Compared with Sosa, Bonds still in the dark handling negative light

February 24, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sammy Sosa tries so hard to be what we want him to be that he has been branded a major phony and run out of Chicago.

Barry Bonds tries so hard not to be what we want him to be that he has become the symbol of all that is wrong with professional athletes.

I'm starting to wonder if it's not really about who they are at all, but about who we are and what we expect of our heroes. How else do you explain that we hate Bitter Barry for being too real and fault Savvy Sammy for not being real enough?

Sosa arrived in Baltimore a few weeks ago and thoroughly charmed the Orioles' organization and its fans, but his critics will tell you that what you see is not necessarily what you get. He's what baseball types call a "me-guy" (and he's certainly not alone), but he is working tirelessly to regain the public affection he lost during his final controversial season with the Chicago Cubs.

So, depending on who you ask, he's either a guy who wants so badly to be loved that he waived a huge option clause in his Cubs contract to start anew in Baltimore, or he's a fraud. Maybe both.

I'm going to try to keep an open mind, because it seems to me this flawed superstar might be just what this flawed baseball team needs to regain a little swagger in the American League East. If that means the Orioles have to put up with the occasional diva moment to turn 2005 into the first really exciting season at Camden Yards in this century, Sammy can dance Swan Lake around the bases for all I care.

Let Miguel Tejada keep it real. Sammy is here to provide star power, and he started doing that the moment he took the field to a loud ovation at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday.

"I think it's great," said manager Lee Mazzilli, a New York guy who knows the value of a marquee player. "It's great for the young kids to see what a big-time atmosphere is like."

Mazzilli is the one person with a right to worry about the arrival of a force of nature such as Sosa - particularly after the problems Sammy had with Cubs manager Dusty Baker last year - but he ushered his new superstar into his office yesterday morning and ordered him to keep being Sammy.

"I don't want him to fit in," Maz said. "I told him I'm looking for him to be Sammy ... to be who you are."

No doubt, Giants manager Felipe Alou is content with what Bonds brings to the table, too, but anyone who watched Tuesday night's news conference from Scottsdale, Ariz., has to be wondering if Barry has now crossed into his own little world for good.

Let's see. He basically branded every member of the media a liar, even though he was the one who said last February that there was no chance he could have unwittingly used substances containing steroids, this after reportedly testifying to the BALCO grand jury that he did just that.

The I-thought-that-testimony-was-supposed-to-be-secret defense rings kind of hollow for me, but I'll let you make up your own minds on Bonds' credibility. The fact that his personal trainer was indicted for distributing steroids and that Barry continues to defiantly dance around the central issue (did he or didn't he?) has made it hard not to think he's dirty.

I particularly enjoyed the moment that he pointed out the reason Babe Ruth wasn't under the same kind of scrutiny during his playing career was because he wasn't black - because it flies in the face of both history and logic.

Ruth was under plenty of scrutiny and was punished for his excesses on several occasions. He went to his grave bitter because he was never given the opportunity to manage in the major leagues after his great playing career was over.

Bonds also gets some mileage out of the notion that he has been judged more harshly than Mark McGwire, which is true. But there are plenty of good reasons for that. McGwire's personal trainer was never indicted in a federal drug distribution probe, McGwire retired before the steroid scandal really exploded and McGwire never got to the point where he presented a realistic challenge to the numbers put up by Ruth or all-time home run leader Hank Aaron.

Bonds, meanwhile, has gone from sapling to science project over the past decade or so, and was the subject of steroid whispers long before the BALCO scandal went public. So, who are you supposed to believe, Barry or your eyes?

Sosa has been the subject of the same kind of whisper campaign but has chosen to handle it much differently. He has flatly denied any steroid use and said during his trip to Baltimore recently that he welcomes the opportunity to disprove those rumors on the field during the first year of baseball's new, tougher anti-steroid program.

I don't know who's telling the truth, but I do know one thing. Bonds may be the game's greatest player, but Sosa is the one who really knows how to play the game.

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