When Sosa's bat splintered into several pieces in the first inning, the fan and news media reaction was swift, fierce and unforgiving. Skip Bayless, a former columnist at the Tribune, called Sosa "the biggest phony I have encountered in any sport" and gleefully declared that "an all-time great con artist has been exposed." Sosa served a seven-game suspension.
"I called him, and I asked him, `What happened?'" Mireya Sosa says. "He said, `Mami, it was a mistake [that it was a batting practice bat], and I'm telling you the truth. Now I have to fix the mistake. I was born a man, and now I will face this as a man.'"
All the booing began to have a cumulative effect during last season, and tensions ran high when Sosa, by all accounts, acted like a diva while his production decreased considerably. He missed a month of the season with back spasms, an injury that was brought on by two famous sneezes in the clubhouse. His relationship with the news media worsened, and he eventually stopped speaking to the Cubs' public relations people entirely. He made a habit of skipping Cubs' fan functions after promising to attend.
Wojciechowski, who spent 2004 following the team for his recently published book Cubs Nation, says Sosa's boorish behavior finally angered so many people within the organization, they were no longer willing to defend him or protect him.
Sosa and manager Dusty Baker spent much of the season at odds, and near the end, Sosa began to believe Baker was blaming him for the team's failure to make the playoffs. He hit 35 home runs despite playing in only 126 games, but batted just .233 after the All-Star break, and refused to make adjustments in his batting stance.
"There's a lot to like about Sammy Sosa, but there's also a lot to despise," Wojciechowski says. "I've spoken to numerous folks inside the organization who did not always paint a flattering picture of Sammy. Some of it was just the way he treated support staff members. Let's just say Sosa's public persona and clubhouse persona were not always one and the same."
The final straw came on the last day of the season, when Sosa, who had the day off, showed up in the clubhouse just minutes before game time. The team had already been eliminated from the race for the playoffs, but there was still a game to be played against the Atlanta Braves, like it or not. Sosa obviously felt differently. Fifteen minutes after the first pitch, he climbed into his car and left.
Sosa later told reporters he had stayed until the seventh inning, but the Cubs were so fed up with him, they let it leak that Sosa could clearly be seen on the security cameras leaving the players' parking lot 15 minutes after the Cubs took the field.
"You really had to be there that last day to see the anger and betrayal on his teammates' faces," Wojciechowski says.
Late that afternoon, when the last news media member finally decided to go home, one of the Sosa's teammates took his beloved boom box -- the one that he used to blast salsa music with little regard for anyone else's eardrums -- and smashed it into thousands of pieces.
"I don't really care," Sosa told reporters this spring when asked about the incident. "You know why? Because when the man is not in the house, the chickens are jumping around."
The Cubs, 2,000 miles away in Arizona, had no interest in firing back. "It's a fresh start for everybody, fresh start for us," Baker says. "Sometimes change is good for everybody. ... Some of the things that were done here, weren't deserved by anybody. Sometimes you try to be a man about things and move on. I hope he has a good year over there."
Finding his rhythm
He's in the batting cage again, fighting his left foot less now, finding a rhythm to his movements. He is not the man he used to be, but it's obvious that, when he feels comfortable, Sammy Sosa can drive the ball farther and with more power than any man here. After batting practice, he signs autographs for several minutes, most of them on pictures of himself in a Cubs uniform. He stares at the images of his past with indifference. He is an Oriole now, for better or worse.
Malone, for one, chooses to believe it will be for the better.
"Baltimore and San Pedro de Macoris are not that different, really," Malone says. "They're both coastal towns, not far from the beach and the sea. Just the very fact that he can go drive to the bay and take a deep breath, I think, will help him clear his head.
"That," Malone adds, "is almost like being home."
Sun staff writers Don Markus and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.