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February 22, 2007
Standing in the Texas Rangers' clubhouse, peering at a locker with Sammy Sosa's name and No. 21 hanging above and a fresh uniform waiting inside for his arrival in Surprise, Ariz., talk somehow turned to steroids.

As the informal chat unfolded this week with a member of the Rangers' organization, we speculated on why Sosa would sit out the 2006 season but keep himself from officially retiring from baseball. He is set to meet the media Friday in a gleaming new library across the street from Surprise Stadium.

Steroids again will be a topic of conversation.

The Rangers employee reminded that of all the players -- from Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds to Miguel Tejada -- who have come under the steroid cloud, Sosa so far has escaped a direct finger from a peer pointed in his direction.

''Besides,'' the Rangers employee said, ''back then, just about everybody did them.''

''Back then'' would be Sosa's prime with the Cubs. The team that rode Sosa's coattails during the Steroid Era -- made him a WGN superstation superstar -- is eager to move on, even if Sosa's not.

When Sosa got dealt to the Baltimore Orioles -- for, among others, infielder/outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr., who is coincidentally now a member of the Rangers -- the Cubs figured they had cut ties. That was Feb. 2, 2005.

The break should've been clean, except for that pesky No. 21 tucked away somewhere at Wrigley Field.

For two years, Sosa's number remained frozen in time. Maybe no one asked for it last season or made a strong enough case to lift an icon's number out of mothballs. Pitcher Jason Marquis inquired about it when he signed with the Cubs in December.

Certainly, the Cubs thought long and hard before handing over No. 21. Marquis was the last member of the 40-man roster to have a number assigned next to his name -- the transaction officially taking place the week before spring training.

But there's Marquis at the Cubs' camp, wearing No. 21 as if it were any old number.

No one wears No. 14 anymore; that belonged to Ernie Banks. No one wears No. 26; that belonged to Billy Williams. No one wears No. 23; that belonged to Ryne Sandberg. Those three are all in the Hall of Fame. Even No. 10 is off limits, the number belonging to Ron Santo, who's not in the Hall, though he gets another shot from the veterans committee Tuesday.

The point is, there should've been a longer delay before the Cubs reissued Sosa's number.

This is not to say the Cubs had to do something White Sox-crazy like retire Sosa's number before the player retired -- as Jerry Reinsdorf ordered for Harold Baines' No. 3.

But the Cubs could've waited a little longer before sending No. 21 back out on the field.

The company line is that the Cubs won't retire another number unless that player first goes in the Hall -- as they did with Sandberg in 2005. Fair enough.

But when pitcher Ted Lilly asked about No. 31 shortly after he signed in December, he was flatly told that number will be retired when current San Diego Padres pitcher Greg Maddux gets a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y. Lilly got No. 30 instead.

Shoot, no one wore Sandberg's No. 23 after he retired in 1994. It was waiting for him when he returned in 1996. After he retired for good in 1997, Sandberg's No. 23 went untouched until the Cubs officially sent it up a flagpole a month after he was inducted into the Hall.

Something else obviously is at work when it comes to Sosa.

The Cubs can be bitter because he walked out on the final day of the 2004 season. They still can get red in the face over his corked-bat incident in 2003. The famous Sosa boombox remains fodder for laughs.

At the time, the Cubs were enablers every step of the way. It was Sammy's house because they made it so. They never blinked when WGN's cameras let Sosa go through his annoying home-run histrionics in the dugout. What wasSandberg said during his induction speech?

''If this validates anything, it's that learning how to bunt and hit-and-run and turning two is more important than knowing where to find the little red light on the dugout camera,'' Sandberg said.

He's right. Sosa grated even his own teammates, but he is a monster created by the Cubs. His celebrations were classless showmanship, but the Cubs loved it. They loved all things Sammy. Celebrated everything about him.

When he hit a home run against the Houston Astros shortly after baseball resumed in the wake of terrorist attacks in September 2001, Sosa rounded the bases at Wrigley Field carrying a small American flag. It was scripted and so was Sammy, but America loved it.

It was one of the Cubs' prouder moments.

Now they act as if Sosa was as meaningful to them as, say, Joe Borowski. They look like hypocrites.

Some have suggested Sosa never will find love on the baseball field again.

Ever hear of Frank Thomas? How about the love that eludes Bonds almost everywhere except San Francisco? If the Rangers win -- and they can in a wide-open American League West -- and Sosa plays even a small part in their success, he will find the love again.

Maybe not in Wrigleyville, where he played for the Cubs from 1992 to 2004. Probably not in Baltimore, where he spent one forgettable 2005 season with the Orioles. Certainly not on the South Side, where he played from 1989 to '91. But in Texas, with a Rangers organization that signed Sosa to his first professional contract in 1985, he is a part of the family.

If this doesn't work out and he fizzles faster than he did with the O's, then that will be it. Sosa's pride dictates that he won't embarrass himself to Rickey Henderson or Jose Canseco proportions -- playing the independent circuit and praying for a sucker to come along with a major-league contract.

No, if this doesn't work out, Sosa likely will retreat to the Dominican Republic and begin his five-year countdown to the Hall of Fame.

Then what will the Cubs do about old No. 21?