Trying to throw a curve at Father Time

The Baltimore Sun

A year ago, one of baseball's most prolific home run hitters decided he'd rather quit playing than lower himself to accepting a minor league contract.

Later this month, Sammy Sosa will report to spring training with the Texas Rangers because he would rather accept a minor league contract than quit playing.

Sosa, 38, reportedly will earn $500,000 if he makes the Opening Day roster, plus an additional $2 million if he meets all his incentives. He's 12 home runs shy of 600 for his career, which seemed as out of reach during his one season with the Orioles in 2005 as the balls he once launched into upper decks throughout the majors.

He's hardly the first player to attempt a comeback after taking a year or more off, but the result is often the same. Wine gets better with age as it's stored. Athletes usually do not.

"He's a phenomenal athlete with a terrific mind-set," said Orioles bench coach Tom Trebelhorn, Sosa's manager with the Chicago Cubs in 1994. "He's mentally tough. But I'd be very surprised if he could come back and make a major league ballclub. I wouldn't bet on it."

Said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer: "He's going to have to prove that he can still play. That's a challenge from year to year. And one of the hardest things for anybody to do as you get older is, you know what you have to do, but can you still do it? And if you're not able to, are you able to relax so you can maximize whatever abilities you have?"

Palmer knows a thing or two about returns, having attempted one in 1991 at 45.

Phil Wood, a longtime local radio personality and baseball historian, draws comparisons between Sosa and Curt Flood, who sat out the 1970 season while challenging Major League Baseball's reserve clause that bound players to teams - eventually leading to the advent of free agency. Flood batted .285 with 31 doubles in his final season with the St. Louis Cardinals, then resurfaced in 1971 with the Washington Senators as a shell of his former self at age 33.

A career .293 hitter in 15 seasons, he batted .200 with no doubles and two RBIs in 13 games.

Said Flood's son, Curt Flood Jr.: "Personally, and for what it is worth, I believe his return to baseball was unsuccessful because the game had broken his heart irreparably, and it was never completely made whole again. And, unfortunately, he could not move past it."

Said Wood: "Flood was younger than Sosa is, in his early 30s, but when he came back, he had just lost everything. He couldn't run, he couldn't field, he couldn't throw, he couldn't hit. His skills were gone in one year.

"I don't know what Sosa's been doing for the past year. Maybe he's been working out. But I look at Flood and I look at Sosa, and if Flood couldn't do anything at a younger age, how can Sosa?"

Former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson said he was going to contact Sosa, who batted .221 with 14 homers in 2005, and encourage him to return.

"I never thought his skills had eroded," said Anderson, whose playing career ended when the San Diego Padres released him from Triple-A Portland in 2003. "The way he's doing it now is the right way. He took a year off to clear his mind and rest his body. I think Sammy will hit 30 home runs."

Wartime breaks

During times of war, some of baseball's all-time greats - Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg among them - interrupted their careers to serve in the military. DiMaggio batted .300 four times in six seasons after returning, and had 39 homers and 155 RBIs in 1948. Williams played 15 more seasons and finished with a .344 career average. Feller pitched for 12 more years and made four All-Star teams. Greenberg totaled 44 homers and 127 RBIs in 1946.

Others have tried to come back after being sidelined by injury. Tony Conigliaro's left cheekbone was shattered by a fastball from Jack Hamilton on Aug. 18, 1967, and he missed the next season. Returning to the Boston Red Sox, he produced 20 homers and 82 RBIs in 1969 and 36 homers and 116 RBIs in 1970, but as his vision worsened, so did his numbers. Conigliaro tried to play again in 1975 after a three-year absence, but gave up after 21 games with his average at .123, done as a player at 30.

The Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals released pitcher Dave Stieb in 1993, but he signed with his original team, the Toronto Blue Jays, five years later and went 1-2 with a 4.83 ERA in 19 games.

"Stieb had one of the dirtiest slider-curveballs ever," Anderson said. "Not many guys could make a ball do what he could. We faced him when he came back. He was still good, but his velocity wasn't what it used to be."

Former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1984, walked away from the game before the 1995 season to spend more time at home. He came back in '96 and hit .244 with 25 homers - 11 more than his previous two active seasons combined - and 92 RBIs. Sandberg played one more season and retired for the second time.

"He had professional and personal situations that didn't allow him to devote himself to the game with the passion he once had," said Trebelborn, who also managed Sandberg in Chicago.

"He made a very difficult decision, for the best interest of his family and the ballclub. I thought it was very courageous."

'Hard on the body'

Former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Jose Rijo underwent six surgeries on his right elbow before returning in 2001, six years after his retirement, and going 5-4 in 44 games in his reincarnation.

What put him back in uniform? "The faith that I have in God and in myself and the hunger I had to play again," Rijo, now a special assistant to Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, said from the Dominican Republic.

"It was hard on the body. It's all physical pain. Your mind is trying to do something it used to do before and it came so easily, but it's not as easy anymore and you start to think about it too much."

Rijo's extended absence looks like grade-school tardiness compared to Paul Schreiber, who pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1922 and 1923, served in the military and appeared in two games for the New York Yankees in 1945 - a gap that is unrivaled in baseball history.

Another pitcher, Walt Masterson, retired with the Senators after the 1953 season, then came back in '56 with the Detroit Tigers. A two-time All-Star, Masterson was coaxed into returning by Bucky Harris, who managed Washington before taking the Tigers' job.

"As the story goes, Masterson retired to become a shoe salesman," Wood said.

"Then in '56," Wood said, "Bucky called him up and said, 'I need another right-hander in the bullpen. How about coming back?' "

Palmer was broadcasting baseball for ESPN when the network's threat of a pay cut led to his comeback with the Orioles. He began throwing in December 1990 and reported to spring training in 1991 -one year after being voted into the Hall of Fame and seven years after retiring.

"What do you have to lose by trying?" Palmer asked.

His comeback was cut short when he tore his right hamstring while warming up before his first exhibition game.

"I thought the vast majority of fans were very receptive to it," he said. "They wanted to see if I could do it. Sometimes, you have to take risks. I think for most players, it's like, do you miss the money? Yes. Do you miss the adulation? Yes. Do you miss the camaraderie? Yes. What's wrong with trying to recapture that?"

Sosa most likely would agree. But desire isn't always enough. It can drive a person forward, but it can't turn back the clock.

"Your mind is telling you one thing and your body is telling you another," Rijo said. "Your body always tells the truth. If you listen to your mind, you'd never retire."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

Three Comeback attempts that worked ...

John Hiller, 29, LHP, Detroit Tigers Missed the '71 season after suffering a heart attack. Played nine more years and made the All-Star team in '74.

Chris Carpenter, 29, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals Missed the '03 season with an arm injury, but won the Cy Young Award two years later. He's still active.

Ryne Sandberg, 36, 2B, Chicago Cubs Left the Cubs before the 1995 season because of personal and professional issues, but totaled 25 homers and 92 RBIs in '96. He played one more season.

... and Three that didn't

Tony Conigliaro, 30, OF, Boston Red Sox Didn't play from 1972 to '74 after his left cheekbone was shattered in '67, leading to blurred vision. He re-signed with Boston in '75 but retired after 21 games with his average at .123.

Curt Flood, 33, OF, Washington Senators Sat out the '70 season while challenging baseball's reserve clause. He hit .200 in 13 games in '71 before retiring.

Jim Palmer, 45, RHP, Orioles Retired for six seasons, Palmer tried to come back in '91 but didn't make it through spring training. He tore his right hamstring while warming up before the first exhibition game, pitched two innings and quit.

[ROCH KUBATKO]

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