SAMMY SOSA, who always played to the cameras and the crowds, is not one to go quietly. After a year out of baseball, and 18 months since he hit his last home run—and while the three sluggers who joined him at the 2005 Congressional steroid hearings have dropped off the baseball map—Sosa wants (needs?) to get back into the limelight. The Rangers obliged Sosa's inner diva last week by signing him to a minor league deal that guarantees him $500,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster but will pay him up to $2.7 million if he has enough of the old Slammin' Sammy magic to be their full-time DH and number 5 hitter.
It's a smart deal because it carries little risk for both sides. Rangers designated hitters last year batted .238 (third worst in the league) with 21 homers and 76 RBIs, so the bar for Sosa, 38, isn't very high. And $500,000 is a modest amount on the chance that Sosa can be the bargain that Frank Thomas—another 38-year-old, at-the-end-of-his-rope slugger—turned out to be for Oakland last year.
The risk is low for Sosa because he isn't putting a pristine legacy on the line, having left the game after an awful 2005 season (.221, 14 HRs for Baltimore) and being dogged by suspicions of steroid use. The sluggers who testified with him at those 2005 hearings, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire, have nothing to do with baseball, with McGwire, his buddy from the 1998 home run chase, craving a private life as much as Sosa wants a public one. "There's a lot of speculation but no evidence," Sosa said about the steroid talk. "I'm not going to go to every fan's home and knock on the door and say to believe in me."
The Rangers signed Sosa, who said he needed a mental break after the 2005 season, largely on the advice of respected hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who was Sosa's manager after the outfielder signed his first pro contract, with Texas in 1985. In recent workouts in Arlington and the Dominican Republic, where Sosa spent most of the past year, Jaramillo saw signs of the familiar pop returning to the bat of the man whose 588 home runs rank fifth all time. Still, Sosa has been declining for years. He has hit .223 in 1,237 at bats since the middle of the 2003 season, when he was caught using a corked bat. He's more of a long shot than was Thomas, whose health was more in question than his power. Chances are that Sosa will linger long enough to hit his 600th home run, allowing the great showman to bask, briefly, in the spotlight once again.