Is There Any Whammy Left in Sammy?

March 05, 2007
March 05, 2007

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March 5, 2007

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Is There Any Whammy Left in Sammy?

Suspect slugger Sammy Sosa is hoping for a happy return to baseball with the Rangers, who believe he has enough of that old bat magic to make a difference

At first glance,the Sammy Sosa who arrived at Texas Rangers camp last week looked much like theebullient, homer-and-hop-to-first version who once dominated the NationalLeague. Same Sammy smile (produced at the drop of a lens cap), same Sammy laughand same Sammy commotion. As Sosa played pepper, 14 tripods lined the firstbase line; as he threw from the outfield another 15 photographers fired away. Asmall cluster of skeptical reporters gathered to witness his first battingpractice, which consisted of several foul balls, a handful of line drives andthree home runs in 38 swings.

This is an article from the March 5, 2007 issue Original Layout

Sosa looked fitand strong--a little bigger through the chest and arms than during hisdisastrous stint with the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, if not quite as thick asduring his glory days (now suspect) with the Chicago Cubs. To make sure peoplenoticed his physique, he doffed his sweatshirt and rolled up his sleeves duringBP despite the unseasonably cool Arizona weather. Sosa was the center ofattention again, if only for a day, a 38-year-old former outfielder on amake-good contract who instantly overshadowed his new teammates. As he walkedfrom one practice station to another, trailed by autograph trolls and giddyfans, someone yelled, "They love you here, Sammy!"

Sosa turned andflashed a grin. "Here? They love me everywhere!"

Once upon a timethey did. But this is a different era and, despite the surface similarities, avastly different Sosa. His hair showed a touch of gray, and he ran like a manwho, as the Rangers envision, will primarily DH. Gone is the overblown WWEphysique as well as the entourage of hangers-on and yes-men. Missing, too, wasthe boom box and its blare that so infuriated teammates. In a press conferenceheld at a nearby library to accommodate the crush, he tried to sound humble andhungry, though at times his attempts came off as rather comical."Today," he said, "is about Sammy Sosa and the Texas Rangers--Imean the Texas Rangers and Sammy Sosa."

For all hisnarcissism--this is a man who once named his 60-foot yacht Sammy Jr.--Sosarepresents a low-risk bet for the Rangers. Signed to a $500,000 minor leaguecontract, he stands to earn up to $2.7 million if he makes the roster andreaches incentives based primarily on plate appearances. The best-case scenariofor Texas is that Sosa regains his power stroke and hits fifth, behindshortstop Michael Young and first baseman Mark Teixeira. Considering that theOakland A's will pay another 38-year-old slugger, Mike Piazza, $8.5 millionthis season to perform the same role, Sosa could be a steal. Even if heplatoons at DH, the Rangers would get more than their money's worth.

So what's thedownside? Says general manager Jon Daniels, "It takes the spotlight awayfrom our team." Indeed, as Sosa tried to deflect one steroid-relatedquestion after another during his introductory press conference--his English,it should be noted, was much improved from his last public grilling on thesubject, in front of a congressional committee in March 2005--Daniels sat tohis left, looking increasingly dour.

Daniels's hope isthat the Rangers "can move on to focusing on baseball," but surely heknows better. If Sosa does make the team, he will face questions aboutperformance-enhancing drugs on every road trip and with every landmark homerun. (He is 12 shy of 600.) Asked after the press conference if he was preparedfor this eventuality, he bristled at his questioner. "Look, papi," hesaid, "let me make the team first, and then let me worry aboutthis."

The Rangersforesaw this conflict, which is why some in the front office argued againstsigning Sosa. Daniels, however, has proved that he's willing to gamble: Hehired Ron Washington, who has never managed above Single A, to replace BuckShowalter and spent $6 million on reliever Eric Gagné, who has pitched 15 1/3innings during the past two years because of elbow injuries. Still, it took the29-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 Novemberwhen Daniels told him the Rangers were in the market for a righthanded bat anda centerfielder. Katz threw out some options then said, "One name to keepin mind is Sammy. He's working out and wants to make a comeback." RespectedTexas hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who has been close to Sosa since coachinghim as a Rangers minor leaguer in 1985, also urged Daniels to give Sosa achance.

