04/04/2003 9:33 PM ET
The pride of the Dominican
Sosa is first Latin player to reach 500-homer plateau
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
CHICAGO -- When Sammy Sosa returned to his Dominican Republic homeland after hitting 66 home runs in 1998, the Caribbean island welcomed him as if he were royalty and celebrated for about a week.
Imagine the party they'll have now that Sosa is the first Latin player to join the exclusive 500 home run club.
Sosa became the 18th player to hit 500 homers with a shot off Reds reliever Scott Sullivan in the top of the seventh inning Friday night at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park. Sosa's tater came on a 1-2 fastball at the knees and he ripped it over the right-center field wall.
"This is good for the other Latino players in baseball because now he's put us in a situation that it's not only American guys but also Latino guys (in the 500 club)," Chicago White Sox shortstop Jose Valentin said. "It's something that's going to open a lot of doors for a lot of players in the future."
As well as continuing to add to the legend that is Sammy Sosa.
"We have a guy who was named politician of the century in Latin America," Arizona pitcher Miguel Batista said. "If you go to the other side of the world and ask who (former Dominican president) Joaquin Balaguer is, nobody knows. But you say 'Sammy Sosa' and everybody knows.
"I believe a lot of people were born to be who they are. And Sammy was born to be one of the biggest figures in my country in baseball."
Said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz: "Sammy is the most well-known person from the Dominican in the whole planet."
That's no small feat considering how baseball-crazed the Dominican Republic is. According to Major League Baseball figures, there were more players from the tiny island on Opening Day rosters (73) than any other country outside of the United States. Puerto Rico was next with 39, Venezuela 38.
On April 3, there were 1,536 Dominican minor league players. The next closest country outside the U.S. was Venezuela with 738.
Baseball is the No. 1 sport on the island and when Sosa was a child, he played pickup games with friends, using a milk carton as a glove and any stick available as a bat. Sosa didn't play organized baseball until he was 14 -- he had to help support his family, shining shoes in the town square of San Pedro de Macoris.
He's come a long way.
"Obviously, Sammy is a great ambassador for the game and a great role model for all Latin players," Texas' Alex Rodriguez said. "What he has been able to do on a consistent basis over the past six years is impressive and shows what kind of player he is. He is definitely great for the game."
Sosa's teammates and countrymen recognize his achievements.
"I'll be one of the first to congratulate him because I'll be in the on-deck circle when he comes home," said Cubs outfielder Moises Alou, who also is from the Dominican. "I'll give him a big hug, that's how much I think of him."
Roberto Clemente is the Latin player placed on the highest pedestal, both for his achievements on the field and his humanitarian efforts. Yet Clemente's career tragically ended when he died in a plane crash on a relief mission Dec. 31, 1972. Clemente totaled 240 home runs and 3,000 hits.
"Sammy is a great ambassador for the game and a great role model for all Latin players."
-- Texas Rangers' shortstop Alex Rodriguez
Clemente was the first Latin player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, inducted in 1973. There are only seven Hispanic players in Cooperstown, including Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez, who both finished with 379 home runs.
Sosa is now in a class by himself.
"For anyone to reach 500 home runs, it signifies the guy has endurance besides having power," former Cubs coach Sandy Alomar Sr. said. "You have to stay healthy and you have to be such a good hitter to reach that milestone.
"Sammy gets better as the year goes along," Alomar said. "He's taking advantage of his experience and advantage of his strength."
When Sosa broke into the big leagues, he was a 6-foot, 175-pound skinny outfielder. Now he's a solid 220 pounds.
"He was a skinny guy with the (Texas) Rangers, but we were all skinny when we first started," said Alomar, a Puerto Rican. "Then we get here into the good life and we get to eat a little better and we exercise and we get all the experience and we understand the things we have to do to get better."
Sosa has been motivated to succeed since he signed his first contract in 1985 with the Texas Rangers.
"As long as I've known Sammy, he's had that drive," Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "He's wanted to be one of the best and be the greatest baseball player he can be. He just went out there and made it happen.
"It's been an incredible transformation to watch Sammy over the years become one of the best hitters in the game," said Palmeiro, who also is closing in on the 500-homer milestone. "He is still very driven. He made his mind up and he went out there and did it his way."
Ortiz remembers watching Sosa play winter ball in their shared homeland.
"He was always the last one off the field," Ortiz said. "He always dedicated his time to extra work. I watched him do that and I learned something from that. You could tell that someday he would be somebody."
Sosa has crossed cultural lines with his success. It isn't just the high voltage power that Sosa flexes every time he makes contact that's exciting to fans.
"I believe only people in Chicago understand that Sammy's a people person," Batista said. "Besides the guy who hits the home runs, he does something other players don't do. He likes to entertain. He has his own show in right field. He takes it personally."
When Sosa takes the field before every home game, he dashes to right field, then passes the Wrigley Field bleachers from right to center, tapping his heart and blowing kisses to the fans. After each home run, he does the same as a way of saying hello to his mother.
"I have two daughters, and the oldest is 5 years old now," Ortiz said. "When she was 2, she was doing that (copying Sosa's love tap)."
"If he's not hitting, he's trying harder and harder and harder," Batista said. "You can see it -- he's swinging out of his shoelaces. It's because he understands the responsibility that he has with his fans."
Sosa has kept his pursuit of 500 low-key, saying he wants to stay humble.
"Sammy loves the pressure, loves the competition and that's something to be admired," Batista said. "When you're a superstar in baseball, you have all the eyes on you and all the media and there's the pressure. 'Are you going to do it? Are you going to do it?' Sammy says, 'Let me go to the plate and I will swing.'"
And now Sosa has done it, completing 500 swings to join one of baseball's elite clubs.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. Jimmy Greenfield and Jesse Sanchez contributed to this report. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.