Sosa a smashing success as baseball ambassador

September 10, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Tony Perez, the all-time RBI leader among Latin American players, watched the incredible scene unfold on television.

Not Mark McGwire hitting No. 62.

The crowd at Busch Stadium cheering an opponent, cheering a Dominican, cheering Sammy Sosa.

"It was emotional for me to see that," the Cuban-born Perez said yesterday. "To be accepted like he was the last two days was amazing. It was a step forward for Latin players."

The game has always bridged generations, Gehrig to Ripken, Ruth to Maris to McGwire. But thanks to Sosa, the game is now bridging cultures in a way that it never has before.

With his mighty swing, unique charisma and sheer joy for the game, Sosa not only has brought out the best in McGwire, but also endeared himself to a nation of American fans.

"It's a step forward for the fans, too," said Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou, who once managed Sosa in the Dominican winter league. "They appreciate good players now, no matter where they come from.

"In the case of Roberto Clemente, more than half his career, he was portrayed as someone who was a hot dog, someone who was militant for Latin players. The real player was not appreciated until after he died.

"This is different. Fans now are a little different. They know this guy is for real. It's for real that he's a helluva ballplayer. It's for real that he's an honest person. What he says, it comes from his heart."

For years, Latin players have struggled to overcome language and cultural barriers, faced pressure to support their families back home. Sosa, a former shoeshine boy, has transcended those obstacles, struck down stereotypes, connected with the fans.

Perez, now a special assistant to the general manager with the Florida Marlins, watched the McGwire-Sosa showdown with the Marlins' coaches in a dressing room at Coors Field.

"Everyone felt the same way. Everyone was amazed by the way the fans were receiving Sammy," Perez said. "They were pulling for him to hit a home run, even booing the pitcher from St. Louis because he threw a ball. I never dreamed I would ever see that happen."

But in the new world order, all things are possible. Juan Marichal won 29 more games than any other pitcher in the 1960s and never won a Cy Young Award. His Dominican heir, Pedro Martinez, could become the first pitcher to win back-to-back Cy Youngs in different leagues.

These are the images of '98:

Sosa saluting the bleacher fans in Wrigley Field, pantomiming messages to his mother, applauding McGwire. Martinez drawing standing ovations in Boston. Alex Rodriguez flashing his teen-idol smile and 40-40 form in Seattle.

Every team seems to feature at least one Latin star. Look at the Orioles with Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro, and Texas with Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez. Cleveland with Sandy Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Manny Ramirez. The Yankees with Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and Mariano Rivera.

Sosa rises above them all.

"He's carrying not only the flag of Sammy Sosa. He's carrying much more than that," said New York Mets assistant general manager Omar Minaya, the former scout who signed Sosa for the Rangers.

"He's carrying how players are perceived, not only Dominican players, but Latin American players, and in some ways all foreign players who in the past have been misunderstood.

"If we look beyond the home runs, we're looking at a side of our game and personalities that are really great. When it's all said and done, the game is going to be better. And we as a country are going to be better."

Sosa, 29, wasn't an obvious candidate to become such a cross-cultural phenomenon. The Texas Rangers traded him for Harold Baines. The Chicago White Sox traded him for George Bell. As recently as last season, he was such a fundamental nightmare, he might have been the worst great player in the game.

"I saw a lot better hitter this year, a smarter hitter, a smarter man, more focused, more dedicated," Alou said. "He was a kid that was misjudged by many. He was misjudged because he was always smiling, laughing, playing around with other younger players."

Funny, isn't it?

Those are some of the traits that make Sosa so appealing now.

"I must say, I misjudged him myself," Alou said. "There were times I probably questioned his dedication to the game. I only judged him by what I saw in winter ball. He was late a couple of times with [former major-leaguer] Jose Oliva. I suspended Oliva, but I did not suspend Sosa. I really got angry with Sosa. But I needed him on the team."

All these years later, the Chicago Cubs need Sosa for their wild-card bid, and perhaps McGwire needed him for his pursuit of Maris. Sosa, batting .311 with 58 homers and 140 RBIs, might be the National League MVP. He has pushed McGwire on the field, inspired him to enjoy the Maris chase off of it.

Never mind that major-league clubhouses frequently divide into cliques along racial or ethnic lines. McGwire and Sosa held joint news conference in St. Louis, embraced each other after No. 62, displayed a profound mutual respect.

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