For his part, Sosasays he was refreshed after being "mentally beaten" during his seasonin Baltimore. After taking the better part of a year to travel with hisfamily--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 comeback--he began working out in his native Dominican Republic. He took hittingpractice in the morning, facing pitchers he says threw in the mid-90s, thenlifted weights alone in the gym at his home. His goal was to get strong withoutpacking on too much muscle in his chest, which, he says, "can mess with myswing." (It worked: He arrived at camp weighing a svelte 225 pounds, with13% body fat.)

Daniels wasintrigued enough to set up a private workout in the Dominican. Internationalscouts Don Welke and Rodolfo Rosario attended, as did two other Latin America--based scouts. Sosa went through hitting and fielding drills, and though helooked rusty, Welke thought he merited a second look. In December, Sosa flew toArlington to work out again, this time for Daniels, Welke, Jaramillo and JayRobertson, a special assistant to the G.M. It was a cold and blustery day, thetemperature near 30°, so the Rangers held the session indoors. Sosa tookbatting practice and went through drills for an hour, later saying hisperformance was "not too great." Jaramillo, however, liked what he sawand made an immediate adjustment. "He was crossing over the plate ratherthan [stepping] toward the pitcher," says Jaramillo. "But the bat speedwas there, and that's what you look for."

Next came theinterviews. Team owner Tom Hicks had what he calls a "candid" dinnerwith Sosa, from which he came away convinced the slugger was returning for theright reasons. Daniels and his people sat down with Sosa and went over a listof issues, including the entourage ("we made it clear he wouldn't haveone"), the team's leadership ("we made clear we already had ourclubhouse leaders"), the boom box ("we brought it up") and steroids("he said it was flat-out a nonissue for him"). "We wanted to makesure he wasn't coming back just to hit 12 home runs," says Daniels.

As the Rangersweighed signing Sosa, they continued to look elsewhere for power. The frontoffice considered making runs at Piazza, Moises Alou, Frank Thomas and even,briefly, Barry Bonds before deciding that Bonds's price, and the relatedheadaches, weren't worth it. (Bonds was asking teams to take on the salaries ofhis nine-man team of specialists, which, according to a league source, wasroughly a combined $700,000.) That left Sosa as the most appealing option, onethe team can cut at no cost if he fails to impress during spring training.

That seemsunlikely. Both Washington and Jaramillo are optimistic, pointing to the successof Thomas, who, at 38 and coming off a down season, rejuvenated his career withthe A's last year. Washington, a third base coach with Oakland in '06, recallsthat Thomas told the team he would need spring training and then 100 to 110 atbats to get started. "I think it took 103--and he took off," Washingtonsays. (Thomas hit .184 with seven homers in his first 103 at bats and .295 with32 homers in his 363 subsequent at bats.) Sosa will likely get the sameopportunity, seeing enough at bats in spring and the season's first month tofind his stroke.

If the ratio ofpersonality to production starts to tip too heavily toward the former, thenit's unlikely that star power will save him. "I think it's going to be goodif Sammy can play well," says Teixeira, the Rangers' resident alpha maleslugger, when asked about Sosa's effect on the clubhouse. "He needs to comein here and prove that he's ready to contribute. If he does, we're going towelcome him and be behind him 100 percent." And if he doesn't contribute?Teixeira shrugs. "Everything's always based on performance. He can talk agood game, but it doesn't matter unless he can play well."


Book Excerpt

A sneak peek at the epilogue to Game of Shadows, theexposé by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.


"Sammy needs to come in here and PROVE HE'S READYto contribute," says Teixeira. "If he does, we're going to welcomehim."
PHOTOPhotograph by Tom Hood/APSURPRISE PACKAGE Texas is convinced that Sosa came to Arizona with more on his mind than his 600th homer. PHOTOOTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGESRANGERS 1989, 1 HR PHOTORON VESELEY/MLB PHOTOS/ GETTY IMAGESWHITE SOX 1989--91, 28 HRs PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONCUBS 1992--2004, 545 HRs PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERORIOLES 2005, 14 HRs PHOTOPETER READ MILLERRANGERS 2007, ? HRs