Sosa tries to find toehold as Oriole

Opener: A man of meager beginnings, the slugger won over the baseball world and then lost it. Now he's starting over.

April 04, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The man does not do still. He will not -- cannot -- stop moving. Not for anyone. He has tried before, but it is much too difficult. Even when he is relaxed, he is laughing, fidgeting, speaking rapidly and making wild gestures with his hands. He has been this way all his life.

Sammy Sosa has always looked more anxious than stoic in the batter's box, an odd distinction for a man who has hit more home runs than all but six men in the history of major-league baseball. His hands twitch rapidly at the plate, and his left foot methodically taps the dirt beneath him before each violent swing sends a baseball screaming into the sky.

He has been arguing with his left foot for years now, wrestling with its stubbornness. It has a mind of its own some days. Sosa came up with this toe-tapping method of striding into the ball when he was just a boy, swinging at a dingy balled-up sock on the dirt fields of San Pedro de Macoris, a coastal city of 213,000 in the Dominican Republic. Sosa's life story can be told using this toe tap -- his rise from poverty, his ascent to stardom with the Chicago Cubs, his fall from grace, and now his chance at redemption with his new team, the Orioles, who open the season today against the Oakland Athletics.

In his youth, when all he wanted was to use baseball to feed his family, this toe tap helped him stay patient, prevented him from being too eager. But later in his career, with his muscles starting to slow, it has also made him too patient, leaving him unable to catch up to the fastest of fastballs. He will tinker with it, tweak it and study it until the day he retires, it seems. Because in baseball, and in life, timing is everything.

On this brisk Florida morning, outside a batting cage in the Orioles' spring training complex, Sammy Sosa is once again fighting overeagerness.

"Temprano! Temprano! Temprano!" says Sosa, shaking his head in the direction of teammate Miguel Tejada, a fellow Dominican. Early. I'm swinging too early.

It's odd, at first, seeing Sosa like this. Surreal even, but difficult to pin down why that is, exactly. Is it Sosa who looks out of place, or is it the orange-and-black uniform he has been wearing since Feb. 2, the day he was traded to the Orioles?

Maybe it's both, when you think about it.

Even though the transient nature of modern sports produces fresh scenes like this every few years -- think Michael Jordan in a Washington Wizards jersey, Joe Montana in a Kansas City Chiefs helmet and Willie Mays in a New York Mets uniform -- it never gets any easier watching the stars of yesterday try to begin anew after false retirements, salary disputes and messy divorces force them to leave behind the cities that first embraced them. And as much as the athletes often want to move on, it's never that simple.

"That door is closed," Sosa says, standing next to his locker. A polite conversation has suddenly turned tense after several questions about Chicago. There is anger in Sosa's voice. Weariness too. "It's closed. OK, guy?"

Some doors, though, can never be completely shut.

Sammy Sosa, in the fans' hearts and minds, will likely always be a Chicago Cub, no matter what happens next. His role in the Great Home Run Chase of 1998, despite the questions and doubts we have about it now, guarantees that. He is, like Mark McGwire, a major character in a small chapter of American history, for better or worse. Congressional hearings and gossipy, ghostwritten memoirs can taint our recollections of that summer, but they cannot erase the emotions Sosa helped stir up. Close your eyes years from now, and the Sosa you first imagine will likely be the one in a blue and white uniform with a red "C" stitched to his chest, the guy blowing kisses to his mother and his God, smiling as he trots around the bases.

It's hard, as a result, to imagine this season with the Orioles being anything more than a footnote attached to Sosa's legacy, but for all the unanswerable questions this spring, one thing is obvious: Sosa and the Orioles need each other badly right now. Both have taken a major credibility hit in recent years, and both find themselves on the defensive these days.

Sosa, who hit 66 home runs in 1998 and batted .308 that year to win the National League Most Valuable Player award, is one of only two everyday players in baseball -- the other being Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees -- whose home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and total bases have declined each of the past three years.

In 2003, he was suspended seven games for using a corked bat during a game, and early last month, he was one of several baseball players subpoenaed to testify before a congressional committee looking into allegations of steroid use.

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