Sammy Sosa, Baltimore loves you more than ever.
Maybe there was a period last summer when taking on Sosa seemed like a pricey mistake. The slugger cost nearly $9 million to bring to town, which sure seemed like a good deal at the time. What did the Orioles get for that price? Fourteen homers, 45 RBIs and a .221 batting average - Sosa's worst numbers since his first season with the Cubs. Hardly a bargain.
It has taken a full year, but Orioles fans are finally starting to find some value in the Sosa signing. In fact, some area sporting apparel stores are reporting that Sosa's jerseys are selling better than they have in months.
The reason for the upsurge, though, has nothing to do with the fallen slugger.
The explanation sits in one corner of the Orioles' clubhouse. He's polite and patient at the plate, and his mere presence has charmed fans.
But it's only numerical happenstance that Nick Markakis is wearing the same jersey number that Sosa wore last year in Baltimore, No. 21.
An unscientific and random survey of area sports apparel stores revealed that some fans have been buying old Sosa jerseys from the clearance racks. They then take their purchases home and unstitch the "SOSA" lettering across the shoulders. What remains is a giant "21." Voila! An improvised Markakis jersey at a discount price.
"I wouldn't say sales have been crazy," one store manager told me. "But people have been coming in here and buying them more than they were a few months ago."
I visited a couple of stores this week, and the ones that still stock Sosa gear have marked the jerseys as low as $30, well over 50 percent off the retail price in most cases.
If you can push your way through all the Tejada and Mora jerseys, you'll find Sosa's name all over the clearance racks. One even sold on eBay yesterday for $5.50.
No one cares about Sammy, though. If they own a pair of scissors, they're looking for a cheap Markakis jersey.
His numbers aren't exactly lending credence to the juiced- ball theory, but the rookie's arrival on the big league roster was highly anticipated, to say the least. Orioles fans love homegrown talent, and they've been charting Markakis' progress since he was drafted by the organization in 2003.
He's batting just .244 but has managed to hit safely in 10 of the 12 games in which he has stepped to the plate. The numbers don't matter right now. Fans are just excited that he's here. "Markakis, will you go the prom with me?" read one sign spotted at Camden Yards yesterday.
I mentioned to Markakis how he has caused a slight spike in the sale of Sosa jerseys. He chuckled.
"Fans have been great to me so far," Markakis, 22, said. "You try to focus the best you can out there, but it's in the back of your mind.
"They're all there cheering for you."
Markakis was never on track to debut in Baltimore last season, so there was little chance Sosa's presence would've trumped the rookie for rights to No. 21. When he arrived at spring training this year, the number was available and Markakis snatched it up. It's the same number he has worn since he was playing Little League baseball.
"I was a huge Roger Clemens fan growing up," Markakis said. "I was always a pitcher, so I just kept 21 and have worn it ever since."
And it just worked out that the number had a huge vacancy sign hanging from it this spring. Sandwiched between a pair of retired numbers - Frank Robinson's No. 20 and Jim Palmer's No. 22 - No. 21 was ripe for ownership. (Recent 21s have included Jimmy Key, Charles Johnson and Mike Hargrove.)
Last season's loss is this season's gain - at least for anyone looking to save a few dollars. It's not just fans who have found a bargain, though. Markakis is out there playing for the league minimum - $327,000 - earning roughly 1/27th of what the Orioles paid Sosa last season (and 1/52nd of Sosa's total 2005 salary).
Is Markakis the answer in the outfield? Patience is the key word here. As patient as the rookie has been at the plate (doesn't he seem to take every pitcher deep into the count?), the Orioles are in no hurry to rush him along.
I'm not venturing too far on the limb when I say that he'll endure as an Oriole far more than Sosa ever could have hoped - and Markakis is less than a month into his big league career.
Sosa's biggest day under an Orioles banner came when he testified before Congress. On the field, he did little more than complain about a series of foot, toe and ankle problems. Baltimore podiatrists were the only ones who even noticed he left town.
Reminders of Sosa and his ill-fated Baltimore stopover are mostly gone now. The Sosa jerseys that remain in stores become Markakis jerseys once they hit the streets.
In the stands and on the field, No. 21 seems like a pretty good deal right now.
Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog