If Sosa parks it, he'll be in driver's seat

February 24, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Thwack. The little white orb jumped off the bat and rocketed across the blue Florida sky.

Goodbye, baseball.

Hello, Sammy Sosa.

In his first batting practice in an orange Orioles jersey, Sosa took a few of bench coach Sam Perlozzo's dead-arm offerings and launched them over the vine-covered outfield fence, a la Wrigley Field.

Clank. With those emphatic jacks, Sosa promptly punctuated his Orioles debut by hitting a cargo plane - a parked cargo plane - sitting on the tarmac at the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport.

Let the legend of Baltimore Sammy's inaugural batting practice session herewith state that Sosa dented the plane.

"No, he put a hole in it," Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli said, grinning.

Oh, the theater. He may not be Broadway Sammy, but clearly Sosa yearns to re-establish himself as the Happiest Show on Earth, not to mention a power source for the Orioles. Resurrection by ascent up the all-time homer hitter's chart.

"That No. 21 can hit a little," pitching coach Ray Miller deadpanned to Mazzilli after all of Orioles camp stopped and watched Sosa's mid-morning fireworks.

"Yeah, if he hits 50 homers, I told him he can park his car anywhere he wants," Mazzilli said.

In other words: You better believe in the magic of the long ball, regardless of the cloud - and syringes - still lingering from the Steroid Era. A gust of wind can't come strong or fast enough to blow this baby out to sea.

"I don't want to make a comment. The situation is very delicate," Sosa said yesterday.

"In 1998, Mark McGwire and I came out and gave baseball life. As a baseball player, I think we have to stay together. I think the commissioner of baseball is doing a great job. All we can do is go out and show we are professional athletes. We believe in ourselves, and we want to show the world."

If there's any question why baseball took more than a decade to acknowledge and address steroid use, the allure of Sosa's solo home run-hitting contest yesterday answered the question.

The long ball remains endlessly captivating. It's a showstopper. There's no response for it, which is why fans throw back the baseball of opposing players who hit home runs. Here, we don't want it. But the gesture of defiance never erases the run(s) scored. It is a quick and silencing strike.

"It's great. He takes the pressure off the rest of us," outfielder Larry Bigbie said about Sosa.

Instant gratification, that's the home run.

Instant offense.

Instant respect, that's the long ball's currency.

It explains why Mazzilli had a simple message for Sosa yesterday: Be yourself.

"The credibility, that excitement he brings to the team, I told him, `I don't want you to fit into the team. I want you to be Sammy. Be who you are,' " Mazzilli said.

And, of course, hit 50 homers.

Power brought all kinds of records, attention, endorsements, stardom and the chance for baseball immortality to hitters such as Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, not to mention millions in guaranteed contracts.

Jose Canseco and his pay-per-view book are finally breaking the taboo of steroid denial and silence. Canseco has to refill the depleted coffers somehow, and why not a book alleging steroid use from the man who wrote the book, literally?

But the best hitters still in the game have reported to training camp looking to put the past behind them - and hit more homers, as if to prove a point.

Bonds was slippery and evasive in his bash-the-press session Tuesday. We wouldn't expect anything less from an athlete who seems to have taken a page out of boxer Jack Johnson's book of public relations. If you think they hate you, taunt them some more. Bonds thinks he can shame the press, but as smart as he is, he's out of touch, isolated, wrong.

Bonds, defiant, doesn't know what cheating is and says steroids don't help you technically hit the ball over the fence. But that's not the same thing as a denial.

But Bonds is right. It is over, whether or not every player who did take steroids admits it or not. History will make its judgment, Bonds, Sosa and Co. will go on slugging.

Either Sosa will hit 52 homers this season, a decent goal, or he'll corkscrew himself into the red dirt at home plate striking out trying.

The homer is his raison d'etre, his meal ticket, his most sure and immediate path back to baseball glory.

"When I hit 35 homers, maybe people thought I was finished. That's why I say the best is yet to come. If Sammy Sosa can put it together, he's got a new challenge," Sosa said yesterday.

If Sosa hits 35 homers, the Orioles will get more than their money's worth.

If he hits 50, he gets the perks of a parking pass, courtesy of his new manager.

If he hits 60 again, this time in baseball's new drug testing era, he can hold hands with Bonds and skip all the way to Cooperstown.

"Who knows where I'll be when I'm finished?" Sosa said.

Better off than Canseco, for starters.

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