Slugger no longer the Dominican idol

Though still a star in his native land, Sammy Sosa has seen his popularity wane.

February 13, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

SAN PEDRO DE MACORIS, Dominican Republic - In the poorest barrios here, in the places where goats and stray dogs sift through piles of garbage on the side of the road without being disturbed, the houses are often held together with little more than rusty nails and prayer.

Electricity and running water are not unheard of, but more often than not, they are the stuff of dreams. Children without shoes race across the uneven dirt roads, and laundry on the fence gets dried by the wind and the sun.

It is here where Sammy Sosa is still loved. It is here, in his hometown, that talk of steroids and corked bats can easily be dismissed.

It is baseball that matters, and in San Pedro de Macoris, Sammy Sosa is baseball. That used to be true for much of the Dominican Republic, a baseball-obsessed country of 8.9 million people. But today on the rest of the island, Sosa is no longer the idol.

Six years ago, all Sosa knew from his countrymen was love. Their homes had been destroyed, their neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Hurricane Georges had left many of them with nothing, and yet they came to see him.

They came from everywhere, from some of the poorest barrios on the island, in huge numbers despite the rain, and for nearly 25 miles, they stood patiently along the coastal highway. A million people, it was later estimated. Maybe more. Impossible to say. They waved Dominican flags, clapped their hands, and sang songs full of hope, eager to forget the devastation all around them, hungry for a glimpse of the man who had just made history.

It was Oct. 20, 1998, and Sosa - once a poor, skinny shoeshine boy who had lived with his family in the basement room of an abandoned hospital - had come home. The Bambino del Caribe, they called him. The man who crushed 66 home runs. A real Dominican hero, they said, and he is ours.

As Sosa made the 25-mile trip from the airport to his hometown, stopping every few feet to shake hands and fight back tears, his countrymen called out to him. Sammy, they cried, "we are behind you. We love you. Welcome. Welcome home.

"It was so emotional, it is not something I can easily describe," says Luis Sosa, Sammy Sosa's older brother, when asked recently to describe the scene. "That day, Sammy said, `It was a good year for me, but it was a real bad year for my country because of the hurricane. I hope my 66 homers will help the people forget a little bit of what they've been through recently.'"

Since that memorable homecoming, much has changed for Sosa, 36, who earlier this month became an Oriole after the team sent Jerry Hairston and two minor leaguers to Chicago for the right fielder.

Besides trading in his Cubs pinstripes for the Orioles orange and black, Sosa has gone from being the face of baseball to, in some people's eyes, a symbol of everything that needs to be fixed about the sport. Sosa, once a media darling, later in his career evolved into a sometimes surly, often injured player who squabbled with his manager and angered teammates by skipping the final game of last season.

He is still admired here, still one of the Dominican Republic's favored sons, and still a hero to a nation where 90 percent of the people live at or below the poverty line. But it is also a talent-rich country, one that exports professional baseball players with nearly the same efficiency that it exports sugar. Today, 10 percent of the players in Major League Baseball are from the Dominican Republic, which is more than the rest of all Latin America combined.

And the love once felt for Sosa - still the only player to hit 60 home runs in a season three times - is no longer universal outside of his hometown.

"I think his head had gotten too big," says Eliaz Paredez, who lives in Santo Domingo, where Sosa owns a house. "Dominicans like Pedro Martinez more than Sammy because he is humble. Pedro is more simple, more Dominican than Sammy. Sammy's head is full of air, I think."

Manny Ramirez. Alex Rodriguez. Pedro Martinez. Vladimir Guerrero. All players with Dominican roots, all major league stars, and all names that come up just as often as Sosa's, if not more, when people here are asked to list their favorite players.

Sosa has been the subject of much debate lately, with debates taking place everywhere from the crowded, bustling streets of Santo Domingo to the dusty, poverty-stricken neighborhoods of San Pedro de Macoris. Sosa no longer looms as large as he did during the home run race in 1998, when entire neighborhoods would huddle around a tiny radio at night, eager for word that Slammin' Sammy has just blasted two more over the ivy in Wrigley Field. Sosa would finish second to American Mark McGwire, who set a new record with 70.

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