BALTIMORE, April 2 -- He ambled out of the dugout, cautious at first, and then took off recklessly toward the outfield at full speed, like a jet plane racing off the runway. The stadium was empty, as it should be on the first day of spring training, with only his teammates watching and laughing at such an odd sight of a baseball superstar performing his signature move with no one to admire it.
Sammy Sosa, in the middle of his sprint, raised his arm and began to point at an empty set of stands in the right field foul area. He continued his sprint until he reached right field. At that point he began to tap his chest and blow kisses to a non-existent crowd in the right field bleachers. Sosa finished, positioned himself in right field and began his first full day of practice as a Baltimore Oriole.
"Seeing myself in a new uniform has made me happy," said Sammy Sosa, in his first year with the Orioles.
(James A. Finley -- AP)
"Of course," Sosa said when asked if he would repeat the routine in Baltimore, as he did for so many years for the Chicago Cubs fans at Wrigley Field. "You know that. That's me. I got to go out there and fight and win the fans over. Go out there and make them happy. And I will make them happy."
The Orioles hope that Monday's sprint, in front of an eager capacity Opening Day crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, will begin a Sosa revival. The team is building most of its marketing campaign for 2005 around Sosa, its biggest acquisition since signing Albert Belle in 1999.
"I don't think the fans will see the magnitude until he gets out on the field and does the sprint," said Matt Dryer, senior director of public affairs and advertising for the Orioles. "When he makes that sprint, I think it's going to take off."
Already the team has placed Sosa's likeness on billboards and its mail-in ticket order forms. The Orioles also have planned two promotional nights involving Sosa: a T-shirt giveaway and a bobblehead doll night. The Orioles have also considered using Sosa in a television commercial.
"I think Sammy is such a big name," Dryer said. "Since Cal Ripken we haven't had a player of this magnitude. It is taking advantage of one of the most known players in baseball. We would have been foolish not to take advantage of that."
Sosa, 36, arrives in Baltimore at a crux in his career, on the verge of being either a faded icon or a revitalized superstar. He undoubtedly is no longer the beloved figure he was only a few years ago, when a home run hitting showdown with Mark McGwire sent both players into immediate and unparalleled superstardom.
"He was the poster boy for Major League Baseball," said Steve Rosner, partner and founder of the sports marketing firm 16W Marketing.
Sosa has since faded on and off the field. His suspension for using a corked bat in 2003 was the first hit. His testimony last month at the steroid hearing on Capitol Hill cast more doubt. While teammate Rafael Palmeiro defiantly denied using steroids, Sosa used mostly one-word answers. His lawyer read from a prepared statement.
"I don't think there's any question he's taken a hit, between the corked bat and the underwhelming testimony at the hearings," said Laurence De Garis, director of James Madison University's Center for Sports Sponsorship. "He certainly lost a lot of credibility. He was the happy-go-lucky, innocent guy. That veil of innocence has been lifted."
In an annual survey of sports marketing experts by SportsBusiness Daily to determine baseball players' marketability, Sosa is ranked 22nd. Two years ago, he was ranked third
Though his 2004 numbers were respectable, they showed perhaps he is on the decline. Sosa had not achieved such lows in batting average (.253) since 1997 and home runs (35) since 1994. Sosa, who drove in 80 runs last year, failed to reach the 100 RBI mark for the first time since 1994. Sosa said part of his decline can be directly tied to injuries. He only played in 126 games last year.
"I don't have to show the whole world who I am anymore because they know my name," Sosa said. "I have to prove to myself and not to anybody there [in Chicago]. I don't worry about what those guys say about me. I'm talking about performing here, and I know I can do it."