Sosa's first appearance stays on key, with no echo of Belle

February 04, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN HIS first public appearance as a Baltimore Oriole, Sammy Sosa was not Albert Belle. For this, we can sing hosannas. Six years ago, when the Orioles trotted out Belle for his first news conference, they yanked him from the room before he could erupt. This week Sosa arrived, and the smile never left his face even when Chicago reporters were asking him the same annoying question 14 different ways.

These things matter. We seek the little boy in the men who play baseball for a living. We want to see the home team win, and it helps when they charm us as well. Six years ago, Belle walked into the Oriole Park warehouse cloaked in his history of menace. He left two years later with his career done, and Oriole Park attendance falling, and the town beginning to cast off its emotional ties with the team.

Two days ago Sosa entered the same warehouse, shook a right hand damp with nervousness with everybody in sight, and tried to charm the entire room. If Belle symbolized the frustration of recent Oriole years, Sosa is our newest enigma: another Albert, or a fresh start?

The two men, Sosa and Belle, are being talked about with here-we-go-again dread this week. Belle arrived with his malignant attitude, which we knew about, and his arthritic hip, which surprised everyone and ended his career. Sosa arrives with his recent troubles in Chicago and questions about his age and his declining numbers, all of which link him in many minds to Belle.

Rarely in baseball history has the arrival of a future Hall of Famer been met with as much disapproval as Sosa's. Partly, it's his reputation as a clubhouse character wrapped strictly in Sammy; partly, it's the Pavlovian Belle it rings in our heads: Is he the new Albert, a last-minute snatch brought in to juice the box office while everybody around him braces for trouble?

Not if Sosa's first day offers any clues.

Six years ago, Belle arrived with an aura of anger around him: the kids he'd chased down the street, the forearm shivers he'd thrown into second basemen, the reporters he'd cursed. In his first news conference here, he was low key and composed, but his eyes were a giveaway. They never stopped moving, darting, not for the entire time he sat there. His was the face of the haunted spirit wrestling with demons no one else saw.

When Orioles' officials got him out of the room after a half hour of softball questions ("Do you like Oriole Park?" "Have you talked with Cal Ripken?"), you could sense them all heaving a sigh of relief. If Belle had been subjected to the kind of questioning Sosa got Wednesday evening, he'd have thrown reporters out of sixth-floor warehouse windows.

But Sammy was cool. At the end of a dreary winter of Orioles front-office disappointments, and the jailing of perennial adolescent Sidney Ponson, and the commencement of an anxious new era in the Baltimore-Washington baseball market, Sosa was just what Peter Angelos ordered.

"Hello, how are you?" he said to individuals as he made his way into the big warehouse room, shaking all available hands.

When manager Lee Mazzilli introduced Sosa, he said, "I have not seen a person that's been this excited in a long time."

As the smiling Sosa nodded his head in agreement, the past drifted away a little: the Orioles' seven straight losing seasons, the dwindling Camden Yards attendance, the new threat from Washington. And that bitter farewell of Sosa and Chicago might have vanished, too - except for the questions that kept coming from those who followed him when he was a Cub: about his relationship with his old manager, Dusty Baker; about his diminishing home run totals; about his abrupt exit from his final game in Chicago.

Sosa handled all of it with grace. He had nothing but praise for Chicago and its fans, but wanted to look ahead. Was he already pressing for a contract extension? "I just got here, my friend," Sosa said, laughing. At such a moment, Albert Belle might have thrown a chair across the room.

The Orioles are hungry to win back those with memories of Albert. He is a symbol of the wasteland years. The ebullient Sosa on display this week, eyes sparkling, enthusiasm bursting out of him, would complement the additions of last year - Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro, the promising kid pitchers and, especially, the electric Miguel Tejada.

Sosa was asked: Would he challenge Tejada for leadership on the Orioles?

"He's the leader," Sammy said. "I just got here."

There wasn't an off-key note in a syllable he uttered. For a few moments, at least, Sosa's the look of the Orioles' immediate future, instead of the discordant echo of its old Belle.

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