Sunday, April 6, 2003

Sosa put 500 behind, thinks bigger numbers

By Joe Kay
The Associated Press

CINCINNATI - George W. Bush's worst moment in his old job was a doozy. He was co-owner of the Texas Rangers in 1989 when they traded a scrawny kid named Sammy Sosa, figuring he'd never amount to much.

Bush moved on and became the 43rd president of the United States. Sosa moved on to an even more exclusive group.

Slammin' Sammy became only the 18th player to reach one of baseball's most revered marks when he touched 'em all for the 500th time on Friday night. His solo homer during a 10-9 loss to the Cincinnati Reds made him only the fifth player to get 500 homers before age 35.

Not bad for a guy traded by a future president's team.

"If he had known, he wouldn't have traded me," Sosa said.

Who knew?

Certainly not the Rangers. As a 21-year-old rookie, Sosa played in 25 games for Texas in 1989 and hit one homer - a solo shot off Boston's Roger Clemens at Fenway Park.

In retrospect, it was the perfect start to a slugger's career. At the time, it seemed an aberration. One month later, the Rangers traded him to the Chicago White Sox as part of a package for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique.

Sosa hit three homers for the White Sox that season, and 25 more the next two years before he was traded across town to the Cubs along with pitcher Ken Patterson for outfielder George Bell.

Bell finished at 265 homers. Sosa has nearly doubled him.

He bulked up, developed discipline at the plate and put together one of the most amazing home run tears in history, topping 60 three times in a four-year span. He raced Mark McGwire to the single-season mark in 1998, finishing second with 66, four back of Big Mac.

Now, he's has entered his name with the game's greatest.

"Five hundred has always been 'The Number,' " Barry Bonds said Saturday. "When you're talking about Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, all of those guys - 500 has been the number."

It was in Sosa's mind all winter because he was so close. Once he got it with a solo shot off Scott Sullivan in his 10th at-bat of the season, he celebrated briefly, then tried to move on.

He got numerous congratulatory calls Friday night and Saturday morning from commissioner Bud Selig, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and friends in the Dominican Republic.

He took batting practice bundled up Saturday - the temperature had dropped 30 degrees overnight to a brisk 44 - and went about his business as usual.

"To tell you the truth, I really don't want to think about it right now," Sosa said, before getting a single in three at-bats during a 9-7 win over the Reds. "I don't want to get caught up in 500. It's not an end in my career. I have to let it go. After the season I'm going to celebrate the way I want, but right now it's just the fourth game of the season."

His bat was shipped to baseball's Hall of Fame. The ball was still with the 22-year-old college student who caught it and wasn't sure what to do with it. The Cubs were planning a tribute with Ernie Banks - who hit 512 homers - before Monday's game at Wrigley Field.

Sosa politely turned the conversation away from all of those things, preferring to think about what's ahead.

"I'm just happy to get that out of the way," he said. "I can come back and play my game relaxed. It was just a matter of time. I'm very happy now that I don't have to go up there thinking of a home run in every at-bat.

"The whole world wanted me to hit it. 'Are you going to hit it or not? Is it going to be today or not?' Thank God it's over and now I can go out there and just be me."

Sosa, 34, is only the fifth player to reach 500 homers before his 35th birthday. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays also were 34, and Jimmie Foxx was 32 years old.

Sosa is the first player from the Dominican Republic to get to 500, a breakthrough that touched off celebrations last night in his homeland.

"I've been working so hard all my life to be what I am," Sosa said. "But I'm not going to be the only one. There's a lot of Latin players coming up."

Bonds, who is fourth on the career list with 615 and holds the season record with 73, understands why Sosa wants to avoid putting too much emphasis on his first homer of the season.

"Sammy may have one of those years," Bonds said. "Once I hit 500, you know, I boomed. So, this might have relaxed him just enough to where he might hit 80 home runs this year. You don't know.

"So, the next thing you know, Sammy has 600 in the blink of an eye."

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