Will Sammy's act play in Tejada's clubhouse?

February 01, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

AMONG the litany of colorful characterizations used to describe Sammy Sosa - "con artist" taking top honor - one tragic flaw has been woefully underreported:

The irrepressible Sosa was blaring Whitney Houston when a Cubs teammate took a bat to the clubhouse boom box.

Whitney Houston? What, Sosa's Mariah Carey CD was too scratched?

With stiffer drug-testing penalties now for major league ballplayers, let's hope Sosa has sworn off Whitney's warblings, too. Otherwise, more trouble could lurk for the slugger inside the Orioles clubhouse, where music isn't an issue, unless it's Sidney Ponson's day to pitch. The Aruban knight has been known to dial up some Bob Marley, salsa or Metallica.

Ponson doesn't do Whitney Houston music, but if Sammy insists - as he did in Chicago (where he also petulantly insisted he shouldn't bat sixth, despite striking out in one of every 3 1/2 at-bats) - then all bets are off that Ponson won't go ballistic with a personal watercraft again.

One thing good about having Ponson out of jail: He won't be afraid to tell Sosa to shut his pie hole. We always figured Ponson would come in handy, even with 15-win seasons.

The Sosa Rules that applied in Wrigleyville, where this homer-happy caricature was created and lustily marketed, can't be tolerated in Baltimore. It shouldn't be, not in a baseball city where Hall of Famers like Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer and soon-to-be Cal Ripken plied their trade.

That is the question in this baseball city that doesn't need or want players parading as distractions. We've had time now to digest the fact that Sosa is about to be inflicted on our season and our psyches, but we're still wondering:

How will Sosa, the Hindenburg of baseball players, fit in?

For anyone who believes it's as simple as thinking Sosa is here to hit homers and drive in runs at Camden Yards, there are medications that can help you with this reality problem.

If only it were that simple. As if a baseball team were only about batting averages and names on a lineup card. Black and white. No fuss, no muss.

No slumps, no egos, no jealousy, no contract uncertainties, no injuries, no benchings, no conflicting advice from coaches, no suspect managerial decisions for Sammy "I Won't Bat Sixth" Sosa to question.

In Chicago yesterday, a radio talk show host asked Cubs second baseman Todd Walker what would come first:

A)Would Lee Mazzilli bench Sosa, or

B)Would Mazzilli call on Sosa to be an American League All-Star?

Walker predicted the benching of Sosa.

So much for being a character guy, a team player. In the humility department, Sosa makes Reggie Jackson look like Mother Teresa. How long did The Straw that Stirs the Drink last in Baltimore, anyway? One and done, as we recall.

If the need for clubhouse chemistry can be overstated, its delicacy and intricacies can be overlooked, too. The Orioles might be more susceptible to Sosa shenanigans than other teams with more established chemistry and leadership.

If he's in the mood to steamroll, he might figure the Orioles are his kind of team. That's the biggest danger: Sosa believing his act will fly here.

It took the first 80 games of 2004 for the Orioles to figure out who the heck they were. Even then, they were only beginning to develop a vague kind of clubhouse dynamic. The delay and tentative steps toward an identity weren't helped by general team insecurity and second-guessing during rookie manager Lee Mazzilli's inaugural campaign.

The Orioles clubhouse is not aligned behind Mazzilli. It's a team whose chemistry and self-assurance was improved only after Ray Miller was hired as pitching coach and, most important, Miguel Tejada's emergence after the All-Star break as MVP and de facto captain of the Orioles.

Tejada is the key. Can he control Sosa? It's a tremendous challenge - almost as big as turning around the Orioles' fortunes in the standings.

But the reign of Tejada is still in its infancy. His leadership style and role are not fully formed yet, and now there's the introduction of this mega-star with a super-sized ego who has been dumped here in what is, essentially, a better business decision (Sosa costs the Orioles so little) than baseball decision.

Tejada is the best bet for tempering Sosa's ego and personality. They are friends, and Tejada has been eager to attract other top-flight players to join him in Baltimore.

The problem, though, is that the presence of such an overwhelmingly center-of-attention player like Sosa could impede Tejada's ability or willingness to serve as club mentor and catalyst for other, particularly younger, players.

Mazzilli will have his hands full. Rafael Palmeiro, the future Hall of Famer, was insulted at the end of last season for the way he was held out of the lineup. Jay Gibbons will play first base, now that the Orioles failed to land Richie Sexson or Carlos Delgado. But so, too, will Javy Lopez, who has virtually insisted he can't play as many games behind home plate as he did last year.

There is a vacuum in the Orioles clubhouse, one that Sosa could prove too powerful a force to not fill with his cartoon-like kisses, chest thumps and smiles.

And if you hear Whitney Houston, it's really bad.

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