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Play it again, Sammy

Tim Brown
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MESA, Ariz. – Just checked and, yep, Sammy Sosa is still hitting. And, yep, it's still March.

Sosa's new club and bestest friends, the Texas Rangers, played the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday afternoon, setting up Sosa against the Cubs and in the lineup for the first time since he was dumped on the Baltimore Orioles and his career came completely apart.

He arrived at HoHoKam Park, a little piece of Chicago except without the ubiquitous despair (it's spring), a short time after most of his teammates. He batted fifth, played right field, had a nice chat and shared a handshake with Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry, and heard more than a few boos, but nothing soul-wrenching.

Sosa hit behind Mark Teixeira and in front of Hank Blalock, which is about where you can expect to find him come April 2. This is still unclear to Blalock, who in the first inning stood in the on-deck circle behind Teixeira until Sosa dragged him back with a smile and a gentle tug.

"I was like, 'Hey!'" Sosa said later.

Rangers Manager Ron Washington had asked Sosa specifically if he wanted to make this trip from Surprise, not because of some arduous bus ride and not because Sosa would even be on the bus, but because of what Sosa might have to endure from his formerly fawning fan base.

"His comment was, 'A lot of people in Chicago love me,'" Washington recalled. "There are also some who hate him, but he doesn't care. … He wanted to be here."

Yeah, one demon at a time.

So, Sammy was back, along with his biceps. He had an infield single in three at-bats, was a touch over-eager at the plate, and saw a lot of outside sliders from the right-handers, because he still could be vulnerable out there. Scouts also see him cheating on the fastball, which might not work in the regular season, but looks great in spring.

"I'm being myself," he said. "I'm hacking."

Later, he admitted, "I'm not going to be Superman."

The last Cubs fans had seen him this close, Sosa was out in front of a team that had gone from the brink of the World Series one season to the back side of meltdown the next. Cubs management had enough of the whole act, traded him for almost nothing, then watched him wither in Baltimore and blow away into retirement.

Granted, the folks in Mesa, whether transplanted Cubs fans or vacationing Cubs fans or bought-the-cap-'cause-it-had-a-cute-bear-on-it Cubs fans, wouldn't be as discriminating as those in Chicago. But, there was a sense people have moved past the whole untidy Sosa affair, which is exactly what $300 million will buy you in Wrigleyville.

The legendary Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers woo-wooed a lot from behind home plate, high-fived the slackened hands around him, and posed for a photo with a newborn. When an elderly, ill-humored woman a few rows over finally snapped, "Would you sit down and shut up!" Woo Woo was for a moment crestfallen, then waved and responded, "I love you!" Killing her with Cubbiness.

The Cubs won and Sosa didn't do anything to ruin that, like hit a home run and make them sort of sorry he left. Afterward he said Chicago would always be in his heart, even if the Cubs have given away his No. 21, meaning retiring it would also include having Jason Marquis pick out a new one. Really, if he keeps giving up a run an inning, like he did Tuesday, that wouldn't be an impediment.

Sosa admitted it was "a little bit" strange to see his number on another Cubs' body, stranger still to have to hit against it Wednesday.

"But," he said, "I've got my 21, too. It's all right."

If this ultimately goes well – Sosa hits enough to stay in the middle of the lineup, nothing really embarrassing arises, the Rangers win a little bit – it will be because Sosa had a friend and a believer in Washington.

"I never had a single doubt from the day I first saw him," Washington said, speaking of Sosa's first workout for the club. "I trust my instincts and I trust my baseball knowledge and I believed he could help the team. I knew I was right and I knew he would help this team when I told [General Manager] Jon Daniels and our ownership I would have him. … He's still a ballplayer."

That, of course, will be determined next month, and the one after.

For now, if Sosa has any major doubts, he's keeping them to himself and challenging those who do. He's deflecting talk of 600 home runs (he's 12 away) and of his Hall-of-Fame worth (but supporting Mark McGwire's, saying, in part, "The mistake that he made, I don't have no control about it. That guy was great."), and smiling a little less, finding suspicion in the innocuous.

Asked if he felt the fans wanted him to succeed, he spun, stared the questioner in the eye and returned, "You don't want to see me do well?"

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