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He'd been an iconic and brazen figure both beloved and derided for such things as hitting home runs, using a corked bat, leaving Wrigley Field in the first inning of a game, being arguably the most famous person ever to come out of the Dominican Republic and being an elusive figure in baseball's steroid scandal although nothing has ever been proved against him publicly.
Being Sammy Sosa was hard work but something of a luxury for most of the past 10 years when he hopped and kissed his way into America's conscience. But then the home runs stopped in 2005 -- no blown kisses, no hops -- and being Sammy Sosa wasn't so much fun anymore.
|Sammy Sosa is happy to be back in baseball after a year away from the game.|
"It was like a hurricane," Sosa said of the pressure he felt after his failed season with the Baltimore Orioles when he hit just .221 with 14 home runs.
So Sosa retired, and with his family he traveled the world, leaving behind his fame and his identity. He visited France, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, places where Sammy didn't have to be Sammy. Baseball didn't need him anymore, and he didn't need baseball. Sosa did not pick up a ball or bat until December 2006, when he decided to make a comeback.
"I didn't miss the game," Sosa said. "It was like being free for the first time. I had been playing baseball for 17 years, and the pressure was immense without having a vacation for Sammy Sosa."
But Sammy could avoid being Sammy for only so long. So here he is once again as Sammy, the larger-than-life figure with the beaming smile, in the Texas Rangers' clubhouse, only one home run shy of 600. He is blowing kisses and hopping after homers once again for Texas, the only team that offered Sosa an opportunity to play in 2007. Entering Saturday's game against the Reds, Sosa is hitting .252 with 11 home runs and 51 RBIs.
"That year off helped me to recuperate and recharge my battery, and get that enthusiasm back, as if I were a rookie," Sosa said. "I still have a few good years left in me. You've seen how things have been."
Sosa's future will be monitored on a month-to month basis, so it's obvious he's doing his best to avoid controversy. Among the topics Sosa refuses to comment on: the request for his medical records by George Mitchell's investigation on steroids in baseball; the possibility he will be passed over for the Hall of Fame like Mark McGwire, Sosa's friend to whom he will be inexorably linked for the remainder of his public life; his quest for 600 home runs; his season with the Baltimore Orioles; and his time with the Chicago Cubs.
Sosa is not here to talk about the past.
Sosa will gladly discuss his fondness for his new teammates, going so far as to say he never has enjoyed baseball more. For a player some have considered selfish and who has feuded with at least one prominent teammate (Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada) in the past, such pronouncements spark thoughts that he's trying desperately to reconcile with the game that has mostly forgotten about him except for the occasional steroid rumor. Sosa is working at changing his image, and his new teammates have noticed.
"You never want to judge a guy before you play with him," said utility man Jerry Hairston Jr., coincidentally the man the Orioles traded for Sosa in 2005. "All of us didn't really know what to expect since he had a year off. I really think the year off really did him some good. It got him away and forced him to get back to enjoy the game. You could see that right off the bat in spring training in the way he approached it. He's a guy who really doesn't have anything to prove in the game, yet he was approaching it like he had everything to prove."
In Texas' third spring training game this year, Sosa hit a ball to the outfield that appeared ticketed for a stand-up double. Instead, Sosa rushed around the bases and legged out a triple. That was all the proof the Texas players needed to see that Sosa was serious about his comeback.
-- Rangers manager Ron Washington
Sosa often spends time talking hitting with some of the younger Rangers. He has taken to Matt Kata, a utility infielder. Sosa even led Texas' kangaroo court recently, fining himself for being late one time this year.
Sosa never has lacked confidence: "The power has always been there," he said. "I didn't need to wonder whether it was going to be there this year. That's always been inside of me."
Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo hopes Sosa is able to pass on his bravado to the younger hitters.
"They listen to what he says," Jaramillo said. "He's trying to be a leader in his approach. I want my guys talking to him about mental approach and how he goes about the game."
Sosa has changed, although he's loath to admit it. Some players said they fully expected Sosa's arrival in spring training to be somewhat of a circus. Instead, Sosa arrived quietly and with no entourage. These days, Sosa spends most of his time near his locker or in the batting cage. His lifelong friend, Julian Martinez, who served as a personal assistant for most of the latter part of Sosa's career and was a constant presence in the Orioles and Cubs clubhouses, is a batting practice pitcher for the Washington Nationals. True to his word, Sosa has not been a distraction.
"The guy has pedigree," Texas manager Ron Washington said. "He's definitely for me a future Hall of Famer. He's shown up every day trying to be the best he could be. He brings attitude. I've been very impressed with Sammy."
From the swing to the hop to the kisses, he is Sammy once again. A few years older, but undoubtedly Sammy.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.