In his first news conference of spring training, Sammy Sosa ducked a question about Mark McGwire like a fastball thrown at his head. "I don't have anything...

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — In his first news conference of spring training, Sammy Sosa ducked a question about Mark McGwire like a fastball thrown at his head.

“I don’t have anything to say about that,” Sosa said. “I like Mark McGwire. He’s a good friend of mine, but I don’t want to talk about that.”

No doubt it is a touchy subject. But there is also little doubt that Sosa was paying attention this winter when the Hall of Fame voting results were announced.

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This was the first test case of a player with both obvious Hall of Fame credentials and who had been strongly linked to baseball’s ongoing steroids scandal. In McGwire’s case, the issue of steroids apparently far outweighed his impressive offensive number in the minds of the voters — he received just 23.5 percent of the vote.

That must have been a shock to Sosa, who has been linked with McGwire since their sensational 1998 season when they both chased after Roger Maris’ season home-run record. They were also side by side at a congressional hearing two years ago when a committee was looking into the use of steroids in baseball.

If not for the shadow of steroids, Sosa, too, would have obvious Hall of Fame credentials. So one can’t help wonder if Sosa’s comeback this season with the Texas Rangers is motivated by the desire to remove any taint that lingers about his career and prove once and for all that he is a deserving Hall candidate.

“I still think I have a lot left in me,” said Sosa, who last played for the Baltimore Orioles in 2005 before sitting out the 2006 season. “My mind is clear and my body is in great shape. I still think I can play another three or four years. I still think I can hit 700 home runs.”

He enters the season with 588 home runs, the fifth most in major-league history. Throw in 1,575 runs batted in, an MVP trophy and career slugging percentage of .537 that is the 40th best all-time, and Sosa’s Hall of Fame résumé is pretty impressive.

But, just as Mariners fans wonder what the future holds for Ichiro and Mike Hargrove, the final chapters of Sosa’s career are still unwritten and nobody is quite sure of his place in baseball history.

The Rangers aren’t really worried about that. They’re not too concerned about Hall of Fame elections or where baseball historians like Bill James will rank Sosa among the all-time greats when it’s all over.

What they need is a big bat in the middle of the lineup. In looking over the possible candidates off the free-agent list this winter, they decided Sosa was the best choice at the best price.

The ante is a $500,000 base salary, and even if Sosa duplicates his magical 1998 season — a dubious proposition at best — it’s only going to cost them about $3 million once the incentives are added up.

“This is about giving a second chance to a guy who has given much to the game and has been a great ambassador to the game,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “Sammy Sosa is a great player. I know there are going to be some distractions, but to me there is very little risk and a chance for great reward.”

The Rangers need him. They have a reputation for being a great offensive team, but their lineup has taken some big hits over the past couple of years. They traded Alfonso Soriano after the 2005 season and Brad Wilkerson hardly made up for his loss. Then last winter, they lost Carlos Lee, Gary Matthews Jr. and Mark DeRosa to free agency.

The Rangers hope adding Kenny Lofton and Frank Catalanotto to the top of the lineup will add a different dimension to an offense that had relied more on pure power. But there is still something to be said for a power bat, and the Rangers really didn’t have anybody for the fifth spot until adding Sosa as the designated hitter.

Sosa hit just .221 with 14 home runs and 45 RBI in 380 at-bats for the Orioles in 2005, and that’s not going to work in the fifth spot in anybody’s lineup. In fact, the Orioles were in the process of dropping Sosa in the order when a foot injury ended his season.

“There’s no doubt in my mind he can still hit,” said Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who pushed for the club to sign Sosa. “You can see the bat speed is still there. I think if you look back when he was with the Orioles, he was really messed up mechanically. But every once in a while he was right, and you could see that he still had it.”

If he does, it will obviously be a huge boost to the Rangers’ lineup. So far, they like what they see.

“I still believe he still has it,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “Until he proves me wrong, I’m a big Sammy Sosa fan.”

T.R. Sullivan covers the Rangers for

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