- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- I'd like to believe the supposedly new and improved Sammy Sosa is a changed person. If he's smart -- not always one of his strengths in the past -- he'll realize this is his absolute final chance to perform reconstructive surgery on his reputation and baseball legacy. But if the new Sammy becomes the old Sammy, then this marriage between Sosa and the Texas Rangers will end in either a quickie annulment or a messy divorce.
It's only fitting that Sosa reports for work in a city named Surprise. Think about it: The 38-year-old Sosa last played in a big league game on Aug. 25, 2005 (he struck out swinging in his final at-bat). Through Thursday, he's hitting .467 and leads the team in spring training dingers, slugging percentage and total bases, while new Rangers manager Ron Washington is all but waving pompoms from the dugout.
"I want to see a lot of kissing," Washington said.
Don't freak. What he means is that he wants to see a lot of those signature two-finger kisses Sosa gives to the nearest dugout TV camera after a home run. The more kisses means more Sammy home-plate bunny hops, more Sammy heart taps and more Rangers runs. Runs are a good thing, especially for a team in need of pitching and another right-handed power hitter.
What Washington doesn't want to see is diva Sammy, bail-on-your-teammates-and-lie-about-it Sammy, boom-box Sammy. In other words, the old Sammy.
Old Sammy is why he is no longer a Chicago Cub or a Baltimore Oriole. It's why he was essentially forced to sit out last season and why he had exactly two humiliating (for him) choices this year: play in Japan, or accept a minor league contract from the only major league team willing to invite him to spring training. Most of all, it's why first-time manager Washington can lay down the law to a former superstar who once helped rule the baseball world.
"There ain't going to be no other stuff," said Washington, meaning all the old Sammy antics.
Washington talked with former Cubs manager Dusty Baker about Sosa. Baker was the guy who protected Sosa (to a fault, sometimes), who in return ditched the team on the final day of the 2004 season. Sosa then insisted he didn't leave early, but, oops, Wrigley Field videotapes said otherwise.
"I did have a conversation with Dusty," Washington said. "He did tell me, 'If [Sosa] gets it going on, he can help you.' That's what he said: 'He can help you.' That's all Dusty had to say about Sammy."
So far Sosa has been fine. Actually, better than fine. He's been on his best behavior. The Rangers' media relations staff wants to adopt him. Fans follow him from practice field to practice field as if he's dropping dollar bills. And the last dinger he hit in a spring training game traveled so far that Sosa got frequent mileage points for it.
"I'm hungry," he said in the Rangers clubhouse, the smell of wintergreen tobacco dip on his breath. "I was beat up mentally before. Now I'm in a position where I know I feel great, where I feel I can compete again. When I left this game for a year, I left it out of frustration, you know what I mean? And everything went out, and now I'm back and I'm fresh physically, have a fresh mind. I'm still a rookie."
He smiles when he says it -- the industrial-strength, disarming smile he's used in years past. It worked for so many seasons, and then suddenly it didn't. So Sosa has to repair not only his swing (which he's doing each day with trusted Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo) but also his credibility. That takes longer. Smiles are nice, but did I get the sincere one or the convenient one?
Sosa has brought the suspicions and cynicism on himself. There's a reason why no other big league team would touch him with a 10-foot fungo bat this offseason: he wasn't worth the trouble. Four years ago, when he was hitting 40 homers with 103 RBIs for the Cubs, he was worth the aggravation. Two years ago, when he was missing 60 games and hitting just .221 with 15 home runs and 45 RBIs for the Orioles ... not so much.
Washington is rooting hard for Sosa to make the final roster, but even he admits he had to be convinced about the signing. Everybody did. Sosa came with so much baggage that he could have gotten an endorsement deal from Samsonite.
There are those within the Rangers organization who weren't in favor of inviting Sosa to camp, who don't think he can perform after an 18-month, noninjury absence, and who worry that the old Sammy will appear and infect what is generally regarded as a content and professional clubhouse. In the end, the Rangers decided to buy a baseball lotto ticket.
"It was only an upside for us," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "There's really very little risk on our part. People have asked what is the risk. For us, it's only that somehow it's a negative distraction, which it hasn't been at all."
The Rangers are guaranteeing Sosa $500,000, but only if he makes the team. Two years ago he earned that much in five regular season games. Back then Sosa had his $17 million salary, his entourage, his boom box and his sense of entitlement. All of that is gone -- for now.
"If it doesn't pan out, it doesn't pan out," said Daniels, who complimented Sosa on his work ethic, humility and, being a pragmatist, his ability to hit left-handers. "But there's no harm done in trying."
No, there isn't. In Sosa's own words, "So far, so good." In fact, it would be a shocker, not a surprise, if Sosa wasn't on the roster -- or in the starting lineup at DH batting fifth -- when the Rangers open the season April 2 at Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels.
Sosa has been a model citizen, though the no-nonsense Jaramillo, who goes way back with Sosa, had to remind Sammy to pick up his own baseballs after a recent session in the batting cage. It seems like a small thing, but other Rangers were watching to see how Sosa would react. Old Sammy might have ignored the request. New Sammy happily picked up the baseballs.
The cynic in me says Sosa is a creature of pride and vanity. All he really wants is to hit 12 more home runs so he can become the first Latin-American player to reach the 600-homer mark. This smiley-face, "I'm still a rookie" schtick? Gone the minute he makes the team and starts working on his $2.1 million of incentive money. The constant media availability? A chance to repair the PR damage done in recent years. After all, the writers vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, right?
But then I see Sosa hustle down the line to beat out a slow chopper to third in Thursday's game against the Oakland A's. I listen to Rangers All-Star second baseman Michael Young, respected by everyone in the clubhouse, say that Sosa's bat speed and timing are back and that "we're all rooting for him." I see Sosa mix easily with the other Rangers before the morning workout.
"I know Texas take the chance [on me] right away," said Sosa, looking buff, his hands taped for an early hitting session. "They stepped to the plate. And I'm not going to let them down."
Maybe, just maybe, the new Sammy is for real. The gaudy spring training stats? Who knows? It's early. It's the dry air of Arizona. And even the scouts will tell you Sosa has been cheating on the fastball and struggling with the breaking stuff. But if Sosa is serious about cleaning up his formerly tired act, he has a chance.
And the Rangers have themselves a bargain.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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