- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The pregame talk at Space Coast Stadium was how Sammy Sosa arrived to yesterday’s exhibition game between Washington and Baltimore from the Orioles’ Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spring training complex — a three-hour bus ride from Viera.

Sosa said he drove up I-95, but a witness at a nearby airport said he spotted the slugger getting off a helicopter and hopping into a Lincoln Town Car for the short ride to Space Coast Stadium. Either way, Sosa did not ride on the Orioles’ team bus with his new teammates.

“I drive, I don’t need to fly over here, I drive just like everybody else,” an irritated Sosa said in the Orioles dugout before the game. “You ask my manager [Lee Mazzilli], I drive.”

According to Travis Gier, who owns a hangar at Rockledge Airport, Sosa did not drive. Instead, he arrived in a black and silver Bell Jet Ranger helicopter at 9:05 a.m. The Rockledge Airport is about five minutes away from Space Coast Stadium. Sosa arrived at the ballpark more than an hour later at 10:20 a.m.

“I just happened to be standing there,” Gier said. “He was easily recognizable.”

Sosa, who lives in Miami, had his face plastered all over television last week when a congressional subcommittee subpoenaed him to testify on the steroids in baseball scandal.

Under oath last week on Capitol Hill, Sosa denied he used steroids. Yesterday, Sosa appeared in denial mode again over a minor transportation issue.

In the offseason, Nationals interim general manager Jim Bowden was in negotiations with the Cubs on what it would take to acquire the home run hitter. Sosa confirmed yesterday he was almost a National.

“It was close. It didn’t happen, but it was pretty close,” Sosa said.

Nationals manager Frank Robinson said the dark cloud hanging over the heads of Sosa and the other subpoenaed players could affect their performances on the field.

“Some guys are strong enough to shut it out,” Robinson said. “Other guys, it gets in their heads. I’m sure some of them will be affected. Some guys have that knack to be able to focus on the game itself and shut everything else out when they’re out there on the field. Some just want to be embraced by the fans and accepted by the fans, and when they hear the crowd with the negative stuff, that does affect some players. It depends on the player.”

Livan is ready

Nationals ace Livan Hernandez owns a World Series ring, but the right-hander is excited about starting on Opening Day and the Nationals’ home opener on April 14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“I’m excited, I can’t wait to start,” said Hernandez, who will make his sixth career Opening Day start April 4 in Philadelphia. “I can’t wait for that day. That day is going to be crazy. Remember, the season starts April 4th and Opening Day in Washington is the 14th, that’s 10 days so we need to start playing very good from the Opening Day in Philadelphia because you don’t want to lose all the games and then go home and win the first game at home.

“This [Opening Day] is a little different. There’s been no baseball in Washington for a lot of years and it’s a new team with a new name. It’s going to be amazing because it’s something everybody is waiting for that moment.”

Hernandez said he plans on keeping the baseballs from the first pitch in each game. “The first pitch, I’m going to keep it. If somebody wants to fight with me … I’m throwing the first pitch so the ball is mine.”

Castilla update

Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla remains day-to-day with a hyperextended knee. Castilla has missed six games since injuring his knee on a foul pop-up against the New York Mets on March 18. Castilla, who led the National League with 131 RBI last season, has been hitting in the batting cage and taking grounders the past two days.

“It was the same thing as yesterday. [It will be] a few more days at least,” Robinson said.

Carroll at the corner

If Castilla isn’t ready to play on Opening Day, utility infielder Jamey Carroll would get the start at third base ahead of Rule 5 draftee Tony Blanco and veteran Carlos Baerga, Robinson said yesterday.

Opening Day is “a very special day and it takes a special person to be able to handle that type of thing — value that type of excitement and the pressure,” Robinson said. “I know what [Carroll] can do and I know how he’s going to be and how he plays the position. I’m not closing the door on someone else, but I’m just saying if I had to make a decision right now and say who’s opening for Castilla, I would start Jamey Carroll.”

Minor trade

The Nationals traded minor league pitcher Seth Greisinger to the Atlanta Braves for a player to be named. Greisinger, who is from McLean and pitched at Virginia, was among the Nationals’ first round of cuts to minor league camp.

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