Play It Again, Sammy
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."
Only Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays have hit more home runs than Sosa. In '98, four years after an entire World Series was sacked by a labor dispute, he helped rejuvenate baseball in a captivating home run chase with St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire. Born in the Dominican Republic—where he grew up shining shoes and playing baseball using milk cartons for gloves and knotted towels for balls—Samuel Peralta Sosa became an American hero.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
The pitching rotation, for decades Texas' kryptonite, includes ace Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Brandon McCarthy, Robinson Tejeda and Kameron Loe. The bullpen should be the strength, anchored by set-up man Akinori Otsuka and veteran closer Gagne. Tejeda, who often neutralizes his electric stuff with short-circuited strategy, is scheduled to start next Friday's home opener against the Red Sox.
"If we pitch, we're as good as anybody in baseball," Washington says.
Sure, if Cruz hits and Tejeda survives and Gagne regains his old, unhittable magic, the Rangers can challenge for an American League West division crown they last wore in '99. And if Britney Spears doesn't marry Kevin Federline or have babies or start smoking or go commando or shave her head or check into rehab or ever take off her "oops" schoolgirl skirt she's still smokin' hot, right?
Says Teixeira, "For us, it's a very winnable division."
Ignorance and naïveté be damned, there are positive Ranger vibes from Arizona to Arlington.
In addition to providing his players with a psychological booster chair, Washington promises more stolen bases, sacrifices and manufactured runs, giving Texas a chance to win games not just 11-2, but 3-2.
"Things are about to fucking change around here," Washington says. "We've got a clubhouse full of winners. And we're going to win."
The Rangers re-signed Young, securing the face of the franchise. And they reclaimed and upgraded their house, adding a 1,200-space parking lot, changing the order of pre-game batting practice so fans will have a better chance to catch the home team and, thankfully, ditching that cumbersome corporate partner and its giant, incongruous bell in left field.
The stadium has endured more name changes than Sean Combs/Puff Daddy/P. Diddy/Diddy/Whatever, but trading "Ameriquest Field" for "Rangers Ballpark in Arlington" is a victory.
As is signing Slammin' Sammy, who, at a ridiculously discounted salary, just might provide essential marketing pizzazz and offensive pop.
"If he hits the way he can and the way we think he will," Daniels says, "we've got ourselves a hell of a bargain and a hell of a story."
"There's no reason for me not to hit 40 home runs, even more," Sosa says. "My head is right and my body is right. I've been gone for only a year. I didn't die or something."
To the contrary, Sammy Sosa is very, very much alive.
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