Oriole fans are falling out of love with Sosa

Performance: He's not misbehaving, but neither is he hitting home runs.

July 12, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

With a steady hand, Natalie Clemens took several colored markers and, as her father's car barreled down the highway toward Camden Yards, she pulled out a piece of poster-sized tag board and wrote a message to a man she adores but has never met.

THE SAMMY SOSA SLUMP STOPPER, read the sign when she was finished, in the careful, elegant script one would expect from a 12-year-old girl. Natalie, however, had cleverly replaced the letter "O" in STOPPER with a red octagonal stop sign.

"I just really love Sammy Sosa and wanted to support him," said Natalie, who traveled with her father, Mike Clemens, from Easton to watch the Orioles play the Cleveland Indians two weeks ago. For nine innings, she held up her sign, her blond hair tucked inside a backward cap.

It's a shame, for Sammy Sosa's sake, that there are not more Natalie Clemenses coming to the ballpark these days, supporting the Oriole through what can probably be described as the worst slump of his career.

Instead, Sosa has been hearing plenty of jeers lately, especially during a recent stretch (since broken) when he failed to drive in a run for 12 consecutive games. It was the longest RBI drought for Sosa in 13 years; the booing seemed to grow louder with each weak ground ball he hit with men on base.

With half the season now gone, the honeymoon is clearly over, and plenty of Orioles fans now look at Sosa and are already daydreaming of divorce. Not because he's been disruptive or selfish - two charges levied against him often near the end of his career with the Cubs - but because he's simply not the player he used to be.

He strikes out a lot, rarely drives the ball with power when he does make contact, and, until recently, he seemed to have a knack for rally-killing.

Hitting zero homers

At the moment, Sosa is hitting just .225 with 27 RBIs and nine home runs, but he has hit zero homers since going deep against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 18.

"You almost want to see anyone on the Orioles besides him come up to bat with runners in scoring position when you need a big hit," Orioles fan Marty Spears said at a recent game.

"And that's pathetic to have to say that about a guy who's been your cleanup hitter most of the season. Nobody hates Sammy Sosa; they just hate the fact that he doesn't produce."

The discontent with Sosa isn't just vocal. When it comes to bringing home memorabilia from the ballpark, fans are speaking with their wallets, too.

"We're not selling very many of his jerseys," said Perry Williams, who has run a souvenir stand outside Camden Yards for nine years. "Certainly less lately, that's for sure. People mostly want to buy [Miguel] Tejada and [Brian] Roberts jerseys."

During Sosa's heyday in Chicago, though, fans loaded up on No. 21 jerseys and cheered practically his every move.

"In '98 and for a while leading up to '98, he was like a cartoon character. He could do no wrong," said Dan McGrath, associate managing editor for sports at the Chicago Tribune. "Michael Jordan, Walter Payton and Sammy Sosa were the three most popular athletes in Chicago history."

Buck Oberhansly, a bartender at Murphy's Bleachers, across the street from Chicago's Wrigley Field, said: "They loved him for a long time, but they got bitter towards the end. People used to love Sammy, but then they started calling him a bum. They got sick of his antics."

Nearly every professional athlete who is traded or signs with a new team, regardless of age or status, experiences what usually is described as a "honeymoon period" with the fans in his new city. Sosa was no different.

Whatever grievances Cubs fans had against him seemed, for the most part, irrelevant once he arrived in Baltimore.

Sosa blew kisses to the crowd, and the crowd responded by erupting with applause when he sprinted out to his position in right field with boyish enthusiasm.

But now, after his first-half struggles, clearly part of what has hurt Sosa with the fans in Baltimore is the perception that the Orioles are paying him to perform as though he were still the player who hit 66 home runs in 1998 and won the National League MVP.

It's true that Sosa will receive more than $17.8 million this year for playing baseball, but the Cubs are still responsible for $8.15 million of that salary under the agreement reached by the Orioles and Chicago. (The Cubs also agreed to pay Sosa $8 million for waiving a no-trade clause in his contract.)

But for die-hard fans like Spears - who took the time to explain Sosa's salary situation to his two friends while they watched a game from the bleachers in left field - Sosa's disappointing first half is only more fuel for the frustration and anger they feel toward the Orioles organization as a whole.

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