sosa and steroids go together as seamlessly these days as O.J. Simpson and murder. Neither's been proven guilty, but...

"I have not broken the laws of the United States or the Dominican Republic," Sosa testified on Capitol Hill in March 2005 before a Congressional panel investigating steroids in baseball. "I am clean."

While Palmeiro defiantly wagged his finger (only to test positive later) and McGwire refused to address the past (only to shrink to about half his size later), Sosa came off looking the best of the bunch by merely struggling to understand English. To be clear, he's never tested positive for steroids or shown up on a client list for Human Growth Hormone. But, like Pete Rose claiming for years he never bet on baseball, Sosa is guilty until proven innocent.

"There's a lot of speculation but never no evidence," Sosa says in one of his almost daily rounds of steroid-related questions. "I don't have to convince nobody, because I know who I am. I'm not going to knock on every fan's door and say, 'Believe me.' My numbers, they don't lie."

Presumed drug use, however, isn't the only stain on Sosa's résumé.

Seems blasphemous to refer to one of baseball's all-time home run kings—long considered the most macho men on the planet—as a whiny, cheating diva, but it once fit Sosa like a well-oiled glove. In '03 he was suspended seven games for using a corked bat. Major League Baseball confiscated 76 of his bats and, though it found them to be clean, suspicions arose about Sosa's supposed prowess.

A year later his Cubs career crashed. In mid-season he blamed a severe slump on back spasms caused by a violent sneeze, all the while commandeering the music in Wrigley's tiny clubhouse, often blaring Latin music to the dismay of teammates. When confronted by management Sosa relented, only to place a suitcase-sized boom box in front of his locker and crank it so loud it muted the music playing over the locker room's speakers. And on the season's final day, Sosa went AWOL from Wrigley 15 minutes into the game, later lying that he stayed through the seventh inning. Told of Sosa's departure, an anonymous Cub—many believe it was Irving High School product Kerry Wood—took a bat and symbolically ended the Sosa era by transforming the boom box into a jigsaw puzzle.

Though the Rangers themselves have a history of musical melee—Chad Curtis vs. Royce Clayton anyone?—Washington thinks he's designed a harmonious locker room.

"I don't care if they play music or what kind," he says. "It's the players' locker room. If they ask me to step in and fix a problem, I will. But until then, it's up to them to run it like they want."

After the Cubs traded Sosa to the Orioles, he showed up in Baltimore and promptly demanded a limousine to shuttle him between hotel and practice facility. Manager Lee Mazzilli, attempting to nip another salsa saga, was forced to ban clubhouse music.

In a season that left his career in jeopardy and his legacy in tatters, Sosa hit .221 with only 14 homers and the following winter turned down a minimum-wage contract from the Washington Nationals.

"That's in the past. We gave him a clean slate, and he's been great," says Rangers shortstop Michael Young. "He's been loose in the clubhouse, and obviously he's hitting everything they throw him."

Sosa's performance in Surprise is indeed raising eyebrows.

Media and fan interest in the Rangers has doubled from last spring. Last week's game against the Cubs drew a crowd of 11,000, about 4,000 more than usual. Sports Illustrated sent three different writers to Surprise, and last week an entire page in USA Today was—courtesy of Sosa—devoted to the Rangers, first time that's happened since Rogers attacked the cameraman in the summer of '05.

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