Sammy Sosa starts out shining

The slugger reports for spring training and a new professional chapter with the Orioles, getting a warm welcome from teammates and fans.

February 24, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The white Range Rover pulled into an open parking space nearest the Orioles' spring training clubhouse at 9:38 a.m. yesterday, a nice ride but nothing like the limousine he usually demands. Sammy Sosa was smiling again, at the TV cameras that recorded his every movement and at the young fans who cried out his name.

Manager Lee Mazzilli put an arm around the outfielder's shoulder as they entered the dugout about 30 minutes later. When he climbed the steps to the field, Sosa's eyes widened as photographers closed in and the tiny crowd broke into a loud ovation.

Sosa gave a polite wave, spun around to shake hands with ESPN's Tim Kurkjian and promised some boys pressed against a railing that he'd return to sign autographs.

"I'll be right back," he yelled.

So began the first day in Orioles camp for the newest slugger. After 13 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, during which he became one of baseball's biggest stars, Sosa was traded to Baltimore last month. Once a huge favorite in Chicago, Sosa left after feuding with his manager and being castigated for an early departure from the 2004 season finale.

If much of the sport's off-season has been darkened by the clouds of steroid revelations and accusations - and if Orioles fans were discouraged by the club's failure to make significant moves - then Sosa's arrival yesterday was a burst of sunlight.

With two bats and a pair of spikes in his left hand, Sosa walked to the back fields to begin his first workout as an Oriole. He came to a news conference in the media lunch room shortly after noon, still wearing his orange No. 21 jersey, still equal parts awed and inspired by the reception.

"It's incredible," he said. "It's a young team and everybody is happy for myself to be here. It's like coming home."

After waiting for Tim Raines Jr. to take his last swings in one of the indoor cages, Sosa began hacking away at hitting coach Terry Crowley's underhand tosses. Reporters scribbled in their notepads. No presses were stopped, but the media's sense of urgency was palpable.

"It took 30 years," Crowley said later, "but I'm finally starting to get some attention."

Sosa was the center of it, especially once he moved to an outdoor cage and sent baseballs soaring through the tall trees and onto an airfield.

"I think it's great for the young kids on this team to see the atmosphere," Mazzilli said. "I got a kick out of all the young guys in the outfield who stopped and watched him take batting practice."

During his third turn, Sosa launched four straight pitches over the fence. Each time he made contact, it sounded as though his bat exploded.

"He has tremendous power, just tremendous," said bench coach Sam Perlozzo, who threw to Sosa. "He hit some balls out when I thought one or two of them were too far inside. They went a long way. And he hit to all fields. But we knew that already. We're tickled to death to have him on our side."

To get him here, the Orioles traded second baseman Jerry Hairston and two minor league players to the Cubs in late January. They ignored reports of his run-ins with manager Dusty Baker, forgave his decision to leave the season's final game in the first inning.

If Sosa is to bat cleanup, he'll do so with a clean slate.

Mazzilli told him: "I don't want you to fit in. I'm looking for you to be Sammy. I don't want you to change. I don't care what happened in Chicago. That's ancient history."

Certain concessions are made for the biggest stars on the team, but they'll play under the same rules.

"That's not even an issue," Mazzilli said. "He said, `Whatever you want me to do, I'll do.' It was the same as when we had Raffy [Palmeiro] and [Miguel] Tejada last year. It was never a problem."

Sosa made friends quickly. Finished with Crowley, he sat with outfielders Larry Bigbie and Midre Cummings, and later asked Bigbie to wait for him in the clubhouse while he attended the news conference.

Careful to come across as one of the guys, he collected baseballs with his teammates and returned them to Crowley for later use.

"Sammy reminds me of Tejada when he first got here," Bigbie said. "He's very upbeat. He seems happy to be here, and as teammates, we're happy to have him here."

Missing about a month of the season because of back spasms induced by a hard sneeze, Sosa batted .253 with 35 homers and 80 RBIs - numbers that weren't satisfactory from someone who had raised the bar to ridiculous heights.

He keeps promising the best of Sammy Sosa lies ahead. These are bold words coming from the only player to hit 60 or more homers in three straight seasons, and they're delivered without the trademark smile.

"A lot of people said I'm finished," he said. "I know I have to go out there and put it together and show the whole world that I got a challenge and I've got to take that."

His other task is to clean up an image that became soiled by his suspension in 2003 for using a corked bat and his haste to leave the ballpark on the last day of 2004.

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