Play It Again, Sammy

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

"If you open your door and step right into the parking lot," Washington says, "that's pretty fucking cheesy."

Unburdened of Showalter's surliness, the Rangers are free. To express their awkward obsession with American Idol. To make fun of their skipper for wearing gray pants on white pants day. And even to pull pranks, like the one orchestrated by Washington and utility infielder Jerry Hairston that involved the Surprise Police Department and ended with catcher Gerald Laird in handcuffs and his teammates in stitches.

"It's just so much more relaxed," says third baseman Hank Blalock. "Everybody's going out and playing baseball and having fun without worrying about petty stuff. It's how spring training should be."

With his return to the Rangers, Sammy Sosa is hoping for a fresh start.
Tony Blei
With his return to the Rangers, Sammy Sosa is hoping for a fresh start.
Sammy Sosa was 20 when he smacked his first MLB home run for the Texas Rangers.
Sammy Sosa was 20 when he smacked his first MLB home run for the Texas Rangers.

Sans pressure, Sosa is hacking and acting like no one outside the Rangers organization thought possible.

During his first batting practice, which attracted the largest media audience for a Rangers spring training event, Sosa blasted three homers. He hit a team-leading four more during Cactus League games, including a mammoth Grand Slam in a win over the Milwaukee Brewers last Friday night. He put together an 11-game hitting streak and stayed above .400 most of March. And while Bonds conducts a gloomy pursuit of Aaron's all-time record down the road in Scottsdale, Sosa is charming, accommodating and downright effervescent.

"I guess some people are shocked, but he ain't surprising me," Washington says. "Get used to seeing those homers and that smile. I'm banking on it."

Over in Mesa against his old team at Wrigley West, Sosa shrugs off the smattering of boos, basks in the 75-degree sunshine in right field and goes 1 for 3, beating out an infield dribbler. Afterward he slicks back his jet-black hair and slips into jeans, sandals and a blue-and-white Izod shirt to talk with Chicago reporters hell-bent on extracting controversy.

"No matter where I play," Sosa says between sips of bottled water, "my heart will always be in Chicago."

Enemy defanged, Sosa goes into a detailed description of his hitting philosophy.

"Swing hard," he says with a smile, "just in case."

Despite his spring fling—which, considering MLB's new drug-testing policy, we can be assured is being performed with neither a tricked-up body nor torqued-up bat—there's no denying Sosa is well into decline. Since the '03 suspension, he's hit only .223 in 1,237 at bats and his power numbers have eroded four consecutive seasons. His last major-league homer came almost 20 months ago, August 4, 2005.

"I was beaten down," Sosa explains. "I had to recharge my batteries."

Jaramillo, who knows Sosa better than anyone in the organization, is rebuilding his swing strategy, not unlike what Hank Haney did for Tiger Woods. The plan is to have him hit with less dead-pull power and more all-fields variety. Sammy Sosa: Unplugged.

"He's got his swagger back," says Jaramillo, who managed and cultivated Sosa as a five-tool player back in '86. "He lost himself mechanically and mentally in Baltimore, but physically he's in shape and mentally he's as tough as any player I've ever had. His demeanor won't let him fail anymore."

Like a lot of aging players, Sosa is cheating on fastballs, starting his swing early in order to make up for lost bat speed. The glitch lets him rip fastballs out amongst Arizona's palm trees but also leaves him vulnerable to off-speed pitches.

"You can tell he's close to finding his old groove," says Rangers closer Eric Gagne. "When he does, I'm just glad I won't have to face him."

The Rangers, who last season went 80-82 and saw attendance fall 135,000 and relevance fall off the map, don't need Sosa to be an MVP, just a clean-cut Comeback Player of the Year.

Though he's still a superstar slugger to a Rangers fandom yearning for the days of Dave Hostetler, Sosa arrives as a role player not even featured on the team's media guide cover. He'll rarely play right field but pencil him in as the everyday DH, batting fifth behind first baseman Mark Teixeira and in front of Blalock. It won't take much to upgrade the position, as last year Texas' DHs hit only .276 with 21 homers and 76 RBIs, third-worst in baseball. With just a smidge of optimism, you can see Sosa torching those numbers.

Of course it is March, a time when flowers bloom, insects buzz and Rangers fans are as gullible as they are masochistic. Thanks in part to Sosa, on the first day of ticket sales the team sold 5,000 more than last year. Sure enough, here we go again.

Because, goes the latest twisted thinking, the last three World Series have been won by unlikely suspects—two (Boston Red Sox and White Sox) breaking historic droughts and another (Cardinals) that won only 83 games in the regular season. Sooner or later, the Rangers will win a playoff game for the first time since beating the New York Yankees in October '96.

Total games in franchise history: 5,543. Total playoff game wins: 1.

On about April 15 we usually write off the Rangers along with our taxes. But this year there seems to be a legit belief that spring hope won't deteriorate into summer nope.

The opening-day lineup will likely feature 39-year-old center fielder Kenny Lofton leading off, followed by second baseman Ian Kinsler, All-Star shortstop Michael Young, Teixeira, Sosa, Blalock, right fielder Cruz, left fielder Brad Wilkerson and Laird.

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