BALTIMORE -- You know when it really hit home for Larry Bigbie? This whole idea that a Cubs fan from rural Indiana could grow up to one day share a clubhouse with a 500-homer legend like Sammy Sosa?
It wasn't spring training in Fort Lauderdale, although that was pretty cool. It wasn't even Opening Day at Camden Yards, although that was memorable as well.
No, it just might have been the recent afternoon when a local artist walked reverentially up to Sosa in the Orioles' clubhouse and presented him with an oversized portrait.
Sosa's teammates gathered around to take a look, and it was clear from his reaction that the portrait's subject was genuinely touched.
"It's a beautiful picture," Sosa said a few days later. "I appreciate it very much."
Pictured from the waist up, Sosa is portrayed in a gleaming white Orioles uniform with the Baltimore skyline in the background. The famous 10,000-watt Sammy Smile lights up his face.
He looks strong. He looks confident. He looks to be at the height of his powers.
That, Bigbie said, was when it really sunk in: Sammy is an Oriole.
"It's just this amazing painting that is huge," said Bigbie, the Orioles' left fielder. "It's almost a life-sized painting. Pretty neat."
It had to be good for Sosa's psyche to see himself rendered this way. After all, the past year or so hasn't been particularly kind to the man from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic.
There were boos at the end of his 13-year run in Chicago. There was the celebrated blowup with Cubs manager Dusty Baker on the final day of the regular season.
There was a winter's worth of trade rumors before the Cubs finally dumped him and his bloated salary on the Orioles. Then, in mid-March, there was the Congressional hearing on steroid abuse in which Sosa sat beside his lawyer and mysteriously lost his ability to speak English.
In many ways, most of all physically and in terms of reputation, Sosa seemed diminished. Now, at 36 and closing in on 600 homers, he is trying to rebuild his reputation. He is trying harder to blend in with his new teammates and praises manager Lee Mazzilli at every turn.
"The manager is awesome," Sosa said. "He's very nice. Everybody treats me great. It's a good place."
Sosa, infamous for his blaring boom box in Chicago, even was spotted turning the volume down on the clubhouse stereo before a recent home game.
Not coincidentally, the surprising Orioles are in first place in the rugged American League East. Sosa's four homers and .281 batting average haven't hurt either.
"He has been tremendous," Mazzilli said. "Absolutely tremendous. I think it's been a good marriage."
Asked how Sosa has been in the clubhouse, Mazzilli bristled a bit.
"People make such a big deal of what happened (in Chicago)," Mazzilli said. "It's a non-issue. I don't know what happened over there. I wasn't there. I don't really care to know what happened. I don't know the whole truth behind it, I really don't."
All those years on Joe Torre's staff with the Yankees taught Mazzilli when to leave certain issues alone.
"I never asked Sammy what happened," Mazzilli said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a clean slate."
If anybody needed a clean slate, it was Sosa, who can be a free agent after this season. So when he sprints out to his position on a gorgeous Maryland night, it's with an open heart and a renewed spirit.
The love affair with the fans in those right-field seats isn't quite as passionate as it was with Wrigley's Bleacher Bums. But give him time.
A 30-ish woman in a Miguel Tejada T-shirt leans over the outfield wall and captures Sosa's image with her camera phone. She runs back up the steps and leaps into her boyfriend's giddy embrace.
Sosa makes a leaping catch at the wall, and shouts of "Attaboy, Sammy!" mix with the smell of Boog's Bar-BQ in the cool air.
A couple of beer-swilling wise guys mock Sosa's penchant for wagging his fingers after each play. "How many outs now, Sammy?" they shout.
Then there is Simon Luna, a 3 1/2 -year-old Ecuadorian-American boy attending his first baseball game with his father Jose. Simon stands near the right-field wall and waves an orange foam finger with one hand while clutching a tiny glove with the other. He waits and hopes Sosa will toss him a baseball.
Simon is disappointed in the seventh and again in the eighth. But now it's the top of the ninth, and the Orioles are winning easily. Sosa completes his warm-up tosses and turns toward the bleachers.
He points at Simon and flips a ball gently in his direction. Simon's father grabs the ball in mid-flight and hands it to his wide-eyed son.
Somewhere Norman Rockwell reached for his brush.