Play It Again, Sammy

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

Turns out Sosa, with his dark past and tantalizingly bright present, is the Rangers' Terrell Owens. Minus the exaggerated pulled hammy...cycling outfit...accidental overdose...

"We addressed head-on the special treatment," Daniels says. "Told him there'd be none of that, and he was fine with it. He promised it wouldn't be an issue and, true to his word, it hasn't."

No radical radio. No posse. No sense of entitlement. Don't look now, but the alpha dog is mingling with the pack. Most of the time, anyway. While Young, the team's best player, dresses in a single locker, Sosa (wink, wink) somehow landed the coveted penthouse: a double-wide in the corner.

"I have not broken the laws of the United States or the Dominican Republic," Sosa testified on Capitol Hill. "I am clean."
"I have not broken the laws of the United States or the Dominican Republic," Sosa testified on Capitol Hill. "I am clean."

Like most of the veterans, Sosa rents a house in nearby Scottsdale. He has a chauffeur drive him to games in a black SUV. And, to avoid an incident like the first day of spring training when a woman grabbed Sosa's arm in an attempt to get an autograph, he is escorted around the Rangers' facility by a Surprise police officer.

Those logistical compromises are balanced by Sosa's hustle and humility. He bunts during batting practice. He takes part in rundown drills. He asks for extra time with Jaramillo.

"He's one of my hardest-working guys," says outfield coach Gary Pettis. "We couldn't ask for anything more from him."

His desire authenticated, only one question remains as Sosa and the Rangers break camp for Monday's season opener against the Angels in Anaheim: Can he still hit?

The answer, same as when he arrived in Texas as a lanky 16-year-old in '85, is yes.

Sosa was 20 when he made his major-league debut and promptly homered off Roger Clemens. Less than 25 games into his Rangers career, however, some bozo authorized the infamous "Say It Ain't Sosa" trade to the Chicago White Sox. Same bozo who also OK'd invading Iraq four long years ago.

"Well, I signed off on that wonderful transaction, Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines..." President George W. Bush said in 2000 when asked his life's biggest mistake.

Bush, at the time the team's managing general partner, stamped his approval on the July 29, 1989, deal sending Sosa, Scott Fletcher and Wilson Alvarez to Chicago for Baines, a has-been, and Fred Manrique, a never-was. Alvarez won 100 games and pitched a no-hitter, and Sosa hit 587 of his 588 career home runs in uniforms other than Texas'.

"I've come back here, Papi, back in business," says Sosa, who calls everyone he doesn't know and some he does "Papi." "When I first came here, all I really knew was playing baseball. It's the same now. I feel like a rookie again."

Traded to the Cubs in '92, Sosa matured into one of baseball's most productive hitters. His records are astounding: Three 60-homer seasons. Twelve straight years with at least 25 homers and nine straight with 100 RBIs. He once slugged 21 dingers in 30 days, homered in three consecutive innings and mashed three 3-run 'taters in the same game. He's made seven All-Star teams and in '98 earned National League MVP by hitting .308 with 66 homers and 158 RBIs.

Twelve more homers, and he'll be the first Latin player to 600.

"It's out there, but it's not like, 'Oh my gosh, I want to hit 12 homers,'" Sosa says. "I'm greedy. I want 700."

If not for Sosa's resurrection, camp would be dominated by Washington's spring cleaning.

Nothing says spring—except maybe for March Madness and wet T-shirt contests—like baseball. In Surprise, an otherwise barren community 45 minutes northwest of Phoenix, the entertainment rises out of the desert like a really, really poor man's Las Vegas, only with green grass and diamonds instead of bright lights and casinos. Other than carnies, who goes to "work" within earshot of a melodic merry-go-round and multiple ice cream stands and has their work orally critiqued by crotchety senior citizens with bald heads, beer bellies and a fascination with keeping a scorebook?

For the last four years this serene setting was a boot camp of overbearing rules and diabolical miscommunication. But this is not your father's Rangers spring training. Especially if your father is named Buck Showalter.

While the sphincter-tight Showalter strangled a talented clubhouse into a tomb of paranoid zombies, Washington has changed the culture faster than you can say Avery Johnson. Playing 162 games that count over the next six months, he realizes that every pitch of every inning of all 29 exhibitions can't be that damn important.

Seated in a plastic chair behind home plate and alongside bench coach Art Howe, Washington watches games sipping blue Powerade and devouring sunflower seeds. By the end of a game, the area around his feet is so littered with shells he appears as some sort of human bird feeder. In his office, and out of his cap, he looks like George Jefferson but sounds like Richard Pryor, communicating via humor or sarcasm or profanity. Yep, good ol' unabashed profanity.

He laments not drinking any of the 12 Amstel Lights stocked in his mini-fridge. He has an iPod as big as a Hyundai but has filled the 5,000-song monstrosity with only 300 of his faves—Aretha Franklin, Ludacris, Neville Brothers—because he "got tired" of downloading. And he has an opinion, usually an interesting one, on everything from music to movies to the concept of motels.

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