Play It Again, Sammy

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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."

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt

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