SURPRISE, Ariz. – We can't really be sure where Sammy Sosa was for the past year and a half.
But, we know where he's been.
He left baseball a grim man, tortured by a slow bat, tactical confusion and immovable pride, the gathering symptoms of the hitter's mortality. He was 36, pushed by age and deteriorating reflexes into the far corner of the batters' box, and still unable to defend his strike zone. He was damaged and beaten.
His career lived and, we thought, died in the fumes of the game's noxious underground, then swept away with those accused but not charged, those presumed guilty but not tagged.
It was just as well. His skills were gone. He'd done what he'd come to do, to rush the great single-season home-run record and close in on 600 career home runs and make tens of millions of dollars for it. He did not leave a hero, not to most, to whom it was simply good enough that he'd thrilled them for a short period and then left quietly.
Now here he is, back in the on-deck circle, tapping his helmet twice, tapping his thigh twice, refastening his gloves, jacking himself up for another at-bat. He'd traveled, he said. He'd taken his kid to school. He'd hung around home in the Dominican Republic. Then he'd decided to play ball, and that he'd accept a minor-league agreement to do it.
It's March 11, three weeks from opening day, and Sammy Sosa is batting .476 for the Texas Rangers.
Even then, there is one person in the world who is sure, absolutely convinced, this will work. Fortunately for Sosa, it's Sosa.
He said he feels, "Great. Ready to kill somebody. I feel great."
If the scoreboard was to be believed Sunday afternoon, when the Rangers played the Los Angeles Angels in an exhibition game, that was a 94-mph fastball Sosa squared in the second inning, lining a single to left field.
Maybe it's happening. It sure looks like it's happening. Maybe Sosa, at 38½, is going to play again, and hit again, and get those 12 home runs for 600 and more, and help the Rangers win.
"That was 94?" Sosa said, laughing. "I feel so good, I thought it was 80. Naw, don't put that in there."
He meant no disrespect to the kid who threw it. He was simply pumping his fists again, thumping his chest again, and willing to believe in old friend and Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo.
"I just experienced a different thing," Sosa said. "I'm like, wow, it's time for me to go back. Because I was OK here."
He jabbed at his temples with two fingers and continued, "As long as you're OK here, you can come back to anyplace you want. Here makes everything work. A lot of people doubted I would come back. That I would [come back] and look [bad]. But…"
He was deep into his 30s. He'd been accused by Jose Canseco of taking steroids. He'd been traded away by the Chicago Cubs. He'd been hauled into a congressional hearing. As predictable career arcs go, few were surprised when he'd then lost his swing, followed by his confidence, followed by his place in the game. Those arcs are often terminal.
"When I left Chicago, there was a lot of – not controversy – but a lot of rumors, people saying some negative things about me," he said. "And then I went to Baltimore and wasn't able to put the numbers that I'm used to. My mind was all over the place. When I went to the plate I was without a plan, be there guessing, be late on some fastballs. A lot of people take that like he's finished. So, I take a year off, come back now, come on, let's go."
Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, is familiar with the baseball premise that says careers and comebacks are not made in March or September, and generally believes it. In Sosa's case, however, he said, "The tough thing is all you've got is March." In fact, Sosa's contract contains a clause that allows him to request his release if he is not added to the Rangers' 40-man roster by Thursday.
He called it, "An interesting situation. There's not a lot of parallels to look back on."
But, you know, .476 is .476. And Sosa has run hard, played where and when they've wanted him to, been only too agreeable.
"He's played well," Daniels said. "The power is still there. The bat speed is there. … I'm not ready to make the decision, but so far, so good. … It's almost been exclusively positive."
That, apparently, was Sosa's plan. He looks big through his shoulders and chest again, closer to his days in Chicago than those in Baltimore. He took the field Saturday with somewhat subdued enthusiasm – for him – but still stopped to hug first-base umpire Brian Runge. And then he looked good in three at-bats, hitting the ball hard twice.
In his corner of the clubhouse, gathering belongings and leaning toward the door, Sosa was no longer the dour figure he was at the end of his first career. He laughed. He smiled. He met others' eyes with his own.
"I have a plan because I've been working every day," he said. "I have my stuff down. Just that. You see, you know about baseball, if I had felt terrible you guys would have known right away."
Yes, he was told, and that's why we were so sure he was done before.
"So what are they thinking now?" he asked.
Not done, maybe. Possibly, maybe, wouldn't-bet-my-life-on-it-but-potentially not done.
"OK!" he cried, clapping his hands. "Put that in there. Put that in there. 'I see him, he looked good, he's happy, his hands are there, he's going to prove a lot of people wrong.' "
- Sammy Sosa