The Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Texas — Sitting home in the Dominican Republic last summer without a place to play, Sammy Sosa knew he was too close to an elite mark not to come back.
Still, since being given that chance by his original team, Sosa has insisted he wanted more than the dozen home runs he needed to reach 600. He even mentioned 700 after rejoining the Texas Rangers this spring.
Now that Sosa is the fifth member of the
600-homer club after finally reaching the milestone Wednesday night against the Chicago Cubs, how many more can he hit?
“Definitely, I think it’s going to be more easy (now). I don’t have to go out there and try to hit two home runs in one at-bat,” Sosa said, without giving a specific goal. “Now I can go out there and stick with the same game plan that I have and focus.”
No. 600 was only the second homer in 22 games for Sosa, who wasn’t in the lineup for the series finale against the Cubs on Thursday afternoon — the 18th anniversary of his first career homer for the Rangers off Roger Clemens at Fenway Park in Boston.
“A lot of people doubted me, (thought) that I would probably be home by now,” Sosa said. “I’ve got to continue to put up numbers, play good and see what happens when my career ends.”
At 38 years, 220 days, Sosa was older than Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays when they hit their 600th homers. But only Ruth’s 2,044 games to reach the mark were fewer than Sosa’s 2,302.
“As long as he’s productive, he can keep on playing,” said Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, one of his former teammates. “He’s not the Sammy Sosa of 10 years ago, six, eight years ago. But he’s productive. He’s got the homers and RBIs. Any team would take that. If he can do that, he can play, simple as that.”
How many homers he hits obviously depends on how long he gets to play. After Sosa’s year out of the game, general manager Jon Daniels signed him to a one-year minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
“It just depends on JD, how many years he’s going to sign me,” Sosa said with a smile and a glance toward Daniels. “Definitely, Texas is the team that gave me the opportunity. I fit perfect here, I’m happy here. On top of that, I’m doing my job.”
While Sosa is hitting only .242 in his 62 games, he started Thursday seventh in the American League with 53 RBIs — already eight more than he had in 102 games for Baltimore in 2005.
Sosa’s induction into the 600-homer club took considerably longer than most would have thought when he was playing his last game for the Cubs in 2004 and was only 26 homers shy.
But there was that miserable year with the Orioles, when he testified before Congress about possible steroid use in baseball during spring training then hit .221 with 14 homers.
“I think that year off kind of allowed him to clear his head,” said Jerry Hairston, whose locker is by Sosa’s in the Texas clubhouse. “You really realize how great a player he still is and why he was so great in his heyday. His mind is so strong.”
Sosa is the only player with three 60-homer seasons. He hit .308 with a career-high 66 homers and 158 RBIs in his 1998 NL MVP season for Chicago the year Mark McGwire became the first major leaguer to hit 70. Sosa hit 545 of his homers and was a seven-time All-Star for the Cubs from 1992-2004.
“Look at the incredible season he had in ’98, followed by a few more. This is just a culmination of tons of great seasons,” Rangers shortstop Michael Young said. “Sammy came back and has had a really, really great first half. ... I don’t see any reason why he’d stop now.”
Texas originally signed Sosa as a 16-year-old free agent in 1985, and he was still a lanky kid when he hit his first homer. Sosa played only 25 games for Texas in 1989 before being traded to the Chicago White Sox and later to the Cubs.
Like McGwire and Bonds, Sosa has been dogged by allegations of steroid use. Sosa also was caught with a corked bat in front of his home crowd when he played for the Cubs in 2003.
Sosa has never been penalized for a positive steroids test, however, and was not involved in the BALCO scandal that has dogged Bonds, who is only seven homers shy of matching Aaron’s record mark of 755.
Before this week, Sosa had never faced the Cubs. Now he has homered against every major league team in a record 45 stadiums.
The Rangers have used Sosa as the designated hitter for 43 of his 59 starts. Manager Ron Washington has made sure to give him breaks, taking advantage of Thursday’s day game with the milestone out of the way.
“It gets rougher and rougher. It really does. It’s not easy. The DH is a big help,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “It’s like a 70-year-old guy pulling his golf clubs behind him on an uphill course. He’s feeling it after the round.”
But Slammin’ Sammy is still swinging for more.