Sosa puts focus on the present

Chicago CubsSportsJason MarquisTexas RangersMark GraceSammy SosaBill Gates

While the ice is thawing in the long-running cold war between Mark Grace and the Cubs, and Steve Stone is back in good graces after his memorable feud with Dusty Baker and his players, Sammy Sosa remains in limbo.

The former Cubs icon, now in the fourth week of his comeback with the Texas Rangers, believes the day will come when he's welcomed back to the fold like Grace and Stone before him."All those years in Chicago, I was happy," Sosa said Friday before facing his former team for the first time. "Until the last couple of years, [when] there were some misunderstandings on a lot of stuff."

A "lot of stuff" would be a bit of an understatement.

Sosa's divorce from the Cubs was one of the ugliest splits in Chicago sports annals, triggered by his final-day walkout in 2004. In the ensuing 24 hours, a teammate smashed his boom box, the Cubs told the media they had videotape evidence of his early exit and manager Baker offered that he had "covered" for Sosa for years. General manager Jim Hendry immediately put Sosa up for trade and subsequently ate millions of dollars on his contract just to get him out of town.

Now, with everything going so well in his comeback, Sosa is in no mood to relive history.

"I don't want to bring back memories of the past," he said. "But a lot of people only heard one side of the coin."

What's the other side?

"Let's leave it right there," he said. "I've talked enough in the past. Now for me, this is a new beginning. Chicago is always going to be Chicago. All the damage is done already. They destroyed [my image], saying I left because of this, because of that. It wasn't true, but it's over. It's finished. I don't want to talk about that no more.

"I'm happy in my new organization. They gave me an opportunity probably no one else would've given me. This guy (owner Tom Hicks) stepped up to the plate. He took the risk and the chance to give me an opportunity. Now I'm making them look good. I'm looking great. Now they're looking like the Bill Gates of [baseball]."

There probably will be no reconciliation between the Cubs and Sosa as long as Hendry is in charge. Hendry was livid about the walkout.

Does Sosa care if he ever is welcomed back by the Cubs?

"Of course I care," he said. "This was the team that was my home. I spoke to [team President John] McDonough. We sent a couple of messages back and forth. Not because I was coming back playing [for the Cubs]. But when I retire, again, definitely I'd love to go back to Chicago. I'm going to go back anyway."

If he comes back soon, he will discover the Cubs have given away his number 21, after keeping it inactive for '05 and '06. Former President Andy MacPhail couldn't wait to give Grace's number 17 away after Grace's ugly exit after 2000, a story Sosa is all too familiar with. When asked if he was bothered by the Cubs giving away his number, Sosa asked who had it.

The answer is Jason Marquis, as Sosa surely knew.

"I think it's only a number, but the respect I've earned in Chicago, I think they should've kept it away," he said. "But I don't make those decisions anymore. I'm happy another good athlete represents the number. It's a pretty good number."

When Sosa last appeared in a uniform at the end of the '05 season with Baltimore, the word was he couldn't get around on a fastball. Sosa said the aftereffects of his exit from the Cubs helped bring him down.

"That was because my mechanics were not in place," he said. "I was beaten mentally. So when you have that. . . . Sometimes you pass your house five times a year and you can't even find your own house. That's how bad it was."

Now his head is clear, Sosa insisted, and the results are in his performance.

"Back here now, you can see it," he said. "People said a year ago I couldn't get the head [of the bat] out. But the head is there. It never left. I needed time for myself, to recharge my batteries."

Sosa has hit some long home runs in batting practice, but even if he still can hit the long ball, can he return to becoming a .300 hitter, as he was three out of four years from 1998-2001? Or will he be satisfied to be an all-or-nothing hitter, as he was in his last two years in Chicago.

"It's simple," he said. "It's a total ballgame. I'm hitting singles, doubles and home runs, not just home runs. I've always been a pretty good hitter. The only year that was tough for me was in Baltimore, hitting .221 (in '05).

"Why can't I hit .300? I had only one bad year. I'm human."

Sosa's average with the Cubs had a steady decline, from .329 in '01, to .288 in '02, to .279 in '03, to .253 in '04, before the "bad year" in Baltimore.

He said the departure of hitting coach Jeff Pentland after 2002 factored in, but he also blamed a "negative environment."

"I did miss Pentland," he said. "But also, there were so many things around. So much negative energy. Now it's a new beginning.

"But I don't want to get back to 1998, 1999, whatever it is. I'm happy. Everything is good. I took a year off, I'm hitting again. I'm doing good. Everything's going great, and I want to talk about going forward."

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psullivan@tribune.com

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