'This is my new house'

Slugger's arrival brightens O's mood

Baseball

February 03, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Sammy Sosa took his first steps off the elevator leading to the sixth floor of the B&O warehouse at 6:54 last night and walked directly into the next phase of his professional career. He was all smiles, handshakes and hugs, the playful side of a superstar turned in every direction.

One of the biggest trades in Orioles history became official when Sosa passed his physical examination and met with the local and national media. After embracing manager Lee Mazzilli near the podium, he slipped on a No. 21 jersey and cap and held up both thumbs as a sign of approval.

"This is my new house," he said, "and I love it."

The Orioles were happy to open their doors to Sosa, who arrived in a deal that sent second baseman Jerry Hairston and minor leaguers Mike Fontenot and David Crouthers to the Chicago Cubs.

The players association had to approve the trade because Sosa, 36, waived his $18 million contract option for 2006. The Orioles will pay $8.85 million of the $25 million owed to him this season. So far, there have been no discussions on an extension.

"It was a labor of love all the way around. It went extremely well," vice president Mike Flanagan said of the process that got Sosa to Baltimore.

"It took a lot of work on all sides," Flanagan added, "and I don't see anything but up."

Flanagan recalled how he surrendered Sosa's fifth career home run, joking that he gave the right fielder a "jump-start." Mazzilli attempted to mimic Sosa's traditional heart-tap after each homer, requesting that Sosa perform it "50 times, maybe" this season.

It was a loose bunch, with the Orioles no longer burdened by their failure to sign a marquee free agent, Sosa no longer tied to an organization he wanted to leave almost as much as it wanted him gone.

"I have not seen a person that's been so excited in a long time," Mazzilli said. "He's just overwhelmed. He's really excited to be here, and I know I am, having him in the middle of the lineup.

"To see Sammy come in, it seems like he's 20 years old right now. It's kind of a thrill for us all. Sammy's a guy who can take us over the top.

"I know there was some frustration in the city, but I think we answered the call."

Before Sosa could leave his past behind, he embraced it one last time. It's hard to let go of a city where he spent 13 seasons, where he became the only player to hit 60 or more homers on three occasions to rank seventh on the all-time list with 574.

"Those were some of the most beautiful 13 years of my life," he said. "I had a great time. But for me, it was time to move on."

Writers from Chicago made it difficult for Sosa, peppering him with questions about his public feud with Dusty Baker after the Cubs manager lowered him to sixth in the batting order last season, and his early exit from the team's final game.

"I don't want to talk about the past. Whatever happened to me, I don't regret it, but I love to always go forward and move on," said Sosa, who met with Orioles owner Peter Angelos for about 30 minutes yesterday.

"My legacy is there but I haven't finished it yet. The best of Sammy Sosa is coming now. It's going to be a beautiful year because I'm happy and I'm hungry."

He doesn't appear to crave power, at least not in the clubhouse. To Sosa, shortstop Miguel Tejada remains the true leader of the ballclub, a title that apparently will go unchallenged.

"I don't have a problem with that," Sosa said. "This is Miguel Tejada's house."

Said outfielder Larry Bigbie: "It's definitely Miguel Tejada's clubhouse. He's the captain of our team in my eyes. But Sammy Sosa is a great addition. I don't think he'll try to come in and take over. He'll try to earn the respect of his teammates. He gets a new start and that's how we'll look at him.

The Orioles contacted Tejada last week for his opinion on Sosa, who joins Rafael Palmeiro as the only teammates with 500 or more homers.

"I don't know everything that went on in Chicago," Bigbie said, "but you've got to give the guy a fresh look."

Despite missing a month last season with a sprained ligament in his back, Sosa still managed to hit 35 home runs and drive in 80 runs in 126 games.

"A lot of people say my numbers went down but I was out for 40 games [actually 36] and hit 35 home runs," he said in mock disgust. "Come on."

The smile still hadn't left Sosa's face as he weaved through the crowd of reporters and club employees and headed to the second level of the warehouse. Maybe the Orioles' position in the standings won't change, but after losing out on Carlos Delgado last week, the mood within the organization certainly did.

"You look at Delgado and think you're in the hunt and it falls through, and you're down a little bit," Mazzilli said. "Next thing you know, this falls into your lap. It's a nice gift. It's a good turnaround."

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