Humbled opinion

Sammy Sosa is just fine with lack of fanfare around his chase for 600

June 14, 2007|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Pittsburgh -- Sammy Sosa has been on history's doorstep before.

In 1998, as a beloved right fielder for the Chicago Cubs, Sosa and St. Louis Cardinals behemoth Mark McGwire set the baseball world aflutter with the single-season home run chase.

Then, in 2001, Sosa became the first major league player to hit 60 or more home runs in three separate seasons.

There has been infamy, too. As in 2003, when he was suspended seven games for using a corked bat. Or in 2005, his first and only season with the Orioles, when he told a congressional committee that his lack of command of English prevented him from answering pointed questions about performance-enhancing drugs.

Now, two years and one sabbatical later, Sosa, the Texas Rangers' starting designated hitter, again is about to make baseball history. He has 598 home runs, two shy of joining Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays in the exclusive 600-homer club.

Unlike past heroics, however, Sosa's current historic march is going largely unnoticed. No flashbulbs flickering at every swing. No fans perched in left field waiting to catch a valuable ball. No throng of media hanging on every word.

Sosa, who once guzzled the spotlight, seems indifferent about the lack of attention.

"I'm OK," he said. "I am happy the way it is; everything is fine."

In fact, he has been such a model citizen, so quiet in the clubhouse, that Rangers manager Ron Washington said, "If [stadium announcers] didn't say, `Batting is Sammy Sosa,' you wouldn't know he was around."

Indeed, Sosa was subdued and self-deprecating during an interview Tuesday in the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park, where his Rangers are playing the Pittsburgh Pirates in an inter- league series.

At least until the subject of his legacy was mentioned.

He tersely said, "It doesn't bother me," when questioned about no longer being one of Major League Baseball's marketing darlings. But when asked whether he thought his baseball legacy was tainted by allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs - claims made by former major leaguer Jose Canseco, among others - or by his silence before the congressional committee, Sosa bristled, his easy smile turning to a scowl.

He refused to address specifics, but said, "Whatever comments people want to make about me, as long as it doesn't touch me and my family, I'm all right."

Otherwise, Sosa was accommodating, joking about his early 2007 performance, which included 10 home runs in the season's first six weeks, but none since May 22. Despite the recent power drought, he still leads the Rangers in RBIs with 46.

"I am not what I wanted to be, but I guess I am OK," he said playfully. "I'm not so bad."

He also took responsibility for his disastrous 2005 in Baltimore, where the Cubs jettisoned him for Jerry Hairston Jr. and two minor leaguers. Sosa started out solidly for the Orioles - four homers and a .269 average in his first 27 games - before going on the disabled list with a staph infection in his foot. He returned two weeks later, but struggled thereafter, finishing with a .221 average and 14 homers.

The foot problem lingered, he said, but the main problem wasn't physical.

"When I was in Baltimore ... I wasn't ready mentally. Sometimes, when in your mind you don't feel great, a lot of things can happen."

He said there was one Baltimore incident that was particularly deflating, but he wouldn't reveal specifics. At that season's end, he didn't know whether he wanted to play baseball again. When he was offered only a minor league deal and spring invitation from the Washington Nationals in 2006, he temporarily retired.

"I took that year off, and it is something I felt great about," Sosa said. "Hanging out with my kids and my family, they were there for me."

After working out for the Rangers this winter, he signed a $500,000 contract with $2.2 million in incentives - a fraction of his $17 million salary in 2005.

"We were looking for a big bat," Washington said. "I watched him take batting practice and I saw the bat speed. And I am a good judge of character and I trust my baseball instincts."

So far, Washington said Sosa has demonstrated none of the tendencies - being standoffish or downright rude - that alienated teammates and gained him a prima donna reputation in Chicago and Baltimore.

"I wasn't concerned about that, because he was getting an opportunity that no one else wanted to give to him," Washington said. "Sometimes in life, you get humbled, and Sammy has been very humbled."

Consequently, he has fit in well with the Rangers.

"He has been great. He really has," said Hairston, who is with Texas and has a locker next to the player he was traded for in 2005. "Guys change, too. That's a good thing about life. You have a chance to change. And that year away ... really ignited his passion for baseball."

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