Play It Again, Sammy

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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."

Honestly, Sosa could help this team by being half the man he used to be. How about .250, 30 homers, 80 RBIs and zero incidents involving loud music, quiet escapes, plugged bats or positive tests?

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt

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