There's smoke, but there's no ire for Sosa leaving National League

February 28, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

JUPITER, Fla. - Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon clearly is heartbroken that new Orioles superstar Sammy Sosa has jumped to the American League.

"I enjoyed playing against him," McKeon said. "He always brought me good cigars."

Good to see that Trader Jack has his priorities in order. Swingin' Sammy can hit all the big flies he wants off Josh Beckett this spring, as long as he keeps the Cohibas coming.

"Tell him we only play each other [in Florida]," McKeon joked, "in case he needs to stock up."

When the cigar smoke clears in his office at Roger Dean Stadium, McKeon gets serious for a moment. He knows what is being said about Sosa in Chicago, and he's heard the whispers that one of baseball's all-time sluggers is on the down slope of his career, but in this new, highly polarized Sosa universe, he remains a Sammy guy.

"I'm not really sorry to see him get out of the league," McKeon said. "Last year was an odd year. He was hurt. Before that, he was a guy who always created excitement. He played hard and was a tough out. I think you'll like him."

McKeon buys into the popular theory (popular in Baltimore, at least) that Sosa will be intensely motivated to show everyone in his new city that he is not over the hill, not a product of weird science and not the bad guy he was portrayed as during his final season in Chicago.

"I think he's going to be on a mission to prove he is the same player he always was," McKeon said.

"The year he and [Mark] McGwire had that home run race, I thought he handled that situation real well. He did a miraculous job of deflecting all that pressure, and he was very cordial to the fans and the media. I don't know what happened in Chicago, except that you can stay in one place too long."

On the other side of the two-headed spring training complex that houses the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa was saying basically the same thing. He isn't going to miss Sosa when the Cardinals renew their regular-season rivalry with the Cubs on April 20.

"Oh, yeah," La Russa said. "The only thing is, between here and Oklahoma City [where the Orioles and Cardinals will end spring training with two exhibition games], we're going to be seeing him a lot this spring. I think he's got a lot left."

La Russa has spent a lot of time the past couple of weeks reacting to Jose Canseco's tell-all best seller. He can only hope that his collaborative book, Three Nights in August, will garner a fraction of the interest when it is released in April.

Author Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the great high school football exposM-i Friday Night Lights, got total access for a late-season showdown between the Cardinals and Cubs, documenting all of the strategizing and preparation that goes into an important three-game series.

"Our sport has been built around the three-game series," La Russa said. "That's been the basic unit for the past 100 years or more. This is about how teams prepare for a three-game series against each other. It's not just us. When the Marlins play the Mets, it's what Willie Randolph and Jack McKeon will be doing."

La Russa said he always planned to write a strategy book after he retired from managing, but didn't need much persuading to move up his timetable because he wants to pay off the building that houses his animal rescue foundation in California. His entire share of the proceeds from the book will go to that cause.

Though he has been steadfast in his insistence that McGwire never used illegal performance-enhancing drugs, La Russa acknowledged Friday that there are times when teams may not be entirely forthcoming in situations where players cross the line.

"I think a small part of that is an organization protecting its assets," La Russa said. "You want to maintain the perception that all of your players are solid citizens. It really is like a family. If you have an argument at home, or you have a problem with one of your kids, you don't call the newspaper and ask them to put a headline on it.

"Sometimes, we all are guilty of covering."

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