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Sammy’s still swingin’ but no smile

Times Staff Writer

Sammy Sosa sits alone in a corner of the Texas Rangers’ spacious spring training clubhouse and stares at the floor.

Gone is the entourage that followed him around Chicago and Baltimore and, for one unforgettable day, up Capitol Hill. Gone too is the boom box that rattled nerves and windows during Sosa’s 13 record-setting seasons with the Cubs.

But perhaps the most noticeable thing missing from Sosa this spring is the ear-to-ear smile and infectious enthusiasm that charmed a nation during his now-infamous home run race with Mark McGwire in 1998.

Smiling Sammy is now Sullen Sammy.

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“I’m happy,” he insists, staring at the floor, his voice barely a whisper. "[But] I don’t want to bring nothing up from the past or something like that.”

The past, however, follows Sosa everywhere. Allegations of steroid use have dogged him since 1998, when he hit 66 homers, the first of three 60-homer seasons in a four-year span. And though the allegations have never been proven, Sosa’s carefully worded testimony before Congress two years ago stopped short of denial and did little to quiet the rumors and innuendo.

“I don’t even want to go there,” Sosa murmurs when the subject is broached.

Yet it’s the past that has brought Sosa to the present. Frustrated, beaten down and mentally exhausted, Sosa was hitting only .221 with as many strikeouts as hits when he quit baseball a year and a half ago, less than six months after his appearance on Capitol Hill.

That wasn’t the way he wanted to go out, though, so he showed up at Rangers camp this spring, a nonroster player with Hall of Fame credentials, determined to write a better ending.

“I gave him the benefit of the doubt. That he was going to come back with something to prove,” teammate Brad Wilkerson said of Sosa, who needs only 12 homers to become the fifth man in history to reach 600. “He wasn’t going to come back just to try to play again. He wanted to come back and he wanted to have fun and go out of the game in the right way.”

And so far, he appears to be doing just that. When the Rangers broke camp last week, Sosa was hitting .404 and ranked among the American League’s spring training leaders in slugging percentage (.809), home runs (five) and RBIs (15). And if Sosa, expected to be the Rangers’ regular designated hitter and a part-time outfielder, plays in tonight’s season opener against the Angels, it will mark his first big league game since Aug. 25, 2005.

“He’s a proud man. And he wants to come back and prove that he can still hit a baseball,” said Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who has known Sosa since shortly after the player first signed with Texas as a skinny 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic 22 years ago.

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And Jaramillo has been instrumental in Sosa’s comeback, first convincing the Rangers he was worth taking a chance on, then helping rebuild his swing this spring.

“We’re not trying to make him the old Sammy Sosa. All we’re trying to do is get whatever’s [left] in there. And there’s plenty left,” Jaramillo said. “But when you look at this swing ... he was lost in Baltimore when I saw him there in ’05. And that’s what I’ve helped him with.”

Sosa’s swing had become long and he was jumping at the ball, so the Rangers worked on rebuilding his mechanics and timing from the bottom up. And Sosa, 38, proved a willing pupil.

“It takes a man in this game to admit that he lost his confidence because he lost the mechanics,” Jaramillo said. “And that’s exactly what happens. When you lose your mechanics and your feel for hitting, you’re not going to hit. So obviously your confidence goes down with it.

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“There’s a lot of people in this world that are jealous of Sammy Sosa. I’m just trying to help him prove these people wrong.”

If Sosa winds up feeling vindicated, though, just don’t ask him if he’s surprised by his spring success.

“I never expected any less. Because I worked for this,” he said sternly. “People who don’t know me, they probably [expected] something else. [But] I practiced for this. I was prepared. I’ve been doing that all my life. It’s not the first time.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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