A Dominican who lives the American dream sat in an Austrian opera house last November listening to the Italian opera La Traviata. Unofficially finished as a Chicago Cub, if not as a cuddly mainstream star, Sammy Sosa knew that soon he would begin his own final act of a confounding career. As he watched the sad decline of the wayward Violetta, Sosa thought about his growing up hungry on the streets of San Pedro de Macor�s, selling oranges and shining shoes. "I was proud to be [at the opera in Vienna], coming from where I did," he says.
Seven months later Act III of Sammy Sosa has unfolded as quietly as expected, his skills and profile in decline following the raw, itinerant years of his youth and then the muscular, superhero years when he was All Things Cubs. A Baltimore Oriole now, Sosa, 36, absentmindedly rips through the pile of cardboard boxes of clothing and equipment that arrive daily at his locker, like a never-ending Christmas morning. What is remarkable about Sosa this season, though, is what he is not. In Baltimore he is not the captain, he is not the best player in the room, he is not the diva with club officials and personal valets at his side, he is not the clubhouse deejay oblivious to the annoyance of his infamous boom box, he is not--by a long shot, given the boos he hears wherever he plays on the road--the most popular player in baseball. Sosa can't sell Orville Redenbacher's popcorn like he used to.
As much as he loved to play the star, Sosa has embraced his deferential role with the Orioles, whose cornerstone is the man they call Miggi ( Sosa's friend and fellow Dominican, shortstop Miguel Tejada). The Baltimore fans, who haven't witnessed a winning season since 1997, are aflutter about the team's 34-22 start, its spot atop the American League East and the possibility of seeing Sosa hit home run number 600. (He needed 21 at week's end.) His teammates and manager Lee Mazzilli marvel at Sosa's boyish enthusiasm and comportment. Pitching coach Ray Miller appreciates the counsel Sosa gives the club's young Latin pitchers, including Daniel Cabrera and Jorge Julio. Second baseman Brian Roberts praises Sosa for having "the greatest attitude every single day. It's energizing. He doesn't get mad and doesn't get down no matter what. I've been amazed at that."
"It's perfect," Sosa says of his fit in Baltimore. "It's like when you move into a new house. You just want to enjoy it."
So eager was Sosa to get out of Chicago that he waived his no-trade provision and gave up $18 million--his 2006 salary that was contractually guaranteed upon any trade. And so eager were the Cubs to get rid of Sosa that they are paying $16.2 million of the $25 million remaining on his contract.
The divorce highlighted a dizzying downward spiral for the man who was voted the most popular ballplayer in a 2002 ESPN.com poll and who had the highest Q rating among major leaguers as late as the end of the '02 season. In 24 months beginning on April 20, 2003, Sosa was hit in the helmet with a pitch, was caught with a corked bat, hurt his back sneezing, fell into a deep slump at the plate, was booed at Wrigley Field, was fined $87,400 after he walked out on the Cubs during the final game of last season, ripped his manager for having dropped him in the batting order and was fingered by Jose Canseco as a suspected steroid user--which led to Sosa's being subpoenaed by Congress in March.
Sosa says he doesn't want to talk about Chicago. "I don't rewind the tape," he says. Eventually he does, though. Stronger than magnanimity is the pride of the poor shoeshine kid who wound up with the money and savoir-vivre to enjoy European opera, linger over oil paintings at the Louvre, dine like a king at the most expensive restaurants in Monte Carlo and plan to renew his marriage vows at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. (He later rescheduled for La Romana in the Dominican Republic so his four children could attend.) Sosa gave the Cubs 13 Hall of Fame seasons and 545 homers, more than anyone else who ever played for the franchise, while attendance at Wrigley Field increased 50% from his first season to his last.
"We had a chance to go to the playoffs [last year]," Sosa says. "And when we didn't, with the kind of year I had--supposedly it was a bad year--they blamed everything on me. Can you imagine if that [last-day] controversy didn't happen? Do you think I would be [in Baltimore]?"
Sosa is told that he must have surmised that he was through with the Cubs when, after hearing him explain to the media that he had left in the seventh inning, the club leaked word that parking-lot surveillance tapes had caught him leaving 15 minutes after the game began. In other words, his own team exposed him as a defector and a liar.
"They don't have that tape," Sosa snaps.