Feature on Cubs player Mike Fontenot.

On Feb. 2, 2005, Mike Fontenot was in Bradenton, Fla., hanging out with friends.

The minor league infielder had spent the day working out in preparation for spring training in the Baltimore Orioles organization. Fontenot checked his voice mail and heard a life-changing message from his agent, Jeff Barry.

“We were all together and I listened to my messages and it was like, ‘I just got traded.’ ’’ Fontenot said. “They said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Let me listen to it again.’ I thought I was dreaming. I ended up calling back and he said, ‘You’re in the Sosa deal.’ ”

The Sosa deal.

Even by Cubs standards, it was one of the more unusual trades in team history.

Sammy Sosa became a national hero in 1998, when he and Mark McGwire engaged in a home run derby that many thought helped revitalize the game. Many homer hops and a few controversies later, Sosa was on the outs with the Cubs. The final straw came when he left early — without permission — during the 2004 season finale.

On Feb. 2, 2005, then-unknown Fontenot, unknown pitcher David Crouthers (since retired) and unheralded utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. (since traded to Texas) came to the Cubs from Baltimore in exchange for Sosa.

Sosa had a rough 2005 season in Baltimore (.221, 14 HRs, 45 RBI) before retiring for one year. Sosa signed with Texas during the offseason and has put up decent numbers (.246, 11, 51) this year with the Rangers. He hit career homer No. 599 Friday at Cincinnati.

For the first time since parting with the Cubs, Sosa will face the North Siders in a regular-season game when the Cubs visit the Rangers for a three-game set starting tonight at Rangers Ballpark.

Sosa, who hit a franchise-best 545 home runs with the Cubs, likely would love to hit his 600th career long ball against his former club.

And while Fontenot is no Sosa, he has been a pleasant surprise since his second call-up, on June 9, which was his 27th birthday. Since that time, he’s hitting .344 with two homers and nine RBI, while Sosa is hitting .227 with one homer and six RBI.

Little did Fontenot, who’s hitting .353 for the season, realize how crazy things were going to get after that call from his agent in 2005.

“I was surprised at first,” Fontenot said. “It’s hard getting traded by the organization that drafted you (he was a first-round pick in 2001). But it was a good thing. The Cubs organization has been great to me. When I heard Sammy Sosa was a part of it, it was a pretty cool thing.”

Fontenot was with the Cubs briefly in April 2005, used mostly as a pinch runner. He scored four runs in seven games and had no hits before being sent to the minors.

He bided his time, thinking he would soon get back to the majors.

But Fontenot was not called up in 2006 and was not invited to the major league portion of spring training this year. That’s usually a bad sign for someone who hopes to make it in the big leagues.

However, on May 15, with Derrek Lee and Mark DeRosa nursing injuries, Fontenot was brought up by the Cubs from Triple-A Iowa. He went 1-for-2 in his three-day stint before being sent back to Iowa.

On June 9, with third baseman Aramis Ramirez ailing (he’s since been put on the disabled list), the Cubs called up Fontenot, who has been red-hot ever since.

“I was just focusing on having a good year,” Fontenot said. “Just keep playing hard and hustling and all of that good stuff. That was my main focus. I’m getting a chance to play a lot. I’ve performed pretty well so far, and I’m trying to keep it going.”

Fontenot is generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds. Alfonso Soriano joked that Fontenot looked like the bat boy when Fontenot showed up in May. On Sunday, manager Lou Piniella referred to him as “that little kid at second base.”

Yet he’s earned both men’s respect. Piniella said he would keep Fontenot around for a while, while Soriano has been impressed.

“I watch him in batting practice and I’m surprised,” Soriano said. “He’s not a big guy, but he has some crazy power.”

He still has 597 homers to go to catch Sosa. For now, the Cubs are enjoying what Fontenot is doing.

BREAKOUT
Who Needs Sammy?

Stats for Mike Fontenot and Sammy Sosa since Fontento was called up by the Cubs on June 9:

HITS AB AVG 2B 3B HR RBI

FONTENOT 11 32 .344 2 2 2 9

SOSA 5 22 .227 1 0 1 6