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At first glance, the Sammy Sosa who arrived at Texas Rangers camp last week looked much like the ebullient, homer-and-hop-to-first version who once dominated the National League. Same Sammy smile (produced at the drop of a lens cap), same Sammy laugh and same Sammy commotion. As Sosa played pepper, 14 tripods lined the first base line; as he threw from the outfield another 15 photographers fired away. A small cluster of skeptical reporters gathered to witness his first batting practice, which consisted of several foul balls, a handful of line drives and three home runs in 38 swings.
Sosa looked fit and strong--a little bigger through the chest and arms than during his disastrous stint with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, if not quite as thick as during his glory days (now suspect) with the Chicago Cubs. To make sure people noticed his physique, he doffed his sweatshirt and rolled up his sleeves during BP despite the unseasonably cool Arizona weather. Sosa was the center of attention again, if only for a day, a 38-year-old former outfielder on a make-good contract who instantly overshadowed his new teammates. As he walked from one practice station to another, trailed by autograph trolls and giddy fans, someone yelled, "They love you here, Sammy!"
Sosa turned and flashed a grin. "Here? They love me everywhere!"
Once upon a time they did. But this is a different era and, despite the surface similarities, a vastly different Sosa. His hair showed a touch of gray, and he ran like a man who, as the Rangers envision, will primarily DH. Gone is the overblown WWE physique as well as the entourage of hangers-on and yes-men. Missing, too, was the boom box and its blare that so infuriated teammates. In a press conference held at a nearby library to accommodate the crush, he tried to sound humble and hungry, though at times his attempts came off as rather comical. "Today," he said, "is about Sammy Sosa and the Texas Rangers--I mean the Texas Rangers and Sammy Sosa."
For all his narcissism--this is a man who once named his 60-foot yacht Sammy Jr.-- Sosa represents a low-risk bet for the Rangers. Signed to a $500,000 minor league contract, he stands to earn up to $2.7 million if he makes the roster and reaches incentives based primarily on plate appearances. The best-case scenario for Texas is that Sosa regains his power stroke and hits fifth, behind shortstop Michael Young and first baseman Mark Teixeira. Considering that the Oakland A's will pay another 38-year-old slugger, Mike Piazza, $8.5 million this season to perform the same role, Sosa could be a steal. Even if he platoons at DH, the Rangers would get more than their money's worth.
So what's the downside? Says general manager Jon Daniels, "It takes the spotlight away from our team." Indeed, as Sosa tried to deflect one steroid-related question after another during his introductory press conference--his English, it should be noted, was much improved from his last public grilling on the subject, in front of a congressional committee in March 2005-- Daniels sat to his left, looking increasingly dour.
Daniels's hope is that the Rangers "can move on to focusing on baseball," but surely he knows better. If Sosa does make the team, he will face questions about performance-enhancing drugs on every road trip and with every landmark home run. (He is 12 shy of 600.) Asked after the press conference if he was prepared for this eventuality, he bristled at his questioner. "Look, papi," he said, "let me make the team first, and then let me worry about this."
The Rangers foresaw this conflict, which is why some in the front office argued against signing Sosa. Daniels, however, has proved that he's willing to gamble: He hired Ron Washington, who has never managed above Single A, to replace Buck Showalter and spent $6 million on reliever Eric Gagn�, who has pitched 15 1/3 innings during the past two years because of elbow injuries. Still, it took the 29-year-old G.M. a while to warm to the idea of Sosa, who last played in 2005. Adam Katz, Sosa's agent, first pitched the idea of a comeback last November when Daniels told him the Rangers were in the market for a righthanded bat and a centerfielder. Katz threw out some options then said, "One name to keep in mind is Sammy. He's working out and wants to make a comeback." Respected Texas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who has been close to Sosa since coaching him as a Rangers minor leaguer in 1985, also urged Daniels to give Sosa a chance.
For his part, Sosa says he was refreshed after being "mentally beaten" during his season in Baltimore. After taking the better part of a year to travel with his family--unlike the reclusive Mark McGwire, with whom he is inextricably linked, Sosa loves attention and says he was moved by how many fans begged him to come back--he began working out in his native Dominican Republic. He took hitting practice in the morning, facing pitchers he says threw in the mid-90s, then lifted weights alone in the gym at his home. His goal was to get strong without packing on too much muscle in his chest, which, he says, "can mess with my swing." (It worked: He arrived at camp weighing a svelte 225 pounds, with 13% body fat.)
Daniels was intrigued enough to set up a private workout in the Dominican. International scouts Don Welke and Rodolfo Rosario attended, as did two other Latin America-- based scouts. Sosa went through hitting and fielding drills, and though he looked rusty, Welke thought he merited a second look. In December, Sosa flew to Arlington to work out again, this time for Daniels, Welke, Jaramillo and Jay Robertson, a special assistant to the G.M. It was a cold and blustery day, the temperature near 30�, so the Rangers held the session indoors. Sosa took batting practice and went through drills for an hour, later saying his performance was "not too great." Jaramillo, however, liked what he saw and made an immediate adjustment. "He was crossing over the plate rather than [stepping] toward the pitcher," says Jaramillo. "But the bat speed was there, and that's what you look for."