Play It Again, Sammy

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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?

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt

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